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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Baldwin and Miller – Flight and Escape

It is, thankfully, increasingly commonplace to see the ‘Great White Intellectual’ as both reflecting and emerging from conditions that required others to be silenced. Silenced not necessarily by direct action (though that can be the case as well) but silenced in the sense that there is much to do in life. And for those not afforded the economic or cultural opportunity of dedicating extra time for the process of reflecting and articulating then, well, there is just not much time or energy to leave a paper trail. One of the simplest examples is Soren Kiekergaard’s work being possible in the context of his (sometimes overstated) inheritance and lack of social/kinship obligations.

This can be seen within fictional narratives as well of course, as in John Williams’s Stoner where William Stoner’s melancholy intellectual plight is made possible by a black hired hand who works for cheap on his father’s farm (a character who takes up about two or three lines in the book). While I have lost some of my former zeal for the great white men of philosophy, the shine on white male authors in fiction has largely remained intact. I loved the above mentioned Stoner. I was thoroughly impressed with volume 1 of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. But it was in finishing James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and then starting Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer that I think something finally shifted in my understanding of or being sensitive to the material conditions in which these works are produced.

[Unnecessary critique warning: Yes, I know this observation will not hold true in all comparisons]

I find the comparison between Miller and Baldwin intriguing. Both authors are not shy in their use of potentially offensive language and often boldly address issues of sex, race, and religion. Bodies are not mere surfaces for projection but emit smells and fluids, they glide or are abrasive, they caress or they strike. Both authors are also intensely reflective allowing themselves extended digressions on the philosophical significance of a given event or expression. It is in the role of the individual in relation to their context that marks a stark and jarring divergence.

Beale Street is an account of a young black couple who were recently engaged with the woman, Tish, learning of her pregnancy. The man, Fonny, is sent to jail on rape charges after a woman singled him out in a police line (Fonny was the blackest in the line and it was black man who raped her).

Tish and Fonny’s families struggle with how to support Tish and raise the money for Fonny’s defense. All this within the larger realities racial discrimination keeping them even more vulnerable. These are individuals thrust together for the sake of survival . . . and survival is not assured. This is why the opening page of Tropic of Cancer was so jarring when Miller writes, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Good for you Henry.

There is a place for Miller’s work and it is no wonder he shows up so often in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. In their work Miller is the ‘minor author’. These are the only great authors “having to conquer one’s own language, in other words, to attain that sobriety in the use of a major language, in order to place it in a state of continuous variation. . . . Conquer the major language in order to delineate in it as yet unknown minor languages.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 105). Miller is trying to break out from (and break up) what causes suffering (or simply expose it) while Baldwin is trying to survive. Baldwin is already in flight.

I wonder if it also for this reason that Baldwin, as sharp and biting as any, is also far more touching even loving than I imagine Miller could ever be. An individual breaking out and breaking up is constant strain but communal fugitivity (even in its strategic moves) also has cold nights and extended times where one must simply wait and make music or love.