Torture and the Future


Elisabeth Weber (Comparative Literature/Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies)
Lisa Hajjar (Law and Society)

Statement of Purpose

The RFG “Torture and the future” is intended to be a continuation of the efforts of the group of faculty who organized the “Critical Issues in America” series in 2006-2007 under the same title. The goal of this proposal is to extend and intensify the conversations we have started with this series dedicated to exploring how the humanities, literature and the arts engage with the complex issues surrounding human rights and their violation in today’s world. With the ongoing public debate on the efficacy and legitimacy of torture, it is our responsibility not only to educate about the issues involved, but to take strong and well-informed stances of active opposition. The following four points summarize the areas of investigation and discussion we propose to pursue:

1) “Democracy”. It is now a widely accepted fact that the democratically elected government of the United States engages in torture around the world, including in so-called “black sites”, into which dozens, if not hundreds of suspected terrorists are being “disappeared” without a trace. It is therefore necessary to question the consequences these practices have on the concept and practice of “democracy” in the United States, as well as on states whose human rights violations are routinely denounced by Western democratic governments, including the US. There is substantial evidence that other “democracies” do and have relied on torture, even after its absolute prohibition in the aftermath of World War II, starting with the French in Algeria and Indochina, the British in Northern Ireland, and the Israelis in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. This subject of “democratic torture” will be one of the foci of this program.

2) Academia. It is necessary to question the consequences of the use of torture on the principles and practices of scholarship and education. By either openly or passively condoning torture, for example through our silence, we send a devastating message not only to our students, but also to the community at large: that the prohibition against torture is negotiable or even dispensable. Especially in the humanities, where cutting edge thinking explores concepts and experiences such as “responsibility”, “otherness”, “difference”, “memory”, “trauma”, our work and research become entirely irrelevant if, today, we ignore the implications of a re-legitimization of torture. Furthermore, in Richard Falk’s words, the perspectives of social science alone cannot adequately comprehend what is at stake. The humanities might offer more productive methods towards an ethics and politics of response and resistance. We plan to include speakers and programming that address the issue and debates about torture in the arts, literature and critical theory.

3) Media. Representations of torture in popular media inform and influence people’s consciousness and understanding of its underpinnings. State-sponsored torture and its transformation into a media spectacle must be examined as a rhetorical and iconographic structure of meaning, a structure that infiltrates our everyday lives. Thus, has the media spectacle of torture become integrated into the American social body? Are the codes of racial and religious profiling provoking a crisis on the nature of American identity? Further, the visual display of torture does not only evoke revulsion, but has been transformed into a form of visual pleasure that obscures the coordinates of democratic citizenship. We then need to consider representations of torture in the media as a psychological instrument of social coercion, and the effects such coercion has on the state of human rights and citizenship.

4) Heritage. We need to reflect on a heritage that may resonate in today’s practices of torture and is mirrored in the lack of public outcry. We need to ask how what seems to be a massive public indifference can be understood beyond the influence of mainstream media. Can this indifference be understood as embedded in a specifically American tradition, for example in a concept like “American exceptionalism” that, in the past, has allowed the US to routinely make “a mockery of the principles enshrined in international law, while officials opportunistically utilized its moral-legal rhetoric to castigate enemies”? Are there unspoken links between the acceptability of torture, on the one hand, and, for example, what Dennis Childs has termed the “slavery of the 20th and 21st centuries”, American prisons, and the death penalty? Mark Dow’s research on the “American Gulag” of US Immigration Prisons describes the horrifying conditions of torture, abuse, civil death in US immigration prisons. Avery Gordon’s most recent work uncovers the links between military and civilian prisons, and shows that Abu Ghraib needs to be reflected on in this context. The human rights violations on American soil and their deeply rooted causes have to be scrutinized if our investigation into human rights abuses abroad is to be productive.


Participating Faculty: Roman Baratiak (Arts and Lectures), Peter Bloom (Film and Media), Julie Carlson (English) Susan Derwin (CL and GSS), Richard Falk (Global and International Studies), Giles Gunn (Global and International Studies; English), Nancy Kawalek (Film and Media), George Lipsitz (Black Studies and Sociology)
Participating Graduate Students:
Allison Schifani (Comparative Literature), Karen Bishop (Comparative Literature), Noah Zweig (Film and Media)