Saturday, June 2, 2007

Torture & Identity Malfiguration

Forget most of what you think you know about torture. It's rubbish.

The common understanding of torture is that it's a long-standing practice which enlightened societies are gradually evolving out of, that it's condoned today only by extremely repressive governments or, in a pinch, by liberal societies that find themselves in desperate straits, and that its primary purpose is to extract information from subjects.
Not so.
Torture today is markedly different from torture in the past. It's a new phenomenon, not a continuation of an old one. Moreover, torture is condoned by half the world's governments. In 2006 alone, Amnesty International documented torture in 102 nations. Many of them are controlled by blatantly repressive governments. Some of them--such as the United States--aren't. Finally, although some torture is overtly inquisitional, much isn't. The purpose of torture today isn't to extract information so much as to affirm power by manipulating identities.
Historically, torture was an interrogatory technique used in situations where the discovery of truth was thought to be too difficult for ordinary measures. Both the ancients and the medievals saw torture as primarily a means of truth-extraction,* and this understanding continued right up to the Enlightenment era. In his Discipline and Punish, Foucault notes that France on the eve of the Revolution still practiced interrogatory torture, typically performed in secret. But he also points out a new twist to torture, what one commentator has referred to as its "admonitory" function.** If found guilty, the accused might be subjected to public torture and execution as a warning or admonition to the populace: cross the line, and this is what awaits you. This function of torture both symbolized and reenforced the power of the sovereign or state.
This admonitory function of torture, which for previous generations was secondary to truth-extraction, is the primary goal of today's torturers. Granted, the popular myth is that torture is still an expedient way of extracting information during crisis situations. But we know that information and confessions coerced by torturers are notoriously unreliable: sooner or later, torture victims will say whatever it is their inquisitors want them to say.
Truth isn't the object; compliance, in which the power of the state and the powerlessness of the dissenter, is. To the extent that the state can reduce dissenters, rebels, political heretics, outlaws, disturbers of the peace--in short, anyone catalogued as an outsider--to impotence, it succeeds in an "identity-malfiguration." It malfigures the identity of the torture victim into pure evil, subhuman filth willing and in fact eager to disrupt society and destroy innocent lives. The "confession" of terrorism, criminality, treason, and so on that's extracted from the torture victim confirms his wickedness. At the same time, the identity of the state is malfigured into pure goodness, because it stands in opposition to the wicked other. Torture, then, both assumes and affirms a simplistic Manichean worldview--exactly the kind portrayed, for example, by the popular television show "24."*** And, just as in "24," the forces of good and the forces of evil usually get reversed in the process: torturers, racing against the clock to save innocent populations from cruel destruction, become the good guys (in fact, they're frequently the victims, because they heroically sacrifice their personal scruples for the commonweal); torture victims, bastards who know when and where the ticking bomb will explode, become the bad guys.
The goal of identity malfiguration shows that torture isn't an act of sadism inflicted on a few imprisoned individuals. In fact, governments that torture have little use for maverick sadists. Instead, as William Cavanaugh notes (p. 22), torture is "an assault on social bodies." Its purpose is to discourage dissent by intimidating potential outlaws and, at the same time, to stir up a sense of self-righteousness among insiders that condones torturing outsiders. This is just another way of saying that torture today is admonitory rather than interrogatory, and this means that it needs an audience.
Admittedly, this calls for some creative PR work. No government wants to come right out and actually admit that it tortures. Even governments caught red-handed deny it. (The "we don't torture" position made infamous by President Bush.) But it's in the interests of governments that torture for the world to know that they torture. So whispers, innuendoes, insinuations, undocumented accusations, and even full-fledged media stories are useful. All of them can be denied or, even better, spun in such a way that the official response is "We don't torture. But if we did--which (*wink-wink*) we don't--we'd do it only to protect our citizens against evil-doers who hate us and will stop at nothing to destroy us."
The admonitory function of torture is the key to understanding it as a means of perverse socialization. Too often discussions of torture get sidetracked by endless debate over where boundaries should be drawn between what is and what isn't an act of torture: name-calling isn't, electric shock is, water-boarding might be. These debates miss the point. Torture isn't a discrete list of interrogatory techniques to be haggled over. Torture is a strategem for malfiguring identities that just happens to use physical and psychological pain.
*See, for example, Edward Peters' Torture.
**"Admonitory torture" is from Roger Paden's "Surveillance and Torture: Foucault and Orwell on the Methods of Discipline," Social Theory and Practice 10/3 (Fall 1984): 261-271.
***For more on "24," see this too.