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The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

4.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  870 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
Part philosophical meditation, part cultural critique, The Body in Pain is a profoundly original study that has already stirred excitement in a wide range of intellectual circles. The book is an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces--literary, political, philosophical, medical, religious--that confront it. Elaine S ...more
Paperback, 385 pages
Published April 23rd 1987 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published September 26th 1985)
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Apr 10, 2010 DoctorM rated it really liked it
I'm giving this 4 stars, but that's purely on the strength of the first section of the book. I'll get my key complaint out of the way here--- the final section seems largely an afterthought, and could be a separate book. The middle section--- on warfare ---isn't as tightly reasoned as the first, key section on torture. But that section taken alone is powerful and cogent and a key text for understanding what torture does.

So much of the debate over "enhanced interrogation" in the last nine years h
Jul 18, 2007 Elijah rated it liked it
Recommends it for: critical readers, pain survivors
My main observation when reading this book was the self-awareness of the prose. Even the length and construction of the sentences is self-conscience, full of explainitory clauses and careful definitions of things that do not need to be defined. The style befits the subject matter, of course, but detracts from "The Body in Pain" as a critical synthesis. Instead, it becomes a "surviviour's text". Further, for a book that is explicitly about the body, descriptions bodily experiences are very thin. ...more
Nov 02, 2014 Andrew added it
Shelves: theeeeeeory
Let's start with that first section, the one about torture. Essential reading, absolutely essential, thought-provoking reading, and a piece of critical theory in its best, most provocative, and most lucid tradition, that of Foucault, Adorno, and Barthes.

Then we get into the section on war. Not as interesting, but still serviceable.

Then there's some biblical stuff. Same.

Then there's a truly appalling discourse on Marx, which is the worst sort of Marxist writing, in that it completely abandons Mar
Oct 17, 2008 heather rated it it was amazing
I am only a few chapters in and I already find this book utterly revelatory. The chapters on the medical, legal and political discourse on pain in re: torture feel far more contemporary than when the book was written, in 1985. I feel this is a necessary book, for me as a pain sufferer, and for understanding, for lack of better term, the human condition.
Ralowe Ampu
Mar 04, 2015 Ralowe Ampu rated it it was amazing
i'm intimidated for some reason about writing a review because i think this is one of the most beautiful books i've read in some time. it is about the shared reality and the boundary that is the sentient matter of one's own body. the complicity that allows pain to be a prerequisite of meaning. the book is split into in depth discussions of torture and war, the bible and marx. it is interesting to me because of my obsession with nonrepresentation that its a category shared with pain and the judeo ...more
Louis Marvin
Oct 03, 2007 Louis Marvin rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people interested in post-structuralist theory and a full explanation of torture techniques
Shelves: lightreads
This book provides a thorough critique of the mind/body split that dominates modernist thought. Besides being a pre-eminent scholar, Elaine Scarry is also somewhat of a renaissance woman, having at somepoint or another turning herself into a leading expert on rocket trajectory or, in this case, torture techniques. This makes this read both fascinating and somewhat stomach-turning. Enjoy!
John Keats
Apr 19, 2014 John Keats rated it really liked it
A complex and important book about pain and power, or about how creativity is linked to both: you create to escape pain, and all the objects created by civilized humans relieve pain, or are turned into instruments of pain, which poisons the original intent, or structural purpose of creativity or creating. That's a poor summation, and for a book that is so smart, Scarry, to me, practices a lot of the scholarly games and gymnastics that can drive me crazy. She makes it clear she's talking about st ...more
Dec 23, 2014 Ashley rated it really liked it
Although I don't know that I agree completely with Scarry's claim that pain is indescribable in language, this book arrived in my life exactly when I needed it to get through a block in writing my dissertation. Scarry outlines a theory of pain in language that, even if you don't agree with it, is essential to understand for anyone writing, thinking, or working on contemporary pain management (in a clinical or academic space). I have very little to add beyond what's already been written about it, ...more
Dec 06, 2015 Lindsay rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Things I've thought while reading this book:

Global Impression: That eternal and universal truth of human nature: people do not see the world as it is, they see it as they are.

High Point: The introduction makes some thought-provoking claims that interest me concerning the limits of language and the idea of Absolute Truth, such as that "pain--unlike any other state of consciousness--has no referential content. It is not *of* or *for* anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, m
Nov 05, 2014 McKenzie rated it it was ok
In, “The Body in Pain,” Scarry focuses on the language of physical pain, citizenship and consent and lastly mental, verbal and material creation. In the first two of these three, she succeeds wonderfully and the connections between the two can be clearly drawn. In the latter half of the book, Scarry attempts to bridge bodily lived experiences of pain within the framework of an aesthetics that links with phenomenology via their shared speculations on imagination. She vaguely outlines an aesthetic ...more
Sep 24, 2008 Alexandria rated it really liked it
This is not something most would pick up and read, but for what it is, it's a powerful book. I used Scarry's work in my dissertation and found it invaluable in forming my own thoughts. Scarry Her research consists of literature gleaned from Amnesty International among other sources, so the subject matter can get a bit heavy. She has been criticized for universalizing pain and ignoring cultural differences. Here's a review that comes close to how I would describe the book:

Part philosophical medit
Apr 03, 2008 Mike rated it liked it
A very intriguing book with some ideas still fermenting in my head. I liked the structure of the work more than the actual writing itself. She started out discussing the manner in which torture is the destruction of language and thus also the destruction of the world and then concluded the work by discussing how the world is made (and remade) by language and the arts. There were many unique insights that were exciting to me even if they should have been obvious (or maybe are obvious to other peo ...more
Feb 20, 2016 Deanna rated it it was amazing
I was terrified to open this book! And the first few pages didn't diminish that fright. Scarry clearly understands the difficulty in trying to describe physical pain. How many languages and dialects do we have on this earth's human population? Yet not one of them can adequately tell a tale of pain. Pain reduces one to preliterate, gutteral moans and groans, often emanating from someone in the fetal position. Pain reduces one's world to all she can feel in the moment. Nothing else exists. Doctors ...more
May 24, 2014 Matt rated it liked it
This book is full of useful, incredibly thoughtful information. It's simply too bad that the prose creaks under its own weight to the point of being unreasonably cumbersome. For every good point, there are seventeen repeated metaphors, unnecessary asides, or incomplete sentences. This book offers plenty of good insight into the way pain and agency interact, but it also serves as an object lesson on the importance of parsimony.
Patrick Stein
I read the introduction, chapter one, part of chapter two, and part of another chapter. It has some interesting thoughts on pain/language and torture/power. For me, I got lost in things being negations or objectifications and never came back to firm ground.
Emily Horsman
Dec 21, 2014 Emily Horsman rated it liked it
Shelves: abandoned
Did not finish, put in abandoned bookshelf, got just over half way. There's a lot of interesting things to think about but the writing is superfluous and dense and I just didn't think it was worth it to finish.
Chris Nagel
Jan 08, 2014 Chris Nagel rated it it was ok
Shelves: threw-out
Although the opening discussion of pain is evocative, and even profound, this is not the fundamental point of the book, and the title really should be something like Imagination and Belief, with a Short Excursus on Pain. I don't accept the premise that leads from pain, torture, and war to the interpretation of productive labor on the basis of a metaphorized Hegelian Marxism. The extended reading of the Old Testament seems particularly useless as a way to understand the relation between pain and ...more
Laurel L. Perez
Feb 24, 2014 Laurel L. Perez rated it it was amazing
This is one of those philosophical texts worth reading for its insight into the complexities of an unmade world & what imagination and making mean in terms of making real changes in the world. Though dense, and impossible to intake in one read through alone, Scarry looks at the body in pain, and humanity in ways far too many have yet to take note of. Well worth more than one read.
Katrien Debal
Mar 21, 2016 Katrien Debal rated it did not like it
Had ik het negatieve sterren kunnen geven, was het -5. Nog steeds nachtmerries
Mar 08, 2015 Leif rated it it was amazing
The book that made her name: it is a deserved classic.
Sep 10, 2014 amelia added it
Shelves: academic
part one for class -- fascinating.
Victoria Frost
Jan 15, 2014 Victoria Frost rated it liked it
This is a study of pain and the infliction of pain and how it affects the individual as well as the world.She discusses the idea that pain 'unmakes' the world, while creativity helps 'make' the world.
Quite a lengthy and challenging read, but if you want to know how pain involves individuals as well as our world view, then this is it.
Kate Mollohan
May 21, 2011 Kate Mollohan rated it did not like it
Reading this one for class, but it's quite interesting. A bit verbose but interesting conceptualizations of pain.
I am not a philosopher, and this book is more about the philosophy of pain rather than the nitty-gritty writing about pain that you may have. It is a well-known volume that many who write about the body turn to, and I can see why but for me it just isn't what I would normally read, or want to read.
Apr 28, 2010 Corina rated it it was ok
I found this book in a freebox as I was recovering from a long, painful illness. I think I was expecting some sort of literary commiseration - isn't it amazing how much pain the body can endure? Where does one place that kind of experience?

Truthfully, I never really read the book. I flipped through it and tore out some pages to make altered poetry out of, for which its precise vocabulary was excellent.
Carmen something
May 10, 2007 Carmen something rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: what is the impact of inflicting pain as an act of torture? How do we colonize?
The Body in Pain was revolutionary for me. In the kind of way that a weighty critical theory text should be, Scarry rocked out my ideas of consent, objectification, Western systems of coming to knowledge, and domination. Torture, though not pallatable, is oft justified as a way of obtaining information. She challenges the reader to re-think the use of pain in war and battle.
Jun 18, 2007 elizabeth rated it it was amazing
I am surprised at how often I come back to this book, but Scarry's discussion of pain and language is seminal, to thinking on war, disability, disease, torture. The central idea that pain is the end of language may seem simple, but I still grapple with the applications. (And, particularly for Americans in the era of Abu Ghraib and Gonzales-speak, the analysis is scarily pertinent.)
Mar 23, 2007 Rachel rated it it was amazing
Scarry's prose is beautiful and her view of the world changed mine. There is SO MUCH in this book. I learned about: creation, destruction, the body, human needs and motivations, phenomenology, war, torture, pain, Judeo-Christianity, Marxism... This book of critical theory holds beautiful stories about our world and about ourselves.
Nathan Smith
Jun 01, 2007 Nathan Smith rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everly
It's hard to know what exactly to say, because I feel like I have so much personally at stake in this book. I'll probably be thinking about it for a long time and would recommend this book to anyone willing to put in the work (it requires a lot of careful reading and re-reading).
Feb 23, 2008 Kate rated it it was amazing
You have to have a strong stomach to read this book. It describes in detail how people are tortured, and how we sanitize the process to make it more emotionally palatable for ourselves. In this age of waterboarding, Scarry's comments are more contemporary than ever.
Sunny Moraine
Nov 03, 2009 Sunny Moraine rated it it was amazing
Absolutely stunning. At times it can be difficult to access, but it's entirely worth the effort. Scarry is a fabulous writer as well as a fabulous thinker, and lovers of philosophy and good prose alike should find things to enjoy. Highly, highly recommended.
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comment 2 25 Feb 26, 2013 08:55PM  
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“What is striking about such unmediated juxtapositions, and relevant to the way in which at the end of war opened bodies and verbal issues are placed side by side, is that in most instances the verbal assertion has no source of substantiation other than the body.” 0 likes
“to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” 0 likes
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