The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature

The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature: Introduction to the Special Issue Practices of Devotion

Available free of charge for a limited time

by Eleanor Craig, Amy Hollywood, and Kris Trujillo

 

In the introduction to this special issue, three of the co-editors explain that their goal “is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature … [and to] pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to move the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices.” 

The introduction begins:

Is there a place for devotion in criticism? What about love and desire? Recent attempts to historicize and parochialize critique as one method of interpretation among others lead to these questions. Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015) identifies love as a requirement for critique and turns “to histories of criticism, canonicity, literary history, and ‘heritage,’ and, above all, to the emergence . . . of new etiquettes of literary appreciation . . . so as to examine how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.” Rita Felski offers a different analysis of the field in The Limits of Critique (2015), positing and resisting as central to literary study a version of critique to which love is antithetical—that is, a critique that “highlights the sphere of the agon (conflict and domination) at the expense of eros (love and connection) [and assumes] that the former is more fundamental than the latter.” Despite their distinct formulations of the relationship between love and critique and the role each plays within literary studies past and present, Lynch and Felski both argue that love ought to be central to the discipline.

This newfound interest in love, desire, and affect echoes, in many ways, to the call voiced a decade and a half ago in the edited volume Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (2004). There Jane Gallop, Michael Warner, and others ask that literary scholars think with and about practices of “uncritical” reading and author love in order to understand the modes of subject formation to which these reading practices are bound. The “uncritical” reader, in particular the one who identifies too closely with characters, who invests too deeply in a plot, or who becomes a card-carrying member of an author’s fan club, remains a serious object of study, especially in light of theoretical developments in affect theory, digital humanities, and fan studies. Yet a slightly different argument also appears in the volume. This is the claim that religious readers, like Lynch’s literature loving readers, can be and in fact often are also critical readers. Michael Warner’s pious readers and Amy Hollywood’s mystical subjects have been joined in recent years by Mark Jordan’s convulsing bodies, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’s electric “copresences,” and Ashon Crawley’s stomping spirits. Yet despite the foundational role that religion plays in twenty-first century conversations about the history and value of critique, these religious figures seem largely to have disappeared from literary critical discussions of the issue.[v] Why are religious readers, particularly markedly embodied religious readers, absent from recent histories of literary criticism? Have they been forced to remain uncritical, scapegoats whose erasure enables other modes of putatively “uncritical” reading to be reclaimed as less excessive, credulous, or nonrational? Does postcriticism require a disavowal of the critical religious subject? These questions carry particular political relevance today, as the need for critical reading is ever more pressing and, simultaneously, the dangers of paranoia as the presumptive critical stance have become all too clear.

The essays collected here return to the questions raised in earlier scholarship about the interplay of love and the literary-critical enterprise by attending to the practices of devotion. Following Richard Rambuss’s claim that devotional texts “afford us a plethora of affectively charged sites for tracing the complex overlappings and relays between religious devotion and erotic desire, as well as between the interiorized operations of the spirit and the material conditions of the body,” the essays gathered here demonstrate the close relationship between literary reading, critical reading, and devotion. Attending to the intersections of devotional practices (among them, prayer, recitation, scriptural exegesis, meditation, and contemplation) and the rhetorical and literary arts (invention, poetry, and fiction), contributors explore the ways in which the reading, writing, and contemplative practices of Christianity contribute—both historically and in the present—to the training, cultivation, and disciplining of affective attachments to, investments in, and analyses of literature. Contributors also examine the relationship between religious devotion and the devotion to literature through analyses of the ways in which materiality and embodiment condition the connections between devotional practices and the textual arts.

The goal of this special issue, then, is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature. Most of the authors are scholars of religion, and we all work with the assumption that the putative secularity of literary study in English is largely a ruse. Rather, religious frameworks, sensibilities, and practices have been present in the study of English literature from the beginning, even at the moments when the literary was most strenuously attempting to differentiate itself from the religious. This is not only a more accurate account of contemporary critical frameworks and their evolution, but a signal of their limitations. Practices identified as the sole domain of a largely secular form of literary expertise may be more parochially Christian than their practitioners realize. Generalized understandings of literary devotion developed within these frameworks might inadvertently limit what is considered critical or rigorous, even literary.

We use the term “devotion” in its broadest sense in order to question and undo the epistemological restrictions generated by sharp distinctions between the secular and the religious. These essays pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to turn the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices. We follow Niklaus Largier’s proposal that those writing the history of Christian mysticism and secular modernity move away from identifying persistent motifs and intellectual paradigms shared by medieval mystics and modern intellectuals and, instead, toward an interrogation of the ways that practices of reading shape sensation, perception, and what he calls “a poetics or poiesis of experience.” We ask not only how religious practices are organized around literature but also how these practices are transmuted into putatively secular forms of devotion. How might one be “religiously devoted,” for example, in a political (devotion to candidate, cause, state), epistemological (devotion to methods and objects of disciplinary formation), or aesthetic (devotion to artistic pursuits, modes of experimentation, or artifacts of popular culture) sense? To what extent can we demarcate religious and nonreligious devotion, and what is at stake in attempts to do so?

Most importantly, perhaps, these essays demonstrate that the work of devotion is as much about the transformation wrought through it as it is about the specificity of its object. Moreover, as these essays show, this emphasis on transformation was already in place in the Christian Middle Ages. We collectively are interested in devotion not as a stance of subservience before a divine or human other, but as transformative practice. Devotion does not merely—or uncritically—receive, follow, and reinscribe predetermined patterns of thought or courses of action. The ends or outcomes of its critical performances are not fully known in advance, even when they are animated by identifiable desires. The essays in this issue thus read for textual accounts of devotional practices as well as the ways in which the text itself delivers or demands particular forms of practice. Read the full introduction free of charge …

ELEANOR CRAIG is Program Director and Lecturer for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights at Harvard University.

AMY HOLLYWOOD is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School and a member of the Committee for the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

KRIS TRUJILLO is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

On Memory and Memorials

Memory and Memorials in a Contested Age

(Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture

Wednesday, December 2 | 5pm PST | Online

UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities presents an event featuring Representations board members Stephen Best and Debarati Sanyal.

Recent conflicts over the politics of historical monuments suggest that we are living through a crisis of shared memory, and they remind us how complicated the processes of remembering and memorializing can be.

At a time when conversation across political and racial lines seems both fragile and necessary, it is crucial that we begin to reimagine a useable past. The humanities and arts, as disciplines deeply invested in the practices of memory, can help begin this reconsideration.

This conversation will ask questions about how we remember, now. How does art shape our memory and our sense of history? What types of historical representation matter in the current moment? How are we to approach the past during the pandemic, when the very practices of everyday life have been put on hold?

Stephen Best (UC Berkeley English) is a scholar of American and African-American literature and culture. His books include None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, which probes preoccupations with establishing the authority of the slave past in black life.

Debarati Sanyal (UC Berkeley French) is a scholar of modern French and Francophone literature. Her book Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Memory examines the transnational deployment of complicity in the aftermath of the Shoah.

Andrew Shanken (UC Berkeley Architecture) is an architectural and urban historian whose book 194X examines how architects and planners on the American home front anticipated the world after the Second World War. He is currently writing a cultural geography of memorials.

This event is part of the series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture, which examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us.

Click here to watch the livestream.

For more on memory and memorialization, see the following special issues of Representations from the archives:

Speaking of Law and Literature

Law and Literature: A Virtual Symposium

  

Join UC Berkeley’s English Department, School of Law, Center for the Study of Law and Society, Division of Arts and Humanities, Rhetoric Department, Jurisprudence Social Policy Program, and Townsend Center for the Humanities for a virtual symposium on the intersections between law and literature.

Register here to receive a personalized Zoom link to join the webinar.

Participants include Representations authors Marianne Constable and Julie Stone Peters and Representations editorial board member Samera Esmeir.

SCHEDULE:

9:30 – 11:00 am

Peter Goodrich (Yeshiva)
Bernadette Meyler (Stanford)
Julie Stone Peters (Columbia)
Marco Wan (Hong Kong)
Chair: Marianne Constable (UC Berkeley)

11:15 am – 12:45 pm

Elizabeth S. Anker (Cornell)
Poulomi Saha (UC Berkeley)
Jeanne-Marie Jackson (Johns Hopkins)
Mona Oraby (Amherst)
Chair: Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley)

1:45 pm – 3:15 pm

Susanna Blumenthal (Minnesota)
Bradin Cormack (Princeton)
Simon Stern (Toronto)
Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard)
Chair: Christopher Tomlins (UC Berkeley)

3:30 – 5:00 pm

Marlene Daut (Virginia)
Desmond Jagmohan (UC Berkeley)
Beth Piatote (UC Berkeley)
Eric Slauter (Chicago)
Chair: Samera Esmeir (UC Berkeley)

 

Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher on the New Grand Narratives

Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now?

An online conversation sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities
Thursday, Oct 29, 2020 5:00 pm PDT

 

Every previous major disaster in human history, from the Black Plague to the Great Depression, has elicited a reimagination of the world, a reinvention of collective life through culture. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The arts and humanities — two areas of inquiry that focus on value and meaning — provide crucial resources for reconceptualizing our lives together during, and after, our current crisis.

The series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us. Top scholars, writers, and artists at UC Berkeley discuss how their disciplines, and the skills and abilities fostered by their fields, can help in our efforts to reimagine and rebuild.

In the second event of this series, Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher discuss Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now? Two decades ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced that in the postmodern era, the “grand narratives” that had shaped culture and ideas — Marxism, positivism, psychoanalysis — were dead. His statement has proven true, both inside and outside the university. Philosophical systems, canons of knowledge, even essential ideas of national history seem to have eroded over the past several decades.

Anthony Cascardi is dean of arts and humanities and the Sidney and Margaret Ancker Distinguished Professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. His book Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics won the Renaissance Society’s Gordan Prize for best book of the year in Renaissance studies.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English. Her 2018 book Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction examines narratives of events that never occurred — such as the South winning the Civil War, and JFK escaping assassination. The book won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society. Gallagher is a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

Click here to watch the livestream.

Transimperial Colloquium

Sat Oct 24, 2020, 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM Pacific Time

Online via  Zoom. Registration Required. All are welcome!
Contact John James johnjames@berkeley.edu for registration and Zoom information.

 

A roundtable of international scholars considers the work of Sukanya Banerjee on the occasion of her recent addition to the UC Berkeley English Department. Professor Banerjee’s 2018 Victorian Literature and Culture essay “Transimperial” will serve as the touchstone for a discussion ranging across the various topics and fields addressed in her recent work.

Pdf of “Transimperial” will be provided. Attendees are invited to submit questions beforehand or to use the Chat/Q&A function during the colloquium.

Moderator: John James (UC Berkeley)
Speakers: Alicia Mireles Christoff (Amherst College)
Ian Duncan (UC Berkeley)
Elaine Freedgood (New York University)
Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand)
Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis)
Nasser Mufti (University of Illinois, Chicago)
James Vernon (UC Berkeley)

Debarati Sanyal on Black Struggle

The Social Contract and the Game of Monopoly: Listening to Kimberly Jones on Black Lives

A short essay by Debarati Sanyal posted on In the Midst, blog of the journal Critical Times, June 29, 2020

In the piece, Sanyal discusses an impromptu monologue by activist Kimberley Jones that has since gone viral. She writes, “Jones challenges us to examine a social contract that has always been rigged, that remains grounded in property rights instead of human rights.”

Debarati Sanyal is professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. The author of The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form (2006) and Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (2015), translated in French as Mémoire et complicité: Au prisme de la Shoah (2019), she is completing a book on borders, race and aesthetics in the European refugee “crisis.” Her essay Calais’s “Jungle”: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance appeared in Representations 139.

New Issue, Representations 148

NOW AVAILABLE

Representations 148, Fall 2019


 

  • Field Notes

      • Upcoming in Representations 149: ALINE GUILLERMET on Vera Molnar’s computer paintings; ANDREW COUNTER on Wilde, Zola, and Dreyfus; KENT PUCKETT on the RAND Corporation ; PETER DE BOLLA, RYAN HEALEY, EWAN JONES, PAUL NULTY, GABRIEL RECCHIA, and JOHN REGAN on the uses of genre; and an Untimely Review of Epistemology of the Closet by Whitney Davis. (Coming in February.)

Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: An Ethnography

The Ethos and Telos of Michoacán’s Knights Templar

by Claudio Lomnitz

After a brief introduction, the essay begins:

Aporia of the “Cartel”

Since the drug war’s inception in 2006, organized and disorganized violence has claimed approximately 200,000 lives in Mexico, and more than 30,000 people have “disappeared.” In the thirteen years that have transpired since then, more people have been killed in Mexico’s war than in the US invasion of Iraq, and more have been forcibly “disappeared” than during Argentina’s Dirty War. Illegal economies have been revolutionized along the way, in processes that Natalia Mendoza has called “cartelization,” which started with the privatization of trade routes for illegal border traffic, most notably of drugs and migrants, and with the development of a bureaucracy within the illegal economy. Contrary to the general prejudice, “cartels” are not reliant on trade in illegal drugs in any transcendental sense; they rely essentially on the armed privatization of public space, the ransom of public liberties, and the forcible appropriation of public goods.

Because cartelization depends crucially on exacting tribute in exchange for protection, cartels can be seen as the privateers of deregulation, and in Mexico they are involved in the regulation of activities as diverse as drug running, undocumented migration, mining, fishing, logging, commercial agriculture, street vending, prostitution, illegal gasoline traffic, construction, arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. They are known as “drug cartels” because the vast wealth that poured in from drug trafficking in the 1990s helped leverage a diversification of activities, most notably in the business of transnational migration, but drugs are not indispensable to cartelization. Protection, territorial control, and the credible fear of unbridled violence are. Indeed, territorial control is an essential requisite for cartelization, but local entrenchment brings with it a core tension, that is, a tension between protection and extortion.

This antinomy between protection and extortion is expressed in social-organizational form as ambivalence between the representation of the cartel as a ruthless business and as a family-like guardian against, or coldly indifferent or downright hostile to, outside forces (such as the government). This tension between bureaucratic and familistic paradigms is inherent in the process of cartelization itself. Indeed, once cartelization sets in, the opposition between the “social bandit” and the regular unmarked brigand gets deeply complicated, because these two modes of criminal self-fashioning must be strategically juggled by the cartel and by individual operators at all times. This is because gaining territorial control requires some degree of redistribution such that a patriarchal rhetoric of protection naturally develops, but the final aim of cartel control is amassing unrestrained translocal organizational power and freely circulating private wealth. As a result, the contradiction between the familistic “man of the people” and the “strictly business” conceits of criminal self-fashioning is an aporia that runs through the whole of the so-called narcoculture. Indeed, the new cultures of criminality that are emerging in Mexico are forged in the space of precisely this contradiction.

The Pledge of the Knights Templar

In what follows, I focus on the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) and, tangentially, on La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacano Family), the organization from which the Templarios stemmed. These two drug cartels are often seen as exceptionally “bizarre and deadly” because they developed what has been characterized as “religious” and “messianic” components. Their exceptionality, however, has a strategic component that reflects and reveals a cultural logic that transcends the Michoacán case.

Michoacán has long been a marihuana producing state, and its Tierra Caliente region has also produced opium poppy since the 1950s. When Colombian cocaine started to be channeled to the United States through Mexican middlemen in the early 1990s, however, the value and scale of Mexico’s drug business surged. The much-galvanized cartels that emerged from this process had their home bases on or near the border, and one, the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel and its “praetorian guard,” Los Zetas, took notice of Michoacán as a valuable asset. This was because Michoacán’s city of Lázaro Cárdenas is Mexico’s largest and most modern port on the Pacific Ocean, and a rail line had been built connecting Lázaro Cardenas to Texas, passing through Mexico’s burgeoning automotive and aerospace manufacturing region in the Bajío. In addition, Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente was home to experienced drug producers and runners, along with a thriving but relatively weak local crime organization known as Los Valencias. Given this tempting combination of factors, the Zetas decided to oust Los Valencias and take control of the state.

In order to do this, they relied on the leadership of a number of Michoacano operators, some of whom later staged a rebellion against the Zetas, forming an organization that differentiated itself by stressing their own local roots and commitments. This was the origin, in 2006, of La Familia Michoacana, whose identitarian strategy for seeking local support against the Zetas lies at the origin of the apparently exceptional familistic and religious bent of both La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, which emerged in 2011. The Templarios’ principal innovation was its code of honor. Thus, whereas La Familia portrayed itself loosely as an organization of Michoacanos pledged to protect the interests of the population of that state, the Caballeros Templarios thought of themselves as sworn members of a quasi-religious order with strict rules of induction for its members.

The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán (Código de los caballeros templarios de Michoacán) is a twenty-three-page document composed of fifty-three articles, chivalrous illustrations, and the text of the “Templar’s Oath.” It establishes in article 5 that no one who has not been inducted through the proper ritual and sworn to uphold the code may be admitted to the order, and in article 7 it imposes a vow of silence on all its members. Knights Templar must also believe in God (article 9), struggle against materialism (article 10), and fight against injustice and in defense of the values of society (articles 10-14). They must value freedom of expression and freedom of religion (article 15), foment patriotism (article 18), be chivalrous and courteous (articles 19 and 21), be respectful and protective of women (article 22), be sober and good humored (article 30), observe hierarchical discipline (article 31), abstain from killing without approval of the council (article 41), and forfeit their lives and that of their families if they betray the order (article 52).

Despite its punctilious effort at regimentation, and despite its belabored parallels both with the medieval order of the Knights Templar, or perhaps with the Freemason Lodge that existed with that same name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural significance of this effort of turning an extremely violent crime organization into a chivalrous order is anything but transparent. Indeed, even the code’s practical significance within the organization is murky. In part, this is because the Knights Templar had only a brief flourishing, from approximately 2011 to 2014, which is hardly long enough to consolidate a knightly ethos. The moral code of the Knights Templar was thus more a project than a well-established ritual order.

Moreover, we still know comparatively little about just how much of an effort the Knights Templar actually invested in shaping a unified ritual system. It is true that the writings of Nazario Moreno, who was the guiding intellect of the Knights Templar, were widely distributed amongst members of the organization and that Templar culture and propaganda was on show in the regional capitals of Uruapan, Morelia, and Apatzingán, but we don’t know the degree to which these displays were complemented by a routine drilling of new recruits or whether the distribution of publications was instead oriented to shaping a public image and, as such, was simply a part of the Templario propaganda machine.

To these considerations—insufficient time for institutional consolidation and insufficient information on the operative uses of Nazario Moreno’s key texts—I must add still a third, which is that, like all other drug organizations of this period, the Caballeros Templarios arose and declined in the midst of a war. They expanded rapidly for a time, then contracted and are now dispersed. To consolidate a knightly order under conditions of competitive recruitment and changing allegiances isn’t easy, and it seems likely that the Templars had only limited time and space for the indoctrination of newcomers, especially once the group began to expand into territories beyond Michoacán. Indeed, there is an inherent disconnect between the creation of a knightly order and recruiting an army, which is what the drug war demanded. As a result, the moral code of the Knights Templar was only briefly and unevenly implemented, while the degree to which it was adopted by the organization’s rank and file is still very much in question. Even so, the fleeting phenomenon of this cartel’s moral project provides a useful vantage from which to interrogate the connection between changing mores and Mexico’s narcoculture. Continue reading …

In this essay, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz  mounts an ethnographic exploration of the ethos and mores of Mexico’s contemporary drug culture. He shows that Mexican drug organizations, in their dedication to the business of privatizing public goods, are thus at the same time parallel state structures and trust-based organizations of brothers working to build a collective future. The essay emphasizes the cultural elaboration of competing communitarian and bureaucratic organizational forms and ideals in order to explore the leadership style and moral codes of honor of the Knights Templar, underscoring the centrality of transnational movement in the invention of an acutely gender- and class-based culture of violent domination and caste formation.

CLAUDIO LOMNITZ teaches anthropology at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to the Mexico City press.  He is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico (Zone Books, 2005) and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014), among other works.  His most recent book is Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018).

Good Pain?

“No Pain, No Gain” and the History of Presence

by Shigehisa Kuriyama

The essay begins:

If you think about it, “No pain, no gain” is a very strange saying. It exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. Pain is arguably the barest, most primal experience of the bad; and yet “No pain, no gain!” enthusiastically lauds pain as a good to be actively pursued, promoting it even, as the sole source of the good. Which seems not only odd and paradoxical, but also almost willfully perverse—and makes us wonder how such a saying came to be so widely recited as common sense.

Bodybuilders in 1970s America were among its earliest champions. “No pain, no gain” became known as the motto of the celebrated muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and appeared regularly in advertisements, as the catchphrase, for example, of Soloflex weight training machines. But the saying soon spread beyond devotees of muscle sculpting and was adopted by countless other Americans aspiring just to be healthy and fit. For vast legions of joggers and exercise enthusiasts, the “No pain, no gain” motto voiced a diffuse but earnest faith in the need for a certain strenuousness. Any exercise worthy of the name, any truly effective workout, had to hurt a bit. “Feel the burn!” Jane Fonda urged the sweating and panting followers of her popular aerobics videos. “No pain, no gain!”

There were critics, to be sure. Although “No pain, no gain” was championed as a mantra of fitness, it had scarcely caught hold when it was denounced, intriguingly, by precisely those experts who knew the body best. Physicians called it a foolish misconception, “macho nonsense.” “Physical pain,” one doctor wrote, “is the body’s way of saying that what you are doing goes beyond its limits.” It was a message, nature’s warning against harm, and by ignoring pain aspirants to fitness actually risked serious injury.

Athletic trainers, too, were critical. “Learn to listen to the body,” one counseled:

The “no pain no gain” philosophy is wrong and suited only to masochists. If any activity causes pain, reduce the intensity of the workout or stop the activity altogether, at least for a while.

To ignore pain is foolish, to embrace it is a perversion. The belief that gain demanded pain, that one could enhance the body only by making it hurt, declared a trainer in 1986, was “the most damaging myth in athletics and fitness.” Articles debunking the myth were common, and “No pain, no gain” was cited far more often in condemnation than in praise.

And yet, the belief persisted—and still persists, as witnessed by the criticisms, which also persist. This is what is strangest. Although doctors and athletic trainers regularly attacked “No pain, no gain” as dangerous folly, their need to keep repeating their attacks bespoke the appeal and resilience of the idea. “No pain, no gain” is one of those primordial certainties that mere science cannot easily shake. The arguments against overexertion—the need to heed pain as a warning and the wisdom of moderation—all sound sensible and are backed by expert opinion. But they somehow fail to reach the roots of conviction. Somehow, the tie between pain and gain just feels true, despite the ostensible oddity of seeking the good in the bad, despite the risk of lasting bodily harm.

I want to excavate the archaeology of this deeply felt truth. Once a saying gains common currency, we often cease to reflect on how or why it became common, or even what it really means. Yet if ever there was a notion that called for serious reflection, it is surely the idea of good pain. Few of us would claim that all pain is good, and most of us would probably agree that most pain is bad. But the popularity of “No pain, no gain” suggests that there is a special kind of pain that is widely considered a definite and necessary good. I want to probe the nature of this exception, and trace the history of how and why this pain became special. Continue reading …

“No pain, no gain” exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. It promotes the idea of good pain. In this essay, cultural historian Shigehisa Kuriyama excavates the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of good pain and situates the modern slogan in the context of a profound change in the experience of presence.

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. His book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999) received the 2001 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. His recent work includes studies on the history of distraction, the happiness of happenings, the transformation of money into a palpable humor, hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine, and the web of connections binding ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG.

Torture and Truth

Is There Truth in Pain?

by Darius Rejali

The essay begins:

The general problem is one familiar to many scholars whose careful work founders on public resistance. The particular form that interests me concerns scholarly work on torture. Many scholars feel there is truth to be discovered in pain, and therefore torture reveals or extracts truths, at least sometimes. I’m interested in reflecting on this disposition.

Scholarly work in this area seems to break repeatedly on the rocks of what Aristotle calls endoxa, items of thought that might be based on empirical observations, perceptual evidence, or things that we might not call observations at all—such as propositions that strike people as true or commonly said or believed. For Aristotle, these include common dispositions like “the many are wiser than the few” or “the fewer are wiser than the many” or, as he discusses in the Rhetoric, the belief that “torture works.”

Some scholars also argue sincerely that torture “works,” and they make arguments in service of their political or moral views. These scholars don’t concern me here. They share in a community of reason, where their arguments and evidence can be evaluated. What interests me instead is how many people simply don’t care about these pro-torture arguments. They don’t cite the pro-torture scholars, nor do they pay them much attention. They already know that torture works to produce truth. They believe pain yields truth, and thus torture works. Maybe not always, but torture works sometimes, they say. Even people who oppose torture sometimes privately confess: I would have confessed the truth under torture even if you say it won’t work. Secretly, they feel that pain and discovering the truth are related.

I find this curious. So in 2008 I began to itemize the cultural elements that subtly, in their own way, support the belief that there is truth in pain. In this paper, I’m going to talk about four endoxa. For three of them, I can’t claim any originality; they are well known—all I do is link them to torture specifically. I will not endeavor to offer their genealogies—though I will gesture to their necessary components. The fourth, the story of Zahra and the saints, arises from my own research in the psychiatric files of torture victims.

In what follows, I speak of torture. For my purposes, I don’t think it matters whether we are talking about torture for confessions or information, or as a means of deterrence—in fact, the endoxa I identify cloud the distinction and merge them by various means. Likewise, I would argue that one reason the definition of torture is hazy and contested is because these endoxa blur the edges between what we do publicly and privately, between what is true of us and true of others, between torture and other ordinary activities. Continue reading …

In this essay Darius Rejali explores four ways in which we believe truth can be found in painful experiences, even among those people who doubt that torture “works.” These endoxa, or commonplace beliefs, tap into deep human anxieties—about manhood, the maintenance of a just world, the meaning of suffering, and the possibility of transcending injustice. As such, they make it difficult for people to hear arguments against torture, including coerced interrogation. The essay suggests alternative ways of engaging these beliefs while acknowledging the challenge of dislodging them.

DARIUS REJALI is Professor of Political Science at Reed College and the author of the award-winning book Torture and Democracy (2007). Interviewed widely, Rejali is an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, and he has submitted testimony for Guantanamo- and Abu Ghraib-related cases.