By Alicia Danze and Yoalli Rodríguez
Trained as both a literary scholar and political theorist, Elaine Scarry is the Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value in Harvard University’s English Department. Her work is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on analysis of art, court records, the Constitution, torture testimonies, the Bible, etc.
Aside from authoring The Body in Pain (1985), Scarry has also written on the role of military bases in mysterious plane crashes, and the anti-democratic status of nuclear weapons. She specializes in 19th c. British novels and 20th c. drama, but uses her literary expertise to “solve social problems and save lives” (Eakin). In an essay titled “Poetry Changed the World,” Scarry goes into greater detail about her theory of language (and literature specifically) as having the power to eliminate pain:
“By ‘empathy’ …[I]…mean not the capacity of literature to make us feel compassion for a fictional being (though literature certainly does this), but rather the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit. If this recognition occurs in a large enough population, then a law against injuring others can be passed, after which the prohibition it expresses becomes freestanding and independent of sensibility.”
Other books she has written include: Thermonuclear Monarchy (2014), Thinking in an Emergency (2011), Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010), On Beauty and Being Just (1999).
An interview with Elaine Scarry can be found here:
Eakin, Emily. “Professor Scarry has a theory.” The New York Times Magazine. 19 Nov. 2000. Web. October 12 2015. http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20001119mag-scarry.html
The Body in Pain. The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985)
According to Scarry, the etymology of pain is poena or punishment, and it “reminds us that even the elementary act of naming this most interior entails an immediate mental somersault out of the body into the external social circumstances that can be pictured as having caused the hurt” (16).
Elaine Scarry’s book has three main subjects: First, the impossibility to express physical pain: “It resists the objectification in language” (5); second, the political consequences of that inexpressibility; and third, the nature of both material and verbal expressibility or, the nature of human creation. Through examples like medical case histories, legal documents, Amnesty International testimonies, The Bible and Marxism, Scarry draws the relation between these matters.
The book is divided in two main sections: Part 1 is dedicated to the unmaking World through the analysis of torture and war, Part 2 describes the making of the world (the creation).
In the first chapter, Scarry describes the structure of torture. She argues that torture has is itself a language and a objectification. Torture consists in the infliction of pain (the body) and a primary verbal act of interrogation (voice). Torture disintegrates the perception of reality brought by intense pain. Scarry describes how during torture, the world of the prisoner is reduced to the room of torture, and the room itself becomes another weapon. In this sense, the de-objectification of objects, the “unmaking of the make is a process of externalizing the way in which the person´s pain causes his world to disintegrate, and at the same time, the disintegration of the world is here, made the direct cause of pain” (41).
Even if the physical reality is the room, there are two institutions - the trial and the machine - that are actually present during torture. Both are elaborations of the relation between the body and the State.
Scarry also analyses the agency during torture. Even if the prisoner appears to not have control of anything -- of the responsibility of his world, of his reality of his words and body-- he will understand his confession as a self-betrayal act. In this sense, the tortures “are producing a mime in which the one annihilated shift to being the agent of his own annihilation” (49).
Through the infliction of pain, there is also the display of the fiction of power which is the final product and outcome of torture, “should in the end be seen in relation to its origin, the motive that is claimed to be its starting point, the need for information” (58).
In the second chapter Elaine Scarry explores the structure of War. The premise is that the main outcome of war is injuring and that war is a contest. In the first section, she analyses how this immediate act of injuring disappears from the description of wars and weapons, transforming them in the imaginary into objects intended for security or power. For example, weapons are said to be used for protective and pacifist intentions.
Another confusion is when the interior of war activity is described for freeing or disarming ends.
Also, injuries are often described as “by-pas” which means accidental, unwanted and useless. “Here the injuries are seen as having occurred on the road to another goal” (74). In the second section, she describes how war is a contest strictly in terms of its structure (reciprocity, rules, agreements, winner-loser dichotomy). Scarry analyzes the question "What differentiates injuring from other acts on which a contest can be based?” One of the responses would be that war or injuring carries the power of its own enforcement. Another response to this question might be that the winner uses injured and dead bodies for the construction and substantiation of his ideas and reality. As the author repeats several times in this chapter, “What is remembered in the body is well remembered” (109). Injuring makes perpetually visible an activity that is past, and thus has a memorialization function. but also “injures refer forward to the future to what has not yet occurred, and thus have an as-if function. This might be called their fiction generating or reality-conferring function (121).”
She finishes the first part of the book by describing the difference between torture and war (with an exception for nuclear war) based on consent. In torture, the prisoner’s body is used to (de)construct a reality without his consent, whereas in war the consent exists. For the case of nuclear war, its structure is more close to torture because the population cannot give consent for their use of their bodies for the purposes of war, or they cannot surrender once the nuclear weapon is thrown.
In the second half of her book, Scarry describes the reverse process of ‘unmaking’ by showing the history of making (albeit in a Western-centric context). She sees imagination as the opposite extreme of pain. Imagining is the creation of and engagement with a world of objects without the experience of sentience; pain is sentience that obliterates the world of objects. Through imagination, we make a shareable world, and that world remakes us, but sentience (and pain) ground us in a certainty of reality, and the objects we make refer back to that embodied, sentient experience.
Scarry then analyzes two sets of texts that in structure and content reflect the human desire to create in order to rescue ourselves from pain. She posits that throughout history there has been a constant pattern of creating, of using tools to make objects that substitute for our bodies, and thereby end our suffering. She explores how humans had conceptually divided the act of creating into Body and Voice in the Old Testament: God was the Voice that created (and wounded), and humans were bodies that felt his existence. Humans came to believe through their wounds; it gave them a grounding certainty of reality (and the reality of God). However, wounding had a creative component, for out of their wounds were people altered and made over again.
In the New Testament, God made himself a body and became woundable as well. As a knowable, embodied and omniscient creator, the figure of Jesus transcended the Body/Voice divide, fulfilling humans’ oft-spoken wish to know, see, and touch God (made known through the creation of idols). This transformed humans’ relationship to their own bodies and pain, and altered their structure of belief. Divinity was no longer solely defined through pain, but through touch, healing and sentience. The weapon that God used to make himself known in the Old Testament is removed, or perhaps transformed into the figure of Jesus. His pain is his own; it is not associated with a higher authority. With an embodied God that could create and feel pain, touch and be touched, humans also changed their relationship to each other.
In the writings of Marx, Scarry notes the multiplying effects of self-substantiation through creation. Western civilization is itself an Artifact, an accumulation of objects made through work in attempts to displace our own pain. However, the meaning of the objects can be lost when we become too disembodied, as in the case of capitalists, or too embodied (and without Voice), in the case of workers. Bodies are also transformed into tools and artifacts; with the reproduction of artifacts and constant revision of ourselves in response to those artifacts, we objectify ourselves, and again face the problem of a Body/Voice divide.
Finally, Scarry focuses deeper on the process of world-making by examining the interior of artifacts. We’ve designed objects in a way that they should respond to our sentience, and we therefore expect a certain reciprocity when we engage with them. In a sense, we give them responsibility (and ourselves as creators are responsible for them). To greater and lesser degrees, these objects carry a human signature that reminds us of their origin in us. Certain objects work better when we are not constantly reminded that they are of our own designs, and other objects (like art, poetry, etc.) are explicitly made to reflect on the act of creating itself. Scarry concludes that imagination is our attempt to distribute the facts and responsibilities of sentience out into the world, in a way that can be shared and disembodied (opposed to the acuteness and privacy of pain).
We wonder how her analysis of pain and creation is particularized by her Western-centric focus; it’s possible that the history of sharing meaning in the world is very different from what she outlined in another cultural context. By not taking into account other cultural and historical forms in which pain is expressed or used, she runs the risk of overestimating the power of making and self-reproduction. Also, in the case of war, she analyses only on war between Nation-States -- but what about interior wars or non-institutionalized wars held by the State?
1. In light of events and conversations surrounding police brutality and state-sponsored (or state-complicit) terrorism, what do we understand “war” and “torture” to be today? Does Elaine Scarry’s description of them still fit?
2. Scarry posits that pain, although private, is a human experience. It is ineffable, but we can attempt to share something of our felt experience through the world we make. How do notions of intersectionality fit into her description of world-making, sharing and pain?
3. For Scarry, what are the powers and limits of imagination? In your opinion, what are its limits?
4. How does Veena Das’ notion of “work,” “time” and violence relate to Elaine Scarry’s notion of work and pain? Do you think it is useful to think of the two in relation to each other?