Pain, abstinence and the Daily Mail

With thanks to Christine Murray who posted the link to the article in the Daily Mail. The secularisation of pain (Talal Asad, not mine) is evident in this wonderful article about female Opus Dei members in the UK. For the Daily Mail, it ticks all of their boxes: a barely concealed sexual desire, pretty women with ‘unusual’ stories and evident class mobility. It is clear that the relatively secretive organisation is on a bit of a PR drive right now. They’re opening up the doors to the press a bit more and I am not sure why; I’m going to blame Dan Brown. The following quote from one of the participants is instructive:

They’ll understand if you go jogging and pounding the streets — which I think is disgusting — just because you want to be thinner, but they won’t understand this.
Eileen Cole contrasts her wearing of the cilice with women running for exercise. She is drawing attention to the contrasting representations of pain: as a numerary of the organisation she chooses to wear the cilice for periods of the day instead of the aching joints and muscles of a regular runner. For Eileen and the other members of Opus Dei, the wearing of the cilice is a way to be uncomfortable so as to be more mindful of God. For the journalist, the way in which these members live is strange because the women are never served at meal times by the men, only the other way around. She asks how “an educated woman such as Sarah, who studied physics at Manchester University, can condone such inequality.” Clearly the studying of physics is contrary to the serving of meals to men in the organisation’s houses. The seeming backwardness of these arrangements is counterposed to what we believe our own lives to be like: full of women and men who share life’s labours equally, with respect and dignity. Of course, life’s labours are nothing like this. The journalist is pointing to the more obvious features of British society by referring to the practices of Opus Dei. In Formations of the Secular, Asad refers to a change in the grammar of the concept of pain:
The myth of punishment for original sin was translated by the [Enlightenment’s vitalist school of physicians] into the myth of punishment for transgressions against the laws of nature. (p.47)
The two examples he gives are failing to follow the correct diet or failing to exercise. Our bodies become (and this I think is important in understanding what we mean by secular) subjects of nature, not of God. We punish our bodies by eating the wrong foods, by not getting enough exercise and so on. Gillian McKeith knows this and exploits this moral economy well. But we can clearly see the secularisation of pain in this Daily Mail article. The sexes are segregated we are told because chastity is valued amongst the members. Only the women perform the cleaning and cooking tasks. Members pass over a considerable part of their incomes to the organisation. These are transgressions of the laws of nature: women are not supposed to be servile and asexual. The wearing the cilice then is the remnant of a grammar of pain that was once prevalent Yet it remains vital to the belief of these seemingly ‘modern’ women. It’s as if we have to double take between the pictures and the text, and of course Opus Dei know this. The women claim to remain celibate and one of them refers to a break-up with a college boyfriend and how:
he was very understanding when I reached my decision that it was the end of the relationship. And it was always very clear I wasn’t interested in that experience [sex].
This experience is a rejection of what we know to be so pleasurable and yet, these women state, we deny it of ourselves. Why would anyone do this? What possible purpose do these women have in denying themselves obvious pleasure? They’re young, educated and feminine. It’s against nature to deny yourself sex and pleasure, we might state. Some of the answers to these questions are found by tracing our relationship to bodily pain and our notion of redemption. Asad states that:
the secular myth uses the element of violence to connect an optimistic project of universal empowerment with a pessimistic account of human motivation in which inertia and incorrigibility figure prominently. (p.62)
Self-redemption then becomes the aim of redemption in this world: tend to the moral jungle in your own soul because that is the path to redemption. It articulates “different kinds of subjectivities” says Asad. At the root of a colonial drive is this drive for universal empowerment: to bring justice to those individuals who need it. At the root of bringing human rights and democracy to the Middle East is this redemptive drive: they too can be saved while I tend to the conflicts within myself. The mortification of the flesh is thus seen as archaic, belonging to a time other than secular time. The wearing of the cilice seems to us, as Daily Mail readers, to belong to a time when the rigours of the body took a far second place to the rigours of the soul. Suffering physically in this way meant a closeness to Christ’s suffering for our sins but something changes: we become happiness machines and not inherently sinful beings. Mortification exists of course in other religions but what we have here is the traces of that Victorian desire to reflect back upon our own civility by pointing to the recently archaic.

4 thoughts on “Pain, abstinence and the Daily Mail

  1. I maintain that the image of the cilice (at link) reminded me of a rather expensive bit
    of jewellery, and as I never tire of saying I believe that such wonderful writers as Angela
    Carter really did know how to write and deconstruct the useage of images from
    the femininst literary POV.

    I find it objectionable that the product-positioning of the image ,which could be an ad
    for any amount of beauty products seems to point to lifestyle choice, subliminal
    violences and a vague eroticism that has no (imo) relation to what religious (as
    opposed to Opus Dei women) actually do. I am not going to attempt a feminist
    deconstruction of this image at all, save to look at how the image was juxtaposed
    with the interviews, it was belittling to those women who are religious. The site
    link above (Poethead) is concerned in presenting women’s art, translation ,literature
    and image from a feminist perspective. The basis for that is found in the community
    of women, always relegated to the chorus-line, the harem , the nunnery and
    the anchorite. positions (cf Eliot, Atwood, Carter, Spero, Sexton discussions on
    violence and women).

    I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting the Getty image is quite as risible as the Hunky-Dory
    advertisements; but it is a demeaning juxtaposition that belittles women, in times
    of reported rapes, VAW, grotesqueries in the middle-east and low political representations!
    It (the image) also sells the idea of joining Opus dei as a lifestyle choice based in
    a type of humdrum professional elitism .

    I assume many people will be quite happy with the juxtaposition of semi-erotica and
    religious women : the idea of the sacred and profane being utterly transparent here,
    though not quite as clunky as (say) a dan Brown treatise on sacred sex !!!!!!

    I will add in this post as link to the Poethead site thanks. (er, Tomorrow)

  2. The right hand side of the Daily Mail web page on any given day is a sort of public disciplinary ledger, keeping tabs on (mostly) women, with a view to recording their progress or lack thereof in keeping their appetites and their bodily development under control through diets and exercise regimes. So it seems to me that for the Daily Mail, the body unchecked is a site of nothing but sin. Perhaps in these terms it is not that we are happiness machines, but sin machines, which must be contained by eternal vigilance and physical discipline.

  3. Christine: Thank you for your contribution. The belittlement of the commitment of the women interviewed and the placement of the Getty image are not at all incidental to each other. The usage of a model for the picture of the cilice is one of those disembodied and de-contextualised female bodies that can be seen in Boodles advertisements, for example. The portrayal of OD as just another lifestyle choice among others is also not as unconscious as we might believe: after all, this world does not allow us to commit to anything, merely to choose. Much like the way some women in Turkey and France ‘choose’ to wear the headscarf or women from certain castes in India ‘choose’ to toil all day to provide for their families.

    Hugh: thanks again. the public disciplinary ledger is an apt description. Keeping the female body under control through celebrity proxies is one of the most insidious mechanisms of secularism. The unchecked body is nothing but sin is right but it is all about the body. Reference to something other than one’s body belongs to another secular realm, that of the ‘spirit’. Currently that does not square with what we see on the right hand column. We’re not happiness machines? I think so, but a happiness transposed from externally-ordered internalised desires. Misunderstandings of what guilt produces is the new ‘sin’.

  4. I am at a loss regarding our basic inability to translate images such as the Getty without
    realising the level of manipulation that goes into them !!

    I remember objecting to the Hunky-Dory commercials for a number of reasons, not least
    amongst them the intrusion of advertising into every level of our immeadiate environment.
    I also met with derision on a discussion board because the images were translated as
    ‘a bit of fun’ when clearly they were not. The fact is there seems to be a loss in our ability
    to (i) observe an image neutrally (ii) to synthesise the data into a reaction based in how
    we wish our shared living spaces to be. There are numerous discussions on market
    saturation but litttle on loss of basic literacy. Imo we are creating a new apocrypha
    based into a weird notion of gender-neutrality and political correctness that is wholly
    illiterate but not without an Irish precedent :

    When people stop thinking for themselves and become led by market-forces they
    are subject to an inability to intellectualise their basic reaction to an interpretation
    of reality that was thought up in an adman/woman’s head. I think it a good (but mostly
    not worthwhile) exercise to flick through media and see (i) how women are presented,
    (ii) how men are presented (iii) how many features relate to men (iv) class and gender
    of protagonists on a regular basis. Content is sacrificed to visual manipulation and 80%
    of the women are blondies in the sundays.

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