Today, the BDH published my last column of the semester, which argued that the Political Theory Project acted irresponsibly when it paid John Yoo to speak at Brown in February. Though the column is a little late on the Brown side of things, the case(s) against Yoo and company have only gotten stronger with further Obama-powered memo releases.
Speaking of torture, I’ve was working on an essay (On Defining Torture) in my writing seminar earlier this semester about the unintended consequences of the use of medical language to legally define torture. Thought I thought I had some “good” material to work with back in early February, last week’s leaked, top secret ICRC report was unbelievable:
Medical personnel were deeply involved in the abusive interrogation of terrorist suspects held overseas by the Central Intelligence Agency, including torture, and their participation was a “gross breach of medical ethics,” a long-secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded.
Based on statements by 14 prisoners who belonged to Al Qaeda and were moved to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in late 2006, Red Cross investigators concluded that medical professionals working for the C.I.A. monitored prisoners undergoing waterboarding, apparently to make sure they did not drown. Medical workers were also present when guards confined prisoners in small boxes, shackled their arms to the ceiling, kept them in frigid cells and slammed them repeatedly into walls, the report said.
Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.”
From my essay,
The situation is similar with regard to torture and interrogations; sections 2.067 and 2.068 of the AMA ethics code unequivocally prohibit physicians from participating in either [torture or executions]. The rules not only prevent doctors from providing material assistance to interrogators but also prohibit supplying or withholding their professional knowledge in the service of intelligence agents. Physicians may not even “monitor interrogations with the intention of intervening in the process, because this constitutes direct participation in interrogation.” These standards clearly oppose the kind of physician involvement that would be necessary were torture’s legal definition to be defined by medical standards of harm. Even ex post facto medical evaluations of previous interrogations would be problematic, since doctors’ participation would enable intelligence personnel to get by with harmful actions that don’t meet the bar for classification as torture. This is analogous to the existing ban on doctors pronouncing inmates dead on the execution table. Consequently, medical participation at any stage in the interrogation process would force doctors to either violate their professional codes of conduct or require groups such as the AMA to unreasonably weaken their ethical expectations….
Deploying medical knowledge onto this situation reasserts some level of authority, organization, control, and professionalism that counteract the frightening sense of the “War on Terror” as an abusive free-for-all. But, the very characteristics of stability and respect that make medicine an attractive basis for defining legal categories extend to conceal the acts themselves. Just as pancuronium bromide conceals the corporeal violence of execution, cloaking torture in the discourse of medicine bestows human rights abuses with a veneer of respectability. For people seduced by the allure of information extracted by waterboarding an “al Qaeda operative,” knowledge of medical supervision might be sufficient to excuse this otherwise objectionable practice. One can already imagine Limbaugh’s quip: “Liberals should stop complaining, these terrorists’ interrogations are conducted under the supervision of a doctor. That’s more than many Americans without health insurance can say about their own lives.”
I read this in my writing seminar today. I’m fairly pleased with the result, so I thought I would share it with you.
I would have to label myself as being unjustifiably forward were I to simply say, “I am interested in the concept of the orgasm” and leave it at that. This would be unacceptably presumptuous for two reasons, neither of which concerns the ethical propriety of discussing this matter in the Rock, during a class presentation (of sorts), or in front of my professor. Indeed, I believe we’ve all slipped a few phrases into our responses or essays that might be heard – perhaps by someone uninitiated in our seminar’s familiarity or our university’s general liberated-ness – as insults to our kindly professor, underminers of our collective academic seriousness, or insults to the reputation of our well-endowed Ivy League institution. For the sake of disclosure and to ensure that there is complete honesty between reader and writer before moving on, I must admit that, although I have been pondering the concept of the orgasm for several months without raising the issue in class, I am not concerned about our professor taking offense to this discussion, since it comprised the bulk of my application for this course.
No, the concerns are more serious and strike at the very heart of the issue in question (which is, by the way, not exactly “the concept of the orgasm”). What I’d really like to hone in on is not the orgasm per se, but its position, its function in language. Or rather, languages. The thing I’m really interested in, to put it another way, is not a thing at all but particular sets of relations that exist between languages, their speakers, and jouissance. When thinking about language, something I do quite a bit of in my occupation (and I mean this not in the sense of mon métier but instead mon activité or mon occupation), theories of signification can end up being easy to believe but difficult to understand ou sentir. It’s easy to comprehend Saussure’s arguments (and diagrams) that explain how the signifying function brings both the signified and the signifier into existence as two sides of the same coin, but I find it more challenging to think about what that means for the meaning of these elements. This difficulty doesn’t really present itself in Cours de linguistique générale, which presents signification as a process that deals with solid, concrete things and names them arbor and equos.
But that is why “the concept of the orgasm” presents a more interesting challenge. Its existence is surely real (a statement I do hope, for your own sake, you have no trouble accepting) but cannot be grasped as one can a tree. Instead, it exists as a specter, a figure at the limit of language itself. By its nature, jouissance resists closed up, stable signification (for what it’s worth, Lacan argued that one of the symptoms of the neurotic is that he is so unable to give up his hold on a stream of conscious language that he tries to maintain a coherent thought through the moment of sexual climax). Here you might be able to discern the first reason I said this essay is too forward. I am interested in how different languages speak of orgasm, the words they use to approach it from different angles. But saying that I am “interested in the concept of the orgasm” begs precisely the question I aim to ask. That is: What can we learn about different cultures from studying their words for le petit mort? Is there anything to be learned about America’s famous puritanical prudishness from the un-descriptive, nearly derogatory “to come” (which highlights what can safely be said to be an aspect of the experience less connected to intense pleasure than the apparent targets of its French counterparts)? By claiming to be interested in “the concept of the orgasm” I’m unfortunately taking the signified itself to be as stable and easily recognizable a thing as un arbre when I’m really trying to untangle a web of signifieds not easily, or feasibly, translated.
The second reason is more personal still. The truth is I’m terrible at language learning. It took me a long time to learn how to read English (I am still proud of finishing that first Amelia Bedila book, a particularly writerly place to start I must say) and I still have trouble with spelling. Just recently, I’ve all but given up on the prospect of learning French, which was my first attempt at another spoken language. But still, I’m interested in this comparative language issue even though I don’t know any good vernacular for orgasm beyond the few French ditties I’ve busted out so far. My assumption, still unconfirmed by more linguistically-talented friends, is that there must be some good ones out there in German, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese or Esperanto. But this is just an assumption; one I think might be, again, getting ahead of itself, this time in a manner more directly connected to writing.
The problem seems to me to be the expectation that I will find something incredibly illustrative in these different languages. I’m all ready to see a tightly controlled, frustratingly roundabout, and surprisingly violent Japanese word and I have a lot of hope for German, which a friend described to me as a language designed for abstraction and powered by word play. But my concern, which I believe has prevented me from taking up this topic for my third essay, is that I will write what I already “know” and find what I already expect to see. On the one hand, I think I’m envisioning writing this as an exploration but I also know that it is a stand-in, a fetish object covering up my inability to really learn another language. I fear that my curiosity about “the concept of the orgasm” is really compensation for my feelings of failure coming out of French class. I think my unconscious drive to write this essay perceives it as a way to write myself out of my English trap: if I try hard enough, maybe my multilingual essay will stand in for my shame at only being able to see the words of other languages as novelties instead of as richly meaningful signs.
“As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity – the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself.
After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and relecting at all. People will say, perhaps, that these games with oneself would better be left backstage; or at best, that they might properly form part of those preliminary exercises that are forgotten once they have served their purpose.
But, then, what is philosophy today – philosophical activity, I mean – if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? There is always something ludicrous in philosophical discourse when it tries, from the outside, to dictate to others, to tell them where their truth is and how to find it, or when it works up a case against them in the language of naive positivity. But it is entitled to explore what might be changed, in its own thought, through the practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it.
The “essay” – which should be understood as the assay or test by which, in the game of truth, one undergoes changes, and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication – is the living substance of philosophy, at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an “ascesis,” askesis, an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought.”
-Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 2 – The Use of Pleasure (pp. 8-9)