‘According to the Parents Television Council, which keeps a programming database, from 1995–2001 there were 110 scenes of torture on [US] prime-time television, but from 2002–2007 there were 836 scenes of torture.’ (p.17)

After noticing regular depictions of torture in film and television, and having anecdotal evidence that these were appearing more post-9/11, the above statistic, which shows a near sevenfold increase, gave support to Hilary Neroni’s suspicions that a profound ideological shift had taken place regarding the status of torture.

In her book The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film, Neroni attempts to explain these changes. She also takes on the task of undermining the contemporary justifications for torture, which she believes take as their basis a misunderstanding of the tortured subject. The contemporary torture fantasy, she says, sees the body as a source of information. As such, it inculcates us with the impression that the body contains truths that one can access directly if one knows the proper means.

‘The tortured body gives itself away because it simply wants to live and flourish. We believe that torture produces information and that this information provides the answer to how bodies behave and how they will act. This fantasy that torture is the key to truth underlies every contemporary practice of torture and most popular representations that justify the practice.’ (p. 41)

In the main, Neroni relates her thesis on torture through the lens of psychoanalysis, regularly discussing the themes of biopower, the bare life and the desiring subject – leitmotifs that help pull this slim, but dense, 198-page text together. Neroni’s interests are disparate and compelling enough to justify the commission of an entire book on each, but The Subject of Torture never feels like a compilation of journal articles (though at least one chapter started life as an article in Studies in Documentary Film). This is, in part, down to Neroni’s lucid explanations and very readable prose, but it’s also the result of her efforts to create a narrative that keeps drawing the reader’s attention to the contemporary torture fantasy explained above – displaying its popular representations as torture porn (e.g. Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, Hostel); its exemplary, and pernicious, fictional expression in 24; the more nuanced, flawed examples in shows such as Homeland; and the alternative (namely, Alias).

Though the opening chapters are keen to lay out the theoretical basis of the work, as academic titles must, the book felt a little late in getting to the good stuff (the close textual analysis) because, as is often the case with film theory literature, nothing is better than finding a new, interesting perspective on a familiar film or television programme.

In 24, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a large proponent of the torture fantasy that helped normalise torture, regularly uses torture to obtain vital information. ‘Put simply: torture works on 24’, says Neroni. However, the time-sensitive circumstances that Jack works under – that is, the ticking time bomb scenario (which is embodied in the ubiquitous digital clock that appears on screen) – is rarely encountered in the real world. Nevertheless, when regular torture wasn’t working, 24 was used as inspiration for actual torture; possibly because it put interrogators on the front line of the war effort and therefore justified a by-any-means-necessary approach, and possibly because soldiers in Iraq spent many hours watching DVDs of television shows and films that, as we have seen above, likely portrayed a wealth of torture. Jack Bauer even became shorthand for the ideal torture hero. Responding to a comment along the lines of ‘it’s just as well we don’t all react to situations by asking “what would Jack Bauer do?”’ during a panel discussion about terrorism, torture and law at a conference in Canada, the late Justice Scalia said, ‘Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles… He saved hundreds of thousands of lives… Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?… I don’t think so.’ The fact Jack Bauer doesn’t exist doesn’t seem to exclude him from being the go-to defence for torture advocates. Seen as a simple utilitarian equation, the number of lives Jack saves, it seems, justify the above-the-law barbarity he commits against the lives of a small number of suspects. This brand of rhetoric, which condoned sidestepping the law in the pursuit of the ‘greater good’, has been nowhere more prominent than in the Bush administration – where virtue ethics were likely discussed as rarely as that time George W. thought it would be a good idea to joke (with the help of visual aids) about finding WMDs under Oval office furniture.

Neroni pays special attention to three documentaries that focused on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison: Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008), Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Though all these films find success in dismantling the ideology of torture, and prove without doubt that the US chain of command knew about the torture that was being committed by Military Police (which according to General Taguba’s official report included, amongst many other things: positioning a naked detainee on a box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis to simulate electric torture; punching, slapping, and kicking detainees and jumping on their naked feet; and forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped), Neroni claims that they failed to tackle the most disturbing aspect of the Abu Ghraib photos: the smiles on the faces of the torturers. The seeming enjoyment on the faces of the men and women (particularly Sabrina Harman) in those pictures deeply undermines our belief that the US military turned to torture purely as a tool in the war against terrorism. The thumbs-up we see from Harman acts as a stain on the image – referred to variously as ‘uncanny’; ‘a kernel of nonsense’; ‘at once familiar and completely out of place’.


Something that is often true, but especially so with a slight book such as this, is the value of the endnotes. They provide the necessary background reading that might be required for the lay reader to fully grasp the foundational concepts Neroni draws on (Foucault’s biopolitics, Georgio Agamben’s bare life, the desiring subject and so on). But here you will also find Pasolini, De Sade, sexual politics, Fringe (2008–2013), and much more.

I leave you with a quote from Žižek, which forms part of his endorsement that appears on the back of the book:

‘One of the clearest signs of ethical regression that characterises the last decade is the changed status of torture in public discourse: no longer a taboo, something that is to be done in secret, torture is today a topic of ‘rational’ legal, ethical, and medical debates. This renormalization of torture would not have been possible without movies and television series that gradually rendered it acceptable.’


The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film

Hilary Neroni
Columbia University Press: New York

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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