Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Have Americans become desensitized to the suffering of others?

If you haven't read Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, you should.

Scarry's excellent book on the violent metaphors and rhetoric associated with the human body explores the political consequences of deliberately inflicting pain (physical, emotional, and psychological) on another human being. The text was published in 1985 and it is sad how appropriate it is today given recent revelations of American Government's policies and attitudes toward torture between 2001 and 2008.

Here's just a sample:

"As the body breaks down, it becomes increasingly the object of attention, usurping the place of all other objects, so that finally [...] the world may only exist in a circle two feet out from [the victim].
[...] The voice becomes a final source of self-extension; so long as one is speaking, the self extends out beyond the boundaries of the body, occupies a space larger than the body" (33).

In torture, there is an attempt to remove another from their body. Their voice the only salvation which allows them to return to that body, which becomes a much worse prison than any external structure. There is no escape from the pain; it is literally "incorporated" into the body and yet the victim of torture longs to return to the body, and is terrified to do so.

That is the nightmare that is torture. A disembodied psyche which fears and longs for the internal privacy of the body but both spaces (internal and external) are no longer safe.

Really. You should read the book. In addition to the first chapter, "The Structure of Torture," it has some great material on the "Structure of War" (Ch 2) and "The Structure of Belief" (Ch 4).

Definitely Foucauldian (and thereby quasi-Marxist) in its philosophical underpinnings (distribution of power) it is an excellent treatise on the body as both a surface and a vessel, a shell and an imaginary space.

Think about the last time you were in physical pain. You (hopefully) knew it would pass and you knew that it was not created by someone outside yourself. For those who are tortured pain becomes the normative state of the body and the mind--and there is no escape, no reprieve, no release from that pain.


ZIRGAR April 22, 2009 at 10:48 AM  

I'm glad you mentioned Michel Foucault, as from your description of the text it certainly sounds a bit like his Discipline and Punish and his History of Sexuality books. Interesting. I should see if this is at my local bookstore. Thank you.

Anonymous,  April 22, 2009 at 1:26 PM  

Thanks for the book recommendation. As I have said, I learn something new every time I am here.


Anonymous,  April 22, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

It is one thing to discuss torture in the abstract and quite another to see it or imagine feeling it yourself. Thank you Skye for posting this. I am still trying to wrap my mind around all of this. As the details come out I am ever more sickened by the whole thing.

I still cannot understand why more people were not saying, "What have we done?"

Anonymous,  April 22, 2009 at 1:47 PM  

Like John Stewart said the other night, all the GOP can do is complain about a fantasy of breach in national security.

They seem to deny the fact that human beings getting tortured is involved...

Think about the total control the torturers had over the prisoners. Total control. I hope Spain follows through with its stated intent to investigate and prosecute.

I don't think the release of those memos makes the US look bad (well, not worse for having tortured). Instead I think it shows that we are a nation who admits when it is wrong and has done wrong. That is not weakness. That is the very heart of integrity, honesty, and ethics.

I can't understand how the religious right (silent majority, humph) cannot see the hypocrisy and immorality, to use their own rhetoric, of denying and hiding these acts.

skyewriter April 22, 2009 at 1:56 PM  

Thanks for the comments, all.

I just hope that this can be investigated and prosecuted in a non-partisan manner. I am so sick of the bi-partisan bull-pucky.

Non-partisan: regardless of the political affiliations, those who wrote these codices of torture must be made to face the repercussions for their part in this.

Unknown April 22, 2009 at 4:12 PM  

Interesting stuff. It seems it might be a bit over my head, but I do think it is interesting.

Unknown April 22, 2009 at 5:34 PM  

The metaphysical implications of the excerpts you provided from this book sound a lot like Soul Loss or Soul Theft.

A spiritual malaise that often strikes survivors of torture and trauma.

Anonymous,  April 22, 2009 at 11:51 PM  

It's interesting that the very people who claim to hold moral authority and be the religious amongst us are the ones minimizing the tremendous physical damage done to detainees.

They use language like "A person wearing a soft collar was shoved into a cushioned wall" or "A person was made to sit or stand for a period of time...big deal."

The language used is disturbing. They laugh at the use of the word "torture." To hear them talk about what happened, it is as if the detainees were just roughed up a bit.

I've read the reports. What was done is difficult to read's disturbing, it's's unfathomable.

Not only have some (not all) Americans become desensitized to the physical suffering of others, they also have become desensitized to their ability to feel compassion and caring for fellow human beings.

One thing I heard said about Bush is that he's a lot meaner than most people thought. In my opinion, so are a lot of the "religious" right.

A World Quite Mad April 23, 2009 at 2:54 PM  

@itdawnedonme, you said "It's interesting that the very people who claim to hold moral authority and be the religious amongst us are the ones minimizing the tremendous physical damage done to detainees."

I have to point out that one of the most infamous torturers in all of history was the Inquisitions that were carried out by the Catholic Church. Pope Innocent IV was the first to authorize torture as a means of extracting confessions from prisoners accused of heresy in his papal bull Ad exstirpanda. The only rule was, you couldn't kill them or draw blood. So more often than not, waterboarding of some form was used, or the rack, which stretched people and dislocated joints.

There was also a rule you could only torture once, but that was useless, as they considered it one session no matter how long it went on, months or whatever.

So, it surprises me not. Anyone who can study a history of the Inquisition and not be disturbed by the things they did in the name of "god", has something wrong with them. There's also obviously something wrong in the heads of these people who think that torture is okay.

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