The peculiar Marxism of Elaine Scarry

<< Against political imagination

I would also like to briefly defend The Body in Pain, a splendid, subtle book that I think offers a way around many of the snares that Moyn identifies in post-ideological politics generally, and in Rorty’s disaster-aversion project in particular. Scarry’s book has two parts. The first is about torture and war: means of “unmaking” the world. The second part, composed as a response to the first, is about human creativity: the way we make, as the case may be, “remake,” the world. I agree with Moyn’s diagnosis that torture—and bodily pain writ large—is front-and-center in Scarry’s worldview. But his essay largely skips over the book’s second half, in which she embarks on a protracted, idiosyncratic reading of Marx and the New Testament to theorize human creativity as the structural and phenomenological opposite of torture. For Scarry, the faculty of creativity emerges from the observation of need. To create is, inherently, to imagine; creation begins from the projection of a counterfactual world in which the need presently observed is rendered non-existent in virtue of an object that one conceives of creating. Of light bulbs, for example, she writes the following memorable description:

A light bulb transforms the human being from a creature who would spend approximately one third of each day groping in the dark, to one who sees simply by wanting to see: its impossibly fragile, milky-white globe curved protectively around an even more fragile, upright-then-folding filament of wire is the materialization of neither retina, nor pupil, nor day-seeing, nor night-seeing; it is the materialization of a counterfactual perception about the dependence of human sight on the rhythm of the earth’s rotation; no wonder it is in its form so beautiful.

The invocation of beauty here isn’t meant to trivialize the use-value of the light bulbs; nor is it meant to depoliticize their material reality, how they are fabricated, how they are consumed. Quite the contrary, for Scarry, as Moyn recognizes, the appreciation of beauty embeds transformative possibilities. I think it is easy, but ultimately incorrect, to construe this transformative possibility as a free-floating injunction to appreciate. Take in the beauty around you, and you will become a more responsible citizen of the world. There might be something to this—Scarry comes close to that view at various points in her later book On Beauty and Being Just—but the more fundamental point has to do with the link between beauty and fragility. What is beautiful in the light bulb is a reflection of its use-value. Not in a direct, causal sense: a light bulb is not necessarily beautiful because it sheds light. But shedding light is what allows the light bulb to posit the “counterfactual perception” that human beings should not be resigned to stumbling around in the darkness. The fragility of this counterfactual is manifest in the delicate, easy-to-shatter quality of the light bulb itself. Light is easily taken away—it’s something we do to our enemies on purpose, and by accident in our everyday lives—and only with great artistry and care can light be restored.

In this sense, the second half of The Body in Pain is best understood as an elaborate reworking of Marx, one that seeks to cultivate appreciation for the “aliveness” of objects, notas an outcome of commodity fetishism, but as an impetus for more humane social relations. Marxism, as Scarry points out, has always had an ambivalent relationship with material reality:

Perhaps no one who attends closely to artifacts is wholly free of the suspicion that they are, though not animate, not quite inanimate. Marx, for example, who periodically inCapital rails brilliantly against “animism” and “fetishism,” is himself constantly tempted in his analysis of economic objects to describe their attributes in the language of “aliveness.” . . . This is not to say that Marx is himself a fetishist or a reist. It is rather to say that Marx and the reists are differentiated not by the former’s insistence that objects are inanimate and the latter’s insistence that they are animate, but by the radically different implications the two discover in object-animism: the reist takes the apparent-aliveness as a basis for revering the object world; Marx takes that apparent-aliveness as a basis for revering the actual-aliveness of the human source of that projected attribute.

In other words, Scarry believes that Marx was just as invested as his archrivals in the proposition that objects have an “alive” or “animate” character. What sets Marx apart is the second-order implication of this view, namely, that object-animism should inspire us to lookthrough the object to the processes of production that brought it into being; that what is alive in an object is precisely the congealed labor-power for which the object is an embodied substitute. To distill Scarry’s whole discussion of Marx down to one rejoinder, it would be: Why not both? Why can’t objects both reflect the aliveness of the labor that produced themand be, in their own right, alive? As I understand Scarry, acknowledgment of the latter does not frustrate the Marxist project. Rather, it galvanizes that project by bringing to our attention the fundamentally caring purpose that many objects, in their “animism,” play in the life-world of those who encounter them. As she puts it,

It is almost universally the case in everyday life that the most cherished object is one that has been hand-made by a friend: there is no mystery about this, for the object’s material attributes themselves record and memorialize the intensely personal, extraordinary because exclusive, interior feelings of the maker for just this person—This is for you. But anonymous, mass-produced objects contain a collective and equally extraordinary message: Whoever you are, and whether or not I personally like or even know you, in at least this small way, be well. Thus, within the realm of objects, objects-made-for-anyone bear the same relation to objects-made-for-someone that, within the human realm, caritas bears to eros.

To reorient our gaze this way, from production to consumption, does not depoliticize the economy. Instead, it politicizes the economy along a different dimension: the effect that the apparent-aliveness of objects has on the actually-alive people who receive their care. This is as much a story about use-value as Marx’s own. And it invites just the same inquiry about distributive and economic justice. It inspires us to ask which human beings experience the objective world as one whose apparently-aliveness is caring rather than callous; indeed, which human beings experience the objective world as an apparent-aliveness at all. Although this account is far from perfect, it makes great strides on a question that has plagued Marxist thought since its inception and throughout its many twentieth-century morphologies. What place does human experience—or in the philosopher’s jargon, phenomenology—occupy in an account of social reality that makes materiality such a central focus? Scarry furnishes an answer that is by turns simple and arresting: the materiality of objects deserves our political attention because regard for others, the experience of caring and being cared for, cannot avoid taking material shape.

With all of this in mind, it seems to me that emergency can operate as the backdrop of politics in two distinct ways. One involves fixation on a specific image of emergency—like the attack on the twin towers, or the scene of a helpless victim being tortured—which begins in reality but is quickly elevated into a transcendent, if negative, anchor of political meaning. About this mode, Moyn and I are like-minded in our weariness. It is anti-political; it serves to foreclose rather than enable political inquiry (though often, perversely, in the guise of enabling it). The second use of emergency is different. It operates not by fixating on a specific image of enlarged disaster, but rather by hypothesizing the actuality of minor disasters—the room that is too dark, the chair that is too uncomfortable, the workday that is too long—as a condition of politics. This mode conceives of a human life as a constant series of struggles, and of creativity and production, correspondingly, as the forces that keep those struggles momentarily at bay. Emergency, in this mode, does not swallow up politics. But its imminence, at the same time, should not be disregarded. Nor should the fragility of our materialized strategies of avoidance—the svelte curvature of the light bulb, the sculpted comfort of the chair, the linguistic finesse of the labor code—be forgotten.


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About Kiel Brennan-Marquez

Academic fellow at Yale Law School.

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