Category Archives: Elainne Scarry

Notes and tangents from the class discussion of ‘The Body In Pain’

Scarry looks to the moments of extreme pain in torture and war in its most formal structures and thus allows the thought that through implication torture and war wouldn’t happen or would happen differently if this extreme pain were in fact commensurable – that one could not possibly destroy the body and world of another without feeling the same sensation visited upon their own. One’s politics should then lead in the direction that senses this incommensurability and creates an attenuated level plane of existence. Everyone should have the right to not feel.

One should be lead to ask what kind of process and context produces a sense of happiness that is the absence of intensity, where pain and intense pleasure certainly exist, but only when it is operative for the dominant relation. Perhaps, some of this lies in the world destroying potency of an “object-less” state.  We could think of this as a form of desubjectification, which is possible in moments where we become less and less concerned with “our world” and what we are, but instead with what our bodies experience. And that these moments of intensity contain within them a condition of openness. Being a male, a college student, a vegetarian, etc suddenly melts inside us, which then can either be recoded with new subjectivities or further widen a rift between our bodies and their predicates.

What organization of power persists in denying the conflict that is foundational to the relation of capitalism by relegating it to moments in which it is most extreme? On the contrary, absolute war exists between those who inhabit a world of utter dispossession of the means of making and unmaking worlds and the structures, people and worlds which by all means maintain and develop this hell. The prevention of this thought being elaborated appears to function as a way of neutralizing the capabilities of people by limiting them to the terms and terrains of the circulation of value. It is something done to us – something alien.

-Tout Niquer

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The Danger of Pure Bodily Absorption

I am struck by a seemingly tangential comment about dreaming made by Scarry when discussing the relation between pain and imagining.

The paricular content of the dream images…is itself insignificant beside the overall fact of the dreaming itself, the emergency work of the imagination to provide an object–this object, that object, any object–to sustain and exercise the capacity for self-objectification during the sleep-filled hours of sweet and dangerous bodily absorption (p. 167).

What is striking here is the overt evidence of the mind’s (for lack of a better word) obsession with objects or, one might say, its fear of pure bodily absorption.  Although I cannot forcefully argue it yet, I am led to believe that, contrary to what Scarry argues, it is not necessarily true that insofar as an intentional state lacks its object it approaches pain (e.g., hunger), or, more precisely, that pain is the limit point of bodily absorption.  Instead of identifying pain with that limit point, it should be identified just as what it is, the critical point at which the state of a body has no object.  This more general limit point will, then, include both pain and, we might say, pure bliss.  More interestingly, the mind might fear, or at least try to prevent, like pain, the bodily absorption of pure bliss.  I think this actually follows from much of what Scarry says, although it differs from her (over)generalized claim about pain and what she says about pleasure on p. 166 and especially fn. 6 (p. 355).

Since it’s already quite clear, I won’t spend any time discussing why Scarry thinks pain can be seen as (one) limit point of bodily absorption, whether in torture or in quotidian states such as hunger and thirst.  I will start, then, with one observation concerning the difference between pain and pleasure.  Scarry claims that “physical pain is exceptional in the whole fabric of psychic, somatic, and perceptual states for being the only one that has no object” (p. 161).  However, in the introduction she repeatedly mentions the various ways in which one in pain can substantiate that pain, even if it is as simple as identifying it with the weapon that inflicted it or felt “as if” it inflicted it.  However, the same is true of pleasure.  Of course, it may often be the case that pleasure has an object, it is not very hard to conceive of the state being reached, pure bliss, in which there is none.  Scarry admits that sensations of touch can be distinguished as the pure sense of touching and the touch of some object.  This separation seems even starker in the case of intensely pleasurable experiences.  Finally, it is a mistake to confuse the cause of a sensation with the object of a state or sensation.  Obviously, physical pain must be caused by something, just as pleasure must be; however, this does not mean that either have an object in the way the feelings of hunger or longing do.

Finally, I wanted to comment about the fact that the mind is constantly imagining objects, particularly when, as in sleep, the body is deprived of perceptual or other objects.  It seems clear why in the case of pain, the mind would posit these objects.  According to Scarry, pain can be diminished or eliminating to the extent that it acquires an object, whether real or imagined.  Hunger is diminished when food is consumed; longing can be diminished when the person one longs for, although not physically present, is imagined.  However, I do not think that this obsession with objects is limited to the diminishing of pain.  As the case of dreaming makes clear, completely non-painful, even pleasurable, bodily experiences, like sleep, must be supplemented by dream-objects.  It is as if the danger of pure bodily absorption, whether painful or pleasurable, must be avoided at all cost.  Perhaps the reason, although not an exhaustive one, is that the civilization process itself, the process of making, as Scarry describes, is constantly involved in extending out of the body and into the world.  In a way, the feeling of pure bliss is as uncivilized as is the feeling of pain, that is, it is incommunicable, hidden from the world and other people.  Even Scarry herself seems to identify civilization with happiness and un-civilization with danger and harm.  This same dichotomy can be see, for instance, in common arguments against hallucinatory drugs or science fiction stories about a society in which its citizens are “drugged” to feel constant bliss and what consequence that would have (Brave New World?).  What must be considered is whether pain is the only locus of un-civilization, as in torture and war, or whether pure bliss, and its causes, is equally destructive of humanity and civilization.  More importantly, we must ask whether the very dichotomy between civility/happiness and un-civility/danger should have the validity it seems to have or whether we can imagine wholly new relations between pain, pleasure and society.

-alowceiling

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Questions on The Body in Pain

One recurring question that I had while reading Scarry for this week: how much do emotions and psychology play into experiencing pain? In Scarry’s examples of torture, she explains tactics (slamming doors or loud noises) that are meant to rattle the tortured but that are not actually physically inflicted upon them. It seems that emotional terror magnified the experience of pain. I wonder if there is always an emotional component to pain. Can one experience pain without emotion?

Also, this reading made me think of people who self-inflict pain or engage in sadomasochism. These sort of examples suggest a different/pleasurable relationship to pain, but I wonder if this is necessarily the case. Is anyone familiar with this topic and how it relates to Scarry’s theories?

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Week 1 – The Body in Pain – Elaine Scarry

This week’s reading is, of course, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry.  Any and all authors: feel free to post!

(p.s. I’ll be putting something like this up sometime soon after each class (Wednesday or Thursday?), which gives authors the opportunity to write something while they’re reading or right after discussion on Tuesdays.  If you have any suggestions on a better way, comment below.)

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