The Extreme in Contemporary Culture: States of Vulnerability

This is a study of vulnerability as a dominant cultural discourse today, especially as it manifests in 'extreme cul

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The Extreme in Contemporary Culture: States of Vulnerability

Table of contents :
......Page 6
Acknowledgements......Page 8
......Page 10
Cultures of Extremes
......Page 12
Chapter 1
Spaces of the Extreme
......Page 26
Chapter 2
Aesthetics and the Extreme
......Page 60
Chapter 3
The Everyday, Vulnerability
and the Extreme
......Page 104
Chapter 4
Vulnerability, Biovalues and
Witnessing (In)Human Extremes
......Page 142
Extreme Cultures as Social Ontology
......Page 174
......Page 178
......Page 188
About the Author
......Page 190

Citation preview

The Extreme in Contemporary Culture

Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics is a new interdisciplinary series developed in partnership with the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory based in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University, UK. This interdisciplinary series will focus on innovative research produced at the interface between critical theory and cultural studies. In recent years much work in Cultural Studies has increasingly moved away from directly critical-theoretical concerns. One of the aims of this series is to foster a renewed dialogue between Cultural Studies and Critical and Cultural Theory in its rich, multiple dimensions.

Series Editors: Glenn Jordan, Reader in Cultural Studies and Creative Practice and Director of Butetown History & Arts Centre, University of South Wales. Laurent Milesi, Reader in English, Communication and Philosophy and Chair of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University. Radhika Mohanram, Professor of English and Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University. Chris Norris, Distinguished Research Professor, Cardiff University. Chris Weedon, Chair of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Director of Postgraduate Studies and Head of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University. Culture Control Critique: Allegories of Reading the Present, Frida Beckman Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence, Günther Anders and Christopher John Müller, translated by Christopher John Müller Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence and the Location of the Caribbean Figure, Roshini Kempadoo The Attention Economy: Labour, Time, and Power in Cognitive Capitalism, Claudio Celis Performative Contradiction and the Romanian Revolution, Jolan Bogdan Chinese Subjectivities and the Beijing Olympics, Gladys Pak Lei Chong The Extreme in Contemporary Culture: States of Vulnerability, Pramod K. Nayar Credo Credit Crisis: Speculations on Faith and Money, edited by Laurent Milesi, Christopher John Müller and Aidan Tynan (forthcoming) Homemaking: Radical Nostalgia and the Construction of a South Asian Diaspora, Anindya Raychaudhuri (forthcoming) Superpositions: Laruelle and the Humanities, edited by Rocco Gangle and Julius Greve (forthcoming) Materialities of Sex in a Time of HIV: The Promise of Vaginal Microbicides, Annette-Carina van der Zaag (forthcoming) Refusing to Share: The Cultural Politics of Settler Colonialism in Palestine, Marcelo Svirsky and Ronnen Ben-Arie (forthcoming) Affective Connections: Towards a New Materialist Politics of Sympathy, Dorota Golańska (forthcoming) Partitions and their Afterlives: Violence, Memories, Living, edited by Radhika Mohanram and Anindya Raychaudhuri (forthcoming) Music, Photography, and the Aesthetics of Time, Peter R. Sedgwick and Kenneth Gloag (forthcoming) Contested Borders: Queer Politics and Cultural Translation in Contemporary Francophone Writing from the Maghreb, William J. Spurlin (forthcoming)

The Extreme in Contemporary Culture States of Vulnerability

Pramod K. Nayar

London • New York

Published by Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd Unit A, Whitacre Mews, 26-34 Stannary Street, London SE11 4AB Rowman & Littlefield International an affiliate of Rowman & Littlefield 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706, USA With additional offices in Boulder, New York, Toronto (Canada), and Plymouth (UK) Copyright © 2017 by Pramod K. Nayar All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN: HB 978-1-78348-365-5 PB 978-1-78348-366-2 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Available ISBN: 978-1-78348-365-5 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN: 978-1-78348-366-2 (pbk. : alk. paper) ISBN: 978-1-78348-367-9 (electronic) ∞ ™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992. Printed in the United States of America


Acknowledgementsvii Prefaceix Introductionxi 1 Spaces of the Extreme (Im)mobility as Vulnerability Vulnerability’s Corporeal ‘Ground Zero’ The Extreme and Ruin Spaces  Non-Places and Extreme Invisibility Spaces of Extreme Sensation

1 2 9 11 18 23

2 Aesthetics and the Extreme Traumatic Materialism Melodrama and the Extreme The Extreme and the Sublime

35 36 46 53

3 The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme Extreme Time Extreme Management Extreme War and the Everyday Extreme Agency

79 81 97 104 109

4 Vulnerability, Biovalues and Witnessing (In)Human Extremes 117 Ways of Living, Ways of Dying 119 Shared Precarity, Helplessness and the Moral Extreme 122 Witnessing129 v

vi Contents

Conclusion: Extreme Cultures as Social Ontology


Bibliography153 Index163 About the Author



I owe an irremediable debt to Chris Weedon for the first, enthusiastic response to a very rudimentary idea. Subsequent conversations around the book’s subject, comments on the proposal have been instrumental in shaping this book in interesting ways. Although Anna declined, firmly, to have her pop culture horizons expanded by watching these films and Abu Ghraib photographs, our discussions on the book’s content – interrupted by her ‘no, I do not think I want to know exactly how the body is torn apart in that film . . .’ – were constitutive of the beginning, muddle (yes, muddle) and end of this work. Rebecca, a.k.a ‘Ron’, procured almost all the necessary films for me, without which this book would not have happened. So to Ron, massive gratitude. Friends who enquired about my current project, and of whom many grieved in secret, but others more publicly, at my taste and choice of subject matter, also helped in ways they do not quite know: Premlata, Neelu (who did occasionally sent jokes that had me grieving about her taste in humour), Ajeet, Ibrahim, Josy, Walter. To Molly ‘Chechu’ for the encouragement and reminders about picking which battles to fight, a special thank you. Nandana enquired often about my progress and urged me, always gently and warmly, to rethink theoretical frameworks for horror whenever she could, and therefore has been a key figure in this book’s writing. She restrained, of course, on commenting on my viewing choices during the project. Sections of this book appeared in shorter form as essays: ‘The Body of Abu Ghraib’, Seminar March 2014. semframe.html. ‘Abu Ghraib@10: The Empire of the Senseless’, The Four Quarters Magazine April 2014. vii

viii Acknowledgements

‘The Violence of Disappearance: Reading the Boko Haram Kidnapping’, eSocial Sciences (April 2015). ‘On Horror and Helplessness: After Peshawar’, Economic & Political Weekly 50.9 (2015): 23–24. ‘Communicable Diseases: Graphic Medicine and the Extreme’, Journal of Creative Communications 10.2 (2015): 161–75. ‘From the Uncanny to the Sublime: 9/11 and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man’, The IUP Journal of American Literature 4.1 (2011): 7–19. ‘Saw(ed) Off: Horrorism as the New Materialism in the Torture Film’, Dialog 24 (2014).

I am grateful to the editors and reviewers of the IUP Journal of American Literature, The Four Quarters Magazine (particularly Arjun Chaudhuri), the Journal of Creative Communications and Economic & Political Weekly for their feedback on the first submitted, shorter version of the essays. I thank Padma Prakash of eSocial Sciences for her response to the essay on the Boko Haram kidnapping. To Rumina Sethi for first having invited me to contribute to Dialog, and her comments on the first draft, many thanks. A section of this book was presented in the form of a talk, ‘The Culture of Torture’ at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, as part of their Perspectives Lecture Series, School of Public Policy and Governance, on 25th February 2016. I thank Amit Upadhyay for inviting me to speak, and for the subsequent interactions with Amit and Aseem Prakash. Questions of witnessing of torture in fictional representations were also part of the Valedictory Address, ‘“Differentiated Similitude”, The Continuum of Suffering and the Transnational Literature of Human Rights’, at the International Conference on ‘Transnational Approaches in Literary Studies’, Department of English, Anna Adarsh College, Chennai, 28th January 2016. I thank Archana Sardana of the English Department for the invitation to speak. Some of the thinking that has gone into this book has also framed and has been framed by another project that ran coterminous with this one: on the torture novel and the literature of Human Rights (see my Human Rights and Literature: Writing Rights, Palgrave-Macmillan). To the reviewers of the proposal who pushed me into thinking along a different set of trajectories, and to the incisive reviewer of the first draft I owe the final shaping of the book. Needless to say, the mishaps are of my making. Nandini, Pranav, my parents and parents-in-law remain supportive as ever, and for this I am very grateful. Nandini and Pranav’s careful and diplomatic silence regarding my choice of movies spoke much!


This book studies states of vulnerability, in fictionalized representation of extreme situations and accounts of the experience of extreme situations in real-life. It theorizes a contemporary cultural imaginary of extremes in which the human is pushed to her or his limits, at grave risk to bodily integrity and autonomy, in order to experience ecstatic pleasures or inflict unbearable pain. It organizes the study of the extreme cultures in terms of four domains: spaces, aesthetics, everyday and witnessing biovalue. Examples in this book are drawn, intentionally, from a diverse set of cultural practices, contexts and conditions: extreme sports, fictional (filmic and literary) representations of torture, real-life torture, narratives of chronic illness, among others, in order to examine states of human vulnerability. It is not intended to survey all the many ways of framing vulnerability or the several domains in which vulnerability is transformed into helplessness. Thus war, epidemics, and natural disasters are not included in this study, which is indicative rather than exhaustive. PKN Hyderabad, India August 2016


Introduction Cultures of Extremes

Cybercultures and posthumanist thought have since the last decades of the twentieth century examined the limits of the human, sustainedly highlighting the history of human co-evolution with technology and other life forms, and in the light of xenotransplantation, cloning and genetic engineering (Haraway 2008, Wolfe 2010, Braidotti 2013, Nayar 2013). A similar probing of the limits of the human, its borders with the inhuman and the abhuman, may be found in extreme cultures, the subject of the present book. A quick preview of this realm first. Abu Ghraib gave us vulnerable, damaged, humiliated, frightened and near-death bodies in the form of prisonerabuse photographs. Hollywood horror films such as Saw, Kill Theory, Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel fictionalized torture with scenes of graphic mutilation and deaths. ESPN’s extreme sports coverage offered spectacular feats of human endurance in surfing, rope-less climbing and BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping. Accounts of survival in documentaries (Extreme Survival) and autobiographies (Miracle in the Andes, Touching the Void and Into Thin Air) and dramatic reconstructions of real-life miraculous escapes (127 Hours, Alive) mapped humans locked in battles with uninhabitable and outright dangerous environments. Fiction in the form of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man recreated the fragility of a city and its lives in the post-9/11 months just as Kai Pfeiffer’s graphic novel about Chernobyl, Radioactive Forever, demonstrated the interminable slow violence against the land and its residents in the wake of nuclear disaster. Auto/ pathographies, from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals through to graphic medicine texts by Harvey Pekar, Marissa Marchetto, David Fies and others chronicle the experience of chronic illness and constant, life-transforming pain in everyday lives. These are texts where human life often borders on


xii Introduction

death, where pleasure is sometimes purchased through positioning the body at the precipice of death, where everyday survival is a battle against pain and deprivation. Some of them, when grounded in suffering are not, strictly speaking, cultures of death but may more accurately be described as cultures of dying, in protracted pain. The human is split wide open, open to exploitation, injury and death. This book is a study of vulnerability – ‘vulnerable’, from ‘vulnus’, meaning ‘wound’ – as a dominant cultural discourse today, one that manifests in what may be called ‘extreme cultures’: cultural practices and representations of humans caught in, given to, risky, painful or life-threatening conditions where the limits of their humanity, corporeal integrity and mental tenacity are tested. This discourse focuses on risk, corporeal fragility and helplessness, conditions of exploitation of this fragility (either voluntarily or involuntarily) and heightened sensations of pain and pleasure. Extreme cultures may therefore be read as signalling the social ontology of humans where, through the conversion, in specific conditions, of vulnerability into helplessness, the human’s dependence on the world around is highlighted. This social ontology may be emphasized through several means: the exploitation of the body’s immanent vulnerability in involuntary conditions of torture or deprivation; the encounter with extreme situations wherein the body is rendered incapacitated from performing routine functions due to, say structural conditions (architecture, building plans, domestic objects); or in a voluntary embracing of risk in sporting events wherein the body pits itself against enormous forces and conditions in BASE jumping, rope-less climbing and so on. Extreme cultures, especially when they focus on inter-human relations that are grounded in violence, exploitation and pain (torture) draw attention to the precarity of all human ontology. This book is a study of vulnerability as a quality and defining condition of some people. In many cases of torture, the victimhood is an identity because the individual’s suffering is the effect of intentional victimization by someone or something. (All victims suffer, but not all who suffer are victims, because in many cases the suffering is not the result of someone or something intentionally victimizing the individual [Rothe 2011: 25].) This book studies vulnerability across various conditions: torture, disease and accident (it leaves out ageing and natural disaster). In many cases, there is no identifiable human perpetrator – for instance, in the case of victims of Chernobyl, the Andes survivors or cancer patients – and so to conflate disease victims with torture victims might seem awkward. The idea here is to link forms of suffering as resulting from a common condition of precarity and the witness culture that grows around suffering. In order to examine cultural practices where vulnerability folds into helplessness, this book employs certain key theoretical underpinnings: the idea of



the vulnerable human, the modes of representation of this vulnerable human, the shift in biovalue and the ‘problem’ and ethics of witnessing helplessness. The book itself is organized around spaces of vulnerability and helplessness, the aesthetics and representations of vulnerability, the extreme in the everyday and, finally, the witnessing of (in)human extremes. Extreme cultures offer a knowledge of vulnerability and shared precarity as a foundational condition of humanity. A witness culture emerges through the cultural discourse of vulnerability, the representations (in fictional accounts and in testimonies) of victim and/or survivor, and in the accounts of witnesses. Thus, extreme cultures offer an entire new way of speaking about and classifying the human. Vulnerability, Social Ontology, Helplessness Vulnerable bodies slide into helplessness when they are relocated into conditions that do not sustain life. Life requires sustaining environments, and extreme cultures represent those where such environments are lacking or which demand extreme endurance and resourcefulness for a human body to survive. The ontology of the human, as Bryan Turner (2006) has argued and Judith Butler (2004, 2009) has emphasized in her recent work, is always a social ontology. Extreme cultures demonstrate the entangled existence of the human with other humans and even the nonorganic environs. This sense of entangled existence, intercorporeality and mutual dependency has been central to the posthuman thought of the last decades of the twentieth century. In line with such posthuman thinking about mutually constitutive identity, commentators like Karen Barad (2007), in her theory of ‘agential realism’, foreground ‘intra-action’ between/across material objects, locations and the human as the cause of agency, she underscores how agency, therefore, is not an immanent feature of the human/body but an emergent condition that depends on the immediate settings. One possesses and performs agency only when in appropriate and sustaining alignment with and embedded in settings that include other humans, objects and processes. Helplessness, then, is the condition that arises when social ontology collapses in specific ways: the dependency of the human on the setting is inverted to produce high risk, debility, pain or death (or, as in the case of extreme sports, pleasure through this dependence on risk). This book proposes that there exists, within the contemporary socialcultural imaginary in mass media, a strand of cultural practices and representations, an exploration of the border between human and inhuman or non-human, where the vulnerable human, embedded in conditions of helplessness loses agency and autonomy and is dependent upon the external world for survival. Extreme cultures are about the openness of the body

xiv Introduction

and its properties of autonomy, sovereignty and agency, to the world. The so-called autonomous individual spends her or his energy battling and avoiding risk, even in everyday life (in the case of disability or chronic illness, in particular). When, for instance, chronically ill individuals focus on risk factors and the avoidance of risk, then there occurs, as Frank Furedi points out, a ‘diminution of the human agency’ (19). Once risk arrives as the urnarrative of lives then the management of risk becomes central to individual and collective lives, when information about possible risks is made available to them. Extreme cultures may be seen as commentaries on and critiques of disabling, eroding or empowering social ontologies, where conditions might generate pleasure, thrill, pain, inability/disability or fear in the human, because the human is embedded in these conditions and cannot exist outside them. Weather conditions, landscape, material objects, settings (like prisons) produce the extreme depending on the nature and mode of their interactions with the human body. The body is the site in and through which the extreme expresses itself. Conversely, the human body’s extraordinary degree of dependency on and openness to the world is examined in cultures of the extreme, whether it is the climber’s body suspended by a rope over a gorge or the electrical wire attached to specific portions of the anatomy in torture. The extreme, therefore, is the engagement of the human with non-sustaining environments, in which the human is ill-equipped to survive and thrive except with major assistance. The culture of extremes indeed might be also termed the culture of vulnerability for this reason. In extreme cultures such as torture films, vulnerability is also about the human’s injurability in the domain of emotional and moral attachments – to friends, acquaintances, family and even perfect strangers. In extreme sports and survivor accounts, the testimonies of participants and survivors stand in for those who experienced but did not narrate. Such testimonies construct communities around extreme situations. Documenting these events on behalf of the others is part of a ritual which then demonstrates to the viewer/reader the vulnerability of humans. Most of these texts also, again ritualistically, document cases when they were unable to help others. When the human, out of the sense of obligation to another human, is unable to provide succour or help in inimical settings, then the vulnerability folds into helplessness. That is, the human is rendered helpless. The system of torture and torturous mechanisms or extreme situations (Joe Simpson’s friend, no longer able to hear his screams, leaves him, assuming him to be dead, in Into the Void), in short, destroy the moral foundations of human relations when the human is rendered helpless and incapable of carrying out those obligations. This form of helplessness has to do with the collapse of rational agency. Alisdair MacIntyre has argued that ‘the virtues of independent rational agency need for their adequate exercise to be accompanied by . . . the virtues



of acknowledged dependence’ (1999: 9). In torture and extreme suffering scenarios, especially when escapes are being planned, the protagonists realize how dependent they are on others for the exercise of their choices and agency: whether the man holding the rope can continue to hold on (Into the Void) or hold up the machine to prevent it from dismembering a fellow human (Saw). Once they realize that this dependence is born of mutual vulnerability, then the scenario’s real power asserts itself: the torture or extreme setting prevents this dependence from being fulfilled. Their independent rational agency cannot perform its actions in any moral sense. Vulnerability, Risk, Representation Writing about vulnerability, Judith Butler has argued that the norms of what makes a body vulnerable or helpless, whether it is ecstatic or in pain, are ‘enacted through visual and narrative frames’ (2009: 75). These frames necessitate and rely upon representations. Hence the experience of extreme conditions is inextricably linked to the representation of these conditions, and this representation adopts particular modes of narration, whether melodramatic expression or traumatic realism. Extreme cultures in their visual and narrative frames for bodies in acute sensory pleasure, fright or pain construct norms of human subjectivity, identity and vulnerability. Aligning fictional representations of vulnerability with the photographic evidence of real-life torture and real-life experience of extreme sensations is an intentional act in this book. Aware, though, that torture films are legally produced by professional film-makers, that the visual archive from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo document illegal acts, that extreme sports constitute a voluntary positioning of bodies in extreme situations and, finally, that auto/pathographies are subjective memoirs by sufferers and caregivers, the book demonstrates that clusters of themes might be found across all of these genres and media. It assumes that the sense of somebody else’s pain or pleasure comes to us through representations through a grammar of text and image, and hence the study of images is essential to document cultures in which one primary thematic dominates: the crisis of human vulnerability and the state of helplessness. Admittedly, the experience of the extreme in say, BASE jumping or torture might be at some distance from representations of the same, or similar, experience. However, as Edward Brunner in ‘Experience and Its Expressions’ (1986) makes clear, experience structures expression and expressions structure experience. Expressions frame and make intelligible the experience. The singularity of the extreme experience, to word it differently, is collectively, socially and culturally framed – in terms of the meanings of the experience, the knowledge of the risks involved, the knowledge of the contingency plans and the bodily regimen to be adopted. Much of this framing – and as Brunner

xvi Introduction

and Abrahams (1986) emphasize in their work on the anthropology of experience, expression and experience are interlinked – and involves aestheticization, ritualization and the sharing, through representation, of values. The extreme is branded through the circulating iconography, the objects used, the rhetoric of advertising (in the case of sports) and the value system around the idea of the ‘human’. Experience is of course framed within conceptual categories, systems of classification, cultural values, words and images. Through these representations we, the audience, are made witness to the limits of the human as well. The vulnerable body which is the subject of this study is a commonplace feature of the contemporary global social-cultural imaginary, thanks to numerous fictional, autobiographical and documentary texts. Integral to these texts is the representation of the human body in extreme conditions, primarily extreme suffering. By ‘extreme’ I mean singular and rare experiences that are distinctive from the everyday and which produce an excess of stress, suffering, deprivation, risk, aesthetic or sensory pleasure. Extreme cultures, as they are treated throughout this book, are studies, commentaries and critiques of disabling, eroding or empowering social ontologies. The representation of vulnerability takes recourse to specific aesthetic and narrative modes. Traumatic materialism, which I examine in chapter 2, is the amplification and expansion of realist depiction beyond the point of even naturalism, in order to elicit horror and revulsion. The prolonging of the process of amplifying pain and the slow erosion of corporeal integrity (dismemberment, mutilation) is what Adriana Cavarero calls ‘horrorism’, aimed at ‘nullifying human beings more even more than at killing them’ (9). Traumatic materialism, as a component of this horrorism, represents the eversion (turning inside out) of bodies and forces us to pay attention to the unspeakable nature of surviving extreme pain, suffering and endurance. It is an aesthetic of collapse, whether of neighbourhoods, bodies or inter-human relations. The body is reduced to the inhuman or the abhuman through an abject materiality, the constant debasement and animalization of the corporeal in this aesthetic. Expressive states in the auto/pathographical form (‘graphic medicine’ as the genre is usually called) are of course somatized, where the visual grammar focuses almost entirely on the bodily states and expressions. When narrating their experiences of extreme cultures, wherein their vulnerability had folded into helplessness, survivors often take recourse to the language of melodrama as well, and speaking of cataclysmic events such as Chernobyl or 9/11, often demands a sublime aesthetics to represent collective helplessness. Historical accounts of torture and representations of torture – and this book refers to some of these, such as Ballengee’s – have commented on the antiquity of practices that exploit helplessness. Hence we cannot think of extreme cultures as unique to the present moment or this historical epoch. But what we



can speak of is both the quantum of such cultural forms and representations, the easy access to any of these through the media and entertainment complex and the link between these forms with contemporary politico-social developments, whether these are about the legitimizing of torture after 9/11, the commercial success of ‘torture porn’ or the rise of posthuman forms of thought, among others. However, this book does not historicize extreme cultures, nor does it see allegories of control and echoes of contemporary geopolitical developments in representations of pain and suffering in, say, horror cinema (for the last see Blake 2008, Wallis and Aston 2012, among others). Its scope is much more modest. It seeks to read the rise of an entire cultural apparatus devoted to the highlighting of human vulnerability, to an examination of the limits of the human and inhuman, and to the documentation of mutually dependent life conditions. In the case of survivors and the representations of massive events like 9/11 or the Chernobyl disaster, a version of the trauma aesthetic, that of the traumatic sublime is evident. The trauma aesthetic takes recourse to the uncanny – with its structures of shadowy resemblances and repetition – as a mode, wherein dematerialization and loss dominate the representation. There is the persistence, infinite repetition and symbolic recurrence of the events in some form or the other. In the case of events like nuclear disasters that affect thousands of humans, the aesthetic of the radiant sublime is in operation in the accounts, and represent the finite vulnerability of humanity and the infinite vulnerability of the earth in the wake of nuclear disaster. One event that occurs in one instant is morphed in such representations into a condition of the infinite extreme. The traumatic sublime becomes an aesthetic that enables the making of a cultural imaginary around an event that affected large numbers of people. The need to examine cultural texts where frames of recognizing and apprehending the human are debated has been suggested by commentators since the early 2000s. Dave Boothroyd argues the case for ‘a specific image of the theory of the extreme as a construction of the connectedness of “extreme phenomena” evident in different cultural registers: an image of theory whose materiality is given by the connectedness of all the possible images of it’ (2006: 286, emphasis in original). Cultural studies and theory needs to address practices where the limits of the human are being constantly tested, destroyed or exceeded in numerous contemporary cultural practices and sites. Some of these include torture, high-risk adventure and deprivation. If, as Boothroyd claims, there is a ‘“democratisation” of extreme pursuits into the mainstream and into everyday life’ then we need to study the forms of human subjectivity and personhood that are showcased in such pursuits, whether these are voluntary (as is the case with extreme sports or embedded journalism) or involuntary (as in the case of Abu Ghraib’s abuse). Julie

xviii Introduction

Carson and Elisabeth Weber’s Introduction to their co-edited volume, Speaking about Torture (2012), argues that representation is the key to developing an understanding of such conditions where human subjectivity is, without permission, systematically destroyed and a spectacle made of this process. Literary and cultural studies with their emphasis on normative codes, and strategies of representation that inform and deliver those codes, need to turn to these cultural texts in order to understand how the very idea of the human is at stake in depictions of the human-at-the-limit. Cultures of the extreme might be read as symptoms of the ‘new practices of “life” [that] mobilize not only generative forces but also new and subtler degrees of extinction’ (Braidotti 2010: 203). These practices of life now have their own cultural texts, and these constitute the subject of the present book. In cases such as Abu Ghraib, the disappearances of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ and the activities of the Boko Haram in Sudan, ‘real lives are beholden to the radical disparities stemming from embodiment,’ as Elizabeth Anker neatly phrases it in her study of human rights literature (2012: 23). Yet, these radical disparities are not just about embodiment but embodiment in specific situations – civil war, torture, famine and terrorism – where the inherent vulnerability of embodied lives is subject to the helplessness of inimical contexts. In the case of situations of extreme deprivation – exemplified in the survivors of the Argentinian plane crash, starving to death, the victims of torture in Abu Ghraib or the fictional representation of individuals dying in agony in horror films – ‘those who, albeit alive, are already dead because in them the essential boundary between living and dying has been erased,’ as Adriana Cavarero puts it, drawing attention not to the fact of life but the process of dying (42). Propositions and provocations such as the above are the cue to the present book’s driving motif: to examine cultural texts where the human is deliberated, defined and often destroyed. Biovalues and Witnessing in Extremes Cultures of extremes generate the (in)human extreme through an exploration of ‘degrees’ and forms of ‘extinction’ of vulnerable matter in conjunction with the world. They instantiate a new materialism because they depict modes of living and extinction. While they emphasize the agentic property of matter, they also underscore the irreducibility and interconnectedness of matter and its vulnerability. Extreme cultures propose a ‘posthumanist sense of material agency and a limitation of humans’ agentic efficacy’ (Coole and Frost 14). The new biovalues made visible in extreme cultures hinge upon a certain interfaced corporeality, whether it is the voluntary interfacing of extreme sport or the involuntary tactility of the instrument of torture in Abu Ghraib.



In the case of extreme sport, fleshization – the transformation of the person into flesh – is undertaken as a way of redefining the body’s, and the person’s, relation with the environment. Here, voluntary fleshization a form of selffashioning of the human, repositioning the body outside the frame of routine safety and within threatening circumstances wherein any weakness of the body might cause its death. This can produce a re-enchantment with the world. This re-enchantment, through the body, entails a surrender of the body to the setting, as in extreme sport, in order to experience sublime sensations. Or, there is an involuntary surrender of the body to the setting, as in torture. This process entails the intensification of physical existence but only in order to discover a negation of the self as the body screams in agony, producing a different kind of re-enchantment where the self discovers the utter dependence of the body upon the world, a dependence transformed into helplessness by the world. With fleshization as represented in extreme cultures, interfaced corporeality redefines itself and its blurred borders with the world, to find extreme sensory pleasure or extreme pain that takes away the personhood of the person, reducing him or her to meat. If constitutive corporeality (the human in conjunction with the world and its technics) is the mark of the posthuman, then torture generates the abhuman within the posthuman. The body’s interface with the world and the mutually constitutive corporeality in the context of torture may be said to ‘expulse the spirit, reducing the person to a ghost’ (Weber 91). The individual’s sense of interfaced corporeal identity is mediated through the pain, the fact that her or his body has been turned against herself or himself. The biovalue attained through the encounter with the extreme in these two cases clearly assigns very different values to flesh. In one (extreme sport), the flesh is a way of a productive engagement with the world, even though this engagement is often close to the experience of death. In the second (torture), the engagement with the world takes the victim ‘beyond the border of death into nothingness’ (Weber 94). But in both cases, the extreme hinges upon the interfaced corporeality of the individual. Certain domains within extreme cultures, such as torture, alert us to moral crises. If, as commentators have argued (Steve Jones 2013), torture is essentially a moral issue rather than just a legal one, then the mainstreaming of torture in fiction and fact (as Rebecca Gordon has proposed, 2014) is a matter of concern: for it implies an acceptance of inter-human relations as founded on the exploitation of helplessness. As the book argues towards its conclusion, returning to torture scenarios as its primary cultural texts, extreme cultures force us into a position of witnessing. Following the work of critics like Susan Sontag, Judith Butler and Elizabeth Dauphinée, I believe that the circulation of images of the pain of others is essential to a critical literacy of suffering. Whether this witnessing is complicit with the horrors recorded on

xx Introduction

the screen/film (in real or reel life) is a matter of considerable debate in visual culture studies, but one which has to be addressed in any case. This places a heavy demand on us to imagine ourselves sliding from vulnerability towards helplessness. We do so because, operating from within what Alan Sekula called an ‘imaginary economy’, the shadow archive of Rwanda, Abu Ghraib and the Holocaust constitute the structuring mechanism that enables both the production and our consumption of contemporary images and in this case torture porn. It is possible, I conclude, to access the situations and contexts that enabled the obliteration of the subject, an act that survives in the evidentiary form of the visuals from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Our attention should turn not away from the subject in pain, but towards the structures that destroy the social ontology of the subject through the inflicting of pain. The ethics of witnessing has to do with the development of frames of apprehension of the broken subject, and about an apprehension of the power structures within which subjects may be broken. The ‘story of dying’, we are told, ‘cannot escape its narrativization’ because ‘the process of dying . . . can only be perceived based on cultural narratives that provide the intelligibility of the process’ (Offizier 2012: 120). Extreme cultures offer one such set of cultural narratives that interpret dying and injury as the effect of non-life-sustaining conditions upon vulnerable corporeality, the inversion of the mutual dependency of humans and the transformation of vulnerability into helplessness in specific conditions of oppression, victimization or disease. It renders intelligible the processes through which some individuals are rendered helpless. Extreme cultures are therefore frames of interpretation of life itself even while participating in the ‘culture of death’ (Noys 2005). That is, even as extreme cultures seem to be morbidly concerned with death, they underscore the process of living. Extreme cultures are frame narratives for us to think about the way we humans lead our lives and how we create conditions for others ‘like us’ (in terms of shared precarity) to lead theirs. *** Examining the cultures of extremes, this book explores four domains, spaces, aesthetics, the everyday and biovalue. These are domains in which we can discern a certain discourse, practice and representation of vulnerability as a dominant mode of speaking about the human. Spaces recommend themselves for the study because bodies are located in space, and their relations with the environment determine their feeling good, vulnerable or insecure. Aesthetics is central to the representations of this experience of vulnerability in spaces where the corporeal is under threat. Moving away from extreme conditions where vulnerability is threatened with helplessness, the everyday



is a domain where the body faces multiple and severe threats to its integrity from routine actions and objects. Finally, having explored these three domains of vulnerability, the concluding chapter examines the viewing of extremes and the vulnerable. The book draws its examples from a diverse set of cultural practices and fields: extreme sports, fictional representations of torture, real-life torture, chronic illness, massive destruction, among others, in order to examine states of human vulnerability. While this runs the risk of bringing together disparate and perhaps dissonant materials, the book’s emphasis on vulnerability as a cultural condition today can only be examined, I assume, if we look beyond obvious practices such as extreme sports. In chapter 1, I look at the physical spaces of the ‘locational extreme’, or sites of the body’s interface with impossible settings, whether in nature (extreme sports) or human-induced contexts (prisons). Tortured bodies, ecstatic bodies and dependent bodies represent the limits of human endurance and sensory experience, and they emerge only in the interrelation between bodies and settings. Torture spaces are architectures of control where the body is made vulnerable in those spaces. The spaces of the body become spaces of the torturer’s control, and the physical spaces become the zones where this ‘inversion’, or othering, of the spaces of the body takes place. It examines the construction of the ‘Ground Zero’ which is, in torture films, the human body, onto which the entire space and processes of torture finally cathect. The chapter then examines the extreme space as governed by the logic of wasting, and of inversion. I study the transformation of extreme spaces into non-places in fictional films as well as real events like Gitmo is possible through two processes: their being rendered as nearly invisible and the loss of spatial orientation of the inmates/captives in such spaces. In the final section of the chapter I move away from torture spaces to another set of extreme spaces where a voluntary immersion leads to the experience of extreme sensations: thrills and pleasure. Chapter 2 turns to the aesthetics of representing extreme states, identifying the aesthetic categories of wonder, the sublime and traumatic materialism. Traumatic materialism, the chapter demonstrates, is the aesthetics of the abject materiality of the body in representations of torture and extreme suffering. Dismemberment, disfigurement and the loss of bodily integrity are central to this ‘horrorism’. Melodrama is central to the representation of extreme conditions of illness, as portrayed in auto/pathographies. This enables the reader to see suffering writ large on the face of the protagonist, and also to engage empathetically with their emotional states. It then turns to the aesthetic mode of the sublime in extreme cultures. The sublime in extreme cultural texts are represented, the chapter argues, either as extreme sensations of frightening thrills and voluntary risky engagement with the world, although

xxii Introduction

the two frequently merge with each other in the medium of the body. Often, the sublime might be a traumatic sublime that seeks to represent a crisis of vast magnitudes. Chapter 3 consists of readings that show how, in cultural texts of extremes such as auto/pathographies and survivor narratives, the everyday itself has been transformed into an extreme setting. I first study ‘extreme time’, the time of disease, pain and treatment that interrupts the routine progression of everyday time, bends it and puts it in crisis. Elaborating the idea of ‘extreme body time’, the chapter examines the reorganization of time of everyday processes along with the duration, rhythm, sequence and tempo of each of these processes. If pain shrinks the world to the body, here too body time causes a disconnect with the world, and alters social time into extreme social time as a result. Moving from time to management, the chapter argues that the arrival of a singularity such as cancer in the everyday, the routine management of time, space, process and people becomes extreme as well. Examining the management of objects, emotions and relations, the chapter argues that extreme management is the abusive, totalitarian and pain-inflicting control asserted over the bodies and their relations with everyday objects and routine biological functions. The state of war engenders extreme conditions in the form of massacres and mass kidnappings, as the next section of the chapter demonstrates. The chapter concludes with a brief analysis of agency in the face of the extreme. Chapter 4 culminates this study and focuses mainly on biovalue in torture scenarios. Here I examine frames of assigning biovalue in the form of fleshization, the rise of the perverse sublime and the moral extreme. It ends with some speculations on the role of witnessing in torture cultures. Fleshization is the transformation of the person into flesh, which is open to the world, the setting or the immediate environment and the objects in it. Fleshization could be through a surrender of the body to the setting, as in extreme sport, in order to experience sublime sensations. Or it could be a surrender of the body, but involuntarily, to the setting, as in torture. This second process entails the intensification of physical existence in order to discover a negation of the self. I return to aesthetics here, of horrorism, to argue that this is an aesthetic of posthumanism where the body has been resculpted in order to demonstrate the inscription of the world. The missing limb, or the brutalized body, is a posthuman condition because it is opened, literally, to the world, has had the world imprint itself on its skin. In the section on shared precarity and helplessness, I propose that moral agency emerges from a sense of shared precarity, of common threat and of being conjoined in conditions of helplessness in fictional representations of torture. Extreme cultures force us into addressing the conditions and causes which induce pain in the Other. The repetition of horrific events, even if in the form of representations,



constitutes the perverse sublime of torture porn. Proposing an ethics of reading torture porn from the genre’s representational moves, I argue that the representational extreme turns our attention to an ethical question: While it is true that all humans are vulnerable, what are the particular conditions in which this vulnerability might be yoked to helplessness? Extreme cultures by forcing us into a position of witnessing demand an imagining of oneself sliding from vulnerability (which all of us share) towards helplessness (which some of us experience).

Chapter 1

Spaces of the Extreme

The vulnerability-helplessness dynamic of extreme cultures is spatially located. Spatial arrangements, whether torture chambers, prisons or the wide open sea (in extreme sports), determine the nature of the dynamics and the erosion of sovereignty of the body in such conditions. If torture chambers are spaces where absolute power asserts itself over the inmate’s body, then the sea or the mountain represents spaces where the individual voluntarily seeks helplessness, where the body is placed in unusual relations with extreme environments. In all cases – extreme pleasure/thrill, extreme humiliation and extreme pain – the processes that generate these sensations are located in and enacted in spaces different from the protagonist-victim’s familiar spaces or routine. The BASE jumper or climber seeks places out in the wild. The tortured victim finds herself or himself in basements, the unfamiliar open places or specially designed chambers. Extreme spaces are extreme primarily due to the insertion of the body into settings radically distinct from the ones ‘it’ is used to. This results in alterations of perceptual frames of reference, and is integrated into the torture system in the films, and becomes the source of thrill and extreme sensation in extreme sports. This chapter looks at two contrasting examples of extreme spaces. The involuntary or accidental incarceration of an individual in spaces that precipitate a crisis of sovereignty and destruction of subjectivity would be spaces of camps, prisons, torture rooms or even the great outside (snowbound and entrapped in Frozen, in a canyon in the vast spaces of Utah in 127 Hours, or on the bleak High Andes in Miracle in the Andes and Alive). Then there are the spaces of seas, mountains and rocks that individuals seek out, voluntarily, in order to generate and experience extreme sensations through the placing of their vulnerable bodies in situations of partially controlled helplessness. 1


Chapter 1

(Im)mobility as Vulnerability The vulnerability of humans folds into helplessness when their autonomy of movement is restricted. One of the most sustained modes of eroding the freedom of the individual has traditionally been incarceration. Writing about Nazi concentration camps, William Sofsky notes how these camps ‘compressed’ space and destroyed the territories of the person (p. 65). Steve Jones in his study of torture porn argues that torture spaces are spaces of control, where ‘supremacy is equated to spatial control in torture porn’ (p. 101). Torture spaces are architectures of control, where the body is made vulnerable in those spaces. The spaces of the body become spaces of the torturer’s control, and the physical spaces become the zones where this ‘inversion’, or Othering, of the spaces of the body takes place. One is helpless if s/he does not move, and helpless if s/he does. Torture spaces are characterized by immobility regimes, whether in Abu Ghraib’s cells, in Saw’s specially designed chambers, basements in The Killing Room, suburban houses in The Last House on the Left, isolated houses in The Human Centipede (1 and 2), isolated villages in 2001 Maniacs, the outback of Wolf Creek or one’s own house in 99 Pieces. Immobility regimes work to destroy the sovereignty of the body, one of whose primary characteristics is mobility. These are regimes wherein running (to escape) does not alter the scope of the space – witness the killings in Wolf Creek, for instance. Immobility regimes are about forces of power and cruelty that often span places to be escaped from and places to be escaped to. In the former (places to be escaped from), movement itself is the source of pain, and often of deadly danger. The traps in Saw and Cube, the highway in 2001 Maniacs (on which the fleeing kids are decapitated by a thin wire strung across the road) are instances of immobility regimes’ transformation of movement into dying moments. Immobility regimes in these films and representations, I propose, are modes of intensifying terrifying territoriality, because an escape route is kept open, or identified, only to ensure the protagonists’ death. Indeed visual parallels also exist. (One only has to look at the rows of cells in photographs from Abu Ghraib and the rows of closed metal doors of Hostel behind which unspeakable acts take place. The resemblance to the dungeons and labyrinths of gothic fiction and film is unnerving.1) Immobility regimes are responsible for the space of the camp, or imprisonment, becoming extermination camps. (If the concentration camp was meant to elicit labour from the prisoners, the latter was simply created to send the Jews to their deaths, although many died of the hard labour in the concentration camps.) Take Saw, as an instance. In each case the prisoner is assured and even shown the route, often with helpful red arrows pointing in the direction, to escape the trap. The route is, of course, risky and entails the

Spaces of the Extreme


experience of considerable, even excruciating, pain. When Paul has to crawl across a cage full of barbed wire in Saw for example, he is given the option of leaving the confining space. But it is in the process of moving towards ostensible freedom that he dies. The space of imprisonment is transformed into the space of extermination, precisely in the moment of his movement towards leaving the former. Immobility regimes are characteristic of extreme spaces in another, moral way. In order to escape a trap, the protagonist has to abandon, or sometimes kill, another protagonist. Her or his movement is shackled morally: by the obligation one human has towards another. In Scar, for example, we realize that Joan had escaped because she consented to her friend’s torture and death. In Koethi Zan’s novel, The Never List (2013), we realize towards the end that Jennifer escaped her own tortures by siding with the torturer Jack, as did the narrator of the tale, Sarah/Caroline. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Chrissie runs out of the house even as she hears Bailey, her fellow captive, screaming inside. Steve Jones comments on the scene showing Chrissie hovering at the doorway of the house: Movement away from the house is thereby equated with freedom. This shot also underlines the danger Chrissie faces. . . . The pull-back magnifies her vulnerability, dwarfing her against the ominous building. Chrissie’s anguished expression attests to both her fear and also her inner torment as she weighs up her options. Self-preservation instinct is likely to conflict with moral thought in such circumstances since it seems counter-instinctual to remain duty-bound in the face of self-endangerment. (p. 114)

I shall return to the moral and ethical aspect of such sequences in a later chapter. For now, I wish to point to the immobilizing condition of the trap, even when the individual has the very real chance of escape. Immobility regimes control space in two distinct ways: one, by physically closing off the spaces of incarceration and ensuring that movement induces pain and even death; two, by rendering the protagonist immobilized without real, physical restraints. Incarceration intensifies the will to escape in these protagonists but they remain, for a long time, immobilized by their social and other relations. Thus, the immobility regime remains in force even when the physical restraints begin to loosen or even disappear. In all such representations of torture and immobilized humans, the last desperate attempt to assert autonomy and sovereignty by the protagonist – usually in a severely injured state – is not escape but collaboration. By ‘collaboration’ I mean the aid, comfort and physical help in escaping that the already-free protagonist often engages in with the more distressed captive. This might be Paxton slicing off the dangling eyeball in Hostel or Bobby trying to hold up


Chapter 1

the machine, at great pain to himself with the frames piercing his abdomen, so as to prevent the rods from piercing Suzanna in Saw 3D. Bobby’s visible helplessness in keeping up the weighted machine in order to save Suzanna’s life ensures that we see the setting as a disabling condition, one that is inimical to Bobby’s relations with Suzanna, or of one human with another. His progressive lack of agency as he loses his battle with the machine reduces him to a trembling, tearful – even debased – human because he cannot save Suzanna. While it requires inhuman strength to keep the machine up through his pain, the battle with the machine is primarily about how human vulnerability – in terms of injurability but also emotional attachments to, and moral obligations towards, fellow humans – is turned against Bobby. Integral to immobility regimes is the social and technological architecture of control in these spaces. Architectures of control, by limiting the freedom of movement, render the humans helpless. Surveillance as ‘Organizational Methodology’ Central to the horror of extreme spaces in torture films is the constant monitoring of the protagonist(s) through CCTV and surveillance. If, as we have seen above, torture porn films are allegories of control, part of this control is achieved through the conversion of the injured body into an object of surveillance and observation by a person or persons unknown. Catherine Zimmer’s reading of Saw refers to the camera as presenting the Jigsaw killer’s ‘organizational methodology’ (p. 87) because it is part of the process of confinement, control and power relations. In these films, the documentation begins from the moment of capture and incarceration. The camera is not simply a recording or mnemonic device in these films. In the semantic scope of the torture sequence, the camera is an actor. It does not simply stand in for the torturer – though it does that as well – but functions as a particularly horrific ‘aesthetic’ strategy that (i) captures the agony of the victim and (ii) enrols the victim as a character in the documentary history of the events being filmed. The victim is the unwilling actor in the process of filming, although the victim is not representing but embodying suffering. The camera is thus an accomplice in the events unfolding in the torture chamber. When footage of victims is shown to each other (in Saw, for example) one sees a continuum in the documentation of suffering across peoples and bodies. The camera is what brings them together, filmed in diverse locations but united in their pain (or imminent pain), to be viewed by the others. Note Brett Easton Ellis’s deployment of the camera as part of his torture apparatus in American Psycho (1991): Torri awakens to find herself tied up, bent over the side of the bed, on her back, her face covered with blood because I’ve cut her lips off with a pair of nail

Spaces of the Extreme


scissors. Tiffany is tied up with six pairs of Paul’s suspenders on the other side of the bed, moaning with fear, totally immobilized by the monster of reality. I want her to watch what I’m going to do to Torri and she’s propped up in a way that makes this unavoidable. As usual, in an attempt to understand these girls I’m filming their deaths. With Torri and Tiffany I use a Minox LX ultraminiature camera that takes 9.5mm film, has a 15mm f/3.5 lens, an exposure meter and a built-in neutral density filter and sits on a tripod. I’ve put a CD of the Traveling Wilburys into a portable CD player that sits on the headboard above the bed, to mute any screams. (unpaginated, ePub)

The present victim and the next victim are united through the camera’s positioning. In another scene, the narrator/Bateman describes the setting: I’ve situated the body [of the victim-to-be] in front of the new Toshiba television set and in the VCR is an old tape and appearing on the screen is the last girl I filmed. . . . ‘Can you see?’ I ask the girl not on the television set. ‘Can you see this? Are you watching?’ I whisper. (unpaginated, ePub)

The visualizing, mnemonic technology is important to Bateman in his choreography of horror. It is striking that in films like Saw, the victim in the trap freezes just enough to witness somebody else’s pain and torment telecast on the screen. The camera and screen thus function as an interregnum in the process of torture and contributes to the agony of the individual victim when s/he sees that the face on the screen belongs to a family member or a loved one. As Catherine Zimmer puts it, the video tapes are ‘essentially the means of a select release of information . . . escalating their horror and serving as a possible means of escape’ (p. 87). The camera, as Zimmer sees it, conditions the responses of the victims in such scenarios. Extreme spaces are spaces of display, memory and documentation that compound helplessness and trigger the desperate attempts at freedom. With the logic of display at work in Saw and other films the ruination of the human becomes the subject of entertainment. Susan Sontag (2004), writing about the Abu Ghraib visuals, says: To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose.

In the case of Saw, Vacancy and Captivity, where the camera documents suffering, the victim is further humiliated by having her or his screams and agony captured on tape, and disseminated to an anonymous and diffused audience. Writing about Abu Ghraib, Mark Danner said of the camera: The ubiquitous digital camera with its inescapable flash, there to let the detainee know that the humiliation would not stop when the act itself did but would be


Chapter 1

preserved into the future in a way that the detainee would not be able to control. (2005)

As Sontag points out, the tortures at Abu Ghraib were recorded by the torturers as entertainment, for distribution among friends and fellow soldiers: Charles Graner even had such a visual as screen saver, as subsequent investigations revealed. In effect, the recording of the torture victim leaves it open for further reproduction, and must be read as part of the horror. In a sense, the existence of the tape of the act of being tortured ensures a re-enactment of the act of torture itself, albeit in the form of representation. The repetition of representation is a contributing element to the torture scenario’s perverse sublime. Two simultaneous and contradictory effects emerge from the video camera that the victims know is recording them in Saw and other films. One, it makes it obvious to them that they are objects of surveillance, and that they have been objectified. This in itself renders their condition one of extremes because it has pushed their identity away from the human to an observable object under the all-seeing eye. Given the nature of the surveillance mechanism, the victims cannot be aware as to the nature of their audience: Who (else) is watching? Surveillance stages the spectacle of dehumanizing torture to a diffused audience. To recognize that the spectacle of their humiliation is perhaps a public spectacle is to compound the erasure of their subjectivity and sense of self, given the fact that subjectivity, like identity, is socially located and validated.2 This also means that the appeals for help that we see in all these films are addressed to anonymity, not to cops, not to family, but to anonymous bystanders perhaps, or witnesses: ‘Somebody help me.’ The inability to identify or distinguish between captor/tormentor and audience is built into the scenario and adds to the torment. The appeal to anonymous fellow humans is an acknowledgement of the dependency: the captive realizes that s/he is dependent on somebody else for survival and escape. That is, another human has to assert both independent rational agency and choice in order to fulfil her or his moral obligations born out of the acknowledgement of mutual dependency, if the captive has to be saved or to survive. Extreme cultures play on this theme to demonstrate how such assertion cannot happen, and both bystander/witness and captive are rendered helpless because they are disabled from fulfilling this obligation. When the captive watches, on screen (as is the case with Captivity or Saw), her own helplessness is compounded precisely because the camera allows her to see but not act. The camera captures the breakdown of moral social/human connections under conditions of helplessness. Two, and in contrast with the above, the camera does not allow the victim to remain a mere body, even in the dehumanizing process of torture. By capturing every twinge of muscle, every tear and every scream the camera makes

Spaces of the Extreme


a vulnerable person out of the victim. The camera leaves us in no doubt that the blood and screams emanate from a person. In other words, the camera in the torture films is located somewhere between the dehumanizing apparatus of torture and the humanizing device that renders victims into persons. The victim is not a generalized body but an individual, the pain is localized, visible, scripted on the flesh of the person the camera records. They remain very evidently subjects with embodied subjectivity, when the camera captures their torments. Three, the logic of the visual image imprints itself on the suffering individual and destroys the last shreds of humanity. The individual knows that, in addition to her or his body and subjectivity being torn apart through pain, any sense of her-self as a human is finally annihilated with this documentation, with the potential for infinite repetition, of her suffering. Extreme space is the space of annihilation of the body, but also the space of the archivization of this annihilation. Four, it could be argued that the fusion of the body with the camera creates a continuum of the biopolitical extreme – the body is what completes the circuit of extreme space – victim, watcher and camera, all aligned in a theatre of pain and death. The body instantiates the camera, so to speak, when it tears itself, or is torn, apart. Without the staging of the suffering body, the camera and the spectacle it is meant to document are incomplete. There is one final dimension to the surveillance methodology of extreme space. The staging of the tortured body for consumption links torture porn to a global media-driven ‘tissue economy’ (Waldby and Mitchell’s term, 2006, for the commodification of tissues, blood and cell lines in global capitalism). Jerold Hollyfield comes closest to this interpretation when he argues that the Hostel films deal with ‘the commodification of the human body in a post-Cold War economy marked by globalized trade . . . where American protagonists become commodities that the hostel sells on the global market’ (2009).3 It is through the documentation that the victim body’s biopolitical extreme acquires value, whether for commercial, ethical or political reasons. If the outrage around the Abu Ghraib photographs suggests the moralpolitical aspect of biovalue in the global circuit of ‘bodies’, the success of films such as Saw and Hostel suggests an entertainment-commercial aspect of this same biovalue. Hollyfield might see Hostel as reversing the trend of Hollywood cashing in on ‘Third World’ suffering by having American bodies suffer, but this still remains inscribed within the global circuit of biovalue. If tissues and cell lines are now central to global capital, so is the disintegrating body in Hostel, or the films themselves. (The circulation and marketing of cruelty within the tissue economy however, might also be seen to drive a pity economy, especially in the case of Abu Ghraib where the audience did distinguish the acts as real.)


Chapter 1

This surveillance and documentation, outside of films on fictional torture, took another form within Abu Ghraib, which one may safely designate an extreme space. Nicholas Mirzoeff notes that for all the secrecy in the Western public sphere about what was happening, visual images of all kinds circulated freely within the prison. The notorious photograph of naked men formed into a pyramid was used as a screensaver on a computer at the Internet café at the prison. (2006: p. 24)

Thus, the extremes of Abu Ghraib were not restricted to perpetrating the horrific acts: these were set up for perpetual, closed-loop entertainment systems in the prison. Seymour Hersh noted in Chain of Command: ‘The images, it was soon clear, were being swapped from computer to computer throughout the 320th Battalion’ (2004: p. 25). Later Hersh adds: ‘The photographing of prisoners, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, seems to have been not random but, rather, part of the dehumanizing interrogation process’ (p. 38). It was not only, as Mirzoeff suggests, ‘taken as a record of the dominance of the photographers over physical and corporal space and time’ (p. 24). The recording could serve (and have served) as reminders in perpetuity within archives somewhere, a fact the prisoners were no doubt aware of. In other words, the extreme is extreme forever, and the total control of space and bodies in space morphs into control extended through time. One of the inmates at Guantánamo, Jumah Al Dossari, in fact makes a plea in his poem: take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely. Send them to the world, (‘Death Poem’, in Falkoff)

The camera is part of the structure of helplessness because one is reduced to the passive, and invasive, object of the lens, and of the future archive. In Frames of War Judith Butler argues that the photograph ‘itself becomes a structuring scene of interpretation’ (2009: p. 67). Butler’s focus is on the affective effects such photographs have on us, the viewers. However, if one were to think of the filming and photography as process in extreme cultures, then we have a slightly different concern. The process of photography as a frame and scene of interpretation forces the photographed to experience further helplessness. Watching oneself being filmed in various states of debasement and suffering compounds the helplessness in these scenarios because one cannot not be naked in the presence of the camera. Helplessness here is the abjectification through the eyes of the camera (or the one-way window through which the victim knows s/he is being watched – in, for instance, Hostel: Part III), which the victim in torture films views with equal horror. Thus,

Spaces of the Extreme


the image or photograph or video tape is not, as Butler reminds us, awaiting interpretation: it is itself interpreting (p. 71). The tape or the photograph that the victim sees being made of her or him interprets her or him as vulnerable, helpless and immobile. Vulnerability’s Corporeal ‘Ground Zero’ Joseph Pugliese examining the historical antecedents of Abu Ghraib imagery writes: The violence of colonial occupation evacuates space: there is no space; rather, in the colonised sector, bodies become coextensive of space as such: they are the ground upon which military operations of occupation are performed and through which control of the colonised country is secured. (2007: p. 272)

Pugliese’s alignment of corporeality with territory, showing both as the space of control, violence and domination enables us to see the spaces of the body in torture porn as the target, site and object. The locational extreme not only constructs torture spaces, it converts the protagonist’s body as the ‘Ground Zero’ of all painful, targeted processes to follow. I use the term keeping in mind Marc Redfield’s observation that the term has, since the atomic testing of the 1940s, ‘entered the American sociolect and is now commonly used to describe centers of devastation, natural or man-made’ (2007:p. 62). The ‘Ground Zero’ in torture films is the human body, and the entire space and processes of torture finally cathect onto this body. However, the body in the trap is both target and process, or rather the culmination of a set of processes that constitute the body’s experience of the extreme. Samuel Weber, after Jean-Luc Nancy, makes the distinction between skopos and telos, where the former is the target and the latter the fulfilment of an action or set of processes (p. 5–6). Weber writes: ‘Skopos is already, tendentially, the tele-scope, since “the one who aims” is also “the one who surveys.” To survey, in this sense, is to command at a distance’ (p. 7). Skopos ‘designates not just the act but also the object of such watching: the mark or target’ (p. 7). One of the key features of torture porn is the question almost every victim asks aloud: ‘Why me?’ Weber’s analysis of the ‘target of opportunity’ offers us a way of looking at this aspect of the biopolitical extreme when the body is rendered Ground Zero. In films like Saw or Captivity, there is a specific set of reasons – offered to us in the form of backstories or puzzles in the course of the narrative – why certain people have been captured, incarcerated and tormented. Thus the


Chapter 1

individuals’ bodies are rendered Ground Zero as a culmination of a set of processes begun sometime in the past. Redfield reading the idiom of Ground Zero writes: ‘Just as “Ground Zero” appropriates and effaces the past, it appropriates and effaces the future. Invoking the nuclear threat, it imagines the future as past, and as imaginable’ (p. 63, emphasis in original). The victim currently in the trap is informed of the reasons why s/he is there, just as we are made aware of their past crimes, or complicity with crimes. I also use the term Ground Zero to indicate the moral code that seems to underlie the Saw series: that the individuals need to return to a state of innocence through a painful reminder of their past sins/crimes. Ground Zero is therefore the body as the space of moral renewal through catharsis, at least in the first three Saw films. By foregrounding the body of the wrongdoing protagonist the Saw series also brings back older forms of punishment, documented by Michel Foucault: to punish the sinner’s soul through a chastisement of the body. It is only when the sinner or criminal discovers the potential to be hurt in the body that s/he, supposedly, recognizes the wrongness of her or his life and learns to appreciate it better – which is Jigsaw’s stated aim. If Jigsaw is to be believed the body becomes, then, the starting point for a new life, a ‘toponym manifestly evocative of both obliteration and living on’ (Redfield p. 65). In other texts like Wolf Creek or Hostel or The Devil’s Rejects, there is no clear reason why those specific individuals have been targeted. The latter films present the victims as targets of opportunity: they arrive at a particular place at a particular time and are transformed into targets in the eyes of the shooter/kidnapper/rapist/killer. This is skopos where a preexisting system of monitoring and organization prepares the ground for the singularity of the event. The ‘why me?’ is then answered with ‘because you came into the sightline’, although, of course, the ‘scope’ of the telescope/rifle/camera was already trained on the particular spot where whoever turned up, as a singularity, would become the victim. In other words, the unforeseen or unplanned target is prepared for – scoped, so to speak – with the torture chamber readied for her or him. Vulnerability – because all humans are vulnerable – when it arrives at a particular spot or space is rendered helpless, because that spot or space is so structured as to turn the human into a scoped object. But this is not all. Marc Redfield examining the nature of targets says that ‘to target is to frame and locate an object in relation to a sovereign subject’ (2007: p. 64). This is where the torture film produces another zone of indistinction. Initially, it appears as though a sovereign subject has captured an object for torture. An object has been targeted, located and incarcerated for the purposes designed by and known (only) to the captor. As the narrative proceeds in Cube, Saw and others, we discover the slow blurring of these roles of sovereign subject and object. Undoubtedly the individual incarcerated has lost her or his

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sovereignty. The accidental target of opportunity is no longer a free agent, but just an object to be toyed with. The inversion of roles, where the tortured object becomes over a period of time either a collaborator or a torturer (Amanda, Lawrence Gordon and Hoffman in Saw and Paxton in Hostel, Craig and Elise in The Tortured), suggests that the object becomes sovereign enough to determine the fates of other objects. The zone of indistinction is this blurred nature of the biopolitical extreme where the bloodied body, thus far a non-agential object, becomes a part-sovereign subject within the same extreme spaces and structures. I am proposing that the skopos and telos, one indicating a target of opportunity, and the other, the culmination of a process are versions of each other. Weber comes in handy here with his problematic query around these two modes of organization: ‘What if the enabling limits associated with the telos were themselves made dependent upon the power to treat the other as skopos: target and targeter?’ (p. 7–8). For the process to unravel, and move towards their logical culmination, as for example Jigsaw intends, there needs to be the intertwining of the telos with skopos: the object becomes the sovereign subject who seizes the individual who walks into the sightline. The object acquires the power to treat the other as the target of opportunity precisely because the apparatus (the torture chamber), already in place, gives her or him the facility to do so. (Skopos, as noted above, demands that the structures of observation be in place so as to plan for the unforeseen arrivant.) The body is part of the process that is finished only when the body expires. This corporeal Ground Zero is the space of ruination. The Extreme and Ruin Spaces The spaces of incarceration, whether closed spaces or out in the open (Frozen, Miracle in the Andes, Touching the Void, Wild, Into Thin Air), approximate to Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopia of crisis’. In Foucault’s view, these are alternate spaces where accursed or holy deeds can be performed. It could be argued that extreme spaces entail unusual, bizarre and outrageous deeds and events – from torture to murder to cannibalism. Extreme spaces call for an economy of waste/wasting and ruination through this set of unusual processes and acts. I am not concerned at this point with the moral excesses of extreme spaces in such representations. Rather, my focus is on the extreme space as governed, alongside the logic of power/ control, by the logic of wasting, and of inversion that calls attention to the borders of the human. In survivor accounts a considerable portion of the narrative is devoted to the ruins of the body: injury, starvation, loss of senses, among others. Extreme


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space is marked by the loss of coherence of the body, anatomically, physiologically and psychologically, so that the human descends into the abhuman. The protagonist who acknowledged the vulnerability of the body now begins to acknowledge that the setting renders the body not simply vulnerable but permanently so – for in many cases, the corporeal ruination is irreversible. Films such as Saw and Hostel also stage the possible ‘waste’ within modernity. Sociologists like Avery Gordon have pointed to ‘ghostification’ and ‘waste’ as the effects of modernity in the twentieth century. Bodies being ‘wasted’, rendered fragmented or dead, is part of a process in modernity’s spectacular entertainment. Ghosts, writes Gordon, symbolize ‘systematic injury in the social world’ (2008: p. 24–25). Vulnerability is turned into helplessness when the victim is relocated to an entirely new space where the wasting process begins. Gordon argues that disappearance ‘removes people . . . from their familiar world, with all its small joys and pains, and transports them to an unfamiliar world, where certain principles of social reality are absent’ (2008 [1997]: p. 112). What is absent from certain extreme spaces is the social reality of the mutual dependence of humans, the acknowledgement of mutual vulnerability which, if Judith Butler is right, causes humans to treat the Other with compassion. This social reality is what is overturned in the extreme space, where the acknowledgement of the other’s vulnerability (and one’s power over the other) generates gratuitous violence not compassion. Torture spaces are those where the incarcerated discover the overturning of social reality as they knew it. Entangled existences in extreme spaces produce violence rather than anything else. I suggest, following this line of thought, that torture-horror and thrillers like The Condemned or Untraceable are part of a continuum where ‘rendering’ some-body into waste is also a commercially viable aspect of modernity. Placing a monetary value – in terms of website hits in Untraceable and The Condemned – on bodies under extreme pressure is an extension of the process of commodification of sensation: here the sensation is that of somebody’s pain. (In itself, of course this is not new, if we recall gladiator matches and spectacles of execution from the ancient eras.) Saw in its first three instalments claims ‘wasting’ as a mode of bringing the individual to a fuller consciousness about one’s biovalue. (That this biovalue hinges upon the ability to inflict horrendous injury on one-self defeats the larger purpose though.) Protagonists drooling, throwing up, bleeding, coughing, gasping all suggest a wasting away in the torture chamber. The torture chamber might thereby be categorized as a space of waste and wasting. But there is more to the ruination theme. Two key events occur to vulnerable bodies in extreme spaces in torture films: their conversion into commodities, and their relegation to the category of expendables. The first bestows some value to the bodies qua bodies.

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The second erases any value the individuals might possess, where individuals can be interchanged in the process of torture. They are individuals who have been deemed unworthy. Extreme spaces are places of inversion, for they invert traditionally accepted ideas of the human, denying them personhood and transforming them into some-thing else. Commodification in extreme situations renders individuals into a thing or plain meat. In Hostel, as Jason Middleton argues, the ‘consumed object is valued and even fetishized’ (2010: p. 9). This valuing and fetishizing is symbolized in the slow pan of the camera over the captive – especially the lascivious lingering over the female form (Jennifer in Captivity, the girls in Hostel: Part II). The individual’s limbs, face and torso being ‘captured’ (shot) like a piece of meat for a recipe. Extreme space transforms the body in such films into a commodity, to be desired, possessed or used as a transaction. Scopophilic shots, especially of women’s bodies, render them desirable commodities. Commodification here retains a certain amount of political value – for example, the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are commodities, as Arabs, terrorists, Muslims, among others. In the second form, of randomized torture and killing made possible by happenstance (Wolf Creek would be an example, as opposed to Saw or Captivity), the protagonists are expendable bodies. Here the bodies have no value per se, except as means to a pleasurable (for the torturer) process of inflicting gratuitous pain. The former process, of rendering individuals into meat or things with specific values, is one of recognition, and the latter, one of apprehension. Judith Butler proposes that apprehension ‘impl[ies] marking, registering, acknowledging without full cognition. . . . It is a form of knowing, it is bound up with sensing and perceiving’ (2009: p. 5). Recognition, on the other hand, requires schemes of intelligibility, where the protagonists are evaluated and identified. Films like Hostel signify recognition, and humans are evaluated as prize, commodity or even sacrifice. One could argue that torture spaces in these films are places of corporeal capital accumulation – to play on Marx – where the key focus is the accumulation of humans-as-meat. The humans-as-meat are circulated among worldwide clientele (Hostel: Part II complicates this by making the prize commodities women). Torture, to cite Middleton again, is ‘a mode of consumption within a network of global commerce’ (p. 19). Ruin spaces, as embodied in the torture film genre, are spaces of inversion through the inflicting and experiencing of extreme pain, where the human’s value is reassigned as plain commodity or plain expendable meat. These are spaces of ‘inversion’ because the sense of personhood, of being human, is what is ultimately inverted in the process of ruination. The reduction, or descent (often literal), into primordial screams and primal states – broken, naked, savage, dirty – of protagonists in such films might be read as ruination because


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it draws out the animal from within the human. Jean Amery would speak of the ‘living person . . . transformed so thoroughly into flesh’ (1980: p. 40). If ‘animality is a precondition of the human’ (Butler 2009: p. 19), then torture is a reiteration of this precondition. Without addressing the ethical and moral issues at this point, it suffices to say that spaces of inversion are spaces of the reassignation of such values and reaffirmation of preconditions. It would be productive, also, to think of spaces of inversion as those that disconnect the individual from any idea of home, when the first home, the body, is taken apart. The irony of course is that it is in the process of torture and experience of extreme pain that the individual comes to a heightened awareness: it is my body that hurts me (as Scarry argued). In places of ruination, therefore, the process is double-edged: being brought to an awareness of the body only to be shown, literally, that you (as tortured) can no longer believe the body to be your own or your home. Jean Amery, Auschwitz survivor and a torture victim, spoke of experiencing ‘foreignness in the world’ (1980: p. 30). He wrote: ‘Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world’ (p. 40). The loss of the sense of home, both corporeal and spatial – torture victims from Abu Ghraib have found it difficult to return to their communities, given the shame they had endured and experienced – is the additional ruination performed by the space of the camp, the torture chamber and the basement. It could be said that the extreme space of torture chambers extends beyond the chambers to include the entire world for the survivor. There is another sense in which ruin spaces function as spaces of inversion and therefore of amplified vulnerability. Stephen Eisenman argues: Sado-masochistic acts themselves (now usually referred to by their practitioners as Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism, or BDSM) and its concomitant pornography must be considered critical inversions – not compliant iterations – of the scene of torture. BDSM, according to its adepts, transforms the postures, actions and rhetoric of institutionalized violence into a ritualized, privatized and carefully orchestrated costume drama of intimacy, pleasure and mutuality. (p. 34)

While Eisenman is correct here, it is also possible to see the torture in Abu Ghraib as an inversion of the traditional BDSM range of practices that would be, most significantly, consensual. The extreme space of the prison is one wherein there is no consensual bondage or eroticism. Rather, the prospect of erotic engagements is what is (perhaps forever) destroyed in the inversion of sexuality into the source of pain and unwarranted (i.e., non-consensual) humiliation. What is ruined is the potential eroticism of the body, of the sexual encounter and of consensual, affectionate display and use of the body. This is emphatically not eroticized suffering or voluntary vulnerability.

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Self-abasement, cheerfully integrated into BDSM practices, is in Abu Ghraib the source of the ruin of the self. In aligning the erotic with the humiliating, the pleasurable with the painful, and the prison is where a significant aspect of humanness and social relations is ruined. Ruination that assigns the value of ‘animal’, or ‘subhuman’ to the human is perhaps best studied in the extreme of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In a later chapter I shall address more fully the animalization in Abu Ghraib. Here I want to note how the clear sexualization of the prisoners was only possible through a simultaneous visualization. The visual record of prisoner humiliations suggests a conjunction of the extreme with the pornographic, where the ‘pornographic’ serves as ‘a record of the violation of a subject’s physical and psychic integrity’ (Tétreault 2006: p. 34), with the stills from Abu Ghraib approximating to the stills from snuff films (p. 34). The emphasis on closeups of bodies recalls the pornographic mode. That this set of pornographic acts was privately circulated suggests that the spectacle of ritual ruination was integral to the sense of American control over the bodies, culture and race of prisoners. Ruination is part of the rendering invisible of the many Iraqis and Arabs into the Abu Ghraib complex, and its processes including animalization, sexualization: and the visualization of the first two. Thus a complex web of visibility and invisibility is woven around the abuse at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. The hooding was not simply a mode of rendering the individuals into blanks and ciphers (Ballengee 2009: p. 138). Hooding was a visual restraint placed on the prisoners as well: so that their torturers and tormentors also remained ciphers. The absolutism of this act lies in the fact that the tortured would not even see the face of his torturer. The rank of the soldier, or mercenary, who was inflicting the torture, did not matter: it was enough that the Arab was a prisoner in the extreme space in which the American held total power, no matter what rank s/he held. Further, with the hooding, all that remains prominently visible is their abject ‘masculinity’. Marita Gronvoll writes that ‘their nudity makes them appear vulnerable in a way that their captors are not. . . . The prisoners in the Abu Ghraib photographs have been stripped of all identifying features except for their gender’ (p. 42). It is the combination of hooded face and ‘visibilized’ genitalia that make the prisoner vulnerable. The prisoners are reduced to their genitals in these visualizations of sexualities in Abu Ghraib, but in conjunction with erased faces. Their faces disappear, their gender does not, exactly in the same fashion as in American Psycho where the girls Bateman tortures and kills (either in actuality or in his dark fantasies) often have no names or made-up names like ‘Torri’ and ‘Tiffany’. What matters is their gendered body-as-meat. Ruination here is the process of rendering their sexuality, their genitals, the foundation of their vulnerability in the face of aggressive femininity (Lynndie England, Sabrina


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Harman and others who, reports say, sought to torment the prisoners with their femininity). The play of visibility/invisibility, seen/unseen ties in with the larger logic of disappearances in extreme cultures. In visual archives they will circulate, forever, as those men who disappeared into Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Even the evidence of abuse works around this binary of visible/invisible. For instance, the Fay-Jones Report on Abu Ghraib’s abuses notes about an earlier investigation report (from General Taguba): MG Fay identified one additional photograph depicting abuse by MI personnel that had not been previously identified by MG Taguba. MG Fay also identified other abuse that had not been photographed. (p. 4)

Nicholas Mirzoeff sums it up when he states: ‘The invisible visibility of a police culture that claims that there is nothing to see while circulating its pixelated documents of imperial hierarchy around the Internet’ (p. 30). The imperial hierarchy is built on the spectacularized ruination of a few people. The point made earlier, about the values assigned and reassigned to the human inside the torture chamber, needs to be redrafted in a slightly different key now. Ruination is the reassignation of values to humans, as ‘meat’ or as ‘terrorist’. The commodification of the humans as meat for processing and consumption demands visual evidence and, for want of a better word, advertisement. In Hostel: Part II, visuals with details of the girls circulate on the secure network so that the would-be buyer-torturer can buy his preference. Mary Tétreault argues that the Abu Ghraib detainees were ‘“commodities” within the prison walls’ (p. 40): and they were commodified when their visuals were used, for instance, as screen savers, to stimulate greater interest – antagonism, apathy, anger – in them. The entire camp, like in torture films, served as a space of commodification and transactions centred around the living bodies of the victims. Their bodies are at once the currency enabling the ritual exchanges constitutive of a community and commodities. The vulnerability of the bodies was circulated in the form of visuals that then drove up the interest. Vulnerability folding into helplessness is enabled by the camera which is a part of the scene. While the camera itself is not part of the image, it is the precondition to the image: held by a human hand, focused by a human hand and eye, and set to record – all of course driven by the desire of some humans to document human degradation and suffering. Thus, the camera itself implies a scene (outside the camera or photograph) into which the victim is inserted as victim. The scene of helplessness is enabled, framed and interpreted in a social scene – such as the United States legitimizing of torture, the appointment of mercenaries to run prisons, Jigsaw’s history in Saw – that is invisible in the scene of the photograph but enables the photograph to exist, circulate and be consumed at all. To cite Judith Butler again:

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The photographer is recording a visual image of the scene, approaching it through a frame before which those involved in the torture and its triumphal aftermath also stood and posed. The relation between the photographer and the photographed takes place by virtue of the frame. (p. 82)

Butler’s insistence on the ‘frame’ returns us to the theme of social ontology. Torture scenes recorded by the camera are evidence of the social scene that sets about making torture and the destruction of the human possible, as well as the photographing of this destruction. The photograph and camera are part of this organizational methodology within a specific social setting into which torture (as process) and tortured bodies (as ontologies) are inserted. The ontology of the victims is erased in the photograph, where the photograph itself is made possible by a specific set of conditions. The inhuman emerges as a characteristic of inverted social realities and relations – the frame – in specific spaces. In other cultural texts, there are ruin spaces that run close to, or beneath, ‘regular’ spaces. They lie adjacent to the consumer, bourgeois spaces of New York City in Brett Easton Ellis’s torturer-killer tale, American Psycho.4 Patrick Bateman’s career as serial killer begins with his transgression of space in order to indulge in illegal and ethically transgressive behaviour. His first victim is Al, a homeless man, and thus somebody who occupies a social space ostensibly distant from Bateman’s. However, this ‘other’ space, called ‘raw space’ in the novel (also the name of a restaurant in the tale), where the vulnerable ‘bodies’ may be found for consumption by people like Bateman, is integral to the kind of affluent space of Bateman and his circle. In the novel, James Richard Giles notes, the consumerist space and poor urban, ‘raw’ space are interrelated dimensions of capitalism itself (2006: p. 160–1). As Giles argues, the capitalist, hyper-consumptive space of Bateman can only be sustained by living ‘off the blood of the economically oppressed’ (p. 163). Whether Bateman is seeking to make his hyper-consumptive, brand and image-driven world more real through his violent engagements with bodies is a moot point. There is, in the final moments of the book/film, a sense of misrecognition: despite the brands, despite the money, and despite the style, or because of all of them, Bateman is not a unique individual – he is a type. Some of the emptiest dialogue ever committed to print; ghastly, endless descriptions of home electronics and men’s grooming products, apparently distilled from actual sales catalogues; characters so undefined and interchangeable that even they habitually confuse each others’ identity. (Murphet 2002: p. 24)

This Julian Murphet passage summarizes the fungibility of the people who pervade the hyper-consumptive spaces of New York City.


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Bateman, in a scene from the film version, is attempting to confess to his lawyer about his murders, and the lawyer does not recognize him: Patrick: Don’t you know who I am? I’m not Davis. I’m Patrick Bateman. We talk on the phone all the time. Don’t you recognize me? You’re my lawyer. Now, Carnes, listen. Listen very, very carefully. I killed Paul Allen, and I liked it. I can’t make myself any clearer. Lawyer: But that’s simply not possible. And I don’t find this funny anymore. Patrick: It never was supposed to be. Why isn’t it possible? Lawyer: It’s just not. Patrick: Why not, you stupid bastard? Lawyer: Because I had dinner with Paul Allen . . . twice in London just ten days ago.

The scene suggests that the ruin spaces Bateman goes to in order to assert his (masculine) identity exist solely in his head. (The book, it must be noted, is more ambivalent about Bateman’s actions, and leaves us uncertain as to whether he did indeed commit all those murders.) This lack of distinction, indeed of identity itself, is precisely what Bateman hopes to conquer through his transgressions into extreme spaces. The ruin space Bateman transgresses into but also creates when he ruins the bodies of so many women, becomes, in this reading, his mode of becoming-real for himself.5 Like his victims who have experienced the extreme before dying, Bateman too cannot find an escape from the extremes of stylization, existential emptiness and signage. This ‘incarceration’ in a world of signs, commodities and brands is indicated in the last lines of the novel: Above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT. (epub, unpaginated)

Non-Places and Extreme Invisibility Ruination is effected, further, by the transformation of places into non-places, or the discovery of spaces outside of time and place by people who then become victims. Marc Auge (1995) examining the highway system’s ‘supermodernity’ had proposed that in a non-place people act alone, disconnected from their histories, traditions and connections: they are isolated in their own seat in the aeroplane or in their lane on the highway. Auge proposes that these non-spaces are ahistorical and relational, where identities of the travellers are

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subsumed under fleeting engagements – at the rest stop, the gas station and the motel. Knowledge, history and customs are of no significance in such places.6 The transformation of spaces into non-places in fictional films as well as real events like Gitmo is possible through two processes. First, integral to the cultural construction of certain extreme spaces is their characterization as nearly invisible. Extreme spaces are either tucked away in lonely or far-off places (Rest Stop, Wolf Creek, 2001 Maniacs, The Devil’s Rejects, among others). In a film like Wolf Creek, the outback and the ‘lone ranger’ turn out to be spaces and the personification of evil respectively. In 2001 Maniacs an entire township, which is believed to be deserted, becomes the space of evil. But more crucial to the terror and horror of these films is the disappearance of people into these places. Disappearance is not a metaphysical process, but a real, material one. Protagonists in these films (Vacancy, Hostel) always hope that somebody will notice that they are missing. Very often, however, the films conclude with a note saying ‘their bodies were never found’, thus suggesting a complete and effective disappearance from the face of the earth. The true terror of these extreme spaces is that, in the age of the Internet, GPS and cell phones, people continue to ‘be disappeared’. They disappeared in some material place, no doubt, but not one that can be easily pinned down. Disappearances on highways and trails render these places extreme as non-places because, in almost all these films, the identities of the victims are irrelevant to the events that befall them at some places on the highway. Their fleeting engagements with the structures adjacent to the non-place permanently terminate, literally, their journey. More importantly, when their bodies are not recovered and their identities are only known to their immediate family, these victims disappear into non-places as already-erased peoples. Non-places erase their identities because here, in this extreme place, all that matters is that you are rendered helpless. This camp, this basement and chamber would be the place where vulnerability would be exposed as it has never been. In some cases individuals are haunted by the possibility – the fear – that were they to disappear, it would not even be noticed. This is Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: I stare into a thin, weblike crack above the urinal’s handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No . . . one . . .  would . . . care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief.

Avery Gordon in her work on state-sponsored disappearances has argued that a key element in this horrific action is the ‘elaborate suppression and


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elimination of what conventionally constitutes the proof of someone’s whereabouts’ (p. 80). Adding to the terror of the tortured or about-to-be-tortured protagonists in films like Wolf Creek or Captivity is their discovery of the evidence of previous such disappearances. John Scott and Dean Biron read this scene from Wolf Creek as one where the ‘imagined idyll is exposed as a trap’ to Liz (2010: p. 317). What constitutes some places as extreme is the epistemological black hole around them. To be disappeared by the torturers is to be erased from most databases and cognitive recognition by the world. The extreme space is one where in most cases the ordinary hides the true nature of evil inside. Armed with maps, ‘certain knowledge’, directions and intentions, the imminent victims enter these routine places which then metamorphose into extreme spaces. Idyllic settings of groves (2001 Maniacs), old suburban houses and small towns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the highway or the outback (Vacancy, Wolf Creek, Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes) reveal their true nature by disappearing the victims.7 The extreme manifest as disappearance here is the conjunction of a whole series of binaries (Avery Gordon p. 97). Here the rational meets the irrational so that boundaries blur. There is no logic or rational explanation for the choice of victims, who, however, are there with a clear set of intentions: exploration, leisure, romance, and so on. The person and the system merge – very often in odd ways where the sheriff turns out to be a torturer himself (The Devil’s Rejects), or is disarmed, shot or even killed himself (Captivity, Vacancy, Saw). The sheriff who represents the system participates, unwittingly, in the disappearance on occasion (The Devil’s Rejects) or Lieutenant Mark Hoffman (Saw). In Scott and Biron’s reading of Wolf Creek, the landscape is the space of disappearance. They write: In Australia there is so much space that people simply disappear. As the backpackers move from the coastal fringes they become small characters within a larger landscape. . . . [The film] appropriate[s] the notion of terra nullius, turning the myth of an empty land into a fear, on another it plays to a national anxiety of being isolated. (p. 316)

Among such places, the highway system is perhaps the most represented space in torture films. In road movies like in the Wrong Turn series, Road Kill, Rest Stop and even to some extent Vacancy (1 and 2) connecting spaces – highways – are spaces of disappearances and extremes, overturning, therefor the very idea of destinations. The empty road here is not an indication of the progress of (motoring) modernity but rather of journeys into awful places. In 2001 Maniacs, for instance, the college kids find themselves taking a ‘detour’ into ‘Pleasant Valley’, a village with rigid Southern American codes, language and dress code – all masking a murderous intent.

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The film starts, in savage irony as we discover, with a history class where the instructor, after documenting atrocities committed by Northern armies on the South, cautions the frivolous boys: ‘Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’ Pleasant Valley has no electricity, piped water and as one of townies points out, no cable. Non-spaces such as Pleasant Valley, the gas station, the shack or the motel (in Wrong Turn, Vacancy, Rest Stop) exist outside time and space. Wrong Turn amplifies this sense of non-space by depicting cannibals who hunt with axes, bows and arrows and old-fashioned matchlocks, suggest a premodern era isolated from civilization. In Pleasant Valley, the murders are also executed through old-fashioned methods: impaling, being crushed in a cottonpress, pulled apart by horses, and so on. Signs of modernity are conspicuous by their absence and urban technology seems to lose its functionality such non-spaces. To expand Scott and Biron’s point, it is not the empty landscape as extreme that is frightening, but rather, that the very structures mankind built to bridge empty spaces turn out to be emptying spaces, or spaces of disappearances. In all these films therefore, a misdirection, a mechanical breakdown, the loss of cell phone signals or just the need to stretch one’s legs and get a drink – commonplace actions on long journeys – become part of the process of disappearance. It is almost as though the journey places the confident, even arrogant city dweller’s vulnerability on show, for people or systems to conjoin it with the structures of helpless already in place, waiting for victims. In other words, motorable roads and highways are not signs of progress in torture films: they are nodes where one’s mobile vulnerability meets immobility regimes, where the quest for the rural idyll ends in a nightmare. Moving away from fictional spaces to real ones, torture camps are also invisibilized. Guantanamo was termed Camp X-Ray, reiterating, yet again, the binary of visible/invisible in its very name. In Anne McClintock’s words, ‘at Guantánamo the long Western regime of super-vision finds its apotheosis. Not for nothing was the first camp called Camp X-Ray’ (2009: p. 65). The men are all, notes McClintock, hyper-visible ‘as bodies . . . staged as precisely, rationally, exactly equivalent as their invisibility as human beings’ (p. 65). McClintock’s point might be linked with the earlier argument about the ruination of the person into commodified meat, circulating, visibly in the circuits of torture and consumption of the prison or in the archives of fictional films representing tortures.8 In the case of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the visual evidence transforms the space from one of enforced invisibility – for all practical purposes these camps do not exist – to one of hyper-visibility. For the inmates who have ‘disappeared’ into these camps, the camps are very real: for the world, the individuals have disappeared into thin air. Indeed one could say that the


Chapter 1

non-place became a space of spectacular horror when 60 Minutes II and the New Yorker published the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib. In a horrifying parallel, torture films and real-life torture in these camps, used the photographs as souvenirs. The albums in Captivity, the videos in Vacancy and Wolf Creek and the archive of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib are aligned in one sense: from souvenirs they become evidence in the hands of a witness or investigating authority or even a potential victim (Tétreault p. 34). In this shift from souvenirs to evidence, the place is concomitantly transformed from non-places to the space of horror and very real material evil. Guantanamo was a curiously liminal space. A US naval base in Cuba, it was, in Karen Greenberg’s meticulous study, ‘outside the United States but not beholden to or under the control of another government’ (p. 6). It was ‘a military base exempted from any civilian or extra-governmental protocols. There was no way to step off the base into civilian territory, no need to consider the opinions of a foreign government’ (p. 6–7). Greenberg adds: This anomalous patch of territory was a no-man’s-land for justice. The matter of sovereignty was unclear. There was no embassy, nor did rules governing embassies abroad apply. Even ships had clearer jurisdictional mandates than did Guantanamo. (p. 19)

It was very much a space where the unthinkable could be done, and acts distant from everyday life could be performed with impunity. Places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are ‘black sites’ (CIA operated prisons during Argentina’s ‘dirty war’) and the incarcerated were ‘ghost detainees’ (the term was used to describe the inmates, and documented in both the Fay-Jones (2004: p. 5–6) and the Taguba Report (2004: p. 37)).9 If, as argued above, ghostification is the inversion of social realities and the erosion of interhuman relations to render some humans helpless, then ghost sites are designed for this purpose. Like out-of-the-way suburban, rural homes, lost towns, abandoned warehouses, these ‘camps’ – the use of the word camps itself suggesting a temporary, or transit space – were also between places: now Iraqi, now American (Abu Ghraib), now on Cuban soil, now sovereign American space. In these non-places the extreme might easily exist, and be inflicted. The second dimension of such non-places is the loss of spatial orientation of the inmates/captives. The captives are in non-places. Non-places are not fictional places: they are places where the cognitive processes, sensory inputs and received cultural knowledge begin to break down, and disappear altogether. Once kidnapped, the captives rarely recognize their exact location – a condition accentuated by blindfolds, darkened rooms and the absence of any geographical and topographical markers. This invisibility of their location to themselves – except in the minimal sense of being aware of being in,

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say, a basement or room – is integral to the disorientation aspect of captivity and subsequent torture. Once again, parallels with real-life captivity and torture seem inevitable. This is Karen Greenberg’s account of Gitmo, when the first batch of prisoners arrived in early 2002: More realistic than fear of a rescue attempt was the worry that the detainees might be able to see where they were. The security of the base might be compromised if the prisoners could somehow locate themselves and thus have knowledge of the terrain. To limit the detainees’ ability to see, the seats of the bus had been removed so that the only place to sit was on the floor. As an extra precaution, the windows along the sides had been covered with cardboard. (p. 69–70)

The detainees arrived wearing earmuffs and goggles so that could not see where they had landed or were being taken (p. 76). The ‘where am I question’ that haunts the captives on surfacing to consciousness in torture films finds its resonance in such erasure of spatial clues or topographic details in conditions such as Gitmo’s. Along with the effective invisibilizing of the captives from the world’s eyes, is the invisibilizing of their (the captives’) location to themselves.10 Indeed a well-known CIA interrogation manual, The Kubark Manual, first drafted in 1963, and used in Gitmo seeks to provoke feelings in the victim of being cut off from the known . . ., plunged into the strange. . . . Control of the source’s environment permits the interrogator to determine his diet, sleep patterns, and other fundamentals. Manipulating these into irregularities, so that the subject becomes disoriented, is very likely to create feelings of fear and helplessness. (Cited in McClintock 71. Steve Jones also cites the Manual in his study of torture films, p. 102)

The disorientation of a captive in the fictional torture film is not, qualitatively, different from that experienced by the inmates at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. The non-place is not just an invisible (does not exist) place but one where the incarcerated person’s cognitive and perceptual domains are so severely curtailed that s/he cannot make sense of the place. This non-place is where the extreme asserts its fullest presence: a space outside time and outside place. Spaces of Extreme Sensation Moving away from torture spaces to another set of extreme spaces, where a voluntary immersion leads to the experience of extreme sensations: thrills and pleasure. Inhuman (or superhuman) endurance marks a domain in which the


Chapter 1

limits of the body need to be overcome, if the human is to survive. The borders of the human and the inhuman are intentionally exposed to the weather, landscape and risky situations so that the human is rendered helpless. The social ontology of the body here is one where it is located in circumstances whose flows – of energy, winds, currents, speeds, but also gravity and oxygen content – are far beyond the tolerance level. These are spaces of extreme sensation which render the human, superhuman or inhuman: because the sensation of plummeting from a height or being thrown by a wave is one that is not a part of the regular sensory fields for most humans. It is this quest for extreme sensations in specific settings that drives extreme sports, and extreme sensation becomes a mode of reinterpreting the body and the world. Such a reinterpretation – what I shall term ‘re-enchantment’ – is a form of self-fashioning of the human. This reinterpretation begins, of course, with the body which is the person’s interface with the world. Bodies in extreme sports are situated at the junction of nature and culture, are in constant and dynamic interaction with both objects and the environment (Brown and Ford 2007: p. 35–40). Let us look at objects first. Hooks and bolts, boards and parachutes attain narrative elaboration in the lives of the sportsperson. Extreme sports involve various key objects in close conjunction with the human body. Such objects need to be seen as mediating the experience of the waters or peaks, working between the body and the environment. The deployment of skill, the extent of risk and the experience of pleasure of the activity hinge, very often, on the material object that interfaces between the body and the setting.11 Extreme sports bestow considerable value upon the narrative elaboration of objects in human life. Writing about extreme surfing Douglas Anderson comments: ‘To read effectively the water of a wave or rapid, the athlete must immerse herself in the water itself – in the dynamic situation – either imaginatively or actually. The former may be a rehearsal for the latter’ (2007: p. 75). It is a ‘transactional immersion’ (p. 76). In the process of this transactional immersion in a world of material objects a sense of self emerges. This sensing of the self has both individual and social dimensions. First, objects used in the sport generate ‘possessional territory’ (Goffman 1971). Nick Ford and David Brown writing about surfing elaborate the notion of possessional territory thus: Possessions such as wetsuits, kit bags, surfboards, etc. are all possessional territory. Equally, more temporary things such as waveriding space, space in the lull, beach space and even social spaces regularly occupied by surfing groups such as pubs and cafes or beach spaces all provide significant temporary markers of self. (p. 135)

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The sportsperson’s perception of the object (board, boat, skates) varies. Ford and Brown note: During paddling the surfer is conscious of the board as an object, however, during the ride that sense of separation between body and board seems to vanish with the board appearing more as an appendage to the moving body. While more systematic research is needed to explore such changes, it seems plausible that the shift in awareness reflects both the speed of the ride and immersion within a non-cognitive mode of consciousness. (p. 151)

What Ford and Brown gesture at here is the affective connection forged between object and body, and through this transactional immersion, between ‘body object’ and the world/setting. In other words, flesh and inorganic matter seem linked through a ‘flow’ that enables the individual to register the world in terms of sensation and affect and not just cognition.12 Immersion in such a ‘flow experience’ allows the individual to align ‘self, self-awareness, behavior, and context [to] form a unitized singular experience’ (Celsi and Rose 1993: p. 11). Beyond this individual experience of the ‘sensing self’ in the world, there is a social dimension as well, one that emerges through the use of equipment and objects for the sport. In terms of social value, the kinds of objects and equipment used determine the cultural citizenship of the sportsperson. Ford and Brown write: Therefore, the type of surfboard surfers choose to ride, who made it, and the specific way they choose to ride it, all contribute strongly to how they are seen by others inside and outside the subcultural group they are associated with. Therefore, as surfboards are developed, so new identities can be forged from interaction with them. (p. 136, emphasis in original)

Thus, social identity is constituted by the body in the waves as well as by the objects deployed on/around this sporting body. The body animates the objects, even as the objects mark out the possessional territory and selfhood of the individual body. The extreme sports body is open to the world in new and unpredictable ways. One can even invoke such a body as a ‘grotesque’ body. The grotesque body, theorized Mikhail Bakhtin (1993), is open to the world and the world enters the body in particular ways (his instance was food and incorporation). In the case of extreme sports the body is in a particular kind of relationship with the environments and the setting enters the body not only in terms of the extreme sensations it induces, but also in terms of unpredictability and


Chapter 1

contingency. Decisions have to be taken in seconds, and account for bodily needs, functions, deadlines (if it is a race), the setting and changes in weather and landscape. Two interpretations of the extreme environment of the body in such sports emerge. John (Michael) Atherton has argued that adventure sports ‘help us with a form of learning that may have played a role in evolution’ through the development of an ‘ecological rationality’ (Peter Todd’s term, 2001, cited in Atherton p. 48). Individuals have to take quick decisions when faced with changing environments or unpredictable developments. This knowledge begins, notes Atherton, with the body’s encounter with the environment but then expands. He writes: O[utdoors] K[inetic] E[xperiences] offer a wide variety of physical experiences that can lay the groundwork for our metaphorical vocabulary. Johnson argues, for example, that we need to encounter force physically before we can know it. OKEs provide first-person, physical experiences with force: the force of gravity in rock climbing, the force of water while kayaking, force of momentum while biking, and the force of the wind in sailing. When we renew, expand, vary, and relearn such physical experiences as force, balance, and movement, we enrich our stock of metaphors which, in turn, offers a vocabulary to understand our experience. OKEs strengthen our grasp of epistemology that forms the basis for knowledge, understanding, and appreciation. (p. 50)

In similar fashion, Tomie Hahn believes that ‘extreme experiences are relational orientations: each new extreme experience pushes the sensory threshold up a notch, broadening one’s palette of sensory experiences relative to previously embodied knowledge’ (2006: p. 91). Atherton’s and Hahn’s emphasis on epistemology resulting from extreme experiences demonstrates how learning proceeds from the body towards abstract concepts and larger ideas. What is crucial is that, this knowledgemaking and meaning-making process proceeding from the body-environment interactions also reveals several aspects of our bodies. Whole worlds of endurance, response, fear, adaptability are opened up and we literally ‘see’ whole new dimensions of the body that we did not know of before. In extreme sports and mountaineering accounts, the setting is described only in so far as it affects the body. The Everest expedition narrative very often slides away from focusing on Everest towards the effects the mountain has on the body: the sensory extreme. To offer just one instance of such a corporeal Ground Zero here is a passage from Into Thin Air: The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest

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was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace. (Krakauer p. 136)

It is not the mountain at the centre stage of his narrative, but the suffering and enduring body. Nando Parrado, likewise, recalling the Andes experience says this: We were injured, hungry and freezing. . . . I felt the brute power of the mountains gathered around me, saw the complete absence of warmth or mercy or softness in the landscape. (Parrado p. 71)

Second, extreme sports carves out, I suggest, a possible world within the real world. Possible worlds are alternatives to the existing one, a world that could be. In Ivo Jirásek’s formulations, the experience of a strong moment can serve as ‘incontrovertible evidence of recognition of the ontological existence of this possible world’ (p. 143). Jirásek states: ‘Humans too alter their behaviour and world in ecstatic states and magic ceremonies; we can imagine them changing not only their own abilities but also their attributes of being. In this way a person changes the actual world into another, possible world’ (p. 143). He adds: ‘If anybody experiences some event that appears not to be present in the actual world (such as in the relation of divinity and humanity), we can speak not only about new possibilities of non-experienced actual world, but also of experiences of other worlds, different from the actual world’ (p. 143–4). Patrick Laviolette also suggests that extreme sports are ‘activities which are germane to the dawning of new forms of individual and social imaginations where a different world becomes possible’, which for Laviolette, means drawing out the ‘intimate connections that exist between adventurous pleasure and certain moral responsibilities towards egalitarian social thought and the environment’ (p. xii). Following the work of Mark Stranger (1999), I suggest that the body being ‘at one’ with the environment might be indicative of a connection between the two: the ‘ecstatic feelings of oneness with the environment, the loss of self in the activity, and an intense awareness of the moment’ (p. 268). But what it does also is to open both environment and the body to each other in ways that had only been imagined before. Extreme sports opens up not only the body to the possibilities of the world, it also opens up the world to new modes of experiencing and knowing it. The experience of heightened sensations, for instance, not to be found in the routine and quotidian world gives a new ontological certainty to the mountains, seas, roads and such. As the ‘new materialists’ inform us:


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The human species is being relocated within a natural environment whose material forces themselves manifest certain agentic capacities and in which the domain of unintended or unanticipated effects is considerably broadened. Matter is no longer imagined here as a massive, opaque plenitude but is recognized instead as indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways. (Coole and Frost 2010: p. 10)

These topographies are then rendered ‘possible worlds’ because they are not only interpreted as alternative to existing worlds but also experienced as such. Numerous extreme sports competitions such as Eco-Challenge, insist on having a great respect for the environment. For example, the rules of the Discovery Channel’s Eco-Challenge competition of 1999 stated: In travelling the remote back country areas, one needs to be both skilled in the outdoors and aware that one cannot conquer the land but merely hope to pass through peacefully. All competitions follow responsible back country rules: pack it in, pack it out; no camp fires; camp and travel only where permitted. ( Accessed 21 February 2016)

This ecosophical turn to the competition draws attention to different ways of experiencing the wilds. It is not simply a ‘man versus Nature’ battle, but a more respectful negotiation with the world. In other words, extreme sports open up the body to new experiences coming in from the world, and transform the world into an alternative through these new experiences. The world of the body also might be interpreted as a possible world because it accepts extraordinary sensations. Patrick Laviolette writes: ‘The body is rarely more unregulated than during these few moments of gliding, free fall or submersion. They are both the most natural and unnatural sensations, since being truly free is unnatural’ (p. 12). We can therefore see that a whole new world is opened up within the body. Extreme sport as a technology of self-fashioning, as body transformation, as body project, is the opening up of possible worlds within the body one has lived with and treated as commonplace. The spaces of extreme sports produce a re-enchantment of the world through an entirely new form of corporeal interaction with the environment. Re-enchantment emerges from a new social ontology. Thus, ecosophy itself is a social frame in which the ontology of the sporting body inserts itself. Calling upon the participants to have a different attitude to the setting in which they compete is a frame for the bodies to think about and act in. In extreme sports and its integral constituent – risk-taking, pleasure from the risk – we can discern two inseparable processes: (i) a refashioning of the self and (ii) a refashioning of the world. The refashioning of the self is

Spaces of the Extreme


achieved through the individual reassessment of one’s body and discovering a whole new biovalue. The new biovalue is founded on extreme sensations, risk-taking, a new mode of aestheticization and the assertion of a specific kind of agency that involves redefining the vulnerable body’s relationship with the environment. The property of life has been re-evaluated in the process of experiencing extreme sensations and coming face-to-face with risk. In the process of remaking the body, extreme sports remake the world of the surfing, climbing and jumping enthusiast. Situating the vulnerable body in a context where the environment induces a considerable amount of helplessness is a radical repositioning of the corporeal itself, and an act of assertion of its sovereignty. The refashioning of the world may be termed ‘re-enchantment’. I use the term ‘enchantment’ to indicate the sense of wonder, where the individual ‘participate[s] in a momentarily immobilizing encounter; to be transfixed, spellbound’ (Bennett p. 5). The key feature of enchantment, argues Jane Bennett, is being ‘caught up and carried away’, a ‘condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity’ (p. 5). There is the sense of ‘fullness, plenitude or liveliness’ (p. 5). It is the ‘experience of living itself’ (p.159–60). This enchantment is of course embodied and embedded in specific settings. I use ‘re-enchantment’ to suggest that extreme sports becomes a way of re-establishing a more material connection with the world – especially the natural environment in many cases – even as it enables the refashioning of subjectivity itself, one grounded in the body, the heightened sensations and its agential abilities, or what I shall term a new biological citizenship. The Extreme and the Limits of the Human I take my cue for this section from Ivo Jirásek (2007), who sees the increasing fascination with risk-taking extreme sports as a response to a current ethos: If shared social experiences substitute and replace a person’s own experience by multimedia, communication means, animation, audiovisual media and so on, we may not be able to distinguish between the real or factual and the virtual. What is real? What engages our being? And what is merely an illusion, a deception of untrue technological modification of appearances, relations, events? (p. 139)

The reiteration of the real is through the corporeal. Placing the vulnerable body in conditions of eroded sovereignty is a move towards the re-enchantment of the self and the world so as to experience extreme sensations. The re-enchantment of the world through extreme engagements of the body with the environment, opening up of the body to risk and vulnerability also results in a refashioning of the body, its subjectivity and sense of self


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to those who participate in such sports. That lifestyle sports are not simply about thrills but constitute a key element in the making of social identities is now no longer a subject of debate (see Wheaton 2004). But my proposition here is of the nature of this identity as foregrounded in the connection forged between vulnerable bodies and environments so as to effect an entirely new system of biovalues and producing a concomitant enchantment with the world within the body and the world outside. It is in extreme spaces, which induce conditions of limited or excessive helplessness, that this enchantment is possible. Extreme sports engender an identity and selfhood that thrives on a whole new relationship of the body with the environment, community/subculture and objects (including technology). Possessional territory, objects, cultural membership and training are the social frames of extreme sports and its pleasures. Social relations forged through sharing of information, the exchange of aid, the making of rules and norms and the manufacture/circulation of equipment ensure that the ontology of the body of extreme sports is already framed within specific contexts. Citizens, Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas argue, now understand themselves in biological terms, and see themselves as possessing ‘biovalue’ (p. 446), and what they term ‘biological citizenship’. ‘Biovalue’ is a feature of an economy where the properties of life, from mere living to the reproductive/regenerative, are enmeshed within the systems of global financial, and therefore political, exchanges so that the state and business corporations invest in specific characteristics of particular species, races or ethnic groups. Biological citizenship is the set of values a body acquires – from bones to tissues, the whole body and its constituent elements – when placed within particular systems of sports, training, specialized equipment and commercialized spectacle (such as BMX and the Olympic Games). It is citizenship founded on a rediscovery of the relationship with the environment via the medium of high-risk-taking and high-sensation seeking. The attitudes towards the body and the settings in which the body ‘performs’ constitutes agency and thus forms subjectivity in particular ways. Extreme sports as cultural text represents the assertion of agency and experiencing subjectivity in the face of: (i) tremendous odds; (ii) calculated danger-seeking; and (iii) extensive body- and self-management (training, for example). Thus, I see risk citizenship and biological citizenship as intermingled in extreme sport, where the latter is founded on the former, and the former manifests in a whole new citizenship. The biovalue of the body is the openness to the environment, its forms of engagement with the world in ways that offer extreme sensations but can also result in permanent damage or death. The value/premium placed on experiencing extreme sensations is an attempt at developing an entirely new sense of selfhood.

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This selfhood emphasizes the situatedness of the body in networks of matter. Matter, whether the organic matter of animal-plant life, rocks or built environments of urban spaces, devices or equipment, has agentic properties, and ‘bodies compos[e] their natural environment in ways that are meaningful to them’ (Coole and Frost p. 10). The new biological citizenship offers the possibility of a posthuman subjectivity. Posthumanism, especially of the sort envisaged by Cary Wolfe (2010) and others, is about trans-species relationality, networks and linkages. ‘Life’, in this view, is about ‘becoming’ with Others (animal, machinic, plant, organic and inorganic forms) rather than about a distinct, coherent, bounded being. Such a posthuman subjectivity underscores the linkage and connections between various materialities, of the human body as well as the machine and the animal. To align Coole and Frost’s account of the new materialisms with posthumanism, we can say that the new biological citizenship embedded within such connections offers us ‘subjectivities . . . constituted as open series of capacities or potencies that emerge hazardously and ambiguously within a multitude of organic and social processes’ (p. 10). They add: ‘In this monolithic but multiply tiered ontology, there is no definitive break between sentient and nonsentient entities or between material and spiritual phenomena’ (p. 10). Hazard and the continuity across sentient and nonsentient entities constitutes the new biological citizenship that is open, contingent and multilayered, even as the subjectivity remains tethered to the corporeal but with the recognition that this corporeal instantiates connections rather than separation and boundedness. Vulnerability is contingent on this connection. Almost every surfer, climber and diver describes the sensation as ‘oceanic’, ‘intense’ and ‘thrilling’. The world is experienced, under the risk of injury, pain and death, as absolute sensation in such cases. Rosi Braidotti writing about ‘bare life’, or ‘zoe’, proposes that life as absolute vitality is always too much for the specific slab of enfleshed existence that single subjects actualize. It is a constant challenge for us to rise to the occasion, to catch the wave of life’s intensities and ride it, exposing the boundaries or limits as we transgress them. (p. 210)

The intensity of life-as-absolute-vitality is of course constrained by the biospatial limits of the body (‘bioorganic limitations’, as Braidotti terms it, p. 210). Braidotti elaborates the process of ‘becoming’ as follows: This implies approaching the world through affectivity and not cognition: as singularity, force, movement, through assemblages or webs of interconnections with all that lives. The subject is an autopoietic machine, fuelled by targeted perceptions, and it functions as the echoing chamber of zoe. This


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nonanthropocentric view expresses both a profound love for Life as a cosmic force and the desire to depersonalize subjective life-and-death. To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are builtin to the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life’ as zoe. (p. 210)

The point Braidotti makes about approaching the world through affect has already been examined (via Scott Lash’s idea of aesthetic and reflexive judgement) above. The testing of the bioorganic limitations is itself the experience of life’s intensity, as Braidotti envisions it. Re-enchantment, then, is the acknowledgement of the agentic properties of the surroundings (as every extreme sport practitioner will inform us: mountains, sand, water, ice are dynamic, shifting and therefore unpredictable) in the way the body ‘enjoys’ the freedom of being alive. It is the recognition of the mutually constitutive nature of matter (organic + inorganic entities). It is a whole new vision of the world in the body and the world out there accessed through the body and experienced in terms of hazard and affect. *** Spaces render the body vulnerable, leading to the thrill of free fall in extreme sports, incessant, intolerable pain through torture in American Psycho and Saw and humiliating pain in the case of Abu Ghraib. The body’s location in spaces designed to immobilize and dehumanize reveals its dependency on safe, secure and pleasing environs for its pleasure and the bare fact of survival. Notes 1. Seymour Hersh in Chain of Command describes two samples from Abu Ghraib’s visual archive: Two Iraqi faces that do appear in the photographs are those of dead men. There is the battered face of prisoner No. 153399 and the bloodied body of another prisoner, wrapped in cellophane and packed in ice. There is a photograph of an empty room, splattered with blood. (p. 24)

This too resonates with torture films’ representation of hooded and mutilated bodies, of passages limned with blood in Hostel and others. 2. In an early film, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1959), the killer Mark, killed his women with a knife in his camera, with which he was filming them: the women died watching the film of their death unrolling before their eyes.

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3. Benjamin Hervey comments on Hostel: Three torturers have speaking roles: two come from Japan and Germany, the countries most notorious for brutalising prisoners-of-war in the past; the last and most prominent is a macho American. The barbarism of former times is brought home and up to date, linked to the realpolitik that props up enlightened civilisation’s living standards: the Gothic novel’s feudal tyrannies on an international scale. (2007: p. 240)

4. It is difficult to decide at this point whether Bateman actually commits the murders he describes. The novel is in first person, and therefore from Bateman’s point of view, as he tortures and lingeringly kills the women and men. 5. André Loiselle is of the opinion that Bateman’s lack of identity echoes the Canadian anxiety of an absence of cultural identity, or sense of self (2013). 6. When running a prisoner detention centre in Guantanamo, the officers and soldiers had absolutely no expertise either in the modes of detention or the cultural specifics they needed to keep in mind. Karen Greenberg notes: the people at Gitmo had had to ‘deal with the countries of the Caribbean and Latin America and the issues germane to that geographical part of the globe. Thus, its knowledge base was largely irrelevant when it came to Middle Eastern and South Asian culture’ (p. 21). 7. A 2011 post by ‘Mighty Emperor’ on IMDb identifies a subgenre of ‘backwoods horror/rural survival films’ ( Accessed 21 February 2016). 8. Oddly, Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo was built on a site that placed it in the direct sight line of Cuban watchtowers, thus rendering all activities in the camp open and visible (Greenberg p. 18–19). 9. Elisabeth Weber notes that in torture texts the victims are often described as dead even when alive. She writes: ‘While there is no doubt that “ghosting” is done in order to torture, torture, in other ways, is also a practice, and determined pursuit, of “ghosting”’ (p. 85). 10. Selected pressmen and women were invited by Washington to be present (although not on the camp site itself) when the first batch of prisoners was due to arrive, under the assumption that such transparency ‘if skillfully managed, could be a useful vehicle for conveying to the world images and impressions that would benefit the American side’ (Greenberg p. 73). 11. Patrick Laviolette examines the commercialization of such equipment in chapter 5 of his book on extreme sports. Laviolette notes that there now exists campaigns and subcultural groups advocating eco-friendly surf boards. The Raid Gauloises of New Zealand stresses the need to respect indigenous people and their customs (Bell p. 232). 12. There is a vast body of literature on the physiology of sporting experiences, many of which utilize the ‘flow theory’ of Czikszentmihalyi (1990). See Ford and Brown (2006).

Chapter 2

Aesthetics and the Extreme

Vulnerability is conveyed through language, whether in cinema, the graphic novel or fiction. It is possible, in other words, to examine a grammar, a representational mode through which these experiences are delivered. Images of perversion, extreme pain, pleasure, inhumanity and horror are integral to the visual and rhetorical constructions of the experience of extreme conditions. Visual and rhetorical analogies are how we come to understand, empathize and sympathize with conditions of extreme deprivation or ecstasy, with the destruction of the human or the earth itself. These rhetorical strategies of representing vulnerability are what I call extreme aesthetics. Rooted in the representations of corporeal – by which I mean both sensory and emotional – experience, extreme aesthetics takes many forms. From survivor narratives to torture films, extreme sports to visual documentation of real-life tortures, aesthetics is central to how the suffering, pleasuring or barely living body appears to us. Extreme aesthetics is the representation of the body placed in a particularly risky, pleasurable or painful relationship with the environment, and whose sensations therefore are distinct from what it would routinely experience. It is the aesthetics of dissolving or enabling social ontologies. For Philip Fisher, wonder and the sublime are modes, in art or in printed literature, in mathematics or in philosophy, of dealing with the unexpected witnessing and experience of rainbows, for example (1998). Writing about the extreme conditions of survival in concentration camps, and their representations in memoirs, fiction and other forms of writing, Michael Rothberg discerns an aesthetics of ‘traumatic realism’ (2000). Mario Perniola (2004) develops the idea of ‘psychotic realism’, where the difference between self and not-self begins to blur in representations, and the individual begins to see herself or himself as one with the external world. It is also the aesthetic 35


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that governs, according to Perniola, the ‘brute reproduction of the most crude realities (sex, extreme violence, death)’ (2004: p. 23–4). Building on Perniola, James Swearingen and Joanne Cutting-Gray propose ‘extreme beauty’ as an aesthetic category that communicates ‘between a pleasing harmony that composes difference into unity, suspending desire, and, on the other hand, an excess exceeding all bounds, even marking, in extremis, the point of death’ (2002: p. vii). Protracted suffering in torture scenarios resulting in death or sometimes stopping just short of death, in real life and in art, result in what Adriana Cavarero has identified as ‘horrorism’ (2011). This chapter documents the use of traumatic materialism, melodrama and the aesthetics of the sublime as the principle modes through which vulnerability in extreme experiences is represented in memoirs, documentaries and auto/pathographic works. The chapter moves from narratives dealing with individual experiences of the extreme to a larger demographic. Traumatic Materialism Screaming individuals begging for release – and sometimes for explanations – are a staple of torture horror. The ‘open’ vulnerability of the incarcerated body, the anguished physiognomies and the utter degradation suggest that the individual in such an extreme condition serves as an object of somebody’s aggression and are dehumanized through pain. Injury shots that alternate with screaming faces, the horror on a witness’ (if present) face, the close-up shots of the trapped individual’s struggles against the bonds and the close-up or the individual’s futile attempts to pull away from the blade/instrument of pain – which is of course remorseless and unfaltering in its movement – all foreground the subjective experience of suffering. These modes of focalization by the camera have their equivalent in documentaries and auto/pathographies as well. The focus, as Steve Jones puts it, is on ‘whoever suffers’ (p. 75). In accounts of prison life, from say Abu Ghraib, there are usually details of processes of degradation inflicted upon prisoners that then dehumanize them. In all these cases of extreme cultures, the representation of injury, suffering and degradation opens up the Other to our critical gaze. Any examination of Othering or of processes like torture therefore demands a study of the modes of representation of pain and humiliation. Writing about the Holocaust, Michael Rothberg addresses the dehumanization process of the camp through the aesthetic of ‘traumatic realism’. For Rothberg, traumatic realism is a form of ‘documentation and historical cognition attuned to the demands of extremity’ (2000: p. 14). It is an aesthetic ‘bound to survival’ (p. 40), to corporeal materiality (p. 101). Traumatic materialism is my term for the amplification and expansion of realist depiction

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beyond the point of even naturalism in order to elicit horror and revulsion. Traumatic materialism is grounded in the body, as Rothberg proposes in the case of traumatic realism, but instances like Saw or auto/pathographies produce an eversion (turning inside out) of bodies, thereby forcing us to pay attention to the unspeakable nature of surviving extreme pain, suffering and endurance. Traumatic materialism is the aesthetic that captures the collapse of the material cornerstones of existence, including that of neighbourhoods, a sustaining/sustainable environment and inter-human relations. While bodily exposure, graphic realist close-up shots, point-of-view shots place such films and representations closer to pornography (Jones) and offer a sense of plausible reality, there is much more that might be said about this aesthetic. In Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho we see perhaps the most graphic account of such an eversion: Patrick Bateman’s apartment (or rather Paul Allen’s, which Bateman occupies) has interiors covered with the interior organs of the murdered subjects. It is almost as though Bateman in Richard Godden’s words, ‘convert[ed] every aspect of the environment into an extension of pain’ (2011: p. 862). Bateman’s own account speaks of ‘torrents of gore and blood that washed over the apartment, the stench of the dead’ (epub version, unpaginated). The scene embodies the theme of materiality in extreme fashion: bodies and settings, furniture and organs, brands and gore merge so that each partakes of the other. Traumatic materialism here signifies both the state of the body and the state of consumption. Imaging the ‘unimageable’ – because pain is an interior condition – in the form of an image or icon referentially draws attention to a host of external processes and contexts that produce this pain. These contexts could be political violence in images of torture, uneven economies and social inequality in images of starving and deprived bodies, ‘deviance’ and personal moral codes in images of torture of individuals by other individuals, sickness and the conditions of hospitalization, social stigma and personal relations in images of ailing bodies. In other words, corporealized, material images of an interior state (pain, hunger) enable the focusing of attention upon structural contexts in which this interior state was made possible. Traumatic materialism in extreme cultures might be read under three interrelated heads: abject materiality, horrorist aesthetics and the spectacle of indignity. It is the pre-eminent aesthetic of the discourse of vulnerability and helplessness because its foundation is the material body open to the world. Abject Materiality Torture films spend some time panning across a horrific tableau: of the tied up captive, the instruments of agony and eventual death at hand. The posed


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or staged nature of the shots is strikingly similar to the tableau we saw from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, where the Muslim prisoners were shown in the subservient position of defeated warriors from Hellenistic Greek sculptures; naked detainees from the global ‘war on terror’ were posed (as in a tableau vivant) like the bound slaves of Michelangelo; anguished bodies evoked martyred saints in Baroque churches. (Eisenman p. 11)

The materiality of the bodies, even in the staged set, cannot be ignored, even if these do not approximate, as Eisenman emphasizes in the case of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, to works of art. Likewise, a famous photograph from Abu Ghraib of a man in a cage, his arm extended beyond the bars, with an American soldier standing just beyond reach, draws Anne McClintock’s attention: The prisoner extends his hand beyond the edges of his cage in an unforgettable invitation to be witnessed as human – to have his humanity returned. I want to close with this hand, this gesture that reaches beyond the cage of torture, this hand held out to us not only as an invitation to compassion, which is necessary but not sufficient, but as an invitation to political action. (p. 74)

Traumatic materialism often appears in the narrative as an abject materiality of the body, as both Eisenman and McClintock concur. Abject materiality is a subset of the torture film’s traumatic materialism, wherein the individual is rendered abject but is also forced to abject herself or himself. Thus, the Saw series famously highlighted self-mutilation as a means of escaping entrapment and possible death. Various ingenious traps keep the body in a state of pain and approaching imminent (slow) death. The victim needs to dismember herself or himself in order to escape the trap. Lawrence Gordon saws off his foot to escape in Saw. Michael Marks in Saw II must cut out his own eyeball in order to retrieve the key – that has been surgically implanted there – to his spike filled face mask. In order to get out of the killer’s trap, the victim needs to lose a part of the body. Abject materiality is the transformation of a segment of the body into the abject, which must be ejected in order to survive. Torture horror however is horror, precisely because the victim is forced to abjectify a perfectly good portion of her or his anatomy. The vulnerable and helpless body possesses a limited agency and autonomy in the setting. That is, the social ontology in these representations does not entirely deny the body agency. Indeed, the protagonists try their best to utilize the body as an instrument of survival and escape, testing their bonds and restraints in inhuman modes (twisting the body, biting, clawing). However, the assertion of this minimal agency, ironically, demands the loss of coherence of the body: through the loss of a limb or an organ. Thus, abject

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materiality is the excision of some part of the body in order to preserve the body as an alive, organic ‘whole’. The human folds into the inhuman in terms of pain endured, the superhuman in terms of what they try to achieve, and the abhuman in terms of their loss of corporeal integrity. There are variants of this abject materiality in different representational modes and genres. In Psychiatric Tales, a collection of hospital tales in graphic narrative form, Daryl Cunningham depicts patients of particular kinds of mental illness who cut themselves, and thus open up (wounds on) their bodies for the world to see (p. 17–18). In another case, a patient defaecates in the corridors of the hospital and before the wardens can clean it up, a second patient comes and eats up the faeces (p. 12). In The Human Centipede I with the interconnected bodies the individual victims are forced to defaecate into the mouths of the individual beneath them. I use the term ‘abjectification’ as a homonym with ‘objectification’ but carrying within it the semantic scope of the abject – the rendering of the body and its components as the abject (as theorized famously by Julia Kristeva) that needs to be evacuated to retain the coherence of the body. The horror of the biopolitical extreme is that any part of the human anatomy could be abjectified but does not guarantee the survival of the remaining body. In other words, the true horror in this experience of the extreme is the possibility of the loss of bodily coherence and corporeal integrity with the expectation of retaining this coherence and integrity. It is not the end product of the tortured body that is central to horror as much as the processes of abjectification that render the body into ‘bare life’. Bare life itself is a political condition in torture films because the emphasis is on the structural helplessness, induced from outside – that is, socially – rather than the immanent vulnerability of the human body. In certain conditions the vulnerability of the human body turns into a weapon against the body itself. Horrorist Aesthetics Steve Jones notes that at least thirty-five torture porn films end with the ‘the lead protagonist alive, but emotionally and physically deconstructed’ (p. 73). But dismemberment, disfigurement and the loss of bodily integrity while central to the torture horror film, are not confined to them. In accounts by survivors, such as Parado’s Miracle in the Andes, there are descriptions of the feet damaged by frostbite, progressive gangrene and tissue degeneration. Joe Simpson informs us of the exact progress of his leg injury in Touching the Void. The traumatic materialist aesthetic is rooted in ‘horrorism’. In her powerful analysis of contemporary violence, Adriana Cavarero argues that horrorism is not only about fear; it is also about repugnance, the inability to move: ‘gripped by revulsion in the face of a form of violence that appears more inadmissible


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than death, the body reacts as if it is nailed to the spot’ (2011: p. 8). It is characterized by the ‘spectacle of disfigurement’ (p. 8). Cavarero writes: The human being as an incarnated being, is here [in horror] offended in the ontological dignity of its being a body. . . . Death may transform it into a cadaver, but it does not offend its dignity or at any rate does not do so as long as the dead body preserves its figural unity. (p. 8)

The human body torn apart is what makes contemporary horror ‘unwatchable’, argues Cavarero (p. 9). In this scheme, efforts are directed at ‘nullifying human beings more even more than at killing them’ (p. 9). Further, horrorism is about underscoring not just the vulnerability of the body, but reducing it to the ‘primary situation of absolute helplessness’ (p. 29), through ‘a series of acts, intentional and planned’ (p. 31). ‘Defenseless and in the power of the other, the helpless person finds himself substantially in a condition of passivity, undergoing violence he can neither flee nor defend against’ (p. 30). The body is objectified ‘by the reality of pain, on which violence is taking its time about doing its work’ (p. 31). Elizabeth Anker has argued that liberal views of the human subject valorize the complete, integrated and ‘inviolable’ human as the person, but which paradoxically can be consolidated only by the ‘specter of abused, profaned and broken bodies’ (p. 16). Horrorist aesthetics involves an eversion of the body that calls into question the inside/outside binary or border and, consequently, disturbs the bounded integrity of the body we have come to believe in. In eversion what is supposed to remain invisible and buried is brought to the surface. Eversion is the turning inside out of the body. Injury, suffering, mutilation contribute to this eversion where the boundaries between inside and outside, of body and the world are inverted. Following Cavarero and Anker, one can argue that it is the possibility of not death but disfigurement-dismemberment and the consequent destruction of the ‘figural unity’ and thus ontological integrity and dignity of the human that characterizes horrorist cultural texts. Saw not only forces us to ask if the violated, dismembered and everted human is a person at all but also, paradoxically, seems to propose that the person is one who is willing to lose a limb or two in order to preserve a sense of the self. Jigsaw in Saw, Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek or the businessmen in Hostel do not seek to kill first, rather they seek the gradual destruction of the human before death arrives. The organization of processes of dying – in segments, often literally – that violates ontological integrity is constitutive of horrorism. What kind of self exists after a self-induced disfigurement? Jigsaw’s stated purpose is to make people cherish their life better: only, in order to appreciate one’s life one must first inflict injury on the body. In real-life torture at Abu

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Ghraib and Gitmo, the aim was, as Stephen Eisenman puts it, to permanently disfigure the inmates, ‘to so dishonour the victims that return to their communities would be impossible’ (p. 29). In other words, the aesthetics of the extreme as seen in these films and real-life situations, highlights the impossibility of ever being coherent and corporeally/psychologically complete again. The extreme experience seems to be, in effect, an unending one. In Abu Ghraib, vulnerability is the state of the body open to undignified treatment – by the mimicking of fornication or bestiality – so that the very nature of the human as a rational being is called into question. Vulnerability here is the sliding down of human dignity as represented through such acts, and staged for posterity. Abu Ghraib is the actualization of vulnerability. Consider, for instance, the Angel trap in Saw 3. Alison Kerry has her rib cage torn out, spilling her internal organs. Timothy Young strapped to what Jigsaw calls The Rack whose each section, attached to his body, would rotate through 180 degrees, taking his limbs (and eventually head), turning them until they break. Young’s bones poke through the skin before he dies. We see the eversion of the body in both these cases so that inside/outside blur (Linda Ruth Williams 1999, cited in Cherry p. 82). Nelson in 2001 Maniacs is forced to drink acid from a hose. The camera shows his skin, muscle and bone burnt away from his chest, and his insides melt away, falling through the hole in the mattress (also burnt by the acid). Survivor accounts often use graphic descriptions to convey the extent of injury and the extremes of pain that the body endures. In Joe Simpson’s harrowing account of his accident in the Andean mountains, Touching the Void, he recounts the fall that breaks his leg (Simpson is left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse, but eventually crawls three days across the mountain to base camp, and help). Simpson describes the state of his injury: I tried not to believe what I was seeing. It [the leg] wasn’t just broken, it was ruptured, twisted, crushed, and I could see the kink in the joint and knew what had happened. The impact had driven my lower leg up through the knee joint. (np)

David B, recounting his own mental disorder when growing up with his epileptic brother, documents his visions, nightmares and dreams. In the latter part of the book, we are invited to ‘come visit the inside of David B’s head at the end of the ‘70’s’ (p. 278–9.) At one particularly poignant point he records, ‘I feel more as if insanity is stalking me’ (p. 288). On the facing page he gives us corporeal eversion as a material sign of his unstable mental state: ‘Often I feel the bones in my head through my skin. . . . I want those bones to pierce through the skin of my face, to break into daylight and for it to be over’ (p. 289). He also ‘wants to spill all the blood’ in his body (p. 289). This intense vision spread across eight panels captures the horrific stresses David


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B is under. The extreme in their everyday life (a condition engendered by Jean Christophe’s epilepsy) causes David to be pushed to the edge. Eversion becomes his mode of evacuating his system of the extreme pressure: ‘It would all come out at last . . . the anxiety, the fear, the justice, the rage’ (p. 289). The very next panel shows David B’s decapitated body, blood spraying upwards from his neck and the speech balloon says ‘my blood will speak for me’, to be quickly followed by ‘but it won’t be listened to for long’ (p. 290). Corporeal eversion is therefore an analogy for the escape mechanism he seeks for his rage, fear and anxiety. What David B seeks is an emptying of the nightmares and memories of his growing up with an epileptic. The variety of emotions he lists remains repressed and suppressed. The eversion then serves as a symbol for the expression of the repressed. It is only in the violent imagery of mutilation, evisceration and decapitation – of himself – that David B can express the violence of his emotions. Traumatic materialism here is the anxiety to intentionally lose corporeal coherence so as to regain a measure of emotional cogency. In her celebrated memoir about the experience of cancer, Audre Lorde focuses on the prospect of the cancer inside her bursting out, everting her body, in an image that recalls the splatter trope of much horror: I must let this pain flow through me and pass on. If I resist or try to stop it, it will detonate inside me, shatter me, splatter my pieces against every wall and person I touch. . . . I feel despair like a pale cloud waiting to consume me . . . swallow me into immobility, metabolize me into cells of myself; my body, a barometer. (np)

And: I carry death around in my body like a condemnation. But I do live. (np)

Lorde’s exceptional narrative is constantly aware of the precarious state of the cells inside her. When, like Lorde, Marisa Marchetto depicts her cancer cells as angry faces/heads (p. 4) she too everts her body, and turns the rampaging disease cells out into the world. Marchetto in Cancer Vixen documents the use of ‘ports’ permanently installed on cancer bodies: an additional piece of artifice that alters the body’s borders with the world (p. 160). Here the prosthetic device is also an ungainly intrusion, a route into, her body, and one that is not a naturally constructed one either. Eversion in Lorde and Marchetto is not simply about exposing the wound or the inner body to the world. In their case eversion is the metaphorization of life and death itself in the form of the extreme condition of cancerous cells. Lorde images the cancer and its pain as a devouring ‘thing’ that would ingest her. Since cancer is a disease resulting from the malfunction of cells, the

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imagery of the self ‘metabolizing’ into cells suggests an eversion where the phenomenological self with its awareness of intense pain merges, turns into, everts into the bio/ontological self, and vice versa. What she carries inside herself, writes Audre Lorde, is death itself. Thus Lorde once again everts the state of the body: the cells that make up her life, her self, are cells of death and not life. In this symbolic eversion and associated inversion, cells as the basic units of life are presented as basic units of her death: hence, ‘I carry death around in my body’ (np). Just as torture, in Elaine Scarry’s study, shrinks the world to the suffering material body, the awareness of disease forces Lorde to be even more intensely aware of the body-as-the-world. Horrorist aesthetics, like traumatic materialism, calls into question the borders of the human and the inhuman. In the midst of severe suffering or pain, the body’s border with the world breaks open, and its social ontology becomes its undoing. The Spectacle of Indignity ‘They made us take all our clothes off. We were naked . . . a lot of prisoners. They tied us together and herded us around like sheep,’ he said as quickly as he could get the words out. I felt a bit like a voyeur and couldn’t meet his eyes. ‘Peter may not understand why this is so humiliating for our people,’ Mousovi said to me. ‘But you are a Pashtun. You understand why.’ I nodded awkwardly.

This is an inmate of Guantanamo speaking to Mahavish Khan in My Guantánamo Diary (p. 18). Narrating the story of Omar Khadr, a young inmate at Guantanamo, Michelle Shephard in Guantánamo’s Child writes: The dozen or so Muslim men who shared the cell had no privacy, and using the sawed-off crates as toilets was especially humiliating for the detainees, many of whom had stomach ailments. (2008: p. 89)

The inmate is ashamed because his body is out there in the open, for all to see, laugh at and criticize.1 Central to extreme cultures’ traumatic materialism is the loss of dignity. This could be achieved in several ways: through constant surveillance, exposure, the erasure of bodily integrity, animalization and the erasure of individual identity. The corporeal debasement of the victim due to amplification of the animal dehumanizes the human with an ‘intensification of bodily experience through pain and deprivation’ (Derwin 2012: p. 75). The humiliation of being constantly scanned, movements recorded and activities monitored transforms the human prisoner into a vulnerable body. He is the subject-at-risk (even as he is deemed a possible source of risk to


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somebody). In torture horror the inmates invariably seek out the hidden camera, stare fearfully into it, uncertain as to why they are being monitored. The dehumanization and debasement that erodes the subject’s social ontology is compounded by the subject’s awareness of her or his own debasement. Staring down at her or his own body, or frightfully into the camera that is recording the events, the subject becomes an eyewitness to the self-debasement of broken, bloodied, mutilated, puking bodies. Kelly Oliver pointing to the paradox of eyewitnessing one’s own dehumanization writes: The heart of the paradox is that oppression and subordination are experiences that attempt to objectify the subject and mutilate or annihilate subjectivity, that is, your sense of yourself, especially your sense of yourself as an agent. Rendered an object, the victim of oppression and subordination is also rendered speechless. Objects do not talk. Objects do not act. Objects are not subjects or agents of their own lives. (2001: p. 95)

If vulnerability, as has been proposed in this book, is about the blurring of borders between human and inhuman or non-human, then the animalization we see in Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, and the amplification of bodily (animal?) functions as a major constituent of extreme cultures. Witness James Franco’s expression in 127 Hours when he has to pee into his water bottle and survive on the urine, or the faces of the Andes crash survivors forced into cannibalism. Vulnerability is about the sense of self-debasement, of having soiled oneself, of possessing no autonomy over one’s bodily functions or integrity – of being situated at the border of the human and non-human, of life form and inorganic object. There is, however, in the above extracts from prisoner accounts, one more dimension to this humiliation scenario. The degradation of the human that heightens the sense of vulnerability is achieved through exposure. Writing about surveillance, Daniel Solove notes about ‘exposure’: Exposure creates injury because we have developed social practices to conceal aspects of life that we find animal-like or disgusting. Further, in certain activities, we are vulnerable and weak, such as when we are nude or going to the bathroom. (2000)

Exposure damages the dignity of the individual because it erases the norms around certain bodily functions and behaviour. Exposure here is not the revelation of secret knowledge. The humiliation proceeds from the fact that common knowledge is converted into a spectacle in order to produce social and cultural embarrassment, as the Arab men point out to the interviewers in the above extracts.

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Traumatic materialism is also represented in the degradation of the human form and its corporeal-anatomical integrity. In Hostel: Part III Mike has his face cut off (and left to die) and Nikki is suffocated to death by cockroaches released onto her when she is strapped onto a table. If the first marks the literal disfigurement of the human the second marks a degrading death, using creatures that have generally been known to arouse revulsion. The literal incorporation of these creatures into the human form reverses and reinforces the abjectification of the human. In Ellen Forney’s Marbles she presents the crisis in her head. The text above says: ‘My head was a cage of frantic rats.’ The visual shows rats with gaping mouths and sharp teeth snarling. Beneath this are two eyes, bulging with anxiety. We are thus made aware that we are looking at the inside of Forney’s head with the rampaging rats (p. 69). The visual everts Forney’s head even as the predatory rats seem to have come to occupy all available space inside her head. By symbolically posing the lower life form inside her head Forney captures the sense of degradation and ‘animalized’ state of her mind. The tortured, injured and sick body is grotesque and invites repugnance. Abject embodiment is the interpretation of inflicted pain as the erasure of all control over the world, over decision making and sovereignty. As Dennis Waskul and Pamela van der Riet put it: ‘All the grand and complex symbols that define who we are may ultimately rest on the precarious perch of a body that we hope will not obliterate the self through loss of control, grotesque disfigurement, or both’ (p. 509). This is precisely what traumatic materialism achieves: the incoherent, blabbing, puking, bleeding body only partially recognizable as human, who no longer has any ‘grand and complex symbols’ left, once the corporeal integrity has been ruptured. Traumatic materialism in the case of Abu Ghraib serves to reiterate older, that is, colonial-imperial, stereotypes of the dehumanized, animal and racial Other. First, as already noted, the exposure of their bodies transforming common knowledge into common spectacle degrades them into animals – since animals do not cover themselves – for public viewing. Second, the obscuring of faces of the inmates in almost all the photographs taken in Abu Ghraib are central to this form of traumatic materialism, for this is less about inflicting pain than about rendering them into symbols and trophies of American military success. Their individual identities are erased with the hooding. The enforced nakedness makes them ‘meat’ rather than humans. Thus, they can be bestowed any identity the men and women who run/rule Abu Ghraib choose. As Jennifer Ballengee puts it: ‘The detainees are a blank, ready to be filled in by means of rhetoric. They may thus be drawn into the hierarchy of society in whatever position makes those in power feel most comfortable’ (2009: p. 138). They are to be rendered into ciphers so that they may be re-ciphered or deciphered as animal, savage, sodomizer or terrorist.2 The simulated


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homosexual sex feminized them, and thus effectively emasculated the Iraqi and Afghani male (Gronvoll p. 45). That the camera filmed the humiliations added to the prisoners’ abjection because it indicated that an archive of their dehumanization exists, and circulates.3 Seymour Hersh’s report (2004) noted that one guard told another: ‘Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds’ (p. 24). The Fay-Jones report noted that the detainees were ‘ridden like animals’ (p. 78). One inmate had the word ‘Gollum’ written on his door, recalling the hideous creature from The Lord of the Rings (Fay-Jones p. 66). Richter-Montpetit suggests that this animalization in Euro-American context signifies the need to domesticate the wild and unruly animal, as well as the dangerous, untamed sexuality of the animal (2007: p. 49). Here exposure and animalization go together. By animalizing the Arab/Muslim detainee the American soldiers symbolically depicted the taming of Oriental sexuality and bodies. The animal ‘imagery’ from Abu Ghraib, according to Stephen Eisenman, recalls ‘that feature of the Western classical tradition is specifically the motif of tortured people and tormented animals who appear to sanction their own abuse’ (2007: p. 16). The prisoners are inhuman, animal bodies from whom nothing else but barbaric sexuality may be expected. Beginning with the Othering of the Muslim in discourses of the ‘war on terror’ or the earlier ‘clash of civilizations’, the Abu Ghraib visuals served to ‘prove’ the animal nature of this Other. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, and stereotype, the abjectification of the Arab and Muslim served the purpose of demonstrating the so-called civilizational divide and cultural hierarchy. If traumatic materialism represents the collapse and erasure of the human form and human dignity, the narration of such processes of erasure might also, in several instances, take recourse to other aesthetic and representational modes. Melodrama is one such prominent mode. Melodrama and the Extreme Auto/pathographies with the visual mode also available to them, unlike conventional prose narratives, frequently depict scenes of crying, anguish, suffering, incomprehension and anger. The expressionist narrative of the auto/pathography more than any other (print) genre enables the reader to see suffering writ large on the face of the protagonist, but also to engage empathetically with their emotional states. If we accept that severe, chronic pain, high-fatality risks and trauma constitute extreme states the narration of these states demand a mode that captures this extreme in the everyday lives of the protagonists. Peter Brooks (1976), setting out the elements of the melodramatic narrative, argues that melodrama infuses the everyday

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with the sublime (p. 14), and the sublime is, as Philip Fisher has proposed, another name for the extreme. Melodrama is the coexistence of extreme situations, even as extreme situations find the melodramatic mode the most suitable for representing the condition. Survivor narratives documenting extreme experiences offer us excellent examples of the melodramatic narrative. Strong Emotionalism and Primal Language A chapter titled ‘You’re Going to Die Soon’, in Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles, opens with a set of five panels at the top of the page. In the first panel we have an image of some printed matter in the form of a pamphlet from the Alzheimer’s Society as the text informs us. The text instructs caregivers that ‘it [is] important to talk about the future’ (p. 57). The second panel places the entire family, packed together, against a black background (the panel is black, with the family poised in the front, like a group photograph against a background). The individual members all have their eyes and mouths wide open in astonishment or fright. We understand that it is fear rather than astonishment, because the text announces that the family was ‘so scared and silent’. The image of staring eyes and open mouths is remarkably like a replica of Edvard Munch’s famous Scream. The next three panels shift focus on to the mother. In the first two of this set of three, she is weeping and tears run down her cheek in the first and literally rain down in the second. In the third she is angry and frowning. The gamut of human emotions is made visible in the four panels: three capturing the mother’s feelings at the recognition of her condition, and one capturing the family’s. The dramatization of the disease here relies almost entirely on the emotional status of the patient and that of the caregiver/support system. The medium enables the writer to document, both visually and verbally, the range of emotions an extreme condition engenders in the home. Tangles here adopts the melodramatic mode through its highly expressive mode of narration. Characteristic of the melodramatic narrative, writes Brooks, is a ‘strong emotionalism’ (p. 11). Melodrama is also an expressionist aesthetic, as Brooks proposes throughout his study. Brooks further argues that in conditions of muteness – muteness is repeatedly used as symbolic of ‘extreme physical conditions to represent extreme moral and emotional conditions’ (p. 56) – and when ‘words appear to be not wholly adequate to the representation of meanings’ then melodrama takes recourse to other ‘registers of the sign’. Having already made the point early in the work that ‘whoever is denied the capacity to talk will convert affect into somatic form, and speak by way of the expressionist body’ (xi), Brooks proposes that there is a strong somatization in melodramatic narrative.


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In the survivor text Miracle in the Andes, Nando Parrado offers us the following account of the survivors’ desperate hunt for food: When the brain senses the onset of starvation – that is, when it realises that the body has begun to break down its own flesh to use as fuel – it sets off an adrenaline surge of alarm just as jarring and powerful as the impulse that compels a hunted animal to flee from an attacking predator. Primal instincts had asserted themselves, and it was really fear more than hunger that compelled us to search so frantically for food. (p. 93)

Here Parrado focuses almost entirely on the biological foundations of the survivors’ behaviour, but more importantly draws attention to the biomedical model of the emotions experienced by the survivors. Later he would reiterate that driven by hunger he began contemplating the dead bodies as food, and Parrado admits that ‘when my mind did finally cross that line, it did so with an impulse so primitive it shocked me. . . . I had looked at human flesh and instinctively recognised it as food’ (p. 94–5). In other circumstances gestures signify the (somatized) register of the mute. These gestures are supposed to, notes Brooks, carry more meaning than they can (p. 59). In other cases there are the inarticulate cries or sounds, which Brooks argues, mark a kind of fault or gap in the code, the space that marks its inadequacies to convey a full freight of emotional meaning. In the silence of this gap, the language of presence and immediacy, the primal language, is born anew. (p. 67)

Expressive states in the auto/pathography are of course somatized, where the visual grammar focuses almost entirely on the bodily states and expressions, as noted in the case of Tangles above. In printed texts we have verbal equivalents of these gestures that emerge from a body/individual otherwise rendered mute due to some extreme condition or context. In Katie Green’s Lighter than My Shadow (2013), Katie’s father, worried about her lack of appetite and her obvious fragility, sits crying at the foot of her bed while she sleeps. The entire page has no speech balloons, caption or commentary (p. 137). Yet, the impact of this set of pages is near-total due to the expressionist narrative of the affect Katie’s condition (although not diagnosed at this point in the tale) generates in her family. There is no need for verbal texts or cues because of the expressionist visual grammar of the text. Survivors recounting their entrapment and escape from extreme situations of danger also deploy a melodramatic narrative. Reduced to conditions of muteness by the extreme situation, the primal scream is the only language open to the victim. In Touching the Void, Joe Simpson tries desperately to warn Simon of the danger of a drop and numerous other dangers before the

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crucial accident (np). On one occasion he notes, ‘I shouted at the darkness above and heard an unintelligible muffled yell. I couldn’t be sure whether it had been Simon or an echo of my own shout’ (np). In Simon’s commentary on the events, he reports how he was ‘tempted to shout [to the injured Joe], but stifled the cry’ because ‘it wouldn’t be heard’ (np). Trapped in the crevasse Joe shouts out Simon’s name repeatedly, but with no response and after some time he stops shouting, certain that Simon had left him for dead (np). In horror films torture victims are reduced to their primal sounds – cries of agony – after a point where they become certain that there is no hope of rescue. If we concede Brooks’s argument then it follows that the language of pain as represented in these screams constitute the ingredients of a melodramatic narrative. Indeed the question to be asked is: Is there any other form of narrative possible in such a context? Elaine Scarry writes of torture: ‘The question, whatever its content, is an act of wounding; the answer, whatever its content, is a scream’ (p. 46), where the screams are ‘the sounds anterior to language that a human being reverts to when overwhelmed by pain’ (p. 49). The depiction of pain as gesture or as sound is central to the melodramatic narrativization of the extreme. In an odd intrusion into the story of his brother’s epilepsy, David B (Epileptic) speaks of his coming to awareness of the Algerian war and French excesses. The visual that centres this ‘new’ history is one where a naked black man, perhaps suspended by his hands, has his face carved in a rictus of pain, while behind him stand uniformed men, smiling. The caption above this riveting visual reads, ‘They torture for practice, or just for the hell of it, not to get any confession’ (p. 30). The Rhetoric of Melodramatization In extreme agony, the body recognizes only itself. To return to Scarry: It has often been observed that when a knife or a nail or pin enters the body, one feels not the knife, nail or pin but one’s own body, one’s own body hurting one. Conversely, in the utter absence of any actual external cause, there often arises a vivid sense of external agency, a sense apparent in our elementary, everyday vocabulary for pain: knifelike pains, stabbing, boring, searing pains. In physical pain, then, suicide and murder converge, for one feels acted upon, annihilated, by inside and outside alike. (p. 53)

Torture, she declares, ‘aspires to the totality of pain’ (p. 55). Extreme conditions too in fact construct this totality of pain, where the world shrinks to one’s suffering body. In Joe Simpson’s account of his painful crawl across mountains to safety he records how ‘sharp cactus spines sliced into my thighs’ but he ‘was quite incapable of understanding what had pierced me’ (np). Throughout this journey, Simpson documents the pain in his leg,


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his repeated falls – causing greater and greater pain in the already damaged leg – and the voices in his head. The sum total of his being is just pain. There is only a vague understanding that he needs to make it across the mountains to base camp. Very often Simpson only has a rough idea of his location and his navigation through the terrain of the mountain. The mountains stop possessing any appeal as Simpson’s world shrinks to his hurting body. When Joe Simpson complains ‘my leg had gone to jelly’ (np) he dramatizes a state of being that is indescribable. What is also dramatized in the extreme condition is the binary of the self and not-self. Pain is at once what is inside one’s body and what one is up against: Pain is a pure physical experience of negation, an immediate sensory rendering of ‘against’, of something being against one, and of something one must be against. Even though it occurs within oneself, it is at once identified as ‘not oneself’, ‘not me’, as something so alien that it must right now be gotten rid of. (Scarry p. 52)

She adds: The presence in the space outside the body of a self-proclaimed ‘enemy’, someone who in becoming the enemy becomes the human embodiment of aversiveness; he ceases to have any psychological characteristics or content other than that he is, like physical pain, ‘not me’, ‘against me’. (p. 52)

Scarry’s focus is torture as an instance of this condition. The melodramatic narrative performs this combination of an internal sensing of pain that is at once alien and against which one battles and an external presence who/that is ‘against’ one’s self and corporeal coherence even in the case of accidental extremes. The melodramatization of the binary is often cast in two modes of inflated and inflationary rhetoric: militaristic and metaphysical. These registers offer modes of speaking about not just physical pain, but mental anguish and inner fears as well. Audre Lorde famously speaks of how ‘every woman has a militant responsibility to involve herself actively with her own health’ (np). She ‘images’ herself, she writes in The Cancer Journals, as a ‘fighter resisting rather than a victim suffering’ (np). Other military metaphors abound in Lorde: Faith is . . . the name of the war against despair, the battle I fight daily. . . . I want to write about that battle, the skirmishes, the losses, the small yet so important victories that make the sweetness of my life. (np)

In another extended passage Lorde speaks about again ‘battling despair’ (np), of ‘recognizing the enemy outside, and the enemy within’ (unpaginated,

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ePub). She sees herself as ‘spoils in a battle between good and evil’. A year of remission brought on by mastectomy, says Lorde, was ‘an interregnum in a battle within which I could so easily be a casualty, since I certainly was a warrior’ (np). The warrior image, as is well known, was perhaps Lorde’s favourite, and she uses it consistently through her account of the ‘battle’ with cancer (np), opening with a famous self-portrait: Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?

Images of the cells and hormones being at war with one’s body is a common rhetorical mode when speaking of extreme illnesses, as several commentators have pointed out (Martin 1990, Sturken 1997), and heightens the sense of the dramatic.4 In David B’s Epileptic, a shift occurs within this imaging of extreme conditions of living with an epileptic: David B draws soldiers and his mother tells him ‘those are your guardian angels’ (p. 158). In this case, it is not the disease that is militarized but the setting in which the patient and the others live. Joe Simpson recalls ‘Simon’s . . . endless physical battle to get me down almost 3000 feet without a break’ (np). Then acknowledges that ‘cold had long since won its battle’ against his body (np). As he crawls to safety, he writes, he ‘waged a mental battle to convince [himself] that there was nothing to it’ (np). When he covers some ground during this crawl, he feels he has ‘won a battle of some sort’ (np). Besides this militarization of the extreme we can also discern a metaphysical strain in some accounts. David B speaks of the spirits that watch over him (p. 157). In Cancer Vixen Marchetto’s mother, seeking alternate therapies and cures, invokes gods, angels and other spirits to guard her daughter. In the Saw series, the melodramatization is in the ironic mode: ‘I want to play a game’ is how Jigsaw begins all his conversations with his trapped and potential victims. The traps are essentially torture chambers and by no stretch of imagination, or metaphor, are they simply games, for they determine life, death and the quantum of pain a human body can endure. In Saw, the games are in fact power plays: of the Jigsaw killer over the bodies and minds of the victims. The cruelties of Jigsaw merely extend, however, the cruelties his protagonists have exercised upon others in their everyday, more ‘normal’ lives, as he points out in every film. The melodrama here is ironic because we as spectators become aware of the numerous cruelties, frauds and horror of everyday life that so-called respectable members of society – lawyers, businessmen, policemen, doctors, housewives – practice. The torturer Jigsaw only takes their routine cruelties to a more extreme level.


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In torture films there is the extreme dramatization of something that is essentially invisible: the process of dying. In torture films, watching bodies ripped apart or dying slowly, bleeding from various portions of their anatomy, we are watching live autopsies. If eversion renders the inside and outside of bodies blurred and melodramatization renders inner emotional and psychological states into representable signs, torture films render visible death itself. Benjamin Noys notes that ‘autopsy’ means to ‘see with one’s own eyes’ (p. 4), and what we see unravelling on the screen, dramatically, is the body’s processes slowing down and finally stopping altogether. The camera lingers over gasping last-minute breaths, the glazing of eyes and the stilling of limbs in the torture film. Melodramatization might be seen as an attempt to capture the virtual beneath the routine experience of reality. The virtual, as Gilles Deleuze theorized it, is the unacknowledged aspects of our experience of reality and everyday life. Gregory Seigworth commenting on Deleuze’s idea writes: The virtual is perhaps easiest to consider as what transpires in those passing everyday moments that never really present themselves to our conscious minds, generally because such moments (in their various contexts and variable durations) arrive with insufficient force or otherwise descend with an intensity that is altogether dispersed or atmospheric. (Cited in Huntley 2014: p. 2)

Claire Colebrook proposes: Life’s power is best expressed and evidenced, not in the general and everyday, nor in the normative, but in the perverse, singular and aberrant (for this is when life exposes its creative and diverging power, not the illusion of sameness which we require for utility). (Cited in Huntley 2014: p. 2)

The often-ignored aspect of the experience of reality is the sense of being alive – something Jigsaw points out regularly to his victims. This singularity of life, of living, can only be delivered, in torture films, in its moment of ending. The heights of pain and suffering bring home to the victims trapped in extreme situations, and to us as viewers, that what they are losing is the life and liveliness they once possessed but never acknowledged. Melodrama excavates the singularity of life in the very moment of its ending. The ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ In the visual archive from Abu Ghraib what remains unforgettable is the sense of spectacle and display – in the arrangement of Iraqi bodies, in the smiling prison wardens and in the settings. Stephen Eisenman writes:

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In a few of the images, there appears to be a self-conscious striving for melodrama or pathos, as with the iconic photographs of hooded prisoners slumped and handcuffed to a railing, or standing on a box with arms extended. In many of them, the artifice of the scenes is signalled by the looks and hand gestures of the guards. The photographs thus stage and record two kinds of desire: first, the supposed, perverse desires of Islamic detainees; and second, the actual, un-repressed desires of the US prison guards who freely wield guns, fists, handcuffs, dogs and leashes. (p. 100)

Looking at a painting of similar tortures from earlier wars, he argues: [It] describes the emotional insensibility of the torturers, and the complete physical vulnerability of the victim. They draw on an ancient pathos formula in order to expose its artifice and viciousness, turn it upside down. (p. 107)

What is being staged so melodramatically is the set of power relations between prisoner and warden, inmate and jailor, the Arab and the Americans, in the Abu Ghraib visuals. But it also stages a few other aspects. First, it stages the American right to arrange Other bodies as props in a play. Second, this right to arrange (we are told that the wardens took care to position the bodies in specific ways, to simulate homosexual acts) bodies translates into the right to inspect them – for the protagonist-prop’s expressions, for instance. Jacques Derrida writing about a photographic novel by Marie-Françoise Plissart speaks of its static positioning of photographs as concerning ‘one’s entitlement to look, to arrange or hold within one’s gaze’ (1998: unpaginated, emphasis in original). The melodrama of this theatre of cruelty lies precisely in this display of entitlement of setting up, arranging, looking and recording. Third, this staging and inspection in its ‘photogrammar’ (Derrida, unpaginated) refuses the prisoner the right to look back. The subject-position of the object of observation is at the heart of the staging. The Extreme and the Sublime First theorized as an aesthetic mode by Longinus and elaborated by Edmund Burke and later Immanuel Kant in the mid-eighteenth century in England/ Europe, the sublime was characterized by awe and admiration combined. In the twentieth century, the sublime has been characterized as the ‘aestheticization of fear’ (Fisher p. 2). It was historically the aesthetic of the encounter with ‘something tremendous: an infinite; something indefinitely great, grand or boundless; a longed-for absolute’ (Battersby 2007: p. 3). In contemporary (Western) modes of thinking, Battersby proposes, ‘What counts as the


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sublime is that which “we” (Western) subjects find hardest to cover over or “screen” out through fantasy imagery or metaphors that contain the horror within manageable bounds’ (p. 43). Horror, fear, stupefaction and joy are all experienced with varying intensities in the aesthetics of the sublime. The sublime in extreme cultural texts might be represented either as extreme sensations of frightening thrills and voluntary risky engagement with the world, although the two frequently merge with each other. The unifying factor in both these representations is, of course, is the body. Sensationseeking and risk-seeking are embodied phenomena. Or the sublime might be a traumatic sublime that seeks to represent a crisis of vast magnitudes. Sublime Sensation When you paddle out and see a [10 meter high wave] staring you in the face, it’s like ‘Oh my God’. . . . Being a surfer and being involved with nature all the time gives you a different understanding of where you might find God. (Surfer, cited in Stranger p. 271)

The surfer is speaking here of an absolutely unique experience of a sensation unencounterable in everyday life, an experience made possible when the vulnerable body is placed in a condition of helplessness in the face of massive waves. How best does the surfer deal with the helplessness s/he has voluntarily sought? At the core of extreme sports is sensation-seeking. Marvin Zuckerman defines ‘sensation seeking’ as the ‘need for varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences’ (Zuckerman and Kuhlman 2000, cited in Gill and Beaven 2007: p. 236–7). ‘High-risk sports like climbing, sky diving and white-water kayaking attract high sensation seekers. The low sensation seekers prefer sports like tennis or volleyball,’ writes Gunnar Breivik (‘Quest for Excitement’, 2007: p. 19). Patrick Laviolette writes: ‘Bodily understanding and the knowledge that it produces through action are . . . essential elements when studying those types of adventures where fear and danger are prominent’ (p. 1). John (Michael) Atherton notes that adventure sports and their ‘energetic interactions’ with the environment ‘offer us the opportunity for aesthetic experiences’ (2007: p. 47). Individuals who engage in such extreme sports experience, as voiced in their interviews (Stranger 1999), the sense of the sublime. This experience of awe, fear, thrill and wonder is the re-aestheticization of the world almost entirely through affective-sensual experience rather than through signs and discourse (I adapt here Scott Lash 1993). That is, the meaning of the sport and of the experience is to be found not in reasoning and rationality but in the senses and

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affect. ‘Sublime sensations’ is my term for the aesthetic of sensation rather than an aesthetic of interpretation and meaning-making, especially when the sensation comes by voluntarily placing the body in risky situations vis-à-vis the environment. The sublime experience redefines the environment of the ocean, urban space, mountains and in terms of the feelings these evoke. Existing in a realm beyond the rational – the common dismissal of these sports as being irrational is to be kept in mind here – the judgement and meaning of the environment lies centred in the extreme sensations that it arouses. Mark Stranger summarizes the sublime experience thus: ‘[Extreme sports and the experience of the sublime] blurs the boundaries between the imagined and reality – between the experience of the infinite in the image and in the act; between the sign and the signifier’ (p. 272). Stranger is calling attention to not the distant viewing of the sublime but the corporeal, bodily, sentimental immersion in it. This immersion is an attempt at experiencing unique sensations. The experience of extreme sensation eventually develops its vocabulary and register. An entire set of narrative strategies become available over time to the extreme sports enthusiast. David Brown and Nick Ford write about this merger of experience and language/representation: [The] novice surfer may lack the appropriate narrative resources to describe the embodied sensations from his or her first experience of surfing, whereas later in his or her surfing career, after a long period of immersion in the subculture, the same surfer will be likely to have accumulated a more wide­ranging vernacular to express the sensations generated by surfing and surfed bodies. (p. 40)

Ford shifts the exploration to representations of sensation rather than the experience of sensations. Representation remains integral to the cultural study of extreme sport because the experience is translated into a socially acceptable idiom, and thereby builds a bridge between the experience and the listener/viewer of the blog, the book and the interview. This kind of documentation of the experience of the sublime becomes a part of the cultural vocabulary of extreme sports. As Stranger notes, ‘It is reasonable to suggest that, for a surfer, the image of someone riding a wave can enhance its sublimity’ (p. 271). Representations, experience and affect merge to transform an event or experience into something extraordinary. These representations move from the anticipation of the extreme sensation, the experience itself with its key element of fear felt viscerally, when the body is rendered open, or helpless to, the elements, to heights or depths, and breathtaking thrill and finally to a sense of control over this fear. An example of the narrativization of sublime sensations might be seen in Rob Hall’s brochure on commercial Everest expeditions that Jon Krakauer


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cites in his Into Thin Air: ‘The experience offers something special beyond the power of words to describe’ (p. 35). The corporeal experience of the extreme and the aesthetic appreciation of the extreme come together in the affects generated when situated in such contexts. Here, for instance, is Dean Potter’s narrative of the experience of wingsuit jumping: You are engaged in beauty, and the thing that heightens the awareness even beyond the danger is the beauty. It multiples that heightened feeling, and you are flying in these most beautiful places. It is this amazing turn on of emotions to look at something and think: that is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And I am so darn focused right now that I am taking it all in, like never before, because, for one, my life depends on it, and for two, how else would I see the whole face of El Cap during sunset? (O’Connor 2015)

The experience of danger, Potter suggests, is what heightens the experience of beauty. Narrativizing the sensation of flying, and of the danger, Potter takes recourse to what can be thought of as the discourse of the instant – this moment, right now – and of singularity. Thus a BASE jumper in the documentary, One Step Beyond by Sebastien Montaz-Rosset (2013, on Vimeo) admits: ‘You know it [the jump] can hurt you, but the feeling is so good,’ summarizing the simultaneity of the awareness of risk and the sensation of the extreme. It is this language of the instant, of risk merged with beauty and sensation, that provides the community itself a vocabulary. Experiences are of course individual, but they are interpreted by others through patterns of behaviour learned culturally. Risk, as practised by individuals in extreme sports, are interpreted as life-threatening – as ‘risky’ – by society because there is a cultural literacy built around the possibilities of mountaineering accidents, of high waves, or great speeds. The sharing of stories of one’s experiences – and extreme sports is full of such interviews, clips, selfies – is a way of building this literacy for others, gaining an identity and participating in a cultural citizenship within the elite group as well.5 Thus, a highly individual experience of extreme sensations is transmitted as more than individual knowledge and experience, but also as social currency and increasingly common knowledge. This sharing is crucial in subcultures of extreme sports, translating the unique experience into a larger grammar and language of the collective. Subsequent activities by others will then build on the knowledge of this ‘unique’ experience. In other words, the individual has a crucial role to play in cementing social identities around the sport. Roger Abrahams points out that this is how an experience becomes ‘typical’. He writes: When an experience can be designated as typical, then the doings of the individual and the community become shared, not only with regard to what actually

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happens under those circumstances but also how one feels about the happenings. Simply stated, it is not just experiences that are shared but the sentiments arising from them as well: the doings and the feelings reinforce each other. Moreover, this system of typicality of event and sentiment provides us with a linkage between past and future, for the very recognition of typicality rests on others having gone through that experience (or something like it) before. (p. 60)

Since experience is, always, both situated and mediated (Pickering), the body in extreme sports is the site of this mixing. The individual’s awareness of the risks involved and the modes of controlling that risk might be mediated through prior knowledge, sporting literature, club and group advice and so on. Writing about adventuring racing, Martha Bell points to the collective, aesthetic and epistemological linkages of such sports: Rock climbing . . . has aesthetic and rhythmic qualities which liken its careful execution to vertical dance. Climbing partners and spectators become the audience to outdoor ballet. Extended expeditions into wilderness areas, however, integrate the skill and art of outdoor pursuits with collective abilities, knowledge, history, and experience. (2003: p. 220)

The enduring, suffering, pleasuring body is located at an intersection of group action, local knowledge, the setting and even an audience. A mediated knowledge of risk is played out in the domain of situated experience: one takes the risk into the body when s/he locates it in the environments that the advice literature (literature that provides information and instructions on how to function in specific settings) or prior knowledge only depicted and discursively constructed. In other words, while experience does have a discursive element to it in the form of the mediated representations of bodily risk involved in a sport, this discursive element is put to the test through the situatedness of the body, within material environments (whether organic or inorganic). Sensation is the experiential process and effect upon which extreme sports relies, as justification for risk-taking and as the distinguishing feature from everyday life and even mainstream sports. The body in the process of the experience of sublime fear, trembling and exhilaration renders the experience itself purely visceral. The visceral prises wide open the social world with its established structures (even the social world of clubs, sporting enthusiasts and groups of like-minded people) through the process of embedding. In other words, the product of experience – available in the form of representations, accounts, advice, knowledge – will always be tested in the body’s embedding in the specific context (in process). Experience is of course framed within


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conceptual categories, systems of classification, cultural values, words and images (language), among others. But the point with extreme sports is that any misreading of the product, or a new meaning of the product, of experience might have very high costs attached to it. In extreme sports the product of experience is (re)examined through a process where the analytical categories, knowledge garnered and ‘theory’ are centred in the body. The body interrupts the history of its own experiences (hereafter rendered mundane) and alters the perception of the future through the heightened awareness of the self and body when participating in extreme sports. What I am proposing is that the dualism of experience as product and as process is centred in the body in extreme sports (as it is in all cases of experience), but with the key difference that in extreme sports the experience radically redefines the body’s relationship with the environment and itself.6 The experience of extreme sports divides the individual’s perception of her or his life into the ordinary and the extraordinary, where there is some measure of control and agency, even in the latter, when s/he chooses extreme sports. (That is, unlike the experience of uncontrollable extraordinary experiences such as natural disasters or accidents, extreme sports call for a measure of calculated risk-taking, in the experience of climbing or windsurfing.) Experiencing heightened sensations might be read as an instance of what Patrick Laviolette reworking Jeremy Bentham terms as ‘deep and dangerous play’ defined as ‘physical gambling where the stakes so highly involve the danger of serious accident or death’ (p. 13). ‘Play’ itself as the interruption of the mundane and the everyday here is conjoined with the every opposite of play – serious injury and death, neither of which is merely about ‘play’. Yet, after the extensive documentation of the body’s new relationship with the environment – of carefully controlled helplessness that accounts for the vulnerability of the body – and the experience of extreme sensations, the emphasis subtly shifts in these representations to the control asserted by the athlete. The key factor of fear that was part of the experience of extreme sensations shifts to control and transcendence of this fear – in keeping with the sublime’s emphasis on the overcoming of fear.7 Thus, describing Grant McNamara’s riding of a 90-foot wave at Nazare, fellow surfer Al Mennie said: It was amazing. Most people would be scared, but Garrett was controlling everything in the critical part of the wave. It was an inspiring ride by an inspiring surfer. ( Accessed 9 April 2015)

McNamara (listed in the Guinness Book for riding this wave) is set apart from other surfers for being in control of what others deemed to be

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uncontrollable and therefore sublime. This transcendence of the sublime, while recognizing it, is integral to the experience of extreme sports. Take the case of Felix Baumgartner who, in 2012, jumped from the edge of space onto earth. Nicknamed Fearless Felix, in an interview with The Guardian, he said: ‘I’ve had to address a real psychological battle.’ He spoke of feeling ‘weak and exposed’ before the jump, of needing psychiatric help, of being ‘unsettled’ by the smell of the space suit before eventually stating his emotions during the fall: ‘I felt I had it under control, and hey, I’m not dying.’ He concludes: ‘I hope I can make fear cool’ (Baumgartner 2012). Like McNamara, Baumgartner emphasizes, simultaneously, the experience of fear and of controlling that fear. Here the vulnerability of the human leaping from the edge of space is conjoined with the helplessness of such a free fall, but the process, Baumgartner suggests, is to see if the helplessness does not manifest in its entirety, resulting in death. Sublime Risk Risk cultures, as embodied in extreme sports, are linked to risk infrastructures, the many systems that showcase risk and danger: the commercialization of extreme sport as competitive events, the new technologies and devices for such sport (new surfing boards, for instance), the reportage of death or injury. There are usually three layers or levels of rites of risk. The primary level is at the level of the body: risk is embodied in the individual body. A second level is that of the group, especially in sports like Eco-challenge or Speight’s Coast to Coast, or the risk to the fellow climber/surfer/biker. Risktaking by one individual here might endanger somebody else. A third level is the popular ethos of risk-taking of unprepared and careless courting of danger by untrained individuals. This last, in particular, has to do with the social imaginary around risk-taking and high-pleasure that extreme sports cultures generate and popularize. Patrick Laviolette argues that ‘the interaction of body, landscape and danger is an existential and experiential arena from which imagination can both arise and derive’ (p. 8). Scott Lash proposes that the sublime is an aesthetic that results from the bodies being open to contingency, to fear and we recognize our own finitude (p. 57). The aesthetics of extreme sports is an aesthetics of the sublime because it involves a calculated engagement with risk, even as one accounts for contingencies that cannot be accounted for. Very clearly this is a particular form of risk-taking. Gunnar Breivik (‘Can BASE jumping be morally defended’, 2007) identifies three forms of risk-taking: prosocial risk (directed at the welfare of others, as seen in policemen and firemen), antisocial risk (seen in smugglers, thieves, etc., directed at harming others) and finally ludic risk (risk undertaken for one’s own sake, as seen in skydivers)


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(Breivik, ‘Can BASE jumping be morally defended’, 2007: p. 169). Ludic risk-taking is the foundation of extreme sports. The aesthetics of risk, in addition to the experience of sublime sensations, involves two specific components: rites of risk and rituals of symbolic safety (Kidder 2013). Rites of Risk In an 8 May 2012 interview with Outside Television, BASE jumper, climber and wingsuit flyer, Steph Davis admits that she has trained herself ‘not to be stopped by fear’, but that she does feel scared on occasion. In the case of the latter, she added, it might be just the result of ‘bad conditions’ ( Accessed 8 April 2015). In his account of climbing a hitherto unknown sandstone walls in Liming, China, in 2011, Matt Segal describes his 45-feet fall. His partner, Will Stanhope, he recounts, insisted that he put in a bolt into the wall (Stanhope had recently fallen off a 60-foot wall and was, says Segal, ‘shocked’). Segal then writes: Battered, I mulled over the prospect of tainting my dream of establishing a 100-percent gear route with a bolt. Finally, I realized it wasn’t worth risking a 60-foot ground fall where the nearest hospital was who knows how far away. I later sent the route with the bolt, calling it Air China (5.13+ R). I operate under a philosophy that routes don’t need to be repeated safely, so I don’t establish them that way. The joy in climbing routes like these is all my own, and I don’t always feel the need to equip routes with the greater community in mind. Some people might view my approach as reckless. (http://www. Accessed 9 April 2015)

Segal explains his reluctance to ‘taint’ his climbing by using a permanent bolt. It is the responses to this risk that are interesting. Some accused him of irresponsible behaviour by declining to put in the bolts. Writes ‘DS’: You – as a sponsored climber have a responsibility (whether you like it or not) to set an example for the kids out there. ( Accessed 9 April 2015)

And another (‘Mike’) adds: It [putting in the bolt] is the nice thing to do for the community but that doesn’t make it mandatory. ( Accessed 9 April 2015)

Several others, however, believe that Matt Segal is solely responsible for himself and climbers who do not wish to take these kinds of risk need not

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climb here (‘I don’t see the problem. If you want bolts, go climb something else’ – David Courtney). The debate is one of agency and responsible risk-taking but also about the rites of risk-taking: does a climber have/not have the responsible towards the community of climbers? Placing a bolt, classifying the climb’s degree of difficulty and ‘safe’ climbing (many responding to Segal discuss the use/non-use of helmets). To speak of risk factors, their experiences of injury, appropriate gear and other constituents of the sport is part of the ‘rite’ as well. Participants very often speak of their fears and anxieties, and in cases where they are to be filmed, do so before the event. They detail the risks involved – heights, uncertain winds and landscapes, the possibility of technological failure, among others. These, according to Jeffrey Kidder, underscore the participants’ ‘commitment’ (p. 239) to the sport. But what is also significant about rites of risk is that the individual commitment is made possible through collective encouragement and support. Writing about parkour rites of risk, Kidder terms it ‘working together to individually commit to fateful action’ (p. 241). Thus, both commitment and collective support for this commitment are parts of the rites of risk, according to Kidder. Risk-taking is not mere individual decision making or an attitudinal shift. It occurs within a network of professional experts, the leisure industry, competitive sporting cultures and cultures of the body. Rites of risk are thus socially ‘normalized’ practices. For example, the individual’s idea of ‘acceptable risk’ is socially conditioned, even tutored, in such sports. When Kidder examines ‘commitment’ in parkour, he notes signs of disapproval and even criticism, because individuals seem to take what were deemed to be unwarranted risks or not follow norms of training and learning. The physical risk a body takes, therefore, is embedded risk-taking where the embedding occurs in multiple contexts of expertise, pedagogy (training) and the commercial industry of competitive sport. Any new ‘technics of the self’, that is, need to be socially validated (more so in sports like climbing where others’ lives might be linked to the quantum of risk you are willing to take). Rites of risk are modes of imagining and constructing sociality around one’s body. Rituals of Symbolic Safety You suit up. Check your gear. Harnesses, straps, vents, pilot’s chute, and then you go into more of a meditative trance of engaged relaxation. —Extreme athlete Dean S. Potter, in O’Connor (2015)

Participants when undergoing training also progress along well-defined paths to expertise and higher levels of risk-taking. ‘Progression’, as it is


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termed, is a symbol through which the participant reaffirms the ‘importance of self against the destructive potential of their actions’ (p. 243). Kidder continues: ‘They believe they are responsibly developing their skills over time by calculating their risk-taking and making appropriate decisions based on taking the necessary safety precautions’ (p. 243). In addition to what Kidder identifies, there are other rites and rituals of risk and symbolic safety. Establishing the parameters of the event, the slow pan over the landscape to give the spectators a sense of the space/setting, the testing of cords, ropes, and so on, as Potter describes above, are both rites of risk and rituals of symbolic safety. They heighten the dramatic tension, and although they are representations, they are integral to both the performer and the spectator in the experience of the event. That is, the rites and rituals link the individual performer to the collective or community of similar enthusiasts as well as to the spectator. Both the rites of risk and rituals of symbolic safety are elements of the aesthetics of risk because these showcase, not only the risk undertaken, but transform the process into elaborate modes of interaction (with each other in the community) and spectacle (for viewers). This interaction is founded on the spectacular transmission of voluntary helplessness (‘see what I am about to do’) which human spectators understand because all humans are vulnerable. In many cases the narrator or interviewee speaks of a collective. For example, Krakauer speaks of the ‘we’ – the team climbing Everest – in his Into Thin Air. The first-person plural in this representation of extreme events and situations is an attempt to forge a community testimony. Through this means, the shared helplessness of Krakauer’s team up there on Everest is transmitted as community testimony to all those who are distanced from the experience. Krakauer conveys the idea that there are others who think like him. For viewers, he is not the sole risk-taker. Krakauer speaks on behalf of the others who: (i) do not record their experiences; and (ii) those who cannot record, by virtue of having been killed on the expedition. As a ritual of recording, the first-person plural narrative in these texts must be seen as community-building exercises for the viewers to understand that entire cultures are formed around extreme situations, and some of those participating speak for others. Ritual sharing of voluntary helplessness in such accounts generates a certain subject. ‘The speaker testifies on behalf of the subject who experienced, but lacks speech. The subject of testimony emerges in this paradox of experience without language, and language without experience,’ write Divya Dwivedi and Henrik Skov Nielsen (2013: p. 2). The voluntary helpless constitute a community on behalf of whom the narrator speaks, almost ritualistically referring to the ‘we’. This too is a ritual act, conveying on behalf of a community to a larger, non-participatory/spectatorial community, the risk, danger and thrill of exposed vulnerability.

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As cultural texts, the films and videos of extreme sport simultaneously assert distance and intimacy among viewers. For those watching on television or YouTube, there is a clear geographical distancing. The spectacle of extreme sport, one could argue, brings the extreme risk and possible trauma home and makes us complicit with the events unfolding. John Ellis, writing about television, has argued that the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the domestic and the distant are reconciled and co-present in television. Ellis further proposes that we are complicit with whatever is happening because even if we do not agree with it, we cannot disavow it (2000: p. 11, cited in Biressi p. 338). The cultural text that is generated from this spectacle arises due to two specific conditions. Frank Furedi writing about the culture of fear proposes that risk emerges from the ‘distinction between reality and possibility’ (p. 17). The camera’s pan across the landscape and the statistics (height of the building, weather conditions) constitute the reality presented to us. The second aspect, possibility, is built into this first aspect and relies upon the common knowledge we now possess: the conditions are fearsome. The ‘possibility’ involves our recognition that the reality out there could possibly result in injury or death. The reality of the jump or the climb is contrasted with the possibility of a fall or crash, where the fall or crash is built into the very possibility of the act in such settings. If Ellis (cited in Biressi) claims the domestic and the distant are co-present, then also co-present is this sense of reality and possibility. Indeed, it is the close-up and zoom shots that open up the possibility of injury or death in that reality to us viewers. Extreme sports coverage invites us to imagine the danger. The evaluation of risk performed by the participants and experts also underscores the possibility of disaster. Furedi’s point, that we live in a world that is far safer than at any period of human history, is in fact what enables the cultural text of risk-taking to become a spectacle. As we live in increasingly ‘safe’ societies, the contrast – risk-taking, vulnerability – is what provides the spectacle with the exploration of possible risks. That is, the spectacle of risk-taking makes powerful sense because it clearly positions itself against the ‘safe society’ of today. Another way of explaining the spectacle of risk-taking in extreme sports coverage is to unpack a binary: rational/irrational. Since risk-avoidance and risk-aversion have for a very long time been seen as markers of civilization and rational behaviour (Lupton 1999), extreme sports appeal as a spectacle, because it returns us to a cultural text of premodern, supposedly irrational, behaviour. We recognize an evolutionary scale – from animal-like behaviour of merging with nature’s most difficult settings to ‘civilized’, risk-avoidance behaviour – in the acts. We thus recognize ‘where we came from’: living in unliveable conditions, constantly battling nature, surviving in high-risk environs. This binary also shades into something else. Gunnar Breivik makes


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the connection to evolutionary thought when he writes: ‘Human beings have capabilities that make it possible to lead an elegant life in extreme conditions. Even today we witness the extreme skills and faculties of the “human animal”’ (‘Quest for excitement’, 17). In other words, the actions in extreme sports count as spectacle because they not only return us to an earlier moment in the evolutionary scale of human life and behaviour, but also because it maps the resilience of the human in the face of extreme conditions. Reading the feats of magician David Blaine – standing on top of a 100-foot pole, starvation, locking himself into an oven, etc. – Anita Biressi argues that the ‘suffering body’ in these feats marks the body as the site of transformation and self-management (p. 342). We could extend Biressi’s argument to suggest the risk-taking body as the key feature of the aesthetics of risk. The rites of risk and the rituals of symbolic safety identified above mark the management of the self made public. The aesthetics here is not simply the transformation of the body into the source of risk-taking and voluntary vulnerability but of personal corporeal management made in full view of the world. Take the case of Rocky Taylor, the stuntman behind the James Bond, Indiana Jones and Superman films. In 2011, Taylor jumped off a burning tower at London’s Battersea Power Station as part of a charity event, and survived. But what is interesting about the video of this jump (on The Telegraph website, Stuntman-recreates-death-wish-jump-that-nearly-killed-him.html, accessed on 21 December 2016.) is footage from the 1985 jump of Taylor’s – one that nearly killed him. In this footage, embedded in the one of the 2011 jump, we see him fall on to concrete and being carried away by paramedics – Taylor broke his pelvis on that occasion. The rituals of risk-taking that we are shown in fact underscore the vulnerability of a much older man seeking to replicate, albeit successfully, his disastrous first jump. At the heart of the event is the corporeal vulnerability of the first jump being shoe-horned into the more spectacular – because successful – ‘triumph-of-the-human-spirit’ second jump. Watching the preparations for high-altitude BASE jumping, rock climbing or windsurfing means watching extraordinary feats of self-management and transformation. Videos tell us of the preparation – from diets to training – that every extreme sport demands of the bodies. Films like Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel (2013, shortlisted for the Oscar in the documentary section) interview extreme sports enthusiasts who speak of training, risk-taking and ‘addictions’ (the father of Kevin Pearce, an Olympics hopeful at snowboarding who crashed a month before the 2009 Olympics, referred to the athletes’ ‘addiction’ in Walker’s film).8 Dean Potter, who died in May 2015 BASE jumping in Yosemite, described himself in an interview of January 2015 as ‘haunted’ (O’Connor 2015).

Aesthetics and the Extreme


Generic aspects of life such as eating and exercising in the case of these extreme bodies are transformed into an art form, and a rigorous one at that. That is, generic functions are no longer generic in the case of extreme sports but specialized, refined and advanced because it is no longer ‘mere’ success or failure that hinges upon these generic acts, but life and death. Sportsmen and women confess to the way they train and their fears thus making a public spectacle of their internal states and their technics of the self. I propose that this publicization of the private is integral to the aesthetics of risk in extreme sports, where the corporeal is firmly at the centre of everything. Adapting Anita Biressi once more, the aesthetics of risk that we see unfolding on screen is a ‘re-fashioning of the body’ through training, exercises and is in keeping with what she sees as a ‘broader cultural turn, an expression of a supposed psychical transformation’ (p. 343). It is the sight and scene of an individual, who has transformed herself or himself into something else to experience extreme sensations in the body. A professionalization and commodification is integral to the aesthetic of risk that showcases sublime experience, both extreme sensation and extreme risk. The Traumatic Sublime The sublime returns as a preferred aesthetic mode in commentaries and analyses of the art, documentation and representation of cataclysmic and defining historical events such as Chernobyl or 9/11. Gene Ray summarizes it pithily when he writes: ‘In certain postwar artistic practices, sublime evocations and avowals of traumatic history are used to reactivate the disruptive hit or force of such history. . . . Art can mark those points at which Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and other collective traumas exceed conventionalized representation’ (2005: p. 6). We see the sublime making its appearance in serious literary fiction, the graphic novel and documentary reports. In what follows, I track this aesthetic in multiple genres and media forms. From the Uncanny to the Traumatic Sublime Writing a few years after the cataclysmic events of 9/11, celebrated American novelist Don DeLillo in Falling Man (2007) attempts to come to grips with an extreme ‘national’ or even ‘global’ event even as he constructs intersecting stories of disarranged individual lives in their great detail. DeLillo’s deployment of the sublime to explain and understand the events of 9/11 do not, however, begin with magnificent magnitude and infinite measure(ments) but with images of obscurity, transience and the vague. Indeed dematerialization, as Linda Kauffman has noted, is the chief trope in the novel (2008: p. 367).


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It of course seems entirely apposite that a novel about the collapse of monumental structures should use the trope of dematerialization so well, as in these early examples from the text: It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. . . . There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light . . . a car buried in debris . . . figures in windows a thousand feet up. (2007: p. 1–2)

The emphasis on vagueness, unclear vision, and haze (ash and its concomitant colour, grey, incidentally, seems to be the dominant motif of the novel) is striking. Keith Neudecker, the survivor-protagonist, walks out of the first tower into this world of ash and grey. He thinks the things around him are ‘unseen’ (p. 5). But the point DeLillo makes is that never again will things be ‘seen’ as they are. All events, things, and people will hereafter be dematerialized into something insubstantial, because the events of 9/11 render everything, everybody as insubstantial. (And yet they are not insubstantial either.) In order to document dematerialization, DeLillo takes recourse to the uncanny. The uncanny, the name of the simultaneous experience of the familiar and the unfamiliar, here is about the perception of loss: it shows a fading of the material into the immaterial, substance into insubstantiality. The uncanny, as Sigmund Freud (1971) famously demonstrated, is about the human sense of ‘home and not-home’. It is about the human’s perception of a place as akin to but not quite home. Hence, a certain hesitation, or epistemological uncertainty, leading to a ‘crisis of perception’, marks the uncanny event/place (Weber 1973: 1132). This makes the uncanny a neighbour of the fantastic (Tatar 1981). The uncanny mixes form and defies easy boundary-marking and distinction. Further, this epistemological uncertainty and the blurring of perceptions result in a sense of beguilement, produces rumours and ‘an apprehension . . . of something that should have remained secret and hidden has come to light’ (Royle 2003: p. 2). The uncanny is a space of uncertain perceptions, of ghostly events and places, of epistemological ambiguities and borderless worlds. It is a space of suspected secrets, of the familiar within the strange, of strained perceptions, of resemblances and doublings. As a result of these, obscurity is a characteristic of the uncanny. DeLillo shows the dematerialization – the collapse of the Twin Towers and the material losses of 9/11 – of New York City (NYC) as recurring in, duplicated in other dematerializations. The uncanny of dematerialization works through recurrent images of fading, shades, grey colouring, blurred borders and shapes, unclear perceptions and memories. Keith recalls how his friend Rumsey died in the attack on 9/11 and can only recall vaguely, like

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a ‘dream, a waking image . . . Rumsey in the smoke, things coming down’ (p. 22). When Lianne looks at Keith in her home, he is a ‘dim figure, far away inside the plexiglass’ (p. 23). Lianne gets a manuscript to edit, where the changes made by the author are in a ‘deeply soulful and unreadable script’ (p. 23). Then, in a flashback, we are told how Keith managed to reach his home. The NYC streets have cops in ‘masks’ (p. 24). Immediately after the fall of the towers, everything is in a ‘haze’ (p. 25), all windows in the neighbouring buildings ‘were scabbed in sand and ash’, and ‘light entered between splashes of window grit’ (p. 26). When Florence describes how she exited the first tower just before it fell, Keith listens to her account carefully, ‘trying to find himself in the crowd’ (p. 59). This last line embodies a key theme: after 9/11, Keith, like NYC, is trying to find himself. The novel is about a city and people trying to get their bearings right, to continue with ordinary lives. But their lives, writes DeLillo, ‘were in transition’ (p. 67) after 9/11. The absentpresent towers render life around them ‘still life’, as Lianne experiences it after taking her eyes off the painting (111). People discuss, ‘Where were you when it happened?’ (p. 127), thereby suggesting that time has frozen for a lot of people at/around that date, time and place: 9/11, Manhattan, the Twin Towers. NYC and its residents, in other words, experience the uncanny persistence of what is not there anymore. The uncanny, as we have seen, offers us dematerialization and loss as descriptors of NYC after 9/11. But the uncanny does not stop there. It underscores the difficulty of reliably perceiving 9/11 through not just the images of (unreliable) seeing, but through something else as well. Two elements contribute to the uncanny’s shading into the sublime by suggesting incomprehension. First, repetition is common to both, the uncanny (as Freud proposed) and trauma (as Caruth [1996, 2] has argued). Second, the uncanny, in its Scottish etymological origins, Nicholas Royle (2003: p. 12) points out, offers us: uncertainties at the origin concerning colonization and the foreign body, a mixing of what is at once old and long-familiar with what is strangely ‘fresh’ and new; a pervasive linking of death, mourning and spectrality. The theme of uncanny repetition, and its concomitant trauma, is smuggled in by DeLillo. Justin, Lianne and Keith’s son, scours the skies looking for more planes (p. 71–5). Throughout the tale, the children speak of more planes, a grotesque anticipation of what might (can) happen again. Another uncanny, traumatic doubling is the recurrence of a name in the children’s conversation: Bill Lawton (for Bin Laden) (p. 37). The younger brother, Lianne learns, ‘was hearing Bill Lawton’ when the other kids were saying ‘Bin Laden’ (p. 73). The blurred name, the repetition of this name by the children, and the anticipation of the events of 9/11 as the kids watch the skies for more planes, all contribute to the uncanny. Lianne (like the world itself) sees the fall of


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the towers endlessly on TV (‘every time she saw a videotape of the planes’, p. 134). She retains the memories of the skies of that day as ‘dramas of cloud and sea storm’ (ibid.). In one sense, 9/11 is never over. Christine Battersby, citing Jacques Derrida’s interview on the subject of 9/11, also notes that the trauma of 9/11 is linked to the anticipation (like the children watching for more planes from the sky) of other similar futures (195–96). Derrida would himself claim that 9/11 is ‘the terrible sign of what might or perhaps will take place, which will be worse than anything that has ever taken place’ (2004: p. 96–7). It is the threat of the yet-to-come that haunts the present’s trauma. We can discern this folding of the uncanniness of 9/11 into a traumatic recall of 9/11, a fearsome repetition, and ghostliness in various instances in the novel. First, the jihadists of 9/11, Martin suggests, recall the German radical group of the 1960s, Kommune One (p. 146–7). Martin keeps a poster of these nineteen radicals (p. 147).9 Second, the act of violence – definite suicide – in the falling man from the World Trade Center on 9/11 is replicated in the violence Lianne perceives in the artist falling man. The violence of the day is almost exactly echoed later: This is when she understood, although she’d felt something even before her first glimpse of the figure. There were faces in the high windows, something about the faces, a forewarning, the way you know something before you perceive it directly. (p. 160)

The traumatic sublime is triggered here when Lianne sees the parallels between the violence of 9/11 – a violence that comes to her via TV, but also via her survivor, shadowy ex-husband. The second element, the incorporation of the foreign, is also central to the terror of 9/11. Richard Gray (2009) proposes in his reading of post-9/11 fiction that the American novel needs to be radically deterritorialized, acknowledging the truly hybrid nature of American culture and developing a sense of critical multiculturalism. In his response to Gray, Michael Rothberg (2009: p. 153) argues that this would be inadequate: the American novel also needs to look at how American culture, foreign policy and power have spread outward. That is, it is not enough to see the ‘internal difference of their motley multiculture, but the prosthetic reach of that empire into other worlds’. Both Gray and Rothberg are addressing the centrality of foreignness that Americans need to negotiate with if they wish to comprehend 9/11. Echoing this thought is DeLillo’s essay, ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, which ends with a description of a Muslim woman praying on the street of NYC, thus pointedly locating the Other, the foreign, at the heart of the story. Lianne has an objection to Turkish and Middle Eastern music being played in an apartment in her building (p. 119–20). The planes are ‘new’ in the sense they were converted into weapons

Aesthetics and the Extreme


on that day. Then the American children discover a new name, Bill Lawton. The uncanny is the way in which the new insinuates itself into the everyday from that day. DeLillo also intrudes with the psyche of the terrorists, even as he documents the trauma of the survivors. With this strategy, he prevents the tale from being entirely about the trauma of the survivors: Hammad and the other terrorists are also uncertain, tentative and self-conscious. In an extraordinary account, DeLillo introduces the foreign in a powerful way that suggests that the uncanny has just shifted registers. Keith is unable to make sense of things – all his meaning-making is through the ash of 9/11: It was something that belonged to another landscape, something inserted, a conjuring that resembled for the briefest second some half-seen image only half believed in the seeing, when the witness wonders what has happened to the meaning of things, to tree, stone, wind, simple words lost in the falling ash. (p. 101)

I propose that with these two moves, of repetition and the intrusion of the foreign, DeLillo folds, or shades, the uncanny into the ‘traumatic sublime’. That the events of 9/11 were sublime in their evocation of terror is something agreed to by many critics (Weigel 2001, Nayar 2006, and Battersby 2007). DeLillo, however, refuses to simply treat the events of 9/11 as unrepresentable and therefore sublime. Christine Battersby (2007: p. 43) notes that ‘what gets counted as sublime is that which “we” (Western) subjects find hardest to cover over or “screen” out through fantasy imagery or metaphors that contain the horror within manageable bounds’. Here, in the novel, there are no metaphors (though there is the synecdoche of the falling man), but the ghostly repetition that seems to exceed understanding – and thus leading to the sublime. The sublime is marked by an ‘unboundedness’ (a term used by Immanuel Kant). It might have form, but we do not have the abilities to discern that form. The sublime, in Philip Shaw’s (2009: p. 78) gloss, ‘is . . . an affront or “outrage” to our powers of comprehension’. Kimberley Segall (2005: p. 42) has argued that in the traumatic, sublime experiences of violence are changed into images of oppressed subjects and ghosts, where the images serve as memory sites. These images and memories can neither be completely erased nor assimilated into narratives of identity nor hence become sources of terror. The traumatic sublime, Segall proposes, ‘uses disturbing symbols and disturbing images to reformulate a character’s past’ (ibid.), where these symbols are mnemonic reminders of violent events. The traumatic sublime is the persistence, infinite repetition and symbolic recurrence of 9/11, all of which recall the violent events of that day and become hyperbolic, excessive, thus determining meaning-making. The uncanny recall of 9/11 in the lives of Lianne (in the form of both her ex-husband and the ‘falling man’ artist), Keith, and the children scouring the


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skies for another plane constitutes the continuing nightmare of that one day. I propose that DeLillo’s images – whether in the paintings in which Lianne ‘sees’ the two towers, the children seeking another plane, and Keith unable to see anything clearly – work as symbolic associations for the violence of 9/11. If trauma repeats, like the uncanny, then the repetition exceeds the ‘original’ event and time. It is the boundlessness of the event’s violence, the excesses of one day, that constitutes the traumatic sublime. The loss of language for Alzheimer’s patients, Keith’s own inability to see himself in his ‘things’, and the falling man’s performance are iterations of a primordial violence (though, as Kauffman [2008] has argued, in DeLillo, 9/11 is not seen as singular or unique). What I am arguing for is the centrality of the uncanny in the structure of the traumatic sublime for NYC and its survivors. Specific details of the past are obscured, or seen only through hazy eyes and recalled in fragments, as we have already noted. Yet, it is this obscurity that constitutes the sublime (in fact, poor visibility, as Edmund Burke has pointed out in his eighteenthcentury work, is a key feature of the sublime). Obscurity generates an epistemological uncertainty. Even as the falling man works as a symbol of remembrance, he becomes a reminder of the horrific scenes and violence. DeLillo, here, as in his essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, creates a work essentially about modes of seeing and recalling. Marco Abel (2003: p. 1241), in a fine reading of DeLillo’s essay, has argued that the essay reveals a dialectical movement between impressionistic close-ups of the events and distanced intellectual analyses. Abel (p. 1239) also suggests that DeLillo does not want to declare the unrepresentability of the events, or endorse the ‘real’. Instead, in Abel’s analysis, DeLillo is concerned with ‘render[ing] visible the acts of seeing that generate representations’. Much of what Abel says here of DeLillo’s essay applies to Falling Man as well. By rendering the events entirely through haze, obscure vision, and shadowy recollections, DeLillo, I suggest, is undergirding questions of seeing: How do we see 9/11 through Keith’s fragmented, ash-coloured vision? By delivering the events of 9/11 through the traumatized memories of Keith, the troubled gaze of Lianne, the chaotic narratives of the Alzheimer’s patients, DeLillo resists both positions: of asserting the unrepresentability of the events, or of claiming a ‘right’ way of seeing them. The traumatic sublime is a way of perception and representation. The towers and 9/11 will always be associated with violence and will always be in the collective consciousness. The tone of the novel – whether it is about 9/11, Lianne’s memories of her father shooting himself, the loss of language in the Alzheimer’s patients, or Keith’s incomprehension of things around him – is elegiac. But it is also about the ways in which loss – the origin of the elegiac – is perceived. And it is this perception of loss that I now want

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to turn to. DeLillo’s novel is about the tension between absence and loss engendered by the violence of 9/11. Dominick LaCapra (1999: p. 700) has proposed that ‘absence is not an event and does not imply tenses. . . . By contrast, the historical past is the scene of losses.’ Losses entail absences, whereas the converse need not be true (ibid.). But more significantly absence ‘applies to ultimate foundations notably to metaphysical grounds’ (p. 701). The traumatic sublime is the intervention through which Keith’s and others’ eyewitnessing folds into bearing witness. Eyewitnessing addresses loss, whereas bearing witness stands testimony to absences. To reduce the novel to an account of Keith’s trauma – thus psychologizing it – is to ignore the larger gesture DeLillo makes. True, the novel also accounts for cultural trauma, even though, as Marc Redfield (2007: p. 56) points out, the actual damage done to military or commercial orders on 9/11 was miniscule, yet the events attract attention as symbolic events. DeLillo is calling attention to the absence of certainties in the modern world, the absence of clear ways of seeing. He is calling attention, simultaneously, to the always partial, fragmentary, and obscure ways of perception through which we will ‘see’ 9/11. This is not simply a psychological condition generated through the loss of the towers or Keith’s self-confidence. While the loss of the towers engenders a fragmentation of memory or ways of seeing, what DeLillo wishes to foreground is the absence of understanding that drives American perceptions of 9/11. What Keith witnesses with his eyes remains fragmented and hazy: what he bears witness to is a legacy of misrecognition (of the Other, of American aggression) that leaves him, like other Americans, bewildered, unable to deal with 9/11. DeLillo, I suggest, shifts the focus cleverly from individual and psychic trauma to social-cultural contexts in which trauma becomes insurmountable. Unlike in the case of documentaries and films on 9/11, DeLillo does not seek to impose control over the events through narrative. Rather, he leaves the narrative deliberately unstable to show why we need to interrogate modes of narrating 9/11. By breaking up the narrative, by showing the partial, incomplete narratives of 9/11 – through Keith, the Alzheimer’s patients, and the German radical (Martin/Ernst) – DeLillo refuses any primacy to realist representation, or even traumatic representation. The trauma is sublime, repetitive, incomplete and borderless: it is not just the loss of significatory processes, it is the absence of epistemological grounding of the geopolitics of the world from which to make those significations work. In order to foreground this, DeLillo has a non-American, the German Martin, explain to Nina that ‘one side has the capital, the labor, the technology, the armies, the agencies, the cities, the laws, the police, and the prisons. The other side has a few men willing to die’ (p. 46–7). In ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, DeLillo (2001: p. 38) wrote: ‘For all those who may want what we’ve got, there are


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all those who do not.’ This recognition is what Martin says America needs to have in order to understand what 9/11 means. The traumatic sublime is the folding of loss into absence, the recognition that no signifying system can adequately capture 9/11 because the foundations – the knowledge and recognition of the Other, of reflecting upon itself – for such a process are themselves missing. DeLillo works through the uncanny and the traumatic sublime to address the question of loss and recall in the aftermath of 9/11, but then folds the loss into absence: 9/11 is perceived only as loss because there is an absence at the heart of American understanding. This absence of understanding is most powerfully articulated through a device that one might miss. The three sections of the novel are named after people: Bill Lawton, Ernst Hechinger and David Janiak. What is interesting is: none of these is an accurate name, nor are they indicative of the events of 9/11. Bill Lawton is the children’s (mis)pronunciation of ‘Bin Laden’. Nothing is known of Bin Laden, of course. Ernst Hechinger, who may have been involved with a terrorist organization in Germany as a young man, is the real name of Nina’s lover, Martin, but about whose real life very little is known. David Janiak is the name of the performance artist commonly called ‘falling man’ – a fact we discover only when Lianne researches his death through newspaper files. In each case, there is a name, but a wrong one, there is an attempt to create a picture, but with minimal understanding. Falling Man deploys the uncanny and then folds it into the traumatic sublime but refuses to make it just another trauma narrative. Its key focus is epistemological uncertainty and ways of seeing, and ways of making meaning around 9/11. The Radiant Sublime Kai Pfeiffer’s Radioactive Forever (2008), a 44-page graphic narrative about the Chernobyl disaster (1986) invokes the future-orientation of the traumatic sublime from the very title: radioactive forever. The Chernobyl disaster obviously fits right into what David Simpson argued about 9/11: it is an event beyond space and time (2006). The ‘radiant sublime’ is the expansion and extension in space and time of the events of Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986. The radiant sublime is the aesthetic representing the finite vulnerability of humanity and the infinite vulnerability of the earth in the wake of nuclear disaster. Pfeiffer’s comic, available online, opens with an injunction/request: ‘Please read this e-book in the full-screen mode.’ This is either a metacritical comment on the protocols of reading the traumatic sublime of Chernobyl or is unintentionally ironic, but in either case serves the purpose of offering to the sharper reader a sense of expansion: that Chernobyl is not restricted to space (the Ukraine, Russia – formerly one of the world-renowned antagonist pair of

Aesthetics and the Extreme


the Cold War) or time (1986). Chernobyl, like the toxins spreading outward, through air, water and land, cannot be contained. It is this sense and theme of expansion that informs Pfeiffer’s work throughout. The next page contains an image of a landscape. Some trees, thick shrubs and clouds in a blue sky. In the exact centre is a radiation warning signpost. The entire image is in the form of a bubble or slab. The bubble or slice of earth is dripping, suggestive of a melting state. The radiation symbol centres nature itself, gathers into itself the neighbourhood, so to speak. In bright red and yellow, it is the definite foreign object in the locale. The ‘melting off’ and ‘running off’ of the earth/landscape/topos is grim and tragic. The caption above states: This is a short view of the one of the most horrible technological catastrophes in human history so far.

‘One of the’, capturing the sense of repetition of such events, is closely followed by the ‘so far’, leaving the prospect of similar events open. Pfeiffer clearly moves Chernobyl away from spatio-temporal exactitude towards open-endedness and boundarilessness. One notices that there is no location given to this image – Pfeiffer would give us place and year in the second image – but here, the emphasis is: this could be anywhere. Or everywhere. The sublime has already been anticipated in the borderlessness and featureless topography depicted in the image. That this is only ‘one of the’ horrible catastrophes reminds us to look at the past even as – if we return to the Derrida reading of 9/11 cited above – we are warned to anticipate something even more horrible in the future. Pfeiffer then depicts two children playing in the forested areas ‘somewhere near the small town of Chernobyl’ in 1985. To the younger boy’s question about the edible nature of the mushrooms they come across, the elder one says ‘Yep, these are good.’ The caption then informs us that the landscape, a year from now, will ‘look just the same’ but (on the next page) it ‘isn’t the same landscape any more’ and all the mushrooms are now poisonous. More specific details are given to us about the location of Chernobyl, the towers of the power plant and the role the plant plays in the region’s economy (unpaginated). A few images follow of the ‘routine test’ being carried out inside the plant on the intervening night of 25–26 April 1986. The test goes wrong and the core begins to heat up till it explodes. The explosion fills the page, and there is nothing else on this particular page except a date and time: ‘April 26th, 1986, 1:23:44’. Just as the exact moment of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers became historically frozen, and like art work that showed time frozen at the moment of the Hiroshima explosion, here the clock captures an instant.


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From this moment Pfeiffer deploys the sublime. It begins with numbers. He notes that there are ‘no credible records’ of how many fire service personnel who were the first on the scene, trying desperately to shovel graphite and other materials into the reactor (now open, since its roof, weighing ‘1000 tons’, Pfeiffer informs us, had been blown off), fell ill. The very first image – of the melting landscape – returns here when Pfeiffer shows the firemen suffering from radiation sickness and the toxin ‘separates the flesh from their bones’. The imminent loss of cohesion and coherence of the land in the first visual is replicated in his portrayal of dissolving bodies here. The bodies of firemen, vulnerable in and of themselves, are rendered impossibly helpless given the radiation, the inadequacy of their protective gear and, most importantly, their selflessness in seeking to clean up the plant. The text moves away from the actual site of the explosion, although the image shows the burnt down control room, to state: Around the control room, around the reactor a restricted area was created within a radius of 19 miles. The forbidden zone of Chernobyl. Does radiation stop outside of that ring? No. But it simply wasn’t affordable to declare a larger area uninhabitable.

This marks the beginning of the ever-widening circle of radiation poisoning. Offering us a mathematically precise topological demarcation, Pfeiffer notes that radiation does not follow these limits. Economics determines that larger swathes of the land could not be declared ‘forbidden’. Thus the aesthetics of the sublime enables Pfeiffer to demonstrate the expansiveness of the radiation and the toxin, moving outward and beyond human capacities to restrict it even symbolically: 19 miles. The next page underscores this sense of expansiveness of the radiant sublime. With an image of a stark town, Pripjat, in the middle of a page whose frames are thickly black (with the black shading into the grey that surrounds the grey town with its grey houses and buildings), the caption tells us that since the accident the town, which once had 47,000 inhabitants, is now ‘empty’. The open nature of the empty town surrounded by toxic fumes suggests the linkage of the place with the environment: what should have been mutually supportive has become mutually vulnerable and precarious. Here the environment does not support the town or life. Then we are told that with the poisoning by plutonium isotopes, it will ‘not be inhabitable for another 48,000 years’. We now see how the frozen clock indicating the instant incident of disaster expands into a timespan unimaginable for the human mind: 48, 000 years. The time of the accident is now, almost, the time of the earth, of the future, but a future marked only by poison.

Aesthetics and the Extreme


This is the heart of the traumatic sublime cast as the radiant sublime: the expansion and never-ending temporality of an event. The instant and incident of disaster has morphed into a condition of extremes that is almost infinite. The poison cloud, says Pfeiffer, spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The long-term effects of caesium-137, the radioactive toxin released at Chernobyl, are ‘not known with much certainty’. If obscurity and epistemological uncertainty are part of the sublime (as noted above) then Chernobyl fits the (radiant) sublime in all its aspects. Pfeiffer then switches to a history session, mapping the progress of atomic power, its advocates and critics, in the United States and other countries, from the 1950s, a progress interrupted, he says by ‘one or two PR problems’. The image accompanying this text shows a plane, a bomb headed towards a city (this last in terms of fragmented squiggles). The plane is labelled ‘Enola Gay’, the bomb, ‘Little Boy’ and the city ‘Hiroshima’. The cartoonish history of a deliberately instituted atomic disaster borders on the ridiculous sublime, or a mock sublime (given just the magnitude of the death and injuries, Hiroshima approximates to the sublime). The phrase ‘PR problems’ gestures at the media-manipulated advocacy and support of atomic power conducted in the face of this disastrous history. Moving back to the Chernobyl story, we are given a visual of the plant, again bordered by thick black, cloud-like colours, although there is a red glow over the plant, suggesting radioactivity or power. The caption tells us that the concrete mantle in which the plant was encased after the accident, is now crumbling. People have returned to live in the forbidden zone, cultivating their lands. ‘Nuclear Boy’ the cartoon character for atomic energy, visits a family, and sits down to a meal with them. The picture shows a hospitable family sharing their meagre food with the visitor, although the visitor wonders at the caesium levels in the food. The traumatic sublime emerges across these images because we are suddenly made aware of two related aspects of life after Chernobyl. First, the land is contaminated, but the poor people continue cultivation as they always have for centuries. Thus, while past agricultural practices existent in the present suggest a continuum, it also suggests a trauma starting with 1986 that would continue into the future. Second, the presence of children at the dinner table brings this sense of the toxic ‘extension’ into subsequent generations. ‘Millions of children being forced to live in a contaminated area,’ as Pfeiffer puts it, emphasizes the timelessness of the disaster. We are then told: ‘One million children have gotten sick because of the nuclear contamination’ in the area. The numerical increase is only one aspect of the radiant sublime: what is frightening is the possibility that the toxicity will outlast human lifespans for generations to come. The sublime, like true horror, never ends for the simple reason that we cannot map the course of toxic sublimity that far into the future.


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Later in the narrative we are given examples of toxic dumping: Lake Karachay in Siberia and British dumping of radioactive wastes into the sea. Pfeiffer tells us that the radioactive salt dunes that came out of the wastes flow into the sources of Siberian rivers. Then comes his prescient comment: when the salt dunes reach the sources of these rivers ‘its substance will be spread all over Siberia. Al Qaeda could only dream of such a terrorist assault.’ Here Pfeiffer takes the radiant sublime of atomic disaster, and expands it into a terrorist sublime that involves – and this is important – Britain and Al Qaeda. He suggests that the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union are as culpable in spreading toxicity as any terrorist attack by the Al Qaeda. Aligning the so-called democratic nations (and advocates of safe atomic power) with the then communist nation and the contemporary terrorist organization, Pfeiffer generates a terrorist sublime by proposing the callousness, cruelty, greed and indifference to human life and the earth are common to all these parties. The terrorist sublime is not only 9/11 or Al Qaeda in Pfeiffer’s version: it is also British toxic dumping and Russian poisoning. He concludes the narrative with an image of the poster-boy Nuclear Boy, now an older, slightly bent Nuclear Old Man standing staring out across the blue ocean. The ocean has green patches in the water, whether innocent fauna or poison we do not know. The text tells us that ‘for millennia to come, we will float on an ocean of liquid nuclear waste, sloshing around in countless barrels on this planet’. Invoking a mathematical register that frightens us with numbers (‘countless’, ‘millennia’) Pfeiffer offers us a radiant sublime whose time frame is longer than that of the earth itself. He refers to the ‘constant terror of the next big accident’ and the certainty of the plants ‘poison[ing] us’. In each case, whether in the mathematical register or the register of melodramatic hyperbole, Pfeiffer highlights the sublimity of radiation and atomic disaster. *** The two examples of the traumatic sublime discussed above – 9/11 and Chernobyl – from two very different forms/genres (literary fiction and graphic narrative) emphasize continuity, endlessness, expansion and imminent return/repetition as the foundation of trauma. That is, in the cultural texts that depict extremes of larger magnitude it is not the present or the past but the possibility of a future citation or iteration that invokes the trauma at the heart of the extreme. That is, the extreme in such instances is not restricted to an instant but is only one instance of an ongoing, and always returning nightmare. Vulnerability, suggest DeLillo and Pfeiffer, is interminable; helplessness is endemic.


Aesthetics and the Extreme

Notes 1. The Taguba Report on the atrocities listed the following abuses in Abu Ghraib: I find that the intentional abuse of detainees by military police personnel included the following acts: a. (S) Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet; b. (S) Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees; c. (S) Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing; d. (S) Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time; e. (S) Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear; f. (S) Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped; g. (S) Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them; h. (S) Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture; i. (S) Writing ‘I am a Rapest’ (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year-old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked; j. (S) Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture; k. (S) A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee; l. (S) Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee; m. (S) Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees. —Taguba 16–17 2. Whether sexual humiliation (and not rape) constitutes torture is the subject of furious debates. See Gronvoll (2010). Further, the representation, in the investigative reports on the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo abuses, of the simulated sexual acts as ‘sex’ rather than rape, as Richter-Montpetit notes, helped to erase the brutality and the pain of the acts (2007). 3. The role of the camera in the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo has been widely discussed. See Gronvoll, Mirzoeff, among others. 4. Susan Sontag would write about the languages of disease writing: The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare: every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology. (1978: p. 64).

5. Several of the extreme sports activities also develop their own fashion styles. Designers and artists, note Nick Ford and David Brown in their analysis of surfing as subculture, often incorporated the functional requirements of surfing clothing into their design (2006: p. 67).


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6. This sense of oneness with the environment that surfers, for instance, writing about their encounters with the sea and the waves claim, leads commentators to enunciate a theory of ‘surfing spirituality’ (see Taylor 2010). 7. In interviews conducted with extreme sports enthusiasts, Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer document the role of fear in such performances. They note that the interviewees spoke of four themes around fear: the experience of fear; relationship to fear; management of fear; and fear and self-transformation. Brymer and Schweitzer concluded that fear was transformed into a constructive event in their lives (2013). 8. The film along with Kevin Pearce’s family and friends also launched a trust called Love Your Brain. 9. DeLillo makes this connection between the two ‘terrorist’ groups elsewhere in his short story, ‘Baader-Meinhof’, published in 2002.

Chapter 3

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme

In Kai Pfeiffer’s graphic novel about Chernobyl, Radioactive Forever (2008), there are four images that show us the everyday life of people who have returned to live in the contaminated town. We are shown a farmer with a cow, an old woman collecting potatoes from a field, and a peasant family at dinner. The theme running through this depiction of everyday peasant life is of contamination. The farmer jocularly says that anybody who wishes to eat the produce from the place needs to first test it for caesium. At the dining table, the visitor comments that he has consciously not placed the Geiger counter to check for radiation, on the table. Together, these instances represent the extreme within the everyday of the Chernobyl residents: altering it from the way it used to be, troubling its rhythms and frequencies and often introducing elements that have to be absorbed into social interactions, time management and emotions that make up the everyday. Chernobyl may have been a rare accident, and in the past, but its presence continues to be present in various ways in the routine and the mundane. Ellen Forney in Marbles is reading up on bipolar disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – IV (of the American Psychiatric Association). The page in Marbles itself is in the form of an open page (p. 86). The page is open to ‘Criteria for a Major Depressive Episode’. The criteria listed all conclude with ‘nearly every day’: Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day Markedly diminished pleasure in all, or almost all, activities nearly every day Significant weight loss or gain, or increased or decreased appetite nearly every day

There are nine such criteria listed. Thought bubbles on the side give us Forney’s responses. In one she thinks the following: ‘every day, every day, 79


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every day . . .’ The Manual documents conditions that repeat every day, from insomnia to feelings of worthlessness. Forney locates her symptoms in the Manual, and concurs that these do occur every day in her life. Her life is literally a page out of the Manual, a textbook case, if you will, of the disorder. However, the focus is as much on the symptoms as on the recurrence and repetition of the symptoms every day. Her everyday is structured around the extreme conditions of alienation, worthlessness and suicidal thoughts. The conditions are not exceptional – far from it, in fact, because they repeat with such regularity. So, the question remains, whether Forney in her narrative has an everyday that is not structured around a dehumanized feeling. The extreme is taken to signify a singular and rare experience distinct from the everyday. However, for survivors of catastrophic accidents, either manmade or natural, for those suffering from chronic illness and/or pain, or for those incarcerated in horrific conditions the extreme enters their everyday in various forms. The everyday is a set of routine, repetitive and familiar actions and processes, each of which exposes the human’s vulnerability, in people suffering from chronic conditions, for instance. Routine actions become risky when the human’s interactions with the environment become sources of danger. Workspaces, urban/mobile spaces, living spaces and non-spaces, according to Joe Moran (2005), make up the spaces of everyday life. Vulnerability in specific involuntarily chosen contexts, as noted in the earlier chapters, turns into helplessness because the spatial settings generate pain, suffering and deprivation. Risk and helplessness therefore are part of the everyday, and not a rare occurrence. The extreme-in-the-everyday for such individuals is not so much a series of rare experiences but a transformation of their world (setting), time and processes of the everyday as a result of the onset of a dangerous illness or medical condition. Everyday activities are transformed into obstacle races in the face of the extreme, even as routine settings of home, work and leisure become something else altogether. This is different from the everyday life of those residing (voluntarily, such as scientists on Antarctica, or involuntarily, such as the survivors of the Andes plane crash) for extended periods of time in places of extreme weather. Here the everyday is where the human loses agency, is at risk, spends time and energy avoiding risk and thereby loses a sense of human autonomy (as Frank Furedi noted about risk cultures). This chapter’s focus is on elements of the everyday, its ‘fields of activity’ (Scott 2009: p. 2), such as time and management, which are altered because of the arrival of the extreme. It examines survivor texts and illness memoirs in which the phenomenon is most visible. It also looks at cultural texts wherein the ordinary and the routine – such as going to school – have been transformed into sites for the extreme. It also unpacks the extreme as it intrudes into the everyday in prison life, as represented in the Abu Ghraib visuals.

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


Extreme Time The everyday consists of activities organized through the day, and performed daily. Time is experienced variously, however. Barbara Adam identifies three principal modes through which we experience time: body time, clock time and social time. Body time is the experience of biological phases and conditions (such as puberty, pregnancy or ageing) as experiences in time. Clock time is the organization of time according to certain socially accepted ‘objective’ criteria. Social time is the set of norms, processes and engagements that lend meaning to everyday lives, but also our sense of our ancestors, history and cultural traditions (Adam 2004). Alongside these three modes of experiencing time we can also examine time as possessing five dimensions: periodicity, tempo, synchronization, duration and sequence (Southerton 2006). ‘Extreme time’ is my term for the time of disease, pain and treatment that interrupts the routine progression of everyday time, bends it and puts it in crisis in all of these areas. The arrival of the extreme-in-the-everyday is an interruption in ‘ordinary’ time’s linearity in all three modes outlined above, and in most of time’s dimensions as well. At the Beginning of Extreme Time Writing about art-horror, Noël Carroll proposes a three-stage process in the making of horror-effects: onset, discovery and confirmation (1990: p. 99–108). The onset is the first palpable effects of something awry. In horror films, it is usually a set of signs of a monster (or the monster is revealed to us, the audience, even if the characters do not know it). Discovery is the establishment of the identity of the monster, identifying its provenance and maybe its origins. Confirmation is the sharing of the discovery with other characters, especially convincing the unbelieving members of the veracity and authenticity of the monster and danger. Carroll’s model furnishes us a framework in which to read extreme time and the everyday in auto/pathography. Onset Marisa Marchetto in her cancer memoir, Cancer Vixen (2006), identifies the month she first experienced some pain, when swimming: April (1). The onset of an extreme condition is precisely plotted as a moment in time (date, age), because after this moment, all of Marchetto’s time is cancer time. In Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, the onset moment is of a seizure when the old woman has difficulty in moving her leg (1). In the midst of the everyday the onset comes in innocuously, and the sister, who is a trained nurse, is the one who identifies the cause: a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). Sarah Leavitt in Tangles notices the first signs of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, when the latter is unable to recall small details (p. 19). Hannah, her sister, phones Sarah to tell


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her that their mother is ‘confused about the strangest things’ (p. 19). Then follows a long onset period during which the entire family notes the increasing number of problems of memory in the mother (p. 20–25). Extreme conditions first enter into the narrative and the consciousness of the characters through onset signs. However, these are only symptomatic (in the full sense of the word, especially in the case of auto/pathography), and the full horror of what is to follow is still to come. Discovery Marchetto specifies the date (13 May) when she went to the doctor for chest congestion. This physician is the first to see a lump in her breast when he uses a stethoscope. ‘What’s this? Weren’t you going to tell me about that?’ (2, emphasis in original). The physician’s bulging eyes are expressive of the shock at Marchetto’s silence over the presence of the lump. That the lump might be a bad sign and the onset of something larger than just a chest infection is brought home to her with the physician’s subsequent exaggerated smiles: ‘100,000 watt smile #2 and # 3, now I know I’m in deep . . .’ (p. 2). Marchetto now sees ominous signs everywhere. As she leaves the clinic, she walks down a corridor where all the doors are shut. The focalization is from the top and we see a small figure, Marchetto, with a long shadow that is larger than her body, heading towards one closed door.1 In Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, the discovery of the true nature and source of the TIA occurs some days later: the tumour in her brain came from the lung, and the lung tumour is cancerous. Stan Mack in Janet & Me writes of the day of the discovery of Janet’s cancer: ‘I remember clearly that it was a bright, sunny day when we made our way to the hospital for results’ (p. 14). The moment of discovery is usually the horror of the true extent, source, aetiology (in some cases) and route of the disease through medical tests. It might be assumed that extreme time truly begins with the hospital moment, where the present meets the future. The present is the ‘normal’ and unaware patient/victim, who in the process of medical tests discovers a certain, extreme future. Thus, the hospital is the setting for extreme time’s beginning, when confirmation is available for the things that are wrong with their bodies. Confirmation Later the same day, 13 May, the breast surgeon turns away from Marchetto, who records subsequently her perception of his action: ‘When a doctor turns away from you, it’s never a good sign’ (p. 4). Finally, she draws a panel where she screams at the Grim Reaper: ‘Listen cancer, ya sick bastard. . . . Finally, at 43, I’m getting married for the first time. . . . Now is not a good

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


time’ (p. 4). When the confirmation of the cancerous nature of the tumour comes in, she records this as well: 15 May, 10:12 a.m. (p. 7). The moment of discovery marks the start of her extreme time. Her sci-fi imagery, of ‘the electrolux of the universe sucking her into a black hole’ and subsequently ‘frozen in time for an eternity’ (p. 9), amplifies the sense of an extreme time: hereafter there will be no everyday routine that is not informed by cancer. As she writes in the middle of this sci-fi vision of her future: ‘Wishing I could just go back to worrying about my stupid, self-absorbed, self-esteem, weight, bad-skin, bad hair issues that had obsessed me my whole life’ (p. 9). The confirmation of her cancer has to be then passed on, and Marchetto records the time when she calls her parents and her fiancé. In Fies’s case, having established this discovery of an extreme condition that is more than likely to kill her, the process of communicating (confirmation) with the mother remains. The old woman cheerfully pronounces, ‘At least it’s just a stage four!’ and Brian Fies has to tell her: ‘You know stage four is BAD, right?’ (9, emphasis in original). And he wonders to himself: ‘Why isn’t Mom getting any of this?’ (p. 9). Janet (Janet & Me) herself telephones her friends to break the news and each, says Mack, ‘tried different ways of cheering her up’, rarely addressing her immediate concerns (p. 16). In Tangles, oddly, it is the mother who herself admits, in a stand-alone panel, where she is set out in white on a symbolically black background that fills the entire panel space: ‘I have Alzheimer’s’ (p. 25). The father refuses to accept this discovery (p. 25), and the doctor’s discovery comes quite some way into the narrative (p. 37). What is interesting about Leavitt’s narrative is that after the first moment of self-discovery and self-confirmation by the mother, there really is a moment when the family has to convince her of her deteriorating condition. It is almost as though the extreme condition of her mind prevents her from confirming the extreme condition, so that the narrative remains stuck at the family’s discovery and confirmation. The signs of confirmation include textual evidence such as the doctor’s observations, prescriptions and reports (Tangles p. 35), doctor’s calls and pathology reports (Cancer Vixen 7, p. 122) and additional consultations/referrals (Epileptic p. 11) and what David B calls ‘the endless round of doctors’ where the patient and his family is literally within a circle of doctors who seem to be running (rings?) around them (p. 11). The beginning of extreme time is the arrival of a singularity in their lives. This singularity is the onset, discovery and confirmation of an extreme condition such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. But it is significant that the arrival of the singularity, the extreme, is also shared across their friends and family. The beginning of extreme time is marked by abruptness and a shift in the nature of social interactions – where the conversation is suddenly only about illness. The extreme alters the vocabulary of social interaction, and introduces new


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elements – options, insurance policies, survival rate, among others. Thus, the beginning of extreme time is the beginning of a mostly irreversible change in their social and familial interactions. Extreme Body Time Kai Pfeiffer’s Radioactive Forever, a graphic narrative of Chernobyl, gives us two moving images. A young boy is seen wearing a fur hat in the first scene. The caption says: ‘One of the dead firemen has a son. He keeps his father’s fur hat as a token.’ The next image shows, in sharp and tragic contrast with the first, the boy with his head on a hospital pillow, eyes shadowed and looking puzzled. The boy now has a shaved head with pencil lines denoting the lines of imminent incision and surgery. The caption says, ‘In the fur hat is a tiny little crumb from the reactor. He gets a brain tumour’ (unpaginated). For the boy his body time – of growth and adolescence – has just been radically altered, for good (or rather, for bad). The reference to the dead father, that is, one whose body time is ‘done’ and determined by the exploding reactor, and the boy’s attempt to continue that man’s legacy in the form of a hat worn on his body (head) suggests the merger of two body times, both culminating in premature death: dead before one’s time, so to speak. Here extreme time is experienced in the body’s accelerated time, with a brain tumour, hospitalization, repeated surgeries and ultimately, death. There is no boyhood in the boy’s body time, even as the reactor’s extreme condition is experienced in the body. In Pekar and Brabner’s Our Cancer Year (1994), Pekar notices his rapid hair-loss (due to chemo) during a shower. He thinks: ‘I haven’t been losing it as fast as they thought I would, but now it’s really starting to go. . . . Face is swellin’ too. What else is gonna happen to me.’ The last two sentences are in thought bubbles, as Pekar stares at his thinning hair in the mirror (unpaginated). Here, again, the sense of the progress of time as having accelerated is cast solely in terms of Pekar’s body time. The body’s loss of hair and balding, indices of ageing, has been hurried up and the question Pekar asks is: What else will be accelerated, what are the changes his body might experience at this rapid pace? Extreme time is here ‘cancer time’ (Miller 2014: p. 219). In extreme body time tempo – the pace of events and actions – has been altered due to external agents: chemotherapy in cancer narratives like that of Pekar-Barbner’s or radiation poisoning in Pfeiffer’s. The tempo of everyday life has slowed down because the duration (time taken to go through the process) of processes, such as bathing, changing, eating has slowed down in Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles because the daughters and husband have to first persuade the mother (a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s) to get into the bathroom or to the dining

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


table, and slowly without annoying her, ensure that the acts are performed (55, 59, 97 and elsewhere). ‘Everybody dies. . . . But if you have Alzheimer’s you die sooner,’ the daughter, Sarah Leavitt thinks (p. 57), underscoring the different pace of ageing processes in the mother’s body time. The chapter is titled ‘You’re Going to Die Soon’ as well, indicating the end of body time. Further, in each of these cases, as a consequence of the arrival of the extreme, the rhythm of everyday processes and the sequence have both been irrevocably altered. In Tangles, in a series of panels, Leavitt shows us the altered rhythms of the body (and household, to which I shall come in the next sections) due to extreme time. In bed one night, Leavitt is unable to fall asleep. The clock by the bedside – the one prominent object in the panel other than Leavitt herself – shows clock time passing. Leavitt tosses and turns and in two hours, just after she has presumably fallen asleep, Leavitt is woken up by sounds of her mother brushing her teeth with the faucet running at full pressure. Leavitt shuts the faucet off and returns to her bed, only to have her mother turn it on again. We are then again shown Leavitt in bed, unable to sleep. The rhythm of Leavitt’s body time – sleepy, tired, end-of-day time – is no longer of her choice. Struggling to fall asleep, her sleep time is subject to radical disruptions because her mother’s body time rhythm has altered with the arrival of Alzheimer’s. To complicate this already disrupted rhythm of waking and sleeping, the sequence of events and processes has also been altered in both the ailing mother’s and consequently Sarah Leavitt’s body time: the mother brushes her teeth in the middle of the night, when she should be asleep and the daughter loses her sleep. Extreme time wrecks body time by interrupting rhythm, tempo, duration and sequence of the everyday that, very often. This ‘untimely’ interruption is not merely located in the ailing body but in its immediate contexts and relationships. This interruption is what Brabner recognizes when she asks herself: ‘Wait a minute. . . . When did this become our cancer?’ (chapter 7, unpaginated). It is radical alteration of her own life’s time and its rhythms (‘when’) but also a new sense of shared social time with the cancer-ridden partner (‘our cancer’). Extreme body time is the reorganization of time of everyday processes along with the duration, rhythm, sequence and tempo of each of these processes. Extreme body time is the loss of coherence of all time, except the recognition of the bare life in the body and the shortage of this time. Joe Simpson summarizes extreme body time thus: The notions of living or dying had long since become tangled. The past days merged into a blur of real events and madness, and now I seemed fixed in a limbo between the two. Alive, dead, was there that much difference?

Time frames the social ontology of the body in extreme everyday situations.


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Extreme Objective Time To return to the teeth-brushing incident in Tangles, we can see how clock time, or objective time, ceases to make sense to not only the patient but also the family members. Eventually asleep, Leavitt says, she dreamt of ‘slowly changing clocks’. We see different models of clocks, each showing a different time. Extreme time that results in this dream of polychronicity is a time beyond clock time. Mother’s time, which is the extreme time in the tale, is dissonant with Leavitt’s sleep time and clock time. Leavitt is conveying to us the impossibility of having the time of the everyday synchronize with extreme time which is now greater than the immediate clock time. Chernobyl’s dates, according to Pfeiffer’s work in Radioactive Forever, are ‘1986–∞’, suggesting a time immeasurable to humans, and beyond the clock time around which we organize our lives. The ‘forever’ in the title offers a timeline beyond clocks. Pfeiffer notes that the toxins in the soil around Chernobyl will probably disappear in 48,000 years – a time span that is not only quite immeasurable for this generation of readers but also irrelevant since it approximates more to astronomical or earth/geological time than human clock time. In the extreme event of nuclear disaster clock time ceases to have a role in our lives. It is to this altered perception, but also different incorporation of clock time into the everyday as a result of extreme conditions, that I now turn. ‘My days are blurring together,’ says Harvey in Our Cancer Year (unpaginated), suggesting that clocks and calendars make little sense in his general continuum of pain and suffering. A page later in the narrative a text box pronounces: ‘Time passes strangely’ (unpaginated). This text box is a caption, and not presented as either Pekar’s or Brabner’s thoughts or voice. Another half-page visual shows Harvey tossing and turning as a clock moves from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. And in the very next panel (although several of Our Cancer Year’s pages do not have clear panel frames), Pekar is shown thinking: ‘Why ain’t I dead yet? Man, I don’t want to start over again’ (unpaginated). Pekar doesn’t sleep at night, and thus keeps a different time. Miriam Engelberg (Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person) reconfigures the days of the week in a chapter titled ‘Nausea’ thus: Friday: better than Thursday Saturday: very nauseous Sunday: less nauseous, but allergic reaction to Compazine (frozen muscles in face) Monday: medium nausea Tuesday: x-treme nausea + headache + horrible taste in mouth + cramps + diarrhea

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


The time of day, days of the week and the calendar are reduced to units of periodicity of throwing up, feeling reasonably okay or any of the assorted conditions of the disease and its treatment. Social time is reconfigured as disease time. When Engelberg places two ‘conditions’ together – ‘I feel lousy and daytime TV sucks’ (‘Nausea’) – we are left uncertain if the cancer makes her perceive the television programme as terrible, or if the quality of TV programming that reminds her of her lousy state. What is however certain is that the two can no longer be separated, that the TV is mediated through her chemo-driven perceptions. In Cancer Vixen Marchetto informs us of the number of minutes she is late in arriving at the hospital for each stage of her treatment. Saturday, September 25. The SVCCC treatment area. 12:49. I was 49 minutes late. (p. 164)

And: Chemo # 4 . . . I was 19 minutes late. (p. 167)

And again: Chemo # 6 . . . I was 38 minutes late. (p. 176)

Then she also informs us of the amount of time spent in the waiting room, or during the process of chemo, in the hospital. First, the nurse explains the duration of each stage of the chemo: Methotrexate . . . she pushed this into the IV for 10 minutes Fluorouracil . . . and she pushed this drug for another 10 minutes Total IV time . . . 2 hrs, 22 minutes. (p. 153–4)

Time spent hooked up to the IV or the chemo machine is often given (p. 176, 178 and elsewhere). Ironically, every time she turns up for the chemo, she is asked ‘when’s your birthday’ as a form of verification (p. 176, 181). Marchetto also makes careful notations in her diary about the progress of her treatment, recording how she feels each day (‘day 9 after chemo, day 10 . . .’). She lists the amount of time she spent on her naps (p. 187). Marchetto offers us a convergence of times: there is the time of the clock and the calendar, but what she is really monitoring is ‘cancer time’. There is a clear rhythm followed by the clock time as treatment time. The speed of chemical infusion, the number of times of this infusion and the subsequent effects are all measured in clock time, even as these processes become part of her regular activities. The time spent waiting for the chemo to start, the time on the chemo, the time spent recovering from the fatigue, the time of recovery


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all converge upon her marriage time, her work time, and even her entire lifespan. The repeated emphasis on her age (she is 43) and birthday also forces Marchetto to acknowledge that she is on ‘cancer time’ even in the midst of the everyday, that she may not live long enough for later birthdays. This is anticipated in a panel where Marchetto admits to Silvano, then her fiancé (later, husband), that her insurance ran out. She thinks: ‘My life is officially over’ (p. 66). In Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes, after a week in the freezing mountains and no rescue in sight, Parrado thinks: I was dead already. My life had been stolen from me. The future I had dreamed of was not to be. The woman I would have married would never know me. My children would not be born. . . . I decided I would not quit. I decided I would suffer a little longer. (emphasis in original)

Here Parrado sees his time as having run out, without his having lived it fully. The comment from his father (in italics in the quote above) that he recalls is about extending his time in the mountains, perhaps delaying and defying death, for just a while longer. It could be argued then that the extreme is characterized by the polychronicity or convergence of multiple times, of which one is certainly the time of sickness. The extreme intrudes into the everyday because the everyday begins to be constituted by multiple temporalities, including that of sickness, treatment or extreme suffering/pain. The eruption of the disease is an interruption in time, and cancer time begins to expand into the everyday temporality of the patient. But extreme body time is a more or less self-contained time. Writing about illness narratives, Douglas Ezzy suggests that in certain narratives by sufferers we can discern an acceptance with the finitude, uncertainty and contingency of human life. There are rarely long-term goals or plans, and a greater interest in building goals that are ‘more abstract and gratification more oriented toward the present’ (p. 613). Thus, Ezzy points to the temporal aspects of the recognition and negotiation with illness and extreme conditions in the everyday of such victims/sufferers/patients. In Janet & Me, the question the couple immediately ponder over is their old one: ‘What would happen if one of us got sick – who would push whom in a wheelchair?’ (p. 15). The arrival of extreme body time is therefore accompanied by a shift in how time itself is perceived, with an erasure of questions about the future. Instead, in most of the auto/pathographies, the only time is the present, governed by and filled with, modes of controlling pain, ensuring timely feeds and medication, and seeking nothing more than a manageable level of suffering in the present. When Silvano serves her pasta, Marchetto says: ‘I savoured each and every bite like it was my last’ (p. 77). Marchetto refers to the cancer years as her ‘new life’ and the earlier years are designated ‘B.C.’, that is, ‘Before Cancer’ (p. 13).

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


But there is another layer to this extreme objective imaged as sick time in the auto/pathography: waiting. Waiting is a key aspect of modern everyday life (Moran p. 8–9). But when the extreme enters the everyday as is the case in auto/pathography then the waiting time occupies a fuller, perhaps overwhelming dimension in the rhythms of everyday life. There are extended periods of waiting in the hospital, in the chemo room, for the specialist, for the reports. I have already noted how in Cancer Vixen Marchetto records the time for each stage of the treatment, in hours and minutes. When the radiation treatment is on, she writes, ‘I remember wishing it would end already . . . fast. . . . Then I thought about the finite length of life . . . and how we’re only here for only a short time. . . . Why would I want even a moment to disappear?’ (p. 200). In the set of three visuals that make up this episode, Marchetto is lying under the radiation machine. In the first panel we see her staring up at the bright light (the rays, presumably) shining down on her. We see her open eyelashes and her breast (the target of the rays) with the angle of focalization being behind her head. But in the second and third panels we see only the radiation machine, because the visual is focused upward, from the prone Marchetto’s point of view. While lying there, contemplating the machine that is (perhaps) ensuring she has a cancer-free life hereafter, Marchetto comes to an awareness of the finitude of life. The symbolic rays from the machine recall for us the standard figuration of enlightenment: the bright light going off in people’s heads. The three visuals suggest a slow, contemplative moment in the course of which, as she is irradiated, Marchetto comes to a better understanding of life itself. Thus, waiting for the process to be over is rewarded with a great insight into her life: being impatient for the process to be over, Marchetto understands, is absurd because this too constitutes a moment in a finite life, and one should not wait for the moment to end but rather savour the moment. In Our Cancer Year, when Harvey and Joyce are waiting to meet the doctor, she has to ‘distract’ Harvey who looks distinctly uncomfortable and irritable (unpaginated , chapter 4). Later, when he is too weak to continue chemo (his white blood cell count is too low for them to administer chemo), the hospital turns him away from a scheduled session, asking him to return when stronger. Harvey is furious because he is waiting for the completion of chemo sessions. He insists that the hospital adhere to the original plan of twelve sessions so he can be free of the treatments. ‘They gotta give me my chemo today,’ says Harvey on such visits (unpaginated, chapter 7). The derailing of the schedule, for Harvey, becomes a state of interminable waiting. Like Marchetto, Harvey hopes to have finished the process and thereby ensured a cancer-free life. In his case, the wait, however, is protracted because his body runs to a different schedule: the white blood count does not rise enough for them to give him the chemo. Harvey’s waiting is structured around two times: the time in


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his mind, which is the time for chemo and the end of cancer, and the time in his body, where the cells do not multiply at the pace he wants them to. This incommensurability between his sense of time passing and the time of the blood cells produces the anxiety of waiting. The extreme-in-the-everyday therefore delivers a better sense of the time of life for Marchetto and interminable suffering for Harvey. But in both cases the sense of waiting and time passing is central to how they begin to perceive themselves, their body time and the disease inside them. The duration of the treatment, something Pekar is obsessively concerned with (twelve weeks, he keeps insisting), is the immediate goal of the individual, irrespective of the effects the intensity of the treatment time might have on body time. Thus, when Marchetto records how she drops off to sleep at odd times during the day, she is actually telling us that clock time holds little meaning for her because the treatment has altered her body time so that it no longer is synchronized with clocks, calendars and other external devices of timekeeping. The order of doing things – working, for example, in the everyday life of an individual is no longer possible or desirable. When Pekar wishes to spend a few hours working for instance, he collapses in his office. He is cautioned that he is too weak to return to work, but he refuses to accept his body time, believing that he should work according to the clock time he should put in as an officer. In Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, the six weeks of chemo and radiation are done and everybody in the family, as well as the mother, are waiting to see the results in the old woman. Fies draws this segment of the story in a fascinating mode (p. 47). The page is divided into two panels, with the lower panel being slightly larger than the upper one. In the upper panel we see the mother’s shaved head, up to her nose and half the ear. The lower half of her head/face appears in the lower panel. But the accompanying text is far more symbolic. One text box in the upper panel says ‘now we wait and let the poisons work’. A second text box says, ‘Mom falls into an odd, defeated funk.’ In the lower panel we see the remainder of the old woman’s body: a bandage on her neck and both hands taped up. The text boxes here read: After a week she’s much worse instead of better. A sore opens on her neck where the radiation split her skin like a sausage in a microwave. Her hands tingle painfully. Every breath is a battle climaxed by a cough. We call Mom’s oncologist.

The period of waiting is split symbolically into an illusion of ‘better’ results and the reality of ‘worse’ states in the mother’s body. The head, the symbolic seat of ‘rational thought’, is in a ‘defeated funk’. When this defeated head occupies the entire top panel, the contrast with the text box and the lower panel is

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


startling: the idea of efficacious medicine is against rational processes because the mother is already defeated, in her head, during this period of waiting even as her body deteriorates in the lower panel. Thus the panels speak to and with each other when they place the ‘defeated’ head upon the damaged body cut into two panels. It is almost as though there cannot be a rational thought about the improvements in the body. The period of waiting is organized into the illusion of improvement and the reality of worsening. The waited-for progress/ion in the narrative and in mother’s health concludes in a reversal of fortune. The wait for the medication to work its effect concludes with the medicines giving her an additional crisis: sores. The wait, within the narrative of these panels, for a healthier report concludes with the characters calling the oncologist. That is, the passage in time that the panels represent do not mark a progress towards better health or remission; they progress towards another crisis. Extreme Social Time Even as body time negotiates with clock time and finds its synchronization, rhythms and tempos irrevocably altered, extreme situations also play havoc with social time – which includes schedules, engagements, interactions as well as the sense of cultural and family history. Extreme time overwhelms, exceeds and escapes the attempt to bring it into the ambit of either clock time or social time. Indeed social time gets modified in ways that will affect social engagements and interactions. Brian Fies offers a more direct symbolization of the extreme time of mother’s cancer. On one page, titled ‘Mom in Mathemagic Land’ (p. 53), he gives us on the left of the page, an unbordered visual. This visual explains dimensions in mathematics, using cubes and lines. The right-hand side of the page has a bordered panel mapping the progress of radiation and chemotherapy. The inset shows the two lungs, labelled ‘this’, and ‘into this’. The two lungs are themselves placed as screen visuals and the entire family is viewing them. The lungs are the same, with the tumour and the fluid in one lung unchanged. The caption at the foot of the panel tells us about the ‘crushing disappointment’ over the absence of progress. Hillary Chute terms this a ‘diagram of time’ (2007: p. 420), but ignores the extreme time represented in the grammar of this page. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the visuals remain the same: extreme time is time frozen in the disease’s resistance to treatment. It is the time of the disease rather than the time of the treatment or that of the patient or even clock time. It is social time because the schedules of the family had planned for remission. It alters their relationship with their mother because now the absence of remission redefines how much time she might have with them. In some cases, the individual trapped in extreme time attempts to organize, if not body time, then at least her or his social time. This becomes manifest in


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their attempts to link their extreme time to a historical, cultural or familial context, so as to locate a genealogy of their extreme condition. We see this assertion of editorial control over the rampaging medical condition best illustrated in Ellen Forney’s Marbles. Forney compiles a vast amount of meta-data about her illness – bipolar disorder – and makes this data visible to us. She draws herself reading medical and psychiatric manuals, works of fiction and autobiographical accounts of illness so that she is better informed of her own condition. She reads the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, David Burns’s book on ‘mood therapy’ (p. 87), Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and William Styron’s Darkness Visible (p. 90). Darry Cunningham returns to history in Psychiatric Tales to give us a list of famous figures who suffered from assorted mental disorders: Winston Churchill, Brian Wilson, Spike Milligan, Judy Garland and others (p. 53–65). In both cases, I propose, the extreme time of their own illnesses or that of their subjects (Cunningham is documenting the cases he has witnessed as a mental health worker in a psychiatric unit, and later reveals that he himself had suffered from a disturbed state of mind) the story of diagnostics and healing is inserted into the story of the self in such a way that the timelines of history (Cunningham), literature (Forney) and other lives run alongside their own. In drawing – literally – these other stories and scientific data of their sickness, Forney and Cunningham frame the diseased self within the therapeutic (diagnosis and treatment). Citationality is a condition of this therapeutic that frames the self. Forney also tracks the history of mental disorders in her family. Her mother emails her an entire list: great-grandmother, great-uncle, second cousin, first cousin (once removed), aunt and her own mother. The family tree that Forney draws has one person with a disorder on every branch. The mother’s last line from the email is placed in a separate box at the foot of the page, rather like a label or caption: ‘Hope this clarifies things.’ It doesn’t, as Forney admits in her comment at the very foot of the page: ‘Depression, nervous breakdown? Bipolar, suicide?? I’d had no idea’ (p. 58). Forney here is made aware of a history of family disorders – that is, she is merely repeating in her own life extreme mental conditions of depression, suicide and bipolar disease. While on the one hand, it clarifies her own location – that she is one of a series – as the mother hopes in her email, it does not bring solace. Her statement that she had had no idea that her genealogy was so fraught indicates that the frightening nature of repetition because her condition and mental health seem predestined: she is condemned to repeat her family’s history. Like Forney, Joyce Brabner in Our Cancer Year is aware of Harvey Pekar’s family history of Alzheimer’s: ‘Both his parents died of Alzheimer’s disease. In the back of our minds there’s always been an idea that maybe – some day – something awful might catch up with us. Harvey is thirteen years older than me, but still . . .’ (chapter 9, unpaginated). Here Brabner tries to

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


interpret Pekar’s life time in terms of her own age but also his family history. Expecting something ‘awful’ to come their way due to this history, they discover cancer, almost as though cancer is the extreme interruption in the family line (lineage, timeline) of individuals dying earlier than usual due to Alzheimer’s. In the case of auto/pathography, it is a repetition of efforts, pain, treatments that make up the everyday life. In Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, the Spaniard repeatedly makes life difficult for the nurses by defaecating in the corridors of the hospital (p. 11–12). A horrific extreme is encountered in the case of a woman patient who repeatedly cuts herself – so often that ‘her skin had the look of corrugated cardboard’ (p. 17). She was, says Cunningham, a ‘regular patient’, with ‘many admissions over the years’ (p. 17). The accompanying images show scarred, pitted arms in one, and droplets of blood dripping out of ‘circular welts of cigarette burns’ (p. 17). In Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, what strikes the family as frightening is the attitude of doctors. In a section titled ‘The Usual Unusual’, the doctors, writes Fies, always say, ‘Call immediately if you notice anything unusual.’ The visual shows all the doctors, arranged as in a superhero film, front on, side by side, sharing the speech bubble in which they state this. The ‘unusual’, or the extreme, however, is left undefined by any of the doctors. The later panels here demonstrate exactly how the extreme repeats and creates a crisis. Panel 1: the mother calls the doctor and reports a headache, and is told ‘don’t worry about it’. Panel 2: she calls the doctor and reports a ‘deep cough’, and the doctor responds with ‘What?! You should have called at once’ (emphasis in original). Panel 3: she calls the doctor and reports ‘weird stingers in my head’, and the doctor responds with ‘that’s normal with brain tumour’. Panel 4: she reports a ‘leg cramp’ and the doctor practically shouts ‘that could be a deadly blood clot! Why didn’t you call?’ (emphasis in original). Panel 5: the mother reports breathing difficulty and the doctor responds with ‘So? You have lung cancer! What’d you expect?’ Fies summarizes the entire process thus: ‘She’s wrong when she complains and wrong when she doesn’t’ (p. 39–40). Cumulatively the series of panels capture repeating traumatic conditions of varying kinds and intensities, and the repeated indifference and fault-finding of the doctors. The patient who experiences a series of uncomfortable, painful and frightening conditions is always wrong, no matter that she might call the doctors right away to report her immediate state of affairs. The panels arranged in series indicate their placement in time, as a continuum and at frequent intervals. The extreme repeats at a frequency, and organizes the patient’s time around the physical distress, her phone call and the doctor’s upbraiding responses. Physician indifference and the agony of extreme repetition are also thematized in Our Cancer Year. Pekar who falls down in the hospital, when waiting for his chemo session is the subject of anger and scorn by the nurse


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who thinks, ‘Pekar, again . . .!’ (unpaginated, chapter 7). His repeated failures at getting up off the bed or the floor (chapters 8 and 9) suggest a continuum of suffering. The extreme here determines the shape of the everyday because the same incidents occur day after day, structuring the interaction with Joyce, nurses, the home and the physicians. An instance of the extreme even within extreme social time might be seen in the construction of what we can think of as ‘detainee time’. The inmates in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo were classified as ‘detainees’ and not prisoners, which would have entitled them to a measure of protection and rights under the Geneva Conventions. But the term ‘detainee’ also has a sense of waiting, as Judith Butler notes: ‘They are, rather, “detainees,” those who are held in waiting, those for whom waiting may well be without end.’ Butler’s point about the endlessness of waiting must be read alongside the nature of the wait: being tortured and humiliated in the course of waiting, almost as though from one day to the next, what they wait for is more suffering. Detainee time, then, is extreme time carried to its ultimate extent, where no result and more pain on an everyday basis is all one can wait for. It is a time beyond human time, and is built into the social time of Abu Ghraib. In the case of families of the disappeared in Argentina, the former Soviet Union and more recently Nigeria, objective time is replaced by the time of disappearance, a ‘BD’ (Before the Disappearance) and ‘AD’ (After the Disappearance) akin to ‘cancer time’ in the auto/pathographies. The families can only resolve their history, organize their family’s time, around the disappearance, almost as though their objective time has wound down. The Mothers of the Disappeared (the organization that has campaigned relentlessly for news about the disappeared) in Argentina draw attention to the number of years since their child disappeared, thus indicating when the clock really stopped. The extreme here is the stopping and restarting of time with the instant of the horrific event. Anomic Time in the Extreme Everyday Unstructured, unorganized time produces anomie (Scott p. 87–8). Anomic time in the event of an extreme incident or condition is the emptying of routine time (including body, objective and social time) so that vast swathes of time remain open to reflection. The routine of work, leisure, family time, all of which have to do with the organization and experience of time in the everyday, if absent, suddenly results in a sense of loss. Crawling on one bad leg across the extreme landscape of the icy mountains, Joe Simpson records in Touching the Void, ‘hours of darkness drifted by and I lost all sense of place and time’ (np). Here, it is not so much an emptying of time as the loss of all other processes and events except the endless

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


crawl to safety on his broken leg. Time freezes because of the repetitiousness of his action – with no thought and less consciousness of what he is doing to his damaged leg. Without checking my watch I had lain in stupefied exhaustion after every fall. Lain there and listened to endless stories running through the pain, watched short dreams of life in the real world, played songs to my heartbeat, licked the mud for water, and wasted countless hours in empty dreams. (Simpson)

And later: I spent so much of the night wide-eyed, staring at the timeless vista of stars, that time seemed frozen and spoke volumes to me of solitude and loneliness. . . . I fancied myself lying for centuries, waiting for a sun that would never rise.

This is extreme time that manifests as anomie – a schedule that is unfulfillable (in his case, making it to rescue in time), a rhythm of everyday life that he cannot determine, a tempo of actions beyond his aching, injured body. Emptied of these aspects that constitute the minutiae of everyday life in the wilds of the mountains, Simpson slips into anomic time. Pain fills all time. In Marbles, Ellen Forney, unable to plan a day, keep a schedule or organize her creative projects begins to spend hours sleeping. The visual grammar of anomie time in the six panels narrating this segment of the tale is astonishing. All we are shown is a lump on the couch, with a tiny aperture at one end (and in one case, a hand) – signifying Forney asleep under a blanket. Closer examination reveals that the shape on the couch does not change, suggestive of extreme stillness, even for a person who is asleep. On the following page two more identical panels occur (p. 81–2). Anomic time is here represented in the extreme inertia of the bundle on the couch. The tempo of Forney’s life is almost zero. Her coordination with her workplace and her projects is lost (although there is one synchronization still working: the daily phone conversations with her mother). The question of duration simply does not arise in her clock or social time because her body time is essential hyper-slow, given the fact that she is asleep. There is no sequence because there are no processes or activities to be performed in any order or at appropriate times. Sleep and inertia structure her time and this is the anomie that marks her organization of her time at all levels. Anomie time might be read as an instance of the extreme-in-the-everyday because it does not contain the ‘instant’. Like the shapeless lump that does not resemble a human in any way, anomie time does not resemble body, clock or social time. If the organization of time and actions around time mark modern life, then the extreme here is the folding of the modern into the non-modern


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inertia of timelessness, of extensible time and no action in them. The extreme, then, is the absence of instants of time. Or, perhaps more accurately, anomic time is the absence of a past or future, the absence of a plot for future life, given the extreme situation of the present moment. This form of anomic time would be particularly true of incarcerated people in torture films and prisons. The evidence from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo tells us that night and day merged into a continuous nightmare for the inmates, because they were subject to sudden acts of violence or attacks by the wardens. William Sofsky in his detailed study of Nazi concentration camps wrote: Absolute power turns every situation into one of life or death. It can foil any plan of action. The continuity of internal time-consciousness is fractured; past and future are radically devalued. The prisoner existed in an eternal yet irregularly pulsating present, an endless duration that was constantly interrupted by sudden attacks and incursions. In this world of terror, a single day was longer than a week. (1996: p. 24)

An inmate at Gitmo interviewed by Mahvish Khan informs her: And in the cells, every man ate every meal alone. Sometimes prisoners were allowed out just two or three times a week for about fifteen minutes to exercise, often in the middle of the night. Many never saw sunlight for months at a time. (p. 38)

The ‘camps’ were spaces of absolute power in terms of the complete control asserted over the time of the everyday. There was no way of predicting what would happen when, the ‘time’ of daylight or night made little sense in the locked-in world of the camps. The ‘extreme’ time here is the absolute limitlessness of a moment, or of the time spent hog-tied or in tortuous positions. Time, as we understand, ceases to exist. Vulnerability in the extreme everyday folds into helplessness when the individual lacks all agency with regard to time, and the activities organized around the time of everyday life. Risk here is visited upon the individual even at the merest effort at routine acts. Thus, extreme cultures have a very different meaning when the everyday life of some people is fraught with the disappearance of agency, the absence of control over what used to be routine. If risk, as Frank Furedi defines it, is the ‘outcome of specific activities’ (p. 17) then, in the cases documented above, the everyday activity produces enormous risks. The routine activities of everyday generate inhuman states because the human’s engagement with spaces, processes and time is through pain and suffering and is marked by enormous risk. That is, the inhuman is not the result of rare and unusual circumstance, but the blurring of the human when

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the extreme enters the routine. When Pekar or Forney fight to get through a day – Pekar avoids pain and waiting in the clinic, Forney avoids any activity, preferring to sleep all day – then the avoidance of risky encounters with the day attains top priority. Thus, ‘the autonomous individual disappears and returns as one who is subjected to the authority of autonomous risk factors’ (Furedi p. 19) and a consequent ‘diminution of the human agency’ (p. 19). Extreme Management The management of risk, as commentators have noted (Beck 1992, Furedi 2002), becomes central to individual and collective lives, when information about possible risks is made available to them. This risk management entails the management of everyday life itself. With the arrival of a singularity, such as cancer, in the everyday, the otherwise routine management of time, space, process and people becomes extreme as well. Hampered by pain, dependency, unstable bodies, the protagonist in prison, hospital or at home finds it essential to reconfigure objects, processes and relations around her condition. Object Relations In Janet & Me Stan Mack writes: ‘With the wheelchair, the five steps in front of our building, which had been practically invisible to us before, loomed like Everest’ (p. 85). The visual of this troubling discovery scene shows the couple, Janet in a wheelchair, staring at the steps. The steps are drawn as massive blocks of concrete and the two humans in diminished size before them, suggesting a complete rethinking of the routine process of accessing their familiar building. The enlarged steps, accompanied by the verbal text that constructs them as Everest, is suggestive not only of their insurmountability but of the disappearance of control over the objects and autonomy of their own bodies. It is the wheelchair, the manifestation of an extreme condition, in conjunction with the physical construct of the building that erodes her mobility. In the visual immediately preceding this one, we are shown Janet with a new walker, discovering that the walker is ‘too wide for the bathroom door’ (p. 85). Steering the car, Mack tells us, has become impossible for her, and thus reduced her independent mobility (p. 72). Mack’s text points to the shifting nature of human body-object relations, where the control and autonomy of previous years has altered irrevocably towards dependency, obstruction and disability. More than impairment, it is disability and the loss of agency that is foregrounded in the depiction of these new relations in extreme conditions. The extreme here is a situation where the object relations (of humans and material objects in and around the house), previously routine, seamless and


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smooth, have been transformed into interdictions and conflicted settings. If agency is less an immanent feature of the human/body than an emergent condition that depends on the immediate settings of the body, on the ‘intraaction’ between/across material objects, locations and the human (Barad), then Janet clearly has little agency in her own home. In the erosion of object relations, the individuals experience, not just their own illness, but a structural helplessness in their familiar locations. There are two components to this condition of structural helplessness. The first is the immanent vulnerability of the body amplified to a high degree due to sickness. The second is the helplessness produced as a result of the interaction of this vulnerable body to the surroundings. Vulnerability, Adriana Cavarero informs us (2011), is common to all human beings. Bodies are vulnerable even when they are not truly helpless (except the old and the infants). But in extreme situations, such as the onset of cancer, bodily vulnerability expands to occupy the entire universe of the individual. This folding of vulnerability into helplessness via the erosion of object relations in the everyday is a key feature of the disease narrative. In cases of torture and incarceration, such as in Abu Ghraib, the vulnerability of the inmate is conjoined with structuring helplessness by shackling/tying them or using everyday objects in ways that constitute the extreme (ab)use of these objects with the purpose of inducing pain. In Tangles, Leavitt gives us an inventory of routine things, things that seemed to have diverged from their ordinary usage in impossible ways after the onset of Alzheimer’s in their mother: she pulls up plants when she had planned to take out only weeds; she could no longer cook and tools became ‘weapons’ (p. 51). Harvey cannot take the stairs, and even getting off the bed becomes an impossible task. He falls down in the bathroom and strikes his head against the radiator (Our Cancer Year, unpaginated, chapter 11). The radiator on which Harvey falls is presented as a large object occupying most of the space in that (borderless) panel. The bathroom is represented as an inky black space with just a square of light from the window. Harvey lies with his head in contact with the radiator and the wavy lines indicate that he is being burnt. Utensils, instruments, floors, walls and stairs have all diverged in their functionality from easy-to-use to impossible to use. In Katie Green’s Lighter than My Shadow, the dining table at mealtimes, the school playgrounds and the cafeteria become interdictory spaces where everyday interactions and objects – food, clothing, the school bag – function as causes of disruption and humiliation. Teased, shouted at, mocked and insulted in each of these zones, the young Green finds the commonplace an impossible place. The helpless, writes Cavarero, is the one ‘awaiting care, and has no means to defend itself against wounding’ (2011: p. 20). The vulnerable body is rendered helpless when the body breaks down but does so in ways that make

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its intra-actions with objects the source of pain and suffering. The extremein-the-everyday ensures that there is no such sustaining or sustainable world. What is difficult to sustain, indeed, are the ‘normal’ interactions with the world, given the state of the body and the increasing dependency on a set of objects that don’t fit into the previous order of things: bed pans, needles, oxygen cylinders, pillboxes, walkers, wheelchairs, among others. In the welter of previously useable subjects, the patient discovers a loss of integrity, control and agency. In effect, in the face of extreme pain and helplessness, objects lose their primary functionality and are viewed as instruments of the pain and discomfort experienced by the body (as Elaine Scarry argued about instruments of torture, p. 41). A whole new set of object relations that infuses the everyday with the extreme is visible in torture texts from real-life situations. The most horrifically outstanding transformation of everyday objects – and not just specialized tools – into instruments of pain might be seen in the Abu Ghraib visuals. In Abu Ghraib, as the numerous visuals in the archive reveal, there was extensive use of everyday objects and materials as part of the paraphernalia of torture. In sharp distinction from the Saw franchisee, where increasingly innovative methods of flaying, maiming and killing are deployed, Abu Ghraib demonstrated the validity of Elaine Scarry’s argument: Just as all aspects of the concrete structure are inevitably assimilated into the process of torture, so too the contents of the room, its furnishings, are converted into weapons: the most common instance of this is the bathtub. . . . The room, both in its structure and its content, is converted into a weapon, deconverted, undone. Made to participate in the annihilation of the prisoners, made to demonstrate that everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no bed. (p. 40–1)

The ‘unmaking’ of the everyday life of the inmate is made possible through the ‘deconversion’ of everyday objects into instruments of humiliation and pain. Thus, for instance, women’s lingerie, menstrual blood (real and fake, in Guantánamo) and dog leashes were used on the prisoners at Abu Ghraib (documented in visuals in Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect, in Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth, extracted in volumes such as William Schulz’s The Phenomenon of Torture, 61; the Fay-Jones Report, 98 and other places). Stephen Eisenman reads these as signs of the ‘vicious sexism and homophobia’ in the US military (2007: p. 18). Ordinary cartons and crude electrical wiring become implements calculated to extract screams. The frame of the bed or the door becomes the immoveable object to which the Iraqi is shackled. I propose that it is in the use of everyday objects, the banal, as instruments in inflicting pain that the extreme enters the everyday life of the prisoners. It is possible


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to read the scenes of torture from Abu Ghraib and stories from Guantánamo as theatres of the extreme everyday. The extreme everyday is also staged within two ‘outworks’, or parerga, both contributing to what Derrida would call ‘the non-totalizable totality of the “story”’ (1998: unpaginated). The first series of parerga in Abu Ghraib’s visual archive has to do with the body: the shackles, the bonds, the bits and pieces of clothing. The second series of parerga, technically, has nothing to do with the body: the bars of the cage, the door, the corridor with cells on either side, even the jailors and the animals. But what Abu Ghraib’s visuals achieve is a ‘coupling’ of the two. The first set of parerga make sense only within the logic of the second: it is only within the frames of the materiality of the cells, the corridor and the camp itself that the shackles and bonds make sense. The first series makes sense because the objects here translate the logic of the camp and the prison into the logic of immobility, of restraint and pain. The bits of clothing and the shackles, connected to the body are translations of the logic of the camp’s larger immobility and interrogation regimes. The second series of parerga, of course, constitute not sense but a performance of American legality. Anne McClintock speaks of ‘the meticulous setting up of a parallel, ritualized (if cynically controlled) theater of judicial semblance, an elaborate performance of legality, an attempt to theatrically display state violence as legitimate – a perverse Alice-through-the-looking-glass simulacrum of legality where none exists’ (2009: 67–8, emphasis in original). McClintock’s reading of the torture scenes could also be tweaked to read torture as a ‘perverse’ performance of the everyday. (In the chapter on aesthetics I have explicated the ‘theatre of cruelty’ staged in Abu Ghraib.) This simulation of the everyday in the horrific extreme everyday of Abu Ghraib has other dimensions to it. Reading the notorious Lynndie England-with-the-leashed-man photograph Marita Gronnvoll writes: ‘One thing that makes this photograph so difficult to look at is that England’s expression suggests boredom – as if this was an everyday duty for her and had lost its thrill’ (2010: p. 37). Gronvoll, I propose, unerringly (if unintentionally) points to the routineness of the extreme in the special circumstances of the ‘camps’. In the routine use of everyday objects as instruments of torture, not only have these objects become magnified into weapons, the process itself becomes banalized, made routine. Since boredom is an irreducible feature of the everyday (Moran 2005), England’s expression of boredom seems to suggest a routinization of the extreme. There is no longer an everyday that is not also, at the same time, the extreme within the precincts of Abu Ghraib. That the new object relations (which include relations with the routine environment) are only partially about corporeal autonomy and agency and mostly about the physical environment is something most texts highlight. For

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example, in Our Cancer Year Pekar is waiting for his chemo when he falls off the chair. His pustules (from herpes) have burst and he is unstable in the chair. The fall annoys the attendants at the hospital, leading to a verbal skirmish (unpaginated). The events are less about the biomedical causes of his infirmity, than about the structures and settings Pekar is in. Given the fact that he is sick, he is automatically deprived of his autonomy to ask for his dosage or even to wait in the hall. As Thomas Couser in his study of life-writing and illness puts it, ‘Vulnerable subjects are more likely to have their autonomy violated in practise precisely because what makes them vulnerable . . . may be thought inconsistent with their autonomy’ (p. 23). Citing a textbook on bioethics, Couser suggests that the environment and its actors – in this case doctors and medical assistants – should allay the fears and alleviate the conditions that destroy what autonomy these patients do have (p. 23). Pekar’s even minimal autonomy is violated here because the cancer that renders him vulnerable is also deemed to destroy all autonomy. Emotion and Relationship Management Taking care of Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner often breaks into tears and cries silently into her pillow at night, so that the suffering Pekar would not know she is crying (Our Cancer Year). Pekar himself snaps frequently at Joyce and once accuses her of ‘torturing’ him (chapter 8, unpaginated). The severity of his pain and associated side effects (the peripheral neuropathy that makes it difficult for Pekar to raise his legs or even get off the bed or floor) causes enormous stresses and strains. The everyday in their home is thus transformed into an exercise, or crisis, in emotion management. In each auto/pathography we see how everyday interactions, at the level of the family or society, are structured around strong emotions due to extreme suffering. We have already noted in the earlier chapter the melodramatic narrativization of survivor texts. But there is more to be said in the cultural representation of illness, where emotion management is a key theme in the social and interpersonal realms of the patient and/or caregiver. This narrative of emotion management is less about the expression of emotions than about the organization of familial and interpersonal emotions as a result of the extreme everyday. The extreme in such representation is usually manifest as the efforts at managing pain, despair and hope. It also entails managing various relationships in the family, around the patient/victim and the social order almost on a daily basis. The everyday therefore has to have a whole new managerial process to regulate the high levels of stress and anxieties that proceed from chronic pain and persistent suffering. Once the mother’s brain tumour has been confirmed in Brian Fies’s Mother’s Cancer, Brian’s job is to stall the mother’s anxious questions


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(p. 7), even as the nurse sister ‘runs more than her share of medical interference’ (p. 7). Later, the mother has to be told that the brain tumour originated as lung cancer which is now in stage IV. Following this news, the task of managing mother’s apparent ignorance of the seriousness of the situation falls to the three children. The mother is presented as ‘shuffling. Listless. Dazed.’ Brian wonders why she is being ‘so stupid’, whether it is the tumour or just an ‘act’ (p. 10). On another occasion, the aggressive nurse sister seeks to get the mother priority in the hospital waiting room. Brian notes that this cannot be ‘ahead of these poor sick people’, and the visual shows gaunt men and others with oxygen tanks strapped to their wheel chairs (p. 14). In each of these cases we are shown Brian Fies usually wide-eyed, looking embarrassed or uncertain when dealing with either his dazed mother or his aggressive, medically well-informed sister. The cancer situation forces the sister into a hyperactive mode, but also causes numerous stress lines due to this activity. Accounting for the mother’s fraught state, the sister’s overprotective aggression and his own uncertainty, Brian comes across as a bemused and anxious man, always regulating the various emotional flows. When he receives instructions and injunctions about his mother’s behaviour from his father (who had left them years ago and was now a member of a commune) Brian finally loses his cool and tells his father: ‘I figure my job is to support whatever she wants.’ Brian thinks to himself – the thoughts are in a black text box at the foot of the panel, suggestive of black thoughts, or what he calls subtext (p. 86) – ‘I realized that job includes keeping YOU away from her’ (p. 87, emphasis in original). Brian acknowledges that he has it relatively easy: What matters is that kid sis lives with everything. . . . Nurse sis and I can go home to escape. . . . She hears the hacking cough in the night. Listens for the sound of bone shattering on the floor. (p. 30)

The disease reorganizes the time of the everyday but also the nature of relationships: the younger sister is the primary caregiver, living her time, her everyday, in the midst of the illness, watching for sounds in the night from the mother’s room. In Ellen Forney’s Marbles, we are given a sense of the relationship between the siblings in the scene where she tells him about her bipolar diagnosis (they are hiking on Mount Constitution). His first response is: ‘How do you know?’ She tells him she has met a psychiatrist, that it runs in mother’s side of the family and that she has all the symptoms (p. 64). His second comment, in the next panel, is: ‘Would you look at that VIEW’ (64, emphasis in original). At the bottom right of this second panel we have the clapperboard which announces ‘cut!’ suggesting the end of the conversation about her illness. Forney suggests several things here. First, the brother’s attention is

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not on her serious recital of her symptoms: he is sceptical and then focused elsewhere. Second, the conversation is not something that she can control or manoeuvre towards her side of things, because such a conversation cannot happen between them. Finally, the clapperboard announcement symbolizes an abrupt end to the conversation, almost as a third presence. The dramatization of the entire sequence offers us an insight into the awkwardness of conversations around illness. In Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, in a chapter titled ‘Compassion Fatigue’, she informs us that when she was younger she could strike up conversations with almost anybody. Then in the next panel she writes: ‘This skill came in handy in the women’s radiation waiting room’ – the conversation revolves around the forms of cancer each person in the room has, the stages of treatment and the possibilities of remission. Eventually she admits: ‘I was worn out listening to anyone . . .’ (unpaginated). But she does not give up, for in the next panel the caption says: ‘Despite my lack of real feeling, I was able to feign compassion in that flat porn-actor type of way.’ One could of course use the sickness to stave off impolite people, people and events you do not want to see/participate in, avoid places you do not wish to be in, as noted in the case of Cancer Vixen. Whether one’s social time, social relationships and social spaces might be reconfigured around cancer is also Engelberg’s puzzle in Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. In one episode, she ponders a ‘moral dilemma’, as she puts it: ‘Is it ok to play the cancer card with telemarketers?’ (chapter titled ‘Telemarketers’). Then there are the jokes around chemo and other cancer-related themes (chapter titled ‘Hilarious Never Before Heard Jokes’). Marisa Marchetto finds out that it is possible to jump queues and declare to the annoyed people: ‘I have breast cancer, and I have to run to get a mammogram’ (p. 84). There is another version of the emotion and relation management that we can discern in torture visuals from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Notorious among the actions performed on the prisoners (and those they were forced to perform) included being smeared in faeces, fellatio and sodomizing postures among themselves. Nicholas Mirzoeff in an insightful reading calls the postures ‘enforced sodomy’, and argues: The presence in one photograph of Specialists Charles Graner and England posing as a dating couple behind a sodomitical pile of prisoners is a trophy not of deviance, but of the assertion of the imperial body, necessarily straight and white, over the confused sodomitical mass of the embodied spectacle that is the object of empire. . . . England’s visible performance of a certain femininity was, then, critical to the maintenance of the U.S. Army as an institution of heteronormativity, even as it enforced sodomy on others (2006: p. 28–9)


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Mirzoeff’s focus is on the imperial-racial dimensions of the prisoner abuse, and the construction of the ‘deviant’ Other in the self-fulfilling prophecy, and stereotype, represented in the visual record. However, the enforced sodomy of the Arab/Asian/Iraqi in the presence of the heterosexual white EnglandGraner also signifies the transformation of the commonplace biological performance of sex into an instrument and an index of extreme humiliation. Writes Seymour Hersh about the events: It was thought that some prisoners would do anything – including spying on their associates – to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, ‘I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.’ (p. 39)

Elaine Scarry has noted how ‘normal needs like excretion and special wants like sexuality are made ongoing sources of outrage and repulsion’ (p. 48) in contexts of torture. Abu Ghraib enabled the experimental transformation of these biological processes that constitute everyday life for more ‘normalized’ lifestyles into the sources of extreme pain and humiliation. That these fitted into older stereotypes of Arab masculinity and Oriental sexuality is, in this reading, incidental but not foundational to the torture represented in the visuals. Extreme management here is the abusive, totalitarian and pain-inflicting control asserted over the bodies and their relations with everyday objects and routine biological functions. Extreme War and the Everyday Soft targets such as civilians have been at the centre of conflicts and wars in the twentieth century. Yet, even this tradition has reached its apotheosis – extreme – in the early decades of the twenty-first. Schools, for instance, where children in most cultures routinely go to gain an education have become sites of extreme war. Incidents such as Boko Haram’s kidnapping of school girls (April 2014, Nigeria) and the Peshawar massacre of school children (December 2014) reveal the emergence and construction of newer sites for horror to be perpetuated and the extreme to be played out. The extreme is no longer the dismemberment of enemy soldiers, it is not the bombing of civilian targets, and it is not even Abu Ghraib. The extreme is the killing of the ultimate victim: the child. The New York Times in its 16 December 2014 coverage of the Peshawar massacre opened its report thus: First the Pakistani Taliban bombed or burned over 1,000 schools. Then they shot Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls’ rights.

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But on Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a ruthless new low with an assault on a crowded school in Peshawar that killed 145 people – 132 of them uniformed schoolchildren – in the deadliest single attack in the group’s history. ( Accessed 11 April 2015)

The focus is first and foremost on the spaces of learning, the most famous victim-survivor of a Taliban murder attempt – the ‘teenage’ Malala Yousafzai. The Taliban attack is described as a ‘war on education’ and qualifies as a ‘ruthless new low’ for targeting ‘uniformed school children’. The attack ‘traumatized a scarred city’ and by evening ‘mosques were filled with mourners carrying small wooden coffins, and residents cried openly in the streets’. ‘Pakistani Taliban’s war has often been taken out on the country’s most vulnerable citizens,’ the report said. Details follow of the storming of the school with the school being converted into a ‘battleground’. There are the usual analyses of Pakistani politics, especially of the state and army’s troubled relationship with the Taliban. The visual archive of the incident, on The Telegraph’s website (http://, accessed on 21 December 2016) consists of close-ups of blood-splattered classrooms (with bits of children’s footwear in some of them), weeping parents, injured children, coffins, among others. The school is no longer a school but the site of genocidal violence. In the case of Boko Haram, a journalist report in the New Statesman says that ‘there are suggestions that Boko Haram is forcibly converting the girls, most of whom are Christians, to become Muslims, and that it has already handed over some of them to its fighters to be their “wives”’ (John Simpson 2014). The quote marks around ‘wives’ leaves it to the reader’s imagination to visualize the ‘real’ fate of the kidnapped girls. The New York Times report uses the key term around which many human rights campaigns, activism and philosophical debates figure today: ‘vulnerability’. However, to propose that the new extreme in war targets vulnerable citizens is not and adequate explanation for the horror we as readers and viewers experience, when we view the visuals on The Telegraph or see the faces of stricken mothers in the Bring Our Girls Back campaign for the Boko Haram kidnapping victims. The new extreme made visible in actions such as Boko Haram’s and Taliban’s conjoins vulnerability with helplessness. While all humans are vulnerable, some are helpless: the disabled, the old and children. The helpless is the one who is ‘awaiting care, and has no means to defend itself against wounding’ (Cavarero 2011: p. 20). Vulnerability is a biological condition, the result of our corporeal nature that makes it possible for us to be open to injury. That we are all equally vulnerable in the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction – not all of which are owned by


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totalitarian regimes, as the United States would have us believe – is a truism. It is no longer biological vulnerability that is the focus, but helplessness. Soldiers in war are vulnerable, not helpless, but school children are both vulnerable and helpless, and the contemporary extreme has altered their everyday life at school when it transforms the school into the site of helplessness rather than education. Cavarero reminds us that it is ‘only in the newborn, where the vulnerable and the defenceless are one and the same’ (p. 20). But the defenceless are the ones who need active care, whose constitutive relationship with the world is one of dependency. This dependency generates trust, a certain faith that ‘things will be taken care of’ – embodied in the child’s confidence that, when thrown up in the air, the adult will catch her or him, the child with the hand clasping the adult’s as they cross the road, the child looking neither left nor right, assuming that is the adult’s job. Contemporary horror destroys this sense of a dependable world by tearing apart the constitutive relationship the child has with the environment. The school, in the case of Boko Haram, Malala and now Peshawar, earlier the dependable environment where ‘things are taken care of’ becomes the site of vulnerability. That is, the school becomes the site of structural helplessness, where the inhabitants are rendered open to injury, maiming and death. The space where socialization and trust are first nurtured in children becomes the site of helplessness, as evidenced by the children in both these cases. The true horror of the school massacres and kidnappings is the making of structural helplessness through the inversion of the scene of socialization and trust into the site of death and wounding. Judith Butler has spoken of as the shared precarity of contemporary lives (2004, 2009). The ‘precariousness of a body’s generalized condition relies on a conception of the body as fundamentally dependent on, and conditioned by a sustained and sustainable world’, writes Butler (2009: p. 34). What is now established is that for the helpless, such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the young soldiers of the LTTE some years ago, the adolescents picked up by American soldiers in Baghdad and now the school children in Peshawar, there is not (and will not be) a sustainable world. This shift has nothing to do with natural disasters that reshape their environs in fundamental ways. Rather, the shift is related to human intervention in the structures around them, physical (buildings), social (relationships) and psychological (witnessing atrocity, to which I shall return later). What the contemporary extreme-in-the-everyday achieves in these two cases is the utter and complete annihilation of the structures that constitute the sustaining world of the truly helpless.2 Butler makes the point that survival depends on the ‘constitutive sociality of the body’ (p. 54). But in the case of the examples cited above this is precisely what is overturned: the constitutive

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sociality of the body is simply a constitutive precarity. In Peshawar, school teachers, surrogate parents to the children in the school, guardians and carers, were burnt to death before the eyes of the children. Interviews with survivors tell this horrific story. ‘Saa’, a girl who escaped the Boko Haram kidnapping, in an 27 February 2015 interview (along with Emmanuel Ogebe, a human rights defender for Nigerian Christians) at the 2015 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy describes how her classmates were lined up, their religious identity probed, their forced transportation by truck and the repeated threats by gun-waving militants. The fact that ‘Saa’ (not her real name), now in the United States, appears on TV wearing dark glasses so as to be not recognized gives us a better picture of the life of young boys and girls in Nigeria (, accessed on 21 December 2016). Children who witnessed their classmates or siblings being kidnapped, beaten or killed, those who understand the nature of the threat (being shot for going to school, the impossibility of being an adolescent male in a Baghdad occupied by US troops, the danger of being a girl child in northeast Nigeria) discover the fungibility of victimhood: ‘I am, or might be, next.’ This fungibility of victimhood now becomes the constitutive relationship the helpless has with the world. Fungibility is also a desired objective, one could say, of those seeking to instil terror. Every act of kidnapping, arrest, maiming or murder is a form of horrific communication, from those who terrorize and those who are terrorized. Malala’s friends who saw her being shot, those who witnessed the Boko Haram kidnapping and the children in Peshawar who saw their classmates massacred received a message in the form of this extreme act. Not only did they discover their own fungibility they are also now in the position of bearing witness. ‘Eye-witnessing’ is the result of being physically present at the time and place of an event, while ‘bearing witness’ is about ‘a truth about humanity and suffering that transcends those facts’ (Oliver 2004: p. 80), about interpreting an extreme or horrific event, about bearing witness to the unspeakable. The child-witness to these events will now be forced to carry the burden of understanding not only her or his fungibility, but also to the inverted nature of their historical position and constitutive sociality with the world – from dependency to structural helplessness. The bewilderment or shock at the sights they witness merges with the recognition of their vulnerability and the utter absence of a sustainable-sustaining world. This too is the nature of contemporary horror. The victim-survivors recognize that their world, a child’s world, is (also) an extreme world. Cavarero argues that what makes contemporary war and terrorism ‘unwatchable’ is the sight of prolonged, excruciating suffering and the dismembered bodies. The events around Abu Ghraib, Boko Haram and Peshawar do not gesture only at senseless violence but at the extended, extensible and


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continuing trauma in the lives of the helpless. The events are not singularities within time and space but prolonged in terms of the complete absence of knowledge as to what happened to the kidnapped and the incarcerated, the tortured and the ‘disappeared’. As the protestors of the Argentinian disappeared have repeatedly pointed out, the famous ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, there has been no finality, no closure to the continuing trauma of the 1970s and 1980s. As writers such as Alicia Portnoy (The Little School) and Lawrence Thornton (Imagining Argentina) have noted, the trauma is without end. In the case of disappearances, the extreme everyday works in slightly different ways. When the state ‘disappears’ members of its adult citizenry, the disappeared quickly acquire a new identity: political dissident, Jew, intellectual, Westerneducated girl, terrorist, and so on. But the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram hardly qualify as political threats or even political people. Here the extreme-in-the-everyday as civil war that informs their lives reshapes their very identities as no other form of socialization does. That is, the extreme in these instances – dictatorial regimes, civil wars – functions as a form of extreme socialization of those who are disappeared. The disappeared first lose the identities they were born with and grew into as members of families and communities. Then, for the survivors, the families and for those reporting on them, the missing girls do acquire an identity: the disappeared. They merge into a statistical data sheet: one of 300. The disappeared thus lose their primordial identity in the act of disappearing. An entirely new history is being crafted for the girls by Boko Haram – one that is separate from any planned or prepared for by their biological parents and families and over which the families or communities have absolutely no control. This too is an instantiation of the extreme because it takes apart the structures of socialization, identitymaking and replaces them with completely new ones but with no consent or control of the families of the children. Disappearance, writes Avery Gordon, removes people . . . from their familiar world, with all its small joys and pains, and transports them to an unfamiliar world, where certain principles of social reality are absent. . . . The disappeared . . . are people who have disappeared through enforced absence and fearful silence. (2008 [1997]: p. 112)

But the world left behind, to the survivors, is also no longer the same familiar world because parts of that world now suffer from a loss, a lack: of the missing girls. The houses and homes are marked, or rather haunted, by the disappeared. The absence, silence and fantasmatic images constitute the disappeared as ghosts, the end product of very material processes. The girls in the photographs are no longer with us, their transformation from live beings into fantasmatic images is the effect of real material processes. That is,

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


material processes have transformed material bodies into fantasmatic images and memories. The extreme-in-the-everyday of the families of the disappeared is the haunting minus the spectres, the inability to mourn because they do not have any body to mourn. A family is now defined not by their family name or place of origin, but by the lost, the disappeared. To absorb loss into a family history and then to redefine the family as the one whose girl is disappeared, is to reconfigure a set of relations around the loss or lack. It is the complete erasure of the material child except as images and numbers and newly christened names (as is the case with Boko Haram kidnappings) that constitutes the extreme. Armando Kletnicki is right to propose that the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ‘restricts the classification of the [eliminated] groups to those explicitly identified by their national, ethnic, racial or religious origin’ (2006: p. 181). Disappearance must be seen as part of a ‘genocidal logic’ (Kletnicki’s term) because it targets specific groups of people. The targeting of school children – whether of Christian families or Muslim ones – in the case of Boko Haram’s actions cannot be seen in the ambit of the above definition, since these victims, one could now hazard a calculated guess, were kidnapped for being girls. We can see a genocidal logic at work, even though the group does not fit the criteria for genocidal populations. Disappearance works to keep the familial and social wound open because the absence of information about the disappeared ensures that the family and the community will always experience a lack and ignorance. It is not only imprisonment, torture and execution that might be deemed ‘violence’. As an act, disappearance is a structural extreme violence too because it shatters families, leaves them wounded and unable to tend those wounds with adequate mourning and unfurnished memories. True horror, as evidenced by the extremes of Abu Ghraib, Northeast Nigeria and most recently Peshawar, is when man-made forces conjoin natural vulnerability to socially crafted helplessness. Extreme war is the carrying of war into zones occupied by vulnerable citizens and thus transforming them into zones of helplessness. It transforms the everyday life of school children into the extreme. The extreme can no longer be said to be ‘out there’: it is integral to the everyday in several parts of the world. To the survivors in both cases the very notion of ‘education’ has now been aligned irrevocably with the ‘extreme’. Extreme Agency Those voluntarily seeking to immerse themselves in extreme situations and exposing their vulnerability to possible helplessness do so with preparation and training. In extreme sports, agency is cultivated and practised in the form


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of extreme preparation of and by the body to face helplessness. Here the extreme is inserted into the everyday by way of deprivation, training, understanding the risk involved, equipment preparation, among others. These, it could be argued, are agential acts in anticipation of the extreme. In extreme sports the toughness-and-endurance regime and body training demand a voluntary investment in pain. Writing about rare experiences, Roger Abrahams divides experiences into two: ‘Those arising directly out of the flow of life, with little or no explicit preparation; and those for which we plan and to which we look forward’ (p. 63). Abrahams also proposes that ‘the greater the degree of self-conscious preparation and stylization, the more the experience may be shared’ (p. 63). The descriptors employed by Abrahams links rare experiences to what he terms ‘fictive displays’. Abrahams also notes that there is an attempt to ensure a ‘sense of continuity between these various realms’ (p. 63). He continues: We must expend a good part of our energies secretly preparing for these breakthroughs, for these spontaneous times in which we are overcome by the fulfillment of the expectations we hardly could admit to having-like those ‘first-time experiences’ which, when successful, are so surprising because we hear about them and even talk about them but they seem to sneak up on us anyhow. We are surprised only by the fulfillment of expectations. (p. 64)

Abrahams is pointing to the extensive preparations (‘practised, run through, rehearsed’, he terms it, p. 69) we make anticipating the singular experience. He suggests that the unique event, the rare event is prepared for, almost ritualistically. There is continuity between the realms of everyday life and rare experiences like extreme sports because the everyday life, especially in the case of endurance sports, devotes much of the time, energy and money to training for the sporting event. Training, knowledge-gathering, equipment purchases, testing, discussion groups, watching videos are all woven into the fabric of everyday lives of most of those who participate in such sports because these are not events one can afford to go untrained for. In other words, the singularity of the extreme event is already prepared for, anticipated, and framed within the continuum of everyday life in most cases. Take, for instance, Adventure Racing (or Expedition Racing), a mixed-gender, multi-day, multidiscipline and multi-terrain which requires individuals to form teams months – sometimes a year – in advance. In preparation for the race, teams must finance, equip and train all members. They must have specific skills certified in high-risk activities such as horseback riding, abseiling, orienteering and even scuba diving. They must train up to twenty hours per week while balancing (sometimes sacrificing) work and family life. (Kay and Laberge 2004: p. 154–5)

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Thus the actual event, or singular experience, is already woven into the everyday lives of its participants. In terms of temporal frames, the future event has been anticipated in the present. Further, the forging of teams indicates an elite cultural citizenship that ironically is meant to serve the cause of an individual’s rare experience of the race. Apparently, the individual’s rare experience is made possible through her or his enrolment in a group that then prepares her or him for the experience. The singularity of the experience, to word it differently, is collectively, socially and culturally framed – in terms of the meanings of the experience, the knowledge of the risks involved, the knowledge of the contingency plans and the bodily regimen to be adopted. However, those immersed in extreme everyday conditions and enforced exposure of their vulnerability, such as in the case of chronic disease, may not have the agency to prepare for the extreme. Despite this, narratives of extreme cultures document some minimal agency in the persons and their bodies. The extreme of disease, pain and suffering is also placed under some form of editorial control when we are shown, literally, the play of pen on paper in these authors, even when the play portrays a lack of progress or even disillusionment. Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen develops a ‘cancer agency’. By ‘cancer agency’ I refer to Marchetto’s attempt to retain a sense of self by incorporating the extreme into her traditional agential modes. When faced with the extreme of pain, anxiety over the possibility of different and recurring cancer, she merges her older forms of agency – fashionista and professional cartoonist – with a cancer agency. We see this cancer agency making its first appearance early in the narrative in the form of a caricature she makes of cancer itself. She has been referred to a surgical oncologist who informs her that he will be extracting cells from her tumour to ascertain if they are ‘angry’ (p. 4). The panel where he extracts the cells is placed at the left-hand top corner. Diagonally opposite, in the right-hand bottom corner is the doctor’s explication of the ‘angry cells’ image: ‘What that means is, there’s a chance it could be cancerous’ (p. 4). But the key image here is the one that is in the middle of these two panels. Marchetto draws cells that are screaming, pouting, giving her the finger, glowering and frowning. She labels it ‘possible cancer cells, an artist’s rendition’ (p. 4). Later, when she meets her doctors she records the conversations they have with her (p. 32, 141 and elsewhere). She goes armed with her ‘reporter supplies’, including tape recorders, tapes, sketch diary and a digital camera (p. 137). Here the assertion of agency is Marchetto’s conversion of the subject of her cancer into the subject of her art, rendering the cancer cells into pictures as a means of controlling perhaps not the biology of cancer but


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the representation of it – a form of artistic and textual control over something that is rampaging through her system. Marchetto’s cancer agency also forces her to reiterate her fashion statements and preferences. She arrives for chemo in fashionable clothing and itemizes this for us (138, 159 and elsewhere). To tell Silvano that she has an abnormality she ‘puts on “brave” lipstick by M.A.C’, she says, even as the panel shows the lipstick held up like a gun, at the exact parallel to the cell phone in her other hand (p. 11). When worrying about hair-fall and possible weight gain as side effects of her treatment, Marchetto remains firmly attached to the idea of her ‘fashionable self’. As the treatment targets the interiority of her body Marchetto seeks to ensure that externally she remains in control of her appearance. She therefore folds her pre-cancer agency into her cancer agency, even heightens it. What Hillary Chute finds annoying about Cancer Vixen – the insistence on fashion and appearances – is precisely what I find appealing about the text. ‘Cancer agency’ is my term for the reiteration of a sense of selfhood in the two domains Marchetto is supremely in control: fashion and cartooning. In Our Cancer Year Harvey has only one way of keeping sane: he needs to get back to his work. The need to get back to work becomes his litany through the treatment which, while driving his partner insane, offers him some measure of agency and identity. In the face of the slow, unstoppable, decline of her mother due to Alzheimer’s, Sarah Leavitt’s assertion of agency is to document the story of this decline in words (Tangles). Somehow, when she reads out what she has written her mother registers the content, and bursts into tears, declaring ‘I’m not a real person’ (p. 89). At the right-hand bottom of this panel is a black square with a sentence in stark white lettering: ‘I didn’t try that again’ (p. 89). This is the only black panel within a panel on the page, and the reversal of traditional writing modes (black on white) suggests a reversal of expectations (Leavitt’s, about the effect her writing the mother’s story would have on the mother) but also something more. For a woman whose mind does not register much, the mother recognizes herself in the story her daughter is reading out. Her declaration, ‘I’m not a real person’, could gesture at her being reduced to a character in her daughter’s story. (In Our Cancer Year, at one point, Harvey also wonders, ‘Tell me the truth. Am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book called American Splendor . . . or am I just a character in that book?,’ unpaginated, chapter 9.) Leavitt suggests that her mother believes she has disappeared from the world of real persons when she hears Sarah’s story. It is when the daughter asserts her power of words that the mother achieves this recognition of her own dehumanization. Leavitt’s simple statement ‘I didn’t try that again’ is at once, therefore, the admission of the power of the words she used, and the horrific consequences of the same. Far from being narrative therapy, Leavitt’s text

The Everyday, Vulnerability and the Extreme


functions in the life and consciousness of her mother as a narrative crisis: she listens to the story and finds herself diminished. The writing in white on a blackboard thus reverses her (Leavitt’s) own narrative therapy: from the black-on-white in which she presumably wrote the story of her mother’s sickness, she has blacked out the page and retained just her decision to not try the reading out again. The blackening of the panel is also indicative of the blacking out of the mother’s mind, but a blacking out into which the letters of the daughter’s text penetrated. And now, the daughter has blackened her page as well. The daughter asserts her agency but only for the mother to discover, in a rare moment of lucidity, that she has lost hers. The mother is forever condemned to be just a character in Leavitt’s book. One gets the sense that people like Harvey and Sarah Leavitt’s mother see themselves as dehumanized into characters in books because they have been reduced to diseased bodies (Alzheimer patient, cancer patient) in narratives about them. Their entire identity is configured around their sick bodies and their subjectivity around suffering and pain in the narratives that they no longer can author or authorize. ‘I’m not a real person,’ as Leavitt’s mother phrases it, could thus be taken to mean ‘I am just a sick person’ or ‘I am a figure in your book’.3 The experience of documenting the illness in the case of auto/pathography is part of the experience of the illness. This means the space of the panels and the organization of a visual grammar of one’s own or a beloved’s extreme condition functions as a therapeutic space where the problem (the disease), its effects (pain) or treatment come to occupy all space. The panel is the space of creativity of the patient/caregiver/biographer of the sick role, the drawing a transitional phenomenon. Lisa Diedrich unpacking Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? writes, following D. W. Winnicott’s work: [Winnicott’s] concept of transitional phenomena joins the domains of play, creative living, and cultural experience, forming a connective tissue between the phenomenology of individual being in the world and the structuring structures of the cultural field. Play is a potential space ‘between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.’ . . . Play facilitates growth, group relationships, communication with oneself and others, and Winnicott argues that the ability to play indicates and creates health. (2014: p. 188)

Diedrich goes on to propose that Bechdel’s work ‘makes more explicit graphic work as healing work – or perhaps we should say, graphic play as healing play’ (p. 189). Marchetto, Leavitt, Cunningham, Forney and Fies engage in creative ‘play’ as they document their own or their loved ones’ medical conditions and suffering. The drawing of bodies and faces in extreme agony, the casual attitude of doctors, the ‘objective’ space of hospitals in quirky or realist fashion (Our Cancer Year is a text that prefers the realist


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mode) is an in-between or transitional space between the subjective experience of the extreme and the objective nature of treatment and cure. For the medical gaze, the body of Marchetto or Forney is an object, to be looked at, examined and pronounced upon. This cultural space of medicine, with its interpretive procedures and interpretive communities of radiologists, oncologists, psychoanalysts, etc., is one over which the patient has no control. The body is of course the subject experiencing the pain, and yet again, is a realm over which, the patient/victim has no control. By making the latter the ‘subject’ of creative play, the artist and storyteller relocates the subjective extreme in the realm of art – which they can then control. That is, in between their bodies, its subjective experience of pain and the cultural realm of medicine, neither of which they control, the artist/storyteller locates the graphic memoir as a document of their illness but mainly as a form of textual control over this illness and the biomedical apparatuses that treat the illness. By taking the experience of pain and converting it into a text, Forney, Fies, Marchetto and others inscribe disease into a form of cultural legibility. Detailing the (new) everyday negotiations with medical apparatuses, hospitals, medicines, needles along with the altered negotiations with the (older) home-space, officespace, transport systems, the victim refuses to be either entirely a subject of her own medical conditions or the object of the medical gaze. The textual control is also taken to a new level in narratives of extreme conditions where, for instance, individuals bring in multiple genres and visual material as a way of framing a collective setting. Fies compiles a vast amount of literature (which he then incorporates as a set of photographs in his story, p. 24) to demonstrate the textual ‘world’ of cancer. The artist thus incorporates the medical condition and the medical processes into acts of self-representation in the graphic medium and forces us to see the medical self as a dimension that the creative self both explores and explicates. In other words, I propose here that the extreme enters into the everyday life of the patient, not simply in terms of disease and pain, but also as part of their larger aesthetic project that then becomes integral to their self-fashioning. The extreme is not simply the suffering body or the extreme nature of harsh chemo and painful radiation, but one that is actively taken into the transitional space of self-representation. While it might not exactly create ‘health’, as Diedrich referencing Winnicott suggests, it does represent a move beyond the passive patient role: the patient stars in the narrative of their own illness, and possesses the agency to control this narrative, even if the illness itself is beyond their immediate control.

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notes 1. In Cancer Vixen, the other date and time she records with such diligence is 9/11, 8.47 a.m. (p. 28). 2. I am not looking at the American ‘culture’ of school-shootings, with its notorious history from the 1999 Columbine incident, carried out by school children. 3. Just at the time her treatment ends, Marchetto’s story, ‘Cancer Vixen’, has appeared in Glamour magazine. The doctor who has thus far been reluctant to being photographed sees the story and asks her: ‘Why didn’t you put me in this?’ (p. 200).

Chapter 4

Vulnerability, Biovalues and Witnessing (In)Human Extremes

Admittedly, torture and endurance sports are not in themselves new, given the history of the Olympics or the history of torture that date back to the ancient eras. What is new, however, is that a whole new culture of death (Noys 2005) and life has come to centre stage, whether in the form of fictional representations of torture, the anxiety over viral epidemics that do not respect the borders of humans, animals or computers, and dying – with the corpse, very often, a source of entertainment and spectacle in mass media. Cultures of extremes situate biovalue at the borders of life and death. Indeed, biovalue emerges in such cultures under conditions of extreme stress, pleasure or suffering, whether it is free-falling from hundreds of feet above terra firma or assaults on the body. Cultures of extremes may not necessarily be cultures of death, but they certainly are a part of the cultures of dying. Vulnerability is the foundational condition from within which biovalues are constructed: in terms of degrees of vulnerability, whether of individuals or populations. Death and dying are differentially organized around the world with several groups being rendered ‘disposable’. This is particularly the case with social suffering, which is the result of political, economic and institutional power working upon the people (Kleinman et al. 1997). This social suffering of entire communities placed on the edge of extremes is a different order of the biopolitical, and is not the subject here. My interest is in the individual biovalue embedded in networks of power and extreme conditions. Cultures of extremes are irreducibly cultures of the biopolitical extreme because they demonstrate how biovalues are the effects of the interrelations of the body, whether with the surfboard or the rack, the electrical wiring (in torture) or the permanent chemotherapy port, and therefore subject to biopower. Braidotti defines biopower as being not only about ‘the government of the living but also . . . [about] practices of dying’ (Braidotti 2010: p. 201). 117


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Cultures of extremes might be read as symptoms of the ‘new practices of “life” [that] mobilize not only generative forces but also new and subtler degrees of extinction’ (p. 203). The (in)human extreme is the exploration of these ‘degrees’ and forms of ‘extinction’ of vulnerable matter in conjunction with the world. This chapter is organized around the framing of biovalue in extreme cultures manifest in the domain of torture, and concludes with the project of witnessing that is (or ought to be) engendered as a consequence of the circulation of such disturbing imagery. It ends the study of cultural texts dealing with extremes by proposing that such texts foreground the fragility and vulnerability of the human, so that they initiate a new set of frames of recognition. Cultural texts of extremes are instantiations of a new materialism because they depict modes of living and extinction, with the latter being drawn out and painful. They might be read as a response to the increasingly dematerialized, virtual forms of existence because they foreground the irreducible material foundations of life. Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. (Coole and Frost 2010: p. 1)

Coole and Frost in this, their Introduction to a volume on the ‘new materialisms’, not only foreground the interconnected and mutually constitutive nature of all life, they reference matter and materiality as the basis of this life. Bodily matter matters. In order to emphasize this materiality and material foundations of vital life, cultures of extremes focus on the vulnerability of this matter. Coole and Frost argue that this new materialism underscores the ‘productivity and resilience of matter’ (p. 3). This book’s contention is that alongside its productivity and resilience, matter also exhibits fragility and vulnerability in its openness to the world and in its interrelations with the world. To watch cultural texts dealing with extreme situations is to be made aware, not only of the irreducibility and interconnectedness of matter but also of this vulnerability. Coole and Frost propose that the new materialism is posthumanist in its assignation of agentic properties to matter, and for its emphasis on connections and relationality. They write: ‘Materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable’ (p. 9). They propose a ‘posthumanist sense of material agency and a limitation of humans’ agentic efficacy’ (p. 14).

Vulnerability, Biovalues and Witnessing (In)Human Extremes


Ways of Living, Ways of Dying Jean Amery writing about his experience of torture spoke of a ‘fleshization’, being made aware of the fleshiness of his body, suspended from the wall, shoulders wrenched and subject to constant pain (p. 89–90). Torture ensures the ‘transformation of the person into flesh’ (p. 90). Joe Simpson crawling across the mountain top with his broken leg finds that his mind can only revolve around the pain in his leg. In the intense cold of the Himalayan ranges, Jon Krakauer experiences his body’s craving for warmth and oxygen as he never has. Watching the prods approach the eyes, from the perspective of the victim in Saw VI, we come to see the absolute vulnerability of the organ of sight. Ways of living and ways of dying might only be read in terms of the flesh, with all its associated neural, cognitive and affective processes and, more importantly, its connections with the world. By foregrounding vital life and dying as the unexpected and not desired consequence of the body’s vulnerable openness to the world, cultures of extremes demonstrate how the processes of life and death are not internal states alone. Even in the process of dying, for instance, through the extreme pain of torture in Abu Ghraib that brings the individual close to death without actually dying, we are connected to the world. The ‘practices of dying’ that Braidotti identifies as posthumanist materialism are also, in these cultural texts, about connectedness. Fleshization In cultures of extremes the body lives in conjunction with the technics of the world, giving these technics, flesh. But ‘embodiment’, writes Mark Hansen, ‘can only be realized, in conjunction with technics’ (2006: p. 20). The body is exteriorized and extended into the environment, or what Hansen terms the ‘dissolution of the divide between interiority and exteriorization, the flesh of my body and the flesh of the world’ (p. 91). Embodiment is never just the limited flesh but about the extended, expanded and interfaced corporeality, and of course its immanent vulnerability. The new biovalues made visible in extreme cultures hinge upon this interfaced corporeality, whether it is the voluntary interfacing of extreme sport or the involuntary tactility of the instrument of torture in Abu Ghraib. Fleshization is the transformation of the person into flesh, which is open to the world, the setting or the immediate environment and the objects in it. In the case of extreme sport, fleshization is undertaken as a way of redefining the body’s, and the person’s, relation with the environment, as noted earlier (in chapter 1 on space), of a re-enchantment with the world. This re-enchantment could take one of two routes. In the first, it entails a surrender of the body to the


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setting, as in extreme sport, in order to experience sublime sensations. In this process the flesh’s interface with the world produces sensations of thrill, danger and pleasure, but also awe and fear because there is a shift from vulnerability to helplessness: subject to wind speeds, water currents, gravity, among others. In the second, there is a surrender of the body, but involuntarily, to the setting, as in torture. This process entails the intensification of physical existence but only in order to discover a negation of the self as the body screams in agony. One could think of the first as an affirmative reenchantment that calls for a testing of the limits of the human, voluntarily, in order to experience ecstasy and dangerous thrills. The second is a negational re-enchantment that, while ensuring an intense awareness of the body in the midst of instruments of pain, also enables a loss of the person in that body. Elizabeth Weber’s description of torture as the ‘experience of death while still alive’ (p. 89) captures this negational state. It reduces the body to meat and a concomitant loss of the person inevitably occurs, and the meat is valued as just plain flesh, a commodity that exists for the sake of the user’s pleasure or profit (the auctioning of persons in Hostel complicates this reading however, since the potential victims are priced according to their nationality – the Americans go for a very high price). Extreme cultures in the torture genre embody a materiality because the making-visible of raw spaces of the body, turned inside out in torture, ensures that we understand what bodies are made of: bone, blood and tissue. By making a spectacle of this transformation the biopolitical extreme is making meaning of a kind. Fleshization, thus, is a process where interfaced corporeality redefines itself and its blurred borders with the world, either to find extreme sensory pleasure so that the person says ‘this is me, experiencing the thrill’, or extreme pain that takes away the personhood of the person, reducing him or her to meat. If constitutive corporeality (the human in conjunction with the world and its technics) is the mark of the posthuman, then torture generates the abhuman within the posthuman. The body’s interface with the world and the mutually constitutive corporeality in the context of torture may be said to ‘expulse the spirit, reducing the person to a ghost’ (Weber p. 91). The individual approximates to the posthuman in the sense that her or his subjectivity is constituted by the interrelations with the world, but this subjectivity entails the destruction of the subject through pain. Her or his sense of interfaced corporeal identity is mediated through the pain, the fact that her or his body has been turned against herself or himself. It is less the connectedness of materials/matter than the helplessness of bodily matter immersed in such a setting, and therefore less about the vitality of life than about forms of dying. The biovalue attained through the encounter with the extreme in these two cases clearly assigns very different values to flesh. In one, the flesh is a way

Vulnerability, Biovalues and Witnessing (In)Human Extremes


of a productive engagement with the world, even though this engagement is often close to the experience of death. In the second, the engagement with the world takes the victim ‘beyond the border of death into nothingness’ (Weber p. 94). But in both cases, the extreme hinges upon the interfaced corporeality of the individual. Horrorism Fragmented, injured and ‘partial’ bodies that are the end products of torture, war, disease and injury, Adriana Cavarero argues, constitute a horrorism because it is no longer about death but a state of prolonging the agony when alive. Horrorism assigns to the patently suffering body the biovalue of something into which the world has entered, visibly so, and irrevocably altered the ‘figural unity’ (Cavarero) of the body. It is more about processes of dying while alive than about death itself as the vulnerable body is slowly, in painful stages, transformed into the helpless body, its openness and interface with the world becoming the source of its discomfort and suffering. Horrorism is an aesthetic of posthumanism in representations of the extreme, where the body has been resculpted in order to demonstrate the inscription of the world. The missing limb, or the brutalized body, is a posthuman condition because it is opened, literally, to the world, has had the world imprint itself on its skin. The world and the person meet in the skin of the person, and the world enters the corporeal. It is not the posthumanism of prosthetic bodies, but a posthumanism where the human has, for a brief period, engaged with the world and taken the world into itself. This transgressive relation of body and world is posthuman because borders are crossed. If transgression is the ‘going beyond’ the interdiction, the skin, the limb, the sheer flesh, embodies this transgression. Matter ceases to matter except as meat in horrorist helplessness. The person is expelled from the flesh – even when the individual has been, to begin with, incarcerated as a political person – and the end of matter is the end of the process. In the curious eversion that is characteristic of horrorist cultural texts, vulnerability is laid open, as a spectacle with sinews and blood, muscle and bone becoming the object of attention, including media attention. Horrorism is the emphasis on incremental stages of extinction rather than the end product – the corpse – itself. It is the production of corpses, or non-persons, that is the focus here. The loss of dignity through humiliating processes, as seen in the Abu Ghraib visuals, is horrorist too because it signifies the erosion of psychological and cultural integrity. Not being allowed to be Muslim or Arab without fear or degradation that accompanies the physical beatings (which take away or deface corporeal integrity, as Cavarero proposes) showcases the vulnerability of a cultural body to the world. In the age of


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multiculturalism and global connections, the cultural integrity of the incarcerated is not simply compromised: it is broken down. Shared Precarity, Helplessness and the Moral Extreme With the recognition that bodies, fates and ontologies are linked, the Saw films also foreground the crisis of moral decision making. People act out unacceptable immoral choices when faced with extreme situations and choose, therefore, only for themselves. This becomes their assertion of moral sovereignty in the face of extreme choices. Towards the end of Saw V, for example, the survivors discover that if they had worked together as a group of five to collect the required pints of blood, they would all have survived. But since every individual was thinking only of herself or himself, they end up killing several of the group so that the two survivors have to ultimately contribute five pints of blood each. Steve Jones proposes that it is their lifelong instincts of selfishness that causes them to abandon the social, and condemn each other (p. 113). Jones notes that much of the moral theme in these films revolves around issues of moral agency, and forces us to ponder difficult ethical questions: ‘Is it ever necessary to take another person’s life? To what extent does self-preservation outweigh one’s obligation to others? What pressure could lead one to knowingly commit immoral acts?’ (p. 117–18). I return here to the question of shared precarity, but this time to a slightly different line of argument. We have to see moral agency as emerging from a sense of shared precarity, of common threat and of being conjoined in conditions of helplessness – a truth that the protagonists of Saw discover. A moral commons – that is, a commons built upon the moral responsibility to each other as equally vulnerable humans – is produced within the space of the torture room, but one that is nearly impossible to preserve in the face of extreme pain. I of course emphasize ‘face’ in the Levinasian sense. Victim 1 has to see the face of Victim 2, bloodied, suffering, screaming and eventually dying. Her or his ethical limits are tested when brought face-to-face with the suffering Other as a part of the staged theatricality of Saw. Luc Boltanski has argued that ‘having knowledge of suffering points to an obligation to give assistance’ (1999: p. 20), but this obligation is precisely what the Saw films interrogate by pointing to the innate selfishness of humanity, especially when faced with unbearable pain and the face of the suffering Other. Faced with the vulnerability of one’s body and the helplessness of the Other, the protagonist opts to safeguard her or his own vulnerability, abandoning the Other to the impossible helplessness of the trap. The victims not only accept their victimhood but also assume agency over it. Saw’s protagonists are indeed given a chance to assert their agency within

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the frames of their victimhood, provided they make a moral choice, to save themselves and condemn their fellow-victim/sufferer. When the victim calls out in Saw: ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What do you want me to do?’ to her or his unseen captor/tormentor, the call gestures at the moral choice given to the victim. The escape from the trap involves not just a clever movement (discovering the key), but also the condemning of another victim to injury and death and a fair amount of self-destruction. This entails, in almost all Saw films: the victim undergoing excruciating pain in the process of escaping – inaugurated in Saw with Lawrence Gordon sawing off his foot, to Simone hacking off her left arm in Saw VI. When faced with an extreme choice, would you choose to rescue, or prevent the death of, a capable young man with years of life ahead of him or your older secretary (Saw VI)? Here, moral agency is not only about condemning at least one victim to pain and death but also about the paradoxical situation where the protagonist must possess and exhibit a willingness to self-destruct – a voluntary embracing of helplessness – as a possible (but never definite) route to survival. It is less the condition of shared precarity than one of shared helplessness that brings the victims face-to-face: the Saw films thrive on the look each victim gives the other. The horror of films like Saw or Kill Theory is that it points to a specific feature of human character: self-preservation in the face of all odds and the moral choices one makes as a result of this character. Steve Jones summarizes it thus: Horror emanates from the captive-turned-torturer’s willingness to (a) act immorally, (b) place their own safety above their kinship with the sufferer, and (c) relinquish to the captors’ immoral commands, which means forsaking their autonomy as a moral agent. (p. 116)

All forms of autonomy – physical, psychological and moral – that constitute human agency are taken away from the protagonists in torture porn. When agency is available to them, as in the case of Amanda and Hoffman and later even Dr Gordon (Saw), Paxton and Beth (Hostel), and the parents (John and Emma, Craig and Elise) of The Last House on the Left and The Tortured respectively, they accept their torturers’ ideology and turn torturers themselves. Captives, Steve Jones notes, often realign their moral compass to suit the conditions of their captivity and their captors (p. 109–12). Through renormalization, the captive then can perform the same actions that had been perpetrated on her or him by the torturer. But Jones also notes that the artificial torture chambers are not moral vacuums: in those spaces holding on to moral values becomes the source of crisis. Renormalization, as Steve Jones names this process, is the acceptance of the torturers’ ideology by their


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victims. It marks a shift in the nature of the victims’ own moral position in terms of the willingness to injure and maim others. Such a reversal of their moral position often takes the form of a neoprimitivism that reveals the shallowness of the civilizational process. The defence of one’s vulnerability in the intersubjective condition of torture demands the consigning of the Other to helplessness. Survival is linked to the willingness to abandon the Other, when both are in a condition of shared precarity, in most torture films. In the case of Abu Ghraib, Hersh and other commentators note, the inmates were repeatedly warned that their families would be subject to the same degradations, thus linking the inmates with the rest of their families and loved ones. In Cube, when Quentin gets ready to abandon the mentally challenged boy, Holloway asks him: ‘What have we turned into?’ Pain and the threat of imminent death transform the individual into something unrecognizable. Rather than Jones’s renormalization, this process might be thought of as a ‘normalization’, a return to the so-called primitive moral position of selfpreservation. If taking to cannibalism is what is essential to survive, then the protagonist opts for this, rather than to retain the moral taboos of civilized lives. If a betrayal of friendships or any relations is called for as a means of averting pain, then the protagonist opts to commit this act of betrayal. In the bizarre worlds of extreme cultures, normaliza/tion is the return to survival processes, a rationalization of acts like betrayal or cannibalism or torture. It does not necessarily mean, as Jones implies, an acceptance of the torturer’s point of view or lifestyle. In extreme contexts, the avoidance of pain is the only ‘normal’ state of being. When Holloway calls Quentin a Nazi in Cube she is painting him a monster, and not one very different from their anonymous captors. Fictions of the biopolitical extreme are works that capture the anxiety around the nature of the social fabric and the moral codes that supposedly govern human behaviour. This dispossession of moral agency, alongside corporeal disintegration, is the mark of the biopolitical extreme. Human beings are now so ‘riddled with vices and invariably cannot, even when put in a life-or-death situation, develop the self-awareness to overcome them’ (Wallis and Aston p. 354). In other words, the scene of torture normalizes acts of self-preservation and calls into question the sustainability of moral values in the face of extreme pain. The monster resides in all of us, and torture porn allows us to glimpse this monster within. Torture, said Elaine Scarry, destroys rationality. But it also destroys the conditions under which a certain set of moral precepts might be operable. Torture porn might be then seen as a return to a premodern world of brutality, or rather, it peels off the veil of civilization underneath which, in the most civilized settings of smart cities exist houses of horrors, torture chambers and the instruments of gratuitous violence.

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The premodern sensibility in torture films gestures at something else too; the possibility that anybody can be reduced to ‘bare life’, barely living humans with no social or political value, or life that might be taken with impunity (Agamben 1998). Following Agamben, Catherine Zimmer has proposed that torture and surveillance narratives are all part of biopolitical technologies serving to produce and sort out ‘bare life’ (2011). Torture porn, by returning protagonists to a premodern age, foregrounds the politics of biology, of the corporeal. In no way can we see the bodies in torture porn as ‘bare life’: they exist as commodities, as meat, that bring pleasure to their captors, and as such have some value. Even the voyeuristic slow panning camera gaze lingering over the form of the women in these films objectifies them as not bare life but sources and sites of pleasure. It is in the baring of life, in the spectacularizing of its vulnerability, the sheer animality of the screaming, tortured body that the politics of the captor’s gaze and pleasure lies. A related aspect of the theme of the moral extreme in torture porn is the fairness-justice rhetoric expounded by Kramer (Jigsaw). (Indeed, as Jeremy Morris notes, an ‘appreciation of the intentions and emotions of the victim and the torturer as well as recognition of their role reversal is facilitated by a realistic narrative undistracted by the wildly unfamiliar’ [2010: 44]). Kramer declares: Things aren’t sequential: good does not lead to good, nor bad to bad. People steal, don’t get caught, live the good life. Others lie and cheat and get elected. Some people stop to help a stranded motorist and get taken out by a speeding semi. There’s no accounting for it. How you play the cards you’ve been dealt is all that matters.

The ‘rehabilitation’, as Jigsaw calls it, is the supposed return of the protagonists to a more moral life. Taking recourse to violence as a means of redemption is an old American myth (Wallis and Aston p. 358), and in Saw it borders on vigilantism as well.1 There are two aspects to this illusion of a redemptive moral lesson. One, the moral extreme is not merely about the choices undertaken by protagonists in extreme situations: it has to do with the excessive and rampant control Jigsaw and his associates assert over the victims. Moral choices deployed under tremendous pressure becomes the equivalent of the so-called truths generated through torture in interrogations. The protagonists do not always come to a realization or to moral choices, they are injured into it. Jennifer Ballengee notes that one of the assumptions around interrogational torture is that tortured bodies ‘release’ the truth (p. 8). This is ironic because, if torture destroys rationality (Scarry) then the assumption that the tortured body produces truth is a deeply flawed one. In other


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words, there is no clarity about the ‘truths’ revealed in conditions of extreme pain or torture. Neither is there any certainty that torture and self-inflicted trauma leads to a greater moral sense of the self or society. This means, simply, that the intentions of Kramer/Jigsaw to instil a higher moral sense in his victims is mythic, and the entire moral extreme simply points to the exploitative structuring of helplessness rather than any redemptive act or decision making. Two, there is no moral order restored at the end of the films: instead, what we have is a disintegrated social order wherein law enforcers, the family, friendships, relationships disintegrate with more or less the same mode of selfishness and brutality. The question Simone asks at the end of Saw VI (she has hacked off her arm to escape the trap) summarizes the collapse rather than the restoration of a moral order: ‘What the fuck am I supposed to learn from this?’ Vigilantism masquerading as social responsibility is the sine qua non of torture, when it is not the retributivism of say The Last House on the Left (Morris p. 45). Jigsaw reveals to his victims how they have been complicit in various crimes and wrongful acts – from insurance frauds to covert surveillance to bending the law – and that they are to be punished for these. But Jigsaw’s excesses do not – and this is important – ever change the system in a kind of socio-moral demonology that the films rely on. Instead, the focus remains the individual operator or evildoer. With this the films refuse to indict a system, or examine the structures that enable wrongdoing. In Saw IV, for instance, the multiple rapist has been freed through the actions of his lawyer and will be punished by having his limbs ripped from his body unless he pushes two buttons that will drive two knives into his eyes. Jigsaw’s recorded message informs Ivan: Hello Ivan. As a voyeur you’ve kept photos of those you have victimized. Can you see the pain that you have brought them? You have torn apart their lives. You have used your body as an instrument of abuse. Now I give you the chance to decide what is more important: your eyes that have led you blindly astray, or your body which has caused those around you endless suffering. You have been handed the tools which can save your life. Decide quickly though. In 60 seconds the choice will be made for you.

Now, the point of the film’s sequence seems to be that Jigsaw determines the quantum and nature of punishment – in the above case, clearly symbolic, of ‘ripped’ lives and voyeurism – in the absence of any legal remedy for Ivan’s crime. Forums for justice having collapsed or been subverted, it becomes individual vigilantism that redresses the balance, a sign of the films’ rightwing conservatism as Christopher Sharrett sees it (2009). In the place of institutional mechanisms, individual fascism reigns.

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The law enforcement authorities in most of these films are corrupt, incompetent, maimed/killed (Saw, Captivity, Vacancy, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or else are themselves torturers (the sheriff in The Devil’s Rejects is a case in point), and thus suggest the collapse of social order through and through. By offering up the spectacle of excessive punishment meted out by individual vigilantes like Jigsaw or Jennifer rather than by socially legitimized structures, the films, in fact, refuse to address motives or social processes that produced the fraud/crime in the first instance. The films’ moral extreme therefore is only tangentially linked to social morality. They are about singularities, of singular individuals who have done wrong and to whom another singular individual, working as a vigilante, hopes to deliver justice. Demonizing an individual does away with the necessity of addressing causal factors and the teleology of the crimes they perpetrated. Films like Kill Theory, The Devil’s Rejects and Saw with women torturers complicate the moral extreme. Given the context of Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman from Abu Ghraib and the women soldiers at Gitmo, such characters on screen come in for special attention in the alleged overturning of gender stereotypes. Marita Gronvoll, writing about representations of women warriors indulging in torture, argues that they must adhere to two rules: they need to be visibly managed for their acts of violence to be socially (and maybe legally) sanctioned, and their violence needs to be within a defensive frame. Further, some forms of violence are acceptable in women warriors, but torture, as an offensive form, is not (2010: p. 89–90). Baby in The Devil’s Rejects adds sexuality to her violence, and thus suggests that her behaviour is out of control. In Captivity, as the epilogue informs us, Jennifer becomes a vigilante and torture and kills rapists and killers. Amanda and Jennifer, like Baby in The Devil’s Rejects, adopt the masculine ‘ethos’ of violence. Adding their sexuality to the mix, their femininity serves masculinist purposes. This could be read in two ways. One, the ‘violence gap’, as feminist Regina Titunik calls it (2009: p. 259), is ostensibly erased when women function as torturers. Two, it becomes indicative of ‘gender subordination’ (Titunik p. 262) where Jennifer, Baby, Tiny and Amanda accept the gender roles – assisting the men in all domains – and thus perform the tasks assigned to them. Aggression, mastery and violence previously associated with men such as Jigsaw and Hoffman are adopted by Amanda. Whether Amanda finds pleasure in this new role as the instrument of pain – she is certainly portrayed as a cold woman in the Saw series – is open to question, but it is undeniable that the gendering of perpetrators adds a layer of complexity to the moral issues around torture porn. Saw makes one significant shift in its portrait of the woman torturer, Amanda. Although her sexuality does not come in for attention in Saw, her propensity for violence is portrayed as mere sadism. Jigsaw tells her:


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This was your test. Your game. I was testing you. I took you in, I selected you to [sic] the honour of carrying on my life’s work. But you didn’t. You didn’t test anyone’s will to live. Instead you took their only chance. Your games were unwinnable.

Amanda and Hoffman (who is a policeman) are both alike in that, as successors to Jigsaw’s legacy, both fail. What Jigsaw seems to imply here is that she is out of control, her games mere sadistic acts and the larger purpose of his own games has been lost. Amanda therefore is a disappointment because she does not carry through the patriarch’s legacy, nor does she follow his principles and teaching (although she is never made aware that she is part of the game even towards the end). Amanda seems to have escaped Jigsaw’s control and mapped her own course when she devises the deaths of so many people. Her portrayal as an emotionless ‘player’ seems to magnify her aberrant nature as a woman torturer. By participating in Jigsaw’s games, the films implicitly suggest, Amanda becomes the personification of deviant female behaviour and ambition. The brutality of torture porn works out of what Stephen Eisenman, adapting the work of art historian Aby Warburg, has identified as the ‘pathos formula’ (tracing it back to the Hellenistic tradition), defined as ‘the mark of reification in extremis because it represents the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor’ (2007: p. 16).The conquered are ‘not just subordinate, but abject and even Inhuman’ (p. 17). Eisenman goes on to suggest that the sufferers ‘seem to welcome the blows of their tormentor’ (p. 51). This constitutes, in Eisenman’s reading, an ‘aestheticizing, eroticizing and rationalizing of pain and suffering’ (p. 53). The pathos formula thus becomes a way of legitimizing torture, claiming that (i) the subhuman victim demands it; and (ii) the subhuman victim enjoys it. What we witness in torture porn such as Saw and even in Hostel (the racism of the boys in the opening section of Hostel, the first film of the series) is a partial moral justification of the torture. Jigsaw is at pains to explain that what they experience is a corrective and redemptive violence in the form of the tortures. The biopolitical extreme, therefore, is founded on a pathos formula that seeks to offer mythic moral justifications for the horrific pain inflicted on bodies. The biopolitical extreme renders the body subhuman through this moral myth-making. The flip side to the pathos formula is that it positions Jigsaw as the authoritarian teacher whose actions are meant to instruct the victim in a better life. Central to extreme cultures, therefore, is the absence of a moral compass that would define the sovereign agency of the tortured subject. Sovereignty in such cultures becomes a process of normalization of extreme acts, whether this is cannibalism or inflicting pain on an Other. Cultures of extremes

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construct a social ontology wherein an individual is forced to give up the ‘social’ component of her or his ontology in order to remain a person. The individual has to take decisions ‘in relation to an environment . . . that either will or will not make life livable’ (Butler 2009: p. 20). Cultures of extremes showcase situations where an individual or groups of individuals take decisions about the enabling conditions to ensure somebody else’s liveable life. In a posthumanist sense, then, cultures of extremes highlight social ontology but point to the moral dilemmas of such connected existences. Extreme cultures demonstrate the failure and necessity of connected existences and mutual precarity. They propose that virtue cannot overcome materiality. In certain situations the moral order of human coexistence breaks down: extreme cultures therefore might be read as critiques of situations and legitimized apparatuses like torture, wherein the moral foundations of society are eroded and destroyed. This suggests a posthuman turn to considerations of material bodies and entangled existences because such cultures ponder over the other forms of alignment between humans: sympathy, empathy and compassion. As the speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler examined in her novels’ theme of ‘hyperempathy’, if humans might be modified to experience the pain of the Other, would they torture the Other? In order to make life liveable for all, then all of us have to experience the pain of the Other’s matter within oneself. While torture cultures do not go this far, the ‘turning’ of the victim into a torturer might be read as a preliminary representation of the moral dilemma.

Witnessing Elizabeth Dauphinée in her reading of violent imagery and its circulation in mass media proposes: [Just] as physical pain is seen to destroy the possibility of its own expression in language, the options for representing pain are limited to a range of visual practices that can only ever point to some trace – some visible cause that might point to the presence of pain in another. (2007: 141, emphasis in original)

My contention is that extreme cultures force us into addressing the conditions and causes which induce pain in the Other (body). What are the structural conditions in which the vulnerable human is rendered helpless? What are the conditions in which the body’s openness to the world becomes the cause of its suffering? Given the fact that torture and suffering constitute cultural texts in contemporary global mass media, it is possible to make a case that we become witnesses to acts of extreme violence.


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The Perverse Sublime Earlier we looked at the role of surveillance cameras in torture porn. Cynthia Freeland, writing about the graphic violence, speaks of a perverse sublime that celebrates evil with ‘over-the-top visual spectacles’ (p. 243). Freeland refers to the set pieces of graphic violence in these films as ‘numbers’, defined as ‘sequences of heightened spectacle and emotion’ (p. 256). Freeland writes: We need to realize that instead of being interruptions as they might seem, the numbers in horror may actually further the plot and must therefore be considered part of the form of the particular genre in question. (p. 256)

These numbers induce us, writes Freeland, to ponder over the nature of good and evil (p. 257). The numbers might advance the narrative, provide the central emotional and cognitive effects or provide aesthetic pleasure. Despite Freeland’s optimistic appraisal of the role of such ‘numbers’ one gets the impression in watching, say Saw, is that these are set pieces. The ‘narrative’ of the film, such as it is, careens from one episode of torture to the next, linked tenuously by the law enforcement authorities’ (mostly futile) attempts to anticipate and prevent the next victim’s death. In this, torture porn approximates, I suggest, to the ‘cinema of attractions’ that Tom Gunning (1986) identified in the early-twentieth-century Hollywood/European films. Cinema, in Gunning’s words, here functions not simply to tell stories but to present a set of views to any audience: to show something. Gunning singles out erotic films as particularly exhibitionist in this sense, and we could make a similar argument about torture porn. The camera lingers over, and then offers quick close-up shots of, the trap’s structure in Saw, so that the shot seems to luxuriate in the trap in anticipation of the sensory extreme it is about to unleash. As audience, we are made aware of the intricate and dangerous nature of the instrument/s, also lingeringly, so as to anticipate the effects it/they can unleash on the immobilized body trapped in it. The repeated direct looks of the victims into the camera (and therefore the audience) establishes a ‘display’ (Gunning’s term) rather than any narrative continuity. The spectator experiences and exercises an ‘exhibitionist confrontation’ rather than ‘diegetic absorption’ (p. 384) with what is displayed on the screen. What is exhibited is the innards of the victim, the everted body up for display and the making-visible of something that has been hitherto invisible: pain. Torture porn attempts to give a symbolic grammar of pain by exhibiting the tearing of flesh and the rending of the human body. In short, the numbers in the representational extreme characteristic of torture porn drive a confrontation with the display rather than an engagement with the narrative or plot. Indeed, it would not be too outrageous to state that, like erotic films or visual art, the ‘attraction’ of torture porn lies not in the narrative at all but in these set

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pieces that are the ends in themselves.2 The final shots of the eviscerated (and dead) body become, then, the horrific ‘rapture in the face of ruin’, to borrow the phrasing of Arthur Saltzman examining the rhetoric of agony in literature (1999: p. 238). The shots seem to, horrifically, celebrate the broken body. (Whether such shots offer a moral lesson to or distance the audience is the subject, of course, of never-ending debates.) Here the body is not a metaphor, just as the instrument of torture is not a symbol. We need to distinguish two modes of viewing such a representational extreme, both revolving around the human body. One, the victims are made to view representations, either as videos or some visual spectacle, of previous victims (the albums in Captivity, for example). Two, the audience views the representations of the victims in agony. The first serves the purpose of delivering the ‘imminence’ of torture to the victims, and locating them in a continuum stretching between past and present. The representations in the form of evidence (visual or material – even the remains of earlier victims, names scribbled on walls, etc.) serve to remind the victims that the process of torture did not begin with them, and will not end with them. The representations must also be therefore seen as an instance of the perverse sublime, where endless repetition heightens the horror of their condition, and invokes dread and awe. The existence of visual footage of tortures keeps the potential open for further repetition of the ‘scenes’ of somebody’s injury and slow death. While the archives are not revealed to us, the audience, we are made aware through the very organizational methodology of the settings that the events are being recorded in Captivity, Vacancy and Saw. If repetition is central to the aesthetic of the sublime, then the repetition of horrific events, even if in the form of representations, constitutes the perverse sublime of torture porn. The occasional alternating between the torturer’s and the victim’s point of view in these films ensures that it becomes difficult for us to stay with one perspective or the other, although it might be argued that the dominant point of view is that of the torturer’s gaze or that of the recording camera (which is metonymic of the torturer’s view). Carsten Laustsen and Rasmus Ugilt argued that in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, we are ‘implicated’ because ‘the torture they depict is explicitly made in honour of the gaze that we are thus repeating by looking at them’, and produces the uncanny feeling (2012: p. 87). The audience is made complicit in the process through this voyeuristic economy when we are forced to look through the camera’s gaze at the victim.3 When the perspective shifts to the victim’s gaze, as we watch with her or him, the trap closing in, something else ensues. Rather than the situating of ourselves in the torturer’s position when reviewing the events, it is the shifting perspective that lends an uncanniness to the representations of the events. Repetition, central to the (Freudian) uncanny, forces us to imagine ourselves


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in the place of the victim, and then of the torturer. The uncanny is the consequence of the same event repeating from two widely divergent perspectives: the chilling one of the torturer’s or the screaming one of the victim’s. The uncanny asserts itself in-between these two perspectives, leaving us, ultimately, in a state of shock of having been there and yet having been at a distance. This is the representational extreme of torture porn. The audience is horror-struck, like the characters on screen, that the nightmarish tortures have been underway for some time.4 Brigid Cherry proposes, following Anna Powell’s work, that if ‘horror film viewers do respond haptically . . . to these intensely graphic representations of violence and gore of splatter punk and other explicit forms of horror cinema, then it is quite likely that there is the release of a scream or a gasp or an audible intake of breath’ (p. 85). I suggest that the representational extreme revolving around the body in such films constitute the perverse sublime in terms of the inevitable repetitiousness of the traps and the tortures: we expect it to be unending, and are only concerned with the nature of the trap itself. An excellent instance of this sense of fatalistic repetitiousness would be in the Cube series. One cube is almost exactly like the other, each chamber resembles the other, except in one crucial aspect: some chambers are booby-trapped, and some are not. The representational extreme’s perverse sublime in terms of the ‘numbers’, or set pieces, leads us to expect identical rooms and tortures with the variation only being the exact form of the torture. This alters our perceptions of the extreme as well. Freeland suggests that sequels render the numbers more cartoon-like. She adds: ‘Since the battle’s outcome becomes more foreordained, the audience’s involvement can shift to sheer appreciation of the graphic spectacle as visual display’ (p. 262). I propose, contra Freeland, that a certain inescapability creeps into our perceptions. True horrorism is this sense of inescapable pain and torture that constitute the films, and their sequels. The perverse sublime is the anticipation of never-ending pain of the protagonists that we are led to expect through the visual spectacles repeating with a difference with every moment. Freeland concludes: Graphic horror shows more pain, screams, blood, wounds, and gore than is really possible or believable. Hence, the numbers in graphic horror movies are not really celebrating pain. Nor are they reinforcing the need to defeat monstrous evil, Rather, they are poking fun at it, denying its power and permanence. (p. 271)

Films like Saw, The Last House on the Left and Hostel: Part II that reverse the torturer-tortured (or the relations of the tortured, as is the case with the parents turning torturers in The Tortured and The Last House on the Left) roles also point in the direction of the inevitability of more torture to come. The representational extreme’s aesthetic of the perverse sublime hinges on

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our recognition of this reversal of torturer-tortured. When victims turn perpetrators, we anticipate another sequence unfolding. The fungibility of the victims has been folded into the fungibility of the perpetrators: given the right contexts, anybody can (and does) become a torturer. So it is not that the films deny the power and permanence of evil: rather, the numbers show that the centre of evil can shift. We therefore see the ‘development of an aesthetic imagery of pain-causing phenomena – an iconography of symbols that stand in for pain and thus become the representational alibis for actual pain’ (p. 142). No matter how hard we try, all witnessing of pain can only be a ‘partial witnessing’ (p. 143). The way out of this impasse is, she argues, to imagine the pain of the Other: Those bodies in pain must rely on our capacity to imagine this pain, which cannot be expressed and can only find an imperfect voice in rupturing moments that also work toward the building of narratives – that is, the photograph, the testimony, the symbolic aesthetic portrayal through art or poetry. The disconnect rests on the very foundations of our modes of knowing. Imagining requires us to think ourselves into the skins of others, and the consequence is that our looking both becomes and remains ours alone. (146, emphasis in original)

What we need to account for, acknowledge and condemn is the politics that produced the pain (imaged in the visual spectacle) in the first instance. That is, it ‘requires us to interrogate ourselves as both producers and consumers of this imagery’ (149, emphasis in original). I will return to this argument later. In order to understand ourselves as ‘producers and consumers of this [torturous] imagery’ I turn to the work of Allan Sekula. Sekula posits an ‘imaginary economy’ built on a ‘shadow archive’. The shadow archive is a historical archive, and genealogy, of images. The imaginary economy is constituted by: (i) what we in the twenty-first century recognize as the economy of financial and cultural production and consumption (of say, Hollywood, Natural Born Killers, Kill Bill, Salo, the Holocaust ‘industry’); and (ii) the visual economy of photographs and documentation of real-life and historical genocides, violations and destruction (Holocaust, the world wars, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib). But the imaginary economy, exemplified in torture porn, seeks to suggest that we see is entirely imaginary, and thus erase the genealogy that enables us to recognize the nature of the spectacle unfolding on screen. That is, Saw, The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel are cultural productions that rely on and resonate with our already existing financial, cultural and visual economy in order to interpret what we see. Sekula thus forcefully argues that the shadow archive of Rwanda, Abu Ghraib and the Holocaust constitute the structuring mechanism that enables both the production and (our) consumption of contemporary images and in this case torture porn. While I do not


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wish to labour the point of allegorizing Saw or torture porn, I wish to retain Sekula’s sense of the shadow archive as structuring our ways of seeing. Having been made aware of a history of objectification of the Other, of the ruination of the Other, we understand how to see Saw. Torture porn’s representational extreme turns our attention to an ethical question. While it is true that all humans are vulnerable, what are the particular conditions in which this vulnerability might be yoked to helplessness? War, torture, incarceration, famine, starvation and economic crisis are external conditions where the vulnerability of the human becomes embedded in her or his helplessness, as witnessed in totalitarian states, civil war and genocidal conditions. Unable to move, rooted to the spot (literally and/ or figuratively), the human is helpless to avert the opening up of her or his vulnus. If one Jigsaw can force vulnerable people into positions of helplessness – the immobilized woman in the reverse bear trap (Saw), or the search for the escape code using a candle when bathed in napalm (Saw) – to await unrelenting pain, then it is possible to ponder over conditions that produce mass helplessness. The difference in material contexts that generate pain for some and leave some others as simply witnesses to the pain is crucial in the way we understand the world. Tomie Hahn writing about ethnographies of performance argues that ‘extreme experience . . . affectively precipitates a sense of shared experience between members of a group’ (2006: p. 91). In Saw, central to the entire series, is the embracing of precarity and pain in order to: (i) save oneself; or (ii) to save another, but also a sharing of this precarity. What we witness is the making of this choice under extreme conditions. The man having the torture device piercing his side as he attempts to keep hold of the ropes that would keep the other victim alive is warding off making a choice built around his precarity, even as he is aware that his precarity is played off against another fellow human (who might be a loved one, a colleague or an acquaintance). How much pain is one willing to endure in order to reduce a similar pain for another? The ‘precariousness of a body’s generalized condition relies on a conception of the body as fundamentally dependent on, and conditioned by a sustained and sustainable world’, writes Butler (2009: p. 34). In the case of films like Saw or in the forced masturbation, fellatio or naked human pyramids in Abuu Ghraib, we witness mutually constitutive torture. The sustained and sustainable world that the body depends upon is embodied in another person, who too is suffering excruciating pain. Butler makes the point that survival depends on the ‘constitutive sociality of the body’ (p. 54). But in the case of Saw, this is precisely what is overturned: the constitutive sociality of the body is simply a constitutive precarity. Further, the victim is often forced to inflict pain on an Other. The visuals from Abu Ghraib demonstrate this

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with masturbation and fellatio the inmates were forced to engage in by their wardens. Mutual precarity here is the vulnerable protagonist being made an instrument in inducing helplessness in the Other. The world of Saw and Abu Ghraib is one of mutually inflicted pain and/or humiliation. In Saw this is accompanied by an illusion of freedom from pain if one is willing to let the Other die. Indeed, several characters in the films are willing to sacrifice others for their own survival (Xavier Chavez in Saw II).5 This last, of course, takes the film into the realm of ethics. Scarry argues that there is an insurmountable distance between the tortured/ torturee and the torturer (p. 36). However, as Steve Jones notes, in these films ‘torturers may be tortured, and those tortured often consequently become torturers’ (p. 83). Jones thus elaborates the moral problematics of these films: that there is no easy binary between good victim and bad torturer because these are unstable identities in the film’s narrative. Being a victim seeking to escape necessarily involves inflicting pain on somebody else (Jones p. 84–6). In Saw IV, as Morgan pulls out the spikes jointly impaling both her and her husband Rex, she kills Rex in the process – as she had been warned would happen, if she sought to escape the trap. What Saw does is to suggest that for a victim to escape, s/he needs to occupy, however briefly, the position of the perpetrator or the indifferent witness. If the only alternative left for Victim 1 is to allow the Other (Victim 2) to bleed to death, to suffer pain or to be simply left without help, then the role of victim can only be played out by occupying the place of an associate torturer. In other cases, the films question the morality of insurance policies and corporate codes. For example in Saw VI, insurance executive William Easton has to make the decision whether to save Addy, a diabetic and family man, or Allen, his [Easton’s] young and healthy secretary. The choice lies between company policy and his own moral codes. Easton chooses finally to save Addy, and the film leaves it unsaid whether this was the right moral choice.6 The Other here is one who, for a period of time, occupies the same barbaric space as the self (Victim 1). It is not the radically different Other but a fungible Other. The Other is one who could replace you in this space of pain.7 The only factor that distinguishes the self from the Other in Saw’s world is the slim opportunity and agency given to the self (Victim 1): to escape, to help Victim 2 escape, or condemn Victim 2 to death. There is no sustainable world in Saw. Saw exhibits that our material conditions are inextricably linked to those of others, and that any change in the nature of our location, bodies or choices, determine the life and death of somebody else and vice versa, just as in real life, the choices we make often determine the lifeworld of others. Following the work of Judith Butler (2004, 2009) and others, it is possible to see the torture film as heightening our spectatorial sense of subjectivity by bringing home to us not only shared precarity of the people on screen but


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by pointing to subjectivity as intersubjective. This sense is due partly to the position we take, as witnesses viewing through the camera the events that are unfolding. But it is also due to the sufferer’s position from which the film is made (Jones p. 61). If it is possible to see our bodies as linked in precarity and helplessness, as Saw suggests, then it is possible to envisage an empathy for a similarly-suffering body of the Other. Torture films construct a new model of human recognition of fellow humans and of ‘social empathy’ (Turner 2006: p. 139). Following Ballengee’s work on the ‘rhetoric of torture’, it may be suggested that the two cameras are complicit in the production of meaning: that of the victims’ guilt and of their presumed deserving of punishment (2009: p. 1). Just as in Untraceable, the audience is an active perpetrator in the deaths of the victims, we as witnesses to the events of torture in Saw are placed under the moral obligation to recognize the vulnerability of any/all victims. This recognition of human vulnerability is part of Saw’s politics of life itself: that any of us might be reduced to ‘bare life’ in particular socially induced conditions of helplessness. Saw forces us to address the linkage between morality and suffering. Jigsaw emphasizes the point throughout that the victims are paying for the errors, crimes or unacceptable behaviour they have committed in their lives. By making use of extraordinary situations in order to bring home to them the evil of their everyday lives, Jigsaw hopes to make them aware of the preciousness of their lives. He takes the real world – in the diegetic schema of the film – and produces suffering. (Yet, as demonstrated above, this simply shifts the contexts and processes on to individuals.) However, although there is a very clear fictionality to what is being shown, Saw does not absolve us, as spectators, from producing our own empathic narrative with the victim in our sights. The question of spectatorship – which admittedly runs the risk of becoming mere voyeurism or worse, a deadening of emotions – is paramount here. Steve Jones proposes that it is the fictionality of the torture sequences, as in horror fiction/film, that ‘allows audiences to explore moral dilemmas because it is fictional and therefore is partially distanced from the immediacy of politico-historical circumstances’ (p. 69). As in the case of Abu Ghraib, where the torturers posed for photographs of themselves and the torturees, in Saw, we as spectators of the film become aware of the presence of both perpetrator and victim in the same frame.8 But the crucial shift from Abu Ghraib’s visuals – where it is impossible to not stare at the grinning faces of Lynndie England and the US army torturers – is that Jigsaw appears as a masked doll/puppet/camera so that our intensity of recognition stays with the victims. Instead of having our attention divided between the face of the perpetrator and the face of the victim as in the case of Abu Ghraib, we give the victims in Saw our undivided attention. In other

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words, the films force us to implicate ourselves in the events. ‘For the viewer, it is not possible to avoid the victims’ pain by focusing attention on the jailors; we are compelled to face the victims and their pain,’ writes Möller (2008: p. 37), an argument that applies equally to us watching Saw. Thus the films are intersubjective in this sense as well: we find our subjectivity aligned more with the torturee than with the torturer.9 Torture porn makes the invisible visible and the ideally undivided (the human form/body) divisible. We are forced to relate to the suffering body because that body resembles ours, and vice versa. The combination of registers in torture porn – of the unified human form that is then torn apart in an obscene simulation of a medical documentary that reveals the insides – induces horror. It is the expression – representation – of suffering matter, produced by specific conditions of helplessness that enables this empathy.10 To return to Elizabeth Dauphinée once again: ‘It [the visual imagery of pain] asks us to consider the possibility that pain is not an interior, private state, but a shared and shareable phenomenon that is expressible and accessible in a fully social and intersubjective way’ (p. 153). Such representations of the extreme call for us to recognize that if our bodies were to be placed in the circumstances that induced pain in the Others (whom we see suffering on screen), we would experience pain as well. We are forced to acknowledge, via the fascist aesthetics of torture porn, the different levels of contexts of structural helplessness when we share vulnerability with all human bodies and subjects. This intersubjective connection across our fleshly bodies and the representations of bodies in extreme situations is one of ‘empathetic certainty’ (Ballengee’s term 9) rather than a logical link. Horrorism, of the Abu Ghraib or Saw variety, brings us face-to-face not only with the question of mutually constitutive precarity and vulnerability, but also the structural conditions of helplessness in which humanity might be trapped and is forced to make moral choices in the context of extreme pain. Horrorism foregrounds the human as: (i) the body/matter that can (be made to) suffer and (ii) rendered helpless due to specific, deliberately created structural conditions like war or incarceration. The politics of life and death that we see in these films and in Abu Ghraib’s disturbing visual reinstates materialism and its cognates – affect, senses – as the foundational structures of being human. In a world dominated by simulations and the virtual, the representation of pain forces us to address this specific state of being human, even as we are aware that we are watching representations. We realize that the ‘subject is vulnerable precisely because, in its formation, it is fundamentally dependent on the other’ (Görling p. 62). But, as these representations demonstrate, vulnerability is conjoined with structural helplessness, put in place by the state or individuals such as Jigsaw or Charles Graner (at Abu Ghraib).


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To be vulnerable is to be human, and natural. To be helpless is a social condition, and artificial. Witnessing Vulnerability An immediate act of witnessing in torture scenarios is the forced participation and mutual culpability of the vulnerable in inducing helplessness. As noted earlier, a mutual precarity is central to the torture scene, when one inmate or victim is forced to induce helplessness, pain and humiliation in another. In this process, however, the victim is also a witness to the helplessness of the Other. Watching the Other die due to one’s actions, even as one is helpless in: (i) preventing this death and (ii) preventing one’s survival instinct in letting the Other die, renders the survivor-victim a witness and participant in the torture scenario. Therefore, the first witnesses are also themselves traumatized victims in the bizarre world of extremes. But my sense of ‘witnessing’ focuses on a different aspect. With the large-scale circulation of Saw and Abu Ghraib what we witness is human vulnerability, but a vulnerability that has been amplified due to conditions of human-induced helplessness. The visuals of real-life tortures in 2004 drew geographies of suffering stretching from Washington DC’s legal-military offices, via Abu Ghraib (Baghdad), Guantánamo Bay (Cuba), Afghanistan to encompass the entire world made witness to the empire of senseless images. ‘Senseless’ here is used in three ways: to gesture at the unspeakable and insensate tortures performed by people who seem to have taken leave of their senses; individual victims who have been driven out of their mind, that is, senseless, through constant pain inflicted upon them; and to indicate the mind-numbing sensation of horror we experience when we witness pyramids of naked humans, naked men on a leash, among others, that we recognize as not fiction. Abu Ghraib with its insertion into the rapid and random dissemination of images across the world has made us all subjects of a global witnessing project, as unwitting subjects of this empire of the senseless in an age of the presumed ‘end of history’ and the triumph of free markets or even democracy. In this, I follow Jennifer Ballengee’s argument that ‘the representation of torture functions as a rhetorical tool by combining bodily empathy with ethical and aesthetic judgment in order to persuade its audience’ and that ‘the witness is complicit in the production of meaning that torture communicates’ (2009: p. 1). Abu Ghraib’s visual empire of the senseless ought to serve as a necessary corrective, where amnesia towards the events is not an option for us as witnesses. The new empire of the senseless has resulted in a massive re-education of the world, reducing us to shocked and awed spectators, but perhaps also opening up new avenues for thought and action that could also constitute another empire.

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With the simplicity of categorization available in the lexicon of the new empire, any body could be tortured, and the empire’s (or Abu Ghraib’s) reach extended far beyond geographical borders. Thus, most of the individuals tortured at Abu Ghraib were not soldiers at all. David Cloud reporting on the trial and sentencing of Lynndie England wrote: The abuse involving Private England differed from many other cases that have come to light in that the prisoners involved were not under interrogation. Normally housed in a tent city reserved for suspected common criminals, they were brought into the prison building as punishment after the riot broke out. There they encountered what Private Graner [Lynndie England’s boyfriend in Abu Ghraib and one of the chief tormentors of the inmates], who testified during the trial, called a ‘bizarro world’. (Cloud 2005)

Mahvish Khan’s My Guantánamo Diary (2008) also notes how paediatricians, engineers and others were randomly picked up for investigation, and were tortured to extract information about things they could not possibly have information about. As witnessing citizens – as opposed to tortured citizens – of the empire of the senseless we too now recognize that Arab names randomly popping up on American screens are often adequate for involuntary participation in that democracy’s information-seeking procedures. The ‘bizarro world’ is the new empire, with no borders or restrictions: drones can penetrate any airspace, any visitor to or resident in the United States can be made to feel unwelcome, individuals may be picked up from anywhere and transported to any place in the world for interrogation. We are all potentially torturable subjects of this new empire. We witness two narratives in the case of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The first is the irrefutable visual and scripted evidence of the official sanctioning of Abu Ghraib. The memo of late 2003 from US military intelligence at Combined Joint Task Force 7 Headquarters as an ‘ALCON’ (To All Concerned) ‘The gloves are coming off, gentlemen, regarding these detainees. Colonel Bolz has made it clear we want these individuals broken’ (Alfred McCoy, cited in McClintock 2009: p. 68) was just the beginning. Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel’s The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (2005) documented all the official memos and legal paperwork from Rumsfeld downwards that sanctioned the tortures. (This included memos like those sent from Albert Gonzales to President Bush, 25 January 2002, which advised that US interrogators need not be restrained by the Geneva Convention because the Convention did not apply in the ‘failed state’ of Afghanistan. Also see Andy Worthington’s The Guantánamo Files, 2007, which utilizes proceedings of Combatant Status Review Tribunals.) In 2008, when President Obama was announcing plans to shut down Guantánamo Dick Cheney, asked whether he had authorized waterboarding and such techniques, replied:


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‘I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping getting the process cleared. . . . I supported it’ (Edwards and Webster 2008). Thus, these were not random acts committed by perverted, deviant and psychologically disturbed individuals. Rather, they were acts enabled through a deliberate, carefully plotted narrative just as the ‘war on terror’ was plotted in a narrative of democracy, peace, emancipation of Afghani women, and ‘hurt-Americastrikes-back’. This narrative moved from: (i) declaring the Afghani-Iraqi as ‘barbarian’ (George Bush’s term); through (ii) the identifying of the racial Other as a mere ‘unlawful combatant’; to (iii) the need to ‘see’, and make visible the alleged enemy of all democratic nations in the embodied form of the prisoners (or Osama or Saddam, of course). In the empire of the senseless, the one thing that made sense was the cold, calculating logic through which these heinous acts were enabled. The empire of the senseless has its own knowledge archive. Like all empires that build, and build on, archives of knowledge, this one did too – the documents reveal the amount of research done into interrogation techniques and the smooth legitimizing of them. It is this narrative that sanctioned torture we need to witness. The second narrative we bear witness to and one that shocked and awed the world was the one the perpetrators documented and circulated. Abu Ghraib transformed real-life pain into a spectacle for instant and infinite dissemination in conjunction with America’s global reach, leading Nicholas Mirzoeff to call it a ‘visual empire’ (2006). By making visible the brutal dehumanizing of fellow humans among other inmates and the families of the imprisoned (McClintock p. 59), the visual empire of the senseless was a shock-and-awe tactic of a wholly different order where to be photographed itself was torture. Abu Ghraib demonstrated the pernicious influence of the visual image in shocking and awing other humans. The photographs of tortured and humiliated detainees told the other inmates and their families what lay in store for them. In the visual empire of the senseless the photograph shocked and awed the spectators/viewers by the fungibility (which implies an imminent interchange with the victims) of victimhood: ‘After these men in the photographs, it is me.’ Never before was the photograph itself such a potent weapon of and for torture. The most technologically advanced nation in the world had finally devised the ultimate use of the photograph in building a visual empire of real, imagined and imminent torture. This empire of the senseless itself reiterates an earlier empire. In Abu Ghraib, the inmates were repeatedly called ‘sodomites’, notes Mirzoeff. He writes: Within the United States, by representing the Iraqi male as sodomitical, the images have been found repellent but not impeachable. In adopting this strategy of calling the conquered sodomites, the global empire has reverted to the rhetorics of imperialism proper and the colonial expansion that preceded it. (p. 30)

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Seymour Hersh notes that American neocons, according to a source that spoke to Hersh, read cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai’s 1973 book The Arab Mind, which rehearses in the guise of authentic commentary, every stereotype of the Arab race, including their tendency to exaggerate, to belligerent martial behaviour, and which claimed that for Arabs, sex was vested with shame and repression (Hersh p. 38–9). It is possible to argue that a certain neocon mentality arising from such works could percolate into policy, and translate into the torture of the prisoners through acts that their cultures supposedly treated as shameful. This leads Darius Rejali to term it ‘cultural torture’, where ‘colonial states showed a calculated sensitivity to what offended local values in the practice of violence’ (2004). The photographs, as Rejali acknowledges, are ‘trophies’ collected by the perpetrators.11 I suggest that cultural torture is not simply the calculated violation of cultural sensitivities of the prisoners, but the deliberate circulation of images of these violations to reach as many people as possible and especially banking on people of that culture to be offended. In shaming Arab prisoners, Abu Ghraib could shame Arab cultures in their entirety. Thus, we see continuities of racial stereotypes with their accompanying material acts from ancient times with the events of 2003–2004. Abu Ghraib is the legacy of an older empire, even as it creates its own version of it by adding prisoner-shame as a key weapon.12 (And of course George Bush referred to the Iraq action as a ‘crusade’, harking back to an older set of ‘East versus West’ wars.) Cultural torture is part of the social apparatus that, throughout this book, I have been proposing is instrumental in the destruction of the human’s sense of self and autonomy. The loss of cultural identity through humiliation unmoors the victim in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. More importantly, the very cultural structures that enabled him to identify himself, to experience belonging, are turned against him in the savage experiments. The mainstreaming of torture includes, therefore, the destruction of cultural frames of belonging as well. The ‘bizarro world’, as lead torturer Graner described Abu Ghraib, simulated the violent video games and films, although it seems as fantastic as 9/11 (which many onlookers described as resembling a sci-fi film). Abu Ghraib was a world within a world, in the full and proper notion of the fantastic (defined as a world where known human laws, including the laws of physics, do not apply). This is the fantastic spectacle of Abu Ghraib we witness, where laws didn’t apply and the pain was real. The empire of the senseless extending out of Washington DC’s law and military offices, incorporating the world into the circulation of images emerging from Abu Ghraib, finds its unfortunate parallel in Hollywood’s empire (with the rise of torture porn).13 The visual empire of the senseless has been enabled by the digital revolution, and converted the world itself into instant witness to the events unfolding. The rise of new witnessing organizations – Not on Our Watch, Witness,


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to name two – is a direct response to the circulation of torture visuals, forcing us into a distant spectatorship. The visual empire of the senseless stages the theatre of suffering to which an ethical response arrives (or is demanded) in the form of the humanitarian and moral education embodied in global witnessing, producing another kind of empire. This global witnessing brings home to us the shared precarity we all live with: that each can be rendered as breakable and vulnerable as the ones we see on screen. Global witnessing enabled by this alternative empire is a structure of communication, bringing vulnerable others into our line of sight, even if it is to simply imagine solidarity. The empire of the senseless could well be the departure point for a different kind of empire, of watchdogs, protest and humanitarian solidarity – when we bear witness to the sheer inequality of the world represented in Abu Ghraib. The empire of the senseless may not have altered US foreign policy or its great charitable project of bringing democracy to savages, but it did significantly alter popular perceptions, within the United States and outside, of the project itself. As media scholar Kari Andén-Papadopoulos puts it: The images [from Abu Ghraib] laid bare, graphically and irreversibly, the contradiction between the superpower’s well-regarded self-image and the realities of its contempt for a population whom it had ostensibly liberated. (2008: p. 23)

It becomes imperative to emphasize that this empire of the senseless and concomitant responsible witnessing is not about Americans alone. (To inject an autobiographical element here, I wrote this section at a time when a poliostricken and paralysed academic, Prof Saibaba, had been incarcerated in an Indian prison (2015) despite numerous pan-Indian pleas for his trial and/or release due to his fast-deteriorating health.) Displaced Tamils in northern Sri Lanka continue to face army action in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Torture is a way of life in all democracies, as Darius Rejali had argued (2008). John Limon writes of the ‘American citizens who are shamed by the shamelessness of torture’ (2007: p. 546). To be truly shamefaced and ashamed of our respective, distinctive cultures of torture is to become part of this global witnessing project. Reinhold Görling has argued that the suffering caused to human beings by torture holds them captive for years, perhaps for ever. And this suffering is similar in all victims, regardless of what culture, what country, what social group they come from. (p. 62)

Görling’s is of course a contentious argument, especially with scholars like Lawrence Langer warning us against universalizing suffering and evil (Langer 1998: p. 12). Jennifer Geddes, while conceding that a certain

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universalizing is possible when viewing severe trauma and suffering, proposes that ‘we need to attend to the cultural, historical, and political particularities of situations of extreme suffering’ (2008: p. 3). The tension between particularizing and universalizing is not one we can resolve easily, but one could assume that armed with a sympathetic imagination, one could draw a continuum across sites of suffering. The obverse of this argument would be that the shame torture (ought to) bring/s to each of us when we hear of any torture anywhere in the world is similar to the shame experienced by others. To be ashamed and diminished by torture and extreme helplessness induced by acts of humanity is to be a witness. But shame is only one part of this project of witnessing. The second part of it is the development of frames of apprehension and intelligibility in which torture and life may be interpreted. Frames of Apprehension and Intelligibility Apprehension, notes Judith Butler, is a mode of knowing which is ‘not yet recognition’ (2009: p. 6). Intelligibility is the ‘general historical schema or schemes that establish domains of the knowable’ (p. 6). When we witness the spectacles of tortured bodies what we perceive is this: ‘The humans who were tortured do not readily conform to a visual, corporeal, or socially recognizable identity’ (p. 95). In torture we see ‘human life – a human animality – exceeds and resists the norm of the human’ (p. 94–5). Torture is the construction of new frames of recognisability – of the human as reduced to an inhuman state, and witnessing ought to frame these frames themselves in order to ask in what social, legal, cultural contexts are the frames built? Under what conditions is the sustainable world on which anybody depends (Butler p. 34) destroyed? How are the ‘modes of relationality’ (Butler p. 49) of one subject with another destroyed? Frames of recognition perhaps need recalibration in the light of torture and extreme cultures of deprivation. Rather than human and non-human it might be necessary to reorder these categories as vulnerable humans and helpless humans, those who have a ‘bare life’ and those who have politically fulfilling lives. To return to Butler again: If certain lives are deemed worth living, protecting, and grieving and others not, then this way of differentiating lives cannot be understood as a problem of identity or even of the subject. It is rather a question of how power forms the field in which subjects become possible at all or, rather, how they become impossible. (p. 163)

What are the fields of power in which biovalue is computed? What are the norms of this computation? Frames of recognition are, in other words, less


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about precarious and vulnerable lives than about fields of power, social structures and norms that render subjects, subjects or not. When an individual is tortured, ostensibly for information or as punishment, this individual is often depicted as possessing valuable information, and hence the emphasis on interrogation accompanying or framing the actual torture (Scarry). In a battle, an individual kills the Other because the Other poses a real threat to his life. But in torture scenarios, as Henry Shue notes, the Other is in the total and absolute custody of the torturer, and can no longer be an effective threat. Torture is always, therefore, upon the defenceless (2004: p. 51). However, specific structures such as the war on terror or redemptive philosophies, such as the ones Jigsaw spouts, not only provide moral justifications for torture, they are the structures that validate the making of defencelessness. Hence the urgent need is to examine these structures of induced defencelessness. Stephen Eisenman in his study of the ‘Abu Ghraib Effect’ writes: What if the US public and the amateur photographers at Abu Ghraib share a kind of moral blindness – let us call it the ‘Abu Ghraib effect’ – that allows them to ignore, or even to justify, however partially or provisionally, the facts of degradation and brutality manifest in the pictures? And finally – and more hopefully – what if the ‘Abu Ghraib effect’ can in some small measure be undermined, or at least made alien by means of its exposure, analysis and public discussion? Any effort to uncover and thereby weaken the Abu Ghraib effect will require careful attention to some disturbing photographs; there is simply no alternative. Any reckoning with their significance will require that we understand them as images located in a long history of images. (p. 9)

My proposition, emerging from the engagement with Judith Butler, Elizabeth Dauphinée and Stephen Eisenman, is that in order to prevent the Abu Ghraib effect but, more importantly, the causal factors that enable an Abu Ghraib in the first instance, we need to examine how frames of recognizability and apprehension of lives are constructed. To reimagine these frames is the primary task of witnessing, and of exposure to the morally, aesthetically and psychologically offensive visuals of torture, either in fiction or real life. The conditions created by a Jigsaw or Camp Delta are attempts to destroy the social ontology of the human, and this is the key critique we can perceive in extreme cultures. Extreme cultures by forcing us into a position of witnessing demand an imagining of oneself sliding from vulnerability (which all of us share) towards helplessness (which some of us experience). Elizabeth Dauphinée argues that the dissemination of such images entails the ‘final obliteration of the subject whose world is already undone by the experience of pain’

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(p. 140). While Dauphinée is accurate in this argument, my point is: it is possible to access the situations and contexts that enabled the obliteration of the subject, an act that survives in the evidentiary form of the visuals. I am calling attention therefore not to the subject per se but the subject incarcerated, tortured, destroyed because a system exists in which it is possible to execute this destruction. Our attention needs to be focused on the social and other structures that destroy the social ontology of the subject, the frames of recognisability and intelligibility that constitute the vulnerability of some as helplessness. True, there is the possibility of compassion fatigue and moral exhaustion in the face of these images. There is some concern that such images approximate to pornography – Saw, Hostel and other films are termed ‘torture porn’, in common parlance (Bernstein 2004). However, it should be theoretically possible to acquire other spectatorial positions as well. In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag suggests: Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget. (p. 115)

Sontag insists that a moral spectatorship is still possible. I propose that the images haunt because, unlike in pornography where the ‘protagonists’ consent to act and be acted on for the pleasure of the audience, the inmates from Abu Ghraib did not consent to be treated thus, whereas documentary footage has evidentiary value and is linked to the ‘cultural tradition of evidence, bearing witness, and social conscience’ (Tait 2008: p. 96). Tait adds: The re-framing of looking undertaken by the owners of Ogrish, and the acceptance of this rationalization by the press, assumes that uncensored image and video hosting signifies a maturity within contemporary visual culture, providing a means for viewers to bear witness to that which a sanitized or propagandist mainstream media excludes. (p. 107)

Further, with the increasing contextualization of these visuals from torture chambers around the world, narratives of violations and truth commission testimonies, it is possible to acquire a new regime of visual-cultural literacy around the subject of vulnerable bodies, linking the graphic violence with the structures that allowed and facilitated the violence. This reframing of the visual within specific contexts, political, social, legal and humanitarian, is what is entailed upon as vulnerable subjects who, in a different context, could be rendered helpless as well.


Chapter 4

Notes 1. While Kramer’s attempts are directed at restoring fairness in an unfair world by making his victims aware of their lives and crimes, those of his associates, Amanda and Hoffman, are nihilistic. From Saw IV onward there are no traps that can be beaten: protagonists die whatever they do. 2. Eric Schaeffer (2007) uses Gunning’s idea of the ‘cinema of attractions’ to examine exploitation cinema, and provides a point of entry for my reading of torture porn as well. 3. Steve Jones dismisses, quite rightly, the assertion that the audience always identifies with the torturer/s in such films as an ‘oversimplification’ (p. 77). 4. Noël Carroll has proposed that the audience responds like the characters on screen: ‘The emotive responses of the audience, ideally, run parallel to the emotions of characters’ (p. 17). 5. In some cases, when they are willing to sacrifice somebody else in order to save their own, they discover that they have inadvertently triggered the death of the ones they were trying to save (In Saw III, when Jeff shoots John, he activates the shot-gun-studded collar around his wife’s neck, thus causing the death of the woman he was trying to save. 6. Kill Theory (2009) of course is based on the assumption that anybody would kill in order to survive – and the unnamed man released from the asylum demonstrates the validity of this theory by using the son of the psychiatrist who tells him that inflicting death is never right. 7. This is akin to systemic torture where part of the torture lies in occupying enclosures adjacent to the torture chambers from which the prisoner can hear the screams of the tortured, and thus be made aware that s/he is next into that room. Thornton’s novel about the Argentinian disappeared, Imagining Argentina (1991), foregrounds this theme. 8. The focus on the perpetrators might be the reason why the Colombian painter Botero excised them from his paintings on Abu Ghraib, choosing instead to focus on the victims themselves. 9. I have elsewhere proposed that the dissemination of Abu Ghraib’s horrific photographs have implicated us in a global witnessing project (Nayar 2014a). 10. JM Bernstein argues that there is no way the visual representation of extreme conditions can produce a moral sensitivity: ‘the relentless detailing and precision of these photographs makes the moral work they mean to do impossible’ (2004: p. 11). Bernstein however accepts that ‘bare life implicates the norm of the whole body, the claim of the good of life itself’ (p. 13). Jeremy Morris argues that torture porn requires both, a pleasurable identification with the torturer and an empathy with the victims. This ‘conflict’, writes Morris, ‘is not the mark of immorality; on the contrary, it is a moral vindication of the audience’ (p. 51). In a nuanced response to the question of enjoyment when viewing torture-horror Morris writes: There is as much a distinction between an act of torture and enjoying an act of torture as between other immoral acts and the enjoyment of such things. . . . Such enjoyment, also shared by others, can be separated from the act itself. . . . Being disturbed, and enjoying

Vulnerability, Biovalues and Witnessing (In)Human Extremes


being disturbed, by depictions of torture, or even the enjoyment of being confounded by the justification question itself, is not to endorse the torture. (p. 54–5)

Morris concludes: ‘That the question is open as to whether the torture might be justified may itself be a source of horror’ (p. 55). 11. Darius Rejali is the author of Torture and Democracy (2007) which demonstrates how countries espousing democracy have evolved stealth – that is nonmarking – modes of torture. For a comparative study of the United States and India within the torture tradition, see Lokaneeta (2011). 12. John Limon argues that ‘shame is nakedness for the poor and weak only’ (2007: 554). Limon goes on to argue that the symmetry is crucial: ‘Lynndie England is not enjoying the taunting and tormenting of Arab detainees in the famous photographs of her. . . . We are viewing in those photographs the fun and joy of shamelessness. The oddity of this display is its symmetry, its near identity, with the shame of the prisoners’ (p. 554). 13. Incidentally, torture porn, such as The Human Centipede, references not Abu Ghraib’s tortures but Nazi Germany’s medical experiments, quietly ignoring the American contribution. Details of what the inmates of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were subject to are available in the already cited Taguba and Fay-Jones Reports, Worthington’s The Guantánamo Files, besides Tara McKelvey, Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (2007), Mahvish Rukhsana Khan’s My Guantánamo Diary (2008) and Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004).

Conclusion Extreme Cultures as Social Ontology

This book examined vulnerable bodies, where vulnerability as an ontological condition is exposed to threat, pain and deprivation through a risky engagement with or embeddedness in conditions of structural helplessness. Extreme cultures centre the human body, and demonstrate how it depends on its immediate environments for sensory experience, knowledge and even survival. Extreme cultures therefore emphasize the social ontology of the human body. Such cultures take the biological vulnerability and dependence of the human body as its foundational state, but locate it within situations where this vulnerability is exposed to violence and violation. In representations, both fictional and experiential, of extreme sports, torture and chronic diseases, we are made aware of the intercorporeal nature of the human. This intercorporeality is ambiguous, for it can, as in the case of extreme sports, enable the experience of extreme pleasure when the bodyat-risk generates the thrill of a fall structured by ropes, cables, other bodies and technological mechanisms. On the other hand, extreme cultures such as torture or chronic disease reveal to us that that intercorporeal state opens us up to unimaginable pain and amplified vulnerability. If in the former intercorporeality enables a certain amount of trust in the social, technological and other contexts of our ontology, the latter erases any trust one might possess in the sustaining environment of the body. Certain situations such as torture exploit the condition of vulnerability and intercorporeality so that the openness to the world that marks the human becomes the source of pain, deprivation and suffering. This recognition via extreme cultures resonates with the critique of Judith Butler’s theory of vulnerable/precarious lives by Ann Murphy (2011) and Rosalyn Diprose (2013). Butler writes: 149

150 Conclusion

Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know, a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all. Reciprocally, it implies being impinged upon by the exposure and dependency of others, most of whom remain anonymous. These are not necessarily relations of love or even of care, but constitutive obligations toward others, most of whom we cannot name and do not know, and who may or may not bear traits of familiarity to an established sense of who ‘we’ are. (Butler 2009: p. 14)

While they concede that vulnerability can be a frame within which one reads all human lives, both Murphy and Diprose worry that vulnerability need not generate an ethical relation from the other bodies or environments: indeed the recognition of vulnerability might provoke exploitation and greater violence. There is, admittedly, the risk, as Anne Rothe has argued, that a constant bombardment by ‘trauma kitsch’ renders those that are essentially ‘political subjects’ and victims of socio-economic contexts of oppression and exploitation, as individual tragedies (2011: p. 45). However, despite this risk, critics like Sontag, Butler and Elizabeth Dauphinée agree that the circulation of images of the pain of others is essential to a critical literacy of suffering. Extreme cultures offer knowledge of shared precarity as a foundational condition of humanity, so that a witness culture emerges through the cultural discourse of vulnerability. Thus, extreme cultures offer an entire new way of speaking about and classifying the human. With its emphasis on processes of living and dying, extreme cultures can help draw attention to the fragility of life through its emphasis on breakable bodies and subjectivities. The extreme is therefore not merely a ‘morbid culture’ obsessed with dying, but can serve as a cultural catalyst by highlighting social ontology and vulnerability as the foundation of human existence and the necessary condition for social relations. The presence of injury, victimhood and death in life in these representations can force us to rethink human relations and the making of environments – such as the law – where life cannot be sustained. In extreme cultures the environment – built or natural – becomes, along with biological vulnerability, the precondition for pain and destruction. The point however is, in Murphy’s words, that ‘each unique body will live its vulnerabilities differently’ (p. 578). In extreme sports, this vulnerability is voluntarily immersed in environments that pose grave risks to the body. In chronic disease, biological coherence is threatened by biological conditions over which the body has little or no control. In torture, vulnerability is amplified and placed in conditions of structural helplessness by other bodies. In extreme cultures the conditions of dependency are replaced by conditions



of exploitation through risk, torture and redundancy (as in the vulnerable body might be rendered redundant). What institutionalized torture such as that in Abu Ghraib has demonstrated is a sociality that rips apart the relationship of dependency. Bryan Turner tells us: ‘We create institutions to reduce our vulnerability and attain security, but these institutional patterns are always imperfect, inadequate, and precarious’ (2006: p. 28). Institutionalized torture indicates that structures meant to reduce vulnerability are responsible for converting the vulnerability into helplessness. Extreme cultures such as those of torture discussed in this book are as much about the vulnerability of the body as they are about social relations and institutions. Extreme cultures re-examine and redefine the social order in terms of not their value as life-sustaining environments but as environments wherein pain and deprivation constitute social relations, especially when these environments are man-made and often built with the explicit purpose of inflicting such pain. Such cultures suggest that our ontologies are fragile and therefore the social order plays a significant role in categorizing the human as vulnerable or helpless. This means, simply, a social order that denies agency to the human by rendering her or him helpless to act also erodes her or his humanness, assuming that agency is a core component of the autonomous, self-willed, coherent human subject. The denial of agency to determine the course of her or his life and action in extreme cultures is therefore part of a culture of dehumanization. The extreme is where an examination of the border between human and inhuman, between bare organic/animal life and valued life might be seen. Extreme cultures call upon us to witness the limits of the human, whether this is voluntarily sought or involuntarily imposed upon the human form. They return us to larger questions of emplacement, embodiment, social ontology and the interrelatedness of life within the environment. They alert us to conditions of structural helplessness in which dehumanization might occur. They offer us a salutary lesson in demonstrating mutual precarity as a foundational condition of human life.


Films 127 Hours (2011) Dir. Danny Boyle (Everest Entertainment). Frozen (2010) Dir. Adam Green (A Bigger Boat). 2001 Maniacs (2005) Dir. Tim Sullivan (Lionsgate). Hostel (2005) Dir. Eli Roth (Raw Nerve-Lionsgate). Hostel Part 2 (2007) Dir. Eli Roth (Raw Nerve-Lionsgate). Hostel Part 3 (2011) Dir. Scott Spiegel (Raw Nerve). Kill Theory (2009) Dir. Chris Moore (BenderSpink). Saw I (2004) Dir. James Wan (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw II (2005) Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw III (2006) Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw IV (2007) Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw V (2008) Dir. David Hackl (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw VI (2009) Dir. Kevin Greutert (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). Saw 3D, The Final Chapter (2010) Dir. Kevin Greutert (Twisted Pictures-Lionsgate). The Devil’s Rejects (2005) Dir. Rob Zombie (Lionsgate). The Last House on the Left (2009) Dir. Dennis Iliadis (Midnight Entertainment). The Tortured (2010) Dir. Robert Lieberman (Light Tower Entertainment). The Condemned (2007) Dir. Scott Wiper (WWE Films). Untraceable (2008) Dir. Gregory Hoblit (Lakeshore Entertainment-Screen Gems). Wolf Creek (2005) Dir. Greg McLean (FFC Australia/Film Finance Corporation). Wolf Creek – 2 (2013) Dir. Greg McLean (Duo Art Productions/Emu Creek Pictures). Wrong Turn (2003) Dir. Rob Schmidt (Summit Entertainment-Constantin Film).


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127 Hours, xi, 1, 44 2001 Maniacs, 2, 19–20, 41 abject materiality, 37–39 Abu Ghraib, xi, xvii–xviii, 2, 5–7, 9, 14–16, 21–23, 36, 38, 40–41, 44–46, 52–53, 77nn1–3, 94, 96, 98–100, 103, 104, 107, 109, 119, 121, 124, 127, 131, 133–42, 144–45, 146n8, 151 American Psycho, 4–5, 15, 17, 19, 32, 37 animalization, xvi, 15, 43–44, 46 anomic time (and the extreme), 94–97. See also extreme time biovalue, xviii–xix, 7, 12, 29–30, 117– 19, 123, 125, 143–45 body time (and the extreme), 84–86. See also extreme time Boko Haram (kidnapping), xviii, 104–9 cancer agency (Cancer Vixen), 111–12 Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person (Engelberg), 86–87, 103 Cancer Vixen (Marchetto), 42, 51, 81–83, 87–90, 103, 111–14, 115n3 Captivity, 5, 6, 9, 13, 20, 22, 23, 127, 131

corporeal Ground Zero, 9–11 disappearance, xviii, 12, 16, 19–21, 94, 108–9 Epileptic (David B), 41–42, 49, 51, 83 emotion and relationship management, 101–4. See also extreme management extreme agency, 109–16 extreme management, 97–104. See also object relations extreme time, 81–97. See also anomic time; body time objective time; social time extreme war, 104–9 Falling Man (DeLillo), 65–72 fleshization, 119–21 ghostification, 12, 22, 33, 68–69, 108–9 horrorist aesthetics, 39–43. See also traumatic materialism Hostel (series), xi, 2, 3–4, 7–8, 10–13, 16, 19, 32n1, 33n3, 40, 45, 120, 123, 128, 132, 133, 145 immobility (as vulnerability), 2–4 indignity (as spectacle), 43–46. 163

164 Index

See also traumatic materialism invisibilizing, 22–23 Into the Void, xiv, xv Janet and Me, 82, 83, 88, 97 Marbles (Forney), 45, 79–80, 92, 95, 97, 121 melodrama, 46–53. See also primal language; theatre of cruelty Miracle in the Andes, 1, 11, 27, 39, 48, 88 Mom’s Cancer (David Fies), 81, 82, 90, 93 moral agency, xxii, 122–24 moral extreme, 122–29 non-places, 18–23 object relations, 97–101. See also extreme management objective time (and the extreme), 86–91. See also extreme time Our Cancer Year (Pekar and Brabner), 84, 86, 90, 92–94, 97, 101 perverse sublime, 130–38. See also witnessing pornography and violence (Abu Ghraib), 14–16 primal language, 47–49. See also melodrama Radioactive Forever (Pfeiffer), xi, 72–76. See also radiant sublime radiant sublime, 72–76. See also Radioactive Forever re-enchantment: affirmative (extreme sports), 28–32, 119–20; negational (torture), 120 risk (extreme sports), 23–24, 28–32, 54–65 ruin spaces, 11–18. See also wasting

Saw (series), xi, xv, 2, 4–7, 9–11, 12–13, 16, 20, 32, 37, 38, 40–41, 51–52, 99, 119, 122–23, 125–28, 130, 131, 132, 133–38, 144, 146n1, 146n5 sensation, extreme (spaces of), 23–29 shadow archive, xx shared precarity, 122–29 social ontology (definitions) xiii–xiv, xx, 17, 24, 28, 43–44, 85, 129, 144–45, 149–51 social time, 91–94. See also extreme time sublime, 65–78. See also radiant sublime; traumatic sublime; sublime sensation; sublime risk sublime risk, 54, 59–65. See also symbolic safety sublime sensation, 54–59 surveillance (as organizational methodology), 16–17 symbolic safety (rituals of), 61–65. See also sublime risk Taguba Report, 77n1. See also Abu Ghraib Tangles (Sarah Leavitt), 47, 48, 81, 83, 84–85, 86, 98, 112 The Devil’s Rejects, xi, 10, 19, 20, 127, 133 theatre of cruelty, 52–53. See also melodrama traumatic materialism, 36–46. See also abject materiality; horrorist aesthetics, indignity traumatic sublime, 65–78 vulnerability and witnessing, 138–42. See also witnessing wasting, 11–18. See also ruin spaces witnessing, 129–48. See also vulnerability and witnessing; perverse sublime Wolf Creek xi, 2, 10, 13, 19, 20, 22, 40

About the Author

Pramod K. Nayar teaches English at the University of Hyderabad, India. His most recent books include The Indian Graphic Novel (2016), The Transnational in English Literature (2015), The Postcolonial Studies Dictionary (2015), Citizenship and Identity in the Age of Surveillance (2015) and Posthumanism (2013). Forthcoming works include the books Human Rights and Literature and The British Raj: Keywords besides essays on celebrity culture, comics auto/biography and digital culture.