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date: 18 October 2017

Cultural Representations of Torture

Summary and Keywords

Scenes of torture are central to the Western imaginary of law, animating questions of power, authority and legitimacy. This examination of key cultural representations of torture provides some historical background on torture in the Western imaginary and focuses on its contemporary significance. A flexible set of analytical and aesthetic approaches to practices of representation are used to assess the changing significance of torture. In particular, three figures are central to the representation of torture—the torturer, the tortured, and the torture chamber. The significance of these elements differs depending on the form and perspective of representation. These elements of representations of torture changed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and have complicated the social and legal work done by previous cultural texts and government policies around the effectiveness of torture and the risks of states of exception. Not only do popular films and television series support and justify the use of torture as a legitimate information-gathering tool, but representations of torture have become sites of pleasure and enjoyment. The emergence of new figures and genres in representations of torture suggests that the use of torture in violent or conflict scenes has been of increasing interest to the public and possibly have become increasingly accepted since the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Keywords: authority, legitimacy, power, representation, torture, Agamben, Coetzee, Kafka, Sarah Kane, Abu Ghraib, 24, genre, horror, torture porn


Scenes of torture are central to the Western imaginary of law, animating questions of power, authority and legitimacy. This examination of key cultural representations of torture provides some historical background on torture in the Western imaginary and then focuses on its contemporary significance. A flexible set of analytical and aesthetic approaches to practices of representation are used to assess the changing significance of torture. In particular, three figures are central to the representation of torture—the torturer, the tortured, and the torture chamber. The significance of these elements differs depending on the form and perspective of representation. These elements of representations of torture changed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and have complicated the social and legal work done by previous cultural texts and government policies around the effectiveness of torture and the risks of states of exception. Not only do more recent popular films and television series support and justify the use of torture as a legitimate information-gathering tool, but representations of torture have become sites of pleasure and enjoyment. The emergence of new figures and genres in representations of torture suggests that the use of torture in violent or conflict scenes has been of increasing interest to the public and possibly have become increasingly accepted since the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The Historical Significance of Torture in the Western Imaginary

The relationship between torture and power can be seen in mythological and classical texts, including religious texts. The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, for example, unfolds through a scene of torture: Prometheus is nailed to a rock and subjected to eternal suffering at the will of Zeus. By day, his liver is eaten by an eagle; by night, he is regenerated so that his suffering can continue. Edith Hall (2010) suggests that the most fundamental question in the myth is the connection between torture and the submission to authority (p. 7). Page duBois (2016) adds that the classical Athenian connection of torture to questions of legitimacy and truth—the legal practice in which slaves were tortured to reveal truths that were not otherwise available—has helped shape modern culture, legalities, and democratic practice. The legacy of torture and truth “leads almost inevitably to conceiving of the body . . . as the site from which truth can be produced, and to using violence if necessary to extract that truth” (duBois, 2016, p. 6). In contemporary military and diplomacy, the practice of using torture to gather the truth continues to resonate with these classical representations.

The relationship between torture and punishment can also be traced to religious texts. The crucifixion of Christ is one of the most referenced images in Western culture and signifies both suffering and salvation. It is also a juridical scene of capital punishment. In 1987, the artist Andres Serrano produced Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix in a glass of his own urine. Serrano’s work has continued to foreground the sacred in order to address torture that has not been redressed: his latest series of photographs, Torture (2016),1 introduces Fatima—a woman who was raped and tortured by the Sudanese Security Forces and then subsequently detained in an immigration center in the U.K.—as well as other subjects of torture, including the “Hooded Men” (for whom there has still not been any legal redress), Irish Republican Army suspects who were subjected to prolonged sensory deprivation and a range of tortures by the British military in the 1970s.

The genre of the revenge tragedy or revenge play emerged during the late years of the Elizabethan era and early Jacobean era, marking another development in the practice and tropes of representing torture. The genre came to the English stage through Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (~ 1587), which included references to torture, mutilation, and a number of executions by hanging or burning at the stake. The influence of The Spanish Tragedy can be seen in a number of well-known works, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (~ 1600), and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607). The central motive in the revenge tragedy is the protagonist’s revenge for real (or imagined) injury. Believed to have been derived from the Roman tragedies of Seneca, revenge plays typically feature criminals and perpetrators who deserve their punishment until, or unless, they repent. Other conventions of revenge plays include the ghost of a murdered victim (who urges revenge), metatheatricality, madness, murder, and, in some works, cannibalism. These conventions continue to feature in more contemporary texts, such as horror films and violent performances of torture on stage.

Despite the limitations on religious commentary during Elizabethan and Jacobean rule, the early modern stage did provide a platform to examine other social issues, including the construction of race. Ayanna Thompson (2008) suggests that representations of torture during this period enhance one’s understanding of the construction of race. Informed by performance theory, semiotics, and contemporary scholarship on race, Thompson argues that “race developed with contradictory significations in the early modern period: race became both essential and a construction” (2008, p. 3). Covering plays from Restoration dramas to the recent documentation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2004, Thompson’s analysis extends the issue of racialized violence in earlier works to a more contemporary cultural moment, or movement, that she describes as “deliberately anachronistic” (p. 122).

The Significance of Torture in the Western Imaginary from the 20th Century

Throughout the 20th century, cultural representations of torture continued to address the legality of authority and possibility of truth. Fictional texts in literature and film, in particular, provided visual, and at times graphic, scenes of emotional and physical abuse, while questioning the nuances of the relationship between torturer and tortured and between state and society. A number of notable critical and cultural works were produced in the 20th century. These texts are commonly cited in scholarship around practices of representation and histories of violence, and help develop a framework of aesthetics and analytics to read contemporary representations of torture. The texts are also significant for questions of transitional justice, sexual violence, and the rule of law. By reading these critical and cultural texts against social and political phenomena at the time, representations of torture can be understood as interrogating or reinforcing public anxieties around terror, biopower, and gendered and racial violence. By extension, representations of torture tend to consider, critique, and sometimes even support the use of extralegal administrative measures to survey society under the guise of security and protection. The texts also provide a useful framework for analyzing media reporting on violence and torture, and raise questions concerning the consumption, sharing, and censoring of violence and torture in “real” conflicts.

Critical Texts as Cultural Texts

Torture became a significant critical concept in the 20th century, and a number of critical theory texts concerning torture have in turn become important cultural texts in their own right. Theorists Michel Foucault, Elaine Scarry, and Judith Butler each wrote influential texts that examined the history and meaning of pain and torture against social, legal, and technological changes in society. The theories they proposed have seen multidisciplinary application, and apply to an examination of practices of representation because of their focus on the popular and public imagining of pain. They can be used to examine creative texts produced during the 20th century and onward, because of their critical framing of essential issues of practices of representation of violence and, in turn, suffering.

In his seminal text, Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault discusses the genealogy of discipline and torture and its relationship to punishment (p. 33). He defined torture as not only entailing pain, but a “whole quantitative art of pain” (p. 34). Foucault also describes judicial torture as interrogation using torture that is justified on the basis of truth (p. 40). Compared to other forms of torture, Foucault argues that judicial torture does not necessarily “end” (p. 46). His argument focuses specifically on the transformation of the expression of power from torture as a public spectacle to a disciplinary measure (p. 7): “a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared” (p. 8). Foucault suggests that “the punishment-body relation is not the same as it was in the torture during public executions. The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property” (p. 11). Further, disciplinary power is seen to be productive, not repressive, and “makes” individuals (p. 170). Page duBois (2016) dismisses Foucault’s argument that modern society has replaced torture with discipline as “Eurocentric”: “Tell it to the El Salvadorians,” she writes (Hall, 1993, p. 125, citing duBois, pp. 153–154). Madeline Hron (2008) goes further, suggesting that Foucault’s “generalization [of torture] can seem highly ironic” against the 2004 release of photographs from Abu Ghraib (p. 22).

A seminal author on the representation of pain, Elaine Scarry, makes an argument for the intimate connection between pain, power, and torture in her book The Body in Pain (1985) by contending that torture “is itself a language” (p. 27). Scarry explains that pain is a site of power owing to its innate incommunicability: the mute nature of pain provides the torturer with the opportunity to make pain a place in which he or she can assert power (1985, p. 45). Imagination, then, becomes key: “Pain and imagining . . . are the ‘framing events’ within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic and emotional events occur” (Scarry, 1985, p. 165).

At the turn of the 21st century, Judith Butler (2007) took up questions of the representation of torture within ethical and political frameworks, asking: “how do the norms that govern which lives will be regarded as human lives and which will not, enter into the frames through which discourse and visual representation proceed, and how do these in turn delimit and orchestrate or foreclose ethical responsiveness to suffering”? (p. 956). Butler argues that questions about how we respond to others’ suffering, and how we formulate questions of politics and morality, rely on a preestablished reality with a specific idea of the “recognizable human” (p. 951). She suggests that recent war photography has departed from the conventions of war journalism that were operative 30 or 40 years ago, “where the photographer or camera person who attempt[ed] to enter the action through certain angles and modes of access that sought to expose the war in ways that no government had planned” (pp. 952–953). Today, however, “the state operates on the field of perception, and, more generally, the field of representability, in order to control affect” (p. 953). Butler uses the word “representability” rather than “representation” because of its relation to state permission. Writing of the Abu Ghraib photographs, Butler argues that the political background that produces the photographs is obscured from the viewer’s awareness. Nevertheless, it has powerful effects on the viewer, for “it is not just a visual image awaiting its interpretation; it is itself interpreting, actively, even forcibly” (p. 952). This, Butler argues, should be the focus of our critical intervention: “to learn to see the frame” and “to thematize” this frame, which produces dehumanization (p. 966).

Key Cultural Texts on Power and Pain from the 20th Century

These critical texts provide theoretical frameworks useful for analyzing key cultural texts on power and pain also written during the 20th century. Works by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Stanley Kubrick (the last-named adapting Anthony Burgess’s writing) all raise questions about the authorization of torture according to methods of discipline by the state. State discipline is enforced through machines of torture, close surveillance, and “scientific” interventions that aim to “fix” society, which ultimately inflict more pain and suffering. The texts also provide graphic and at times grotesque representations of suffering bodies, through numerous scenes of punishment and the infliction of pain. Read alongside the critical theories put forward by Foucault, Scarry, and Butler, these cultural texts reflect the heightened social and political significance of torture to the state in the 20th century, and the more subtle, institutional forms through which torture continued to be equated with truth.

Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony” (1914)

Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” (1914) is set in an unnamed penal colony and focuses on a torture device, “The Harrow,” designed to gradually carve the sentences of prisoners into their skin, leaving them to bleed to death over 12 hours. There are only four characters in the story, and they are simply named by their position—the Condemned man, the Officer, the Traveler, and the Soldier. Toward the end of the story, after the Traveler tells the Officer his thoughts about the machine, the Officer frees the Condemned man. The Officer then sets up the machine for himself, with the words “Be Just!” as his sentence (Kafka, 2007, 1914, p. 173). However, the machine malfunctions and instead of its slow and drawn out treatment, stabs the Officer to death abruptly, denying him the “justice” experience that he imposed on previous prisoners who were executed under his watch. While the narrative concerns the corrective narrative of judicial torture, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1986) extend responsibility to all actors. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that, in addition to the operation of the machine, the machine’s expression extends to those who “walk around it . . . approach it—these are still components of the machine itself: these are states of desire, all free of all interpretation” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1986, pp. 7–8). “Inside or outside, the animal is part of the burrow-machine” (pp. 7–8). According to the authors, desire is then revealed as not a “form, but a procedure, a process” (pp. 7–8).

George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (1949) is set in Airstrip One—previously the United Kingdom—in an Oceania that is constantly under surveillance. The government is in a continuous state of emergency, controlled by a socialist political system through the Inner Party (the Party) that prosecutes individualism. In the torture chamber named the Ministry of Love, the Party attempts to subject prisoners to their worst fears in order to break down their resistance to the Party. The prisoner is told: “We will crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. . . . Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling . . . friendship, or joy of living . . . courage or integrity” (Orwell, p. 146). For Winston Smith, the prisoner detained in the Ministry of Love, his worst fear is rats, and he is presented with a cage full of rats that are known to attack sick people. The cage has a slot that, when placed on Winston’s head, could be opened and allow rats to devour his face. Winston feels “blind, helpless, mindless” in the situation (p. 152). When the cage is almost at his face, he breaks and yells “Do it to Julia!”—the woman he loves (p. 154). Soon after, he is released from the Ministry of Love, and yet his emotional and psychological state remains broken; he eventually realizes that he loves and admires the leader of the Party, Big Brother.

Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange (1971)

In 1971, Stanley Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) to film. The story presents a dystopian, near-future English society, in which ordinary citizens have become complacent in the face of an increasingly violent youth culture. The protagonist is 15-year-old Alex—one of those violent youths—who is part of a gang of “droogs.” Alex and his droogs perform a series of violent acts, including breaking and entering, in which they rob and beat people in their homes, and in one instance, rape a woman who later dies. Alex is eventually arrested and, while imprisoned, volunteers to participate in a new state-initiated psychiatric program. During the program, Alex is drugged and forced to watch violent films while being given electric shocks—an aversion therapy designed to eradicate his criminal tendencies.

While both the novel and the film represent graphic and grotesque violence through torture—inflicted by the people and the state—the release of the film “tapped a growing current of concern [in the 1970s] that brainwashing, conditioning and chemical or surgical alterations . . . were tools used by liberal democracies searching for new scientific means to impose order within and to fight foreign agents without” (Strange, 2010, p. 277). Carolyn Strange (2010) writes that, at the time, “[e]ven the Senate began to follow up allegations that CIA operations and experiments had involved the use of torture, and mainstream media, including the New York Times” (p. 277). Strange suggests that cultural texts, such as films and pieces of investigative journalism, “may play as great a role as lawmakers in questioning the conduct of coalition partners” in contemporary disputes (p. 280). A Clockwork Orange, for instance, continues to be shown at film festivals, “still asking, in regard to torture, ‘What’s it going to be, then, eh?’” (p. 280).

Torture in Postcolonial and Transitional Justice Contexts

Representations of torture arising out of postcolonial and transitional justice contexts focused on issues of race, as well as recognizing sexual violence as a form of torture. Representations of torture in these contexts at once resonate with colonial violence and discrimination, while questioning the idea that laws and policies of punishment and torture by the state have changed. Cultural texts by South African author J. M. Coetzee, British playwright Sarah Kane, and Italian producer Pier Paolo Pasolini exemplify these themes in their representations of torture. While the subject matter and context of each are different, all three aim to query on whose terms representations of torture are made, so as to place important questions regarding the representation of gender and race alongside earlier cultural/critical questions of power, justice, and authority.

J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980b)

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980b) is a novel “about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience” (Coetzee, 1992, p. 363). The plot is narrated in the first person by the Magistrate of a small town that sits on the frontline of the Empire. The Empire declares a state of emergency following rumors that the “barbarians”—the local indigenous peoples—might be preparing to attack the town. A special forces unit of the Empire, the Third Bureau, conducts an expedition into the land beyond the frontier. The leading Colonel of the Bureau, Colonel Joll, captures, tortures, and kills some of the “barbarians” upon return to the town.

Coetzee (1992) suggests that torture “has exerted a dark fascination on many . . . South African writers” for two reasons: “the first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims,” and the second is “that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants” (p. 363). Kelly Adams (2015) argues that torture therefore not only problematizes “interpretation for the Magistrate and the reader of Waiting for the Barbarians but also of representation for Coetzee” (pp. 172–173).

Meanwhile, the Magistrate starts to nurse a “barbarian” girl who is left blind and disabled by the torture. Coetzee (1986) has questioned whether a novel on torture—“something that, in truth . . . deserves to be ignored” (“Into the Dark Chamber,” 1986, p. 366)—should even be written at all. How does one “not . . . play the game by the rules of the state”; how does one “imagine torture and death on one’s own terms” (Coetzee, “Into the Dark Chamber,” 1986, p. 364)? For Coetzee, these representational issues are both aesthetic and moral (Gallagher & Coetzee, 1988, p. 278). Representing torture on the same terms as the state, and thus the torturer, risks participating “vicariously in the atrocities . . . [of] the state in terrorizing and paralyzing people” (p. 277). As a way to respond to this ethical dilemma, Coetzee’s work rejects realism in favor of language that disrupts interpretation and the easy discovery of truth (Adams, 2015, p. 165). Using short, passive sentences, Coetzee creates a rhetoric of irony and postpones answers to “questions about characters’ agency” (Adams, 2015, pp. 165–166, referring to Coetzee, “The Rhetoric of the Passive in English,” 1980a, p. 168).

Adams explains that two linguistic structures overlap throughout the novel: the Magistrate and Coetzee’s own narration (2015, p. 167–168). The Magistrate narrates in the first person and the present, while Coetzee’s narration is temporally and geographically dislocated from the text (pp. 167–168). Adams suggests that Coetzee’s use of language succeeds in articulating “the problematic of power within acts of torture. The torturer does not exist outside of the dehumanizing power relations that constitute the torturer as torturer” (p. 168). The author’s options for representing the torturer, and torture itself, are limited, without the clichés of evil or monstrosity (p. 168).

Sexual Violence as Torture

The recognition of sexual violence as a technique of torture in the context of war crimes and international criminal law was an important turning point in both legal and cultural domains. It was not until the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals, in 1991 and 1994, respectively, and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court in 1998 that sexual violence was dealt with as a war crime, and this legal recognition has had significant cultural effects (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 110). In creating this legal watershed, legal feminists wanted to communicate the seriousness of rape by legally constructing it as a form of torture in its own right (Halley, 2009, p. 47). The re-narration of sexual violence in international conflict and war zones through the tropes of torture and war crimes provided a context for the development of new legal and cultural narratives. At the same time, the British playwright Sarah Kane was groundbreaking for her own reworking of cultural narratives of sexual violence within international, national, and domestic contexts.

Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995)

Sarah Kane’s play Blasted (1995) considers the relationship between violence and representation—including questions of what kinds of violence and suffering matter to society and how—by redefining sexual violence as torture. Blasted achieves this redefinition through its “nonrealist engagement with key questions relating to violence, gender and justice, and its implementation of a ‘shock’ experience that takes the audience beyond a solely analytic response to these issues” (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 112).

The play begins with a domestic “couple” who meet in an expensive hotel room in Leeds. Ian is a middle-aged tabloid writer, and Cate is a fragile and seemingly intellectually disabled young woman. Ian’s dialogue shows him to be misogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic, as well as a dying man with cancer and liver disease. “The apparent ordinariness of this set-up is quickly undercut when Ian relentlessly torments Cate, and then rapes her—an event that occurs off-stage. The rape precipitates a sudden and shocking break in the structure, genre and plot of the play” (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 113). The rape also coincides with a bomb blowing the hotel room apart and transforming the scene into a war site, with a soldier entering the stage to recount atrocities during the Bosnian War. The soldier takes revenge for his girlfriend’s rape and death during the war against Ian. “In an act of particular brutality, the soldier blinds Ian by sucking out his eyes, before committing suicide himself” (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 114). Cate then returns to the hotel room with a baby she has rescued from the war zone outside, who dies soon after. Cate buries the baby under the floorboards and exits the scene once more. Ian, now blind, is left to die beside the body of the dead soldier and yet proceeds to eat the flesh of the dead baby. When Cate returns to the hotel room with some food she obtained through prostitution with the enemy, Ian mutters the word “shit,” and thanks Cate for some food she gives him, before the play ends (p. 114).

Two of the most shocking scenes—the explosion of the bomb and Ian’s eyes being sucked out—“share a common feature, the sudden collapse of distance and a consequent violation of integral boundaries” (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 114). According to Honni van Rijswijk, the play “disrupts a mode of seeing that supports the criminalisation of sexual violence (and other war crimes) in certain spaces, while other spaces lie free” (p. 116). In doing so, Blasted “argues that representation is not epiphenomenal to substantive questions of justice, and that the terms of representation need to be considered carefully when seeking answers to questions of justice” (van Rijswijk, 2012, p. 114). The domestic context of the play in particular “has a lot to say about the terroristic in this ‘domestic’ violence,” and encourages the visibility of typically invisible crimes, such as rape, to the audience (pp. 121–122). van Rijswijk suggests that, by reading the play alongside international legal texts and feminist commentary, it becomes clear that dominant “narratives and tropes regarding sexual violence are extremely powerful in determining the ways in which adjudication proceeds, and are also very difficult to shift” (p. 123).

Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom) (1975)

Salò is a 1975 Italian-French film written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom (written in 1785, first published in 1904), by the Marquis de Sade. The film is a study of the sadistic aesthetic of fascism, focusing on four wealthy, corrupt Italian leaders, during the Republic of Salo (1943–1945). The leaders kidnap a group of teenagers and subject them to extreme sexual and mental torture. The story is divided into four segments inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320, first published in 1472): the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. The film also contains frequent references to Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927), Ezra Pound’s epic wartime poem The Cantos (1917), and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). The film was extremely controversial upon its release and remains banned in several countries—it was only in the year 2000 that it was granted an uncut release in the United Kingdom.

Salò brings to the foreground the fascist nature of contemporary politics, as well as its fascist aesthetics. Edward Subirats and Christopher Britt-Arredondo (2007) suggest that, in Salò, Pasolini juxtaposes the violence, abuse, and torture of the captors against late-modern civilization and totalitarianism—thus drawing an analogy between contemporary life and the imperialisms and genocides of the past (p. 177). Subirats and Britt-Arrendondo suggest that the film reflexively denounces torture, while at the same time legitimating its use and giving it language (p. 177). The film has the Brechtian effect of distancing the audience and defamiliarizing the subject matter to provide artistic clarity, by re-creating the scenes of torture as “a play within a play, and using the producers as sadist narrators” (Subirats & Britt-Arredondo, 2007, p. 179). Subirats and Britt-Arrendondo identify two characteristics of the representation of torture in contemporary texts, which Pasolini engages with in a “polemical fashion”: the first is aestheticizing or evaporating the “reality of violence,” by fictionalizing and neutralizing its representation; and the second is creating a Hollywood-like pornographic aesthetic, infused with crime and sadism (p. 179). The authors suggest the “civilizing process” of representations of torture in the film align the mass consumption of pornography with the mass consumption of violence and lust for torture on the evening news (p. 182).

State, Torture, and Representation Post 9/11

There has been a shift in representations of torture since 9/11, according to the GWOT rhetoric and policy, and also following the widespread publication of photos documenting prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib in 2004.2 According to research by the Parents Television Council in the United States (2008), the number of scenes of torture on primetime television quadrupled from the years 1995–2001 to 2002–2005 (Hron, 2008, p. 27). In contrast to Coetzee’s attempts to fictionalize scenes and characters involved in torture, the cultural texts produced around the GWOT have become more realistic, to the point of fetishizing suffering in the “real” world. Popular culture representations of torture are set in countries where there are ongoing wars and conflicts—including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Through these representations, the role of torture has become “increasingly associated with terrorism, military operations, and law enforcement” (Hron, 2008, p. 27). While some texts have sought to expose practices of torture and to condemn the inhumane treatment of detainees or prisoners of war, other post–9/11 representations appear to promote the use of torture and vouch for its effectiveness in gathering information and preventing further destruction (p. 29).

Emphasizing the sociocultural work of these representations, Adams (2016) suggests that “fiction and politics are inseparably interdependent” and rely on each other’s narratives to create “coherent and comforting narratives” in times of crisis, destruction, and the unknown (pp. 2–3). In contemporary cultural texts, these narratives “make carnage seem not only necessary but triumphant” (p. 3). The development of new figures in representations of torture—such as the heroic torturer and the biodetective—and new visual genres that engage with torture seem to indicate the ongoing popularity and interest of the public in representations of torture.

Three themes emerge from the contemporary texts discussed here: first, the acceptability and normalization of states of “exception”; second, the effectiveness of using torture to gather information; and third, the significant political role of the media in distributing popular representations of torture. This last point is particularly important: as Hilary Neroni (2015) argues, the representation of torture is key to its practice, and “it is not by accident that authorities seeking to justify torture turn to media representations in their defense of what seems like an indefensible practice,” thus justifying the unacceptable (p. 24). Each theme refers to U.S. government and military actions since 9/11 and has been the subject of media and popular cultural works. These representations also draw on torture practices employed within the legal frameworks of slavery and colonialism, in ways that bind historical anxieties about race, security, and religion to contemporary views on terrorism.

Representations of Exceptional Acts and States of Exception

The category of “exception” has traditionally been understood as a “suspension of regular law, even a space of non-law” (Hussain, 2007, p. 735), signaling that nations have gone beyond their legal frameworks in responding to security concerns or national crises. Exceptional circumstances, recently categorized as “emergencies,” are considered to be spaces of “lawlessness” (p. 740). In Georgio Agamben’s seminal text States of Exception (2005), the philosopher responds to Carl Schmitt’s analysis of sovereignty by providing a genealogy of the concept and instances of exceptionalism since Roman times. Giving the example of prisoners held in Guantanamo under the rhetoric and rules of the GWOT, Agamben describes a “legally unnamable and unclassifiable being,” who lacks “the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws” (2005, p. 3). Agamben’s theory connects to our emphasis on practices of representation, because visual and cultural gestures can either support or resist contemporary policies, politics, and biopower. “The gesture is, in this sense, communication of communicability” (Agamben, 2000, p. 59). Taking cinema as an important site of gesture, Agamben suggests that the form of cinema is so closely tied to its content that it has the potential to affect political thought (Neroni, 2015, p. 26).

What representations of torture risk, then, is making acceptable these exceptional state practices, as seen through gestures of heroic and triumphant military narratives in Hollywood films and popular television series. These risks are escalated by the diffusion of exceptional practices with everyday law. Nasser Hussain (2007) suggests that governments “have moved away from declarations of state of exception to the more diffuse condition of exceptional laws of all sorts found throughout the administrative apparatus of the state” (p. 724). The normalization of emergency responses creates a state where exception “no longer exists” (p. 735) in contemporary war and terror policy in the United States. Rather, exceptional methods and contemporary emergency laws tend to reflect other domestic state practices (p. 735). In popular cultural texts, the familiarity of these domestic practices is reinforced by other images of security and trust. Military officers or spies, for example, carry on the longer tradition of popular American superheroes operating within a state of exception.

Premiering just two months after the World Trade Center attacks, the television series 24 exemplifies the superheroic approach to states of exception in its representations of torture. The series has received academic, political, and military attention for its representations of exceptional acts and the impressive characterization of its lead, Jack Bauer. The plot centers on Bauer, a former federal agent in the Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) of a secret U.S. intelligence agency, who is presented with a complex conspiracy to crack. Each season represents a 24-hour period in Bauer’s life, with each episode corresponding to a single hour in this world. The audience is sympathetic to Bauer, but it is the perspectives of other characters—other agents, government officials, family members, politicians, and terrorists—that drive the plot. Bauer and other CTU officials routinely carry out torture in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. As Desmond Manderson (2010) points out, “[a]lmost without exception, it is the heroes and not the villains who engage in this violence’ (p. 29). Hron suggests that the use of torture by on-screen heroes has made torture and torturers “heroic, intimate, and familial” in the public imaginary and has reinforced the cultural opinion that torture is effective in revealing truth (2008, p. 29).

Manderson suggests that 24 prosecutes a case “in favour of torture and against the rule of law in ‘extraordinary circumstances’” (2010, p. 29). He observes that the figure of the superhero is frighteningly “heroic precisely because his actions transcend laws, whether those of physics or of society” (p. 33). Heroes respond uniquely to the call, and it is their exceptional conduct and power, rather than that of the community, that brings justice. Following 9/11, popular culture contained numerous references to the heroic figures of superheroes and their exceptional acts, such that 24 received praise for its realistic representations of military operations (Manderson, 2010, pp. 34, 37). The realistic response of 24 to representing American fears during the GWOT (Mayer, 2007) was a real concern for one U.S. military academy, which approached the producers about how the series was negatively influencing their troops (Manderson, 2010, p. 39). Neroni suggests that “[e]ven with the military quoting 24 to each other, it’s clear that 24 is not to blame but rather it comes out of, as much as it may inform, a larger ideological moment” (2015, p. 17).

The popularity of the show may also serve as some evidence that Americans approve or accept torture in contemporary government and policy, as do references by politicians and others applauding Bauer as a heroic and upstanding symbol in society (Lokaneeta, 2010, pp. 258–259). Jinee Lokaneeta (2010) suggests that the pervasive popular imagery of torture, such as that found in 24, has led to other, less spectacular methods of inflicting pain being considered as “non-torture” (p. 263). In the case of Guantánamo, for example, Lokaneeta argues that an “alternative, more affirmative, imagining of detention” and inhuman treatment has arisen out of its soft comparison with popular imagery (p. 263). It is only when the contrast is made between the popular imagining of torture, and its real reporting through human rights organizations and independent tribunals that the difference between these notions of torture become clear (p. 272).

The willingness to consume representations of torture is closely tied to the acceptance of extraordinary measures—these measures, in some way, holding a quotidian place in the collective imaginary. Hussain suggests that, even in the context of immigration and domestic detention, exceptional measures are “continuous and consonant with a range of regular law and daily disciplinary state practice” (2007, p. 735). The blurring of these distinctions—between states of exception and regular laws—suggests that the law itself has “become impervious” to the demands of politics and procedure, and is mechanical in its ability to run on its own (Hussain, 2007, p. 753, citing Schmitt, 1922, Political Theology, p. 48).

Representations of Information Gathering Through Torture

Contemporary cultural texts continue to represent torture as an effective method of extracting truth. Through a dominant narrative in which duress and torture lead to the successful gathering of crucial information, the “contemporary torture fantasy suggests that torture can retrieve information housed within the body of a terrorist. This information can then stop a terrorist’s plot to kill untold numbers of people” (Neroni, 2015, p. 311). While the focus has moved from slaves in classical texts to terrorists in the post–9/11 context, the message has remained consistent: that torture is “productive: of truth, knowledge and the prevention of prospective violence and terror” (Pugliese, 2013, p. 2). In “this economy of torture,” the body of the suspect or detainee has become another resource for governments to attempt to mine information and data that is valuable to them (Pugliese, 2013, p. 1).

In 24, the exceptional use of torture often coincides with Bauer’s attempt to gather critical information in a ticking bomb scenario. Adams suggests that it is the ticking bomb scenario that “starts and justifies/constitutes the state of exception” (Adams, 2016, p. 126) and is used to “short-circuit” the justification of torture (p. 128). Indeed, 24 can be read as “one of those avenues through which this ‘feeling’ about the redundancy of human rights protections was made after 9/11” (Adams, 2016, p. 126). What concerns Manderson about the representation of these scenarios in 24 is that “torture always succeeds: information is prised, disaster averted, and freedom saved” (2010, p. 29). “Time and again, those who express legal or moral qualms about the use of torture are depicted as weak, naïve, or complicit” (p. 29). Manderson also suggests that the performance of torture in 24 “provides convincing evidence, emotionally and psychologically if not empirically, for the successful deployment of torture” (2010, p. 32). The multiple perspectives given by different characters “give viewers the privileged and impossible position of omniscience,” which generates confidence in the crude depictions of “terrorists,” and Bauer always being right (p. 32). Within the frame that the series establishes, Bauer’s actions present extralegality as a “necessary evil,” which is always justified against new geopolitical disputes, and complications with the advancement of technology (pp. 32–3).

Some cultural texts have attempted to denounce torture. In the film Rendition (2007), for example, a detainee is tortured for information without being connected to the terrorist attack. The film shows that “torturing a false positive cannot prevent terrorist attacks” (Adams, 2016, p. 138). The more recent film Complicit (2013) also represents torture as a meaningless and futile event, which fails to avoid disaster (Adams, 2016, p. 196). Even though the tortured person in Complicit is guilty, the film shows it to be useless and always wrong. Catherine Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) sought to minimize the role of torture in gathering information used to locate Osama bin Laden’s compound. Torture in the film is “one technique among many, perhaps less palatable than but just as potentially useful as any other intelligence measure” (Adams, 2016, p. 148) used in the counterterrorism operation by the U.S. military. The film has been criticized, however, for “sidestepping” the political and ethical questions around torture (p. 148). Information gathered through torture ultimately confirms a piece of information that leads to the discovery of the compound (p. 147). Adams argues that the “neutral” position attempted by the film instead results in a “defence of torture, articulated forcefully in terms of the knowledges of counterterrorism” (p. 342).

Sexualized Representations of Torture Since Abu Ghraib

In 2004, photographs documenting physical and sexual prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were released and widely disseminated by Western media. Following the release of the photographs, a number of action and horror films, television series, and documentaries included sexualized representations of torture in their referencing of the GWOT. The images are approached here through their representation of enjoyment and sexual fantasy, which is often considered pornographic, and their historical resonance with trophy photography as part of a larger archive of the documenting practices of torture in war. Critics have approached the effect of the photographs on culture in a number of ways, observing foremost the pornographic nature of the images and their function in being consumed and distributed. The images can also be read through the category of exception discussed earlier, with Judith Butler suggesting that “[o]ne reality we see in these photos is the reality of rules being ignored or broken”; the photographs provide “a way of registering a certain lawlessness” (Butler, 2007, p. 964) in the contemporary geopolitical climate of the United States.

The Pornography of Abu Ghraib

The notorious Abu Ghraib photographs depict a number of staged scenes of torture, involving both the U.S. soldiers and their prisoners—who are both dead and alive. The U.S. soldiers are smiling and giving a thumbs up to the camera, pointing at prisoners’ genitals while smoking a cigarette or crowding the prisoners with large dogs. Some images show prisoners being asked to hold precarious and embarrassing positions, like piling together naked in a human pyramid or standing on cardboard boxes with their head over their knees. Terror in the images is achieved through humiliation and degradation, with soldiers laughing and pointing at the prisoners (Apel, 2005, p. 95).

While the photos were released in the context of U.S. government rhetoric about the utility of torture for military purposes, Neroni points out that the photographs told another story altogether: “They depicted a range of enjoyment on the part of the guards that did not fit the description of torture as a clean and effective military tactic” (Neroni, 2015, p. 3). The images therefore reveal the existence of torture “for the sake of the sadistic enjoyment that it produces, not for its effectiveness as an information procurement device” (p. 10). Neroni describes the uncomfortable enjoyment of the torturers in the images as a “kernel of nonsense,” which “acts as a distortion or stain in the image” (p. 50).

The smiles commented on by Neroni and others, as well as the nudity, performance of sexual acts, and proximity of bodies in the photographs, make it unsurprising that the aesthetics of pornography were a point of initial inquiry for the Abu Ghraib photographs (Carrabine, 2011, pp. 11–12). Slavoj Žižek (2004) went so far as to suggest that the image of the hooded man standing on the box was comparable to performance art, to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and to movies by David Lynch (p. 4). Nathan Gorelick (2008) also suggests that the Abu Ghraib photos can be understood through the “dark chamber” as conceptualized by Coetzee, which—outside the public gaze—“becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy, where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another” (citing Coetzee, “Into the Dark Chamber,” 1992, p. 363). Judith Butler (2007) argues, however, that “we make an error if we insist that the ‘pornography’ of the photo is to blame” (p. 91). In an essay extending Sontag’s thinking on photography, Butler insists that, while the torture may have “been incited by the presence of the camera . . . this does not establish either the camera or ‘pornography’ as its cause” (p. 91). Regardless of the source of blame attributed to the images, they confront audiences with an ambiguous emotion that surfaces in response to the blatant misery of the situations photographed (Eisenman, 2007, p. 9). The mediation of the images through the media also problematizes the sensibilities of the people involved, begging audiences, governments and media outlets to ask the question of “how to look?” (Carrabine, 2011, p. 19).

Collecting and Sharing Torture

Susan Sontag (2004) emphasizes the cultural, historical, and political significance of representations of torture by suggesting that “[t]he Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one.” In an essay on viewing and consuming “the torture of others,” Sontag contrasts the figuration of the Abu Ghraib images with the rarity of historical “snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims” (2004). Sontag suggests that the Abu Ghraib images can be compared with photographs of black victims of lynching, taken between the 1880s and 1930s, where white Americans stand and smile beneath victims hung on a tree. Here, the lynching photos were “in the nature of photographs as trophies . . . to be collected, stored in albums, displayed” (2004). The Abu Ghraib photos, however, which were taken by American soldiers themselves, “reflect a shift in the use made of pictures—less objects to be saved then images to be disseminated” (Sontag, 2004). Sontag’s point about dissemination is closely connected to the willingness of the public to consume images of violence, as will be discussed in relation to the recent film genre of torture porn.

The Abu Ghraib photos reflect the codes, conventions, and aesthetics of representations of torture within a larger, historical archive of torture images (Pugliese, 2007, p. 247). While one response to the images was that they were unfamiliar and unexpected, Joseph Pugliese (2007) instead emphasizes their familiarity, highlighting their resonance to a “vast, dense, historically stratified archive of images of colonial violence and torture” in the United States (p. 247), from photographs of lynching to Orientalist representations of harems, fascists, and white supremacists (Pugliese, 2007, p. 248). Pugliese suggests that the images from Abu Ghraib can be located and read within a set of discursive practices that constitute popular American culture, and ultimately symbolize and legitimize contemporary anti-Arab, imperial perspectives (p. 261). Even the poses of the subjects mirror the “macabre, carnival-like aspect” of historical practices of lynching (Pugliese, 2007, p. 73, citing Tolnay & Beck, 1992, p. 23), with the acts of torture being interrupted for the sake of the photograph being taken (Pugliese, 2007, pp. 261–263, citing Pinar, 2001). The infamous photo of the hooded man balancing on a box, with electrical wires dangling from his fingers, also “resonates with allusions to the crucifixion, robed monks, the Statue of Liberty, the Klan, the executioner, the mask of death” (Apel, 2005, p. 91). Dora Apel (2005) also draws a particular connection between the “erotic thrills of torture,” visible in both the lynching photos and the images from Abu Ghraib (p. 89). Apel suggests that these “thrills” in both contexts serve a social function, reaffirming a hierarchy of race and gender (p. 89). Importantly, this eroticism is seen through the “enjoying subject”—representing torture on the torturer’s terms—which contradicts the justification of using torture to discover truths (Neroni, 2015, p. 70).

Post 9/11 and New Horror

Representations of torture in films have also been foregrounded through a new genre of horror since 9/11. While horror films have historically dealt with national traumas—such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam—critics have characterized “a new kind of horror film that is not only dark and vicious in the worlds it depicts, but which is also socially aware and critical of the cultural context that gave birth to it” (Ndalianis, 2015, p. 135). As with Manderson’s claim that superhero references were circulated and appropriated to justify exceptional actions by popular characters on screen, such as through the character of Jack Bauer in 24, Angela Ndalianis (2015) suggests that the horror genre “entered a dialogue with the 9/11 signs that were repeated in media representations,” such as “collapsing buildings, the destruction of cities, torture, [and] war,” p. 137). Other images that appear in New Horror also refer directly to the events of 9/11 and include planes crashing, fleeing crowds of people, abandoned neighborhoods, and missing people posters (Wetmore, 2012, p. 24). These iconic images and tropes allow viewers to contain the past and “re-experience it under safer conditions or with a different ending” (p. 24). This has even influenced the use of horror subgenres: “One of the most prevalent conventions to enter New Horror cinema is the use [of] the ‘found footage’/hand-held camera technique that implies that film characters are not only witness to the horrific event that is narrativized, but that they also video it” (Ndalianis, 2015, p. 140).

Subgenres of New Horror

The New Horror genre has been explored through a number of subgenres that are also tied to the political and social climate of their production. Some of these subgenres include torture porn (the Hostel and Saw franchises), living dead films (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days/Weeks Later, and Quarantine), biochemical and genetic warfare, and other sci-fi horror films (Cloverfield and War of the Worlds). These examples, as well as many others, can be seen to “use horror conventions as a form of allegory that engages in a critical dialogue with audiences about themes of paranoia, devastation, terrorism, survivalism, and global politics and ideology” (Ndalianis, 2015, p. 136). As Ndalianis suggests, the subgenres of New Horror focus “on graphic and horrific scenarios that often drive home subversive and socially aware thematic issues” (p. 137).

Torture porn has been particularly popular among viewers and is also subject to much academic debate. The term torture porn was coined by David Edelstein in 2012 and has been applied to cultural texts, such as the Hostel and Saw franchises, which thematize “the enjoyment that derives from” torture, “through the logic of sadism” (Neroni, 2015, p. 74). Neroni suggests that “[t]orture porn does not radically undermine the contemporary legitimization of torture, but it does help to give the lie to the fantasy that subtends this legitimization” (p. 72). Noting that torture porn films can be varied in their style and approach, Neroni suggests that they share a similar structure to the spectacular events that occur toward the end of the film, “in the way that pornography presents sex” (2015, p. 73). While the genre “may not have created the anti-torture movement that its insights should have inspired,” it is one of the few cultural texts to “consider the smile on the torturer’s face in the Abu Ghraib photographs” (Neroni, 2015, p. 93), and therefore confront the enjoyment, sadism, and consumption of images of real and fictional violence. Neroni suggests that torture porn and the Abu Ghraib photos can be contrasted with Agamben’s state of exception, which is necessarily asexual through its violence (Neroni, 2015, p. 84). The violence of the state of exception “deprives subjects of their sexuality when it deprives them of their political being” (p. 84), which, perhaps, marks the Abu Ghraib photographs, like the popular images of torture in torture porn films, as no longer considered exceptional.

The Biodetective

A number of more recent films have, to varying degrees, supplanted the use of torture with technology, surveillance, and other forms of investigation in plots concerning military strategy and national security. In particular, the figure of the biodetective has emerged in a series of popular films, including Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and the Bourne franchise (Neroni, 2015). On its face, the biodetective mitigates the “need” to use torture for information gathering. While the figure was used in Zero Dark Thirty, the ultimate raid on bin Laden’s compound was still “seen by many to empirically confirm the myth of torture’s efficacy,” given the previous interrogations by the military of detainees (Adams, 2016, p. 145). Neroni suggests that this failure to criticize torture instead “reinforces biopower and the contemporary torture fantasy” (Neroni, 2015, p. 123).

Neroni contrasts Zero Dark Thirty with the more recent television series Homeland (2011–2017), which is largely ambivalent on the success of the biodetective versus the detective of the real. “The detective of the real, unlike the biodetective, believes in the subject and believes the truth can only be revealed through subjectivity” (Neroni, 2015, p. 129). The agents in Homeland manage to find “actionable truths, but not through biometrics, surveillance, or torture” (Neroni, 2015, p. 136). Rather, their approach is centered on the subject and their lack of knowledge: “[w]hat Homeland’s detectives of the real seem unable to do is stage a fiction in order to find the truth” (p. 136). Neroni also considers how Alias engages with truth and finds that it effectively “rejects the fantasy of torture and the preconceptions of biopolitics” (p. 144): “Within the world of Alias, a world built around this detective of the real, there is no psychic space for the development of the torture fantasy. The torture fantasy cannot take root” (Neroni, 2015, p. 132). Rather, the narrative of Alias depicts a system of national security that acknowledges the unreliability of torture and refuses to rely on surveillance of society or the body itself for forensic markers of truth (p. 137). Where torture fails, the aliases succeed, both producing further, reliable information, and advancing the mission (p. 139). Key to the success of Alias’s strategy is the producer’s “insight into subjectivity to create a successful alias and find the necessary information” (p. 141).

Further Reading

Essential Reading

Adams, A. (2016). Political torture in popular culture: The role of representations in the post-9/11 torture debate. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge. Adams’s book analyses the post–9/11 debate about the military necessity and moral and ethical permissibility of torture when dealing with terrorists. Adams recognizes that political discourses and cultural representations inform one another, which can be seen in the response to the GWOT. Adams discusses a number of key representations of torture in contemporary films, television series, and documentaries, including The Centurions, 24, Rendition, Zero Dark Thirty, The Road to Guantanamo, and Standard Operating Procedure.Find this resource:

Agamben, G. (2005). States of exception. Trans. K. Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Agamben’s book responds to the state of emergency that followed the attacks of 9/11 under the Bush administration. Agamben examines the history, philosophy, and legal frameworks of extensions of government power to argue that states of exception can transform democracies into totalitarian states. The author suggests that legal scholars have incorrectly responded to states of exception as practical or pragmatic issues and have failed to recognize at a more philosophical level the normalization of exceptionalism in government and law. This normalization tends to hide the relationship between law and violence, and the violence of the law, which threatens the future of democracy.Find this resource:

Carrabine, E. (2011). Images of torture: Culture, politics and power. Crime Media Culture, 7, 5–30. Carrabine’s paper addresses the Abu Ghraib photos and how critics have tried to locate cruelty and violence in popular culture, including reality television and Internet pornography. The author addresses the requirements of viewing such material and how the audience becomes involved in the representation. Carrabine suggests that the initial responses to the photographs and the sentiment of outrage are not “natural” responses to images of torture. Instead, the author proposes that a number of socially constructed sensibilities are involved, which prompts ethical and political questions about how to look at the material.Find this resource:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1986). Kafka: Toward a minor literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. This book discusses Franz Kafka’s work as “minor literature.” The characteristics of minor literature include the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation. The authors argue that Kafka’s work meets these three conditions in its form, and also by Kafka being a minority Jewish writer. Of particular significance here is the authors’ discussion of Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” and their perspective on the importance of the procedure of the machine not as a form but as a process.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books. Foucault’s book reviews the history, as well as social and theoretical frameworks, of discipline and punishment, including the appearance and disappearance of physical torture as a scene of sovereign authority. The book documents how the validation of torture has moved away from sovereign or religious powers and toward justification by the judiciary and courts of law. In making his argument, Foucault focuses on the body of the tortured, institutions for torture, and the panopticon as a metaphor for disciplinary societies.Find this resource:

Hussain, N. (2007). Beyond norm and exception: Guantánamo. Critical Inquiry, 33, 734–753. Hussain’s article discusses the emergency regime that followed 9/11 and how detention camps at Guantanamo Bay have operated to justify torture. The author seeks to locate Guantanamo in America’s history, and suggests that it is not so exceptional in nature. Rather, the operations and justifications for Guantanamo can also be found in regular law and daily disciplinary state practice, especially in relation to immigration and domestic prisons. The paper does not discuss representations of violence or torture per se but is essential to understanding torture within the context of government and legal techniques.Find this resource:

Lokaneeta, J. (2010). A rose by another name: Legal definitions, sanitized terms, and imagery of torture in 24. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 6, 245–273. Lokaneeta’s paper addresses the imagery in the popular culture series 24, namely, the representation of torture and the ticking bomb scenario. The author suggests that the popularity of the show provides some evidence that Americans approve of torture. This is also indicated by the legal and political references to Jack Bauer in more serious contexts. Lokaneeta’s paper asks whether U.S. reports on torture are implicated by 24, and vice versa. The author also emphasizes the commercial choice for the producers in toning down the torture and pain of victims because it is boring consumers.Find this resource:

Manderson, D. (2010). Trust us justice: 24, popular culture and the law. In A. Sarat (Ed.), Imagining legality: Where law meets popular culture (pp. 22–52). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Manderson’s article is concerned with representations of violence and torture in popular culture. The author takes the U.S. series 24 as a case study, which is positioned within and reinforces the GWOT discourse of the Bush Administration. Manderson suggests that popular culture educates viewers and in turn participates in making laws. The way 24 is presented makes a persuasive emotional, psychological, and empirical case for the successful use of torture. It does this through the different perspectives of the characters, the attention to time, and the concept of “blind trust” in which Jack Bauer consistently leads viewers to safety and truth. Manderson’s article is helpful because it focuses on popular culture and the forms and features of the series as an engaging and persuasive way of representing violence.Find this resource:

Pugliese, J. (2007). Abu Ghraib and its shadow archives. Law and Literature, 19, 247–276. Pugliese’s paper is concerned with the practices of representation of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The author positions the photographs on a larger, historical map of images of suffering and colonial violence. He discusses the concept of the shadow archive and the genres that make up the archive in contextualizing the photographs, including lynching, Orientalism, pornography, and sadism. Pugliese is also interested in the camera as a tool of “no-touch” torture and its contribution to a regime of political power that operates on visibility. Pugliese coins the term geocorpographies in this paper to refer to the body being geopolitically situated and inscribed by certain discourses and signs. The article is useful as a comprehensive review of the Abu Ghraib photos and their context among other photographic representations of torture.Find this resource:

Pugliese, J. (2013). State violence and execution of law: Biopolitical caesurae of torture, black sites, drones. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge. Pugliese’s book examines how biopolitics has enabled state violence, including torture and killing at a distance by drones. Pugliese’s book considers the networks that enable the normalization of the state’s monopoly on violence, both in the United States and internationally. The author examines how networks of violence can be found in different political and legal institutions. Pugliese argues that discursive and institutional structures position detainees or the other as nonhumans that can be tortured and killed without repercussions. The book draws on poststructuralist, critical race theory and whiteness to make these arguments.Find this resource:

Solomon-Godeau, A. (2012). Torture and representation: The art of détournement. In J. A. Carlson & E. Weber (Eds.), Speaking about torture (pp. 115–128). New York: Fordham University Press. Solomon-Godeau’s paper responds to the Abu Ghraib photos with an investigation into political art on practices of torture. The author considers a series of works, including Hans Haacke’s US Isolation Box and the Forkscrew iRaq poster series. While Solomon-Godeau acknowledges that the effects of political art are difficult to measure, she suggests the contribution of such representations to the public imaginary can assist with making political or ethical decisions about the future of torture in the United States. Her article is useful because it considers more politically motivated representations of torture compared to other papers, which look for political motives in cultural or popular culture pieces.Find this resource:

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador. Sontag’s book considers the proximity of people to horror and pain through the medium of photography. It traces the history of visual representations of the pain of others, from Goya’s paintings to lynching photography, reported images of concentration camps, and, more recently, the widely distributed photographs from the Middle East and September 11. Sontag considers the role of the media in making spectacular the reality of war and violence, while appealing to the sensibility and conscience of contemporary audiences.Find this resource:

Sontag, S. (2004, May 23). Regarding the torture of others. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from Sontag’s essay responds to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. Sontag draws on her previous theorizations in Regarding the Pain of Others to explain the photographs, and asks how viewers will respond in the future. There is a suggestion that such photos may be censored in the future as an editorial decision. Sontag suggests that the distinction between the photograph and reality can quickly evaporate, which is what the U.S. administration wishes to happen. Sontag explains how acknowledging the photographs goes against the discourse of the administration as carrying an important and noble role on the world stage.Find this resource:

Additional Reading

Agamben, G. (1996, 2000). Notes on gesture. In Means without end: Notes on politics. Trans. V. Binetti & C. Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 42–60. This short essay focuses on the relationship between biopower, biopolitics, and media culture. Agamben proposes “gesture” as an action that has the potential to dissolve the means-without-end structure, largely because of its visibility. Agamben suggests that cinema is an ideal site of redemptive gestures, owing to film’s ability to closely resemble and represent the real world.Find this resource:

Antaki, M. (2007). The politics and inhumanity of torture. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 3, 3–17. Antaki’s article discusses Clastres’s account of torture and pain’s capacity to captivate popular and legal imaginations and representations of torture. It is a theoretical piece about political and humanitarian accounts of torture in primitive societies.Find this resource:

Apel, D. (2005). Torture culture: Lynching photographs and the images of Abu Ghraib. Art Journal, 64, 88–100. Apel’s paper compares the images from Abu Ghraib to photographs of lynching. She suggests the representations functioned as souvenirs, or trophies, that demonstrated the superiority of one group over another. Apel discusses the sexualized violence in the images and how the pornographic tropes address a larger, political function that intends to dehumanize the other, which is to characterize Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. The masculinity of prisoners was also threatened by dogs, being urinated on, and having naked women humiliate them and touch their genitals. The paper goes on to discuss other protest art, including the Forkscrew iRaq posters. The author concludes by noting that it is not torture images that produce their own undoing, but the audience itself.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2007). Torture and the ethics of photography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, 951–966. Butler’s paper asks how the recognizability of certain human figures is connected to certain norms that humanize or dehumanize the subjects. Butler discusses the concept of perceptibility.Find this resource:

Carlson, M. (2003). Antigone’s bodies: Performing torture. Modern Drama, 46, 381–403. Carlson’s paper considers two plays that deal with the legend of Antigone. These are Gambaro’s Antigona Furiosa and Fugard, Kani and Ntshona’s The Island, which were created in resistance to Argentinian and South African experiences of torture and violence, respectively. Carlson is concerned with the performance and spectacle of the plays and with their representations of pain and suffering. She asks what effect these “third-world” plays have for “first-world” theaters and suggests that staging atrocious suffering may provoke an increased sense of responsibility within audiences for their social and political complicity. The text is useful in considering lesser known contexts and histories of torture and violence.Find this resource:

duBois, P. (1991). Torture and truth. New York: Routledge. duBois’s book discusses torture in ancient texts, including Greek tragedies. duBois’s aim is to use antiquity to understand what torture means in contemporary contexts. The author discusses the similarities and differences between Athenian and modern attitudes toward torture, and asks how the legacy of truth and violence has contributed to democracy in the modern world.Find this resource:

Gallagher, S. Van Zanten, & Coetzee, J. M. (1988). Torture and the novel: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Contemporary Literature, 29, 277–285. This interview between Gallagher and Coetzee discusses representations of torture in fiction. The authors discuss the plot of Coetzee’s third novel Waiting for the Barbarians, which confronts the role of the author in writing about torture and, in Coetzee’s case, torture and violence in South Africa. Coetzee’s approach to resolving the dilemma of representing the torturer is to eliminate any separation between “them” and “us,” which means that everyone is guilty. Complicity is equally barbaric as participation.Find this resource:

Hanson, E. (1991). Torture and truth in Renaissance England. Representations, 34, 53–84. Hanson discusses the representation of torture in Renaissance England, including the movement toward an epistemology of discovery and the search for finding truth. The author examines the differences between English law and continental procedures since the 1200s and also discusses the Catholic resistance to torture through pamphlets representing torture. Hanson concludes with a note on the interchangeable use of the terms truth and treason by Privy Councilors in the era, which were instructive in explaining what the torturer was trying to discover.Find this resource:

Hron, M. (2008). Torture goes pop! Peace Review: A Journal of Social Science, 20, 22–30. Hron’s article outlines how torture has been represented in contemporary literature, film, and television shows, and identifies a shift in the kinds of representations both since 9/11 and before and after the release of the Abu Ghraib images. Hron discusses texts from the 1990s and 2000s, and suggests that torture today has become a cliché, if not a generic commodity in popular culture. The author suggests that since the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, representations of torture have become more realistic and are increasingly associated with the military and terror. Hron concludes by suggesting that each representation of torture, even if it aims to contest the validity of torture, risks drawing audiences further from the truth by desensitizing them and leading to compassion fatigue.Find this resource:

Hutchings, P. J. (2013). Entertaining torture, embodying law. Cultural Studies, 27, 47–71. Hutchings’s paper traces the complex interactions between torture, bodies, and images through a number of texts and events. These include the Bybee torture memo, First Blood, the transformation of SERE techniques into practices of torture, and the Abu Ghraib images and practices of torture. Hutchings suggests that torture establishes a relationship between the body and language, which speaks of pain. The author notes that 24 and Jack Bauer create a bad role model for young recruits. Hutchings asks how torture has become so widely entertained, even outside of the United States.Find this resource:

Lowenstein, A. (2005). Shocking representation: Historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film. New York: Columbia University Press. Lowenstein’s book investigates how horror films deal with national traumas and atrocity. The author turns to Benjamin to examine the relationship between allegory, historical trauma, and the genre of horror. The book focuses on the work of five filmmakers who have all, to some extent, created shocking representations: Georges Franju, Michael Powell, Shindo Kaneto, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg.Find this resource:

Nair, G. J. (2012). Visual culture, spectatorship and humanitarian disaster: Vanni Eli and the representation of the Sri Lankan civil war. Journal of Creative Communications, 7, 121–134. Nair’s article examines the encounter between the spectator and the spectacle in the context of the Sri Lankan civil war. The author focuses on a film by Sri Lankan Tamizh diasporic filmmaker Tamiliam Subhas, called Vanni Eli. The film chronicles torture and suffering at the Menik Farm, IDP Camp, Vavuniya on July 3, 2009. The film does not directly exhibit torture by not showing the faces of the suffering. The entire scene of suffering is heard and seen by mice that move around the camp, which serve to mediate the spectacle of suffering.Find this resource:

Ndalianis, N. (2015). Genre, culture and the semiosphere: New Horror cinema and post–9/11. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 18, 135–151. Ndalianis’s paper discusses the genre of “New Horror” cinema and torture porn since 9/11. The author suggests that the reality of horror has now been transported into fiction. Other forms of New Horror include living dead films, biochemical and genetic warfare films, and other sci-fi horror. Ndalianis is interested in how the genre of horror has opened its fictional tropes to renegotiate real-life events, including acts of terror. The author also suggests that media reporting around 9/11 can also be considered as cultural texts within the horror genre.Find this resource:

Povinelli, P. (2008). The child in the broom closet: States of killing and letting die. South Atlantic Quarterly, 107, 509–530. Povinelli’s paper discusses Ursula Le Guin’s fictional tale “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to introduce the ethical relationship between society and suffering. Povinelli focuses on the contemporary conditions of Australian indigenous peoples and the recent state security measures said to be a reaction to 9/11. The author argues that an understanding of the security state and neoliberal markets is necessary to understand how state killing is made possible in late liberal societies. Povinelli also suggests that the spectacle of terrorism and violence, compared to violence against indigenous Australians, demands that spectators take sides and respond to the violence that appears outside of the everyday, rather than that which is uneventful but miserable day-to-day violence.Find this resource:

Sarat, A., & Culbert, J. L. (2009). States of violence: War, capital punishment, and letting die. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. Sarat and Culbert’s book is concerned with the centrality of state violence to the modern state. The book’s contributors discuss the complicated relationship between the state and violence, as well as the difficulty in defining state violence or applying academic theories to it. The essays challenge the validation and legitimacy of violence by the state. Taken together, they reveal that condemning the state’s use of violence and legal force goes beyond engaging in publicly declared or justified wards, or abolishing the death penalty. Making such decisions would also do nothing to alter the central relationship of the state to violence.Find this resource:

Strange, C. (2010). Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as art against torture. Crime, Media, Culture, 5, 267–284. Strange’s paper discusses the representation of torture in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. Strange addresses the reception of the film in the United Kingdom and the United States, and focuses on a number of the film’s scenes of torture. These scenes include Alex and his droogs torturing a couple in their home, Alex being detained and subjected to the Ludovico Treatment, and Alex’s return to that first home and being forced by its occupier, when he realizes who Alex is, to play loud music that will torture Alex and force him to leap from the window. The author suggests that the film takes on a new meaning in contemporary times, where fear and security struggle against real and imagined threats.Find this resource:

Sturken, M. (2011). Comfort, irony, and trivialization: The mediation of torture. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 14, 1–18. Sturken’s article considers the kitschification and trivialization of torture. The author considers the “proper distance” between the practice of torture and representations of it in popular culture, which make torture more palatable to the American public. Sturken considers the iconography of torture, the banality of torture, and the ease with which the American public consume it. He considers how representations involving reenactment and irony attempt to engage with the larger questions of torture. Sturken also discusses how joking/comedy has been used to mediate torture, with particular reference to Lynndie England, one of the U.S. officers who posed with the tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib. The author finally makes the point that these methods of mediating torture are a response to the discomfort of global politics since 9/11.Find this resource:

Subirats, E., & Britt-Arredondo, C. (2007). Totalitarian lust: From Salò to Abu Ghraib. South Central Review, 24, 174–182. This paper considers the theological, philosophical, and political uses of torture through the film Salò and the images of Abu Ghraib. The authors focus on the aesthetic of Salò and suggest that Pasolini’s aestheticization of horror has a reflexive function that engages both with the disappearance, or civilization, of violence and with the hyperrealistic, pornographic representation of it. The authors consider the civilizing function of the images of Abu Ghraib.Find this resource:

van Rijswijk, H. (2012). Towards a feminist aesthetic of justice: Sarah Kane’s Blasted as theorisation of the representation of sexual violence in international law. Australian Feminist Law Journal, 36, 108–124. This essay seeks to reanimate questions concerning the relationship between feminisms and representation, asking what it might mean to talk about a legal, feminist aesthetic: what are the terms of evaluation that seem relevant in judging representations of torture and violence as feminist or otherwise? What are the stakes of such an inquiry? These methodological questions are considered with respect to, first, a legal archive comprising recent feminist engagements with international criminal and human rights law dealing with sexual violence in conflict zones; and second, a cultural text, Sarah Kane’s play Blasted (1995), which contains scenes of sexual torture within domestic and international contexts. An ongoing question in feminist studies is whether there is such a thing as a legal feminist aesthetic. Many feminists argue that an aesthetic based on prescriptive or normative theories of form, derived from feminist politics, is an “impossibility.” This essay engages with and extends feminist commentary regarding the legal interventions, explicating the benefits of a law and culture approach to ongoing questions in feminist theories and practice.Find this resource:

Viterbo, H. (2014). Seeing torture anew: A transnational reconceptualization of state torture and visual evidence. Stanford Journal of International Law, 50, 281–318. Viterbo’s paper approaches the photographs of Abu Ghraib as a form of visual evidence. The focus of this article is on case studies of state torture from the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria. Viterbo discusses the role of the Abu Ghraib photos which, in one way, counter torture, but in another, play into the hands of the state in attempting to keep it invisible. Viterbo discusses the visibility and invisibility of torture in these sorts of representations. It is suggested that the visibility of torture itself should be the subject of inquiry in discussions about torture, representations, and the law.Find this resource:

Wester, M. (2012). Torture porn and uneasy feminisms: Re-thinking (wo)men in Eli Roth’s hostel films. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 29, 387–400. Wester’s paper examines the Hostel films and how the subgenre of torture porn involves gender norms and identification with subjects. The author suggests that both films rely on the male body for its bodily hysteria and mock anxieties about masculinity to the extent that they are feminized. Wester suggests that Roth’s films tap into an undercurrent of anxiety about gendered bodies in relation to torture and American consumerism. Ultimately, Wester finds that the films are valuable because they reveal intricate mechanisms of victimization and the construction of gender.Find this resource:


Adams, A. (2016). Political torture in popular culture: The role of representations in the post-9/11 torture debate. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Adams, K. (2015). Acts without agents: The language of torture in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 46(3), 165–177.Find this resource:

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(2.) This section focuses on the significance of torture to state power in the United States, but state-inflicted violence and torture has been the subject of representation in a number of jurisdictions. Some of these include Griselda Gambaro’s play Antigona Furiosa (1986) and Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s play The Island (1973), which address the complicity of “first-world” countries with torture in Argentina and South Africa; Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children (2008), which is set around the bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip; and Vanni Eli (2009), a short film by Sri Lankan Tamizh diasporic filmmaker Tamiliam Subhas, which considers the spectator and the spectacle in the context of the Sri Lankan civil war.