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June 2016
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You Have the Right to Remain Silent by Justin Clemens

An extract from HEAT 23

‘To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause another to suffer affords an even greater pleasure.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

‘Every woman adores a Fascist,’ wrote Sylvia Plath in ‘Daddy,’ her most notorious poem. We should add: ‘Every person adores a torturer.’ As Sigmund Freud put it in Civilisation and its Discontents:

men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.

For Freud, the real question is not: ‘why do humans torture?’ but ‘how did some humans ever come to think torture was a bad thing?’ The paradoxical answer, of course, is that humans did this by turning torture against themselves, by turning themselves into auto-torturing devices. ‘I abominate torture, so I must continue to practice it covertly’ is perhaps the kettle-logic of the neurotic rejecter of torture, ‘I must refuse to recognise its claims and usefulness, I must reject the complicity of my own highly moral way of life with such obscene practices.’ The disturbing Freudian proposition would then be that torture continues to be enjoyed in the mode of its repression and displacement: other people may have dirty hands, but mine are very very clean.

Freud’s answer itself echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s remarks in the second book of his Genealogy of Morals, where Nietzsche analyses the tight practical bonds between law, torture, and the development of a sense of conscience, guilt, and justice. If, in order for a promise to be meaningful, one has somehow to be obliged to fulfill it, man must have been turned into ‘the promising animal’ (in all senses of this suggestive phrase!) by the communal invention of horrible punishments. Drawing out the principle that ‘only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory,’ Nietzsche writes: ‘the severity of all primitive penal codes gives us some idea how difficult it must have been for man to overcome his forgetfulness and to drum into these slaves of momentary whims and desires a few basic requirements of communal living.’Communal living, of whatever kind, has its foundations in violence and torture, and we would do well not to, ahem, forget this. But forgetting the origins and sustenance of their communities in torture is what self-torturing animals precisely tend to do – except when they are unpleasantly reminded of this, as happened globally with the photographic evidence that emerged from Abu Ghraib in 2004.

The question of torture immediately became highly visible and voluble again in public discussions, implicating the highest officials in the US government to anonymous citizens worldwide. Some allegedly democratic legal philosophers and lawyers even began to proselytise for the decriminalisation of torture under limited circumstances, both in the US and in Australia. Two of my legal colleagues at Deakin University, where I was working at the time, briefly became the focus of Australian mass-media attention with a utilitarian variation on this theme, complete with thought-experiments and pseudo-mathematical formulae enabling us to calculate when torture could legitimately be applied. I was appalled by such claims, as well as severely shaken. With Russell Grigg, a colleague from the Psychoanalytic Studies Program, I organised a day-long seminar on ‘The Crime of Torture,’ and we co-authored an article titled ‘A Note on Psychoanalysis and the Crime of Torture.’

Our basic argument was as follows. In general, Freud (and psychoanalysis more generally) provides several rather simple-minded guidelines for ethical discussions of this kind – and which one would perhaps like various ‘experts’ to consider before they pontificated in public about the immutable value of this or that position. First, psychoanalysis doesn’t really prescribe or proscribe any actions in principle, but has to begin with a kind of suspension of judgment on everybody’s part. The doctor doesn’t know better than the patient; nobody is sure what’s going to emerge. Second, however, you therefore can’t be sure a priori that you’re not implicated in what wish to condemn. Third, you can’t just wrench this knowledge out of yourself or others, it’s going to require a long period of just talking it through. Fourth, this talking-through engages a historical anamnesis, which may stretch back through generations. Above all, there is only one ‘fundamental rule,’ that of ‘free association.’ You can say anything you like – or not say it. It is not this or that content of speech that is really key to the process, but the non-intrusive, non-coercive encouragement of the patient to seize power over his or her own utterances. Such free association is, as Brian Stagoll once put it, the very antithesis of torture: the latter extorts speech through the violent infliction of pain and suffering, to the detriment if not destruction of its victims.

In line with these broad psychoanalytic principles, the ethical imperative in this context seems to be something like this: given that I felt so sickened at the thought of secret official torture undertaken by the greatest democratic states, what, exactly, about torture was so repellent to me? What secret enjoyment was I deriving from my repulsion? What, in other words, did I personally owe to torturers? What were the alternative histories of torture and its relation to human polities? When was torture abolished and why? What were the justifications for the abolition of torture in the first place?

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