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New Texts Out Now: Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber, Speaking about Torture

[Cover of [Cover of "Speaking about Torture"]

Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber, editors. Speaking about Torture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?

Julie Carlson (JC) and Elisabeth Weber (EW): This is the first book to take up the issue of torture from the array of approaches offered by the arts and humanities. In the post 9/11 era, our volume seeks to challenge the surprisingly widespread acceptance of state-sanctioned torture among Americans, including academics and the media entertainment complex. Speaking about Torture claims that the concepts and techniques practiced in the humanities have a special contribution to make to this debate, going beyond what is usually deemed a matter of policy for experts in government and the social sciences. It contends that the way one speaks about torture—including the fact that one speaks about it—is key to comprehending, legislating, and eradicating torture. We cannot discuss torture without taking into account the assaults on truth, memory, subjectivity, and language that the humanities theorize and that experience of torture perpetuates. Such accounts are crucial to framing the silencing and demonizing that accompanies the practice and representation of torture.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

JC and EW: The essays are written by scholars in literary analysis, philosophy, history, film and media studies, musicology, and art history working in the US, Europe, and the Middle East.

In their diversity, the essays show why humanistic inquiry is vital to social policy legislation and what it contributes to anti-torture advocacy. Policy discussions on torture need to incorporate the reconceptualizations of subjectivity, opposition, law, and representation that humanist discourse, especially post-1945, has pursued. Otherwise, the representation and litigation of torture are impossible because of the threats to language, community, memory, and consciousness that experiences of torture entail. It is therefore crucial to conduct this debate in a variety of disciplines, as our volume does.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

JC: As a scholar of British Romanticism, my work has always considered the psycho-social efficacy of imagination and the promise of the liberal arts to envision more habitable worlds. I explore writers for whom intertextuality is one form of intersubjectivity in order better to understand and assist in productive exchanges between forms of life and of art—including each of their resistances to and perpetuations of violence on the other.

EW: Throughout my career, I have been concerned with the philosophical reflection on and literary representation of massive human rights violations. In particular, I have worked on French and German writers, philosophers, and psychoanalysts who wrote in the aftermath of the annihilation of the European Jews by Nazi Germany.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JC and EW: This volume is addressed to scholars from all fields, but also to readers outside of academia. In our view, it is necessary to question the consequences of the use of torture on the principles and practices of scholarship and education. By either openly or passively condoning torture, for example through silence, educators send a devastating message not only to their students but also to the community at large: that torture is acceptable. Especially in the humanities, where cutting edge thinking explores concepts and experiences such as “responsibility,” “otherness,” “difference,” “sovereignty,” “memory,” and “trauma,” our work becomes irrelevant if, today, we ignore the issue of torture. At the same time, we believe that the perspectives of social science alone cannot adequately comprehend what is at stake and that humanistic understandings of these concepts are essential to formulating an ethics and politics of response and resistance.

J: How would you like to see this book affect current discussions (and silences) about torture?

JC and EW: The authors in the collection write out of the conviction that torture does not work to elicit truth, secure justice, or maintain security. They engage in various ways with the limits that torture imposes while also confronting the complicity of artists and humanists in torture through their silence, forms of silencing, and classic means of representation. Acknowledging this history is central to the volume's advocacy of forms of witness offered and summoned by the humanities.

In addition, we need to reflect on a heritage that may resonate in today’s practices of torture and is mirrored in the lack of public outcry. We need to ask how what seems to be a massive public indifference can be understood beyond the influence of mainstream media. Can this indifference be understood as embedded in a specifically American tradition, for example in a concept like “American exceptionalism” that has allowed the US to routinely ignore international law, while at the same time presenting itself as the champion of democracy and human rights?

As the work of Colin Dayan, Angela Davis, Avery Gordon, and others shows, there are unspoken links between the acceptability of torture, on the one hand, and the American penal system, including the death penalty, on the other.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JC: I am working on a book that explores the interrelation between books and friends in post-1790s British radical culture. In the wake of so-called failed dreams of revolution, it considers how writers rethink the promise of being a “friend of man” and of the perfectibility achieved through literate culture by exploring famous fights between best friend-writers in the period and the impact of these fights on notions of criticism and “defences” (arguably of poetry).

EW: I am working on another edited collection entitled Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace. It is scheduled to be published later this year. I also hope to work more on Poems from Guantánamo, the collection we address in our introduction.

Excerpt from Speaking about Torture

The essays that comprise Speaking about Torture share the convictions that torture does not work to elicit truth, secure justice, or maintain security, and that its work is to undermine the existence, sustainability, and grievability of speaking subjects. They engage in various ways with the limits that torture imposes: to language, on subjects and community, by government officials. Several essays focus on poems, visual media, and survivor accounts of torture and terrorizing incidents produced since 9/11 in Iraq, Iran, Gaza, and the United States; others enlist textual and visual depictions of past atrocities to mobilize resistance to contemporary torture and/or aesthetic representations of it. Some explore the responsibility of censorship for torture, while others hold saturation by media images and discussions responsible for public indifference in the United States. A couple of essays call for an expanson of the judicial definition of torture in light, not only of its widespread practice, but also full-scale assault on the daily lives of subject peoples. As a whole, then, the essays analyze the "us" that is complicit in torture, as well as the "us" whose possibilities for living are radically curtailed through torture's terrorizing mechanisms and legacy, while at the same time working to weaken the us/them, West/East binaries so integral to the history of torture. Among other things, this means that our volume confronts the complicity of artists and humanists in torture, even as our volume also stakes a claim for the special relevance of artistic and humanist practice to a comprehension of torture that better augurs its eradication.

Emphasizing this interaction works in a variety of ways. One approach taken by several essays is to offer analyses of literary texts and visual media critical of torture that are equally critical of certain artistic methods of representation for condoning torture. Given that the US public is hardly ignorant of the facts of torture, certainly after the widespread circulation of photographs from Abu Ghraib in April 2004, anti-torture advocates have to reckon with the various ways that art itself desensitizes people—positions them not to see the bodily and psychic torment of others. Humanist inquiry has long explored how aesthetic representation serves a politics of representations invested in maintaining dominant forms of power. Torture intensifies the stakes of this interconnection because (a) those traditionally silenced by Western culture, whether conceived as external or internal aliens, are frequently the targets of the existential silencing produced or sought through torture; (b) recourse to aesthetic representation by Western anti-torture advocates is inherently suspect because of its illustrious history of denying voice, agency, or sympathy to such others; and (c) institutional and avant-garde media are as often agents of censorship as subject to it.

Not surprisingly, the realm of visual culture comes in for special scrutiny in these essays, owing to the long-standing philosophical relation of sight to masculinist forms of power and to the compromising merger of cultural and financial capital that undergirds the fine arts, museum culture, and the Holly wood film industry. Essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Hamid Dabashi, Viola Shafik, and Stephen Eisenman variously pursue this charge, evaluating forms and venues of media in relation to their putative distance from repressive aesthetic, religious, and materialist practices. Surveying a range of artistic responses to post-9/11 torture, Solomon-Godeau considers to what extent their form contradicts the political work of these works and promotes the surrealist tactic of détournement as one way of seeing through what official images and representations seek to affirm. Eisenman effects a similar image exposure by showing how the long history of torture iconography trains viewers to see victims as accepting their own chastisement and destruction, a phenomenon that he suggestes helps to explain lack of public outcry over waterboarding owing to its baptismal resonances. Dabashi compares the oversaturation of images of Abu Ghraib in the United States to an underexposure of Iranian responses to abuses at the Kahrizak prison in Tehran in order to showcase how both visual regimes aim at the same effect: erasing events from memory, a cover-up of reality, whether through benumbing or fear. Exploring a similar opposition in the treatment of torture by Hollywood and Middle Eastern films, Shafik finds an underlying consensus in their joint displacement of racial onto gendered antagonisms. The painter John Nava, while employing figural painting, equally avoids the risk of spectacle and voyeurism. His high school- or college-age subjects wear T-shirts recording the language of protest, but also the irresponsibile language of the torture architects.

A second approach explores poetic langugage in its capacity to go beyond representational impasses in two respects: through adherence to the potential untranslatability or singularity of witnessing and by facilitating modes of imaginative sympathy that actually respond to the other's reality or pain through effecting "uncoercive rearrangements of desire" that Gayatri Spivak claims only training in the humanities promises to achieve. Several essays examine texts that shape a silence while breaking it in responding to Abu Ghraib, the Shoah, or the dirty wars in Argentina. Sinan Antoon translates and analyzes two poems by the "only two Iraqi poets" so far to public poems about Abu Ghraib, in contrast to the "hundred of articles and essays" published in the Arab world on the topic. His readings of Saadi Youssef's "The Wretched of the Heavens" and Sargon Bulus's "The Corpse" attend to the strategies they employ at once to affirm and bypass pain's resistance to language. Through close scrutiny of the textual fabric of Améry's At the Mind's Limits, Elisabeth Weber develops confirmation of the Derridian account of poetic witnessing by showing how Améry remaps the semantic field of the word Verfleishlichung to bespeak the "fleshization" unique to the experience of torture. That is, in contrast to the "Fleishwerdung" (the becoming flesh of God) articulated in the Gospel of John, Améry's poetic intervention depicts an incarnation devoid of any trace of spirit. Weber and Susan Derwin, in her account of Primo Levi and Améry, pursue a related implication of torture's Verfleishlichung: the desolating solitude of this reduction-to-flesh that leaves the survivor, the ghosted one, no longer at home in the world. 

This possibility, audible in Levi’s haunting query, “if this is a man,” links the capacity to communicate with an expectation of aid that is necessary for receptivity to alterity, a connection explored in various ways by Derwin, Reinhold Görling, and Colin Dayan. As Derwin and Görling explore, the mother-infant relation positions the mother as witness in ways that allow the child to learn to bear pain and to find him- or herself in a world that is intersubjective, made up by and through others, including through fantasy. For Görling, this “game of recognition,” essential for negotiating human vulnerability, underlies the theatricality of culture and the various stagings through which persons are social and become socialized. This theatrical process of recognition is precisely what torture undoes, but also, as Görling demonstrates, what it enlists in designing its deculturalizing intents. Dayan instances one such unholy conflation in her reflection on Operation Cast Lead (late December 2008) in Gaza, whose name invokes a children’s poem about a dreidel, one such game through which language and be-longing are acquired. Peter Szendy and Christian Grüny explore another in their joint attention to the use of loud music, not merely loud noise, as a form of torture new to the post-9/11 scene. They pinpoint the particular devastation of this refinement on non-touch torture, where now the victim’s mind, not only body, is turned into a weapon against itself. Owing to the patterned repetitions of music, these sounds come to sound as if they “want something,” part of their want being eradication of the bare-minimal distancing available in the capacity to anticipate physical violence.

Such accounts, then, not only explore but also themselves make visible the aproetic stance of poetic witnessing: the creating of words and affective responses that can be said to address survival, even if, and as, they show themselves incapable of addressing survivors or speaking adequately on their behalf. This appeal to, and for, futurity is what Julie Carlson identifies in Percy Bysshe Shelley's defense of poetry, by which poetry's exercise of imagination strengthens not only the capacity but also the desire to expand a person's or culture's range of sympathy, an exercise that entails a rigorous resistance to sentiment and sentimental fictions, chief among them the presumed humanity of love for one's biological family. Dayan and Darieck Scott variously deepen this insistence in their accounts of places where extraordinary violence is quotidian and where this fact is what makes such levels of violence seem "reasonable." Dayan asserts that Palestinians living in Gaza, where the land itself becomes a prison and basic daily activities are designed to foster a "collapse of personality," retaining a strictly juridical definition of torture only perpetuates the terror—as instances by Israeli and US dismissal of the Goldstone Commission that alleged war crimes against the population of the Gaza Strip in its report on Operation Cast Lead. Instead, Dayan favors Aimé Césaire's definition of torture as "the gigantic rape of everything intimate," a conclusion to which Carlson's reading of Shelley's The Cenci, in its linkage of sexual to state violence, also tends.

The validity of Césaire's definition is confirmed toward different ends by Scott's reading of Samuel Delany's violent and sexually explicit Hogg and the difficulties that Delany encountered in getting his novel published. "For nothing encourages the practice of political torture and sabotages the pursuit of happiness more"—here Scott quoting Delany—"then blanket restrictions on speaking, in precise, articulate, and graphic terms about either." As Scott and Hogg show, assessing the radical homelessness to which survivors are consigned requires recognizing the structural fit between violence and sexual fantasy activity as well as recognizing how societal arrangements foster victimization of its more vulnerable citizens—a lesson often first learned at home because one's vulnerability positions one as prey and because the impregnability of the home from violence is a fantasy. To refuse to acknowledge the appetitie for torture is insance, which is why censorship serves its perpetuation. Richard Falk moves censorship closer to the institutional homes of academics in assessing the grounds for possible university sanctions against Professor John Yoo. Objecting to growing encroachments on academic freedom evident in the punitive treatment of professors like Ward Churchill, Falk contends that Yoo's support of the torture policies of the Bush presidency is safeguarded by academic freedom, but actionable on grounds relating to his duties as a professor of international law teaching the next generation of lawyers.

A primary mechanism by which everyday censorship is effected, Scott writes, is euphemism, a signifying capacity with enormous import to humanist responses to torture. As Hajjar's chronology of post 9/11 US torture-related activity makes clear, at every point borderline or outright illegal activities were authorized through changing the name by which they were called: from "torture" to "enhanced interrogation techniques," from "kidnapping" to "extraordinary rendition," from "citizen" to "unlawful enemy combatant," from "human" to "terrorist." The other side of the ramifying, disseminative powers of poetic language, euphemism works to clamp down, lock down possibilities, to avow, by disavowing (and vice versa), the iron hand of the law. This capacity to disavow, facilitated by the public's media-induced amnesia, is how, according to Alfred McCoy, torture debates stay mired in impunity—the situation we are in now under the Obama administration. McCoy offers the "most elemental tool" of the discipline of history, chronology, as an antidote to this oblivion by displaying a pattern of recurrence of CIA torture that is the first step toward preventing future occurrences.

Euphemism is often viewed as a fairly harmless, at times even humane, way of depicting a harsh reality in less offensive terms. However, its use has created a situation in which US national security has been rendered insecure in its very legal foundations and where prosecuting crimes against humanity is now on shakier grounds in the United States than ever. In light of the rulings and legal setbacks of the last few years (including the National Defense Authorization Act 2012), the harmfulness of indulging in euphemism is placed in stark relief. Whether we can resecure our anti-torture foundations is difficult to say. At a minimum, doing so requires respecting the difficulties of language and truth that are hallmarks of inquiry in the humanities.

[Excerpted from Speaking about Torture, edited by Julie A. Carlson and Elisabeth Weber, by permission of the editors. Copyright © 2012 by Fordham University Press, Inc. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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