In the light of the recent public attention paid to the CIA’s practices of torture and deception following the US Senate Select Committee study’s partial declassification, Elaine Scarry’s 1985 masterpiece illustrates the seriousness of the state we find ourselves in.
First of all, The Body in Pain serves as a rigorous outline of what it means to be in pain – a world-destroying sensation which, in its undeniable, immanent presence, forces us to surrender our sensuous interaction with the world. Pain blinds, deafens, reduces our voices to screams and, eventually, to inaudible gasps. In other words, it presses us back into ourselves; confines us to certain limits, both architectural – we are house-bound and bed-stricken – and corporeal, restricting our capacity for social existence.
Second, and most significantly, Scarry writes in depth on the different ways in which pain is inflicted. Two systematic modes: war and torture, are explored, compared, and come to be distinguished by a number of features, of which mutual consent is deemed the most important. However ‘asymmetrical’ it may be, war bears violence on both sides. Torture, on the other hand, is a wholly unilateral exercise: the pain that it inflicts panders, above and beyond its purported necessity in the name of intelligence, to the power and status of the torturer(s). Furthermore, Scarry identifies a dramatic element to torture which is necessary for its self-aggrandising effect. Where pain may destroy worlds, torture does so in an intentionally drawn out way, prolonged with extensive symbolisms. In Scarry’s language, it not only inflicts pain but simultaneously mimes that infliction, loudly announcing its own movements as it performs them.
Alone, this analysis is crucial, but the work is perhaps even greater for the way in which, by its clear division between torture and war, it alerts us, the 21st century reader, to the way in which the line separating these two forms of violence may now be far more blurred. With the rise of the drone as a military tool – a weapon to which those facing it can pose no threat beyond the economic cost of a small remote-controlled vehicle – can we still call war merely ‘asymmetric’? While the dissemination of drone technology will likely soon provide a tragic fix to this problem – soon everyone will have access to UAVs – it remains that the method by which the drone goes about its work corresponds, disturbingly, more closely to Scarry’s definition of torture than her definition of war.
One example in particular strikes me. From her examination of the testimonies of torture victims under numerous 20th century regimes, Scarry observes that, almost without exception, every one talks of “being made to stare at the weapon with which they were about to be hurt”. Not only the duration, but also the intimacy of torture resonates with the lengthy surveillance of the drone; its ability to linger in the air above a target for days, sometimes weeks before electing to strike. The possible victim/potential threat stares at the dormant weapon and – an interesting addition – the dormant weapon stares back at its prey. Like the props and acts of the interrogation room: domestic objects and medical procedures like chairs, tables, lamps, baths, even fridges; injections, rectal insertions and dentistry, accounts from those living under the drones repeatedly recount how their very environments and behaviours – the social gatherings at which the weapon aims, and the skies (particularly blue skies) in which the weapon hovers – are rendered from sources of light, warmth, life and joy, into the sites of fear, pain and death. A perverse inversion, as Scarry points out, from hospes: root of hospitality and the hospital, to its close etymological cousin, hostis: father of hostility. Just as in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, where the instrument of torture replicates a giant sewing machine, the wars we currently wage are punishments of the order of torture, turning the domestic mechanisms of production and health into world-destroying instruments of domination and pain.