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

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  1,052 Ratings  ·  76 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 Sc
eBook Kindle, 386 pages
Published September 26th 1985 by Oxford University Press
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Mar 22, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
An academic and not workbooky look at pain. As my pain returns after some healing from the surgery, I am discouraged and need some framework for pain that is not just a series of to do lists for self improvement.

This will live in bathroom, where I sit and steam to distract myself. It starts with torture... not exactly the usual bathroom book. It's no Calvin & Hobbes!
May 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
May 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
mixed bag but when it's good it is
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading this in the dark as Saturn returns, I can’t give it the time, although every sentence deserves it.

‘....many people’s experience of the medical community would bear out... the conclusion that physicians do not trust (hence, hear) the human voice, that they in effect perceive the voice of the patient as an “unreliable narrator” of bodily events, a voice which must be bypassed as quickly as possible so that they can get around and behind it to the physical events themselves.’
Jan 22, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scholarly
I thought I would never finish this book. Instead, it took me 20 years. I bought it and first tried to read it in the 1990s--I made it through the first section about torture but it was so taxing and distressing that I needed to take a break before reading any more, so I set it aside and didn't pick it up back.

The same thing happened in the 2000s. But then someone told me that the first section is the hardest section in terms of arousing distress at the plight of others, that the other sections
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
Nov 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best
six stars, ten stars
Jun 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: for-novel
This has taken me MONTHS to read because it is so densely packed with profound thought, I had to split it into bite-size chunks (and I studied Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge; go figure). It's an incredible treatise on the phenomenology of pain and the external world, and how that relates to our understanding of our experience. Not for the academically faint-hearted, but if thinking about how we think about things is your bag, you should definitely give this a try.
Kyle Williams
It could just be me, but this book was exhilarating in the first half and an absolute slog in the second. A lot was going on in my life at the time, though. I'll revisit it in higher education, I'm sure.
Nupur Manasi
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Amazing take on the politics behind commercialization of pain
Emily Griffin
Mar 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Incredible, deep, intense, heavy philosophy/cultural psychology that I refer to regularly for its brilliance.
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
John Keats
Apr 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 24, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 19, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
2/15/17 - Read Introduction (p. 3-23) and "The Structure of Torture" (p. 27-59).
Mar 27, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Chris Nagel
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
Dec 15, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 16, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
May 15, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Kate M
May 15, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Carmen something
May 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Laurel L. Perez
Jan 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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“to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” 6 likes
“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
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