On Torture: Engraving Power

…(cymbal crash)… We have a new Author of Disorder (or is that Disordered Author?). Please welcome, in your virtual way, Elke Schwarz, a PhD student at the LSE working with Kim Hutchings on Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, biopolitics and political violence.


‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’. Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said. ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough’

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)

The killing of Bin Laden last month has given new fuel to the claim that torture, as a tool in the securitization tool kit of a neo-conservative US government, actually has its place and validity in a liberal society. How absurd this artificial claim is has been highlighted in many a news source but incidents like this keep the so-called Torture Debate alive and well, as the normalising process unfolds. The practice of torture has become much more widely seen as a ‘necessary evil’ available to a liberal State in the pursuit of the protection of its population, if not humanity at large. A recent study conducted by the Red Cross has shown that as many as 59% of the American teenagers surveyed and 51% of adults accept torture as a means to garner information. When tyrannies torture, however, it continues to be a widely condemned affair and the international community shows no shortage of outrage.

Torture as a practice of and within otherwise liberal societies can only enter the realm of the morally permissible if it is detached from its illiberal roots and the discourses and practices allow societal norms to be such that a violation of the human bodies of some serves as a means to ensure the survival and proliferation of others in the pursuit of information finding. And it is precisely this clinical mask of the instrumental dimension of torture as an means of truth-gathering that the torturer’s power can be understood in terms of their insecurities and vulnerabilities. Facilitated by the display of the fiction of power, the ultimate objective of torture is one of domination in times where political power is challenged and status disputed.

It is perhaps not surprising that torture should emerge as a radical example of routines of illegal acts enacted in the most corporeal sense for the alleged securitisation and greater good for the greatest number of ‘good’ people whose sanctity of life has become precarious. In the wake of 9/11 this increased precariousness of American life has served as a warrant for the now infamous ‘gloves off’ approach instituted by Bush Junior’s neo-conservative posse. The problem is: the gloves have stayed off, even with Obama in command.

The actual utility of torture, its effectiveness in yielding actionable information, forms a critical part of the consequentialist aspects of the Torture Debate. Contrary to the clamours of Cheney et al. as to the effectiveness of torture, it has been widely established that torture as a source of truth-finding is actually entirely useless. Torture must be understood not as an act but a process, the goal of which is to destruct the victim’s boundaries and force him or her into a state of regression and shatter their believes in their own personhood and humanity. At the point of unbearable pain, the tortured will confess to anything to end the process, and the interaction becomes a matter of guessing what the torturer wants to hear. Mark Harrison has made that point effectively in 2001:

The suspect wishes the torture to stop, but to achieve this it is not enough for her to tell the real truth. She must rather tell a version of facts that converges with and reinforces the interrogator’s prior expectations. Since the interrogator will not reveal his expectations at the outset, she cannot establish a convincing confession immediately, but must find it out by trial and error.

The distinction between torture and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is one drawn itself within the realm of indistinction. The claim that pain could be administered in a ‘safe’ way, in order to extract just the right information in just the right time frame available to save a large number of people (the old ticking bomb scenario), corresponds to a fictional omnipotence that seeks to simultaneously display the benevolence of humanity and the might of the all-powerful.

If the efficacy of torture must realistically be called into question, if it, in fact, has not and does not yield information that satisfies the securitization mandate to provide protection to the wider population, what is it’s intrinsic value to the torturer? Torture as a manifestation of asymmetrical power through force does not merely aim at truth finding, not at the destruction and deconstitution of the tortured body, but establishes its reach further, beyond the territorial boundaries and into the very culture of those at the margins of what is considered to be within that which constitutes the ‘human’. This magnificent display of barefaced potency relies on the racism implicit in the distinction of the boundaries drawn within humanity and is thus always a constructed and fictional power – a power that relies on its continual demonstration of supremacy for survival; one that precisely requires the inhuman as a site of inscription. In her brilliant work on pain and torture, Elaine Scarry describes the resurrected spectacle of torture-cum-chimera of power:

the physical pain is so incontestably real that it seems to confer its quality of ‘incontestable reality’ on that power that has brought it into being. It is, of course precisely because the reality of that power is so highly contestable…that power is being used.

The inscription of power into the body of the detainee can thus find its expansion, the deprival of all freedoms, even the most elementary freedom  – the freedom to die – is in torture perpetually extended while pain becomes the product that is construed as power and the condemned body becomes the means for the perpetuation of this ‘fictional’ power. As such the world of the racially and culturally demarcated prisoner is broken down and dismantled, while the world of the torturer grows. This suggests a direct transfer of power, not by control through biopower, but precisely by breaking down what falls outside of the mechanisms of biopolitical technologies, inscribing power by sheer physical coercion.

This manufacture of power in the relationship of the tortured detainee and their captor takes place specifically through the reverse process of dispossessing the detainee of all that represents a value within the realm of that what is deemed to lie within humanity: freedom, bodily intactness, the capacity for rational interlocution. Pain becomes power in a counter-biotic relationship and while the world of the tortured prisoner shrinks with the infliction of pain, the torturer’s world becomes proportionally larger, their power extended. For the aim of total potency over the condemned body then it is essential that the deconstruction of the torture victim is complete, for, as Hannah Arendt reminds us: “man can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal species man”.

In deconstituting the humanity of the tortured body, the withdrawal of language through the infliction of pain plays a vital role. Language forms a crucial and constitutive element in shaping identities, and provides the elementary point of access to a profound disintegration of the human as a physical and psychological entity. The sensation of physical pain among the most private and non-transmittable experiences a person can have. Pain resists language and thus resists full articulation. In pain, the human body is reduced to expressing the sensations felt in primal sounds, void of grammar and structure so vital fore effective communication. Physical pain thus leaves the body without capacity for communication with the sole exception of the inarticulate vocalisation of the most radically interior sensation via grunts and screams. This destruction serves to further deny the tortured body the ability to engage in essential acts of interlocution as a member of the human family. It is in the deliberate withdrawal of the most elementary basis of membership into that which constitutes humanity that the torturer both completes and justifies his act of domination and prepares the body for further inscriptions of power.

In deconstructing and dissolving the tortured body’s subjecthood through the denial of language and thus the denial of interlocution, the torturer has created a surface for his own language and the inscription of a specific law – the law of total domination – not literally enshrined in the judicial process but captured no less through inscription. In the practice of torture, this law is written not onto the pages of a book or manuscript but into the body of the condemned.It is precisely in this inscription that is outside any formal judiciary framework and located in the interstices of the law that is written in books and manuscripts of liberal institutions. Escaping the rational prescription of language, this inscribed law is located in a sphere outside the liberal framework of rationality. In torturous practices, the body ‘learns’ this law through direct inscription into its flesh, like Kafka’s prisoner in the penal colony who is neither aware of his charge nor the rational of his punishment. He learns of the severity of his charge through the caption that is gradually engraved into his body by a complex, rational machinery. In Kafka’s fable, the Officer explains: “Our sentence does not sound severe. The law which a condemned man has violated is inscribed on his body with the Harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,” and the Officer points to the man affixed to the machinery, “will have inscribed into this body, ‘Honour your superiors'”.

Despite the widely explored inefficacy of torture, its continued absolute prohibition and the very cruel and entirely inhuman nature of the practice, the torture debate rages on with an ever-increasing and frightening acceptance of the Jack Bauer credo: “Chloe, we have no choice”, in the normalising process of practices of torture for liberal society. But if the liberal argument for an illiberal practice lies in its utility, then it is worth while to continually test and question what the use and value of torturing a body truly is for liberal society.

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One thought on “On Torture: Engraving Power

  1. Pingback: Body Politics: Corporeal Suffering, Memes and Power/Resistance, with Special Reference to #Occupy, Tahrir Square, ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Rage Against The Machine « The Disorder Of Things

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