14 April, 2009


Or maybe just loyal.

I light of the many and disturbing revelations being made these days under the general rubric of "torture," I feel increasingly compelled to point where I can to clear-headed accounts of what has been the neo-American position and tradition on torture in recent years, and its high distinction as a mode of interaction between people.

Consider this digest of the ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody in last week's New York Review of Books (with thanks to John Wirenius for pointing it out). Also

One of the most obvious distinguishing characteristics of American-style torture is the ambivalence of its enablers. Seldom has so edifying and concrete a term been so cavalierly double-spoken by its practitioners. "Enhanced interrogation techniques", indeed. Nothing so sullies any act as shame, and nothing is quite so neo-American as absolving ourselves of our bad behavior by professing our self-loathing. In principle, however, this is less neo-American than a first-world updating of the old passive-aggressive Puritan two-step, known better to historically liberal sensibilities as moral cowardice.

What makes it moral is that it is an act of will; the will to purity. What makes it cowardice is that, while Puritans of all stripes love purity, Puritans generally dare not speak the name by which such love would be reified, namely the destruction of the impure ("Death to the infidel!" notwithstanding). Nietzsche ennobled the will to power ("Machtgel├╝st") in several of his works, and noted that it was as characteristic of enfeebled ascetic types as it was of robust, pro-creative types. Only one of the two could, however, be said to be an honest broker of their intentions.

In the present case our elected leaders have been too ashamed to call what they were directing what everyone already knew it was; as though it's not torture when we do it (and heaven forfend it should be looked upon as simple sadism). To give a moment's benefit of a teeny, tiny doubt, perhaps torture is such a definitionally gray area among those at the levers of power that other world leaders and international bodies were understandably cautious in their observations and condemnations of neo-American behavior. Is the nature of leadership power a contingent property of the threat of torture (the so-called "deterent effect" so beloved of penal-industrialists, gun nuts, drug warriors and sabbath gasbags)? Maybe, and maybe if you're a leader you have to deal with the possibility you'll have to use that threat someday. Maybe we've all been reminded lately that it's not just a threat, and that we should be careful about what we sign up for when pulling our own little levers, like on voting machines.

It's certainly no mistake nor should it be a surprise that clear reportage on torture is just now emerging - directly on the heels of the departed regime (the ICRC Report is dated early 2007, but was just released within the last month). Although it clearly advantages them to discredit the previous regime, I have been impressed by the new Obama administration's forthright use of the word "torture" to describe what has been going on, to permit open and transparent debate on the matter within its ranks, and to allow that it's going to take some time to clear it up. It's the antithesis of the earlier view, free of moral absolutism and capable of working the ground between the polarities of purity on both sides; the pro-"enhanced interrogationists" and the Human Rights Watch-ers. It's smart and utterly impure stuff, the first we've seen of its kind in a long while.

In the BDSM world view, what we do and our experience of it we call sadism, plainly. It's focused, directed energy between two people for an instant or an hour, it's intended to register as an unconventional sensation (conventionally called "pain") and to shift the recipient's frame of reference - psychic, emotional, corporeal. The rope bondage I love so much I consider to be especially capable in levering all of the above, through the surfeit of time required to do it, through the symbolic and actual connections, and through the symbolic and actual suffering of physical restraint. What happens in that space is unconditioned, and it's not always good, but the disposition toward its potentials has to be non-normative or what you've got is failure before the fact. In positive terms, one has to have a bit of a liberal world view to get what BDSM has to offer; to be honest of intent and to gladly suffer uncertainty of outcomes.

For all of a top's activity inside a scene, the benefits of the frame shift accrue equally (if not in greater measure) to the receiving party, and this, apropos my last post on the subject, is another characteristic marker of BDSM. It ain't BDSM if the lever you're using extracts power from the exchange.

That would be torture.

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