Superficial symmetry

…and category errors:

“But two of civilization’s institutions, though not physically present, are constantly alluded to in the act of torture, and so hover behind and arch over the physical reality of the sealed room. Like the domestic objects, these institutions are unmade by being made weapons. The first is, of course, the trial. In its basic outlines, torture is the inversion of the trial, a reversal of cause and effect. While the one studies evidence that may lead to punishment, the other uses punishment to generate the evidence.”

— Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain


“The second institution ubiquitously present by inversion is medicine…the institution of medicine like that of justice is deconstructed, unmade by being made at once an actual agent of the pain and a demonstration of the effects of pain on human consciousness.”

— E.S.

“There are highly trained professionals questioning these extremists and terrorists. We have professionals who are trained in this kind of work.”

–George W. Bush

“Holding the Bush administration responsible for torture would give us some high political drama that would feed the media goat for the next two years and also sap the body politic. The healthcare system would go unfixed, schools would crumble, basic public services would deteriorate, all so that the left could have at the right. I am an old museum-quality Northern liberal, and I know something about the righteousness of my confreres. I’ve been with old lefty friends who can get emotional about the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the innocent men railroaded to the gallows, but dear hearts, it happened in 1886. Let’s move on.”

Garrison Keillor

“Though indisputably real to the sufferer, [pain] is, unless accompanied by visible body damage or a disease label, unreal to others. This profound ontological split is a doubling of pain’s annihilating power: the lack of acknowledgement and recognition (which if present could act as a form of self-extension) becomes a second form of negation and rejection, the social equivalent of the physical aversiveness. This terrifying dichotomy and doubling is itself redoubled, multiplied, and magnified in torture because instead of the person’s pain being subjectively real but unobjectified and invisible to all others, it is now hugely objectified, everywhere visible, as incontestably present in the external as in the internal world, and yet it is simultaneously categorically denied.”

— E.S.


“It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department.”

— Attorney General Eric Holder

“Although the torturer dominates the prisoner both in physical acts and verbal acts, ultimate domination requires that the prisoner’s ground become increasingly physical and the torturer’s increasingly verbal, that the prisoner become a colossal body with no voice and the torturer a colossal voice (a voice composed of two voices) with no body, that eventually the prisoner experience himself exclusively in terms of sentience and the torturer exclusively in terms of self-extension.”


“The motive for torture is to a large extent the equivalent, though in a different logical time, of the fictionalized power; that is, one is the falsification of the pain and one the falsification after the pain. The two together form a closed loop of attention that ensures the exclusion of the prisoner’s human claim. Just as the display of the weapon (or agent or cause) makes it possible to lift the attributes of pain away from the pain, so the display of motive endows agency with agency, cause with cause, thereby lifting the attributes of pain still further away from their source. If displaying the weaponry begins to confer the prisoner’s pain into the torturer’s power, displaying the motive (and the ongoing interrogation means that it is fairly continually displayed) enables the torturer’s power to be understood in terms of his own vulnerability and need.”

— E.S.

The House today passed a $106 billion bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September, as House Democrats backed President Obama despite misgivings among the ranks about his strategy in Afghanistan.

The 226 to 202 vote came after Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner had called some reluctant Democrats during the day imploring them to back the bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had strongly pressed her colleagues in a closed-door meeting to vote for the bill in a show of support for Obama, even if they oppose his strategy for increasing troops in Afghanistan. . . .

“We are in the process of wrapping up the wars. The president needed our support,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had earlier said he opposed the war funding but voted for it in the end. “But the substance still sucks” . . . .

House Democrats had put off the vote for more than a week, looking to win support for the bill. President Obama, who had pushed to insert a provision in the bill to bar the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad, demanded the Senate take out the provision to win votes from House liberals who said they would not support the war bill if the photo ban was included.

In the end, 19 House Democrats backed the bill who had opposed it the first time, although some cited loyalty, not agreement with Obama’s plans, as their reason.

“I want to support my president,”said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who changed her no vote to a yes.

via Greenwald


22 Responses to “Superficial symmetry”

  1. the above makes you suspect Keillor might be abusing Lindsay Lohan, in the Prairie Companion Shack, and then he tries to justify it with an artificial comparison with the siege of Mediggo

    Scarry’s comments, I think, are correct and important, if a touch overwritten

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    all true.

  3. To be fair to Keillor, we do tend to focus on torture at the expense of other issues. I personally would like to see a resurgence of the debate of whether aerial bombing should constitute a war crime.

  4. On another note, you do realize that Obama banned those specific photos because they depict rape?

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    hey alex — i don’t think we need to be fair to keillor to make that argument. but it’s also not a bad thing to focus on torture. the machinery is in place to legitimately call people out on it (as with its twins, the telecom immunity ‘scandal’ and executive secrecy provisions). it already is a crime, after all. to be honest i’m surprised the prosecution argument has gotten as much airtime as it has.

    i’d heard about the content of those photos. it was always the s&m aspect that scandalized americans the most about abu ghraib. i bet if they had just restricted themselves to jack bauer levels of depravity they wouldn’t have caused such a media event.

    but yeah, it’s still ok for 12-year-old boys and their dads to publicly get hard-ons over bombs. they’re still a ‘neutral’ sign of power. i don’t know what would have to happen to bring that debate back, considering their accepted motive is to ‘protect the troops.’

  6. True. I think the “Untouchables” tactic of prosecuting massive criminals for smaller offenses is very warranted. At the same time, I find it strange that even critical academics tend to believe that torture is in some completely unique class, sui generis; as though it were completely different from the other abuses of war. I know there’s rhetorical value in treating it as such, and from a Gramscian tactical point of view I can understand why one might want to make that claim. But in reality, there are regular, accepted practices of warfare that should incense us at least as much as torture. In the Vietnam War, there was supposedly a regular practice of pushing POWs out of helicopters, for example. You should watch the film The Winter Soldier.

    On another note, there’s already people assembling material against Obama (and ipso facto Bush) for a war crimes case. The CIA use of drones for assassination violates Geneva; you can’t execute people without a trial.

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    one of the things scarry’s book does is to look at how the logic of torture works as the logic of authoritarian power in microcosm. that last quote i pulled from greenwald’s site is an example of a political exchange in action where the release of evidence of torture (the photos but also the memos and obama’s ‘transparency’ PR in general), by becoming the condition of support for military action, is transformed into the evidence of power and in a bizarre act of material sophistry the justification for more violence. torture evidence and military assault on another country are logically unrelated, but for those 19 house democrats it became a sign of obama’s legitimacy as leader.

    and that abu ghraib table: as a kitsch commodity it’s perfect for demonstrating simultaneously that evidence of torture is everywhere but the will and the power to do anything about it are nowhere.

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    possibility of release of evidence, sorry

  9. Yasmin Sooka talking about the TRC, quoted in the Shock Doctrine
    I would do it completely differently. I would look at the systems of apartheid – I would look at the question of land, I would certainly look at the role of multinationals, I would look at the role of the mining industry very, very closely because I think that’s the real sickness of South Africa …. I would look at the systematic effects of the policies of apartheid, and I would devote only one hearing to torture because I think when you focus on torture and you don’t look at what it was serving, that’s when you start to do a revision of the real history.

    That I think is Alex’s point, and one worth making, to a point. But if you consider that Sooka’s argument remains relatively marginal in a political culture that is immeasurably more sophisticated and than that of the US,
    is there much point in pursuing at the moment? I mean, is anyone seriously suggesting that a robust debate on aerial bombardment is champing at the bit, hindered only by the distraction of sadistic torture?

  10. “I mean, is anyone seriously suggesting that a robust debate on aerial bombardment is champing at the bit, hindered only by the distraction of sadistic torture?”

    But Sooka’s point is that the system of property and exploitation is what is being occluded in a response that limits itself to the violent means of the maintenance of the status quo of property – aerial bombarment would be just as much a tactic put forward as “distraction” from the owning and accumulation that violence of the owning class serves as torture is. It’s another means; to address the ends requires uncomprising opposition to the private proprietorship of the earth and the dispossession of humanity. All the violence, the torture and the bombings, are means to protect and expand property and the ability to exploit humanity. If this is not going to be challenged, it is nonetheless useful and necessary to abolish torture, that is, to restrict the means the proprietor class can use (and to abolish aerial bombardment, were that possible.)

    The US official bourgeois dissident intellectual culture has managed to establish a routine of cooptation of left analysis; the left analysis explains that the effort to protect and promote ‘human rights’ within conditions of the current property relations is _ultimately_ futile (but not pointless) -private property itself is a fundmantal violation of any reasonable conception of the rights of humanity. The official bourgeois dissident intellectual product seizes on this “opposition” to “human rights” but obscures the argument completely, so that it is transformed into something about abstractions, ironies, philosophical blather…’human rights’ assume humanism, a spiritual assault of normativity on wills to power freely performing or whatever bullshit sounds hip. The whole basis of the left analysis of the inadequacy of human rights protections is removed and the position pushed to an extreme (obviously leftists don’t want to just eradicate the apparatus for the protection human rights and leave humanity at the mercy entirely of the proprietor class, to fight each battle, individually, from square one, but this is precisely what official bourgeois dissident intellectual product promotes.)

  11. “I find it strange that even critical academics tend to believe that torture is in some completely unique class, sui generis.. in reality, there are regular, accepted practices of warfare that should incense us at least as much as torture”

    Well it’s not about how incensed you are. Nobody wants to limit how incensed you are. Torture is illegal and prosecutable; that fact is the outcome of hundreds of years of struggle of populations against dominant classes; there are identified victims and indentifiable perpetrators. Why are you finding reasons that it’s cooler and leftier and more “critical” to allow powerful torturers against whom there is enough evidence for convictions impunity? What’s to be gained? Do you think that the failure to prosecute US government officials in cases with this level of evidence will weaken them and their institutions and bring you closer to criminalising war?

  12. Thanks for totally misconstruing my argument, Chabert. I wasn’t claiming that we shouldn’t prosecute torture. In fact, I actively support the prosecution of torture. That’s why I said that I see the point of going after torture for Gramscian reasons, i.e., to advance the position of the left. But if you look at, for example, Scarry’s reaction to torture, she places it in a wholly unique position in relation to other forms of repression and opression. People like Judith Butler do the same. It has nothing to do with “cooler” and “more ‘critical,'” and everything to do with how badly “critical” academics sometimes misunderstand and misrepresent warfare by trying to find false existential reasons why torture means more than, for example, aerial bombardment, machine guns, or execution of POWs.

  13. sorry alex, but you wrote

    “To be fair to Keillor, we do tend to focus on torture at the expense of other issues.” and “poeple like Judith Butler do the same”.

    We’re not actually people like Judith Butler; you may be but you’re in a tiny insignificant minority whom Keillor, and those issuing similar pronouncements in the mass media, was certainly not addressing.

  14. I was never accusing you of being “like Judith Butler.” And I’m not sure who you mean by “we.” This wasn’t an attack at a camp but at a specific argument that spans multiple camps. I tend to associate Elaine Scarry with the psychoanalytical criticism of Judith Butler (and also Slavoj Zizek, which is why I say this argument is not against a particular camp but an argument that spans multiple camps), which tends to turn everything into a symbol of something else, and to read every “newsworthy” occurrence as indicative of some hidden secret logic, without analyzing in the least bit the manipulations of the news. I actually wasn’t engaging Traxus, who I didn’t feel was making this error; that’s why I discussed the quotes and not his assemblage of them. If I’m wrong about Scarry, then I apologize.

    Also, I wrote, “But if you look at, for example, Scarry’s reaction to torture, she places it in a wholly unique position in relation to other forms of repression and opression. People like Judith Butler do the same.” And not “‘To be fair to Keillor, we do tend to focus on torture at the expense of other issues.’ and ‘poeple like Judith Butler do the same’.” You took two of my separate statements and coupled them, for what rhetorical effect i’m not certain.

    Finally, I overstated the Garrison Keilor point; sorry. You’re right, I shouldn’t have defended him in putting forth my argument, because he was trying to shut up those who think we should prosecute torturers. Keillor was making it into an either/or argument, which is a common ideological strategy of so-called moderates: “Either,” he was saying, “we can focus on torture, or we can focus on social justice, schools, the elimination of economic inequity…” Keillor makes the typical moderate argument of saying, “We need to choose our battles.” This is not my argument, although I have to unfortunately admit that my first articulation sounded that way. I should have simply indicated that in war, a lot goes on that is far worse than torture, and it is completely condoned because it is obscured by its “cleanness” (i.e., the cleanness of its media representation). The complete injustice of aerial bombing is covered over by phrases like “precision targeting,” “strategic bombing,” etc. Torture elicits much more response, because we tend to believe that sadism only exists when there is a one-on-one relationship like that which exists between a torturer and the tortured, and we tend to take war for granted.

    Please read my argument fully before you respond. I’m conceding the point on torture (which I had already done), and saying that I framed my initial argument poorly. If you really think it’s necessary to go on arguing, go right ahead. But since I’m apparently a representative of “US official bourgeois dissident intellectual culture,” I’m sure you’ll need to continue to denounce my positions until I just stop responding.

  15. traxus4420 Says:

    alex, your point about psychoanalytic/existentialist/trendy theory people inflating the importance of torture passed me by too, but i get what you meant better now. i wouldn’t put scarry in with the psychoanalysis camp — it’s more like phenomenology plus northrop frye-style-structuralist lit crit. it’s definitely got more than its share of “philosophical blather” but for a book about pain it does not, i think, give torture a unique or special status, though she does distinguish it from war (which gets its own much less convincing chapter, including bombing). for what it’s worth i think the torture chapter is pretty cogent and well-researched. it is of course 100% focused on linguistic analysis (material is mostly amnesty international archives and some other documentation/interviews with torture victims) and its limitations are clear.

    i’m deliberately overextending her analysis here in a wink-winky sort of way (hence the title), in the hopes that something interesting might turn up.

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    btw, say all you want about its naive liberalism (rule of law, the emphasis it puts on torture), but can you imagine zizek or butler doing this kind of work in their capacity as public intellectual?

  17. well zizz of course quickly dashed off a defence of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Yoo and Bush after the Abu Ghraib photos were released – it was, he said, like a fraternity hazing or standard American initiation ritual, the upper echelons of the army and state were innocent of directly ordering these “humiliating rituals”, and the photos depicted simulations not real physical tortures:

    While [the Abu Ghraib tortures] cannot be reduced to simply evil acts by individual soldiers, they were of course not directly ordered.

    ….The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which brings to mind American performance art, “theatre of cruelty,” the photos of Mapplethorpe or the unnerving scenes in David Lynch’s films.

    This theatricality leads us to the crux of the matter: To anyone acquainted with the reality of the American way of life, the photos brought to mind the obscene underside of U.S. popular culture—say, the initiatory rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo to be accepted into a closed community. Similar photos appear at regular intervals in the U.S. press after some scandal explodes at an Army base or high school campus, when such rituals went overboard.

    …The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture. -Zizek, In These Times May 21, 2004 reprinted in The Parallax View

    But I think we can agree that the struggle to abolish torture does not take the form principally of a debate among professors of rhetoric, aesthetics, philosophy and literature. Those people as professionals, apart from Zizek in his capacity as an msm pundit, are really really marginal on this issue, though many may be, like Scarry, concerned and activist individuals. The most active militants are people who have been tortured and lawyers, but also people likely to be tortured and those who are related to people to have been tortured. Right now in the US, pushing hardest to force prosecutions are the CCR, the ACLU, and Physicians for Human Rights and victims bringing civil suits. Across the world anti-torture work is done by Human Rights Orgs; US Universities contribute to this activism mainly through law schools’ library and archive facilities.

  18. lecolonelchabert Says:

  19. At 11:51

    Q: What about the question of the War itself? It’s not even being discussed the whole question of an illegal war that may have killed a million people.

    Ratner: There’s no issue, that’s the penultimate, ultimate crime coming out of Nuremberg in Germany is an aggressive war. There’s no doubt we made an aggressive war on the country of Iraq. There’s no doubt that’s the major war crime because of course it embodies every other war crimes, torture, murder, bombing, the whole business. But of course that should be – but except that law, there’s no such, there’s no real law in US law for making aggressive war, there’s perjury and there’s impeachment and that kind of stuff. But that’s not really a crime that we can get at under our domestic law in the US. Torture we can definitely get at. The whole idea that Obama thinks that somehow we’ll let bygones be bygones and I’m going to change the policy of not torturing going forward, which I give him credit, mostly 90% credit for doing, and saying, we are not going to do that, the problem is you have a guy like Cheney saying “I did it, I waterboarded and I’ll do it again,” for all Obama says “I’ve changed the policy”, the next President in there could simply agree with Cheney and again we’ll be a nation of torture. So without prosecutions, without a public statement that this is wrong, people will pay a price for it.

  20. bootty hole Says:

    thats cooll….

  21. Ficuz! I mean, uber-kulen!

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