Foltermusik

Phil Ford

Re. Jonathan’s latest:

The rub of my disagreement with Jonathan is this: he believes that when music is used in torture, it is no longer music, but merely torture, and so there’s no point in talking about “music as torture,” because torture-music* does not exist as an independent entity. Thus, Jonathan writes that a clear instance where music has been used to inflict lasting harm “clearly qualifies as ‘physical or moral degradation,'” not music; “it is sonic torture, or just torture. To act as if ‘music’ is relevant in this discussion is like suggesting that the only
differences between a caress and being beaten to a pulp are gradations
of intensity.” So if it is music, it is not torture, and if it is torture, it is not music.

If you read my original post again, it’s pretty clear that I do think that something can be music and torture at the same time — that, indeed, the use of music in torture carries a symbolic charge that gives this particular kind of torture its signature cruel twist. This is what I have in common with Cusick. I’m not sticking up for every aspect of her article, but we do agree on this.

Perhaps one could draw an analogy to rape. It is generally held that rape is a crime of violence, not sex (just as music played at ear-bleeding volume for hours under conditions of forced confinement is not an object of aesthetic contemplation, but an implement of torture). Here there is no question of “gradations of intensity”; rape and consensual sex are qualitatively different things. But at the same time, a rape is not the same as a beating, or just a different kind of beating. What rapists do to their victims (and torturers, like the late Uday Hussein, have figured this out, too) is to relocate an act of love into the terrain of hate and domination. Sex, with all its private emotional meanings and social connotations, is turned against the victim; it is consequently a particularly drastic kind of domination. Rape and sex aren’t the same thing, but you can’t say that sex is a symbolically neutral vessel for violence. And while I am not arguing any kind of strict parallel here — one must be careful — at least one can say that music carries a symbolic, emotional weight that Beanie Babies and single-malt Scotch do not. Perhaps it is true that when you torture someone with music it is the same as if you are doing it with pliers and lit cigarettes, insofar as you end up with the same thing at the end — a damaged and degraded human being. But then it seems to me that this argument also ignores a good deal. In a weird way it reminds me of the disingenuous arguments people used to make in defense of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Why, it’s just a cruciform object immersed in some sort of yellow fluid! What’s the problem with that? Obviously, the emotional import of both body waste and Jesus Christ — to say nothing of their conjunction in a photograph — had a lot to do with the intended (and fully realized) effects on the audience.

But this is probably a point on which Jonathan and I will have to agree to disagree, because, while we can keep going back and forth on whether music used in torture is a special case, it’s not the kind of point that anyone can “prove,” but rather a question of interpretation.

*a German compound noun would be useful here, to denote to conceptual particularity of music-that-retains-its-identity-as-music-within-the-act-of-torture

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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