Thursday, June 10, 2004

Just in Case you Thought I Forgot

It wouldn't be a full week around here, would it, without something about torture? I don't like linking to Salon, but I also don't like to cast myself as one who never makes exceptions. Anyway, it's a nicely written, thoughtful peace by Alessandro Camon. I've nothing to add or subtract from Camon's piece. Not that I think it's perfect . . . just that I've not really had the time this week to come up with any kind of non-thesis-related analysis or observations. You know how it goes. Anyway, I'll quote a bit of it, to give you an idea -- to see if its worth sitting through a fifteen-second ad to read the whole thing:

Twice in the last few months torture and its graphic representation has been at the center of public discourse. The first time had to do with "The Passion of the Christ," a film that features more violence than any big Hollywood movie before it. The second time -- now -- has to do with the events at Abu Ghraib prison. The two spectacles reveal disturbing truths about American politics, sexuality and spirituality.

It's easily observed that torture has a highly developed aesthetic dimension. Medieval instruments of torture are gathered in dedicated museums and traveling exhibits all over the world. Those very instruments, of course, were often used in public. Torture, despite its need for secrecy, also needs its own representation. It's usually meant not only to inflict pain but to instill terror. It's sometimes meant to please the torturer. Therefore, the ritualistic, fetishistic, "spectacular" aspects of torture are an integral part of the practice. As a spectacle, torture is akin to porn -- S/M being the obvious shared territory. It elicits voyeurism and a morbid fascination.

"The Passion of the Christ" was accused by many detractors of being "pornographic." The torture of Iraqi prisoners is pornography in a very direct and complete sense. It's not just violence but sexual violation -- what is more, it's sexual violation staged and captured on camera, made into a spectacle readily available for future and expanded viewing. It's sexual violation fixed into an essential symbolic image to be preserved like a trophy. Just like conventional porn, it's completely self-conscious and deliberate yet morally unimpeded.

[. . .]

Several of the pictures we have seen show both victims and torturers posing for the camera. There's a naked man kneeling in front of another man as if performing oral sex. A naked man on a leash held by a female American soldier. Naked men in chains. Naked men stacked up in a grotesque pile, half gangbang and half mass grave. Other alleged tortures, which may be documented by the hundreds of pictures we haven't yet seen, included forced masturbation. Whether the sexual acts were performed or simulated, the prisoners were forced into the position of pornographic "actors." Significantly, the hundreds of pictures seen by Congress after the scandal erupted included not only acts of torture upon prisoners, but acts of sexual intercourse amongst the guards themselves. The soldiers who took the pictures knew that, in both instances, they were making porn (albeit in different sub-genres.) There was no other reason to record the tortures; it was, in fact, self-incriminating and stupid by all practical standards. Except that the idea of recording the acts of torture was, to a significant extent, the inspiration to commit them.

You can sense the sexual disturbance in the minds of the soldiers responsible for this. It's a disturbance exacerbated by the months away from home, but created by a lifelong familiarity with porn -- its cynical humor, cheap patriotism, crude vocabulary of submission and prevarication. The president and his inner circle said, "This is not the America that we know." But it is. The pictures from Abu Ghraib are American "gonzo porn." They reek of frat-house hazing and gang initiation rituals, of "Jackass" and "Bumfights." They encode racial hatred and fetishistic allusions to slavery.

The torture/pornography connection is deep and inescapable. Mark Bowden, of "Black Hawk Down" fame, wrote a well-informed, compellingly readable article in October's Atlantic Monthly about "the dark art of interrogation" (which was promptly optioned for movie development.) He makes a strong case for the effectiveness of torture as a means for acquiring intelligence -- which of course is not an unchallenged notion, and not necessarily a justification. But torture is not the mere application of pain to the task of extracting information. Much of what we identify as torture is actually gratuitous, like the ear-severing in the film "Reservoir Dogs." "I believe you," says Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), "but I'm gonna torture you anyway." This is, arguably, the real "point" of torture -- the assertion of power over the law, over pity, over logic. I'll torture because I can. I don't need a reason, I don't need a goal -- the arbitrary nature of the act is in fact its very essence. You cannot understand it except by internalizing the absolute fact that I have all the power and you have none, and our very identity as human beings is defined by this fact. You can conclude that I am not human because I lack pity. But that's an abstraction. The concrete reality of the situation is that you are not human because you lack all freedom and all dignity.

The torturers of Abu Ghraib had both a reason and a political sanction to do what they did. Yet the nature of the tortures and their recording suggests a casual licentiousness, the arbitrary indulgence of mean appetites. The two aspects -- rational justification and gratuitous sadism -- are superficially at odds but deeply inextricable from one another. I must inflict pain on you because you and your associates are terrorists, evildoers to be stopped for the greater good of mankind. But because you are an evildoer, enemy of mankind, I can also abandon myself to the pornographic voluptuousness of total control. In fact, not only can I, I must. In order to torture you, it is important that I see you as less than human, and so I will use torture to reinforce that image.

[. . .]

This is the sad state of affairs that is, to the Islamic mind, the dark side of our much-touted freedom. And it is exactly this dark side that we are rubbing their nose in. The torture at Abu Ghraib says: Our pornography will conquer you.

In contrast, Islamic terrorists divulged the recording of a bloody execution. The victim, an American civilian: a sacrificial lamb whose blood was spilled with the declared intention to restore Arab pride. This is, as much as ever, a war of symbols, and the symbol of Arab emasculation couldn't but inspire somebody to create a symbol of absolute and terrifying Arab supremacy over a Western man. The American government reacted with proclamations of horror for such barbarity. But such barbarity is a direct reflection of our own dehumanizing ways. A beheading (a 40-second beheading with a knife) undoubtedly represents a more extreme form of cruelty than to strip somebody naked, beat him, sexually humiliate him and put him on a leash. Yet one has to wonder how much further the American soldiers would have gone if not for fear of disciplinary consequences -- something the terrorists don't have to worry about. If you ever saw "Salo," Pasolini's allegory about the last days of fascism in Italy, you know his thesis that separating the exercise of power from the fear of consequences -- whether because of granted impunity, or because of already certain doom -- is the true test of one's nature. The power of an individual over another will naturally tend to speak the language of sexual sadism, a language that articulates and celebrates it. Sadism will be implicit in every situation of captivity. It will be explicit in situations where the fear of consequences is reduced. It may become extreme where such fear is removed altogether.

It may seem ironic that a war fought in the name of principles and imbued with religious ardor should degenerate to such sordid lows. While in America people flock to see Christ tortured, in Iraq we torture our own prisoners -- for information, for deterrence, but also -- as the pictures document -- for the sheer fun of it. And yet, perhaps "irony" is not quite the right concept. Perhaps the relationship between a U.S.-made blockbuster about Christ's pain and the pain inflicted by our soldiers abroad is closer and more inevitable that the notion of "irony" would suggest, because many of the torturers are no doubt heartland Americans, many of them surely devout Christians -- the core audience of "The Passion of Christ." They are the people Bush directly addressed when he characterized the war as a crusade, a fight against evil in the name of the God. The aptitude of Christians for delivering pain draws on a rich, millennial tradition -- a tradition built on certainty and a Manichean worldview. The ability to torture somebody both requires and confirms this certainty; the torturer's exhilarating privilege is to feel right by God while doing what is normally forbidden.

"The Passion of the Christ" is, not unlike an exploitation movie from the '70s, saturated with ultra-violence to the point of ridiculousness. Yet the representation of this violence is unobjectionable to the audience because the violence is inflicted upon the Christ. There seems to be no limit to the amount of violence you could show in this context (provided you could root it in the Scriptures). The torturers themselves are not the ultimate culprits: those are the Jews, as architects of the deicide. By assigning blame to "them," we can watch an hour of torture entirely guilt-free. In fact, the more severe the torture, the more godlike and awesome Christ's endurance. Which means we have a moral incentive to welcome the sight of torture, to wish for more and more punishment to be administered and exhibited on screen. The amount of butchery is directly proportional evidence of our own worth: look what Jesus, the extreme athlete of pain, chose to endure in order to save us! This is the fundamental perversion of the movie -- that it encourages us to fetishize and get high on the horror of the martyrdom.

[. . .]

It's not simply demagogy that the war against terrorism, or against Iraq, has been cast in religious terms, as a crusade, a fight against evil and for God-given freedom. Sept. 11 shook us to the core because if an act like that can be executed not in the name of profit, power or the traditional motivations we understand, but in the name of religious ideals (however aberrant), our own beliefs -- or lack of them -- are called into question. We suddenly realize we live in a spiritual vacuum, where no comparable degree of conviction can be easily summoned forth.

"The Passion" came to fill this profound need. Paradoxically, the fervor it inspires is directly proportional to the distance we have accrued from any kind of spiritual authenticity in our life. The more our culture obsesses about fad diets, plastic surgery, Paris Hilton's sex video, Donald Trump's hair or Jennifer Lopez's butt, the more fervent our response to "The Passion" has to be.

And so we come full circle. While frivolousness and pornography saturate our culture, "The Passion" offers us redemption, all the more effectively for pushing the limits of graphic representation that porn itself has irrevocably stretched. And while at home we feast our eyes on the torture inflicted upon the Christ, abroad we vindicate ourselves by torturing the infidel with the same righteous abandon, in the way we know best -- a pornographic way. Two faces of torture. Two faces of porn.