Torture in Modern Literature and Culture

Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)

How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony.

“‘Trauma’ refers to what is leftover in the psyche or the body from an event that is so rupturing that it fails to make sense when it occurs. It’s a splinter of the past that cannot take its place as memory and returns repeatedly in the present, wounding anew with each return.”

What do we mean by the term ‘trauma’?

‘Trauma’ refers to what is leftover in the psyche or the body from an event that is so rupturing that it fails to make sense when it occurs. It’s a splinter of the past that cannot take its place as memory and returns repeatedly in the present, wounding anew with each return. Within the humanities, the study of trauma is closely associated with the Holocaust and the scholarship that sought to understand what that catastrophe did to those who experienced it, and how they sought to account for it afterwards in literature, film, memoir, and philosophy. As a result, the key question for trauma studies has been about representation: how can the unrepresentable be represented? Scholars such as Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman answered by fusing psychoanalysis and post-structural deconstruction to argue that representations of trauma depend on the paradox of speaking what cannot be spoken. My book argues that this is not enough, that trauma is not only a problem of language and psyche, but of the body in the world and of its relation to other bodies. To rely on paradox – on an aporia that cannot be represented except as the limit of representation – fails to ask what the aporia does to text, body and world.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

What is ‘biopolitics’, and why is it such a useful critical term?

‘Biopolitics’ and its twin concept ‘biopower’ were initially developed by Michel Foucault in his lectures at the College de France, but have been taken up and repurposed in different ways by many thinkers since. In its most basic sense, biopower refers to the emergence of a form of power in the nineteenth century that had as its object life itself. Biopolitical strategies of governance depended on transforming people into populations, because populations were statistically comprehensible and analysable. This allowed a host of new techniques and apparatuses of power, from national health systems to human rights codes. It’s an important critical term because it provides us with a way of describing, untangling and exposing the complex and often invisible ways in which our lives are caught up in the power of the modern state. In my book, I read Foucault’s original conception via the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to understand the centrality of torture to the war on terror after 9/11 and trace its presence in literature, film, poetry, and legal memoranda.

When many of us think about the word ‘torture’, we might imagine it as a medieval practice. But, as your book sharply delineates, it is also a phenomenon of modernity. How do you see ‘torture’ in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries?

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

Torture has a very different role today than it did in medieval times. Before modernity, torture was part of Western jurisprudence, stretching back at least to Aristotle. Torture was part of the law of evidence, meaning it was part of the legal process and could be ordered by a magistrate. It was also used as punishment, but again within the ambit of the law. The emergence of modern evidentiary rules, alongside public campaigns by Enlightenment humanists such as Voltaire, saw torture slide out of jurisprudence and into illegality. But torture didn’t disappear. It became a political tool of coercion, control and confession. Colonial regimes used it to control native populations, while authoritarians used it to weed out and silence dissidents. Democracies were not exempt; the French used it in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, police in Chicago, and the list goes on. But because anti-torture laws and norms also emerged, accompanied by monitoring organisations like the Red Cross, the form of torture changed. Instead of scarring the body, torture techniques became clean and stealthy – electric shock, stress positions, waterboarding, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, mock executions, and so on.

“Instead of scarring the body, torture techniques became clean and stealthy – electric shock, stress positions, waterboarding, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, mock executions, and so on.”

After 9/11, the US authorized specific torture techniques (euphemistically known as ‘enhanced interrogation’) to be used against specific ‘high value detainees’ at secret ‘black sites’ around the world. But torture is a very poor tool for the extraction of information for one simple reason: when you’re in that much pain, you’ll say anything to make it stop. That means torture produces unreliable information – which is why it hurt more than it helped the war on terror. Torture is really about power and control, not about information. It makes the power of the state real and it makes the tortured body into evidence of that power. But torture can’t be contained and always leads to abuse and loss of discipline, as the world saw at Abu Ghraib. Nevertheless, torture remains common. As we’ve seen in the early days of the Trump presidency, the lure of torture is strong and states seem unwilling to learn the lessons of history.

The book includes discussions of a range of writers, including Franz Kafka, J. M. Coetzee, George Orwell, and Anne Michaels. Why do you think literary texts can offer a productive space for engaging with the issue of trauma or torture?

Testimony takes many forms. Lawyers for the detainees at Guantanamo and human rights organisations like Amnesty International require testimony of torture that conforms to the legal genre. It needs a clear chronology and specific details, the bare description appropriate to courts of law. Literature can do something else: it can attempt to account for the violent rupture of experience that occurs in torturous trauma, and the rippling aftermath of that rupture for tortured and torturer, and for their wider worlds. The novelists I write about in the book – Kafka, Coetzee, Orwell, Michaels, as well as Arthur Koestler and others – were also very directly interested in the relationship between trauma and language. Novels can thus offer a kind of literary witnessing, a fictive mode of testimony that is not focused on a recitation of facts but instead addresses the collapse of knowing and certainty itself.

Your book also includes readings of poems by Guantanamo detainees. Why did you feel it was important to include these examples?

Because the poems from Guantanamo are remarkable works. Remarkable in their sheer existence – they were first scratched onto Styrofoam cups and thrown out with the rubbish, then eventually written on paper provided by the military, and most remain classified or were destroyed. Remarkable, too, in that they are the creative work of torture survivors in the midst of traumatic events. They reveal an immense will to struggle against the insistence of sovereign power that they subjugate themselves. Some of the poems are stunningly beautiful and all of them reveal incredible strength. It would have been impossible for e write this book ethically without addressing the detainee poems.

How can memos from the Bush administration help us to understand the issue of torture in the twenty-first century?

The Torture Memos of the Bush Administration are fascinating historical documents because they reveal both the intent of the White House and the deep desire to give their actions the veneer of legality. What I find most interesting in the context of testimony – and what I write about in the book – is the way in which the Memos bind together the existence of torture and the intention of the ‘interrogator’. Whether torture happened becomes contingent on whether torture was intended, which is in turn almost impossible to prove. And yet, what this argument in the memos does is bind together the tortured and the torturer – not just through the act itself, but through its very meaning within the context of the war on terror.

Jean Améry
Jean Améry

Your book draws on the work of Jean Améry, who has been a key inspiration for many twentieth-century writers and thinkers. Could you say a little bit about his influence on Gestures of Testimony?

Jean Améry was one of the great writers on pain and its relationship to language. Having survived torture at the hands of the Nazi regime, he was intensely interested in the experience of torture as an experience of subjection and an instantiation of power. In his essay on torture in At the Mind’s Limits, he has this incredible phrasing: “It was over for a while. It is still not over.” For me, that line beautifully – and brutally! – captures the complex entanglement of time, experience and language in torture and its trauma. With that rare mix of lived experience and critical precision, Améry more than any other philosopher helped me to understand what torture does to the capacity to write about the experience of it.

“Affect theory animates all my research because it insists on relationality. Put simply, affect is the capacity of a body to affect or be affected – it refers to the forces of relation that compose how we move through the world.”

What other critical or philosophical influences helped you to develop your research?

Affect theory animates all my research because it insists on relationality. Put simply, affect is the capacity of a body to affect or be affected – it refers to the forces of relation that compose how we move through the world. The war on terror, for instance, has an affective structure: fear of the threat of particular bodies permeates states, societies and individuals. What I realised was twofold. First, that torture itself was fundamentally affective. Not just because fear, shame, disgust, and so on are tools of torture, but because torture assaults the relations between the body and the world even as it generates an intensity of relation between the tortured and the torture. Second, that trauma was also an affective phenomenon, and not only a psychological one enclosed within the body. These realisations meant that the practice of literary witnessing needed to be extended beyond the emphasis on paradox and aporia that I mentioned before, and instead address the rupturing and reshaping of intensities of relation produced by trauma and its affects.

“Representations of torture in most film and television are reprehensible and remarkably inaccurate. Far more often than not the simply perpetuate myth’s about torture’s efficacy with little regard for its cost.”

Do you have any thoughts on the way that torture is commonly represented in television and film?

Representations of torture in most film and television are reprehensible and remarkably inaccurate. Far more often than not the simply perpetuate myth’s about torture’s efficacy with little regard for its cost. Most infamously, of course, is Jack Bauer’s use of torture in 24 – there’s always a ticking bomb (or at least a ticking clock) and torture usually works and works quickly. Even in supposedly serious films such as Zero Dark Thirty, torture tends to be presented as a necessary and effective evil. But torture is neither quick, nor accurate, nor necessary. Outside mainstream film and television, more critical and insightful representations can be found, such as the documentary The Act of Killing (2012) or the neo-realist classic The Battle of Algiers (1966). While I understand the fascination far better than most, it would be a welcome change to see more depictions of torture that demystify and fewer that normalise.

What’s next for you?

Recently I’ve begun research on different modes of crisis – of the future, of fact, and so on. It seems to me that in contemporary moment it’s essential that we better understand crisis and its relationship to power, experience and media. I’m taking up some of the theoretical and critical strategies I used to understand torture and its representations and adapting them to think about crisis in a more general sense. I’m particularly interested in what crisis does in various kinds of texts and contexts – from media to politics to literature. Faced with so many challenges today, from climate change to right-wing populism to societal fracturing, this new work will contribute to emergent modes of critique and resistance.

Gestures of Testimony is available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Michael Richardson is Lecturer in the School of Arts & Media at the University of New South Wales, Australia, where he teaches media and communication. He co-edited the collection Traumatic Affect (2013) and his research has appeared in international journals. A former speechwriter, he also writes political commentary, reviews, and fiction.

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