the secret theater:
avant garde shock, enhanced interrogation
and corporate society
the avant-garde, in whatever form it finally takes, is inevitably conceived as an “interrogation” of modern society. (see, the avant-garde, a short introduction) terror must always be staged in a public theater, arguably of war, but a theater nonetheless. karlheinz stockhausen was quick to point out the thin line separating the september 11th attacks from avant-garde performance art, lack of consent on the part of the audience being all that made the former act a crime. most art, even great art, falls short of actual consummation, even if it does leap "out of everyday life[,]” to borrow stockhausen’s words. (see, enhanced interrogation, like performance art, flirts with consummation, but instead seeks to contain its own terror within performance, a secret theater shown only to the intended audience. consent notwithstanding, when enhanced interrogation becomes torture, it has broken the fourth wall. certainly cruel and inhumane treatment is a relevant distinction, but human rights advocates, perhaps in a performance of their own, never chose the lesser term to primarily illuminate these transgressions.
certainly, the key to performance is an evocation of social chaos, or unchained emotion, or some other response from the audience, such as laughter, expressed through a depiction of conflict or disorder that does exist, both on stage and off; the other side of this distinction real / performance is that performance is enacted without fear of actual consummation, while disorder in life often leads to such. truly great theater might approach a “limit experience,” as foucault would call it. along these same lines, antonin artaud sought to create an improvisational theater free of the text, where audience and performer merged in space to achieve a transformative, spiritual or metaphysical experience. yet he describes the church as a “barn” or “hanger” wherein the spectacle is to take place.
one might imagine this type of room or space as a cia black site. the list of acceptable forms of enhanced interrogation from the rumsfeld memo reads almost like a series of acting exercises: “pride and ego down: attacking or insulting the ego . . . futility: invoking the feeling of futility . . . we know all: convincing the detainee [or audience] that the interrogator [or performer] knows the answer to questions he asks . . . repetition approach: continuously repeating the same question . . . [etc.]” even mise en scene is covered: “change of scenery up: removing . . . from the standard . . . setting . . . to a location more pleasant, but no worse [or] . . . change of scenery down . . .” bob dylan, for example, was especially good at evoking the feeling in his audience that he knew the answer to all questions they might ask...
we can go on from here, but the approach envelopes the sentiments of artaud, when he harangues the bourgeois theater “with the spectacle on one side and the audience on the other . . . [where] the masses are no longer shown anything but the mirror image of what they are.” (antonin artaud, selected writings, p. 254) here we get to the distinction of consummation / performance inside the enhanced interrogation space, wherein the detainee is shown a mirror image of terror, but at the same time, is made a part of the performance as no audience ever has been. simultaneously, the state actor creates a secret space, wherein the “masses” are protected from the “spectacle” of enhanced interrogation. only the detainee is permitted to see the scope of the actor’s cruelty.
as the interrogator might seek to cure the detainee of returning to the battlefield, so artaud’s theater seeks to cure “the violence of thought . . . [and the desire of] the spectator to indulge outside the theater in ideas of war, rioting, or random murders.” (selected writings, pp. 258-59) ultimately, despite his seeming aversion to such acts, artaud cannot help but frame his theatrical metaphor as “dreams . . . bloody and inhuman[.]” (selected writings, p. 245): “the secret is to exacerbate . . . like a musculature that is being flayed. the rest is achieved by screams.” (selected writings, p. 266) only in this way can a “direct communication . . . be reestablished between the spectator [the detainee] and the spectacle [terror], between the actor [the interrogator] and the spectator [the detainee], because the spectator, by being placed in the middle of the action, is enveloped by it and caught in its cross fire.” (selected writings, p. 248) in the war on terror, “interrogation standards were relaxed . . . only for a brief period, for ‘unlawful combatants’ seized shortly after september 11.” (dick jackson, the law of counterterrorism: detention and interrogation, published by the american bar association, p. 115) this narrow window hangs like a strange curio, shedding its light only within the unconscious / unseen space of america.
“pain [is] only a word.” (selected writings, p. 294) “the purpose of all interviews and interrogations is to get the most information from a detainee with the least intrusive method, always applied in a humane and lawful manner with sufficient oversight by trained investigators or interrogators.” (rumsfeld memo, p. 5) by the seventies in the u.s., at the very least, sex had become “a taste . . . on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental.” (sontag, under the sign of saturn, p. 105) the parallels between modern forms of theatrical excess and the temptations of abu ghraib run through american society like “blasphemous rites.” (quoting sontag, p. 105, without expressing her exact sentiment) some might excuse urination on enemy corpses as just a human reaction to battle, at least during polite dinner conversation, yet nonetheless, the legal apparatus must protect the ever fragile law of war.
“without rules . . . the text would disappear.” (james a. machin, jr., community over chaos, p. 20) perhaps this was what artaud was aiming at. in discussing the drafting of the u.n. convention against torture (cat), bybee notes that “the parties could not reach a consensus about the meaning of ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.’” (bybee memo, p. 21) the rules against torture, and the lack of consensus about cruel and inhumane treatment expressed here, would seem to invite transgression, as in the case of genocide, arguably worse, on the relative scale of atrocities, than mere torture:
“norms make possible deviant behavior, as well as compliance. this insight is as old as saint paul’s letter to the romans: 'law came in, to increase the trespass.' it is simply not clear that the establishment of a legal norm prohibiting genocide--the clearest example of a legal rule protecting human rights--has led to less, rather than to more, genocide. if the explicit norm was established at nuremberg, how do we explain cambodia, rwanda, and bosnia--not to speak of indonesia and guatemala? the list, of course, goes on.”
(the cultural study of law, kahn, p. 111)
indeed, artaud’s “absence of a stage” mirrors the disintegration of the distinction between the roles of combatant and noncombatant in postmodern warfare, certainly blasphemous from the standpoint of “human rights” and “international law,” yet nonetheless a reality. this “absence . . . [allows] the action to spread out to the four corners of the room.” (selected writings, p. 248) even during the middle ages, emerging complexity had begun to erase the practical distinction between combatants and non-combatants. (see, e.g., christopher allmand, war and the non-combatant, medieval warfare a history 261-63 (maurice keen ed., oxford university press 1999) (“it must be recognized that the good of the non-combatant and his property in wartime was increasingly linked to his developing participatory role in war, to the strategies adopted by the leaders of states at war and, to a certain extent, to the effects of new weaponry now becoming available.” id. at 261). by the time of world war ii, strategic bombing of civilians was customary practice, and not prohibited by any positive law at the time; the lack of any prosecution for such at nuremberg speaks candidly to this fact. “[t]he idea of popular sovereignty” suggests that any military campaign, no matter how far removed as spectacle, expresses the will “of the entire population.” (see generally, major jeanne m. meyer, tearing down the facade: a critical look at the current law on targeting the will of the enemy and air force doctrine, 51 a.f. l. rev. 143, 156 (2001) (citing james turner johnson, can modern war be just? 130 (1984); robert frank futrell, ideas, concepts, doctrine: basic thinking in the united states air force 1907-1960 75-76 (1989); john f. shiner, from air service to air corps: the era of billy mitchell, winged shield, winged sword: a history of the usaf 71, 75 (1997); oji umozurike, protection of the victims of armed conflicts: civilian population, international dimensions of humanitarian law 187, 187 (united nations educational, scientific and cultural organization ed., 1988))) artaud, in discussing the primary misunderstanding of his work, says that it does not mean “blood” as so many have said, but rather “a theater that is . . . cruel first of all for myself.” (selected writings, p. 256)
of course, all communication is about control, to one degree or another, according to the theory of cybernetics; thus, all of society, if we can imagine such a beast, is a control mechanism. society, if it exists at all, is a “self” writ large. society is a system of rules for itself, a system of control, or a culture, as one might phrase it. the legal system is certainly a part of this. the legal system is a set of rules not unlike a type of personality, or an aspect of personality, the ego perhaps of a society.
the avant-garde is a small system, society’s id, perhaps the opposite of law. how can it exercise control? the classical avant-garde, nearly from its inception, sought an “interrogation” of modernity and its progeny, both the media spawned by its technology and the bourgeois audience created by its affluence. (see, the avant-garde: a short introduction) there is this element of the “elite” consensus of the avant-garde. the avant-garde smashes through distinctions of high/low culture. the avant-garde, inherently since the first use of the term in 1825, (see, saint simonian olinde rodrigues, "l'artiste, le savant et l'industriel" (“the artist, the scientist and the industrialist” (1825)) has sought to break down the fourth wall between society and itself. yet at the same time, the avant-garde protects itself from the “control” of society by disavowing any effort at popular / self control or communication or will; the avant-garde had origins in the theory of anarchism developed towards the close of the nineteenth century. (see, the avant-garde, a short introduction) if the avant-garde ever did obtain control over the larger society within which it seeks to dominate, it would destroy itself. thus, the avant-garde is a type of intellectual suicide, the ultimate reduction of complexity, the end of the living organism or system, projected upon itself, revealing itself to an audience of the larger society that is largely indifferent. various other subsystems, such as fashion, popular music, etc., may borrow from the avant-garde, but the map of this territory is forever incomplete.
the avant-garde is ever-changing. marx saw this aspect of bourgeois culture, the insatiable hunger for the new. (i believe this point has been made by numerous marxist scholars and at the moment i cannot recall which reading brought me to this point; please forgive, cite to be added later if possible.) the avant-garde overlaps numerous other subsystems within society, as just mentioned. the avant-garde is like a mystery cult from ancient rome, in that its members must undergo curious and sometimes extreme rites to gain entry. the avant-garde is also like a cult, in that it can absorb its members and their individual personalities. the cult includes artaud’s notion of a rejection of the masterpiece, which in extreme form no doubt shares something with such fascist notions as “burning the libraries, ransacking the museums.” (schechner, the conservative avant garde, p. 900). fascism and the avant-garde were certainly both the mutant offspring of modernism. we hardly need to burn the libraries. no one reads anymore. (did you notice that?)
the avant-garde aims at the “dark side” (schechner, the conservative avant garde, p. 902) and well it should, as “[t]here is nothing outside the corporation.” (id. at 896). in other words, “the attacks are often in bad faith because the attackers appeal to the very governments, rich individuals, corporations, and foundations they attack. avant-gardists—like stand-up comics (and some are standup comics)— seek acceptance and money from those they mock.” (id. at 902). indeed, judging by the (now of course mostly outdated) abstract art hanging in hallways and lobbies of corporate america, the avant-garde has a solid patron.
it is difficult to discern whether this undeniable fact is the ultimate triumph of modernism, or the ultimate disintegration foretold by the postmoderns. perhaps, as some of the greek philosophers advocated, there is simply no change. according to some recent theories, “the now” never existed, so why society? (see, community over chaos) perhaps society never existed. even in places where the term “society” is used in this text, this should not be taken as an endorsement of such an illusory entity. society is an idea that cannot be proven any more than god. society is the secret watchman, marx’s deity, carried inside each psychic system, but unique to each, and imagined equally by each such system, the entity itself has no real existence. the policeman exists in the mind alone, and is often kept a secret, especially from those minds, or psychic systems, under its watch.
any secret is a type of double information, a double surprise. the secret is like artaud’s audience, held up to itself by the performer (the interrogator). the secret is twice the information content, with one part being the actual information which comprises the secret, and the other part being the “surprise” of the secret itself, the “why” of the secret - why is this secret necessary? what is so secret in the first place? why must this secret be kept? this forms an element of the secret which is separate from the content, but which is no less a source of information to be sought. here, the secret may be kept to permit those engaged in acts of transgression to escape punishment. or, as in the case of edward snowden, the secret cache (of documents) may be kept to allow the revelator of secrets to escape justice.
the body of the terrorist, or detainee, is the medium through which this art / communication / control is worked. foucault expresses this idea most clearly in his discussions about the sovereign’s expressions through the body of the condemned. the visible mutilations carried out were a public communication of the sovereign’s right to use military force against his or her enemies. the secret theater of enhanced interrogation is nonetheless public knowledge. is it really even a secret? any more than drone warfare, the other quite public secret whispered in the corridors of power and broadcast as a media refrain of plausible deniability.
during the late nineties and early aughts, certain tech subcultures would often joke about the nsa listening in to emails. so is this fact a "secret" only to the culturally and technologically naive? complexity, as they say, is subjective. that's how lawyers make their living, after all.
in this context of a transparent society, but nonetheless hiding from itself, it appears quite understandable that transgressors of abu ghriab took photos of their handiwork. almost as if they wanted a record, to share their secret with the world. similarly, the avant garde would like to share this secret with its audience. but if its audience becomes too large, the secret disappears, and so does the avant-garde. the ultimate form of the avant-garde is the ravings of the insane, evidenced by the life of artaud. and if an entire society is insane, who is left to judge? this idea, in many ways discredited now, achieved its apex in the seventies, with the notion that mental illness was a product of social arrangements, rather than individual neurological disease. (see sontag)
nonetheless, bleeding edge social theory, and the rules of textual and scholarly analysis perhaps, would like to do away with the individual entirely. see niklas luhmann and others of his ilk. of course, luhmann does not do away with psychic systems entirely, but his disciples may very well succeed. this is a lot like marx, pol pot, stalin, rousseau (with his “social contract” above all), etc. but nonetheless, as noted, “[t]here is nothing outside the corporation.” notions of the individual, the concept of the individual: how shallow is the bourgeois concept of the individual, the modern concept of the individual, the “freedom” of the individual confined to the body, sexuality, the genital chakra, the avant-garde as a means of shackling man’s soul to the body, a means of social control, shocking, setting “limits” setting “boundaries” of transgression which then become codified as “avant-garde” ... eh ... the true inheritor of hobbes’s mantle of social control, the corporation, renders humanism obsolete, finally and completely?
in this way, one can conclude that present law with regards to torture “prohibits only the most extreme acts[.]” (bybee, pp. 1-2) we are not judging here. who are we? are we the moderns upholding a universal standard of international law that transcends all time and standards relative to history? or are we the postmoderns who disintegrate at the notion of truth? how can these same relativists of culture and human nature condemn anything at all?
to explore this boundary becomes the province of the specialist, who may be shielded by a narrow definition of “specific intent,” though a jury may “infer” this narrow intent based on factual circumstances of the case. (bybee) one might conclude that torture under law is defined only as conduct “associated with . . . [possible] death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions[.]” “[p]osttraumatic stress disorder, which can last months or even years . . . might satisfy the prolonged harm requirement [defining ‘mental harm’ as torture.]” however, bybee noted that “the phrase ‘prolonged mental harm’ appears nowhere else in the u.s. code nor does it appear in relevant medical literature or international human rights reports.” (bybee, p. 7) again, we see the argument that something cannot be torture if one subjects one’s own troops to the same effect. and let us not forget the “good faith” defense to torture... “such steps as surveying professional literature, consulting with experts, or reviewing evidence gained from past experience.” (bybee, p. 8 - citation omitted) one reads the words and one can sense how reasonable they are. torture is, in its plain meaning, encompassing of only extreme acts.
in discussing the drafting of the u.n. convention against torture (cat), bybee notes that “the parties could not reach a consensus about the meaning of ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.’” (bybee, p. 21) it is “[d]ifficult to pick out specific acts from court records with regards to the torture victims protection act (‘tvpa’) but it can hardly be argued against that the following acts would constitute torture: ‘(1) severe beatings using instruments such as iron barks, truncheons, and clubs; (2) threats of imminent death, such as mock executions; (3) threats of removing extremities; (4) burning, especially burning with cigarettes; (5) electric shocks to genetalia or threats to do so; (6) rape or sexual assault, or injury to an individual’s sexual organs, or threatening to do any of these sorts of acts; and (7) forcing the prisoner to watch the torture of others.’ (bybee, p. 24)
reading the rumsfeld memo, one cannot help but feel that if only the transgressors had followed the correct directives from on high, no “torture” would ever have taken place. at the bare minimum, mere “inhumane or degrading treatment.” this is something that can be argued over, endlessly, until a court makes a decision. however, “the european convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . prohibits torture, though it offers no definition of it. it also prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. by barring both types of acts, the european convention implicitly distinguishes between them and further suggests that torture is a grave act beyond cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
how far removed from this is ...
baudelaire’s “shock” ala walter benjamin (in the sontag article about artaud)
dada’s “playful, sadistic assault on the audience” (sontag intro... selected writings)
the metaphor is a cubical, nested within a series of cubicles, a string of gray, interlocking, and indistinct boxes, but (unlike the intestine) an endless procession, within which sit human occupants engaged in any number of tasks along the information assembly line. according to foucault they are trying to take your soul, more or less. chained up to a machine for the rest of your life, or something close to it. yet perhaps this is how society must function. still we have networks of control, expressed as communications, which interact in order to keep people on this electronic assembly line, or to keep people doing whatever it is that the network commands, such as planting a pressure cooker bomb next to the boston marathon. in essence, no direct connection between persons is necessary anymore, when you are speaking of a network of communications. one of the most important networks of course is economic. money is one of the primary ordering systems of communication available to us in the present age. but please do not imagine that i am a marxist. i am a realist.
certainly you cannot touch the world, and you cannot know the world. the world is opaque and not transparent, but this is not the result of some evolution of social systems. this is just a fact of human limitation. you can disguise this with systems and analysis, with theory and complexity, if you wish. certainly, the understanding of the world by words has come to a dead end. artaud was right about that. but neither can one embark on some mythical gnostic journey to understand the world. the choice is only this: the world or death. we choose the world, despite its opacity.