Pain and Imagining
‘Pain and Imagining’ by Elaine Scarry
In this essay, Scarry considers the relationship between pain and imagining and she begins by defining pain. Pain is exceptional, according to Scarry, because unlike other sensory experiences, it is objectless: ‘Hearing and touch are of objects outside the boundaries of the body, as desire is desire of x, fear is fear of y, hunger is hunger for z; but pain is not “of”or “for” anything–it is itself alone’ (162). Pain then includes ‘the complete absence of referential content’ (163). Interestingly, Scarry suggests that it is precisely this absence, ‘that may give rise to imagining by first occasioning the process that eventually brings forth the dense sea of artifacts [sic] and symbols that we make and move about in’ (162). Scarry goes further stating that: ‘The only state that is as anomalous as pain is the imagination’ (162). Yet while pain is objectless, the imagination is all about the creation of objects.
Thus, while pain is like seeing or desiring but not like seeing x or desiring y, the opposite but equally extraordinary characteristic belongs to imagining. It is like the x or y that are the objects of vision or desire, but not like the felt-occurrences of seeing or desiring.
For Scarry, pain and imagining can also be thought of in terms of her phrase, ‘intentionality’. The phrase, ‘intentional state’, is a significant philosophical concept, which is explained by John R. Searle in his essay, ‘What is an Intentional State?’:
Many of our mental states are in some sense directed at objects and states of affairs in the world. If, for example, I have a belief, it must be a belief that such-and-such is the case. If I have a wish or a want, it must be a wish or a want to do something, or that something should happen or should be the case. If I have an intention, it must be an intention to do something. If I have a fear, it must be a fear of something or that something will occur. And so on, through a large number of other cases. It is this feature of directedness of our mental states that many philosophers have labelled ‘Intentionality’. Now clearly not all of our mental states are in this way directed or Intentional. For example, if I have a pain, ache, tickle, or itch, such conscious states are not in that sense directed at anything; they are not ‘about’ anything, in the way that our beliefs, fears etc. must in some sense be about something. (74)
Scarry takes this idea of intentionality and applies it to pain and the imagination, so that pain is like ‘an intentional state without an intentional object’ while imagining produces ‘an intentional object without an experienceable intentional state’ (164). Scarry then wonders whether pain could be the imagination’s intentional state or whether the imagination might be pain’s intentional object. At last, Scarry admits that ‘pain only becomes an intentional state once it is brought into relation with the objectifying power of the imagination: through that relation, pain will be transformed from a wholly passive and helpless occurrence into a self-modifying and, when most successful, self-eliminating one’ (164). Ultimately, pain and imagining are extremes of intentionality, as pain demands presence in the body and an intentional state, while imagining heightens ‘self-objectification’ and offers an escape from physical sensation. Scarry describes them as ‘framing events’ around ‘all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events’ (165). In experiencing everyday sensations, one can verge further towards pain or towards imagining:
[I]f a thorn cuts through the skin of the woman’s finger, she feels not the thorn, but her body hurting her. If instead she experiences across the skin of her fingers not the awareness of the feel of those fingers but the feel of the fine weave of another woman’s work, or if she traces the lettering of an engraved message and becomes mindful not of events in her hands but of the form and motivating force of the signs, or if that night she experiences the intensely feelable presence of her beloved, she in each of these moments experiences the sensation of “touch” not as bodily sensations but as self-displacing, self-transforming objectification […]. (166)
The imagination allows us to conjure objects where there are none in sensational experience. Sometimes this occurs in order to eliminate discomfort felt in one’s bodily experience. Scarry gives the example of imagining a cup of water when one is thirsty. The imagination is used in other less dramatic self-modifying ways; for example, Scarry mentions the shift of gaze from a view of the countryside to the city, which, for her, represents, ‘continually exchanging one object for another, exercising control over the direction and content of touch, hearing, seeing, smell, and taste’ (168).
One process that represents the framing elements of pain and imagining is work, which has been a synonym in Western culture both for creation and suffering: ‘The more it realizes and transforms itself in its object, the closer to the imagination, to art, to culture; the more it is unable to bring forth an object or, bringing it forth, is then cut off from its object, the more it approaches the condition of pain’ (169). Work is then ‘controlled discomfort’ (171).
This oscillation between pain and imagining is also shown in the parallels between idea of the weapon and the tool. Scarry sees two arrangements in this juxtapositions: that of a ‘pain-weapon-imagined object’ and the other of ‘work-tool-artifact [sic]’ (172). For Scarry, the weapon has, ‘an elementary place in the transformations of pain into the projected image’ (172).
[T]here are many outwardly visible indications that the image of the weapon is not just one among thousands of signs but is a sign occupying a primal place in the most original moment of transformation. Of such outward indications, perhaps the most important to recall here is the centrality of the image in the language of people in physical pain. Physical pain is not only itself resistant to language but also actively destroys language, deconstructing it into the pre-language of cries and groans. To hear those cries is to witness the shattering of language. Conversely, to be present when the person in pain rediscovers speech and so regains his powers of slef-objectification is almost to be present at the birth, or rebirth, of language. That the person in pain very typically moves through a handful of descriptive words to an “as if” construction, and an “as if” construction that has a weapon on the other side, indicates the primacy of the sign in the elementary work of projection into metaphor. To describe one’s hurt in an image of agency is to project it into an object which, though at first conceived of as moving toward the body, by its very separability from the becomes an image that can be lifted away, carrying some of the attributes of pain with it. (173)
Interestingly, in thinking about the parallels between tools and weapons, the two objects can seem often to be one and the same thing, yet as Scarry points out, the purpose for which they are used is very different: ‘If one holds the two side by side in front of the mind–a hand (as weapon) and a hand (as tool), a knife (weapon) and a knife (tool), a hammer and a hammer, an ax [sic] and an ax[sic]–it is then clear that what differentiates them is not the object itself but the surface on which they fall’ (173).
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
John R. Searle. ‘What Is an Intentional State?’. Mind (New Series). Vol. 88, 349 (January 1979), 74-92.