📙 The Body in Pain
Author: Elaine Scarry
Full Title: The Body in Pain
Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.
First, we noticed that it often happens that two people can be in a room together, the one in pain, the other either partially or wholly unaware of the first person’s pain. But the implicit question that is being asked here, “How is it that one person can be in the presence of another person in pain and not know it?,” leads inevitably to a second question that will be dealt with extensively in this book, “How is it that one person can be in the presence of another person in pain and not know it—not know it to the point where he himself inflicts it, and goes on inflicting it?”
The vocabulary of “creating,” “inventing,” “making,” “imagining,” is not in the twentieth century a morally resonant one: “imagining,” for example, is usually described as an ethically neutral or amoral phenomenon; the phrase “material making” is similarly flat in its connotations, and is even (because of its conflation with “materialism”) sometimes pronounced with a derisive inflection. But an unspoken question begins to arise in Part One which might be formulated in the following way: given that the deconstruction of creation is present in the structure of one event which is widely recognized as close to being an absolute of immorality (torture), and given that the deconstruction of creation is again present in the structure of a second event regarded as morally problematic by everyone and as radically immoral by some (war), is it not peculiar that the very thing being deconstructed—creation—does not in its intact form have a moral claim on us that is as high as the others’ is low, that the action of creating is not, for example, held to be bound up with justice in the way those other events are bound up with injustice, that it (the mental, verbal, or material process of making the world) is not held to be centrally entailed in the elimination of pain as the unmaking of the world is held to be entailed in pain’s infliction?
In normal contexts, the room, the simplest form of shelter, expresses the most benign potential of human life. It is, on the one hand, an enlargement of the body: it keeps warm and safe the individual it houses in the same way the body encloses and protects the individual within; like the body, its walls put boundaries around the self preventing undifferentiated contact with the world, yet in its windows and doors, crude versions of the senses, it enables the self to move out into the world and allows that world to enter. But while the room is a magnification of the body, it is simultaneously a miniaturization of the world, of civilization.
The room, both in its structure and its content, is converted into a weapon, deconverted, undone. Made to participate in the annihilation of the prisoners, made to demonstrate that everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no bed.
In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn describes how prisoners, while sleeping, were forced to keep their hands outside the blanket, and he writes, “It was a diabolical rule. It is a natural, deep-rooted, unnoticed human habit to hide one’s hands while asleep, to hold them against one’s body.”54 The prisoner’s body—in its physical strengths, in its sensory powers, in its needs and wants, in its ways of self-delight, and finally even, as here, in its small and moving gestures of friendship toward itself—is, like the prisoner’s voice, made a weapon against him, made to betray him on behalf of the enemy, made to be the enemy.
in benign forms of creation, a bodily attribute is projected into the artifact (a fiction, a made thing), which essentially takes over the work of the body, thereby freeing the embodied person of discomfort and thus enabling him to enter a larger realm of self-extension. The chair, for example, mimes the spine, takes over its work, freeing the person of the constant distress of moving through many small body postures, empties his mind of absorption with the pain in his back, enabling him instead to attend to the clay bowl he is making or to listen to the conversation of a friend. In torture the opposite takes place.
It at once reverses and itself apes the benign process of imaginative making, for the pain becomes the intermediate “artifact,” the “produced” bodily condition whose attributes are themselves projected out onto and become attributes of the regime’s power.
The only state that is as anomalous as pain is the imagination. While pain is a state remarkable for being wholly without objects, the imagination is remarkable for being the only state that is wholly its objects. There is in imagining no activity, no “state,” no experienceable condition or felt-occurrence separate from the objects: the only evidence that one is “imagining” is that imaginary objects appear in the mind. Thus, while pain is like seeing or desiring but not like seeing x or desiring y, the opposite but equally extraordinary characteristic belongs to imagining. It is like the x or the y that are the objects of vision or desire, but not like the felt-occurrences of seeing or desiring. While, then, pain is like other forms of sentience but devoid of the self-extension that is ordinarily the counterpart of sentience, the imagination is like other forms of the capacity for self-extension without the experienceable sentience on which it is ordinarily premised.
The human imagination has its collective expression in civilization: it is the thing created. But this created thing contains within itself the process of its own creation, the system of production and reproduction by which it comes into being, sustains and perpetuates itself. It is civilization conceived in this way—not as a stable and completed object to be Externally assessed in its freestanding activity but as something that seems at once Interior to that thing, the process residing within it that brings it about, and yet Exterior to the thing, the vast artifact in which all other artifacts (pitchers, plates, cities, and systems, all objects collectively designated “civilization”) are made and modified—that is Marx’s subject.
For Marx, the more extended and sublimated sites of making should extend this attribute of sharability: the interaction made possible by a freestanding object is amplified as that object now becomes a “commodity” interacting with other objects and so increasing the number of persons who are in contact with one another; the socialization of sentience should continue to be amplified as one moves to more extended economic (money, capital) and political artifacts. Marx’s whole work is devoted to his belief that this does not happen.
Instead, the “capitalist economy” reverts to an emphasis on “privacy,” contracting rather than extending the number of human makers who will be disembodied by their own acts of making, and thereby subverting the essential impulse and intention of what imagining was at its origins.
It is not the existence of a conflict that is central to the present discussion (the conflict between laborer and capitalist is too familiar to warrant recitation) but the particular formulation of the relation as one between two disparate levels of embodiment.
In the midst of a vast industrial plain stood an artifact, a commodity, a pile of luminous coal so glittering with reflected sunlight that it seemed to belong to the world of heat, yet so deep and dark in its purple and blue that its blackness seemed not just its color but the very thing that it once must have been, something far removed from the sunlit surface of the plain.
The shape of the chair is not the shape of the skeleton, the shape of body weight, nor even the shape of pain-perceived, but the shape of perceived-pain-wished-gone. The chair is therefore the materialized structure of a perception; it is sentient awareness materialized into a freestanding design.
The general distribution of material objects to a population means that a certain minimum level of objectified human compassion is built into the revised structure of the External world, and does not depend on the day-by-day generosity of other inhabitants which itself cannot be legislated.
It is almost universally the case in everyday life that the most cherished object is one that has been hand-made by a friend: there is no mystery about this, for the object’s material attributes themselves record and memorialize the intensely personal, extraordinary because exclusive, interior feelings of the maker for just this person—This is for you. But anonymous, mass-produced objects contain a collective and equally extraordinary message: Whoever you are, and whether or not I personally like or even know you, in at least this small way, be well. Thus, within the realm of objects, objects-made-for-anyone bear the same relation to objects-made-for-someone that, within the human realm, caritas bears to eros. Whether they reach someone in the extreme conditions of imprisonment or in the benign and ordinary conditions of everyday life, the handkerchief, blanket, and bucket of white paint contain within them the wish for well-being: “Don’t cry; be warm; watch now, in a few minutes even these constricting walls will look more spacious.”
In normal contexts, the room, the simplest form of shelter, expresses the most benign potential of human life.
its walls, for example, mimic the body’s attempt to secure for the individual a stable internal space—stabilizing
objects which realize the human being’s impulse to project himself out into a space beyond the boundaries of the body in acts of making, either physical or verbal, that once multiplied, collected, and shared are called civilization.
It is only when the body is comfortable, when it has ceased to be an obsessive object of perception and concern, that consciousness develops other objects,
the room accommodates and thereby eliminates from human attention the human body:
It is, though, back in the inward and enclosing space of the single room and its domestic content that the outward unfolding (so appropriately called “the flowering”) of civilization originates.
Just as all aspects of the concrete structure are inevitably assimilated into the process of torture, so too the contents of the room, its furnishings, are converted into weapons:
the miming of the deconstruction of civilization
the unmaking of the made,
The domestic act of protecting becomes an act of hurting and in hurting, the object becomes what it is not, an expression of individual contraction, of the retreat into the most self-absorbed and self-experiencing of human feelings, when it is the very essence of these objects to express the most expansive potential of the human being, his ability to project himself out of his private, isolating needs into a concrete, objectified, and therefore sharable world.
The appearance of these common domestic objects in torture reports of the 1970s is no more gratuitous and accidental than the fact that so much of our awareness of Germany in the 1940s is attached to the words “ovens,” “showers,” “lampshades,” and “soap.”
identifying, descriptively, what it is that is taking place. The fact that torture, whose activity has a structure accurately summarized by the word “stupidity,”1 should ever even for a moment successfully present itself to the outside world as an activity of ”intelligence-gathering” is not an aimless piece of irony but an indication of the angle of error (in this case, 180°) that may separate a description of an event from the event itself.