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“You’re a terrorist, that’s why I’m doing it to you”: Torture and Discipline in Zero Dark Thirty
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Department of Languages. (LNUC Concurrences in Postcolonial Studies)
2014 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The introduction to Foucault’s study Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison describes the public execution of Robert-François Damiens who in 1757 attempted to assassinate King Louis XV of France. Foucault describes how Damiens had the flesh of his body torn from his chest, arms and legs with red-hot pinchers, how sulphur, lead and boiling oil was poured into his wounds, and how his body was drawn apart by four horses assisted by his executioner, until only his dismembered torso remained to be burnt at the stake.

 

Foucault’s revolutionary thesis is that in the decades that follow, discipline ceased to be a public spectacle. While this tremendously important observation has revolutionized our understanding of the operations of discourse, power and institutions in our society, it has become increasingly obvious that the practices Foucault describes as essentially pre-modern in fact never disappeared. Steven Pierce and Anupama Rao show in Discipline and the Other Body (2006) that torture was routinely used to discipline the subaltern in the European colonies during the nineteenth century. In reconstruction US, black Americans were tortured and mutilated, sometimes in front of crowds of thousands, in ways that directly recall the treatment of Damiens in 1757. In 2004, images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were made public and circulated in the press, on television and on the Internet.

 

From this perspective, it is not strange that torture has retained a central position in literature and film concerned with the meeting between the (imperial) state and its enemies. In Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 short story “The Mark of the Beast,” the narrator applies red-hot iron to the strung-up body of a literally faceless Indian leper who has cursed one of his friends. In D. W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation (1915), the freedman Gus is castrated (in an eventually censored scene) and then murdered by the budding Ku Klux Klan for desiring a white woman.

 

With this history in mind, the present paper examines Katherine Bigelow’s controversial movie Zero Dark Thirty. Torture is a brutal practice in Bigelow’s movie, but within the dramatic structure of the film, which opens with authentic sound recordings from the World Trade Centre and ends with the retributive killing of Osama bin Laden, it comes across as a deplorable but essential tool for justice. At the same time, the film often makes it clear, as in the title to this paper, that a certain category of people must be tortured. The fact that public torture and execution have continued to be a way to discipline the enemies of the imperial state indicates that these enemies are not perceived as possible to control with the aid of discourse or social institutions. As with Damiens, their transgressions, real or imaginary, must be manifested on their bodies as a lesson that cannot be misunderstood. Thus, this paper argues that torture is not only a current practice, it is also imagined by contemporary culture as a necessary form of violence designed to maintain the impossibly porous borders between metropol and periphery.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2014.
Keyword [en]
9/11, terrorism, torture, film
National Category
Studies on Film Cultural Studies History
Research subject
Humanities, Film Studies; Humanities, History
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-34036OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-34036DiVA: diva2:714667
Conference
America: Justice, Conflict, War: EAAS Conference, April 3-6, 2014, The Hague, Netherlands
Projects
Concurrences
Funder
Swedish Research Council, 2010-1659
Available from: 2014-04-29 Created: 2014-04-29 Last updated: 2014-07-08Bibliographically approved

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