Friday, July 31, 2009
I have just finished devouring a book called the Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. Reading it provided another of those uncanny moments that no longer seem supernatural, but still amaze me. Her book has two parts. The first focuses on the “unmaking” of the world as it operates in war and torture. The second focuses on the process by which the imagination remakes objectlessness (that is pure being or sentience) into an image object that is then materialized into the “real” object which is self-substantiating and which acts back on the sentience of a being to alter it’s conception of itself. Thus, she says, “human beings project their bodily powers and frailties into external objects—telephone, chairs, gods, poems, medicine, political organizations that in turn become objects of perception that are taken back in to human consciousness where they now reside as part of the mind or soul and this revised conception of oneself as a creature relatively untroubled by the problem of weight (chair), as one able to hear voices coming from the other side of the continent (telephone), as one who has direct access to an unlimited power of creating (prayer) –is now actually felt to be located inside the boundary of one’s own skin where one is in immediate contact with an elaborate constellation of interior cultural fragments that seem to have displaced the dense molecules of physical matter.”
She relates the beginnings of this object making to the biggest object of our making –God—and shows how in the Old Testament, that God (who is pure idea) is substantiated by his inscriptions upon human bodies (mostly in the form of wounding, but also in the form of pregnancy). In the O.T. God is voice/hands and human is body, mostly deprived of voice except for God’s words and forbidden to create images. The commandments and law itself becomes a substitute artifact for the body, but if man breaks God’s law, only the body is left to substantiate Him. Christianity is a radical move: God’s embodiment in the form of Jesus Christ makes the wounding of human bodies unnecessary to the display of God’s power. In fact, the reverse occurs, Jesus’ wounds become proof of his divinity and the disciples are called on to witness-to touch, to see that which before was only voice. Compassion is bound up both with imagination and with the knowledge of the sentient origins of the world. In a world flooded by images, constant acts of making, a remembrance of suffering body (the origin of world making) is important else the reciprocal effects of objects on private realm of being be forgotten or dismissed.
In so far as we can extend ourselves (our identity) through objects we make/cherish, we not only share our private mental state with others, but also escape the confines of our bodies. Even so, bodies remain and torture, war, illness of all kinds remain. Scarry describes torture as an unmaking of the world for the victim—where every object/idea loved or despised becomes meaningless, is essentially erased by pain. The victim of torture loses language—resorting to the pre-language of scream or else the words/confession the torturer supplies. She makes a very impressive analysis of the torturers re-appropriation of a most basic object of human construction-- the house. Whereas before, walls, floor, table, chair had allowed a human to ignore some of the basic wants of the body, now these things become the objects used to elicit pain. Thus, the torture cell becomes a horrible inversion of shelter.
Scarry talks about Marx’s writing as a conscious alternating between sensuous abstract passages about the moving of capital to the most banal, detailed recounting of workers lives—how big a room, the kind of food they eat, the illnesses they have. In other words, he brings it back to the forgotten body. He does not object to object making, in fact believes that this is key to human happiness, but he objects to the loss of the reciprocal action of the object on it’s maker’s being.
So, you can see that there are so many ideas here with voice/body, making/suffering, self/object, contraction/extension, being/world, God/human. The narrative voice has a divine quality (the Word) and yet the objects which point back to a body and its needs will also be present in the form of the short object films. Scarry says that if the object is intended to have greater reality than human beings themselves (as in a god or king) then it is important that the existence of that be made to seem natural (ie not artificial), it should be “seamless” without “cutting marks.” But, I am interested in no other reality above human. I am interested in the power of human imagination and meaning making to overcome suffering and to extend the self (a process of dispersal, that if infinite would be akin to negation) through creativity and love (extension of one's concerns to another’s wants/needs.)