Misnomer Pt 2: Pain and its Uses

Arms scarred from self-harm, they couldn’t find a vein. They injected the poisons and sedatives into his balls. The sedatives didn’t take. He feels his own dying. The doctor calls it off. A massive heart attack finishes it.

Clayton Lockett’s sentence was carried out. And the authorities that handed it down call it “botched”.

The fact that he felt pain seems to be the only thing that renders this obscene in the eyes of the law, and at at that, only pain in the course of death.

The law, specifically the law of the United States, seems to have very few qualms with having pain inflicted upon bodies at its behest, be they the bodies of Occupy protesters doused in pepper spray and beaten with clubs by police, or the bodies of (usually ethnic Arab) detainees deprived of sleep and forced into stress positions by US soldiers. Pain in these situations is perceived as temporary and utilitarian. Because the subject of the pain is alive at the end of the process, the law seems to view these methods as legitimate ways of the state accomplishing its goals, being the “maintenance” of “public property” and “intelligence gathering” respectively.

There has been no widespread outcry over the abuses of either Guantanamo detainees or protesters.

The true obscenity of Clayton Lockett’s suffering and death is that it’s not really out of the ordinary. Ultimately, the state seems willing to forego it’s well earned “mission accomplished” because Clayton Lockett’s pain was, to borrow a phrase, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Which is to say, there is no rhetorical avenue by which his pain could be construed as “useful”. In the above cases, the state disavows the pain of the detainee and the protester as the means to or regrettable byproduct of “security”. In these cases, the state can gloss over acts of cruelty done on its behalf as necessary to the common good, it can posit a world where wailing and gnashing of teeth are not MALIGNANTLY USELESS.

The literary critic Elaine Scarry devotes the entire first half of her monumental study The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World  to the intersections of politics and pain, specifically in the phenomena of torture and war. For Scarry, pain, being one of the things most immediately perceived by consciousness, constitutes the highest order of reality. It is unmediated, pure sensation. It overwhelms consciousness, destroying language, reducing even the most verbose of us to the pre-lingual cries of infancy. Pain being the most real, association with pain confers reality.

In the torture chamber, the professed goal may be the gathering of information, but what is accomplished is the making-real of the state’s power. Torture is the use of pain to deprive the individual of their own voice, replacing it with the state’s.

On the battlefield, state power is made real on the twisted and burned corpses of the young, brave, and foolish; the baby-faced kid from Omaha, torn asunder, crying for mother.

If one thing was clear to Clayton Lockett in his final moments, it was the existence of the authority of the State of Oklahoma.

The state has admitted that Clayton Lockett’s suffering was not worth a single damn. Will they ever say the same for anyone else they inflict on a daily basis?


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