Scarry – The Body in Pain

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.


Albrecht Dürer, Head of a suffering man, 1503. Dürer left an inscription calling it ‘Head of the Dead Christ’; the drawing’s themes have also been attributed to Dürer’s own illness, and an epidemic disease across France and Germany at the time. 


The old phenomenological chestnut: is communication possible? Can one genuinely experience another’s living? If not, does this not collapse our basis for empathy, for ethics, for understanding? Elaine Scarry begins with the assertion that pain is something everyone feels, something which demands that we experience and attend to, but it is also something that seems utterly inexpressible. Thus we still engage in the farcical exchange: “how much does it hurt, from a scale of 1 to 10?” “But doctor, how will you know what my 7 means, and indeed, how shall I give my own pain a number?”

From there, Scarry passes to torture, to war, and to the most general level at which bodies are enlisted into forms of making and unmaking. Her great distinction is between forms of production where (1) subjects may utilise their own bodies and objectify them, concretising a certain meaning of their own design upon the world; even the simple crafting of a single chair passes on something of one’s intentionality to that space for years after. (2) Yet these forces of creation may be appropriated, as in torture, where the bodily pain of one person is leveraged to affirm truths entirely not of his/her design. Scarry thus seeks to unveil the work of imagination in its vastness, and chart some of its dislocations and its injustices. (324-5)

This is a vast work, both in its scope of evidence/context and the broader conceptual terrain; these notes are intended to be read with the book, rather than a comprehensive encapsulation of the text.


0. Introduction

The Body in Pain address three concentric circles: inexpressible pain, the political consequences of that inexpressibility, and the wider question of expressibility. (3)


Remote Pain

Our own pain is certain yet inexpressible, Scarry states; others’ pain is both inexpressible and remote. (3-4) Where “our interior states of consciousness are regularly accompanied by objects in the external world”, pain’s defining feature is its absolute nonreferentiality even to ourselves. We thus attempt to excavate it via language, “forcing pain itself into avenues of objectification”. (6)

Who speaks pain? Those in it, who reprise the moment of Creation in their efforts; and those who speak on its behalf. There is medicine, and its increasing focus on the nature of pain that is grounded in a belief in language as an accurate measure (6-8); there is public literary and historical records, like of Amnesty International, that draw on the materiality of pain for the political goal of its diminishment; law; and art, which also struggles with the inexpressibility. (9-10)


Political Consequences

The political problem of how to know we inflict pain (how can we not know even as we do the inflicting?) and how to represent it in politics. Torture and war are so ‘misdescribed’ partly because it is founded on inexpressible pain. (12-3) A general recourse is taken to the ‘language of agency’. Consider that we often describe pain in ‘as ifs’ of weaponry (as if a hammer is striking me). We thus make a weapon of pain, and even blame the weapon. (15-6) This recourse in fact masks the actual absence of expressed pain. (18)

This signification is however unstable; speaking pain requires a constant work of holding visible an objectified referent, which speaks to an inherent risk of slippage. (17) Efforts to describe pain end up unmooring it from its bodily referent, and attaching it somewhere else to give it substance (‘analogical verification/substantiation’). (13-4) Thus the stakes for an adequate description of pain is no less than the political project to eliminate its infliction. (14)


Human Creation

In both torture and war, it  is the structure of unmaking at work, delivered through language-shattering pain; corresponding to this are the structures of creation – ‘making up’ and ‘making real’ mentally and verbally. (20-1) It is this essential mystery of pain that compels certain creative processes; the ‘as if’ of pain “lead[s] out into the array of counterfactual revisions entailed in making.” (22) Thus what is at stake is nothing less than the entirety of imagination, making and unmaking. (23)

In effect, Scarry’s argument is that making and unmaking are homologous at a technical level; but what we see, paradigmatically with torture, is the alienation of this power in which the creative process is usurped by other actors and interests.


1. The Structure of Torture

Torture is the means by which the pain (of another) is converted into power; the elaborate truth-making ritual involved is essentially a ‘grotesque, compensatory drama’ for this conversion. Torture thus intensifies pain, objectifies it, then denies it, and calls the result power. (28)


The Language of Interrogation

Interrogation is not actually a motive for torture, but a performance of it. As an interrogation, torture often fails. In its process, the torturer forgets the pain of the tortured, the tortured the question of the torturer; there is a disjuncture. Answering actually proves the power of pain by proving guilt. (28-9) This conversion is actually aided by our view of confession as ‘betrayal’ (of the cause, etc); pain is downplayed in favour of capitulation as the explanatory factor. (30)

Pain enacts a partial ‘death’, the momentary destruction of consciousness. (31) This is the sense in which the elderly or the condemned experience their ever-contracting world. Thus in Sartre’s ‘The Wall’, the world becomes weightless, objects lose their fidelity, with the protagonist’s growing knowledge of impending death. “As in dying and death, so in serious pain the claims of the body utterly nullify the claims of the world.” (33)

In the ritual of torture, the question absolves the torturer and the confession damns the victim. Thus the language of torture inverts the physical reality of inflicting pain. (35) More than that, the torturer’s techniques and questions deprive the tortured of a world. The body in pain is entirely objectified and instrumentalised for the torturer both in the means of torture and its product. (36-7)


The Objects of Unmaking

The torturer’s actions, words and weapons are all tools then of unmaking (then remaking). Normally, the ‘room’ is a basic extension of the body and an instance of civilisation; this room in torture becomes the mode by which all rooms are destroyed and their purposes subverted. (39-40) Legal and medical elements enter this closed space as stark instruments of power. Even the naming of ‘torture’ is to give it a form that its reality of pain does not, and thus cannot correspond to. (42-3) So in three concentric rings of shelter, medicine/law (social) and technology/culture, the torturer imposes his world upon the body. (45)


Body into Voice

Finally, the prisoner is co-opted into this unmaking. In pain and in interrogation, the body and voice of torturer and victim are at a colossal distance; the former is all body, no voice, and vice versa. Pain ‘betrays’ the victim here and delivers his body to the voice of the torturer. (45-6) Consider torture techniques that deprive, over-induce, etc. bodily habits and needs and even screams, turning those upon the body. (47-9) “The goal of the torturer is to make [the body] emphatically and crushingly present by destroying it, and to make [the voice] absent“. (49)


The Structure of Torture

First, the ‘infliction of pain’; second, ‘the objectification of the subjective attributes of pain’; third, ‘the translation of the objectified attributes of pain into the insignia of power’. (51) Scarry maps out the attributes of pain:

  • Pain is thus made both bodily and averse to the body, subjective suffering and suffering’s objectification.
  • A publicly rendered extra-privacy. (52-3)
  • It destroys language. Scarry relates this to the social frowning on speaking of pain, manifest not only in the staunch martyr but, say, masculine ideas of ‘taking it on the chin’.
  • Related to the death of language is the (temporary) obliteration of consciousness. (54)
  • Pain inaugurates a totality; torture is a systematic destruction of language and consciousness. (54-5)
  • Primordial, incommensurable pain remains; it is now objectified then denied, severed from the actual experience. (56)

Torture is civilisation’s way of ‘overcoming’ the body through pain. (57) In this sense, the stated justifications for torture are not just lies but real motives within the logic of turning pain into power, a productive work. (58) This logic works at a formal/structural level to divert Levinasian faciality, to literally redirect our gaze away from blood and flesh. (59)


The image of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi under torture at Abu Ghraib, leaked in 2004.  


2. The Structure of War

War is another process of making and unmaking through bodies, now on a larger scale. Here we find the same techniques of severing and substantiating pain, whereby the fact of death and the dead provides the power to render war’s outcomes into binding fact. (61-2)


War is Injuring

This banal fact is often obscured for the sake of other motives. (64) Scarry argues that war’s injury on individual persons is often omitted, or described selectively, in our discourse of warfare. Ironically, we ‘disarm’ men but destroy tanks; the brute fact of bodily pain and death is muted and suppressed in favour of destroyed infrastructure, conquered territory and downed planes. (65-7) Similarly, the human is abstracted to a single creature (“the regiment”) that bears damage, rather than individual injuries. The language of injury is actually made into metaphors. (70-1)

Evaluation of war finds injury to be a by-product; yet any victory is surely only achieved through injury, and Scarry argues that this injury is in reality the primary objective. (72-4) The language of injury as ‘cost’ continually defers this reality: war is the cost of freedom, battle is the cost of war, etc. So again injury is folded into the benign, like ‘strategy’. Yet strategy represents the willingness to injure, or at least to induce anticipatory injury. (76-9)


War is a Contest

War is a contest, but unlike the playfulness of games, war is ‘work’ – immersed, necessary, unrelenting; a contest of out-injuring. (82-4) It inaugurates a mutually accepted, ‘formal duality’ to decide an outcome. (87) Most importantly, injury makes war’s results ‘believed in’. (89)

Yet surely, if all that distinguished war from other contests was injury, we would have found a substitute long ago. So what makes war distinct, if at all? (91) The scale of war means a clear outcome requires a ‘perceptual reversal’ in some fundamental manner. Only injury provides a sufficiently authoritative substance for this imagined reversal. (92-3) Bluntly put, so many bodies have died that war’s results achieve a perceived concreteness; so many bodies must die again to overturn such status quo. Injury need not be relevant to the reversal/outcome at all, except that it is used to coerce the admission. (95)


War as Unmaking

The body, from birth, is very quickly inscribed and trained into a national and political identification; war further mobilises this bodily commitment. ‘I am now willing to kill for my country, and to be killed doing it.’ (112) Yet when bodies accumulate the marks of war, the signs of victory and defeat – injury – are identical. My death does not automatically ‘speak’ a truth, an identity. (114-5) Injury and death are nonreferential, empty signifiers (123); Injuries memorialise war and its conclusions, but far from absolute, the sign of injury can be mobilised in many directions. (117) It is only through an objectification and putting into language that injury as empty signifier can be specified into meaning. (119)

Throughout, what makes bodily pain essential to war is that this injury gives war a power to ‘confer’ reality. (125) We are willing, therefore, to go to war when we feel the need for substantiation by injury of our own commitment to political identity. (131) War thus makes and unmakes nations as constructs. (132)

All war language is similarly unanchored; strategy, codes, camouflage, it is deceit. The coupling of truth (injury) and falsehood (lies) thus founds military theory. (133-4) War is thus a process of reconstituting language (culture) by putting it through a stress-test of injury, that is, an unmaking. (137)



War is generally defended precisely for its remaking power. (140) We require war to overthrow the tyrant; to correct grievious international wrongs; to reform society. So again it is the creative power of bodies and pain that is at stake. Where war and torture differ is the fiction they conjure. In war, both sides agree to the contest over reality; in torture, the act of imagination itself is deconstructed one-way. (143-5) And the important dynamic they share is a certain alienation (though she does not use the word): in torture and war, the body that is used to substantiate an imagination is not the owner of that imagination. (148)


3. Pain and Imagining

From this relationship of imagination and pain, we can map out the structure of creation. Pain lacks an object; imagination, as correlate, is purely objectified. (161-2) It is in this continuum we might place various sensory and imagined phenomena/actions. (165) Imagination over-objectifies, while pain is a deprivation of object. The imagined object becomes the judge of unobjectifiable pain, completing the circle. (166-8)

This continuum can be mapped onto work; work is good and creative when the worker retains ownership of his product, slavery and suffering if not. Work thus brings into the world an imagined object at the cost of pain. (170-1) Here, ‘tool’ occupies the position of the mediating objectifier ‘weapon’ had in torture and war. Tool is defined by its uses; on sentients, it is pain, on nonsentients, creation. (172-3) Thus tool sits at the liminal point of intention and effect. (176)


4. The Structure of Belief

The Old Testament is a history of and treatise on artifice like no other. It is the story of objects that, through their bodily nature, reveal the structure of making. (181) The weapon separates and connects the perfect God and the already wounded Man. Wounding enacts and reflects the dying of faith and its remaking; Man’s pain is read and given over to God, the imagined referent. (183)


Birth and Wounding

In lists of descendants or detailed stories (Abraham/Sarah), there is a rhythm of singular and multiple births. (187) The multiplicity of bodily states is reduced to belief and its absence, the only available terms of signification. (188) The well, the altar: specific objects are made into symbols of body and birth, projecting the internal aspects of the body in its moment of consecrating contact with God. (189)

The counterpart to bodily birth is the order of God, which finds its fulfilment in the body that procreates. (192-3) Instruction and re-enactment are two key forms this relation takes. (196) “The place of man is in the body, the place of God is in the voice” (192) – a constant to and fro that constitutes the creative impetus of the Old Testament.

But this human/body – god/voice relationship is not always benign (that is, ‘benefiting’ the people). Persons themselves hardly have a voice other than inchoate murmers; God is their voice. Wounding of specific individuals occurs not only as punishment but as proof of God. Belief is less of a choice in OT than a transformation effected onto humans. (201-2) 10 Commandments articulate this divide; God may have no body, and we must obey (embody) God. (205-6)


Job, 1880 - Leon Bonnat

Leon Bonnat, Job, 1880.


This structure changes notably with the New Testament. Where OT confirmed the separation most strongly in ‘see God and die’, NT places witnessing as a central form of believing, and replaces scenes of wounding with healing. (210-2) The weapon’s mediating role is replaced by Jesus; man-weapon-God, a linear relation of objectification, is changed so that God is on the side of man relative to weapon.

Here, Jesus is not really a substitute victim for humanity, but a being who unites pain and imagination. (214-5) This allows God/Christ to be directly described in bodily terms. Jesus’ story recreates OT’s Pentateuch but “from the point of view of sentience”, not God. (216-7) So we see a transformation in the body/voice relation that does not destroy the duality, but nevertheless inaugurates a certain materiality, the invitation to humanity to make for itself. (219-220)


The Body of God

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, then, the work of making is central to existence; giving God a body is the common structural feature of all making. God lost his absolute etherealness with the first idols, which forced him to describe himself in contrast to them. (222-3) Remarkably, God differentiates himself most of all by his sentience. (230) Here begins the process of God almost making himself a body. (233) On the other hand, there are God-made/ordained artifacts, like the tabernacle, and of course language and humanity. (234-5) Thus God is at least partly implicated in the body, an irreversible process of spillover. It is in this way signs come into the world (238).

Thus a typology of materialisation. First, man-made ‘graven images’ that seek to make God, and God-made ‘passover images’ that make ‘freestanding’ artifacts that stand in for humanity, no longer requiring people to make the sacrifice of pain to substantiate God. Jesus is the extreme of the latter; this leads to a greater emphasis, perhaps, on ‘free’ acts of making. (241-2) The ox idol is dead, it cannot speak, it cannot act; yet Jesus can even feel pain and be wounded.



Entirely consistent with this, Scarry says, is Marx’s theory of production, which ultimately rests on a conception of ‘material projection’. “The economic system of production is for [Marx] a vast body[,] any part of which has its physical equivalent.” (244) The body remains, but the technique of artifice reproduces in scale; the commodity comes to stand in for labour and for the user’s body, a cell-unit of analysis. (244-7) Land and tool are made extensions of the working body. (248)

In converse to projection, artifice is the means by which we remake humanity; e.g. the relation between internal character of the hand and the various features of painting. (251-3) It is only through this dynamic that we can share our bodies and modify them. (256)

Marx’s problem is that 19th century society failed to detect this conflation of wounding and creating, pain and imagination. For Marx, capitalism is to be criticised for forgetting its original obligation of ‘referentiality’, forgetting the role of man as unified creator. (257-8) Scalar expansion of capital sees man, object, commodity, money and capital as successive forms of projection, until man is no longer referential to the object he creates. Thus the worker is trapped in his body, the capitalist in the projections of capital. (259-260)

The duality of suffering and alienation is reflected in the duality of style in Capital vol. I as a text; its ‘analytic texture’ freely oscillates between a ‘sensuous’ discussion of macro-capital and an abstracted one of human embodiment, juxtaposing what is missing in each. (263-4, 270) Over vols. II & III the analysis becomes ever larger and dematerialised, again reflecting historical changes. (272) So we see the resemblance to OT’s wounding in Marx’s problem; the artefact and imagination is sustained by intensifying bodily pain. (276)


5. The Interior Structure of the Artifact

Pain and imagination are opposites; they are linked by the projecting artefact. Artifacts as mediators have two sides and twin possibilities – making up and making real. Either step can be corrupted and alienated. (280) In each case we have a perceptual problem – that making / unmaking is obscured. This is a product of power within that structure, and we must learn to see in order to begin the path to political justice. (279) The book ends with two partial discussions of the internal structure of the artefact.


Making Sentient

The book had thus far offered 3 ways in describing projection: two rather Heideggerian modes of technology as extension (of bodily forms, and/or functions), and then an ‘almost’ liveness of objects that recalls animism. (282-6) Marx himself struggles with the temptation of making commodity and capital ‘alive’, even as he criticises this tendency. (286) Now, creation in unified form is natural, essential, heroic; we make the natural world into objects that are ‘alive’ and thus ‘rescue’ us from danger. The very structure of being of an object is made into a structure of a perception; that way a table as it materially exists ordains the way it ‘lives’. This is the nature of ‘intention’ for these object – a machinic structure. (288-290)

In fact, this has certain advantages to actual human expression. It endures; it is independent of human fidelity. When we create a chair, it is “therefore the materialised structure of a perception; it is sentient awareness materialised into a freestanding design.” (290) Our habit of treating objects as ‘live’ in this sense speaks as to its usefulness. (291-3) All this is important because the interior structure of the artefact reveals the structure of our imagination, and because we fool ourselves about our independence from objects in order to avoid facing the consequences of our relations and desires. (306)


Reciprocation / Projection

Scarry describes 3 classes of objects: bodily pain converted to power (weapon), sentience upon nonsentience (tool), a singular, recursive relation of projection and reciprocation from and to man (artifact). (310)

Sentience is projected onto object, then reciprocated in amplified form; indeed, if it were not amplified, the object would not be cost-effective. Thus the object is a juncture, not a source of force itself. (307) In reciprocation, ‘making up’ is masked and ‘making real’ emphasised to ensure efficacy. This dynamic is much easier to see in times of crisis and repair, where the process of creation must be reformed. (311-2) Reciprocation ensures its cost-effectiveness not only by amplified performance, but group benefits and exchange capacity. (316-7)


World of Objects

Thus there is an inherent surfeit, an excess, not only in each object but the general proliferation of objects, which can thus include inefficient or luxury objects. (319-320) This turns us to the structure of objects writ large; e.g. objects give birth to more objects, more processes, which might serve ancillary functions or different degrees of sublimation (of the objectification / projection). (321)

This ‘self-amplifying arc of action’ reflects in some form the interior of human action; imagination too is excessive, self-revising, and erases its own mark of projection. (323-5)