Torture again

Phil Ford

For some reason, there’s an awful lot of people looking at the old posts in the music-and-torture debates that Jonathan and I had last summer. (Why is this?) [UPDATE: Apparently these links were posted to the AMS-list. OK, I admit it, I haven’t resubscribed to the AMS-list since moving jobs. I’ll get right on it, promise.] So as a convenience, for those surfing in, the posts are here, then here, here, here, and here. I should point out a couple of things by way of an update:

First, there’s a book called Torture Taxi about American-operated “black sites” into which people have disappeared and been tortured. I haven’t read it but it looks fascinating, if depressing. The story is, apparently, that the existence of “black sites” was discovered by planespotters who noticed that a bunch of airplanes marked as commercial jets were traveling on paths that no ordinary commercial jet ever takes, and the patterns, once noticed, spelled out the existence of a worldwide network of secret prisons. This sounds like the kind of thing William Gibson would invent, but it’s true. Anyway, one of the authors, Trevor Paglen, is a geographer who specializes in mapping secret and restricted zones and the (usually invisible) boundaries between the overt and covert worlds. His photographs have begun circulating as art objects, and they are eerily beautiful. In some he uses high-power optics to create images of things like military installations and labs — images of distant secrets emerging partway into the visible world. And, using satellite photos from Google Maps and testimony of former prisoners, he became the only known person to take a picture of the infamous Salt Pit prison outside of Kabul:


I dunno, I just think this sort of thing — “radical geography” and a kind of conceptual art derived therefrom — seems really cool.

On a related note, the new issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music is out, with a new article by Suzanne Cusick on music and torture. It’s called “You are in a place that is out of the world . . . “: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror.'” Even more importantly*, the same issue also has my review of the 2-CD reissue of the complete Ken Nordine word jazz albums on Dot. Here’s a a pdf the review. I’m rather proud of having written the first thing about Nordine to appear in a musicological journal (that I know of, anyway).

*kidding. This is a really important article. One line in particular, something an interrogator said of his own work in breaking Muslim prisoners, stuck out to me:

We fear most not what evil will do to our bodies, but what it will do to our orderly, civilized worldview, our fragile psychology that’s so dependent on predictability and a belief in the goodness of human souls.

As Cusick writes, “it [is] the confrontation with their interrogator’s capacity for evil that really breaks prisoners.” (p. 11) And, as Cusick writes a bit later, this is an evil that sucks everyone into it.

[W]hether or not one thinks “futility music” [music that breaks the will to resist] or “gender coercion” produces sufficient pain to merit the description “torture,” the possible positive outcomes of their use to produce a psychic break are always  inextricably caught in the structural conundrum that characterizes the dynamic of torture. The punishment is delivered before there is evidence of a crime, because the punishment — that is, the inflicting of pain — is a necessary condition to producing that evidence. If it is not produced, or if it proves to be false, the interrogator will have caused an innocent person to betray himself, body and soul. Interrogators always risk, then, committing acts of unnecessary evil. When an army’s commanders or a nation’s citizens order them to do so, the commanders order them to do something they believe to be morally wrong; thus commanders force them to enter a condition of sin very like the one forced on Muhammad al-Qatani — the betrayal of one’s own soul. In a soldier’s terms, this is more likely his civil soul as a citizen than his soul as various religions might define it. There is no way out of this conundrum. Resistance to it, once the dynamic is engaged, is futile for interrogators, detainees, commanders, and citizens alike. (pp. 17-18)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Torture again

  1. Michael says:

    Cusick’s urgency is contagious, and her most pressing concerns are easily incorporated into any music course I can think of teaching.

  2. Review Stew says:

    Just a little follow-up for anyone in the Bay Area – Trevor Paglen is going to have an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum starting June 1 (

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