Tim Huzar


Scarry 4


On September 11th, I presented at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association 2015 Biennial Conference Everyday Encounters with Violence: Critical Feminist Perspectives. Here’s what I said.


In this paper I want to think about the relationship between pain and voice, and I want to do this via Elaine Scarry’s classic text The Body in Pain (1985). I’m interested in Scarry’s account of torture which comprises the first chapter of her book. Here, Scarry offers a “structure” (Ibid. 27) of torture, thinking through the phenomenology of the unilateral exposure to extreme pain that is characteristic of torture. Central to the structure of torture, for Scarry, is the distinction between the body and the voice: put briefly, when one is exposed to extreme pain one’s sense of language, self and world, typified by voice, are placed in a process of destruction, while one’s sense of body becomes utterly overbearing. For Scarry, speaking and thinking, both forms of self-extension, become increasingly difficult under extreme pain. When one is in pain one cries out; language typically evades the person in extreme pain, as does, so Scarry argues, thought.

Today I want to use The Body in Pain to pose some questions about how the Western philosophical tradition has thought about concepts such as voice, speech, reason and the body. These concepts are at the centre of both our philosophical and political traditions, from the moment when, in The Politics, Aristotle defines Man (always Man…) as a zoon logon echon – “the living creature who has logos” (Cavarero 2005: 34) as Adriana Cavarero translates it. There is much that can be said about this formulation of Man: what we understand as logos, what it is to have logos, and crucially the forms of living which are effaced through this formulation. Scarry’s text does not enter into any of this discussion, and yet her phenomenology of extreme pain, I would suggest, demonstrates the limits of this formulation of Man, the moments when it loses its coherence; and it is out of this incoherence, I believe, that another way of thinking the human might be apprehended.

As such, I’ll give a quick overview of the most salient points of Scarry’s argument in the first chapter of The Body in Pain, primarily in relation to the Aristotelian conception of Man. I’ll then move on to use Adriana Cavarero and Jacques Rancière to each in their own way think through the implications of Scarry’s arguments for how the Western philosophical tradition typically conceives of the metaphysical, political subject.

If Scarry doesn’t make explicit reference to the Aristotelian conception of Man, it is nonetheless implicit throughout her account of torture. For Aristotle, Man was, as I’ve mentioned, the zoon logon echon – the living creature who has logos. Cavarero reminds us that logos was figured in the Greek tradition as phone semantike, that is, as semantic voice, or what often gets translated simply as ‘speech’. Far more than mere voice, Man possessesspeech. It is the semantike of speech – its capacity to signify, to endow Man with reason – which, for the ancient Greeks and the subsequent Western philosophical tradition, is significant. The semantike of logos distinguishes Man from other creatures and other animals: if Man signifies through his speech, for other animals they are limited by their mere voice, their cries and wails simply being signs of pleasure and pain. Slaves and women would, for Aristotle, fall somewhere between the two: they do not possess speech (otherwise they would be the equal of Man) but they can recognise speech (otherwise Man could not make productive use of them). Stuart Elden is certainly right to point out that it is important to remember that the having or the possession of logos was not simply a unilateral having or possession: he says, “in reading the term zoon logon echon we should bear in the mind that to say that the human is the animal or being that has language is not to say that humans merely possess it, but that they are, at the same time possessed by it” (2005: 286). Nonetheless, in the Hellenic philosophical tradition there is an overwhelming sense that for slaves and for women they are far more possessed by logos than they are the possessers, and likewise that animals are utterly possessed by passions which dictate their vocalisations, and that if Man is possessed by logos it is a possession which never calls into question his presumed reason and rationality. And of course, this fundamentally misogynistic conceptualisation continues in various forms in the present day.

Placing to one side the vagaries of Aristotle’s hierarchies of reason, what is significant for my paper today is that Aristotle’s separation of Man from animals fundamentally rests on the possession of speech in the former. This is what makes Man a properly political animal. Cavarero highlights that “[t]he voice prior to speech or independent of speech is therefore simply an animal voice – an a-logic and a-semantic phonation” (2005: 34). This is important when we consider Scarry’s arguments concerning torture. For Scarry, when one suffers extreme pain one’s capacity to deploy language – unequivocally logos’ signifying voice – is destroyed. There is something crucial to pain that, for Scarry, “actively destroys” (1985: 4) language, “bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (Ibid.). In torture logos is stripped away leaving nothing but voice. We could say then that torture is concerned with the forcible separation of speech from voice: that it reduces one to an animalistic state or, more controversially but perhaps more accurately, to an infantile state. Both are ethically and politically problematic, and it is this characterisation (that the Western philosophical tradition seems to inexorably move towards whenever it considers the subjects of violence) that I want to call into question.

For Scarry the voice of the torturer is important in two respects. First, the torturer’s voice objectifies the fact that the prisoner’s voice has been, or is in a process of being, destroyed. Second, the absence left by the stripping away of the prisoner’s logos is filled, or perhaps even colonised, by the torturer.

For Scarry, as well as inflicting pain the torturer also objectifies the destruction of the prisoner’s world. They do this by juxtaposing their world against the “small and shredded world” (1985: 36) of the prisoner, and in so doing further contribute to the destruction of the prisoner’s world. As Idelbar Avelar argues, “[i]n the modern technology of torture the moment of interrogation is constitutive of the infliction of pain” (2004: 31). Interrogation may be a common way of enacting this objectification, but it is not the only way. As Scarry says, “[t]he confession is one crucial demonstration of this absent world, but there are others” (1985: 38). These include the torturer’s “weapons, his acts, and his words” (Ibid.); that is, the fact that he exists as an embodied, relational being, extending himself out into the world. The interrogation is a performative gesture, a particular strategy which exploits, bears witness to and objectifies the disjuncture between the world of the torturer (marked by myriad forms of self extension) and the world of the prisoner (which for Scarry extends barely beyond the surface of the prisoner’s body). As Scarry argues, “for the prisoner, the body and its pain are overwhelmingly present and voice, world, and self are absent; for the torturer, voice, world, and self are overwhelmingly present and the body and pain are absent” (Ibid. 46). For Scarry there is thus a direct relationship between the prisoner’s voice, self and world, and that of the torturer: the torturer instrumentalises the prisoner’s deconstructed world to enlarge their own sense of world (and the regime that the torturer represents): as Scarry says, “[i]t is only the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory” (Ibid. 36). We can see then the necessary relationship between the fetishisation of disembodied reason – the semantike of logos, which as Cavarero rightly notes is always dominant over the embodied vocality of phone – and the infliction of violence on the other: following Scarry, a desire to rid oneself of body in the name of noetic reason is achievable through the making overwhelmingly present the body of another, via the medium of violence. It is precisely the absence of logos in the other, achieved through the infliction of extreme pain, that is a condition for the attainment of this disembodied, reasoning, noetic being. Of course, one only has to observe the history of colonialism and slavery, or the history of the violation of women, to see that this is nothing new. Torture, we could say, manufactures a sense of omniscience and omnipotence; an approximation of God. Shock and awe, to refer to Rachel Pain’s keynote lecture yesterday (see also Pain 2015).

Put starkly, one may be tempted to conclude that if the capacity for reason is what constitutes Man, and if the experience of extreme pain undermines this capacity – strips reason away leaving nothing but mere voice – then the subject of extreme pain no longer qualifies as human. We can (and should) reject this thesis in a number of ways.

Following Jacques Rancière, we could point out that the distinction between which sonorous emissions constitute speech and which constitute mere voice is the principle tortion of philosophy; an inaugural wrong – a type of policing – which is called out in moments of politics, when those who have previously been heard as making only animalistic noises (or infantile cries) refuse this classification and presume their equality (Rancière 1999). When we hear the cries of the body in pain as being devoid of meaning – as signifying nothing but pain – is this not a policing of this body and its sonorous emissions? What politics can we imagine which would refuse this policing in the name of equality?

We could also reject the thesis by, following Cavarero, insisting on the significance of the vocalic: that voice, whatever its semantic content, first communicates a uniqueness which is proper to what it is to be human. Following Hannah Arendt, Cavarero argues that voice signifies first that there is a particular, unique existent: it communicates not what someone is but who they are. This who, expressed not through noetic reason but through embodied voice or, in another formulation of Cavarero’s, not through philosophy but through narration (2000: 52), is a non-generalisable who, a who which doesn’t make the mistake of philosophy in asking after what Man (or even Woman) is, but rather who men and women (and many other people) are (Ibid. 50).

To finish, I will now return to Scarry to briefly think through these formulations.

Scarry argues:

To assent to words that through the thick agony of the body can be only dimly heard, or to reach aimlessly for the name of a person or a place that has barely enough cohesion to hold its shape as word and none to bond it to its worldly referent, is a way of saying, yes, all is almost gone now, there is almost nothing left now, even this voice, the sounds I am making, no longer form my words but the words of another (1985: 35).

We can see clearly here the separation of logos’ phone semantike. Voice, or phone, is stripped of any capacity for signification it previously had; voice becomes simply “the sounds I am making” which “no longer form my words”. Crucially, however, the vocality of voice is not left simply to exist but rather forms “the words of another”. The torturer in this manner rids himself of phone, colonising the phone of another which will make materially manifest the semantike of his logos, realising an ideal which has long been at the heart of the Western tradition. The torturer, in this manner, is able to speak without his body.

But what else can we apprehend here? What Scarry hints at is that speech, which even on Cavarero’s reading is still presumed to be in the possession of a particular person, is not necessarily the property of a particular person in the way we might think. If my voice can signify so that it is the words of another, this fact can be exploited (as in the scene of torture) but it surely also opens a space for what we might think of as restitution. Further, if Rancière is correct, then the expression of pain and anguish, the deployment of voice in any way, is already dependent on others to both hear the noises one is making and recognise those noises as voice, that is, as language, as a form of reasoned speech in Aristotle’s parlance. In this way one discovers that one’s voice is not one’s own, as Butler suggests in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005: 80-81), which means both that it is in some sense radically out of one’s control, but also that the violence of the absence of voice can be alleviated by voice being taken up, taken on, by others. If we conceive of voice not, first, as being the possession of a discrete subject (who consequently loses their subjecthood when this crucial possession is taken away) but rather as something which emerges between people, a phenomenon necessarily social and relational and consequently a mark, again to return to Butler, of our vulnerability (2006, 2010), then we leave open the possibility that the one left bereft in the face of violence is not reduced simply to the animal or to the infantile. What it is to be human, on this reading, exceeds any particular body; indeed, we could say that it is this excess – a social excess for Butler, or a phonic excess for Cavarero, or simply a political excess for Rancière – that interrupts the rationality of the Aristotelian metaphysical tradition (so central to so much theory today) and declares its incoherence.


Avelar, Idelbar (2004), The Letter of Violence, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Butler, Judith (2005), Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press.

– (2006), Precarious Life, London: Verso.

– (2010), Frames of War, London: Verso.

Cavarero, Adriana (2000), Relating Narratives, Oxon: Routledge.

– (2005), For More than One Voice, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Elden, Stuart (2005), ‘Reading Logos as Speech: Heidegger, Aristotle and Rhetorical Politics’, Philosophy and Rhetoric, 38:4.

Pain, Rachel (2015), ‘Intimate war’, Political Geography, 44.

Rancière, Jacques (1999), Disagreement, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Scarry, Elaine (1985), The Body in Pain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Tim Huzar is a PhD student at the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, University of Brighton, and co-editor of Critical Studies. His research looks at the relationship between violence, neoliberalism and embodied forms of resistance. He is also interested in the politics of the public library, and the politics of the bicycle.