Saturday, March 24, 2007

Slavoj Zizek goes medieval

Though I find it impossible to disagree with his central argument (that the normalization of torture underwriting the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s "dramatic confessions" is appalling), I wish he hadn't done the at this point hackneyed swerve into medievalizing rhetoric. Bruce Holsinger has already well mapped out how such rhetoric was amply deployed in the wake of 9/11. Here is Zizek writing in today's NYT, "Knight of the Living Dead":

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

When last I checked, torture as public spectacle was part of the fabric of the early modern period as well. And the centuries after that. And after that. Even 20th C American life knew social gatherings called lynchings. I am not so certain that we are all that temporally distant from rituals of violence against others as spectacles of truth, as entertainment, as a "normal" part of human lives.


Anonymous said...

This kind of language is used to imply that "nowadays we should know better". In other words it employs the simplistic progressive notion of history and time that this blog (among others) has so often railed against.

This is bad history - of the worst egocentric kind. That somebody like Zizek should make this mistake demonstrates how much (and why) the world needs good historians - good medievalists even - to guard against such bad ethics and such mistaken abuses of the past.


Eileen Joy said...

But, of course, this issue cannot be simplified, either, by saying, either, "this type of torture is medieval" or "this type of torture is birthed in the early modern period." Because it's both and neither. The history of torture is too complex to be "mapped" in any kind of way that evokes the "periodization" [or, as anonymous implies, its linear "progress"] of its ideology and/or practices. As I've mentioned before on this blog, the book I have co-edited [with Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey], "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages," includes two chapters that deal with the issue of the Bush White House's justifications and uses of torture: Steve Guthrie's "Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV" and Michael Moore's "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants." In any case, apropos to Zizek's NYTimes op-ed piece and our commentary here, I offer the following excerpts from Guthrie's chapter [the book, incidentally, is now officially "in production" and slated for a December 2007 release date]:

----excerpt from Steve Guthrie, "Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV"----

The interest of the American and British public in the practice of torture, in the wake of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the still somewhat secret prison camps in Europe and Asia, is part of a longstanding fascination with the Middle Ages, or rather with a popular image of the period, epitomized in Ving Rhames's indelible line in "Pulp Fiction," "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass." The fascination has grown in this decade under the influence of world events, or rather of widespread American impressions of world events. After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, American commentators often wrote of the Taliban regime, or of the country as a whole, as "medieval," and network TV correspondents often spoke of the feeling that they had stepped back in time. The 2003 invasion of Iraq brought similar comments about the "medieval mindset" of the global enemy and the "medieval barbarity" of Saddam Hussein's rule. Reports of "medieval torture devices" were common in print and broadcast media and on the internet, and Hussein's use of torture on his subjects at Abu Ghraib prison was one reason given for the invasion, along with the weapons of mass destruction, aluminum centrifuge tubes, and yellowcake uranium from Niger. After the revelation in 2004 of the ongoing US practice of torture at the same prison, liberals decried Bush's medieval methods, and conservatives defended them as the necessary response to a barbarous enemy. (They forced us to get medieval on their asses.) Both sides agreed that the methods were medieval, and both sides shared an understanding of the term.

Our use of torture is indeed medieval, although in a more complex and troublesome way than popular understanding of the term comprehends. Physical brutality itself is not especially medieval--it seems to be an inclination of the species--and most of the techniques and machines used now are either ancient or modern in origin, but the political and emotional climate of the phenomenon, and the legal policies it rests on, have counterparts in late medieval and renaissance Europe. Our fascination with things superficially medieval can be read as the expression of an awareness on some level of this deeper cultural contact.

. . . .

The Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University, through its Center on Wrongful Convictions, has been responsible for the release of several death row inmates in Illinois, and its work was directly responsible for Governor George Ryan's 2000 moratorium on executions in the state. A fairly typical case is that of Leroy Orange, one of fourteen men receiving death sentences on the basis of confessions made under torture in South Side Chicago police stations in the 1980s. Orange was subjected to beatings, suffocation, and electric shock intermittently during a twelve-hour interrogation in 1984; these and other techniques were and are in widespread use by metropolitan police forces throughout the country. They target the poor, and especially poor African-American and other Black men, and they are both a means and a proof of degradation and disenfranchisement. Because the practice is illegal (prosecutable as assault, violation of civil rights, etc.), it is not judicial torture in a technical sense; but public acquiescence has sanctioned it, and it is one of several grey areas in modern jurisprudence.

One obvious question about this de facto judicial torture is why it should occur systematically in the presence of modern forensic science, which to a large extent solves the main problem of evidentiary proceedings in earlier periods. The answer seems to be that police torture is a colonial enterprise; it targets those already profiled as in some way foreign, Other—Blacks always, and other groups depending on the place and the crisis of the moment—who, in the eyes of authority, must have something to hide, and who do have something that they cannot hide, their physical and social difference, their rejection of police authority, and their anger. From this viewpoint, Abu Ghraib is only Chicago for the export market.

H. Rap Brown once said that violence is as American as apple pie, but the thread linking Abu Ghraib, the American prison system, and metropolitan police practices is not merely violence but sadism. Barbara Tuchman writes of a medieval village game in which "players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal's claws." Thomas More describes the game of cock-stele, in which a cockerel was buried up to its neck in the ground and schoolboys aimed sticks or arrows at its head. Jim Hightower tells a story told to him by Terry Throckmorton, a boyhood friend of George W. Bush in Midland, Texas: "Terry noted that a low spot behind Bush's house would fill with water after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. 'We'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.'" There is, or ought to be, a basic difference between village games and national policy. In medieval law the difference is firmly entrenched; in current American law it is hedged to the vanishing point. The burden of the following pages is to establish this claim.

----end of excerpt----

Steve Guthrie's chapter is amazing, covering practices of torture in the classical, medieval, and early modern world, and in modern Algeria, and also examining the Bush White House legal memorandums on the torture of "enemy combatants," and even looking at a torture "reality tv" program produced in Britain, but in which the "torturers" were ex-members of the American military Delta Force. Here's hoping everyone will rush out to order this book [!]--well, in December, anyway.

Eileen Joy said...

I also question Zizek's claim that one of the greatest accomplishments of our "civilized" progress is our "spontaneous moral sensitivity"? Is he kidding?

rohme said...

Hi Eileen, those were fascinating opinions that you offered. But I wonder, why historicize to argue an ethical point?

Zizek isn't saying that it's torture as a moral or legal functioning of the state but public acceptance of state torture that is a reversion to the Middle Age worldview. Of course, the state has always been torturing. But the reintroduction of the ethics of torture into the public sphere, first through revealment, then blunt topicality, has affected 'moral sensitivity' of the West. The kind of moral sensitivity that makes the objective claim: "Torture is wrong."

Your prescriptive argument for the legitimacy of the word 'medieval' is beside Zizek's point. The problem is that the words 'unlawful combatant' confront us with whether or not we believe in universal human rights. Or in other words, how medieval should we get?