Guest post by ESHA SHAH
The social, political and legal debates that have followed the gruesome incident of gang rape in Delhi on 16 December – including the debates on the recently published report of Justice Verma Commission widely hailed for its revolutionary character – have not sufficiently engaged with the structure of violence perpetrated in the act of brutality. In forging the solidarity against the suffering, there is a popular tendency to externalise the act of barbarity causing this suffering as demonic and hence out of this world. For instance, one of the posters in the protests that followed the incident read “your suffering is my suffering” – in the same poster it was demanded that those who caused this suffering were narpishach and should be hanged. The pain of the victim is shared collective pain, but the brutality of the act is certainly not the shared collective responsibility. In the preliminary remarks below I want to argue that we need to revise the nature of power asserted in the act of brutality, and in doing so we need to not only convert the demonic caricatures as flesh and blood human beings produced by this world but also to embed their acts into deep-rooted structures of violence in our society.
I want to recall that the torture during the incident continued for two hours during when a rod was used to deliberately inflict and amplify pain in her body. Ironically, the intense agony and pain of the victim subsequently could not have been made visible to others without the references to the rod and extensive damage done to her intestines. There can be no dispute of the fact that the problem of pain and suffering is bound up with the problem of power. However, the relationship between the deliberate infliction of pain and the assertion of power is not as straightforward as Newton’s third law of action and reaction. It is far more complicated. Discussing the internal structure of torture and pain, Elaine Scarry in her path breaking work The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World asks: How is that one person can be in the presence of another person in pain and not know it – not know it to the point that he himself inflicts it, and goes on inflicting it? Scarry points out that ordinarily the person in acute physical pain is unable to describe it, the expression of pain resists language and verbal objectification. For instance, in medical vocabulary, pain is described in terms of intensity (moderate, severe) or by a limited number of adjectives (throbbing, burning, pulsating) or by the description of pain in “as if” structure – usually, the “as if” structure specifies a tool or a weapon that is described as producing pain or bodily damage that is pictured as accompanying the pain. Through imagining the tool/weapon or wound that the sensation of the hurt is conveyed. In other words, to have pain is to have certainty, but to hear about pain is to have doubt. Consequently, to convey the felt experience of pain to someone outside the sufferer’s body we need a reference to a weapon or a wound. Let’s recall yet again that the gang rape victim’s intense agony was made “visible” through the references to a rod and the extensive damage done to her intestines.
This structure of pain has political and perceptual consequences of the serious kind which refers to Elaine Scarry’s question– how is that one person cannot know the other person in pain to the extent that he inflicts it and goes on inflicting it? The internal structure of pain – its resistance to language and objectification – requires that in the act of deliberate infliction of pain like in any form of torture (happened during the gang rape too) the pain has to be amplified in sufferer’s body in a prolonged manner in order to make it visible to those outside the body.
The much-needed focus on the suffering of the victim however makes us overlook the fact that the brutal act of amplification of pain in sufferer’s body demands an obsessive agency; it demands that the person carrying out this act is involved to the very intense extent of his being. Where is this obsessively intense agency emerging from? It is unlikely that this obsessive energy is generated by a simple imitation of a hyper masculine character in cinema or video games. The production of this obsessive pain-inflicting affective agency collectively shared by six men in the case of Delhi gang rape is also not neurotic or psychopathic. This form of torture is so without human recognition or identification with pain that the torturer is not only able to witness the pain but able to continually inflict it and sustain it for a prolonged period.
The production of such obsessive agency demands emptying of the content of consciousness. Elaine Scarry argues that intense physical pain is world-destroying, it suspends civilisation. Referring to the diverse accounts of torture she shows that the person inflicting pain reverts to pre-language, to making uncaring noises. This form of torture is two-fold denial of the human – denying the pain of the particular human being being hurt and denying the collective human present in the production of civilisation. In fact, to allow the other’s suffering in his consciousness would immediately compel the torturer to stop the torture. And emptying of the consciousness, including stopping the basic instinct of animal pity in this act of civilisation-suspension is not easy – it is not achieved just by a whim, overnight.
Hanna Arendt shows in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem that for the SS officers receiving the orders to torture Jews was not so much to overcome their conscience as the animal pity to which all normal men were affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by the SS was to turn these instincts around in training the officers – the officers were taught to pity the self instead of pitying the sufferers. Instead of saying what horrible things I did to people, the murderers were able to say what horrible things I was made to watch in delivering my duties. The guard of the concentration camp would say to the prisoners, “I will shoot you but you are not worth the three pfenning of the bullet.” The guard is taught to find it normal to value three pfenning better than a human life. The emptying of the content of consciousness needs deep un-conditioning of the human instincts. This is routinely carried out for instance in military boot camps, and in torture cabins. Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket depicts the violent, hyper-masculine and pornographic character of this training. These acts of deep brainwashing as in military boot camps have to be sustained systematically over a prolonged period of time to achieve its consciousness emptying motive – as the movie depicts. The act of brutality performed during the Delhi gang rape in a moving bus points out that it is not necessary that such deep un-conditioning can happen only in the SS or military training camps, even our ordinary culture is also capable of producing such civilisation suspending consciousness.
The acts of torture and violence in the Delhi gang rape are acts of power no doubt. It is unlikely this serious nature of world-unmaking pain is inflicted because women in Delhi have decided to reduce the length of their skirts. Power is not that naked and flippant. Power covers itself, it hides, it debases, it positions, it conditions and un-conditions, it mutates and persists over a very long period of time. But most importantly, it is generated inside the deep rooted structures of our society. Instead of screaming death penalty for the accused, and in addition to making the state and legal apparatus accountable and responsible, we need to also focus our attention towards understanding the internal structures of violence in order to generate an over-arching critique of society that produces such heinous acts.
Esha Shah teahces at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, The Netherlands and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org