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Speaking about Torture ed. by Julie A. Carlson and Elisabeth Weber (review)
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In an environment in which the humanities have more and more often been asked to prove their worth and to demonstrate their efficacy vis-à-vis problems in the material world, the editors of Speaking about Torture ask: In what ways might disciplines within the humanities address the torture policies of the twenty-first century? Speaking about Torture as a whole provisionally answers that question, with a range of chapters covering diverse fields in the humanities. These include essays on the use of music as a modern torture technique, analyses of poetry about Abu Ghraib, criticism of the treatment of the Guantánamo Bay detention center in painting, and close-readings of now-classic texts on torture such as Jean Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, as well as essays that discuss torture in relation to Egyptian film, pornographic literature, and university ethics.

Editors Julie A. Carlson and Elisabeth Weber note that media representations of torture have shifted profoundly in the twenty-first century. Not only is the US public’s awareness of the torturous activities of its own government much more widespread than ever before, it has also become apparent that the United States’ “media entertainment complex is invested in making torture an acceptable form of social entertainment” (9). A volume, then, that frankly analyzes how we as a culture speak about torture is a welcome corrective to the casual ways in which such violence is so often discussed. Speaking about Torture includes a diverse range of approaches to how the humanities contribute to or interact with torture policies, and the collection aims to discuss “the complicity of artists and humanists in torture” at the same time as it “stakes a claim for the special relevance of artistic and humanist practice to a comprehension of torture that better augurs its eradication” (10).

Lisa Hajjar’s essay “An Assault on Truth,” for example, places a chronology of US acts of torture directly beside an explication of the language that the government used to describe these activities. She examines, especially, the euphemisms and evasions of truth used by the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations to redescribe torture, imprisonment without trial, and brutal violence as things other than themselves, finding that “the Bush administration never officially authorized ‘torture.’ Rather, ‘torture’ became the euphemism for anything that was not authorized by the US government” (23). And Alfred W. McCoy, in his essay “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth,” argues that “Fox’s 24 soon became the informal signature program of President Bush’s War on Terror. Every week as a large clock ticked menacingly, Agent Jack Bauer . . . used violent torture to save Los Angeles or the nation from the threat of terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction” (49). McCoy traces the history of state-sponsored violence in the United States, describing US torture policies from the Cold War and their correspondences with those used in the present. His essay is a breathtaking historical survey leading from 1970 directly to the 2004 revelations of the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib.

The two best essays in Speaking about Torture appear in its final section. Julie A. Carlson’s “Romantic Poet Legislators” places the philosophies of novelist and New Philosopher William Godwin against those of the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment (224). Carlson’s essay deftly examines how representations of torture actually work on those who consume such images or descriptions by placing our notions of sympathy, empathy, and indignation in the context of how the Romantic poets thought about these feelings. Further, Carlson examines Shelley’s The Cenci (most famous for Artaud’s 1935 adaptation) for what its stagings of torture might offer us (228). This essay will be of greatest interest to those in the fields of performance studies and theatre studies, exploring, as it does, the ways in which emotionally charged viewing of fictional circumstances has the ability to create or foreclose empathy, and even more importantly, political action.

Equally superb is Darieck Scott’s discussion of Samuel R. Delaney’s...



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