Wednesday, April 29, 2009

pain and interrogation

I hope you can tear yourself away from the Swine Flu sweepstakes. As mentioned last week, I wanted to share some text from Elaine Scarry's book - The Body in Pain. A lot has been written and discussed in the last week regarding the torture memos. Unfortunately the media has a new headline to chase with the Swine outbreak but I think more on the nature and structure of torture fits in quite nicely with our neo-Medieval lives.

The following transcript is from from chapter one of Scarry' s book - basically pages 28 - 38. I've skipped through this so hopefully that doesn't impair your reading or offend the author. My intent is to share passages that have truly spoken to me. My hope is that this will generate discussion among more scholarly peers regarding the subject. And maybe some book sales for Scarry?

Pain and Interrogation:

Torture consists of a primary physical act, the infliction of pain, and a primary verbal act, the interrogation. The first rarely occurs without the second. As is true with the present period, most historical episodes of torture, such as the Inquisition, have inevitably included the element of interrogation: the pain is traditionally accompanied by the “Question”.

The connection between the physical act and the verbal act, between the body and voice, is often misstated or misunderstood. Although information sought in an interrogation is almost never credited with being a just motive for torture, it is repeatedly credited with being the motive for torture. But for every instance in which someone with critical information is interrogated, there are hundreds interrogated who could know nothing of the remote importance to the stability or self-image of the regime. Just as within a precarious regime, the motive for arrest is often a fiction, and just as the motive for punishing those imprisoned is often a fiction (the men, although locked in their cells, watched and applauded the television report that a military plane had crashed – Chile), so what masquerades as the motive for torture is a fiction.

It is crucial to see that the interrogation does not stand outside an episode of torture as its motive or justification: It is internal to the structure of torture, exists there because of its intimate connections to and interactions with the physical pain.

Intense pain is world –destroying. It is for this reason that while the content of the prisoner’s answer is only sometimes important to the regime, the form of the answer, the fact of his answering, is always crucial.

Physical pain always mimes death and the infliction of physical pain is always a mock execution.

“The question” is mistakenly understood to be “the motive”; “the answer” is mistakenly understood to “the betrayal”. The first mistake credits the torturer, providing him with a justification, his cruelty with an explanation. The second discredits the prisoner, making him rather than the torturer, his voice rather than his pain, the cause of his loss of self and world. These two misinterpretations are obviously neither accidental nor unrelated. The one is an absolution of responsibility; the other is a conferring or responsibility; the two together turn the moral reality of torture upside down. Almost anyone looking at the physical act of torture would be immediately appalled and repulsed by the torturers. It is difficult to think of a human situation in which the lines of moral responsibility are more starkly or simply drawn, in which there is more compelling reason to ally one’s sympathies with the one person and to repel the claims of the other. Yet as soon as the focus of the attention shifts to the verbal aspect of torture, those lines have begun to waver and change their shape in the direction of accommodating and crediting the torturers. This inversion, this interruption and redirecting of a basic moral reflex, is indicative of the kind of interactions occurring between body and voice in torture and suggests why the infliction of acute physical pain is inevitably accompanied by the interrogation.

It is only the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory. The question and the answer are a prolonged comparative display, an unfurling of world maps.

This display of worlds can alternately be understood as a display of selves or as a display of voices, for the three are close to being a single phenomenon. The vocabulary of “motive” and “betrayal”, for example, is itself an indication of a perceived difference in selfhood: to credit the torturer with having a motive is, among other things, to credit him with having psychic content, the very thing the prisoner’s confession acknowledges the absence of and which the idiom of “betrayal” accuses him of willfully abandoning. The question and answer also objectify the fact that while the prisoner has almost no voice – his confession is a halfway point in the disintegration of language, an audible objectification of the proximity of silence – the torturer and the regime have doubled their voice since the prisoner is now speaking their words.

The interrogation is, therefore crucial to a regime. Within the physical events of torture, the torturer has nothing: he has only an absence of pain. In order to experience his distance from the prisoner in terms of “having” their physical difference is translated into a verbal difference: the absence of pain is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world. Across this set of inversions pain becomes power. The direct equation, “the larger the prisoner’s pain, the larger the torturer’s world” is mediated by the middle term, “the prisoner’s absence of world”: the larger the prisoner’s pain (the smaller the prisoner’s world and therefore, by comparison) the larger the torturer’s world. This set of inversions at once objectifies and falsifies the pain, objectifies one crucial aspect of pain in order to falsify all other aspects. The obliteration of the contents of consciousness, the elimination of world ground, which is a condition brought about by the pain and therefore one that once objectified (as it is in confession) should act as a sign of the pain, a call for help, an announcement of a radical occasion for attention and assistance, instead acts to discredit the claims of pain, to repel attention, to ensure that the pain will be unseen and unattended to.

When one human being recognizes the incontestable legitimacy of another human being’s existence, he or she is locating the other’s essential reality in one of two places – either in the complex fact of sentience or in the objects of sentience, in the fact of consciousness or in the objects of consciousness.

A political situation is almost by definition one in which the two locations of selfhood are in a skewed relation to one another or have wholly split apart and have begun to work, or be worked, against one another.

Image: Richard Ross


helmut said...

Just an addendum... some current scholars - Darius Rejali, Stephanie Athey - suggest that Scarry's focus on individualized torture misses much of the point. As Thomas Hilde and David Luban insist, torture institutionalizes.

highlowbetween said...

Thanks Helmut - that's very useful to know.