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Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 153-167

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The Penal Colony:
Inscription of the Subject in Literature and Law, and Detainees as Legal Non-Persons at Camp X-Ray

Scott McClintock
Antioch University, Los Angeles

Kafka's fiction, coming out of the fin de siecle of the Habsburg empire, has much to tell us about the relationship between subjectivity, legal institutions and processes, and textuality. Speaking out of the twilight of one empire to us in the twilight zone of another empire, of global American hegemony, Kafka's unsettled and unsettling fiction links one imperial time and place to another, thereby affording a comparative study of global imperialisms. And it is all the more necessary to underscore the imperialist nature of the War on Terror since this is what is most vociferously denied by the Bush Doctrine, which sets out to distinguish itself from the more openly imperialist doctrines of Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt even while it hides behind the pragmatic and operational lexicon of the petite, as opposed to master, narrative: Bush insists to a recent cadre of graduating West Point officers that his X-Ray vision blueprint for the counter-terrorism war will be, unlike the expansionist visions of the past, "no utopia, no empire."

Based on the decadent 1899 novel by Octave Mirabeau, Le Jardin des Supplices, a work banned in Germany as pornography that depicts the sadistic torture of prisoners by officials indifferent to the humanity of their victims, 1 Kafka's parable of political terror as power over the bodies of prisoners, the power of confinement and compulsion of the body of the prisoner to become an expressive medium of his truth, returns uncannily to home in the weird extraterritoriality of "Gitmo," as military personnel truncate the name for the locale of Camp X-Ray in the Guantanamo Bay facility the U.S. has occupied in Cuba since 1902.

The pornographic source of Kafka's tale is significant in light of the images of the detainees released by the Defense Department, which I take [End Page 153] as a visual text I will read in conjunction with Kafka's tale, and with other works of literature containing the topos of the prison island. The visual semiology of the detainees in the photographs is replete with pornographic associations, the pornography of power. The photographs show the detainees kneeling under heavy guard, arms bound behind them, heads bent, covered in a kind of cowl fashioned from ear muffs and taped over ski goggles, which, together with the surgical masks covering their mouths, evoke the visual syntax of sadomasochistic pornography. The surgical masks that here serve not as protection but as a gag, a means of isolation and control of the prisoner, recall the prominence of the detail of the gag of the prisoner in Kafka's text, and the thematics of hunger and rejection of food, so ubiquitous in Kafka's fiction, which I will also comment on later in connection with the hunger strike by the detainees in March, 2002. Roland Barthes' analysis of the visual grammar of pornographic postures in Sade, Fourier, Loyola 2 springs to mind here, and of course, the photograph is an important locus of Barthes' semiology. 3 The X-Ray is merely the extension, into a paranoiac knowledge, perhaps, of the camera's lucidity. In an important sense, the Defense Department's photographs of detainees comprise a response to the image, repeated indefinitely in the political imaginary of national mourning, of the disappearance of the twin towers. By exhibiting the images of detainees at Camp X-Ray, the security apparatus reinstates its control over, and through, by means of, the visible. Indeed, what is visible in the images is not so much the detainees themselves (they are vague, indeterminate figures, whose identifying features are deliberately concealed; it is merely their abstract being, the "species essence" as terrorists, that is on display, while their individual identities are guarded from view), as the spectacle of the state's power over them...


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