the body in pain

body in pain

(1985) by Elaine Scarry

intro’d to the body in pain here via Jean Russell:

There is a passage in Elaine Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, that haunts me: a narrative version of capital and workers.
Original Tweet:

@NurtureGirl: In this narrative, one person touches an object and becomes profoundly embodied, including wounds. This is the worker. The other touches and becomes immaterial. The capitalist.

@NurtureGirl: This embodiment being magnified versus the evaporation of the body into abstractions is such a crucial insight. And thus the abstraction tract escapes pain, and the privilege that brings is also made invisible to most.

@NurtureGirl: Once you see capitalism as the unequal distribution of pain… well, if you are an empath instead of a sociopath, it haunts… But it also makes it clear why the capitalists that rise to the top of the heap have to be narcissistic sociopaths.


gabor on pain

when body says no

et al





thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed..

whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part thru its unsharability and it ensures this unsharability thru its resistance to language..

no words

language as control/enclosure

‘english’ writes virginia woolf  ‘which can express… has no words for the shiver of the headache..  let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a dr and language at once runs dry’.. 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/cries a human being makes before language is learned



perhaps the most obvious medicine for the success of the physician’s work will often depend on the acuity w which he/she can hear the fragmentary language of pain..t

and too .. perhaps making the illness/cancer/et-al non existent by listening to every idiosyncratic voice.. everyday.. as it could be.. 2 convers as infra.. ie: cure ios city

coax it into clarity, and interpret it..  the hesitation built into the previous sentence ‘perhaps the most obvious’ acknowledges the fact that many people’s experience of the medical community would bear out the opposite conclusion.. the conclusion that physicians do not trust (hence hear) the human voice, that they in effect perceived the voice of the patients an ‘unreliable narrator’ of bodily events, a voice which must bypassed as quickly as possible..  so that they can get around and behind it to the physical events themselves..

but if the external sign of the felt experience of pain (for which there is no alteration in the blood count, no shadow on the x ray, no pattern on the cat scan) is the patient’s verbal report (however itself inadequate), then to bypass the voice is to bypass the bodily event, to bypass the patient, to bypass the person in pain..


thus the reality of a patient’s x rayable cancer may be believed in but the accompanying pain disbelieved and the pain med under prescribed.. med contexts like all other contexts of human experience, provide instances of the alarming phenom noted earlier: to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt… (the doubt of other persons, here as elsewhere, amplifies the suffering of those already in pain)


this public realm is of central concern in this book..

amnesty international’s ability to bring about the cessation of torture depends centrally on its ability to communicate the reality of physical pain to those who are not themselves in pain..

the most crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening..  tact and immediacy ordinarily work against one another; the us the difficulty of sustaining either tone if compounded by the necessity of sustaining both simultaneously…

as even this brief description suggests, embedded in amnesty’s work, as in med work, is the assumption that the act of verbally expressing pain is a necessary prelude to eh collective task of diminishing pain.. it is also true that here, as in med, the human voice must aspire to become a precise reflection of material reality: amnesty’s ability to stop torture depends on its international authority, and its international authority depends on its reputation for consistent accuracy; the words ‘someone is being tortured; cannot be, and are never, pronounced unless it is the case that some is being tortured..

yeah.. i don’t know

mcleod explain law et al


(1st 3 ? 1\ individual in pain  ie: case history 2\ people trying to speak for others’ pain ie: diagnostic tests  3\ verbal docs ie: amnesty international letter; poem; transcripts) the 4th arena in which physical pain begins to enter language is the courtroom

too much

5th and final source is art.. full circle back to virginia’ woolf’s complaint about the absence  of literary reps of pain..


relation between expressing pain and eliminating pain.. 

political consequences of pain’s inexpressibility


1\ how intricately the problem of pain is bound up w the problem of power

how is it one person can be in presence of another in pain and not know it..  and.. not know it to the point where he himself inflicts it, and goes on inflicting it..?..t

2\ ordinarily there is no language for pain..  the one more visible (ie: property over handicapped) will receive more attention..  but pain not just less visible.. but nearly impossible to express.. so flatly invisible..

so ie: torture becomes info gathering and while central activity of war in injuring and  central goal to out injure opponent.. the fact of injuring tends to be absent from strategic /political descriptions of war..


the act of misdescribing torture or war, though in some instance intentional and in others unintentional, is in either case partially made possible by the inherent difficulty of accurately describing any even whose central content is bodily pain/injury

3\ efforts to make at least fragmentary means of verbalization of pain in order to eliminate it

4\ pain cannot be denied.. cannot be confirmed


the point here is not just that pain can be apprehended in the image of the weapon (or wound) but that it almost cannot be apprehended w/o it.. the very word ‘pain’ has its etymological home in ‘poena’ or ‘punishment’ reminds us that even the elementary act of naming this most interior or events entails an immediate mental somersault out of the body into the external social circumstance s that can be pictured as having caused the hurt


as the language of agency has a central place in torture and war – the two events in which the ordinary assumptions of culture are suspended – so, conversely, the basic structure of culture are centrally devoted to stabilizing this sign..


3rd subject in book.. so far not intro’d: nature of human creation

1\ pain difficult to express

2\ inexpressibility has political consequences

3\ nature of human creation

what it is to ‘uncreate’ and what it is to create eventually becomes central preoccupations of this book..  unmaking and making

structure of torture: 1\ infliction of physical pain  2\ objectification of 8 central attributes of pain  3\ translation of those attributes into the insignia of the regime..

physical pain – to invoke what is at this moment its single most familiar attribute – is language destroying.. torture inflicts bodily pain that is itself language destroying, but torture also mimes (objectifies in the external environ) this language destroying capacity in its interrogation, the purpose of which is not to elicit needed info but visibly to deconstruct the prisoner’s voice..t

language as control/enclosure


the word ‘deconstruct’ rather than ‘destroy’ is used in the previous sentence because to say the interrogation ‘visibly destroys’ the prisoner’s voice only implies that the outcome of the event is the shattering of the person’s voice (and if this alone were the goal, there would be no need for a verbal interrogation since the inflicted pain alone accomplishes this outcome).. the prolonged interrogation, however, also graphically objectifies the step by step backward movement along the path by which language comes into being and which is here being reversed or uncreated or deconstructed..  we’ll see this same mime of uncreating reappears consistently throughout all the random details of torture..  the structure of unmaking..t

war too has a structure


the basis of the distinction is ‘consent’ in war, the persons whose bodies are used in the confirmation process have given their consent over this most radical use of the human body while in torture no such consent is exercised.. the chapter ends by showing that nuclear war more closely approximates the model of torture than the mode of conventional war because it is a structural impossibility that the populations whose bodies are used in the confirmation process can have exercised any consent over this use of their bodies..


the structure of war and the structure of unmaking are not two subjects but one..


the book is about the way other persons become visible to us, or cease to be visible to us.. it is about the way we make ourselves (and the originally interior facts of sentience) available to one another thru verbal/material artifacts, as it is also about the way the derealization of artifacts may assist in taking way another person’s visibility..

the title of the book, the body in pain, designates as the book’s subject the most contracted of spaces, the small circle of living matter and the subtitle designates as its subject the more expansive territory.. the making and unmaking of the world.. but the two go together, for what is quite literally at stake in the body in pain is the making and unmaking of the world.t

part 1 – unmaking

1 – the structure of torture.. the conversion of real pain into the fiction of power..t

pain from holes (absence of basic needs)


nowhere is the sadistic potential of a language built on agency so visible as in torture. while torture contains language, specific human words and sounds, it is itself a language, an objectifications, an acting out.. real pain, agonizing pain, is inflicted on a person; but torture, which contains specific acts of inflicting pain, is also itself a demo and magnification of the felt experience of pain… in the very processes it uses to produce pain w/in the  body of the prisoner, it bestows visibility on the structure and enormity of what is usually private and incommunicable, contained w/in the boundaries of the sufferer’s body.. it then goes on to deny, to falsify, the reality of the very thing it has itself objectified by a perceptual shift which converts the vision of suffering into the wholly illusory but, to the torturers and the regime the rep, wholly convincing spectacle of power.. the physical pain is so incontestably real that it seems to confer its quality of ‘incontestable reality’ on that power that has brought it into being. it is, of course, precisely because the reality of that power is so highly contestable, the regime so unstable, that torture is being used..

what assists the conversion of absolute pain into the fiction of absolute power is an obsessive, self conscious display of agency. on the simplest level.. the weapon.. testimony give by torture victims .. almost inevitably includes description of being made to stare at the weapon w which they were about to be hurt.. t

ie: socrates supposed to’s law (schoolwork et al)


the process of perception sartre describes, obviously not dependent on a political context, belongs anywhere where death is near and so belongs to aging..


stravinsky once described aging as: ‘the ever shrinking perimeter of pleasure’. ie: older you get..  world exists only in a circle 2 ft out from selves..

the voice becomes a final source of self extension; so long as one is speaking, the self extends out beyond the boundaries of the body, occupies a space much larger than the body..

karl marx: ‘only one antidote to mental suffering, and that is physical pain.. ‘


our recognition of its (physical pain’s) power to end madness is one of the ways in which, knowingly or unknowingly, we acknowledge its power to end all aspects of self/world..


almost anyone looking at the physical act of torture would be immediately appalled and repulsed by the torturers.. yet as soon as the focus of attention shifts to the verbal aspect of torture, those lines have begun to waver and change their shape in the direction of accommodating and crediting the torturers.. t


these physical realities.. are translated into verbal realities in order to make the invisible distance visible, in order to make what is taking place in terms of pain take place in terms of power.. t

while the prisoner has almost no voice – his confession is a halfway point in the disintegration of language, an audible objectification of the proximity of silence..  the torturer and the regime have doubled their voice since the prisoner is now speaking their words.. the interrogation is therefore crucial to a regime..t

ie: supposed to’s.. of school/work does this to everyone

to point.. you ask a kid what they really want to do.. they still speak Ed speak words/visions/goals/agendas..


a political situation is almost by defn one in which the two locations of selfhood are in a skewed relation to one another or have wholly split apart and have begun to work or be worked, against one another..

2 – the structure of war.. the juxtaposition of injured bodies and unanchored issues


pain either remains inarticulate or else the moment it first becomes articulate it silences all else: the moment language bodies forth the reality of pain, it makes all further statements and interpretations seem ludicrous and inappropriate, as hollow as the world content that disappears in the head of the person suffering..

waking to what’s irrelevant

beside the initial fact of pain.. all further elaborations.. that it violates this or that human principle.. that it can be objectified.. all these seem trivialization, a missing of the point, a missing of the pain,


1\ the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring..


2\ war is contest.. winner/loser


injuring has made it possible to arrive at a winner and a loser..  out injuring (the other).. differentiates war form all other contests..


what is it that differentiates injuring from any other act on which a contest can be based?.. is not a question that can be easily answered, either is it a question that can be easily unasked


whoever wins gets to determine the issues


what is remembered in the body is well remembered.. it is not possible to compel a person to unlearn the riding of a bike, or to take out the knowledge of a song residing in the fingertips.. w/o directly entering, altering, injuring the body itself..  so too the political body is not easily change


a moment before he was blown apart he himself had a national id.. the expose d bones and lungs and blood do not now fall into the shape of 5 yellow stars on a red field.. the wound is empty of reference


injuring has 2 functions: 1\ determine winner/lose  2\ substantiate.. make seem real..  the outcome from #1


it has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’.. this act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’..t

that is, in consenting to kill, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation..  he consents to ‘unmake’ himself, deconstruct himself, empty himself o civil content ‘for his country’..

‘to kill’ ‘to die’ ‘for my country’


whatever the specific causes of this unanchoredness, there is always one general cause. the dispute that leads to the war involves a process by which each side calls into question the legitimacy and thereby erodes the reality of the other country’s issues, beliefs, ideas, self conception. .t..

whales in sea world

dispute leads relentlessly to war not only because war is an extension and intensification of dispute but because ti si a correction and reversal of it. that is, the injuring not only provides a means of choosing between disputants but also provides, by its massive opening of human bodies, a way of reconnecting the derealized and disembodied beliefs w the force and power of the material world..

in the dispute that leads to war, a belief on each side that has ‘cultural reality’ for that side’s population is exposed as a ‘cultural fiction’: that is, by being continually called into question, it begins to become recognizable to its own population as an ‘invented structure’ rather than existing as it did in peacetime as one that (thought on reflection invented) could be unselfconsciously entered into as though it were a naturally occurring ‘given’ of the world..

whales in sea world

as dispute intensifies.. ‘cultural ‘fiction’ may seem in danger of eroding further into a ‘cultural fraud’.. eroding from something that is uncomfortably recognizable as ‘made’ into something potentially identifiable as ‘unreal, untrue, illegit, arbitrary’.. the more the process of derealization continues, the more desperately will each side work to recertify and verbally reaffirm the legitimacy and reality of its own cultural constructs..

it’s not that a country’s population actively wishes to discredit the other population’s forms of belief and self description but, rather, that their own beliefs and descriptions contradict the other population’s and thus by merely continuing to believe in and reaffirm their own constructs, they inevitably contribute to the deconstruction of the competing construct..


thus in a dispute, each side reasserts that its own constructs are ‘real’ and that only the other side’s constructs are ‘creations’ (and by extension, ‘fictions/lies’)


injuring (in first function) continues the derealization process of dispute.. but injuring (in its second function) is a reversal of dispute because injuries provide the radical material base for the winning issues, investing them w the bodily attribute of reality until there is time for both of the populations to consent to them, enact them, make them real

consent ?.. make them real..? i don’t know


although it is the unanchoredness of the exterior framing issues that is of crucial importance here.. it should also be recalled that all forms of language w/in the interior of war tend to have this same unanchored quality. they utter derealization of verbal meaning occurring there, the presence of fictions or, more drastically, ‘lies’ has often been commented on..t

language as control/closure

strategy, to begin with just one major form of language interior to war, does not simply entail lies but is essentially and centrally a verbal act of lying..t – the goal of every strategic design is to actively withhold meaning form the opponent, as it persuasively summarized in stonewall jackson’s strategic motto, ‘mystify. mislead. surprise’.. the enemy must believe you are telling the truth when you are lying and equally important, must believe you are lying when you are telling the truth..

strategy as cancer

begs we go off script

strategy, or military language, is a large phenom itself made up of many smaller parts, many of which have rubrics that actively announce their purpose of withholding meaning.. t

codes for ie, are attempt to make meaning irrecoverable, or at the very least, to embed that meaning in multipliers of arbitrarily sequenced signs in oder to divert the opponents’ energies into hours of incomprehension.. t

strategy as math/measuring/accounting/cancer.. too much ness

dang.. insights so deep.. sure i’m missing tons.. (or reading what she didn’t intend).. of these universal correlations to life..

the crucial place of ‘cunning’ and ‘deceit’ in military strategy.. t

of math and men et al


war is in the massive fact of itself a huge structure for the derealization of cultural constructs and simultaneously for their eventual reconstitution. . the declaration of war is the declaration that ‘reality’ is now officially ‘up for grabs’

except.. it hasn’t ever been truly up for grabs.. even by the winner of said war


so too, it has often been noticed that artistic creation frequently occurs in conjunction w an absorption w military matters both in the realm of the individual artist.. and in the realm of the nation state.. .. the tech inventiveness occasioned by war..

yeah.. i don’t think so.. productivity maybe.. but not creativity.. we haven’t ever come up with anything creative enough to serve us well.. ie: to facil our fittingness

mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity– Luma Mufleh


some concluded.. a world emptied of war may be an unjust world..


what is at sake in the question of war is a ‘fiction generating ‘capacity..

the surrogate for war would be in the international realm when mech for ensuring the possibility of periodic change that is the equivalent w/in the nation state to the mech of elections which ensure the fluidity of constructs interior to national boundaries..

yeah.. both cancer


the reinvention of the substantiation process (substitute for war) is the subject of the second half of this book

even if war were never replaced by a substitute, it should be recognized that it is not the equivalent of torture..

once war and torture are differentiated, it will become clear that ‘nuclear war’ is closer to the model of torture than it is to the model of conventional war..

part 2 – making

3 – pain and imagining


pain and imagining are the ‘framing events’ w/in whose boundaries all other perceptual , somatic, and emotional events occur, thus, between the two extremes can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche


the weapon (pain – unmaking) and the tool (imagining – making).. seem at moments indistinguishable..

4 – the structure of belief and its modulation into material making – body & voice in judeo christian scriptures and writings of marx


hebrew scriptures . product of the human imagination..  overall strategy of these writings is firs tto make something and then let ti, in ‘its own’ words, reveal itself to you..


the relation between god and human beings is often mediated by the sign of the weapon..  man can only be created once, but once created, he can be endlessly modified; wounding re enacts the creation because it reenacts the power of alteration that has its first profound occurrence in creation

5 – the interior structure of the artifact

from site on maurice page:

Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world, a corrective to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge, and maintained that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other.


when one suddenly finds oneself in the midst of a complicated political situation, it is hard not only to assess the ‘rightness/wrongness’ of what is taking place but even to perform the much more elementary task of id-ing, descriptively, what it is that is taking place. the fact that torture , whose activity has a structure accurately summarized by the word ‘stupidity’ 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

the ease w/ which our descriptive powers break down in the presence of a concussive occurrence.. and may lead one to worry how we can set about to answer ethically complex questions about war when even the phenomenology of the even to successfully eludes us..


it is part of the work of this book to suggest that achieving an understanding of political justice may require that we first arrive at an understanding of making and unmaking

2nd half of book.. either too hard to follow..too irrelevant to me.. dang


from david graeber‘s possibilities:

i had recently been reading elaine scarry’s book – the body in pain (1985).. so i began reflecting on the analogy between this and pain and physical discomfort which scarry describes as a process of destroying worlds, as something that collapses that very sense of investment in the surrounding world w its networks of meaning/objects, that sucks the meaning away, compressing it into the minimal, circumscribed space of the hurting body..

the body in pain


my notebooks were full of speculation about how the play of surrounding eyes, feeling of pain/painlessness, objective potentials for action or the threat of violence, all contribute to (and also flow out of) one’s immediate physical bearing, carriage, gestures, how one holds ones’ arms and legs, tendencies to curl up or splay oneself out, speaking loudly or not at all, and so on ..

the problem was that i soon realized this had almost nothing to do w how malagasy women normally lived/behaved.. this became apparent the moment one moved, as i soon did, away from institutions dominated by foreigners.. if anything, the situation seems the reverse of what i was used to.. before long, i was remaking to a friend – how remarkable it was that in terms of ordinary body language, it was often women who seemed more apt to make the bold, expansive gesture, who strode w greater confidence in public.. men.. even young men.. more often seemed to contract in on themselves in pubic, to soften seem shy and self contained.. why was that?

friend said: ‘that’s because they are pressed down by their culture’ accompanying the words by a gesture: her hand pressing steadily downward..

one might call that first, basic level – before words = the level of phenomenology.. often the most profound cultural insights are achieved by intentionally bringing things down to this sort of degree zero.. and then working back up again..

huge.. to idiosyncratic jargon.. lanier beyond words law.. rumi words law.. et al

this was in fact precisely what scarry was trying to do in the body in pain, a book which draws richly not just on the phenomenological tradition but on the half forgotten insights of existentialism.. as such, it did prove useful after all.. scarry begins by proposing an opposition between pain and language.. physical pain, if sufficiently intense, destroys the very possibility of language: language being he most important way in which the self embeds and invest itself in the surrounding world.. hence suffering makes one collapse into oneself..

language as control/enclosure


in this sense, having another person bearing your burdens, then capturing their right to speech, could indeed by seen as the most obvious way to expand into larger worlds at their expense..

voice ness.. whalespeak.. et al

but i ended up using scarry’s work not just to understand malagsy concepts, but to bounce off them.. in fact, to bounce each off the other in a kind of conceptual dialogue..

the 2nd half of the book (159-326) is specifically concerned w production , or as she puts it, ‘material making’ as a kind of meeting point between language and pain.. labor she argues is not experienced as inherently painful as a form of oppression, unless it’s divorced from a sense of agency, of making something..

this is true, but the 3 part division between words, making and carrying.. the latter emblematic of all sorts of other forms of support/maintenance work, classic forms of women’s or menial work .. seemed a useful corrective.. it reminds us how much our habits of thought have, at least since the time of marx, made the work of the craftsman or factory worker emblematic of labor in general; and how that focus itself tends to relegate most forms of real work to the shadows..

in fact, none of he malagasy conception i’ve discussed, however apparently exotic, emerge from an entirely alien conceptual universe.. this is why they have the potential to tell us something. to describe kinds as children seems bizarre, but only until one really thinks about it.. heads of state do tend to be self important, petulant beings, surrounded at every moment by people taking care of their physical necessities and reminding them how to act..

so a combo of david on care and freedom and maté parenting law so still whales.. not letting go enough to see.. (what legit free people/children are like)

the reason why anthros are often so reluctant to make cross cultural generalization, it seems to be, is because, when they do look for common terms, they tend to look on precisely the wrong level..

yeah.. all of us do that.. we haven’t yet looked deep enough.. to resonate w 8b people today..

they invariably look for forms of constituted authority. if looking for some sort of moral universal, they assume this would mean principles present in all known legal system; if they are asked to search for aesthetic universals, they look for any quality that might be seen as present in every object formally recognized as ‘art’ (or whatever they decide is the closest local equiv).. the inevitable conclusion, then, is that such universals do not exits..


what i am suggesting instead is that it would be better in such cases to look at common ways of arguing about morality, or common ways of thinking and talking about aesthetic pleasure, which seem far more similar cross culturally than any particular conclusions that such convos may come to (let alone conclusions that are then given some kind of authoritative stamp).. this would be *the way to try to get a sense of the common underlying tendencies/capacities.. the generative mechs if you will.. these become **easiest to see, perhaps, precisely when someone is challenging what is locally considered received authority/wisdom

*yeah that.. but deeper.. **not about arguing/defining/authority/wisdom (those are all enclosures of legit essence).. but about what’s missing from our essence.. .. what’s causing that pain