Tuesday, December 31, 2013


To even consider the topic of torture is to invite intervention and rejection by others.  Even as protected and entitled a person as Elaine Scarry uses a framework to approach the subject.  More frank than most people are prepared to be, Scarry invokes Amnesty International, an institution generally agreed to be “good” beyond reproach.  “Beyond” is the right word because it is about writing letters from faraway people neither tortured nor torturing, acting on conscience and compassion for people they don't know.  The political motives are muted.

Scarry comes to the conclusion that there are three “simultaneous phenomena” in the structure of torture.

1.  the infliction of pain
2.  the objectification of the subjective attributes of pain ( to the suffering one, the instruments, the room of confinement, the furniture become instruments of pain)
3.  the translation of the objectified attributes of pain into the insignia of power (“I collapse your world so mine prevails.”)

She does not talk much about the commodification of torture by making it entertainment, though she mentions the historical crowds who watched beheading, hanging, truth-testing through ordeals, and so on.  

For weeks I’ve been working my way through the series called “Alias,” devised by J.J. Abrams, which at first seems to be about a strong beautiful woman who is powerful on the side of good.   She is regularly tortured, usually by electroshock, poison, or other technical and scientific means, but is only temporarily disoriented.  Her core personality is the conviction that she knows what is worthy and good and therefore must resist two “fathers” who move in and out of being good.  She loves her biological father, though he has killed her biological mother, and hates her boss-father, though he often acts to save her.  Both purport to want to protect her, but don’t.  Her boyfriend, understandably, has the perpetually worried face of a hound dog.

The show is fascinating because of the actress who shapeshifts her way through one wiggy disguise, after another.  CGI seems to have little to do with her transformations, though clever editing helps a lot.  The goal is not magic but stubborn thinking that preserves her sense of herself and her goal.  She is childlike in many ways, never quite violated in the way a grown woman might be.  The worst tortures are the ones inflicted on her friends because she is full of empathy for them.  This demographic is young adults.  The show is not realistic, but it is playing with some very real and troubling forces in our culture: the acceptance of violence, the resentment by men who would like to torture women, the idea that evil forces are supernatural, and so on.

Leave that.  Scarry’s premise is that torture renders the person inarticulate, in fact, collapses their ability to maintain a self in a world-context.  The book promises that by the end of the discussion, it will be shown that the self can claim itself back through creative expression, rebuilding a world.  This is certainly the premise of “talking cure” in PTSD cases.  If I can stand reading that long, I’ll report.

But I think one of the most powerful points Scarry makes has been made in other places as well:  that to say torture is a way of discovering information is a scam, a deception.  The thought-eliminating pain is supposedly inflicted in an oxymoronic way for the sake of “intel,” as “Alias” would style it.  Yet it denies the intelligence of the victim, motivates lying and distorting.  Scarry says, It became clear that torture often is carried out when a country ceases to believe in itself, and therefore there is a certain element of spectacle involved in it.”  

Entertainment and mockery of the enemy (photos at Abu Graib) are disguised ways to assert importance and power when in fact it is not there.  (Nazi or Red Chinese spectacles.)  Torture is based on lying, not truth.  Scarry says, “In Chile the torture room was called the “blue-lit stage” and in the Philippines it was called the “production room” and in South Vietnam it was called the “cinema room.”  Torturers fancy themselves as J.J. Abrams?  Certainly they are denying the reality of the victim’s world.  They are denying compassion and love as efficacious guides to virtue.  The “information” idea is a self-deception on the part of the torturer -- if he or she needs one.  Once tortured, the victim knows nothing.

Water-boarding or space walking in a helmet filling with water?  This is stunt crew working on the actress for the sake of the story -- not the story itself.  So what is it?  Torture for art?

Now I’m leaving Scarry.  “Helpers” in our culture -- like doctors, social workers and teachers -- feel justified in closely questioning suffering people.  They want to know just exactly what kind of pain is being felt, they want to know “why” people feel that way, why they insist on their own world instead of the helper world.  Demanding that suffering people justify their self-damaging practices adds to the torture.  If they knew the cause, if they wanted to change, if they understood how to do it, why would they need the helpers?  Questioning them just underlines the power and entitlement of the helper, at least in the helper’s world.  It denies their own creative powers by setting the terms of communication.  It blames them for their own suffering.

Scarry spends a bit of time on phantom pain, which has been studied constructively lately, esp. by Dr. Ramachandran whose mirror therapy seems to convince the brain that the limb is there, then gone, in a way the brain can accept.  But how do we get our culture to address its phantom terrorism fears, to find what is real, accept that, then know when it is gone?  Both are matters of thinking, of the construction of reality in the brain.  What happens in a culture that has no reality but what it constructs -- but isn't that EVERY culture?

Let’s leave the notorious and lurid realms of international terrorism.  I’m more immediately interested in the schism between the worlds of adults and young people in our own quiet communities and the lengths to which we are willing to go in order to coerce young people into denying their own worlds, even if it means a withdrawal into sullen silence and hidden anguish.  HIV-AIDS workshops worry about how to “reach” youngsters in order to get them to test themselves, even if only with a private home test like that for pregnancy.  But their transparent end goal is to get them “under control” and medicated, therefore tabulated and converted to percentages, evidence for funding.

Every time in the classroom I’ve allowed and encouraged students to describe their reality, authorities have been quick to object and suppress.  The end result has been to harden the boundaries and intensify their determination to justify themselves.  Some of them never forget the lesson in invasive authority and resist for the rest of their lives.  Others, learning only obedience, never develop the critical reflection that is necessary for democracy to work.  They see survival as a matter of identifying with authorities, being surrogates of power.

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