March 18, 2014

Torture and Domestic Violence

10% into 'The Body in Pain' by Elaine Scarry

Scarry's descriptions of torture may remind one of descriptions of what domestic violence can be like, and leave one wondering why, if domestic violence and torture have the potential to be similar, their similarity isn't widely acknowledged.

The author speaks of how language is destroyed by pain in such a way that our own pain is known [to ourselves] but courtesy the resistance of pain to being described by language generally except with reference to something else (such as fire causing, possibly by analogy, a burning pain) the pain of others is always in doubt.


Add that to the fact that excruciating positions of torture may be referred to by some domestic object, with the result that, as Scarry says:
‘there is no human being in excruciating pain; that’s only a telephone; there is no telephone; that is merely a means of destroying a human being who is not a human being, who is only a telephone, who is not a telephone but merely a means of destroying a telephone. The double negation of a human being and a symptom of civilization combine to bring about a third area of negation, the negation of the torturer’s recognition of what is happening, a negation that will in turn allow the first two to continue.’

The author, however, begins exploring the structure of torture by making a far more basic observation: torture makes visible what is usually incommunicable: pain contained within the prisoner's body. ‘The physical pain is so incontestably real,’ she goes on to say, ‘that is seems to confer its quality of "incontestable reality" on that power that has brought it into being. It is, of course, precisely because the reality of that power is so highly contestable, the regime so unstable, that torture is being used.’ ...And it is from the beginning of the author's exploration of torture itself that one is reminded of the dynamics of domestic violence; all one has to do is substitute 'prisoner' with 'victim', and 'regime' with 'relationship', to be left with a description of DV rather than one of torture. Which isn't entirely surprising given that, even just going by the descriptions of torture in the book, domestic violence can involve the perpetration of acts which are comparable to acts of torture. Not to mention that domestic violence can mirror war.

Speaking of torture, Scarry says that ‘the overall equation it works to bring about [is], “the larger the prisoner’s pain, the larger the torturer’s power”’ while exploring why torture invariably involves not just the infliction of physical pain but also verbal assault through interrogation; the destruction of the victim's inner world through the appropriation of their body (so to speak) and the destruction of the victim's relation to the physical world beyond the body through the appropriation of their voice.

The asking of questions by the torturer who may himself ensure that his questions are unanswered perhaps by using a gag. The confession he seeks of his victim; ‘the confession which displays the fact that [the victim] has nothing he lives for now obscures the fact that he is violently alive’ at the whim of the torturer:
‘The question, whatever its content, is an act of wounding; the answer, whatever its content, is a scream.’
What is particularly interesting is that while (Scarry's description of) the infliction of pain and its consequences are almost unequivocally abhorrent in the context of torture, similar violence somehow often becomes both unremarkable and acceptable when it is clothed in domesticity.

The author says of a tortured person:
‘Despite the fact that in reality he has been deprived of all control over, and therefore all responsibility for, his world, his words, and his body, he is to understand his confession as it will be understood by others, as an act of self-betrayal.’
This reads remarkably like a description of an abusive relationship with the victim somehow being expected to have enough control to walk out or perhaps that recurrent, favoured trope File a Case! ‘despite the fact that in reality [she] has been deprived of all control over, and therefore all responsibility for, [her] world, [her] words, and [her] body’.

All it takes here is to substitute the ‘confession’ which a torturer requires with the ‘acceptance’ which an abuser demands, and it becomes clear why neither the ostensible confession of a tortured person nor the supposed acceptance of an abused person have any value worth speaking of, and why it is entirely insensible to attribute either such confession or acceptance to abused victims in any meaningful sense.

Nonetheless, the ‘confession’ of a tortured person is often understood as an act of self-betrayal, as is the ‘acceptance’ of violence by an abused person. Once that understanding (of its being an act of self-betrayal) is challenged though, and persons tortured and/or abused are recognised as not being responsible for ‘their’ actions, it becomes clear that compliance or (forced) submission with torturer-cum-abusers is not an act of self-betrayal or anything else along those lines.

Asking why a person being tortured or abused didn't just leave is ultimately a futile question which displays a complete ignorance of how torture/abuse works. Not to mention that it fails to take into account that not challenging what is being done to one could, in fact, be an act of (attempted) survival.


Also see:
  • Kirthi Jayakumar argues that sexual violence during war is a reflection of a society's attitudes towards women during peacetime | Insight on Conflict
  • Ann Jones writes about how domestic violence mirrors war arguing that the term 'domestic violence' undermines just how violent it is | Tom Dispatch