Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

Ways of making you talk

I recently read The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, on the recommendation of altariel. It is a meditation on the use of pain, in particular torture and war, for political dominance. As a Marxist she is explicit about how physical power (control of violence and money) is linked to social and psychological domination. She also maps this theme onto the ideas of body/silence vs word/power set out in the Old Testament.

I think this is a worthwhile book to read, and I would emphasise three particular strengths:

- she writes in a lush and poetic style, which is very readable
- the book makes explicit the details of what it actually means to control violence, which is a harsh but significant mental exercise
- much of what she says is directly relevant to what is going on right now, although the book is about twenty years old

If I had to sum up what she says it would be that pain is uniquely isolating and silencing, as an experience which can not be expressed in language, and that by inflicting pain on another we silence and negate them. In fact we impose our language on them. Interesting how justifications for torture circle back to 'making them talk', 'making them confess', even though any such confession is worthless.

I think however that she makes a mistake in describing pain as unique. She says that pain is almost 'content free'. All other sense experiences are outer-directed (I feel water when I put my hand in it) while pain is inner-directed (if the water is scalding I feel pain in my hand, not in the water). That's because, I suppose, pain is the direct experience of damage to the body, felt as a warning 'stop doing this, and never do it again'.

But I think pleasure is also perceived above and beyond the external object (let us say a note of music) that induces it. Does pleasure therefore silence and dehumanise us like pain does? If not, why not? I don't have an easy answer but I think that this suggests a fault line in her theory.

This is not a criticism of the book though: it is good to have these trains of thought set off, whether or not you follow the author every step of the way.
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