The Intimate Life of Violence

By Brad EvansDecember 4, 2017

The Intimate Life of Violence
THIS IS THE 16th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the acclaimed American writer Elaine Scarry, who is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. The author of many books, Elaine’s work has been pioneering in rethinking the relationship between violence, the body, and trauma as a political and social category.


BRAD EVANS: Your earlier book The Body in Pain was widely recognized for pushing forward our understanding of the intimate realities of violence as both a personal and political problem. Some 20 years after its initial publication, how has your understanding of human pain and suffering developed?

ELAINE SCARRY: Some studies of suffering are historically specific; others are transcultural; both kinds of studies are needed; my own approach in The Body in Pain was transcultural. The book gives a structural account of the place of pain and bodily injury in war and in torture, and in doing so draws on instances of torture and war from many different geographies and, in the case of war, many different time periods.

It would have surprised me greatly if the practice of torture or war — following the publication of The Body in Pain — changed its form in the late 20th and early 21st centuries; and as far as I can see it did not. (Had the book instead been looking at historically specific attributes of, say, World War II injuries, one might expect to see changes in these attributes.) Regimes use torture when they have lost legitimate forms of substantiation. True to that model, the United States began sanctioning torture after it suffered an unprecedented crisis of self-belief.

On 9/11, on a single morning, the population collectively witnessed the fact that the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon, let alone the rest of the country. This stunning revelation might have led to a widespread debate about our capacity for defense and the way our military is trained for overseas wars of aggression but not for protection of the United States home ground (as I argued in Who Defended The Country? and later in Rule of Law, Misrule of Men). Instead of examining our defense and changing it, we quickly rebuilt the same Pentagon and switched to a shorthand form of demonstrating our prowess, namely torturing people at Abu Ghraib and alternative dark sites. Other severe moral and legal prohibitions — such as the Army, Navy, and Air Force handbook prohibitions on misusing the white flag and Red Cross, as well as the prohibitions on assassination — were abrogated by the United States during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this same period.

The deeper the crisis of doubt and the higher the danger is that a country will rely on a grotesque mimesis of power such as torture or nuclear weapons. That’s why when I see President Trump mocked and exposed for his untruths, I feel fear. His untruths should be rigorously and continually challenged and exposed, but the liberal press seems to have concluded — and perhaps they are not wrong — that this can only be done by every day humiliating him, every day scorning him. But this may put people elsewhere in the world in danger because constant belittlement may reinforce our president’s own inclinations, acknowledged during the election campaign, to use magnified forms of compensatory power. When Nixon boasted, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead,” it is not coincidental that he was in the midst of an impeachment proceeding — that is, he was in the midst of being divested of legitimate forms of authority.

Can you elaborate more on the use of torture and its relationship between perpetrators and victims?

The phrase “compensatory drama” again calls attention to the continuity between the structural features visible in the historical events cited in The Body in Pain and the attributes of parallel events in our contemporary world. In Vietnam in the 1970s, the torture room was called “the cinema room”; in the Philippines, it was called “the production room”; in Chile, it was called “the blue-lit stage.” The cruelty at Abu Ghraib was elaborately photographed; it was meant to be viewed by the prison guards and torturers (perhaps even for their pleasure, or their sense of triumph — hence the famous “thumbs up” picture). Because the events had been photographed, Joseph Darby — a 21st-century hero — was able to turn in the pictures to military authorities, inform the world, and document the wrongdoing. But the scenes, used as screensavers on prison computers, were not photographed in order to provide legal evidence of wrongdoing, just as the hours upon hours of CIA videotaping of “enhanced interrogations” at hidden detention sites were not meant to provide legal documentation. For whose eyes were those videotapes made? Not for any third-party review. The CIA destroyed their library of films, an act that led to the Senate’s 6,000-page investigation into CIA torture.

In our own era, as in the past eras described in The Body in Pain, the torturer uses the interrogation not to get any valid information (the 2015 Senate Report on CIA Torture documents the total absence of useful information obtained through “enhanced interrogation”), but to demonstrate how large scale is his own world when juxtaposed to the tiny shreds of a world remaining to the prisoner. After waterboarding, the prisoner’s voice is so small that in the case of Abu Zubaydah, when he tried to speak CIA memos record that he had only “bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”; in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times in 15 sessions), he “expressed water when the abdomen was pressed.” Vast, in comparison, is the voice of the torturer whose questions show that he is not just the valiant representative of his country but the noble representative of the whole earth, trying to find the location of the “ticking bomb.” When two of the main CIA interrogators — psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell — wanted to cease their participation, the authorities under whom they served “kept telling me every day that a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States, and that because I had told them to stop […] it was going to be my fault.” I have written about the preposterous ticking bomb pseudo-license for torture (in an essay called “Five Errors in the Reasoning of Alan Dershowitz”) and here will only add one fact: 93 percent of the 14,900 active nuclear weapons currently in the world are in the hands of two persons, the American president and the Russian president. If we are trying to rid the world of ticking bombs we have a clear, question-free place to start.

A structural account of torture in any era reveals that interrogators seek, through the infliction of physical pain, to bring about a collapse of the contents of consciousness in the mind of the prisoner. In addition, they simultaneously enact this world-destroying power using the torture room itself. Even though an explicit instrument of torture will usually be present, the windows, doors, walls, and ceiling of the room will be enlisted into the torture in order to dramatize the world collapse. In the third quarter of the 20th century, Basques imprisoned by Spanish suffered el cerrojo, the rapid and repeated bolting and unbolting of the door; in Portugal, gibberish was read at the door; in the Colonels’ Regime in Greece, prisoners were punished for looking out the window, and were made to repeat the line: “Make way wall that I may pass.” The dark sites inhabited by 21st-century American interrogators show the same act of dismantling the basic unit of civilization. “Walling” — a form of torture in which prisoners are repeatedly bounced off a flexible wall — reappears throughout the 2015 Senate Report. So, too, does the closing-in of walls: Abu Zubaydah spent 266 hours in a large coffin; he spent 29 hours in a small box that was 21 inches high, 2.5 feet long, and 2.5 feet wide.

In our own era as in the past, the dismantling of civilization in the unmaking of the shelter is echoed in the importing of major institutions — medicine and law — into the torture room. Two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, are currently on trial for designing and overseeing the CIA interrogation experiments [a settlement was reached on August 17, 2017] . Law was similarly dismantled: John Yoo, in the White House Office of Legal Counsel, sought to exonerate torture in a memorandum arguing that the infliction of suffering on prisoners did not count as torture unless it entailed the level of pain associated with physical injury so severe it would result in organ failure or death or permanent loss of body function. Though the Justice Department later rescinded Yoo’s memorandum — and though the Yoo standard has been almost universally disavowed — it should be noted that the infliction of suffering did, in fact, meet the Yoo standard, as evidenced by the organ failure and death of three prisoners — one by hypothermia, one by heart failure, one by pulmonary embolism — each of whom was subjected to forms of pain equally suffered by many other prisoners.

Your work continually insists that any serious and meaningful critique of violence must deal with the question of trauma. But how are we to make sense of this, when we seem to be living in terrifyingly normal times?

Are we living in terrifyingly normal times? I feel we are living in a time of cognitive anarchy. In the opening years of the 21st century, we collectively failed to keep a moral compass. We tortured and then, as a nation, shrugged off the question of whether officials who authorized the torture should be prosecuted (international law says prosecution is not discretionary in the case of torture). It felt better to forgive and forget. Leave it up to the executive branch; let each new president decide. Not surprisingly, polls by the International Committee of Red Cross/Red Crescent show a decline in the percentage of people who recognize the prohibition on torture as an absolute. But torture, as Jeremy Waldron points out, is the line in the sand. The prohibition on torture is fundamental; it’s the bedrock that if removed lets the structure of law (and the framework of thinking about right and wrong) waver. If we cease to be able to speak clear sentences about torture, then our ability to speak clear sentences about many other things erodes as well and … lo and behold, 15 years later we wake up and find ourselves in the midst of blather.

Cognitive anarchy is something from which we can probably recover, but only if we become capable of thinking symmetrically, if we relearn how to imagine the way the world looks from the perspective of an opponent, and if we practice reattaching words to their true referents. For example, when we use the words “nuclear weapon,” instead of attaching the term (as we did between 2001 and 2016) exclusively to the names of countries that do not have nuclear weapons (e.g., Iraq, Iran) or to countries that have a tiny number (e.g., North Korea, which until last year had between two and 10), we could practice attaching the term to a country (United States) that actually has thousands and keeps them on alert around the clock and has them pre-assigned to cities all over the globe.

One of the real challenges we face today is holding onto the idea that the world can be changed for the better. This seems especially acute when confronting the almost daily attacks upon human dignity and selfhood. From a political and philosophical perspective, how might we better resource the arts and humanities to counter the systematic negation of life?

Because certain aspects of the world are so starkly wrong, it is easy to see how the world can be changed for the better. (If the world were wrong in some intricate or obscure way, we would be in much less trouble but it might be harder to sort out what needs to be changed.) For example, we have a gigantic nuclear architecture that is potentially planet destroying. That destruction can, on a single afternoon, be set in motion by a handful of individual human beings, whether presidents or non-state actors or hackers. Yet disassembling this nuclear architecture is comparatively easy. Scotland has shown us how to do it in a report — judged realistic by former members of our military — that shows some parts of the dismantling can be accomplished in hours (disassembling the nuclear triggers), other parts will take days, still other parts months up to several years. Compare this to the difficulty of stopping global warming: the need to halt climate change is crystal clear but how to do it is not. The northern hemisphere (that currently contains all the nuclear states) can model itself on the southern hemisphere (almost totally blanketed with Nuclear Weapons-Free Treaties). We have a template of repair right in front of our eyes. And once the international ban on nuclear weapons is confirmed in the United Nations, the nuclear states will have an assembly of other countries encouraging them in their undertaking of disarmament.

Will the humanities provide the tool that is needed to disassemble the nuclear triggers? It’s not impossible that the answer is “yes.” Over the past 70 years, the linchpin of our nuclear architecture has been the arrangement for “presidential first use of a nuclear weapon” — the presidential launch of a weapon before any other country has fired one. This November, Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center and its Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities will be the lead co-sponsors of a conference in Cambridge: “Presidential First Use: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?” The speakers include philosophers, constitutional theorists, a physicist, a mathematician, a former Secretary of Defense, a former missile launch officer, an anthropologist, a Congressman. I believe this is the first public meeting or conference on the question; and if the question spreads across the country, if it comes to be asked by a large number of people, the tool that can be dissemble the triggers — an educated citizenry — will be close at hand.

While that outcome is very uncertain, what is not uncertain is the fact the 6,000 years of philosophy and literature have been addressing, and showing the concrete path of reversing, the human impulse toward totalizing destruction. You think you can shoot a nuclear missile and destroy the earth’s forests? Read Gilgamesh, written in 2000 BCE and learn what happens when you try to kill off the giant Cedars. You want to melt the human form with nuclear weapons and napalm? Read the Iliad, written in 800 BCE and see what happens when you hope to desecrate the human form by dragging corpses around the city. These writings are not just prohibitions on violence; they are cognitive maps for how to climb out of the pit of our own cruelty. When I addressed your question about The Body in Pain, I only referred to its opening on torture documents. The book goes on to an extended account of the way the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the philosophic writing of Marx show how the impulse toward annihilation is an aping of creation. Crucially, these books, step-by-step, disentangle that lethal confusion between invention and annihilation — the confusion we are in the midst of today. My recent book, Thermonuclear Monarchy, contains an extended account of the way Thomas Hobbes translated the Iliad. His word choices show how he foregrounded, credited, and celebrated the dissent of the individual soldier. And it is the dissent of individual citizen soldiers (missile launch officers, Secretaries of Defense, citizen soldiers) that can dismantle thermonuclear monarchy.

You may think — because humanities departments have had money taken away from them and because universities are currently in a period of self-sabotage by eliminating the professoriate and replacing them with barely paid adjunct positions — that the humanities will soon cease to be of help. We can put this on the list of easy-to-discern wrongs in need of repair. But in the meantime, two observations.

While universities (and above all the humanities) appear to be greatly undervalued in the public media, there are many signs that they are instead an object of emulation and aspiration. Many tech companies are organized as “campuses.” The TED talks are modeled on (and often draw on) faculty lectures. The fascinating intellectual website Edge — that each year asks thinkers to address a specific question — is a floating university. Cities, hi-tech companies, and TV stars all often urge their “followers” to read and discuss together a particular book.

Second, the humanities have deep civilization-shaping influence in spite of — perhaps even because of — the way they appear minimal, unobtrusive, unimportant. Take one example: the revolutionary new institution of gay marriage. If there is a single pivotal day and location to be credited, it is a Massachusetts Court, presided over by Margaret Marshall, on May 17, 2004. But in the background are several decades of literature department courses on gay literature; cross-country university and city bookstores with sections dedicated to gay literature; nightly films and TV stories about same-sex partners.

When Shelley said poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” we tend to place the emphasis on the word “legislators.” And that is right: gay marriage isn’t gay marriage until it stops being an airy nothing and becomes a matter of law. But the word “unacknowledged” may be equally important. Undervalued, under-credited, dismissed, the humanities quietly do their work and only now and then stand up to take a bow.

Even when the humanities do not appear to be in the midst of repairing civic wrongs, they are often surreptitiously carrying out that work. The objects residing at the center of inquiry — the visual arts, the verbal arts, great philosophic treatises — are objects of beauty. Like objects of beauty in the natural world, they increase our capacity for fairness by decentering us, enabling us to step outside ourselves and stand on the margins. They remind us what symmetry looks like at a time when our weapons, our money, and the size of the cars we drive are vastly out of proportion to the rest of the world. They affirm the life pact by bringing about in us higher levels of perceptual acuity and by, in turn, requiring that we treat them with care and protection, as though they were living entities. Themselves laden with the secrets of creating, they incite in viewers and readers acts of creation, which will then bring new art works and treatises — new objects of beauty — into the world.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.


Artwork: Chantal Meza (2017) Mixed Media on Paper. Part of an ongoing State of Terror Series.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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