The Pleasures of (seeing) Life in Death: on torture

I didn’t attend the recent conference on torture but in her reflections on it, Amy Laura Hall mentioned an important question that was raised: why do we like to watch torture? More specifically, I have been thinking about 24 and the kind of “ethical torture” the show represents–after all, there are a wide variety of tortures we pleasurably consume in our television and movies.

In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman argues that the empathetic representations of black suffering by white abolitionists actually drew upon the slave economy. Through an empathetic identification with the “suffering black body,” the white subject inadvertently treats the body of the slave as an extension of his or her own body.  In other words, the suffering black body became a vacuous site through which white people could explore and represent white life to themselves.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Octoroon indicates the willingness of others to [vicariously] suffer, too. The elasticity of blackness and its capacious affects enabled such flights and becomings. Moreover, in this case, the figurative capacities of blackness and the fungibility of the commodity are directly linked. The fungibility of the commodity, specifically its abstractness and immateriality, enabled the black body or blackface mask to serve as the vehicle of white self-exploration, renunciation, and enjoyment (25-26).

As slave, the black body was an extension of a white subjectivity (the master); by virtue of the racial slave economy, any white person was the indirect owner of every black person. The pathways for whiteness to step inside, experience, and then articulate the truths learned by this identification with the suffering of the slave–any slave–was itself laid out by slavery. The “convergence of terror and enjoyment” (23) was drawn together on the auction block, when those whose bodies were to be sold were forced to “step it up lively…and amuse the master and his friends” (23). Something about freedom was discovered through the imaginative exploration of their enslavement; something about life through their social death; and something about the pleasures of life were felt through the visualizations of their suffering and the forced performances of life in the midst of death.

In 24, it seems to me, the torturer and the tortured are identical, for both are thought through from within the logic of Jack Bauer’s life. Both the torturer and the torturer represent the same thing, or more accurately, they are in a contest over the same thing, over the possibilities of life that open up by giving oneself over to death. For the tortured to “break” entails that the death coming–whether actual or social–will be stripped of any sacrificial meaning, and therefore the life deprived of its meaning too.  The torturer enters into this same realm for, as happens repeatedly throughout the show, to go the way of torture is to render oneself “dead” by society for the sake of (a particular) society. The torturer sacrifices himself (occasionally herself) by torturing, and through this sacrifice, creates meaning and life, both for himself and for the community. For both parties, the possibilities of life arise from a certain power over one’s own death.

Within the logic of specularity that Hartmann outlines, the scenes of terror offer pleasure for they allow an imaginative exploration of the possibilities of life opened up by sacrifice. As Rambo says, “live for nothing…or die for something.” One can gauge the sense, meaning, and value of one’s own life by watching the sacrificial contest, and vicariously entering into it, internally exploring the measure of one’s commitments and the control one takes oneself to have over one’s own and therefore all other bodies.

The scenes of torture are a medium in which the linkages between mastery over death–ones own and others–and the possibilities of life can be contemplated. Further, the scenes of torture baptize this mastery by placing it within a sacrificial logic: out of love for human (American as ideal) life, Jack Bauer accepts (social) death, both as tortured and torturer. It is, in fact, this knowledge of the freedom to choose death that is mediated through the scenes of torture, for the viewer experiences the choice as to whether to identify or remain distanced.

This freedom to enter into or remain at a distance builds on the logic of mastery established in slavery: (white, American) life comes to self-awareness (of its universality) by its freedom to extract value from the site of death that is alien to it but still inhabitable. The viewer of torture in 24 is invited to step into the highest form of mastery: one may extract the riches of life from the site of death without sacrificing one’s freedom over life and death.  One’s viewing pleasure is therefore doubled: one gains from the imagined immersion into the contest over the ability to “own” one’s death (and therefore create a meaningful life) and one gains from the knowledge that one is not, in actual fact, bound to such a contest. This freedom to participate in while remaining at a distance from the production of life within death is the freedom of (white) America, and the pleasure, relief, and sense of purpose are grounded within the political economy of this American sovereignty: it is thanks to Jack Bauer that we Americans can reap the benefits of this sacrificial logic without ourselves being lost in it.

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2 Responses to The Pleasures of (seeing) Life in Death: on torture

  1. Halden says:

    Great stuff, as usual. Thanks.

  2. argo says:

    Those who torture are strong and virulent, usually better looking and better endowed than their victims and better at sex than their victims and also they are usually more confident and corageous than their victims. The victim of torture is a coward who likes the idea of world peace and getting along with everyone. The victum of torture is a different species(a prey species) and the torture is a predator. It is natural for a torture to get pleasure from the suffering of the prey!

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