Saturday, December 27, 2008

Semiotics of torture

Some interesting discussion on the political, moral, and philosophical consequences of the Bush Administration's torture agenda:'s not that torture had been non-existent in liberal states until the torture shown in the Abu Ghraib photos. The US torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Baghram, and elsewhere reflects the techniques developed through CIA documents dating to the 1950s. The liberal state, more generally, has always functioned on an opposition between its conception of civilization - grounded in a liberal conception of rationality - and what's beyond civilization.


That is, "barbarism." In the name of basic liberal principles and of rationality itself, the liberal state must be defended against its barbarian enemies. But since these principles - of, for instance, autonomy, liberty, dignity, etc. - in the liberal political-philosophical tradition are taken as universal (for Kant, for example, grounded in natural law), and since torture is a fundamental denial of those principles, the liberal state had to conceal torture. Foucault suggests something similar in Discipline and Punish. Torture, when practiced by liberal states, could never find a place in actual law. Otherwise, we’re no longer talking about liberal states, but something else.

Torture is fundamentally extra-legal in this sense and this is why there's so much talk of states of exception and states of necessity. But this is also why the Bush administration's institutionalization and attempted legalization of torture is so radical. It's an assault on the foundational principles of the liberal state.

Yup. That's why visible torture is so dangerous to America's international reputation, too. It's not about hypocrisy, it's about being revealed to be something other than what the country was supposed to be--including what it believes itself to be. It's revelatory and it's the kind of moral-philosophical shift that has real consequences.

I really need to read Discipline and Punish. There will never be enough time, goddammit.

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