The Torturer’s Smile as the Stain of Enjoyment
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The Torturer’s Smile as the Stain of Enjoyment
The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film by Hilary Neroni. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 200 pages. $28.00 paperback.

In his well-known essay “Kant with Sade,”1 Jacques Lacan claims that Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, is in fact the truth of Kant. That is to say, the Kantian respect for the moral law, according to Lacan, contains an unconscious enjoyment that possesses a certain sadistic characteristic. The respect for the moral law articulated by Kant is unknowingly tied to a sadistic pleasure in being able to cause pain and humiliation in the victim. The Sadist torturer acts, according to Lacan, as an agent of the moral law. Although for Kant there must remain a gap between the subject’s pathological motivations and personal sentiments (feelings, personal desires, and so forth) and the moral law, there is, as Slavoj Žižek explains, “one a priori sentiment that the subject necessarily experiences when confronted with the injunction of the moral Law, the pain of humiliation.”2 Žižek notes that for Lacan, the Kantian privileging of pain as the only a priori sentiment is correlative with the Sadean notion of pain as the privileged way to access sexual enjoyment. How might we consider Lacan’s argument in [End Page 285] the context of contemporary practices and representations of torture—torture, that is, as an arm of the law?

Hilary Neroni’s The Subject of Torture takes up this question directly. The book is insightful and enjoyable, and it provides a considerably useful point of entry into a key debate in contemporary cultural and political theory. Its overarching focus is the debate between proponents of “biopolitics” and those of psychoanalysis. The book addresses the diverging critical and analytical perspectives of power that depend on the choice of the body or the subject as the site of knowledge. This debate is at the heart of current theories of subjectivity, power, and ideology, and in this book Neroni defends the Lacanian psychoanalytic approach, particularly a version of it influenced by Žižek and Joan Copjec.3

Interest in biopolitics and the body have developed out of critiques of Marxist and psychoanalytic conceptions of subjectivity. Though important in many respects—particularly when dealing with questions about racism and sex, for instance—a focus on the body seems to sidestep the role of desire and enjoyment and their connection to truth. In The Subject of Torture, which includes poignant, psychoanalytically charged interpretations of popular films such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the Hostel and Saw series, and television series such as 24, Homeland, and Alias, Neroni contends that “biopolitics” is actually aligned with contemporary torture ideology and informs the predominant fantasy about torture. The “torture fantasy,” as it is described by Neroni, is one that sees the body as a repository of information that, bound to its wish for mere corporeal survival, can be made to purge whatever details are deemed necessary for the enhancement of the security state. Neroni contrasts the biopolitical torture fantasy with the psychoanalytic conception of the desiring subject. Unlike the biopolitical body, the desiring subject is not a repository of information. Rather, it is based in an irrational (unconscious) experience of enjoyment. Therefore, on the one hand the reigning torture fantasy, the one that sees the body as repository, opens up an avenue for the critical interrogation of biopolitics and biopower that Neroni pursues, and on the other hand, according to Neroni, the psychoanalytic interpretation of the desiring subject shows precisely why torture as a technique of interrogation is bound to failure. Through her interpretation of various media representations of torture, Neroni shows that the limits of torture are tied to ideologies of the body and knowledge that miss the pathological dimension of libidinal pleasure. Her analyses also make a significant contribution to the psychoanalytic critique of ideology, and the book therefore proves useful beyond the limited scope of popular culture studies. [End Page 286]

Michel Foucault is known for coining the terms “biopolitics” and “biopower,” emphasizing the way that power exerts an influence on the body or is internalized...