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Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry | The Nation

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Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry

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Even so, placing torture first, as Scarry did on the basis of her Amnesty documents, proved fateful. In the best meditation on Scarry’s critical universe, fellow literary critic Geoffrey Galt Harpham observed that its “thickly affective atmosphere of intelligent compassion, of tender regard for the vulnerable human being,” came linked, as if in reaction to the grisly particularities of torture, to “a committed moral optimism that was jarringly discordant with the witty and sophisticated disenchantment prevalent then and now.” Yet 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. Indeed, how Scarry moved from an intense concern with torture to an aestheticism of creation seems as illustrative of a certain popular moral stance today as it is dubious. Beyond Amnesty’s fact-finding, which she clearly prizes, Scarry speaks often of the need for political leaders to obey the law and for democracies to govern themselves. But when it comes to what the law should say, there are only vague statements. She focuses attention on a specific evil but leaves the good abstract.

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About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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Prescriptions are offered in On Beauty and Being Just (1999), a fascinating essay in which Scarry proposes an ideal of symmetry in social relations that an attention to beauty might offer. But perhaps because of her focus on bodies being tortured, bodies in pain—to which she can offer only the vague antidote of creation—the role of political institutions and the choice among them is left out. Though Judith Shklar organized her political theory around cruelty too, shortly before her death she indicted Scarry, in a withering review in the London Review of Books, for treating torture as a matter of “isolating individuals [who] do something in a vacuum.” Scarry has never seen torture (or creativity, for that matter) as a concrete social and political event linked to specific institutions.

In her scattered remarks on justice, Scarry interprets the politics of the social contract as a collective commitment not to injure. Though not fully wrong, this definition adheres to the most basic and limited purposes of collective political enterprise. In her polarized universe, in which ugly violence meets beautiful flowers, Scarry is Thomas Hobbes plus John Ruskin. The conjunction of pain and beauty leaves open all that humanity has learned, at least since Hobbes’s pessimistic reaction to the English Civil War, about the possibility of solidarity in and through political fellowship, and the need to experiment with institutions to achieve it. To her credit, Scarry concluded The Body in Pain hopeful that it would “enable us to recognize more quickly what is happening not only in large-scale emergencies like torture or war but in other long-standing dilemmas, such as the inequity of material distribution.” But it is not surprising that her book has done so much better in attempting to focus our taboos on one sort of thing rather than another. In Harpham’s estimation, Scarry, while utterly idiosyncratic, is also “a representative figure of the life of the mind in a time of trauma.”

Politics involves comparing always dirty regimes and seeking better alternatives, and the absence of this sphere is what is most questionable about Scarry’s universe. That we focus on torture so single-mindedly—as if the institutional contexts for it and the institutional sequels to it were not more important—is due to historical experiences that, because they are the conditions of Scarry’s criticism, may escape her gaze.

* * *

One influential public figure who found The Body in Pain compelling was the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who died six years ago. As the repeated references to Scarry’s “remarkable” inquiry in his landmark book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) show, Rorty interpreted her argument to mean that torture is bad not so much because of the bodily pain it causes its victims, but instead because of the irremediable humiliation it forces on them. “The worst thing you can do to somebody,” Rorty affirmed, “is not to make her scream in agony but to use that agony in such a way that even when the agony is over, she cannot reconstitute herself.” Torture, in this view, is the summum malum.

In his own work, Rorty was primarily interested in figuring out what it would mean to leave the philosophical tradition behind, scrapping its search for some deep foundation that grounds all knowledge and ethics. But he was more concerned with the contingencies of private life as he struggled to preserve familiar liberal beliefs in personal freedom in the context of a moral theory lacking absolutes. He praised literary artists, together with the earlier philosophers he conscripted for his cause (from American pragmatists like John Dewey to European existentialists like Friedrich Nietzsche), to argue that there is no longer anything to govern our private self-creation—especially not a Platonic reality or higher authority to which creativity must conform. The goal of life for citizens of liberal democracies is to be personally interesting. In The Body in Pain, Scarry had not radically privatized the role of creativity; but Rorty did, relying on her account of torture to define the purpose of the public realm for his type of stay-at-home poet.

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