Torture and the Angel of History

Phil Ford

Most of the discourse on music and torture has been about the use of music in torture, the most distinguished example being Suzanne Cusick’s JSAM essay, though I might also mention my own blog debate on the subject with Jonathan Bellman and the public discussion that followed the Society for Ethnomusicology’s statement against torture. But today I want to talk about the moral fact of torture—its terrible distinction as the final frontier of human degradation—and how we might use music and sound to mark our crossing into that frontier. When torture appears in our civic life, something final and irrevocable has happened, and the moral fact of torture falls with a thud on our collective consciousness. If Norman Mailer were still alive, he would doubtless call this situation existential: it is a moment that defines both torturer and tortured forever after, and in that moment, when a nation decides to “go there,” to pull that trigger, it is an act of existential will. This says nothing about the morality of the choice, merely that a choice has been made, and that we have signed up for the consequences, though no-one may know what they will be in the end. Quickly, then: I want to think about moments where state violence registers itself on the consciousness of a society, and how such moments might be depicted.

One of the peculiar features of the GWOT era has been the redefinition of torture as the “new normal.” What the Bush administration has done above all has been to move the goalposts of discourse, so that being in favor of torture has become a permissible—indeed, at times mandatory—opinion on the conduct of war. Torture has gone from being something against which we define our national identity to being something on which reasonable people might disagree. And under such circumstances the question of what intellectuals can do about torture finds one answer: they can preserve or build or simply inhabit a view of civilization to which torture can never be assimilated. And in their imaginative work they can depict a civilization that does come to accept torture as finding itself in some new, unknown, incommensurate state from which there may be no return. And this is what Suzanne Cusick’s JSAM essay does when she writes that torture is a “condition of sin”—a sin of self-betrayal—which leaves no-one untouched: “resistance to it, once the dynamic is engaged, is futile for interrogators, detainees, commanders, and citizens alike.”

And in a certain way this is also the approach of the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, although I want to be careful not to assimilate that film’s Marxist view of history too much to my own bourgeois humanism. Franco Solinas, a Marxist writer who collaborated with Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers, would probably have thought my own attitude a typical bit of humanist sanctimony. The Battle of Algiers shows how the French government crushed the Algierian FLN (Front de Liberation National) with a campaign of torture and murder; Solinas singled out France because it was “at the same time a colonial power and the most representative example of the bourgeoisie, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution. Politically she posed a contradiction between the slogans, phrases, rhetoric—in other words, the form of the bourgeois revolution—and its contents—the everyday practice of domination, oppression, torture.” The torture regime, then, is not an aberration from the ideals of liberal society, but a fulfillment of them. Thus Solinas wishes to show torture merely as a symptom of the pervasive rottenness of colonialism, and refuses to scold the French for torture as such. He makes the career soldier who institutes the torture regime, Col. Matthieu, an elegant, witty, reasonable, and intelligent interlocutor—indeed, radicals in the 1960s often debated whether he wasn’t just as little too sympathetic. Col. Matthieu embodies France and incarnates the force of a liberal state pushed by an opposing historical force to manifest its latent violence. From this point of view, neither the French nor the Algierians (who also commit atrocities) are doing evil: they are simply working through the historical dynamic by which decolonization proceeds.

There is something very cold about Solinas’s analysis: torture is simply a byproduct of capital-H “History,” which means that the broken and mutilated bodies of tortured men are simply the trampled debris left behind by the march of the world spirit. (A view ironically similar to that of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.)* Though it must be said that despite its chilly dialectics the film itself does not minimize suffering—quite the contrary. In one famous scene unnamed Algierians are tortured (in several cases with techniques used by American personnel in the GWOT), their screams silenced on the soundtrack and with Ennio Morricone’s chorale-prelude-like dirge as their only accompaniment. A woman watches silently, tears streaming down her face, and she is the film’s proxy for the viewer. And the music articulates our moral response to what we see as well, and not only in this scene. (In the film’s first scene, for example, a man whom the French have broken has just betrayed the film’s Algierian heroes, and as he comprehends his own betrayal we hear a strain of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.) The music is the thud with which the moral fact of torture is registered on our conscience. It marks the bright line between the present moment and what just happened, a line we have crossed in an act of existential will. What just happened may be the logical next step of history, but it is still an enormity. The extreme dissonance between Bachian music and torture reframes what we see within a point of view far outside the action; I think it is meant to be the point of view of History itself. I never had any idea of what Walter Benjamin’s famous meditation on the “angel of history” meant until it occurred to me that we see in these scenes what the angel of history sees, but what we hear is how he sees it:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. When we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

*Thomas Ricks’ comparison to Bush and Jerry Rubin is weirdly apt here: “They really were going to, kind of, ‘groove on the rubble,’ as Jerry Rubin used to say. They were going to tear it down and see what happened.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Intellectuals, Music and Torture, Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Torture and the Angel of History

  1. Torture is obviously a huge and complex issue, and I have thoughts and opinions on a number of areas, but for the moment I’m going to limit myself to one narrow point: there is no bright line between “torture” and “not-torture.” Rather, “torture” is our name for one segment of the continuum of the infliction of pain as a method of persuasion. That’s not to say that we can’t rationally find some segments of the continuum immoral and some moral, merely that drawing bright lines separating them is artificial. If I interrogate you in a room that’s just a little colder than would be ideal for your maximum comfort I doubt we’d call it torture. If I interrogate you in a room that’s refrigerated to subzero temperatures I think we would. Where’s the cutoff between the two extremes? It’s precisely the fact of this ambiguity that allowed the Bush administration to move the goalposts. The bright line is artificial, and by enhancing the ambiguity of the distinction between “torture” and “non-torture” they allowed for multiple plausible arguments. The problem is that they enhanced the perceived ambiguity of the situation for the sake of causing moral muddiness–it’s also possible to acknowledge the actual ambiguity of the situation in order to think in a more subtle way about the moral questions, but that clearly wasn’t what they were doing. But in light of all of that, I’m questioning the idea that there’s a particular moment when we “cross into that frontier.”
    In fact, for my money one of the things that makes The Battle of Algiers great is that it’s willing to look at the moral ambiguity of the actions of both sides. That actually fits, I think, into your Angel of History model. The score and the angel are respectively evoking and experiencing a profound emotional response to moral chaos. That response is far more profound than it would be to the banality of mere evil.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    There really was a moment we crossed that frontier. It was when the images from Abu Ghraib burned themselves onto our retinas. I completely agree that there is no bright line in practice, but there are, on occasion, moments where a specific kind of awareness dawns, a feeling that wherever that (fuzzy, indistinct) line is, we have crossed it. That happened in GWOT and also in France during the Algerian war. The fact is that the Bush administration *tried* tried to minimize that liminal feeling (i.e. a feeling of crossing some sort of threshold) but failed, I think. The fact that some people chose torture does not mean that a choice did not present itself to the American people, and was understood as such.

Comments are closed.