For Scarry, the obscene and pathetic drama of torture and power is relegated to the prisoner’s cell. For Mozambicans, by virtue of its public enactment, this drama comes to define the world at large. Scarry worked with political prisoners and Amnesty International Reports — all of whom are cast in state-sponsored institutional settings. Isolation from family and society defines their plight. Had Scarry worked in places where torture is conducted as public ritual, had she followed torture victims back into the community and seen their impact on all those who have knowledge of them, she might not have concluded so readily that pain is incommunicable. I do agree with her that pain can destroy formal language, but there are many “truths” and many ways of communicating them. […] Pain both undermines communication and communicates through a society at large. Because the infliction of pain creates an enemy, one rooted in a fraudulent claim to power, torture creates resistance to the regime by its very enactment.

Carolyn Nordstrom, A Different Kind of War Story (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 170-71.



In the case of massacres in particular, lifeless bodies are quickly reduced to the status of simple skeletons. Their morphology henceforth inscribes them in the register of undifferentiated generality: simple relics of an unburied pain, empty, meaningless corporealities, strange deposits plunged into cruel stupor. In the case of the Rwandan genocide—in which a number of skeletons were at least preserved in a visible state, if not exhumed—what is striking is the tension between the petrification of the bones and their strange coolness on one hand, and on the other, their stubborn will to mean, to signify something.

In these impassive bits of bone, there seems to be no ataraxia: nothing but the illusory rejection of a death that has already occurred. In other cases, in which physical amputation replaces immediate death, cutting off limbs opens the way to the deployment of techniques of incision, ablation, and excision that also have bones as their target. The traces of this demiurgic surgery persist for a long time, in the form of human shapes that are alive, to be sure, but whose bodily integrity has been replaced by pieces, fragments, folds, even immense wounds that are difficult to close. Their function is to keep before the eyes of the victim—and of the people around him or her—the morbid spectacle of severing.

Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, trans. by Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), 11-40, p. 35.


Silence can take many shapes. Silence can be touched, sliced, it can be uncomfortable, if experienced for too long,… it can be used as a break to relax and enjoy the company of one’s selves living in one’s body. It very often embodies resistance itself… it can be used as a weapon to break someone’s spirit in a session of torture.

“Torture means severe pain,” they had warned me in our “training sessions” in my political party’s cell… no training session prepared me for this intense pain… my pain… the one I did not choose… all this alienation, this empty vacuum…, my body, my mind, my pain… this is not happening… I am a little speck in the universe… which universe?… the world is not anymore… I am… disintegrating… bit by bit… yell by yell… electrode by electrode…


You yell, you piss yourself and you are saying “it is hurting so much I cannot put it into f****** words!,” because the pain is deeper than flesh and bones; it travels beyond your physical body, into some space within yourself which cannot make meaning of what is happening outside. You say to yourself: “I am losing the only way I have known until now to describe what is going on inside me, I am losing my tongue, I am losing meaning.”

Political activist Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes on being tortured by the Pinochet regime. From Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes and Lynda Birke, ‘Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on Bodies under Torture’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 24:6 (2001), 653-668, pp. 665 and 661.


Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 4.