The Body in Pain: Unmaking the World

The Body in Pain

I’m not sure what to make of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. It is has been a while since I have read something that attempted the scope of what Scarry is approaching. It has been a while since I felt convinced of a brilliantly simple thesis and yet unconvinced of so many details. Scarry offers a mediation on the relation between the imagination and the body; pain, sentience and objects, making and unmaking.

Part One: Unmaking the World

Scarry addresses torture and war. She begins with the observation that pain is notoriously difficult to express. Pain, it seems, is unique in its inexpressibility. There are political stakes to this inexpressibility. With torture, pain is not meant to illicit information but to deconstruct the prisoner’s voice; to separate body from meaning. What emerges from this obscene surgery is the emergence of the torturer, or more accurately the torturer’s regime, as exhaustively real.  Any possible existence and meaning is controlled by the one who controls the fullness of pain.

Scarry defines war as a contest of injuring. But the act of war does not in itself bring its consequence. The actual acts of war do not make clear who has ‘out-injured’ who at a given time. As a contest, how does war end? Typically in war both sides have bodies in pain, bodies are altered in some way. This pain only indicates that there was a war, not who was a winner or loser. The end of war is ultimately a contest of belief, of meaning. The losing party must somehow be persuaded of their defeat or they must be exterminated. In either case fundamental meaning must again be severed; their sense of cultural reality must be exposed and rejected as a cultural fiction. A contest of injuring bodies provides this means. A war is won when one side no longer has the ability to self-describe.

The timing and context of such feelings [aggression, pride, etc.] here and in other international disputes suggest that when the system of national self-belief is without any compelling source of substantiation other the material fact of, and intensity of feeling in, the bodies of the believers (patriots) themselves then war feelings are occasioned. That is, it is when a country has become to its population a fiction that wars begin, however intensely beloved by its people that fiction is. (131)

War is in the massive fact of itself a huge structure for the derealisation of cultural constructs and, simultaneously, for their eventual reconstitution. The purpose of the war is to designate as an outcome which of the two competing cultural constructs will by both sides be allowed to become real, which of the two will (after the war) hold sway in the shared space where the two (prior to war) collided. Thus, the declaration of war is the declaration that ‘reality’ is now officially ‘up for grabs’. (137)

War and torture share this process of using pain to divorce voice (meaning) from body. Scarry takes time considering the difference between these two forms. War is a contest in a way that torture is not. Technically speaking if war is meant to disrupt a nation’s substantiation of itself then inflicting pain is not necessary. This is why we might talk about politics as war by other means (we might also speak of economics as war in this way). But Scarry does not focus on this, rather she observes that the question of consent is the key difference between war and torture; that those involved in war have consented to put into play the question of truth and reality. This seems entirely unconvincing as she goes on to site examples of how “after the American Civil War, the population of the South comes not only to accept but to take pride in its presence within the larger Union” (144). And never mind the conditions a country would create in order to enlist the faithful, as it were.

As she concludes the first section of her book on ‘Unmaking’ she introduces the notion of objects and artifacts, how they are extensions of the body, how in their creation they often arise in compassion (a chair to accommodate and relieve the weight of a body) and in decreation (war and torture) all those objects and artifacts that have accommodated bodies are now severed and destroyed.

Torture ends at what is the other’s starting point: it ‘produces’ the pain that has not only been eliminated by the act of creation, but whose very existence had been the condition that originally occasioned the act of creation. . . . the very existence of each requires the other’s elimination (145).

Scarry draws this section to a close by bringing the notion of pain, unmaking and making even closer in the observation that there is a human tendency to locate pain as an affirmation of belief. Where seeing is often a confirmation of an object, hurting can also be a way of confirmation. Scarry locates this in the religious register. Pain allows confirmation of what has no object or artifact. And so the tendency to idols (a benign source of substantiation as Scarry puts it). Scarry has drawn close, it seems, to what it is to be human, that is, discursive, making and unmaking. To understand this one must attend to the body in pain.

Writing 1985, with no reference to Derrida and a brief footnote to Foucault Scarry writes of how we are discovering the extent of human constructs/creations (God, law, childhood, sexuality, nature, etc.) and says,

very little inquiry into the nature of fictions has actually occurred, and thus creation – which will eventually come to be understood as having moral and ethical import at least as great as what in earlier centuries was ever perceived to be entailed in questions of ‘truth’ – is at present barely understood in even its most elementary forms. When one day the nature of human creation is fully unfolded, a new language will accommodate a long array of distinctions that are now nearly invisible, and that only being with the profound difference between a creation and a lie, between a fiction and a fraud. . . . it will be clear that the moral and aesthetic value of a given creation does not just depend on the content of the fiction but on the nature of the substantiation used in its confirmation in the transitional period when it is between the states of having been already made-up and not yet made-real (150).

Pain, trauma, and the Real these are all themes that get taken up in the wake of our encountering the discursive nature of reality and how our bodies move in this environment. Part II shifts focus onto the making of such objects, artifacts, and fictions.

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The Gospel of Gentrification

If I am an evangelist for anything it is my neighbouhood. I have lived in the West End of Winnipeg for about 13 years (first moving onto Spence St in 1999). It won’t be long and it will be the place I have lived longest in my life. I can’t think of a better place to live in Winnipeg. The suburbs don’t register. Wolseley is too white. The Exchange seems okay but maybe just not residential enough. Maybe parts of St. Boniface. Anyway.

I am coming to realize that the fact that I am evangelist for my neighbourhood should give me pause. How did I come into this neighbourhood? How has it shaped me, how do I effect it? I first moved into the neighbourhood in my third year of Bible college when I formed an evangelical notion of the social gospel. A Christian should be among the least of these. The West End is probably considered by most the second worst neighbourhood in the city (would I have ever considered the North End, probably not). The Gospel was meant to address material needs and not spiritual insurances. So this is where I needed, wanted, to be. I don’t really know what I did here. I worked at the community centre for a while, talked to folks on the street, and cultivated a notion of how depraved suburbanites are. Over time I found that I just liked the neighbourhood. I liked finding my identity in it. But in truth I came to the neighbourhood believing I had something superior to offer while being able to profit from what was there (sound familiar?).

My first years in the neighbourhood I learned the term ‘gentrification’. All I really knew about it was that it was bad. That it forced the most vulnerable to leave or make them even more vulnerable. I learned that gentrification in many cities was initiated by large influxes of investment capital making quickly and dramatically reshaping the landscape of a neighbourhood. This mostly hasn’t happened in Winnipeg except maybe along Main St. But if Wolseley is any example, what does happen is the slow ‘improvement’ of a neighbourhood through white investment and ownership. I like to think the West End is a little more textured than Wolseley was before its white washing. Currently it is still difficult to visibly identify an ‘ethnic’ group. Businesses and religious/community centres are diverse. Very mixed income housing. But of course the trend has started. The good part of the West End is now affectionately called North Wolseley. We are in the fortunate position to home own and are doing some renovations. Hipsters and hipster businesses are creeping up out of West Broadway. The University of Winnipeg continues to extend its influence.

So what to do? Probably nothing. Or is there? I don’t know. I still really love this neighbourhood. Maybe I’m looking for absolution, wanting to be considered native enough to be above (or below) these trends. But hipsters aren’t the only thing on the rise. The influence of the mosque is increasing. Orthodox Eritreans are moving in and opening businesses. Second generation Filippino’s are making their mark. The indigenous community is becoming more prominent. Will this all be for not. Will whiteness just win again? What are your experiences in other cities?

Perhaps in college I should have the foresight, the vision, to just move immediately to suburbs. If a white person can formulate theology with integrity perhaps it must be able to survive and respond to the suburbs and not rest on the credibility of other people’s vulnerability.

Prophet to king: You have caused the people to sin

A while back I noticed a curious phrase in the Book of Kings. I remember it saying something to the effect of accusing the king of ‘causing Israel to sin’. Such a phrase feels pivotal at this point in our political/historical moment. We are increasingly comfortable naming things like ‘structural violence’ but still tend to collapse into very individualistic based responses. More and more attempts are being made highlight how these appeals to individual actions actually fall well within how the powers of our age organize and communicate. Such a system of placing the burden on the individual offloads any guilt or charge of responsibility from those places and people where power is concentrated. One of the places endorsing the responsibility of individual is the church. The church, broadly understood, heralds the virtue of the individual. This emphasis cuts across liberal/conservative divides as both look to the individual whether for personal, spiritual salvation or in discipleship responding to social injustices. [See Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World for how the church’s theological traditions have informed our current understanding of the individual].

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So sad and beautiful

Speeding toward the ground
Through the air without a sound
So gracefully

Each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful

– Pedro the Lion ‘June 18, 1976’

My neighbourhood shifts noticeably in spring. Through fall and winter everyone has the same destinations and schedules but we are all hurried moving from warmth to warmth in a cold world. In spring it seems that the neighbourhood grows. Children in particular appear to multiply through the slower commutes to and from school. Now they talk and laugh and tease meandering the sidewalks and lingering at bus stops. My walk to work takes me through the paths of numerous school children. In the past few days I have found myself feeling almost unbearably sad walking through these scenes. I have witnessed nothing to be sad about. They are beautiful. There is a boy who is probably around 12. He is large, not quite obese, just large framed and slow moving. There is nothing that commends him by the world’s standards but neither is he dirty or in worn out clothing just poorly styled in nearly every respect. Wide straight jeans, large t-shirt, short uniform hair, fuzzy hair on his upper lip. In the past two days my timing has been such that I watch him walk out his door on his way to school. By the gate to the sidewalk he turns and looks back to his mother or grandmother and offers a huge smile and vigorous wave.

This morning there was a car accident at the corner of my street. I took a little longer slowly walking by and then when I turned to go up Toronto St and little girl quickly left her house and caught her stride alongside me and asked what happened. We had never met. I felt awkward and unsure what protocol was for such an occasion. We fell into conversation and walked for a block as she was going to meet a friend who she walks to school with. She was in grade four, curious, good-natured and a good conversationalist (did I mention I was a stranger). She liked recess and gym, school was going well for her. As quickly as came alongside of me she crossed over the street to meet her friend. I wished her a good day and as she faded away she said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’

After walking on for a while I started to cry, just for a bit. I treasured these images. But where did the sadness come from? It was my speculation. I speculated about their place and future in this world. I considered how the world might value and use them. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this was all just my own arrogance. But these images have added to many, many others that lead me to believe that beauty is something plus vulnerability. I don’t know what the something is but I know the vulnerability. If we value beauty we must also at some point reject the world.

This led me to think of the church. I have been highly critical of the church. Increasingly my only real concern is whether the church can be a place of rest, refuge, and resistance to the evaluation of the world. That is all that really matters. I find I have much more grace for the church but this only comes with an increased sense of complete intolerance for vipers who may reside within. The only course of action there is strike at the neck or crush with the heel.

White weddings, farm boys, and drag queens: Adorning and adoring the church

Ryan Jantzi’s column, ‘Honouring the bride of Christ’ struck a chord with me. In the short article Jantzi conjures the well known image of a group gazing at the adorned bride coming down the aisle of at a wedding. Jantzi observes, this is how we adore brides, but this is not how we adore the bride of Christ, the church. I admit that I was put off with Janzti connecting the church to imagery that remains deeply embedded in the history of brides as prize and property. It is easy to offload all of our ideals of purity, beauty, and faithfulness onto women who already face endless demands by our culture while excluding those who do not conform to these traditions.

However, as I sat with my discomfort this image did bring to mind a memory growing up on the farm. I was probably around 8 years old when my two older sisters dressed me up as girl by putting me in a skirt and makeup. I remember twirling around to make the skirt rise and fall, much to the joy of my sisters. My sisters then brought me out to the field where my fathers and uncles were working. I remember going in anticipation, carrying my experience of being adorned and adored, hoping to bring them this joy as well. I don’t remember exactly what happened when I got to the field but I was left with a feeling of wrong doing; that such adornment was not to be repeated and was certainly not adored.

I agree with Jantzi this is indeed is how the bride of Christ is often left to feel. Adornment is not a traditional value for Mennonites. But thinking of myself as part of the church, thinking of myself as the bride of Christ I was encouraged to wonder about how men (in particular) can embrace being adorned and adored. In May a number of drag queens are offering public readings for children at two libraries in Winnipeg. I confess that I had mixed feelings hearing about this event. I still have my own gender stigmas and preconceptions. However, thinking of my own experience I was reminded of how easy it is to internalize shame and criticism then projecting it onto others; the cycle is easy to reproduce. I really did find joy dressing up as a girl, I enjoyed the beauty that this performance offered my sisters. Why would I want to take that from others?

I am as active as any in criticizing the church. I am never sure if or when I cross the line from being insightful and creative to being boring and cynical. While I will continue to strive for healthy criticism I also want those in and around the church to be renewed with a sense of how to adorn and adore themselves and each other.

The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

Continue reading “The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)”

Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)

The first part of this series was an attempt to situate the current theological state of Mennonite Church Canada. The commitment I would like to nurture is a moral commitment to remain attentive to those suffering and struggling in the midst of our churches and cultures. I hope that this commitment will also help us to open up some of our broader theological commitments.

In the next two parts I will look at the two dominant theological forms at work in Mennonite Church Canada. My accounts are neither complete nor exclusive to other influences at work. However, the terms liberal and conservative get thrown around so much that is worth paying attention to them and clarifying their insufficiency in relation to a gospel drawing our unity and attention to the realities of suffering and injustice. After these next two critical sections I will try and offer some more constructive pieces in moving forward (Hint: It’s not a ‘third-way’!).

Since it will come as no surprise to those who know me I am critical of conservative/patriarchal theology instead I thought I would begin with my still developing understanding and critique of liberalism.

Continue reading “Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)”