ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Torture and Modern Liberal Democracy in the US and India

Transnational Torture: Law, Violence and State Power in the United States and India by Jinee Lokaneeta (New York and London: New York University Press), 2011; pp x, 293 [Reprinted by New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2012, pp 304, Rs 725 (hardback)].

Michel Foucault had told us that spectacles of torture, which were integral to public modes of punishment and characteristic of the dominative/coercive state, have given way to modern regimes of punishment, which rely on efficient bureaucratic-rational control to generate productive and disciplined bodies. Published in 1985, Elaine Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, relocated the body within the hermeneutics of pain, which while sensed by the body, becomes constitutive of, and affirms power relations in society. More recently, after the commencement of the war on terror in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 (9/11) attacks in the United States (US), studies on the development of a visual culture around pain have located the tortured body within a politics of looking. In her article on the “Politics of Pain and the Use of Torture”, for example, Liz Philipose shows how the circulation of the Abu Ghraib photos contributed to the “cultural production” of the Muslim terrorist and the “solidification of the new racial grammar rooted in the regime of visibility” (2007: 1048).

The indefinite detention and the use of torture to force-feed in the Guantanamo Bay, for example, similarly produced the “abject racial object”, through what is sometimes seen as a suspension of law, but is more often than not, the product of a legitimate application of law. These images of legally-approved and legitimated torture are transmitted to the American mainland, argues Philipose, “to mainstream mechanisms of visuality” (ibid: 1049). Significantly, while the pictures of detention and torture are intended to invoke outrage, which they do, they are also tied historically to the specific history of public lynching in the US. The practice of looking at the pictures of tortured bodies from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, while resonating with the earlier images of torture, produce the effect, as before, of white supremacy and social control, amidst the anxieties of vulnerability produced after the 9/11 events.

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