Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Biopower's Limit

"You feel that force there on your hand? That's the world. The story of the world is the story of force. It's just some people are better at applying it than others." Torture brings Glen Duncan's protagonist to this realization. In A Day and a Night and a Day, torture amounts to a means of not only collapsing time, as I posed in my previous post, but to a means of collapsing the world in on itself for the tortured, to creating bare life. Torture, thus, amounts to the limit of biopower, the extreme form of enacting power upon a body. It takes voice, Elaine Scarry's point, and it makes one lose faith in the world, Jean Amery's famous words. It leaves the tortured with a single certainty, the body, and the simple realization that the world works by enacting power on the body. Duncan's text explores these ideas and asks what is left once one comes to that conclusion: memory, love, moments in time?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Torture, Memory, and the State

Glen Duncan's A Day and a Night and a Day uses torture as a mnemonic device, provoking questions about the way atrocious acts make one investigate the past. The use of mnemonic devices in literature recalls more subtle moments where involuntary memory is provoked, such as Proust's famous biscuit in In Search of Lost Time. Duncan's novel also links to the cliche of one's life flashing before one's eyes, as in Richard Flanagan's Death of a River Guide, where a man recalls his life as he is trapped drowning between rocks beneath the surface of a river. However, Duncan's use of torture as mnemonic device asks a larger question about the way a country re-envisions its past from the new position of torturer. The tortured subject in the text recalls his past as a black man in America during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, allowing the text to revisit questions of race and war, linking them to the tortured present and future.

Torture becomes a sort of tumor in society in the same way the Vietnam war was. Duncan uses the My Lai massacre to make his point: "Whatever you thought of war, soldiers in it became the bearers of the world's strange tidings. Among which was the news from My Lai. America faced a tumorous question about itself from its own sons." Duncan's example forms a link between the way Vietnam, specifically the My Lai massacre, made Americans see themselves in a new light and the way torture should do the same. Both Vietnam and today's war on terrorism amount to exceptional circumstances where otherwise unheard of acts are carried out or justified based on the emergency at hand. The question becomes, do we, as a nation, treat the atrocious act as a mnemonic device or a convenient failure of memory justified by the exceptional circumstances? Duncan prefers the former.

Orpheus and Falling Man

The image from the action theatre group PAN.OPTIKUM recalls the photo of the "Falling Man" (refer to my previous post) from 9/11 about which DeLillo writes in his novel of the same name. It forms a connection between two texts, DeLillo's and Janette Turner Hospital's Orpheus Lost. Like the above image, both texts follow a descent and are reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus, with towers falling, terrorism, and a journey into an unknown underworld. But the descents amount to journeys that attempt to reclaim a lost love. Orpheus descended into hell on a quest to reunite with Eurydice, but he looked back before they surfaced and broke his deal with the devil. The characters in each of the contemporary novels seek a lost love, but seem to have learned the lesson of Orpheus, not to look too closely before it has returned. Can we apply this to contemporary politics, terrorism, and texts?