Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Torture and the Question of Sovereignty

In the coming months, I will be engaging in critical research that delineates the social conditions and relations which allow the contemporary dynamic of torture to take place, within the context of the "war on terror." Further, I am concerned with what sort of geographical imaginaries are produced from the images of torture, since I would argue that the negotiation with those images (e.g., the Abu-Ghraib photos) becomes a way to sanction torture as an effect of power.
My basic interest around the question of torture is whether the phenomenon should be understood as an act of sovereignty that produces a "state of exception" in which a person can be reduced to "bare life" (as Giorgio Agamben, in a revision of Carl Schmitt's theory of sovereignty, has outlined in his work Homo Sacer and State of Exception), or whether torture should be primarily understood as a sanctioned activity within what Michel Foucault has identified as contemporary "governmentalized" biopolitical states.

The motivation behind this research stems from my skepticism of identifying "postmodern" power relations with acts of sovereignty. Hence, when reading various works that attempt to grapple with the question of torture, one sees a general acquiescence toward adopting Agamben's general thesis that torture takes place under the auspices of a sovereign power, within a space sanctioned by a sovereign (e.g., Guantanamo Bay, Abu-Ghraib, and new gulag archipelago discovered by reporters at the Washington Post), that ultimately allows a person to be violently acted upon or even killed without punishment or retribution. In fact, even though I have not yet read the article, the current issue of the New Left Review contains an article by Susan Willis that seeks "strategies—active and passive—for resisting reduction to ‘bare life'," and thus accepting the thesis of the ability to reduce a person to "bare life."

I should note that I find Agamben's work both admirable and haunting, and I think his theoretical analyses of contemporary power relations, history, social thresholds, etc. are indispensable. I should further note that I named this blog after one his books Means Without End, which I hope makes an impression about the amount of respect and appreciation I have towards his work.

But, when one begins to analyze torture, when one begins to scratch the surface on the dynamic of torture, it becomes clear that the dynamic is indeed a process--a carefully articulated process that comes with training and manuals, and is largely conducted through multiple conduits and personnel, and is extremely hard to trace back to some sort of sovereign act of power. When one looks at Guantanamo or Abu-Ghraib, who should be identified as the sovereign? When was the moment that the "state of exception" came about? Who or what is creating that "space of exception?" Indeed, why should it, or any other site of torture, be understood as a "space of exception?" What is exceptional about it?

In answering these questions, Agamben references the "state of emergency" caveat embedded in most contemporary legal systems, and the ability of a state to centralize power in the hands of a few individuals when a territory is threatened in such a state of emergency. In turn, these individuals (along with multifarious personnel acting as sovereigns, ranging from doctors in concentration camps to the military) are thus given the ability to make the decision of what constitutes as the exception (borrowing from Schmitt). There is no doubt that such legal measures are carried out (as evidenced in the extraordinary push to reconstitute powerful executive authority by the Bush Administration once the so-called "war on terror" was announced; an authority that has been met by a "resistance" that seems to be more curious about what this kind of power could mean if sanctioned, rather than actually preventing such a centralization from taking place), but there seems to me to be a sort of theoretical slight of hand taking place in the way the topic is being discussed; i.e., the "head of the king" is being left intact.
The dynamism behind the work of theorists like Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and their progeny is their insistence on power relations being understood as operative in ways much different than anachronistic accounts of sovereign power. According to Foucault, power can be better identified with various "technologies" (technologies of domination; technologies of the self; etc.). I have plenty of time discuss these technologies in the future, as well as my own thoughts on conceptions of power (which is, in fact, what my project is ultimately about)--I am merely trying to outline my project here.
Thus, when we are confronted with a situation such as (post)modern torture practices, I would argue that the question needs to be approached in such a vain that Foucault was beginning to articulate towards the end of his life. In other words, is torture a governmentalized process? How does torture fit into Deleuze's formulation (in his analysis of Foucualt's work) of a transition of society from a "society of discipline" to a "society of control?" How is the tortured victim identified as a subject by his violent inquisitors? Is he understood as an animal, or do the torturers assume that they are dealing with a "neoliberal subject?" What are the measures carried out when conducting torture, and to what end? What makes torture biopolitical? And so on. This is the project I tend to carry out, and will use this blog to work out the details (along with other commentary on current social affairs, and the building of a transitional social praxis away from "capitalism.")


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