Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

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

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Body Without Organs?

Is the tortured body a ‘body without organs?’ In a recent issue of the New Left Review (May/June 2006), Susan Willis wrote a stimulating article on the new ‘symbolic-economy’ of deriving intelligence from torture victims at Guantánamo Bay for the emerging security industry. According to Willis, detainees present a new, idiosyncratic form of labor control in order to produce intelligence. ‘Shackled to the floor,’ Willis reminds us, ‘the detainees are farmed for intelligence in much the same way that the pharmaceutical industry “pharms” animals for the production of drugs, or even organs for eventual human transplant (2006: 124).’ Intelligence, Willis suggests

that is extracted from the Guantánamo prisoners is not a commodity like a kidney on the global organ market. Rather, it is cycled into the various agencies and institutions which produce security both in a material sense, along with infrastructures of personnel and weaponry, and as an ideology that suffuses our daily discourse. The CIA, FGI, NSA, Pentagon and other agencies compete for access to intelligence as capitalist enterprises compete for other sorts of raw materials. The American public consumes security ideology much as it consumes 24-hour cable news. The levels of this security are closely monitored and its hourly fluctuations gauged in terms of how they affect stock-market portfolios. The suffering and mental breakdown of the tortured detainees is traded against the wellbeing of Middle America: they must stay there in order to preserve the peace and prosperity of the citizenry. Security has become America’s daily vitamin supplement (2006: 125).

In this sense, Marx would argue, intelligence, ‘the inner—indeed, most intimate—resource’ (2006: 126) can be understood as formally subsumed into the relations of capital; that is, processes and resources that originate outside of capitalism’s domain (in this case, utterances that are physically beaten out of tortured prisoners) are incorporated into its relations of production. This derived intelligence is then materially circulated, accumulated, and consumed not only by members of the intelligence community and security industry, but by a consuming American public. But, Willis misunderstands the brilliance behind her discovery: the detainees are not the labor that is controlled. Rather, those that are in the act of extracting intelligence, the torturers themselves, are the disciplined and controlled labor in this relation of production. The intelligence officers/torturers farm and produce the intelligence-commodity that is then extracted by their respective institutions and marketed for circulation.

Which brings us backs to our original question: is the tortured victim a ‘body without organs?’ Can that wretch that is shackled, tormented and beaten to a pulp on a concrete floor be understood as a deterritorialized, full-bodied inversion of the despotic body? In other words, in our sinister torture complex, does the torture victim not code the very flows of desire that are brought against him, which is the basic premise of the socius and the ‘body without organs?’ In his devastating discussion of the political foundation of ‘naked life’ and the ‘state of exception,’ Giorgio Agamben argues with clarity the following point:

‘At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially hominess sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns (1998: 85; my emphasis).’

How then can we account for this material inversion of the despotic-sovereign, the tortured ‘body without organs?’

Deleuze and Guattari speak briefly of torture and pain, a fact of life in the primitive territorial machine. Following Nietzsche, D & G outline a ‘theater of cruelty’ that is based on an economy of credit/debt, whereby the primitive bodies become the surface of the corporeal inscription of the socius (190). Since the voice and ‘graphic action’ (writing, monumentation, etc.) are mutually exclusive in the primitive territorial machine, the primitive body becomes indebted to and serves as an inscribed equilibrium between the socius-earth and voice of the primitives (191). However, this discussion of torture becomes irrelevant to us once the despotic body comes from without, and the independence of the voice and graphism are collapsed.

A unique dynamic occurs when the barbarian despot comes from without: even though the despotic machine confronts the primitive lateral alliances and extended filiations with a new incestual alliance and direct filiation, the primitive disposition does not disappear. Rather, the despot overcodes those alliances and filiations of the territorial machine. But what is the consequence of this Romanesque overcoding/marginal preservation (connective synthesis) of the conquered? Here we see another correlation between Agamben and D & G. ‘Man must constitute himself,’ D & G write, ‘through the repression of the intense germinal influx, the great biocosmic memory that threatens to deluge every attempt at collectivity (190).’ In turn, Agamben famously tells his readers: ‘once brought back to his proper place beyond both penal law and sacrifice, homo sacer presents the originary figure of life taken into the sovereign ban and preserves the memory of the originary exclusion through which the political dimension was first constituted (1998: 83; my emphasis).’ Here, the tortured primitive body that can be killed but not sacrificed (since it is in debted to and inseparable from the socius-earth) is preserved as a memory in the despotic machine, just as homo sacer is preserved in the juridico-political dimension of society.

In both Homo Sacer and Anti-Oedipus, the sovereign-despot is operative on the limits of society, detached from the chain of signification: he is a deterritorialized full body. This brings us back to the importance of the conflation of the voice and graphism. Unlike the territorial machine, graphism ‘aligns itself on the voice’ and becomes writing/law, or the representation of the despot (205), or rather, the despot becomes the ‘master signifier’ within and without the law (206).

This graphism of the master-signifier is still at work today. In the case of Guantanamo, who are the perverts who ‘spread the despot’s invention, broadcast his fame, and impose his power (193)?’ How do these perverts employ the master signifier in the practice of torture? More importantly, how does the torture victim become a ‘body without organs’ that is symmetrical figure of the despot? In light of D & G and Agamben, we must look at how the torture victim is an extractable entity. Following D & G’s use of Lyotard’s theory of pure designation, the torture victim is, through words, ‘transformed into a sign the things and bodies they designate (204);’ i.e., the torture victim is graphically inscribed by the necessary despotic voice in order to become legible to the torturer, since the inscription necessarily must refer back to the master signifier (infinite debt). In the ‘realm’ of pop-culture, we can see how this perversion is reproduced in contemporary social relations—consider a sample dialogue from Pulp Fiction where the hit-man Jules confronts the petty-thief Cookie in the diner:

Jules: Cookie, tell me something. Do you read the bible?
Cookie: Not regularly.
Jules: Well, there's this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you." I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never gave much thought what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass (my emphasis).

Jules is acting and speaking through the master-signifier, though not the anachronistic master-signifier of God (since God has been appropriated by the governmentalized State, just as the primitive territorial machine was appropriated by the despotic machine), but through the governmentalized master-signifer of ‘cool’ violence. In the documentation on practices of torture, this acting in the name of ‘cool’ violence is the more than pervasive.

But something special happens in the torture complex. The interaction between the tortured victim and the torturer(s) is never one of intimate familiarity, where the victim is merely inscribed. The tortured victim is approached as an object, an object that, along with the master signifier, constitutes the constellation of knowledges that are employed against it. The torture victim is merely experimental earth: something that can be farmed, something that can be inscribed, something that is not understood to be a body, or rather, a body that is meaningless. In the eye-pain of the torturers, it is a resource for intelligence extraction, an inverted body without organs that codes the decoded knowledge that is circulated in the decoded flows of the intelligence community, security industry, and the general public matrix. This is how the torture victim becomes an object of desire, and has a hand in producing a desiring-machine. When those decoded constellated knowledges employed by torturers approach the coding torture victim, and through their sinister encounter in that malevolent place of Guantanamo, ‘and [in] their conjunction in space that takes time, [these] decoded flows constitute a desire—a desire that, instead of just dreaming or lacking it, actually produces a desiring-machine that is at the same time social and technical (224).’

Of course, these decoded flows are not one-sided. They escape the imperial machine, and become privatized within the social field. While the tortured body without organs codes a certain kind of intelligence that is circulated within the intelligence community and American media realm, another type of coding can unexpectedly occur, becoming manifest in other undesirable desiring-machines. Willis concludes her article by citing the figure of Mackandal in Alejo Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo. Mackandal is the leader of pre-revolutionary rebellions in Santo Domingo. ‘Captured and condemned to be burned at the stake,’ Willis writes, ‘Mackandal’s auto de fé is witnessed by plantation owners and slaves alike. The former sees the body consumed in the fire; the latter see body and flames metamorphose into a butterfly. Neither martyr, nor sacrificial victim, Mackandal instead becomes myth (2006: 135).’ Myth, which ‘always expresses a passage and a divergence’ (D & G 219), is always residual and consumed, and in the case of Guantanamo, constitutive of the immanent desiring-production that will create revolutionary butterflies of us all.


  • At 3:05 PM, Blogger mad Nomad said…

    I highly agree with your perspective on torture, and your interpretation of the SW. article. As someone who has been a functioning cog of the intelligence apparatus, I have to wonder how you can be so cognizant of the nature of intelligence production. In fact, when I was in military intelligence in 2004-2007, the apparatus was self-reinventing along the lines of businesses. There is now not only a secret internet (SIPR, as well as a top-secret-JWICS- and NSA net) but various levels of classified wikipedias, free SIPR email accounts and contracts with google, alta vista, et al to re-territorialize intelligence... I would be very interested in talking more about this with you.

  • At 3:15 PM, Blogger mad Nomad said…

    i actually wrote a story last year about my time in iraq intelligence called "the factory". Originally it was going to be about a raid by us forces on what they thought was an IED-factory, but what turned out to be a pickle-making operation in some guy's attic. The more obvious second meaning was precisely about the labour relations in army intelligence.

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