Boltanski’s book has a section devoted to the pure spectator. He uses painting and its placement to illustrate the evolution of the spectator, and his erasure from the painting. In Florence, the paintings that depicted the tortures of the damned were placed in chambers of justice where the tortures of the living – the criminals – were enacted. “The works analysed by Edgerton which represent the Last Judgment (or, in the upper part a Last Judgement and, in the lower part, a trial and execution) are not directed at a spectator who contemplates them for pleasure. These pictures, which are sometimes displayed in the rooms where the tribunals are held or in the chapels of places of detention (like the Bargello in Florence), place the prisoner before the sufferings awaiting him in the hereafter and also – the demonic cruelties reproducing farily exactly the procedures of interrogation and execution in force in Renaissance Italian towns – before those due to him and soon to be inflicted on him in the world below. They have meaning only in an active relationship with the culprit who, exposed to what they illustrate, must find the way to contrition.”
This, of course, reminds LI of the dialogue between Mr. Shiftlet and the old lady in The Life you Save May be Your Own:
“"I told you you could hang around and work for food," she said, "if you don't mind sleeping in that car yonder."
"Why listen, Lady," he said with a grin of delight, "the monks of old slept in their coffins!"
"They wasn't as advanced as we are," the old woman said.”
How advanced we are comes home to this reader from Alessandra Stanley’s review, more in sadness than in anger, of “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” The sadness, of course, is for the lack of good old American know-how:
“The problem with the Fox thriller “24” is not that it justifies torture but that it fosters the illusion that the American government is good at it.
The practices of Abu Ghraib suggest the opposite. The mystery of that shameful episode was not the cruelty of American troops assigned there. After the initial disbelief over the obscene snapshots, their smile-for-the-camera barbarity turned out to be another painful reminder that the banality of evil has no borders.
The real puzzle is why the administration, which argued that the war against terror required extreme interrogation techniques — the kind critics call torture — would then entrust such measures to untrained amateurs.”
Now, of course, it is rather banal to condemn torture. But Stanley’s idea of spiffying up the tired subject by taking a “we can surely torture better than this” approach to Abu Ghraib does have a way of revealin’ just how fuckin’ advanced this great, this moral, this benign superpower has become. From Stanley’s tone, one can tell that if she was at Abu Ghraib, why she would have been producing memos about better torture techniques left and right. Why, just the introduction of some of those lovely power tools you can purchase at home depot for those basement repairs would come in handy! But no, it strikes her that her country is letting her down in the torture department.
But the raw material never ceases to shock. How is it that a government that took such bold steps to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions and update the rules of combat did not pay closer attention to how its policy changes were carried out on the ground?
The Pentagon didn’t even manage to shield the worst excesses from public view.
The power of photography was yet another forgotten lesson of Vietnam, one relatively easy for the military to have remembered. If school principals can ban cellphones from the classroom, it seems strange — or reckless — that generals did not apply the same common sense and forbid cameras inside top-security cellblocks.”
The future Stanley guide to the subject (7 highly efficient tortures for highly efficient soldiers!) will certainly advise against those cameras!
“If there were no photographs, there would be no Abu Ghraib, no investigation,” says Javal Davis, an M.P. interviewed on camera who was court-martialed and sentenced to six months in prison on charges of prisoner abuse. “It would have been, ‘O.K., whatever, everybody go home.’ ”
However, though Stanley’s concern that the torturing business in the U.S. needs a definite overhaul – dental drills, front and center! – we beg to differ on the picture issue. For what signals total domination more than being able to take a picture, any time any where, of a subject? Here the world surely closes in. The Florentines, it turns out, just wasn’t advanced like we are, digital cameras in hand. If Boltanski is right to connect the evaporation of the spectator from within the picture to the pure spectatorship of the bourgeois era, starting in the 18th century – a cooler relationship that prefigures tv – the Abu Ghraib pics might just figure the foreclosing of the possibility that Iraqis could be spectators – our form of subjectivity in these here states, gimme the channel changer would ya, honey – and that, in turn, would be perfectly consonant with their erasure from the Iraq story as it is reported, day after day, in the newspapers. I notice that the NYT published, today, on the same day as Ms. Stanley gets depressed about America’s torture deficit, an op ed about the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq that goes on and on as if the occupiers were just the most popular things with the Iraqis since clay bricks. That even the Pentagon’s polls have shown, for years, that a majority of Iraqis approve of attacks on the coalition troops, that they overwhelmingly support withdrawal, is one of those cutting room sequences. There is a buncha those piled up on the floor, from what the Iraqi government thinks of Iran’s interference in Iraq (they are trying to get more of it, as every Iraqi politician who has traveled to Teheran has been saying for three years) to the popularity of free enterprise reform in Iraq (overwhelmingly rejected by the population).
So, as we blissfully ignore what the Iraqis say, we torture them to give us Intelligence. Not that we could fuckin' understand it if they gave it. The motherfuckers insist on speaking Arabic.
But let’s let Ms. Stanley, valiantly getting bi-partisan about the torture issue (some are for it, some agin – but us advanced folk are willing to look on both sides) have the last word:
““Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” will appall and sadden viewers worried about human rights and international law. But it will be just as discouraging for those who believe that the danger posed by Al Qaeda trumps even those humanitarian concerns.
Abu Ghraib wasn’t just a moral failure, it was a strategic setback in the war against terror.”
“That danger from Al Qaeda” – yes, that is just just jjjjust why we are in Iraq! It is simply bliss to be alive at a time of such record levels of cretinism. I’m going to die of being so tickled every day.