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surgery persist for a long time, in the form of human shapes that are alive, to be sure, but whose bodily integrity has been replaced by pieces, fragments, folds, even immense wounds that are difficult to close.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.


A poet invites, yes calls for, silence;
because he receives the word,
because he remembers.
Truly grotesque,
but silence belongs to poetry,
ever since there have been dictators.
Because silence
is dictatorship’s weapon against the word,
its archenemy.
So we,
in order that our word might outlive dictatorship,
must master both:
our weapon, language,
and the enemy’s weapon, silence.
Our language must make visible the graveyard’s stillness
that dictatorship has produced;
and our silence must not ignore the screams of those who seek to pierce through this stillness.
This seemingly paradoxical situation forces us
into a hazardous balancing act with no net
into a circus ring, where history is the audience.
If we fall,
we sink into the chasm of oblivion,
accompanied by the audience’s jeers;
Lady History always was cruel.

The opening of a speech by SAID, an Iranian-German writer in exile, at a literary symposium entitled ‘Language and Dictatorship’

SAID, Dann schreie ich, bis Stille ist (Tübingen: Heliopolis, 1990), p. 71 [translation by Joseph Twist].


Adorno commenting on Arnold Schönberg’s A Survivor of Warsaw (1947):

The so-called artistic rendering of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it.  The morality that forbids art to forget this for a second slides off into the abyss of its opposite.   The aesthetic stylistic principle, and even the chorus’s solemn prayer, make the unthinkable appear to have had some meaning; it becomes transfigured, something of its horror is removed.  By this alone an injustice is done the victims, yet no art that avoided the victims could stand up to the demands of justice.

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Rodney Livingston and others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 240-58 (p. 252).