The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry

Friday, July 9, 2010 at 10:42 am by

Harvard English Professor Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain offers a riveting interpretation of the “making” and “unmaking” process as it pertains to torture. In her book, she closely studies the politics of pain in letters and testimony from torture victims, medical case histories and questionnaires, soldiers’ diaries, transcripts from personal injury trials, and literature. Although The Body in Pain was written more than 20 years ago, unfortunately it is still relevant to the current “war on terror” and the post-9/11 human rights abuses. The Body in Pain still remains a standard work on torture well respected by academics and human rights organizations alike.

Scarry highlights three major themes in her work: the inexpressibility of pain, the political consequences of pain’s inexpressibility, and the nature of human creation as it pertains to the structure of verbal and material artifacts. Although her analysis in the second half of the book, Making, which includes sections on the relationship between pain and imagery and the human creation as it exists in the bible and readings of Karl Marx, is quite insightful, it is her first half of the book, Unmaking, which directly correlates to torture in the 9/11 sphere.

In this section, Scarry argues that a torturer “unmakes” the world of the prisoner, by taking away their voice and sense of self. Consequently, the “making” process occurs when the victim finally is able to tell their story, either in a support group or in court. If a victim speaks during the interrogation process, Scarry argues that this is an extension of the torturer’s voice because now the victim is speaking the language of the regime. How then can confessions be accepted as fact? As Scarry rightly argues:

Intense pain is world destroying. In compelling confession, the torturers compel the prisoner to record and objectify the fact that intense pain is world destroying. It is for this reason that while the content of the prisoner’s answer is only sometimes important to the regime, the form of the answer, the fact of answering, is always crucial.

This argument is critical in the current “war on terror” and the justification to torture for security reasons. The current regime tortures to get an answer. It doesn’t matter whether the answer is credible or understandable. All that matters is the portrayal of power over the victim; the continued “unmaking” of the person. This is how the regime instills fear in its people and foreign dissidents. This is how concurrent administrations reserve the right to torture for information under the guise of “security.”

After reading The Body in Pain, one will realize the significance of Scarry’s words and the relevance they unfortunately still have today.

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