Saints of S&M, or the Art of Torture and its Contagions (featuring Potatoes, Abu Ghraib, and Derek Jarman's Sebastiane)

by on May.23, 2012

At some point in our ongoing study of the potatoesque, Feng Sun Chen and I learned about the alarming existence of potato torture chambers.  The electrocution of a potato in these chambers, as scientists have discovered, ends up nearly doubling its production of antioxidants.  As this article puts it, “Antioxidant levels rose in a natural reaction usually used to survive stressful events such as droughts.”

If the potato, as we have argued, is the model par excellence for the ‘mushy body of the contemporary’ (a phrase I’m stealing from this blog’s ‘About’ page!) what are we to make of its material self-conversion under such extreme duress?  What might the potato torture chamber tell us about the shocks and convulsions we, as a culture, both suffer and inflict?

Coupled with a drawing by Richard Serra of the most iconic photo taken at Abu Ghraib, Johannes’ post about blurry masculine bodies clues us into the appeal of torture rendered in art.  While the imagery of Wojnarowicz and Bacon “opens up the holes in Jesus’s body, subjects it to media” and “makes Jesus erotic slaughter with its ‘blur’ of paint (or ants),” Serra’s drawing similarly perforates and smears the terrorist/prisoner’s body right off the page.  The image stutters, preventing its own fixation.  The prisoner is even featured in a classic torture pose that borrows from a technique used by the British army known as ‘the crucifixion.’  The drawing, in turn, presses us to ask if it’s not martyred Christ himself who is covertly electric, connected to wires and cloaked in black.

This effect, or spillage of affect, was in some sense already produced in the original photograph.  It was only through the Abu Ghraib photos, after all, that mainstream media allowed us to feel a kind of monstrous sympathy for Arab terrorists/prisoners—themselves cast as the would-be monsters of our patriotic Christian stage.

As in Amit Rai and Jasbir Puar’s equation of “monster, terrorist, fag,” a collusion of nationalism, religion, sexuality, and race intensifies the Abu Ghraib photos so that we experience their charge multifariously.  These are bodies at once emasculated and profaned in the hands of military personnel.  The photos of naked prisoners piled atop each other and forced to simulate anal sex, especially, recall Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, whose captive protagonist the camera can’t help but eroticize and puncture:

By tearing open the body under captivity, both Serra’s and Jarman’s depictions of torture invest, in difference, a capacity for dissidence.  When one character calls Sebastiane divine because he resists his pagan captor’s advances, his sanctification becomes the result of an unshakeable puritanism that is nevertheless other.  At the same time, Sebastiane is deemed a “Christian faggot”–a signifier of degeneracy used despite (and, in this case, because of) his rejection of gay desire.  The saint’s monstrosity, in other words, is at once faith-based and sexually inscribed as an irrational threat to Diocletian’s empire.

If the tortured saint bleeds like the Abu Ghraib prisoner, the bodies of both individuals seem to scramble identity while foregrounding the latter as a mechanism of power.  In the Roman desert and the Iraqi prison, the identitarian markers of the individual don’t so much collapse as clash and materialize wound-like; they criss-cross and scar the body, turning it into yet another vessel for sensation.  In fact, just as the electrocution of the potato is what transforms it into an antioxidant-rich superfood (like spinach), Sebastiane’s martyrdom elevates him beyond mere humanity.  By inviting lacerations upon his gorgeous naked body, Sebastiane becomes the saint of S&M–a being whose cut of difference takes on the force of erotic, violent, and religious contagions.  In this saint’s arrows, we might thus identify art itself piercing, fucking, and infecting us, provoking not unwavering humanist faith but countless shocks of queer intensity.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, particularly as it pertains to Nancy Spero’s “Torture of Women,” which really emphasizes the aesthetics of torture in a troubling and fascinating way. Abu Ghraib for me seems to suggest something about the way images move in our culture; how we’re constantly negotiating the body/politics/power through these images. And as people as varied as Rush Limbaugh and Zizek have pointed out, those images look a lot like contemporary art. / Johannes

  2. James Pate

    Really interesting post. It reminds me of the film Carrie too, where the statue of St. Sebastiane adds this element of excess to the movie. You can’t help but wonder: Why is this image here? Even when the mother dies in the pose of the saint, there is no thematic reason for it. It is beautifully and horrifically un-contextualized. Which might relate to your idea here about certain images undermining our humanist faith. To me, humanism almost by definition implies some normalizing push toward a supposedly proper and responsible context…


  3. Lucas de Lima

    Johannes, mos def, and yet it’s interesting though maybe not too surprising how Serra didn’t consider his image of the prisoner to be “art.” I’ll have to check out the Spero piece.

    Yes James!! Seems like that enforcement of context is totally positivist, as if we were somehow able to ascertain “all the correct facts” about an an event like torture before writing about it. To me the Abu Ghraib photos defy that kind of easy contextualization, which is why they’re so captivating. They perform and originate in Joyelle’s notion of ambient violence.

  4. Adam Atkinson

    “By inviting lacerations upon his gorgeous naked body, Sebastiane becomes the saint of S&M–a being whose cut of difference takes on the force of erotic, violent, and religious contagions. In this saint’s arrows, we might thus identify art itself piercing, fucking, and infecting us, provoking not unwavering humanist faith but countless shocks of queer intensity.”

    !!! Way to stick the landing on this post, Lucas. Love it.

    I am also interested in where else we might place art besides the arrow, or ourselves besides the body of Sebastiane, specifically vis-a-vis the layering of Abu Ghraib–an image that, in its media circulation, seemed to actually reinforce the alienation and dehumanization of the prisoner body, rather than elicit a sense of humanism or oneness. As Johannes noted about Zizek and Limbaugh, there is an immediate sense of the image as art. Fascinating to think of that sense as mobile, radiating through the wires, the body, the image, at once.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, yes, I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head-queerness as a mobile force coming at us through Abu Ghraib’s artistry. That’s what I meant by the “monstrous sympathy” (Amit Rai’s phrase) that the image elicits.

    I’m collapsing many terms here (art/queer/inhuman) but I think I’m OK with that in this context.

  6. Adam Atkinson

    Absolutely. Examining what a normative culture means by human/inhuman or life/art makes a certain collapsing of terms necessary. There are those who say that this is the ‘problem’ with the term ‘queer,’ that it means too much now. But if you accept the Sedgwick premise that any critique that fails to consider the homo/hetero binary is in fact a damaged critique, then this ‘problem’ is the only option. A new problem! So be it.