|Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee, Summer 2015|
The enclosed is a draft of a paper I have the pleasure to present at the 30th Retrospective Conference of Elaine Scarry's landmark work, The Body in Pain at University of Brighton. Following out some of the themes of my original critique of what I argue is Scarry's implicit dualism, (On the (im) materiality of Violence), I argue here that her analysis of the body in pain is distorted by the absence of any really probing account of the role that institutionalized violence plays in the formation of identity. Rooted as far back, at least, in Aristotle's re-inscription of mind/body dualism in de Anima and the social order it legitimates, Scarry's "body in pain" reiterates that dualism, and in so doing reinforces the very "spectacles of power" she'd no doubt see undermined. Perhaps more importantly, however, Scarry misses an opportunity to articulate the ways in which subjugation--even in its most brutal forms--can inform identity, and thus give voice to resistance.
I sincerely appreciate any and all comments, suggestions, criticism my fellows might have, and I am very grateful to the organizers of the conference at University of Brighton for giving me the opportunity to present my work.
Wendy Lynne Lee
Mind/Body Dualism as the Algorithm of “Civilization”
In “On the (Im)Materiality of Violence” I argued that the dualistic impulse Bibi Bakare-Yusef identifies in Elaine Scarry’s analysis of the experience of pain is rooted in Western philosophy reaching back at least to Aristotle’s hylomorphic conception of the subject, and that an understanding of the role that impulse plays in Scarry’s view sheds valuable light on the strengths and limitations of The Body in Pain. For Aristotle, the hylomorphic “soul” (psyche) acts as the principle of animation of a living thing—not as a separable entity (de Anima, hereafter DA 414a 26-8). “Hylomorphism… comprehends ‘mind’ not as something external to ‘body,’ but as a defining ontological and existential algorithm which differentiates species according to the unique characteristics of their form (DA 412a 19-21, 412a 27-8, 412b 5-6, 412b 15-17). The trouble with hylomorphism, at least for Aristotle, is that it fails to differentiate within species, or at least within the human species, in the manner necessary to legitimating a hierarchical social order anchored in subjugation according to race, sex, and class. It’s thus not surprising that he retreats to dualism in order to posit intellect as the un-enmattered potential for the activity of knowing (a pure becoming of the object known) available exclusively to those whose leisure of mind is guaranteed through the laboring bodies of others. While scholars debate the best way to interpret these passages, it seems clear that for Aristotle the subject of the intellective “soul” is essentially dualist, reasserting the authority not only of mind over body, but of all those identified with mind over those identified with body in Aristotle’s psychic hierarchy.
Aiming to reserve knowing to a knower “unpolluted” by embodied experience (DA 429a 10-13, 429a 21-8), Aristotle’s turn to dualism naturalizes a social order within which race, sex and class determine social status for the hierarchies of household and state, themselves analogues of his psychic hierarchy—and the contortions it undertakes to exempt its privileged knower. That aristocratic Greek men occupy the Zenith of this hierarchy isn’t surprising; in the end, the ethnocentric and masculinist social order of the Politics triumphs over de Anima’s fleeting intimation of epistemic, moral, and civic equality. Or perhaps closer to the truth: the need for slaves (war booty or wives) to perform the labor that liberates the patrician class to its philosophical pursuits wins out over the integrity of such pursuits themselves. In any case, what in Aristotle is legitimation of a regime rooted in race, sex, and class is for many to follow, Scarry included, a missed opportunity to theorize a “subject” in whose identity these factors play a formative role. This is not to say that Scarry fails to recognize that institutions play key roles as causal agents in the somatic, perceptual, cognitive, affective, and epistemic experience of slaves, torture victims, rape victims, prisoners of war, refugees, and others. She clearly recognizes this, if somewhat obliquely, when she observes of slaves that
The slave still authorizes the movement of his body as he each day wakes up, walks to the pyramid, puts his hand to the stone, and begins to lift and carry. Perhaps he believes that the very beautiful artifact to which he contributes his embodied labor implicitly includes him in its civilizing embrace, that he is its partial author. Perhaps instead he perceives himself as excluded, but chooses… to devote his lifetime to this aimless project rather than to the shorter life’s project of rebellion. (The Body in Pain (TBIP), p. 156-7).
Although Scarry situates her example in the Egypt of the pyramid builders, it feels as if it could have hailed from anytime, anywhere. Indeed, she reinforces this sentiment when she later remarks that “[s]lavery, whether occurring in ancient Egypt or in the nineteenth century American South, was an arrangement in which physical work was demanded of a population whose membership were themselves cut off from the ownership, control, and enjoyment of the products they produced” (TBIP, p. 170).
The trouble with this approach, however, is that while it’s true that varieties of subjugation like slavery share similar practical characteristics across time, these facts cannot speak to the specific ways in which the institutions responsible for enslavement affect and actuate the identity of the slave. Speculation about what slaves might believe, in what they might be invested, what they fear isn’t the same thing as investigating how pyramid building as an artifact of ancient Egyptian civilization, its cultural practices, its structures of government, agriculture, arts, its military conquests, its language, and its specific forms of institutionalized violence—the ways in which “the slave” instantiates “the laboring body”—inform not merely the slave’s beliefs, but the experience of the stone under his hands, the feel of his “lift and carry,” the attenuation of his hope by the end of the day. Recognizing in ancient Egypt, nineteenth century America, or 21st century Malaysia causal agents responsible for the production of “the body in pain” qua slavery isn’t the same thing as probing the specific conditions under which subjugation imbues identity—how the “civilization” of such regimes is made manifest in the very ways in which the subjugated experience and conceive themselves, their lives, and their labor. The ways in which pyramid building might be inscribed on the Egyptian’s body may resemble the scars of the slaver’s whip on the back of the nineteenth century African’s or the bruises disfiguring the face of a 21st century sex-trafficked child. But recognizing family resemblances among enslaved “bodies in pain” is no substitute for interrogating how “civilization” comes to be inscribed on the identities of those whose laboring bodies form the brick and mortar of its achievements.
The Vocabulary of Torture
In a fashion similar to her discussion of slavery, Scarry argues that the language used in acts of torture “goes on to deny, to falsify, the reality of the very thing it has objectified by a perceptual shift which converts the vision of suffering into the wholly illusory but, to the torturers and the regime they represent, wholly convincing spectacle of power,” (TBIP, p. 27). Scarry recognizes, in other words, that as a “spectacle of power,” violence functions to legitimate and enforce the hegemonic institutions that deploy it, and that the words used to “convert the vision of suffering” into that spectacle are crucial not only as manipulative or misleading—but as weapons every bit as important to the interrogator’s “achievement” as are the physical tools of his trade. She writes that it’s “precisely because that power is so highly contestable, the regime so unstable, that torture is being used” (TBIP, p. 27). And this is equally true of the language through which confession, information, or capitulation is “achieved.” Not only, however, does language facilitate and augment acts of torture, torture also demolishes the use of language for its victims. When Scarry argues, for example, that “[a] fifth dimension of physical pain is its ability to destroy language,” and that among the achievements of torture is the damage it does to the capacity for speech, (TBIP, p. 54), she implicitly acknowledges the extent to which the formulation of words is embodied in the tongue, mouth, and vocal chords, and that this ability is vital to the identity and integrity of the tortured.
It’s thus that much more disappointing that Scarry’s insight about the relationship between language and torture is obscured by her omission of that relationship’s role in the larger context of institutionalized violence. As Ludwig Wittgenstein might put it, the meaning of a word is not merely its use, but its usefulness, in this case, for maintaining the spectacle of power personified in the intimate relationship between the torturer and the tortured. It’s the destruction of the latter’s capacity to give voice to pain that the interrogator can count on, indeed by design, to be among his first achievements. This isn’t because the subjugated is deprived of words per se; it’s because the right to speak is itself preemptively precluded for any utterance other than that elicited by the torturer. What such preemption shows is that the interrogator isn’t just a worker hired to do a grisly job; indeed, he’s situated epistemically, kinesthetically, psychologically, socially in that larger context as a candidate for a position elevated and concealed by its title: “interrogator.” He’ll have a suitable disposition for achieving the presumptive goals of torture, and he’ll likely be a male beneficiary of the regime. Yet without an analysis of that larger context, including how language comes to be appropriated by the regime that empowers the torturer, the picture that ultimately emerges is bound to omit precisely the factors that make the institution of torture possible.
Scarry’s missed opportunity is thus threefold:
· First, even an insightful description of the effects of the uses of violence—such as silencing the subject—isn’t the same thing as an analysis of the institutions that incorporate violence as a naturalized part of their claims to power. Power cannot come to be the “spectacle” Scarry references save for the larger context within which it can create lexicon of its enforcement.
· Second, omitting to examine how such “spectacles” come to be institutionalized itself exemplifies the dualist impulse Bakare-Yusef identifies in Scarry’s view of suffering, particularly with respect to how that impulse seduces us to believe that we can turn to “the body in pain” without undertaking an investigation into subjugated subject’s identity as enslaved, tortured, raped, imprisoned, evicted, etc.
· Third, however otherwise insightful Scarry’s discussion of language and torture, references to the “body in pain” as if these could be made sense of in abeyance of that dualist impulse reinforces the role language plays in subjugation .
Abstracting “the body in pain” as an object dissociable from the specific contexts within which its subjects are likely already positioned as vulnerable to subjugation reiterates a psychic hierarchy within which even language functions to insure the segregation of laboring bodies and the regimes who subjugate them. Hence, giving examples from Greece, Chile, the Philippines, or South Vietnam—but treating “the body in pain” as if its experiential characteristics are largely the same for each—functions not only to elide the many ways in which violence is utilized to specific objectives, it effectively erases it as institutionalized, yielding a distorted picture of a subject embodied in and by that violence, yet without moorings in the very institutions responsible for it.
Other as points of reference or departure, the bodies of Scarry’s ruminations seem to float free of any facts that might get in the way of turning to the pain. Yet it’s precisely the historical, cultural, political, and religious facts of these institutions that inform the processes through which any subject comprehends and affects herself as a subject, that is, as a subject of experience. We call such processes “subjectification.” The subject whose identity is affected as an instrument for maintaining institutions that rely on the threat of violence, we call the subjugated subject. Such subjects experience pain not only in the body, but in expectation itself formed within regimes whose oppressive “spectacle” pervades every aspect of experience, emotion and perception; institutionalized violence is that violence which saturates every facet of a subject’s epistemic situation—not only that which we identify as suffering. Put differently: did we take Aristotle’s hylomorphic account of living things seriously all the way up the psychic hierarchy, we’d see that human identity consists at least in crucial part in our relationship to and within the institutions that affect or actuate us as subjects; so too as subjugated subjects. The key difference is that in a society not only stratified on the basis of race, sex, and class, but segregated into privileged minds and laboring bodies, many institutions (if not all) must sustain themselves via whatever forms of repression are necessary to preserve that status quo. That language is such a regime’s primary weapon and the first casualty for the body in pain is hardly surprising, though it seems symptomatic of Scarry’s dualist impulse to align words with a still composed subject and inarticulate wailing with the body in pain, as if minds speak but bodies wail.
The upshot is this: Mind/body dualism functions as an institutionalized algorithm to naturalize authority, affect the subjugation of bodies for the performance of labor, and justify whatever means are necessary to maintain those institutions for their beneficiaries. It facilitates the elision of the destructive effects of that subjugation, and it contains admission of its bodily and psychic damage to specific instances of violence, effacing the roles that race, sex, and class play in the larger context. Mind/body dualism functions to institutionalize violence as both immediate spectacle and enduring imprimatur of regimes that reserve even language—the crucible of the knower—to themselves. To ignore these dynamics is to effectively re-inscribe them by omission. To invoke the body in pain as if it can be dissociated from the histories within which violence has become as ordinary as a language that swaps words like “Muslim” for “Nigger,” “Democrat” for “Commie,” or “migrant” for “alien” is to effectively muzzle its subject long before pain becomes the warp and woof of her/his reality. Such bodies can generate empathy—but they cannot foment resistance. And that is what the regime counts on.
The Function of Erasure, Elision, and Effacement
Scarry recognizes that erasure of the effects of institutionalized violence is crucial to legitimating a social order whose beneficiaries, like its casualties, are defined by race, sex, and class. Of torture, she argues for example that “[t]he most radical act of distancing resides in [the torturer’s] disclaiming of the other’s hurt. Within the strategies of power based on denial there is… a hierarchy of achievement, successive intensifications based on increasing distance from… the body” (TBIP, p. 57). By attributing to the torturer as achievement the capacity to distance himself from the body of the tortured, however, Scarry not only re-inscribes mind/body dualism to the purposes of the torturer, she describes—though unwittingly—one of the ways in which the subject becomes the subjugated through the torturer’s “achievement.” The subject is affected as subjugated not only in the torture, but through the torturer’s disclaimer with respect to the subject’s pain (as ancillary, for example, to acquiring information). The subject is affected as subjugated, in other words, through the torturer’s social position as empowered to inflict pain under specific (and further empowering) conditions.
While the torturer, for example, is likely paid for his services, the tortured subjugate can never in fact be recognized, much less humanized, as a subject. The achievement of the torturer is to distance himself from the body in pain; the subject never enters this equation; he/she is simply a conduit for information (or the fiction of information), a public iteration of repression understood by that public as such. Put differently: the infliction of pain legitimated through the institutionalization of violence can be applied only to bodies, and only to particular bodies, and in that context torture forms a specific commission or service. The torturer’s job is to actuate “the body in pain” and what this requires is ignoring the fact that the wails emitted from the mouths of the tortured belong to a subject, and thus constitute atrocity. Ignoring inconvenient facts is part of the design not only of torture, but of terrorism, rape, and war, as it must be if their commissioned agents are to ascend in the hierarchy of achievement. That design comes to form what is expected not only by the subjugated, but by the body politic. The social hierarchy is itself, after all, dependent upon eliding the subject as subjugated in that “subjugated” implies repressive action undertaken to enforce otherwise unjust convention, a human-made artifice. But the goal of violence institutionalized is to naturalize subjugation within the very processes through which subjects comprehend themselves as, say, black, or female, laborer, or refugee, terrorist or insurgent. From this perspective, the torturer (like the terrorist, the sweatshop capitalist, the slaver, the rapist, the war-monger) stands merely as a metaphor for an achievement of much greater magnitude, namely, insuring that the subjugated conceive themselves not as subjugated but simply as victims of particular events, horrific to be sure, but not necessarily an indictment of civilization.
A perverse metaphor for Aristotle’s psychic hierarchy imposed on the body politic, acts of torture, terrorism, rape, slavery, and war signify “civilization” insofar, as Scarry puts it, “[e]very act of civilization is an act of transcending the body in a way consonant with the body’s needs” (TBIP, p. 57). No doubt, Scarry would find my formulation of “civilization” anathema to any transcendence “consonant with the body’s needs.” But insofar as the laboring body is a projection of the dualist algorithm, its only needs are to sub-serve civilization’s transcendence—and these can surely be met more effectively through torture, terrorism, rape, slavery, and war than through art, music, philosophy and literature. Transcendence, in other words, is itself a euphemism. It serves to elide the objectives of institutionalized violence; it tamps down the possibility of revolt against an unstable regime by offering cursory acknowledgement to the body as a locus of need. But it nonetheless accords to acts of violence a legitimate and natural vehicle for transcending, or better: walking over, the bodies of labor that form the stepping- stones of that hierarchy.
“Torture,” writes Scarry, “is a condensation of the act of “overcoming” the body present in benign forms of power” (TBIP. p. 57). Indeed, but what Scarry fails to see is that the algorithm that informs her construal of bodies, subjects, and power precludes the benign in favor of a regime whose stratification of race, sex, and class into laboring bodies has less benevolent objectives. She turns to the body in pain, but away from the “civilization” through which the subject is affected, a social order whose survival depends upon the elision of subjugation as subjugation. “Elision” elicits two meanings in this context: first, and most obvious, as the dissociation of the “body in pain” from the epistemic situation of the experiencing subject from the point of view of transcendence, and second as a metaphor for a subject preemptively silenced, a subjugate whose voice is elided, “suppressed, struck out, left out of consideration,” by the terror which inscribes her epistemic situation as, for example, enslaved, tortured, raped. Turning to the “body in pain,” Scarry forecloses the side of affect; she leaves out of consideration violence institutionalized as a strategy to sustain the regime, legitimating its effacement as the cause of suffering, and thereby helping to elide, in both senses, the subjugated subject.
The Algorithm of the Regime:
The “Body in Pain” and the “Reader of the Body in Pain”
Scarry is not alone in what constitutes a kind of existential myopia. As reader/listeners we too turn to the body in pain, and away from the violent dynamics responsible not merely for suffering itself, but for the subject who suffers. Perhaps we do so because, confronted with suffering our first reaction is empathy or compassion. Perhaps we value opportunities to be modest heroes. Where suffering is compounded by injustice, we’re indignant and incredulous. We respond with an all-encompassing compassion; we’re outraged by the Islamic State bombings in Paris; we demand a higher minimum wage; we condemn Malaysian sex-traffickers. Still, insofar as we attend solely to “the body in pain,” we’re as liable as any for silencing the subjugated subject—regardless how loudly we may evince our incredulity. Indeed, we may even delude ourselves into thinking that calling out the injustice of suffering counts as calling attention to the institutions responsible for it. But discharging anger is in no way the same thing as engaging in resistance, though the former all too often passes for the latter, thereby effacing even more effectively the subjugation of those whose bodies function both as laboring disposables and as opportunities for privileged others to discharge empathy.
Perhaps, however, it’s an overly cynical reading of empathy to cast it as something merely discharged. Empathy, evinced through the ministrations of others, argues the reader/listener is what helps the subjugated subject to regain her voice. The trouble is that it doesn’t; indeed, precisely the reverse may be true. Insofar as we as privileged others undertake no real risk in attending to the body in pain, insofar as our actions, even if voluble, remain well behind the safe walls of any substantive challenge to the social order, “discharge” is all that remains. Getting to be those who turn to the body in pain reminds us that we’re good, that we’re capable of empathy, and that we’re not them—either the tortured or the torturer. Theorizing the body in pain helps to reinforce our exemption from whatever amalgam of race, sex, or class that might otherwise threaten us with subjugation. In effect, we turn to the body in pain in order to turn away from the subjugated subject and the possibility that we stand on the side of the torturer’s civilization, legitimating subjugation not merely by turning away, but by reinforcing the mind/body dualism that underwrites it.
The turn itself is structured to reassure the reader/listener of The Body in Pain that it will not be interpreted as resistance to the institutions culpable for it; it’s myopia makes it safe. Its discharge of anger sans any substantive demand for change reinforces the regime’s spectacle of power by omission. However contrary to Scarry’s intention, The Body in Pain invites just such a reading when she argues that pain is unlike other states of consciousness because, unlike love of, fear of, or hatred of, “physical pain has no referentiality.’” As Bakare-Yusef puts it, its nonreferentiality,
prevents and inhibits the transformation of the felt experiences of pain, leaving it to reside in the body, where the sufferer reverts back to a prelinguistic state of incomprehensible wailing, inaudible whisper, inarticulate screeching, primal whispering, which destroys language and all that is associated with language: subjectivity, civilization, culture, meaning, and understanding (Bakare-Yusef, 1999, p. 314).
In other words, according to Scarry, pain de-subjectifies; it deconstructs the subjective integrity of the subject by undermining the safety and self-possession of her body. Pain, for Scarry, “resides in the body” like the horrific infection depicted in The Walking Dead; it compels the “sufferer” to revert to a primal state, inarticulate and screaming, and in so doing its nonreferentiality posits the reader/listener of “the body in pain” as “empathetic” precisely because we recognize and accept pain’s nonreferentiality. We’re neither required nor solicited to look further.
The trouble with this construal is that both the subject who’s reduced to inarticulate wailing and the reader who empathetically turns to her are in fact fictions supplied by the institutions in whose interest it is to create occasions for deflating the tension and anguish that foment resistance. On the side of the body in pain, that occasion consists either in resignation, dissimulation, even death, or in the promise that should any turn in its direction, it will be to the pain alone—that its nonreferentiality will be honored, that empathy will fill the vacuum where language has been abandoned. On the side of the reader/listener, it consists in getting to be the one who extends concern—so long as the rules that govern turning to the pain are strictly observed—that any further analysis of its responsible parties is strictly omitted. In other words, the relationship of the de-subjectified subject—the body in pain—and the empathetic reader are not merely contained by the institutionalized violence of “civilization,” they are an essential part of its algorithm, its legitimation and maintenance. Neither can be made sense of outside the dualistic impulse that governs turning to “the body in pain,” yet neither in fact exist or could exist outside the regime which deposits each in their respective places as “the sufferer” and “the angel of mercy.” Both are therefore subjugates.
It’s only, moreover, within the context of this perverse fiction that we can make sense of the reversion of the subject to a prelinguistic state: only that subject could be so destroyed since only that subject would be unprepared to experience that pain. If, in other words, the experience of pain has no causal reference, no origin not preemptively consigned to the merely incidental, the subject’s in no position to expect it. But this seems absurd since, however cursory is the acknowledgement of the reader/listener, it’s also because the causes are, for example, torture or slavery, that the reader turns to the body in pain at all. It will do no good to object that my critique of Scarry’s nonreferentiality downplays the experience of pain as a blocking out of all but the pain itself—that such is the phenomenal character of at least great pain. Pain is at least in part made great by being expected; yet expectation precludes nonreferentiality. Indeed, terror—expecting a future infliction of pain—forms a crucial feature of subjugation, insuring compliance not through pain itself, but through the terrorizing anticipation of suffering. We can make no sense of this anticipation save for the institutionalized violence that makes it real for the subjugated subject.
Pain cannot, therefore, be nonreferential. It can be overwhelming; it can crystallize the meaning of subjugation; it can render the subject temporarily speechless. But insofar as terrorizing expectation is an aspect of pain at least under the conditions Scarry discusses, pain always and necessarily refers—even if the subject doesn’t know it, and even if the reader is destined to ignore the object of that reference. A subject subjectified via the terror intrinsic to institutionalized violence experiences pain as no less painful, but also as no less subjectifying since its systemic effect in undermining her bodily self-possession—its capacity to affect subjugation—is itself intrinsic to her identity. The experience of pain thus signifies the subject’s status both as a laboring instantiation of “body” and, however epistemically opaque to her, as a subject capable of resistance if only to particular experiences of pain, if only to herself, and even if as an act of sheer survival.
A final, perhaps maximally concrete, way of articulating the trouble with The Body in Pain is that Scarry has the relationship between particular experiences of subjugation and the regimes responsible for them backwards. While she insists pain de-subjectifies the subject by destroying the subject’s linguistic tether to “civilization, culture and meaning,” thus reducing the capacity for resistance to inarticulate “whispers,” she casts “civilization” as largely generic, eliding the constitutive role played by violence in the institutions within which “civilization” itself consists. To attribute the silencing of the subject to the experience of subjugation miscasts the silencing and the subjugation as effects when they’re in fact essential preconditions of the social order. This isn’t just because silence is a constitutive characteristic of the subjugated subject, it’s because the infliction of pain cannot be understood as a threat to that constitution except under conditions where it’s unexpected; and it isn’t unexpected.
Torture doesn’t subjugate; it signifies subjugation. Torture doesn’t threaten to unravel civilization; it instantiates it as the terror necessary to preserve its always unstable spectacle of power. The terrorist, for example, is well-acquainted with the protocols of water-boarding; the slave comprehends whipping as a regular feature of life; the sex-trafficked child learns very quickly to associate sexuality and brutality. The meanings of words like “expectation” or “silence” are, as Wittgenstein might have it, in their uses; their acculturated meaning inseparable from the institutions within which language functions to naturalize power. Thus it cannot be the particular experience of pain that affects the silence, but rather the expectation of its recurrence; silence is not an effect of suffering, but rather its precondition. It’s not that the de-subjectified subject is reduced to pre-linguistic whispers; it’s that the regime assigns voice only to its beneficiaries. The best description of a civilization that relies on institutionalized violence might, indeed, simply be “terror.”
In his 2013 review of The Body in Pain, Samuel Moyn offers one way to conceive this form of terror. He argues that “between the nether pole of torture and the high summit of creation, a crucial piece of terrain is missing in Scarry’s thought: the place where the real politics of workaday institutions—the very ones that both cause torture and can avert it—happen,” (https://www.thenation.com/article/torture-and-taboo-elaine-scarry/). These “workaday” institutions turn out to be critical to understanding the extent to which Scarry’s argument that the experience of pain (necessarily) agitates against the processes of subjectification is undermined by her failure to appreciate the role that even the most violent and oppressive of institutions play in it. The issue here is not, however, merely that she misses the possibility of conditions under which the experience of pain contributes to subjectification, but that because these are the conditions of institutionalized violence, she misses what’s essential to subjectification in a world made and unmade by the beneficiaries of that violence, namely, the many varieties of resistance through which the subject can reclaim themselves against the relative safety of conformity to subjugation.
It’s hard to imagine an example of either the material or the psychic space where such a reclamation might occur than along the unstable interstices which characterize the relationship between the terrorism of the Islamic State, calls in the United States and elsewhere to return to methods like water-boarding to extract information from ISIS suspects, and the current flight of Syrian refugees. But in light of our subversive reading of Scarry’s “body in pain,” I think we can say this much:
· The acts of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State are not departures from civilization, but realizations of it. However much terrorism is cast as a reaction to Western values, culture or consumption; however much ISIS represents itself as religious jihadism, its carefully orchestrated brutality instantiates “civilization” as one of its most unadorned “spectacles of power” to date. The Paris bombings illustrate the “workaday” politics of an organization that could not have come into being without the ideological and material infrastructure supplied by a militarized and fully capitalized planet that depends at a minimum on war, torture, and the subjugation of laboring bodies human and nonhuman. That this regime can trace its roots to ancient efforts to justify a stratified social order based on race, sex, and class only restates the claim that “the body in pain” is best understood as a meme for the relationships upon which civilization is realized as terror, or perhaps a metaphor for the sheer intransigence of a dualist worldview instantiated not only in beheadings and bombings, but in sweat shops and factory farms, drug cartels and the Syrian, Mexican, or Aboriginal Australian flight from drought.
· Calls to bring back, say, waterboarding as a strategy to extract information from Islamic State terrorists is neither surprising nor inconsistent with “civilization.” Just as terrorism instantiates “civilization” as a challenge to the claims of the nation state to authority, so too torture legitimates the utility of violence in the “good” nation, that is, the regime that wages so-called war on terror. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, recently said that he “would bring it [torture] back,” and that “waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they’d do to us…” (http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/trump-would-bring-back-waterboarding-216133#ixzz3svMpDPMi). While there’s much to say here, what’s especially significant is that Trump has been treated to considerable applause for an argument that’s plainly retributive—not in keeping with at least our more romantic notions of “civilization.” Consider too his speculation that Syrian migration might be a Trojan Horse for Islamic jihadists. Although (or perhaps because) no reliable evidence supports such claims, what allows him to make them and rewards him for doing so with rising poll numbers, is that these are the claims we expect to hear because we identify the war on terrorism with what a civilized society is entitled if not morally required to do. What’s remarkable about Trump is not that he’d “bring back” a torture strategy outlawed by the Geneva Conventions; it’s not that the evidence is abundantly clear that torture doesn’t work. It’s that the claim passes for unremarkable in a country that advertises itself as the epitome of Western civilization. The irony, of course, is that that may well be true.
· Lastly, were we to stick to Scarry’s view of how pain desubjectifies the subject, we’d not be able to adequately or accurately understand the actions—much less the lives—of, for example, the Syrian refugees. Dehumanized in the mercenary rhetoric of privileged men like Donald Trump, forced from their homes by not merely civil war but the creeping effects of desertification, the plight of Syrian refugees—like nearly all refugees—indicts “civilization” as the abject failure of power wielded as capitalist excess, military incursion, religious unreason, and government sponsored oppression. As we’re now beginning to experience via anthropogenic climate change, violence institutionalized as multinational capitalism may foreshadow the most damning evidence to date of the consequences of “civilization.”
Should our focus remain squarely on the “bodies in pain” of the Syrian refugees, we’ll not only fail to comprehend the larger forces at work in their migration, we’ll also not be able to see how these forces that subjugate simultaneously subjectify. But they do. From the young man or woman who becomes radicalized by Islamic State recruiters to the family who waits the 22 months to be approved to move to Indiana—only to be told they can’t settle there—subjugation creates the subject of “civilization” as surely as its hierarchy of race, sex, and class creates its buildings, its machinery, its weapons, and its institutions. That such a subject is judged to be damaged can only be assessed from the point of view of some more ideal, even romanticized, notion of civilization. But while that may form the un-interrogated backdrop of Scarry’s “body in pain,” it does not describe the world that, even in Aristotle’s flirtation with justice and equality, bears little more than a family resemblance to our own. Hence we cannot judge the radicalized jihadist to be “damaged,” at least not more so than the sweatshop laborer or the sex-trafficked teenager. Each mirrors the social order of the subjugated subject upon whose bodies are inscribed quite literally the body politic in pain.
Each, however, are also potential sites of resistance. The trouble is that what “resistance” can mean in this context is more than murky since it can as readily take the form of the Jihadist’s explosive belt, the laborer’s suicide from the factory roof, or the sex-trafficked girl’s retreat into heroin. That is, insofar as institutionalized violence remains the hallmark of “civilization,” insofar as it constitutes the primary ingredient in what subjectifies us all, affecting our dispositions and dispossessing us of the capacity for epistemic dispassion, we have no obviously stable ground upon which to stake a claim for humanity, and against which we can decide to condemn the jihadist, unionize the laborer, treat the child-addict, or resettle the Syrian refugees. Crucial, nonetheless, is that insofar as we can get even to this juncture, we can be sure of one thing: we are not reducible to bodies in pain, and while the silence of conformity may form the conditions of our workaday lives, we cannot be de-subjectified short of death.
We have already said too much.