Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Dark Side of a Culture:  Thoughts on Abu Ghraib and the Pornography of Cruelty

“The torture? A more serious blow to the US than the 9-11 attacks. Except the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by American citizens.” --Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo. 

(This is an update of an article that ran on Alterati in 2007. It appears  in the Immanence of Myth.)

    Several months after the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were first reported, a porn was produced, somewhat unsurprisingly, based on the events that took place there. Some of the copy accompanying the video reads: “I'm sure you've seen the news where they had those prisoners on top of the box with electrodes and a hood on the person's face, and if they fell off they would get a zap? Well we did just that. We put her up on the box with the electrodes on her fingers and hood on her head and did everything imaginable to her in her jail cell.”
    In bad taste? Certainly. But it goes deeper than that. This is a brief investigation of the psychology of vicariousness, which seems to underlie much of the “evil” perpetrated through passive rather than active participation, often revealed through art-forms that confront us with our cultural “dark side.” In this case, the revelation was embodied in the form of pornography, a simulacra based on actual rape and abuse, which itself doubtless didn't have the self awareness to recognize the power of its inadvertent satire. I’m not talking about the “dark side” from Star Wars. Evil rarely identifies itself as such. Instead we come face to face with the dark side of the moon, psychologically, which is never revealed to us unless if we ourselves go there. As Nietzsche rightfully recognized, this is not a safe exploration, you can’t do it entirely from behind a windshield; the “abysses we look into also look back into us.”
    This confrontation, and even the idealization of fascism and oppression as a means of demonstrating their opposite, are very closely tied to what such art seeks to bring about. It is a realm that does not just accidentally lead to misunderstanding, it provokes it. It demands it. Let me provide a long quotation from the introduction to the book Interrogation Machine, which I think makes the point quite elegantly:
In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by US soldiers, made public at the end of April 2004, George Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of these soldiers were isolated crimes which do not reflect what America stands and fights for: the values of democracy, freedom, and personal dignity. If this is true, how, then, are we to account for their main feature, the contrast between the “standard” way prisoners were tortured in Saddam’s regime, and the US army tortures? In Saddam’s regime, the emphasis was on direct brutal infliction of pain, while the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. Furthermore, recording the humiliation with a camera, with the perpetrators included in the picture, their faces smiling stupidly alongside the twisted, naked bodies of the prisoners, is an integral part of the process, in stark contrast with the secrecy of Saddam’s tortures. When I saw the famous photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cable attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my first reaction was that this was a shot of the latest performance-art show in Lower Manhattan. The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which cannot but bring to mind the whole scope of American performance art and theatre of cruelty. (Interrogation Machine, Monroe.) 
    Antonin Artaud’s approach to theater was based directly on shedding light on this unpleasant “cultural dark side,” and the reference here, though speaking of American performance art, surely is in fact speaking to the French surrealist movement that Artaud started, the Theatre of Cruelty. This is not a strictly American issue, it is a psychological one, and one which has throughout history played its role in the definition of in-group and out-group — initiation and all other rituals which bring us in to the social circle, or which thrust us from it — the enactment of taboo, by which societies define their relations to one another and the world around us. In other words, the debasement of the “sacrifice” is not merely, as the quotation would imply, an expression of our dark half, our defining “dirty bits,” it is a psychological demand of the modern, narcissistic cultural identity.

Not that this particular pornographic artifact has any value, but its underlying impulse shows us more about ourselves than we might like to see. Nor is vicarious participation in sadism or masochism quite as simple an act as one may assume, (as a tangential note, Foucault was well known in the BDSM scene.) To continue with the quotation:
…It is in this feature that brings us to the crux of the matter: to anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of US popular culture- for example, the initiation rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community.” (A note, again: this is not at all isolated to American culture: only its mode of expression is. Continuing.) “Do we not see similar photos at regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an Army unit or on a high school campus, where an initiation ritual goes too far and soldiers or students get hurt beyond a level considered tolerable? … Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World nation: in being submitted to these humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners wee effectively initiated into American culture. They got a taste of its obscene underside, which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom.
…In march 2003, none other than Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “there are known knowns, There are things things we known that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we known we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial forth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know — which is precisely the Freudian unconscious — the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the “unknown unknowns” the threats from Saddam which we do not even suspect, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the dangers are: in the “unknown knowns,” the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values. … So Bush was wrong: what we get when we see the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners on our screens and front pages is precisely a direct insight into “American values,” into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the US way of life. (ibid.)
    Now to the central point: what better example of our unknown knowing is there than a brutal, even horrific, re-enactment of the Abu Ghraib incident, shown on a porn website as a form of entertainment, for people to masturbate to from a safe distance — safe from the potential shame of participation, but allowed to engage with it by proxy, like drivers rubbernecking at an accident? Nothing could be more to the point than this vicarious violence, enacted upon the degraded subject of our (supposed) desire. What better demonstration of precisely what is hidden behind our collective cultural mask of civility, or the outstretched hand of our “foreign diplomacy”? What better way to see it than in something so absurd?  
    At the same time movies like this have an unintentional element of the comedic. Even this kind of analysis of such a subject is, in its way, nothing more than comedy. Yet we shouldn’t let this mislead us: it is often only when we laugh that we are taking something seriously. To find amusement in the horrific is one of the “secrets” of many so-called Secret Societies. The alchemical process deals with the unification of the dark and the light, of the transformation of the dross, of base materials, to a more refined form. Shit to gold. But properly understood, this process does not mean we should support the horrific, it does not mean condone it: it means that we must identify the darkness, peel it back, look into its eye, and laugh. He who is illuminated with the brightest of lights will have the darkest of shadows. As Heinlein recognized, man is a creature that laughs at wrongness. Does this laughter transform? Does tragi-comedy relieve us of complicity? Perhaps not, but it does allow us to approach it without fear of being taken in by it, and this proximity allows for further transformation to occur.
    Only then can we change. Only then can we change others.


  1. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Well said, James, well said.

    I've always said that BDSM can be seen as a form of reductio ad absurdam, an aikido move, against the tools of state control. Nothing quite like taking the tools of torture and restraint and using them (and of course fear and shame themselves) as sex toys to deconstruct their oppressive nature!

  2. Yeah.

    I'm actually not much into pain or the typical trappings of S&M (though relinquishment or control of will can be fun, and can be acted out in various ways that can be hot as hell.)

    So I guess that makes me "vanilla" or some shit, cause I don't need someone to shove a metal rod in my penis and punch me in the face to get off. Whatever, I can still write cultural commentary. :)

  3. this all reminds me once again of the words of our good friend MJK, but I shouldn't have to say it all again...



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