Tag Archives: Michel Foucault

Rule of torture, rites of terror and the mirror of fascism: A further tribute to Frantz Fanon



The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm.

–Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History,’ Selected Writings, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 392.

Torture, as many would readily agree, is the most abhorrent form of ‘human rights violation’. I have often wondered why not call it a ‘crime’? Why do they all the time keep inventing neologisms like violation? I propose to argue here that torture (and institutional terror or, as more often known, ‘extra-judicial killing’) is also a crime like any other crime. The difference, if any, lies only in its being condoned often by civil society in surreptitious, nay in unperceived ways sometimes. Torture and institutional terror is ‘like a ritual art form’ and as I would like to argue here, with Michael Taussig, ‘that far from being spontaneous, sui generis, and an abandonment of what are often called “the values of civilization,” such rites have a deep history deriving power and meaning from those values.’[1]

It would also be interesting to research further how the crimes and terror attributed to the victims of torture and institutional terror more often than not mime the crimes perpetrated by agents of state and civil society themselves in the name of rule of law and good governance. This mimesis often gives expression to a priori synthetic conditions of fascist culture and projects back to civil society the terrorism and criminal foundations of its own social structure which it imputes to uncivil elements.

It cannot therefore be only a humanitarian concern to draft a broadside contra torture and institutional terror. I need hardly say that I am not concerned here to produce a politically neutral or objective essay. I believe I am writing, on the contrary, in the tradition of the oppressed, of all those who gave up more than their lives in the struggle against fascism, and those survivors of torture who in bringing us their testimony help us in our job of rehabilitating man against the assault of fascism.

I should also say for the record before I say it all that all whatsoever I know about torture is derived from the work of other writers, some cited and some remains unnamed. Tyranny and terror, appearing periodically in the form of forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and also unjust executions is only too ubiquitous a phenomenon to need introduction. Torture is there out in the world everywhere, it has always been.

So what can be done about it? The least we can is to break the silence, to talk and write about it. ‘Why do they torture us,’ if you ask the subject supposed to know you are more likely to get the answer, ‘because they don’t understand’. That is but only half the answer. They torture you because you don’t understand. Not the torturer but the tortured or the threatened are the ones who stand in need of understanding. This is essay addressed to them.

I should perhaps avoid also getting locked up in intricacies of certain ‘objective’ definitions of torture. I take torture, for the purposes of this essay, as frankly a fascist political form and do not treat it (in the name of progress or whatsoever) at all as a historical norm or an ordinary everyday experience of human civilization.  I know, however, not everyone would agree on this. Those who would not make common cause with fascism, Michel Foucault among them comes to mind, would not either take torture for what it really is or at any rate what it would mean were they themselves subjected to the abhorrent practice. One might as well ask, ‘What is fascism anyway?’

Fascism is also a culture of terror ‘based on and nourished by silence and myth in which the fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious flourishes by means of rumor and fantasy woven in a dense web of magical realism’. The torturer, the terrorist here needs the tortured among other things to objectify his imaginary in the discourse of the other. What is it that the torturer wants? In the official prose, all he wants is information, to make the victim work in accordance with master’s desire or for that matter in concert with the strategies of economic development laid out by the master class. ‘Yet equally, if not more, important,’ as Michael Taussig shows in his analysis of torture in Putumayo jungles of Peru, ‘is the need to control massive populations through the cultural elaboration of fear.’[2]


I           Torture in the mirror of fascism

For the purposes of this essay I invoke the work of Aime Cesaire who takes fascism as a species of colonialism that returns home to rule the roost.[3] Fascism as many will recognize came to power in certain nations of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as a tyranny based on a fair extent of popular following and aspired to rule the world by terror. But it did not descend down from pure blue heaven. Before fascism at home there was fascism abroad, it was only named colonialism.

CesaireAime Cesaire puts its history in a capsule. Colonialism works, as Cesaire says, to de-civilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism. Cesaire shows that Europe proceeded towards savagery slowly but surely through the everyday practices of colonialism, namely violence, murder, rape and torture. Each time a head was cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam they accepted the fact in France, he pointed out. Each time a little girl was raped or a man tortured in Madagascar they accepted the fact in France. Thus civilization acquired another dead weight, a universal regression took place, a gangrene set in, and a center of infection began to spread.

That center eventually, at the end, became fascism, or savagery in the name of civilization. In Cesaire’s eloquent words, ‘at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe,’ and the continent slowly but surely proceeded toward  savagery.

The European bourgeoisie begot colonialism, slavery and torture in other worlds, colonialism in turn begot fascism, murder and holocaust in Europe and yet European peoples were surprised and got indignant at fascism because Europe has so long been hiding the truth of fascism, its true paternity, from itself. One day Europe recognizes fascism as a true barbarism, nay the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up the daily barbarisms Europe perpetrated in its colonies. But the ruling classes of Europe still failed to admit, even after fascism’s last defeat, in good faith that ‘before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because until then, until then it had only been applied to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozed, seeped, and trickled from every crack.’[4]

Steps taken by fascism, or German fascism in particular, serve in Aime Cesaire’s retrospective judgment, ‘to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon.’ The European humanist, the Christian bourgeois that is, argues Cesaire, cannot really rail against fascism without being inconsistent. So what is it that the indignant European bourgeois doing when he is railing against that demon, that alter ego of theirs? ‘At bottom,’ Cesaire writes, ‘what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been exclusively reserved for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.[5]

Torture, in the words of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1984, is purported to mean ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.’ The Convention, however, compromises certain forms of violence, and excludes certain practices such as ‘pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions’ from the purview of torture.[6]

These limitations reflect rather difficult negotiations and liberal concessions to fascism. But the compromises, it must be recognized, are embedded also in cultural constructs, in the discourses of mythology and history that precursors so tenaciously built up. ‘And what is put into discourse through the artful storytelling of the colonists,’ as says Michael Taussig, ‘is the same as what they practiced on the bodies of the Indians.’[7]

Colonialism did not leave also the medical profession untainted. French medical professionals in Algeria, following the particularly edifying example of the medical corps in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, also did not refrain from participating in tortures and other war crimes. Allow me to cite only a few instances from Franz Fanon. ‘When judicial inquiries into the cases of Algerians who had not died in the course of police questioning began,’ Fanon writes, ‘it would happen that the defense would ask for a medico-legal examination. This demand would sometimes be met. The European doctor assigned to examine the patient always concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the accused had been tortured.’ ‘Not infrequently,’ also reports Fanon, ‘the European doctor in Algeria would deliver to the legal authority a certificate of natural death for an Algerian who had succumbed to torture or who, more simply, had been coldly executed. Similarly, it invariably happened that when the demand of the defense for an autopsy was granted, the results would be negative.’[8]

This is only collaboration at a remove, in a sense. The crime became explicit when it touched on the strictly technical level, where the European doctor actively collaborated with the colonial forces in ‘their most frightful and most degrading practices’. The European doctors in Algeria used the ‘truth serum’ with staggering frequency. ‘The principle of this drug,’ as Fanon writes, ‘is well known: a chemical substance having hypnotic properties is injected into a vein, which, when the operation is carried out slowly, produces a certain loss of control, a blunting of consciousness. As therapeutic measure used in medicine it is obviously a very dangerous technique, which may cause a serious impairment of personality. Many psychiatrists, considering the dangers greater than possible improvements, have long ago abandoned this technique for examining spheres of the unconscious.’[9]

The deleterious effects on men and women subjected to torture for days are legion, one of the important consequences being, in Fanon’s words, ‘a certain inability to distinguish the true from the false, and an almost obsessive fear of saying what should remain hidden.’ ‘We must always remember,’ as Fanon put it, ‘that there is hardly an Algerian who is not party to at least one secret of the Revolution. Months after this torture, the former prisoner hesitates to say his name, the town where he was born. Every question is first experienced as a repetition of the torturer-tortured relationship.’[10]

Professional morality, medical ethics, self-respect and respect for others, gives way to the most uncivilized, the most degrading, the most perverse kind of behavior under colonial conditions. In Algeria doctors attached to various torture centers ‘intervened after every session to put the tortured back into condition for new sessions’. ‘Under the circumstances,’ Fanon remarks, ‘the important thing is for the prisoner not to give the slip to the team in charge of the questioning: in other words, to remain alive.’ The doctor becomes an accomplice to the highest degree under these circumstances. ‘Everything—heart stimulants, massive doses of vitamin—is used before, during, and after sessions to keep the Algerian hovering between life and death. Ten times the doctor intervenes,’ as Fanon reminds us, ‘ten times he gives the prisoner back to the pack of torturers.’

FanonFanon, himself a French-trained professional psychiatrist, accused certain psychiatrists of flying to the aid of the police. ‘There are,’ he writes, ‘for instance, psychiatrists in Algiers, known to numerous prisoners, who have given electric shock treatments to the accused and have questioned them during the  waking phase, which is characterized by a certain confusion, a relaxation of resistance, a disappearance of the persons defenses. When these men are liberated because the doctor, despite this barbarous treatment, was able to obtain no information, what is brought to us is a personality in shreds. The work of rehabilitating the man is then extremely difficult.’ ‘This is only,’ remarks our author, ‘one of the numerous crimes of which French colonialism in Algeria has made itself guilty.’[11]

To crown it all Fanon recalls certain experience with French military doctors refusing treatment to an Algerian soldier wounded in combat, when called to his bedside. ‘The official pretext was that there was no longer a chance to save the wounded man. After the soldier had died, the doctor would admit that this solution had appeared to him preferable to a stay in prison where it would have been necessary to feed him while awaiting execution.’ ‘The Algerians of the region of Blida know,’ adds Fanon, ‘a certain hospital director who would kick the bleeding chests of the war wounded lying in the corridor of his establishment.’ [12]

Modern medical ethics, based on the ethical code laid out in the Hippocratic Oath and laid out by official organizations as well as professional associations, expresses commitment to the cause of a universal humanitarianism. Principles of medical ethics adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on 18 December 1982, for instance, implicates all health personnel, particularly physicians, ‘in the protection of prisoners and detainees against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ ‘It is a gross contravention of medical ethics,’ as one of the six principles enjoins it, ‘to participate in torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ It is prohibited, as another principle puts it, ‘to assist in the interrogation of prisoners or detainees in a manner that may adversely affect their physical or mental health,’ just as it is forbidden to certify the sickness of prisoners an detainees for any form of treatment or punishment that may adversely affect their physical or mental health.’[13] World Medical Association also adopted similar ethical principles. Of paramount importance on the subject of torture is the Tokyo Declaration adopted in 1975.

However, all this did not have the desired effect. If it did we would not have heard of Abu Gharaib or Guantanamo for that matter. Faced with the endemic nature of torture, terror and horror we, the condemned to the New World Order, are assailed with a new emergency or to call a spade a spade, a new fascism. Walter Benjamin’s observation has alas again attained to a new urgency: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ Not everyone, for instance, the French philosopher Michel Foucault would agree.


II          Torture as normal: Michel Foucault’s apologia

In his later work especially Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault claims among other things that ‘torture’ give way to ‘discipline’ in modern society. By modern society, Foucault indicated mostly European societies since at least the French revolution of the eighteenth century. This flies in the face of all evidence even after the two world wars (or a long thirty years war if you will) of the twentieth century, especially in societies where the European mode of colonial governance prevails.[14] In an interesting defense of Foucault, Talal Asad argues that the French philosopher is not concerned with torture as such but with rather power or disciplinary power, which works with normalization of everyday behavior, as opposed to sovereign power which needs to exhibit itself publicly.[15]

One of my purposes in this essay is to re-examine the robustness or otherwise of the distinction introduced by Michel Foucault. I argue, following the work of Frantz Fanon, that the distinction between ‘sovereign power’ (which needs an expression) and ‘disciplinary power’ (which needs a means) tends to wither away as one confronts face to face a colonial formation. ‘Torture,’ Fanon claimed in 1957, ‘is an expression and a means of the occupant-occupied relationship.’[16]

Talal Asad has claimed also that Foucault’s thesis about disciplinary power is not subverted by evidence of surreptitious torture in the modern state. That torture is administered in secrecy (or one admits in quasi-secrecy) is proof that it is just policing, a governmental activity directed supposedly at defending some fundamental ‘interest of society’. ‘On the contrary,’ writes Asad, ‘precisely because torture carried out in secret is said to be intimately connected with the extraction of information, it is an aspect of policing.’[17]

To believe that torture is simple policing, or a mode of pure disciplinary power rests, I would here argue, on a fundamental misreading of the colonial (or semi-colonial for that matter) situation. Curiously, as Fanon noted it, neither the French police agents perpetrating torture in Algeria (in a sense ever since 1830), nor the Algerian people in the vanguard of their liberation war had little misgiving about the true nature of what was involved.

Recent evidence of the US torture in Afghanistan and in Iraqi theater of war serves to redeploy and recharge, and perhaps to supplement, certain lessons of earlier colonial wars. The necessity to legitimize torture, as Fanon noted, has always been considered by the French police to be ‘an outrage and a paradox’. To them maintenance of French domination in Algeria made torture absolutely necessary. The Algerian people too were not unaware of the fact that the colonialist structure rested on the necessity of torturing, raping and committing massacres.[18] As the case of Algeria preeminently points out the question of torture is a core problem of civilization or rather the civilizing mission, not of barbarism or even savagery for that matter; it is, as an observer remarked lately, ‘but one that concerns the very moral fabric of the democratic societies in which we live.’[19]

Torture in the world continues. That torture is practiced to a great and frequent extent is recognized by the United Nations and other large international bodies such as the Council of Europe, either directly or at a remove, in many a declaration, convention, covenant or other regulations introduced. As is well known the United Nations was created as World War II was about to end and as early as 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘No one shall be subjected,’ Article 5 of this Declaration reads, ‘to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ The intent was reiterated both in the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from being subjected to Torture and any other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted on 9 December 1975 and in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1984.

In his later work Foucault argues that the exercise of power and resistance to work in a disruptive rather than a dialectical relation to each other, suggesting that ‘points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network’. Foucault’s point is that resistance does not operate outside power, nor is it necessarily produced in opposition to it: ‘it is imbricated within it, the irregular term that consistently disturbs it, rebounds upon it, and which on occasions can be manipulated so as to rupture it altogether’: ‘Just as the network of power relations ends by a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratification and individual unities. And it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible, somewhat similar to the way in which the state relies on the institutional integration of power relationships.’[20]

As Foucault has once put it, he began his analysis ‘from a question posed in the present.’ It is in this way that Foucault returned to doing historical work that has political fallout through his notion of genealogy. Curiously few references to the question of torture in the French colony of Algeria is to be found in the works of Foucault or for that matter Jean-Francois Lyotard who wrote extensively on colonial Algeria.[21]

Foucault’s legacy is at best ambivalent. For him tyranny, which he often calls rather simplistically power, is heterogeneous as is resistance. His point is simply that ‘there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary’.[22]  Foucault stresses the local or the specific resistance without assuming the global possibility of emancipation. What he misses is the asymmetry of the institutional integration of power relationships where a state or civil society exists and the absence of strategic codification of points of resistance marks the existence of the other.

III         Torture as pathological: Fanon on colonialism and mental disorders

Franz Fanon, in his last work, placed torture most succinctly in its proper historical basis, namely when the colonized person and the colonial system are violently brought together. Dehumanizing the colonized, argues Fanon, is of the essence of torture as a modality of political action. ‘It must in any case be remembered that,’ writes Fanon, ‘a colonized people is not simply a dominated people. Under the German occupation the French remained men; under the French occupation, the Germans remained men.’ But the Algerians, the veiled women were not men and women to the French; they together with the palm trees and the camels simply formed the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French.[23]

The colonial situation produces pathologies of various orders. In the calm period of successful colonization, that is when it is not contested by armed resistance, oppression directly produces a regular and important mental pathology. At that hour, ‘the sum total of harmful nervous stimuli overstep a certain threshold, the defensive attitudes of the natives give way and they then find themselves crowding mental hospitals.’

In times of national liberation wars, which are total wars for the colonized, the colonial theater of war becomes a veritable breeding-ground of mental disorders. Most of them, known as ‘reactionary psychoses’ in clinical psychiatry, are as a matter of fact produced by the oppressive regime, by ‘chiefly the bloodthirsty and pitiless atmosphere, the generalization of inhuman practices and the firm impression that people have of being caught up in a veritable Apocalypse.’ A colonial war, either in part or as a whole is, as Fanon notes, ‘singular even in the pathology it gives rise to’. Colonial psychoses induced by torture, to put it in brief, ‘upsets most profoundly the personality of the person who is tortured’.[24]

Fanon’s second observation also merits further comments. He vigorously confutes the claim that these ‘reactionary psychoses’ so-called are relatively harmless and rather exceptional phenomena. Fanon, on the contrary, holds that ‘the frequent malignancy of these pathological processes’ is rather the rule. ‘These are disorders which persist for months on end, making a mass attack against the ego, and practically always leaving as their sequel a weakness which is almost visible to the naked eye. According to all available evidence, the future of such patients is mortgaged.’[25]

The colonial war dehumanizes not only the colonized; the torturer also becomes a victim. In his chapter ‘Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders,’ in Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes on the case of a twenty-eight year old European policeman who was sent to Fanon in Blida-Joinville by his superiors because he had behavior disturbances. ‘His trouble was that at night he heard screams which prevented him from sleeping.’ For a few weeks prior to coming to the psychiatrist the poor policeman, before going to bed, used to shut the shutters and stopped up all the windows, and that in the summer, to the complete despair of his wife who was stifled by the heat. ‘Moreover, he stuffed his ears with cotton-wool in order to make the screams seems less piercing.’ He, sometimes even in the middle of the night, used to turn on the wireless set or put on some music in order not to hear his nocturnal uproar. Sometime ago he was employed at the police headquarters, where he mostly came to deal with interrogations. Fanon quotes quite a bit of the patient’s testimony. ‘Interrogations,’ the policeman tells Fanon, never occurred without some ‘knocking about’. ‘The thing was that they never would own up to anything.’

‘Sometimes we almost wanted to tell them that if they had a bit of consideration for us they’d speak out without forcing us to spend hours tearing information word by word out of them. But you might as well talk to the wall. To all the questions we asked they’d only say ‘I don’t know.’ Even when we asked them what their name was. If we asked them where they lived, they would say ‘I don’t know’. So of course we had to go through with it. But they scream too much. At the beginning that made me laugh. But afterwards I was a bit shaken. Nowadays as soon as I hear someone shouting I can tell you exactly at what stage of the questioning we’ve got to.  The chap who’s had two blows of the fist and a belt of the baton behind his ear has a certain way of speaking, of shouting and of saying he’s innocent. After he has been left two hours strung up by the wrists he has another kind of voice. After the bath, still another. And so on. But above all it’s after the electricity that it becomes really too much. You’d say that the chap is going to die any minute. Of course there are some that don’t scream; those are the tough ones. But they think they are going to be killed right away. But we are not interested in killing them. What we want is information. When we’re dealing with those tough ones, the first thing we do is to make them squeal; and sooner or later we manage it. That’s already a victory. Afterwards we go on. Mind you, we would like to avoid that. But they don’t make things easy for us. Now I’ve come so as I hear their screams even when I’m at home.’ ‘Especially,’ added the policeman, ‘the screams of the ones who died at the police headquarters.’ He wanted to resign his job and save his soul.[26]

Another European torturer, a thirty-year old police inspector, also married and with three children, was intent on persevering with his job. He had lost his appetite and his sleep, as he told Fanon, was frequently disturbed by nightmares. What bothered him most was not the nightmares as such, but what he called ‘fits of madness’. He disliked being contradicted: ‘as soon as someone goes against me, says he, ‘I want to hit him.’ ‘Even outside my job, I feel I want to settle the fellows who get in my way, even for nothing at all.’

The police inspector dislikes noise. At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact he does hit his children, even the twenty month old baby, with unaccustomed savagery. One evening he did beat up and tie down his wife who dared to criticize him for hitting his children too much. He wasn’t like that before, the inspector recounted. He said he very rarely punished his children and at any event rarely fought with his wife. The present phenomena, in his opinion, had appeared ‘since the troubles’. ‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘nowadays we have to work like troopers. Last week, for example, we operated like as if we belonged to the army. Those gentle men in the government say there’s no war in Algeria and that the arm of the law, that’s to say the police, ought to restore order. But there is a war going on in Algeria, and when they wake up to it it’ll be too late.’

‘The thing that kills me most is the torture,’ admits our troubled Inspector. ‘Sometimes,’ adds he, ‘I torture people for ten hours at a stretch…’ ‘What happens to you when you are torturing?’ Fanon asks him. ‘It’s very tiring,’ the Inspector chips in. ‘It’s true we take it in turns, but the question is to know to let the next chap have a go.. Each one thinks he is going to get the information at any minute and takes good care not to let the bird go to the next chap after he has softened him up up nicely, when of course the other chap would get the honor and glory of it. So sometimes we let them go; and sometimes we don’t.’

‘Sometimes,’ goes on the Inspector, ‘we even offer the chap money, money out of our own pockets, to try to get him to talk. Our problem is as follows: are you able to make this fellow talk? It’s a question of personal success. You see, you are competing with the others. In the end your fists are ruined. So you call in the Senegalese But they hit either too hard and destroy the creature or else they don’t hit hard enough and it’s no good. In fact you have to be intelligent to make a success of that sort of work. You have to know when to lay it on and when to lay it off. You have to have a flair for it.’

‘But the thing that worries him most is this affair with his wife. ‘It’s certain that there’s something wrong with me,’ he realizes. But he is far from seeing the real behind his troubles. ‘This man knew perfectly well, remarks Fanon, ‘that his disorders were directly caused by the kind of activity that went on inside the rooms where interrogations were carried out, even though he tried to throw the responsibility totally upon “present troubles”.’ Since he could not imagine a way out of the interrogation rooms he asked Fanon to help him to go on torturing Algerian freedom fighters without any pricking of conscience, without any behavior problems and with complete equanimity. ‘With these observations, writes Fanon, ‘we find ourselves in the presence of a coherent system which leaves nothing intact. The executioner who loves birds and enjoys the peace of listening to a symphony or a sonata is simply one stage in the process. Farther on in it we may well find a whole existence which enters into complete and absolute sadism.’[27]

Sadistic police agents who lost their sleep and the torturing soldiers who ‘run the risk of turning into fascists’ no doubt constituted a precise problem for the Algerians, and that was to get rid of them at the shortest possible time. The human legacy of torture, just one of France’s numerous crimes in Algeria, cast indeed a longer shadow. In ‘Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders’, Fanon presents his cases in four consecutive series. The two cases we chose above, examples of ‘reactionary psychosis,’ belong to series A. In series B certain cases in which the events giving rise to the illness is in the first place the atmosphere of total war were brought together. Fanon grouped together, in series C, those cases in which the disorders appeared after or during the tortures. Characteristic morbidities appeared depending on the methods of torture employed, independent of the evil effects upon the personality of the tortured. Fanon finally put together in a fourth series illnesses met with among Algerians who were interned in concentration camps. Illnesses of the ‘psycho-somatic’ type, as they used to be known, were not the only consequences of the colonial war.  Quite apart from the pathology of torture, the pathology of combat, violence and conflict were enough to produce these mental disorders, including certain forms of criminality. Under a colonial regime such as existed in Algeria, as Fanon finds it, the ideas put forward by colonialism not only influenced the European minority, but also the Algerians. ‘The Algerian’s criminality, his impulsivity and the violence of his murders,’ concludes Fanon, ‘are therefore not consequences of the organization of his nervous system, nor of a peculiar trait in his character, but a direct product of the colonial situation.’[28]


IV         Torture and civil society: the Putumayo Report

Michael Taussig’s analysis of colonialist torture in Putumayo region in South America yields remarkably similar conclusions as in Fanon’s treatment of Algeria. Taussig, in fact, goes a trifle further than Fanon in exploring the torturer in his fantasy, namely the culture of terror that sustain him. Taking up an early twentieth century official report on torture perpetrated on the Putumayo Indians by an Anglo-Peruvian rubber company Taussig shows that while condemning the torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of the Indian the narrative framework and explanations put forward in the report do miss the very culture of terror, the image of the Indian as cannibal and savage, that sustained the colonialist rationality of torture.

The British Consul Roger Casement’s report, written in 1910 and published by the House of Commons in 1913, was based on extensive field investigations on the middle reaches of the Putumayo and the Amazon basin. Its essence, in Taussig’s words, ‘lay in its detail of the terror and tortures together with Casement’s explanation of causes and his estimate of the toll in human life.’ ‘Putumayo rubber would be unprofitable,’ as Taussig writes, ‘were it not for the forced labor of local Indians, principally those called Huitotos. From the twelve years from 1900, the Putumayo output of some 4,000 tons of rubber cost thousands of Indians their lives. Deaths from torture, disease, and possibly flight had decreases the population of the area by around 30,000 during that time.’ [29] However, in 1909 a London magazine, Truth, published a series of articles by an unknown adventurer from the United States, Walter Hardenburg by name, on the Putumayo region depicting the brutality of the rubber company, which since 1907 has been a consortium of Peruvian and British interests in the region.

The articles chronicled the saga of the plantation workers of Putumayo region declaring that the peaceful Indians work night and day collecting rubber without the slightest remuneration. As Taussig restates, ‘[The Indians] are given nothing to eat or wear. Their crops, together with the women and children, are taken for the pleasure of the whites. They are inhumanly flogged until their bones are visible. Given no medical treatment, they are left to die after torture, eaten by the company’s dogs. They are castrated, and their ears, fingers, arms, and legs are cut off. They are tortured by means of fire, water, and crucifixion tied head-down. The whites cut them pieces with machetes and dash out the brains of small children by hurling them against trees and walls. The elderly are killed when they no longer can work. To amuse themselves, the company officials practice shooting, using Indians as targets, and on special occasions such as Easter Saturday—Saturday of Glory—shoot them down in groups, or, in preference, douse them in kerosene and set them on fire to enjoy their agony.’[30]

The British administration felt obliged to send Roger Casement to the Putumayo on account of the public outcry caused. Casement’s report confirmed, more or less, the stories depicted in the Truth articles. From the evidence gathered at the scene the Consul reported that the ‘great majority’ (perhaps up to 90 percent) of the more than 1,600 Indians he saw had been badly beaten. ‘Some of the worst affected were small boys and,’ as one reads in the resume, ‘deaths due to flogging were frequent, either under the lash, or more frequently, a few days later when the wounds became maggot infested.’ It continues: ‘Floggings occurred when an Indian brought in insufficient rubber and were most sadistic for those who dared to flee. Flogging was mixed with other tortures such as near drowning, “designed,” as Casement points out, “to just stop short of taking life while inspiring the acute mental fear and inflict much of the physical agony of death.” ‘[31]

‘Casement was informed,’ Taussig writes furthermore, ‘by a man who had himself often flogged Indians that he had seen mothers flogged because their little sons had not brought in enough rubber. While the boy stood terrified and crying at the sight, his mother would be beaten “just a few strokes” to make him a better worker.’ In addition, deliberate starvation was resorted to repeatedly, sometimes to frighten, more often to kill. Men and women were kept in stocks until they died of hunger. An eye witness reported that he had seen Indians in this situation ‘scraping up the dirt with their fingers and eating it.’ Another declared that he had seen them eating the maggots in their wounds.’ Thus the narrative goes on, apparently unending.

Yet these are the victims who were accused of savagery and cannibalism by their tormentors, the company employees and the civil society. One would ask why.  ‘Such men,’ Roger Casement remarked, ‘had lost all sight or sense of rubber-gathering—they were simply beasts of prey who lived upon the Indians and delighted in shedding their blood.’ Yet they were there to begin with ostensibly for making a profit. How can shedding blood be profitable? How did torture become their preference?

Moreover, the station managers from the areas where Casement got his most precise information were in debt (despite their handsome rates of commission), running their operations at a loss to the Company that in some sections ran to many thousands of pounds sterling. Asked by Casement if he did not know it to be wrong to torture Indians, one of the Barbados men replied that he was unable to refuse orders, ‘that a man might be a man down in Iquitos, but ‘you couldn’t be a man up there’. [32]

Casement argued that it was not rubber but labor that was scarce in Putumayo and that this scarcity provided the basic cause of the use of terror. Putumayo rubber was of the lowest quality, the remoteness of its source made its transport expensive relative to rubber from other zones, and wages for free labor were very high. Hence, he reasons, the company resorted to the use of forced labor under a debt-peonage system and used torture to maintain labor discipline. But, as Taussuig notes, this explanation does not sit in well with certain facts to be found in the Putumayo Report such as the slaughter of this precious labor on a vast scale beyond belief. The explanation ‘while not exactly wrong’ is in some way inadequate. Taussig raises two further points on the question of ‘scarcity’ of labor and the debt-peonage system which bound the Indian to the plantations. It was obvious, to begin with, that torture and institutionalized terror is not rational in the business sense of the term but was nevertheless resorted as one observes a ritual. Also torture was neither spontaneous, sui generis, nor constituted an abandonment of ‘the values of civilization’ so-called such. Such rites, Taussig contends, ‘have a deeper history deriving power and meaning from those values.’

The rites of terror and torture cannot be sense of unless one goes further. What claims attention is ‘the mimesis between the savagery attributed to the Indians by the colonists and the savagery perpetrated by the colonists in the name of what they call “civilization”.’ ‘The reciprocating yet distorted mimesis,’ argues Taussig, ‘has been and continues to be great importance in the construction of colonial culture—the colonial mirror that reflects back onto the colonists the barbarity in their own social relations, but as imputed to the savage or evil figures they wish to colonize.’ Lurid tales of Indian cannibalism and colonial folklore of savage Indians serve only to confirm the fact that civil society in fact was founded on savagery. To cite Taussig once more: ‘In their human or human like form, the wild Indians could all the better reflect back to the colonists the vast and baroque projections of human wildness that colonists needed to establish their reality as civilized (not to mention business like) people. And it was only because the wild Indians were human that they were able to serve as labor—and as subjects of torture. For it is not the victim as animal that gratifies the torturer, but the fact that the victim is human, thus enabling the torturer to become the savage.’ [33]

From all accounts of the Putumayo terror it appears that colonists and rubber company employees not only feared but themselves created through narration fearful and confusing images of savagery—images that bound colonial society together through the epistemic murk of the space of death. ‘The systems of tortures they devised to secure rubber,’ Taussig writes, ‘mirrored the horror of savagery they so feared, condemned—and fictionalized.’ ‘And what is put into discourse through artful storytelling of the colonists is the same as what they practiced on the bodies of the Indians.’[34]

More interestingly, well meaning reports such as those by Hardenburg or Casement too did not free themselves from the same sources that created such myths of Indian savagery. ‘Torture and terror in the Putumayo were motivated by the need for cheap labor. But labor per se—labor as a commodity—didn’t exist in the jungles of the Caraparana and Igaraparana affluents of the Putumayo. What exited was not a market for labor but a society and culture of human beings whom the colonists called Indians, irrationals, and savages, with their specific historical trajectory, form of life, and modes of exchange. In the blundering colonial attempt to forcibly dovetail the capitalist commodity structure to one or the other of the possibilities for rubber gathering offered by these modes of exchange, torture, as Casement alludes, took on a life of its own: ‘Just as the appetite comes in the eating so each crime led on to fresh crimes.’[35]

‘To this we should add that, step by step, terror and torture became the form of life for some fifteen years, an organized culture with its systematized rules, imagery, procedures, and meanings involved in spectacles and rituals that sustained the precarious solidarity of the rubber company employees as well as beating out through the body of the tortured some sort of canonical truth about civilization and business.’[36]

V          Conclusion

How do we go from here?  If you want to subvert this apocalyptic dialectic, we must begin by undermining or disrupting the foundations of fascism in the discourse of civil society itself. It needs to be understood, as a minimalist program would have it, that the fight against torture and institutionalized terror hardly makes sense unless one realizes that this is part of the struggle against fascism. It is the point on which our path diverges from the saddle point of Michel Foucault and converges on the one tread by Franz Fanon.

Fascism, as Walter Benjamin once famously said, founds politics on aesthetics. That’s true. Fascism sensationalizes, it builds on a folklore that forecloses, an otherness that imprisons mankind. The struggle against fascism, however, must found its aesthetic on a politics of openness. Its poetics will not close ‘with cataclysmic resolution of contradictions but with their disruptions.’

Possibilities of eliminating torture must be considered to exist. International law has created a myriad of conventions, covenants and treaties and the medical profession also has laid down extensive ethical rules. But what stands in the way of implementation is not the fact that ‘they’ don’t understand. In fact they understand only too well.

Likewise, paradoxical as it may sound, the truth of torture, rape, or collective murder it is not to be found in the body of these crimes as such. We must understand that they are sustained by a structure or if you like a culture of terror. The revolution of our times—and I am not using the word as an exorcism—must now turn on a new leaf. A new culture demands new tasks.


[1]   Michael Taussig, ‘Culture of Terror—Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture,’ in Nicholas B. Dirks, ed., Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 135-173, p. 164.

[2]   M. Taussig, ibid., p. 139.

[3]   Aime Cesaire, Discourse on colonialism, trans., Joan Pinkham, reprint (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

[4]   A. Cesaire, ibid., p. 36; translation modified.

[5]   A. Cesaire, ibid., p. 36.

[6]   B. Sorensen, ‘Modern Ethics and International Law,’ in M. Basoglu, ed., Torture and its consequences: current treatment approaches, reprint (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 511-19, p. 512.

[7]   M. Taussig, ibid., pp. 164-65.

[8]    F. Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans., H. Chevalier, reprint (Boston: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 136-37.

[9]    F. Fanon, ibid., p. 137.

[10]  F. Fanon, ibid., p.138; see also F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans., C. Farrington, reprint (London: Penguin Books, 1990), ch. 5, series A, case 4.

[11]   F. Fanon, A dying colonialism, pp. 138-39.

[12]  F. fanon, ibid., p. 139.

[13]  B. Sorensen, ‘Modern ethics and international law,’ in M. Basoglu, ed., Torture and its consequences: current treatment approaches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 516-17.

[14]   Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans., A. Sheridan, reprint (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986).

[15]  Talal Asad, ‘On Torture, or Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment,’ in Arthur Kleinman et al., eds., Social Suffering, reprint (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 288.

[16]  Frantz Fanon, ‘Algeria Face to Face with the French Torturers,’ Towards the African Revolution: Political Essays, trans., H. Chevalier, reprint (New York: Grove press, 1988), p. 66. ‘Torture in Algeria,’ alerted Fanon right ahead of this, ‘is not an accident, or an error, or a fault. Colonialism cannot be understood without the possibility of torturing, of violating, or of massacring.’

[17]  Talal Asad, ibid.

[18]  Franz Fanon, ibid., pp. 66, 72.

[19]  M. Basoglu, ed., Torture and its consequences: current treatment approaches, reprint (Cambridge: Cambridge    University Press 1993), p. 3.

[20]   Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol.1, trans., R. Hurley (London: Allan Lane, 1979), p. 96; cited in Robert J. C. Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, 2nd ed., (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 124.

[21]   Jean-Francois Lyotard, Political Writings, trans., Bill Readings and K. Paul Geiman (London: UCL Press, 1993), p. 214.

[22]   Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol.1, ibid., pp. 95-96; cited in Robert J. C. Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, ibid., p. 124.

[23]   F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans., C. Farrington, reprint (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 201; emphasis in the original.

[24]   F. Fanon, ibid., p. 202.

[25]   F. Fanon, ibid., p. 203.

[26]   F. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, pp. 213-14; Series A, Case 4.

[27]   F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 217.

[28]   F. Fanon, ibid., p. 250; translation modified.

[29]   M. Taussig,  ibid., p. 143.

[30]  M. Taussig, ibid., pp. 143-44, citing Walter Hardenburg, The Putumayo: The Devil’s Paradise. Travels in The Peruvian Amazon Region and an Account of the Atrocities Committed upon the Indians Therein (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912), p. 214.

[31]   M. Taussig, ibid., p. 145.

[32]   M. Taussig, ibid., pp. 146-47.

[33]   M. Taussig., ibid., p. 152.

[34]   M. Taussig, ibid., pp. 163-165.

[35]   M. Taussig, ibid., p. 164.

[36]   M. Taussig, ibid., p. 164.