What More Can be Done? (Goya)

May 12, 2004 at 10:01 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

…. Still haven’t done it — written that entry about how and why Francisco Goya’s life and work relates to the mess we’re in today — but while I was out for an errand this afternoon, I passed a used book shop and saw in the window Gwyn A. Williams’s wonderful book, Goya and the Impossible Revolution. It was a sign: Williams’s 1976 pithy rendering is just simply it, and what were the chances of stumbling on this nearly 30-year-old treasure?

On the first page of the book we see a reproduction of one of Goya’s prints from the Disasters of War, #26. It’s called “One can’t look” (illustrated above). We see a largely black print accented by several brightly lit figures. At the right edge, we see starkly lit bayonets jutting into the darkness on the left. The guns are pointing at a group of huddled victims, in the midst of which, centrally placed, is a woman in white. Her arms are outstretched; she is comforted by another figure (woman?) who huddles her cheek into the woman’s exposed neck. We see a puzzle of clasped hands, bawling children, women covering themselves entirely with cloths, women trying to avoid the light as the enlightening jab of the bayonets penetrates their lair. Men are among them, and together they are a group of unarmed, nameless peasants facing death.

Williams’s book begins in that middle, thus:

The executioners we do not see. Their rifles thrust in from the right, sharp with bayonets, inhuman and implacable. The eye follows their thrust, from a twilit grey into a blackness. Who are these huddled people? They are ordinary, common; their probably unremarkable lives are ending now in brutal, wanton, faceless killing. They die without heroism or dignity which makes it an obscenity. One man kneels in prayer, face turned from the rifles. Another, nearer to us, looks at them in futile entreaty. Between the men, light cuts through to a cowled woman huddling protectively over a child, to a face buried in hands, to a woman stretched in despair on black ground; the light spears home on the natural target of the pivoting eye, a woman of the people, distraught, kneeling, arms thrown out, face lifting to the black and unresponsive sky. ‘One can’t look’ says the caption. But one must.

Eventually, the Napoleonic Wars changed from liberating the people (the pueblos) from feudal, aristocratic, and religious rule into a war of oppression that turned the pueblos into guerillas who fought their “enlightened” liberators — perpetrators of monstrous war crime atrocities — with equally brutal and sadistic counterstrikes. What drove Goya mad was that the pueblos, whose guerilla cause was just, fought their battles on the side of the Inquisition, Catholic feudalism, and monarchic despotism, precisely those backward and injust systems from which they were suposed to become liberated. The Disasters of War show one horrific tit for tat after another. The French Revolution — harbinger of democratic ideals of fraternity, equality, and liberty, the scourge of feudal oppression and religious superstition — was spread to the rest of Europe by an imperial army that slaughtered the people it was supposed to liberate. The people who were supposed to be liberated sought backing in the very institutions that kept them oppressed: church, feudal custom, superstition. To survive, the pueblo embraced their old oppressors. So much for Wars of Liberation.

Understand that Goya believed in what the movement against superstitition and oppression stood for. Faced with reality we get this from his exploding head:

Heir to rationality

May 10, 2004 at 11:50 pm | In yulelogStories | 6 Comments

This entry is a continuation and commentary of sorts on David Weinberger writing here and here, and Frank Paynter responding here and here. There’s a lot of interesting commenting going back and forth on those two blogs, which you can read for yourself. Although I got into the fray a little bit by commenting on Frank’s blog, I worry that what I just wrote now might choke the life out of the discussion there, so I decided to put these thoughts on my own blog instead. I tend to get a bit too abstract or esoteric or vague or just not to the point enough from time to time, and this is definitely too long for another blog’s comment board. So here goes – no other links to anything, but it’s too late in the evening now to root around for interesting stuff on google.

This started because I agreed with Frank’s position against torture.

My thinking about torture and violence is determined by a few insights I’ve had into the history of ideas, and by the fact that, as a per-default heir to Hitler Germany, I’m part of a culture which perfected “justifications” of torture and other systemic means of dehumanisation. I reject torture absolutely. Let me try to unpack that.

Would I, say, punch the shit out of someone I managed to catch whose accomplice had kidnapped my children? *That* is not I want to put up for discussion – although yes, of course I would. What’s up for discussion is how we institutionalise violence between people who don’t have a personal stake in something – people who are …following orders, say. After all, isn’t part of the mythology of military force, of police force, etc., the removal of the personal stake? Removal of the personal stake so that subordinates can unquestioningly follow orders without being harmed in their own integrity by their duties? Don’t we reject vigilantism, for eg., because it’s personal versus “detached” and “impartial,” and we fear the barbarism we’ll be contaminated by in the execution of vigilantism? This is why we still have taboos on certain kinds of violence. The taboo acts to prevent self-pollution and the pollution of the community.

“Our side” (Western civilisation) was supposed to have “progressed” past the tribal and into the institutional, the impersonal, the rational, which in turn also implies a steady elimination of taboo. The development of modern military structures, chains of command, rank, and so forth, is one way this progress is embodied. Hence also the conventions (Geneva), laws, and regulations that try to keep everything “rational” and “lawful.” This is not a natural state of affairs, it’s a social construct, supposedly one of the best, not least because it’s rational and modern, not fettered by tribal superstition or archaic laws supposedly based on nature or god.

If personnel (military, police) in the world’s leading proponent of institutional rationalism is now asked by the chain-of-command-higher-ups to commit acts that clearly veer off into the personal, then that’s a perversion of institutional force as we’ve tried to articulate it. Perhaps we’re witnessing the continued break-down of that articulation. And I think we all know that these acts are systemic, were orderered from higher up, and were not the actions of “rogue” soldiers. Then: a taboo is broken, perhaps one of the last that still lingered. But instead of the heavens opening up and punishing those who break the taboo, nothing happens. That’s what Sade and Nietzsche learned and made philosophy out of: if you look to nature, everything is permitted. Nothing is taboo. And there is no god who swoops from the firmament to dash the infidels (whatever your religion). If you can get away with it, you can do it. We’ve been jettisoned, rather painfully, into an enlightened false consciousness that’s oozing with cynicism.

Rumours of broken taboos in the institutions have been in circulation since …whenever. Vietnam. Elsewhere, earlier. And still, too many people naively believe that our modern institutions — military, in particular — hold to certain taboos, and so they’re shocked by the revelations of torture. On the other hand, look at your personal modern life: on that level, we “in the west” have been living in a post-Sadean world for so long now (many of us have learned to partake of taboo-breaking and a bit of personal torture as another offering in the King Consumerist Marketplace) that disclosure of broken taboos in the institutions comes as no surprise. If anything, we scramble to find a “rationale” for it, and barring that, we shrug cynically and impotently.

Beating, humiliating, stripping, and systematically degrading another person over whom one has total control: this strikes me as a complete reversal of modern militarism’s *ideology* of depersonalised combat, which is why many don’t want to believe it’s happening. A soldier who can do these things and not make it personal is either already alienated from himself (dissociating), or he lives completely in the post-Sadean/ quasi-Nietzschean world wherein taboo is at the willful disposal of the sovereign individual. In other words, he’s just like you and I.

Finally, a reorientation of institutional force is what has been going on across the board in Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, and I don’t see this as being about the military at all. I think it’s about “intelligence” and its inexorable logic, which is bound to nothing but its own rationality. “Intelligence,” as the highest expression of a *rationality* defined as national integrity, dictates a goal-oriented environment in which the integrity of soldiers *and* prisoners can just go straight to hell. Its civilian counterpart is perhaps corporatism. Push it far enough and our rationality ends in barbarism, because inherent in the former is the famous dialectical flip described by Adorno & Horkheimer in their study, Dialectic of Enlightenment. If you give rationality free reign, if will turn around and bite you in the ass. “Rationality” doesn’t give a damn about you or me; nor does nature, nor the irrational non-existant things like taboos and divinities and all that.

As for me? I care about some people all of the time, and all people some of the time. If I were “personnel,” I think I’d rather shoot my commanding officer than carry out the directive to torture anyone, and maybe that means I’m not too rational. On the other hand, rationality means too much to me to betray it for a mess of potage, er, oil.


While I was rooting around earlier for additional items on Brandon Mayfield (see “Witch Hunt” entry, yesterday), I found this excellent editorial, Values for Sale, by Gersh Kuntzman.

Witch Hunt?

May 9, 2004 at 1:29 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Witch Hunt?

Witch hunts have a certain pattern: first, you find a person you don’t like for some reason. Second, you find a reason to accuse them of something. Third, you create enough hysteria (one fingerprint becomes fingerprints, for eg.) to lock them up under Gestapo-like rulings (“material witness”) and then you squeeze them until they confess to something — anything — that satisfies enough requirements to allow incarceration. The hunted is effectively made an example of, and everyone else is appropriately shocked and awed into falling in line. The key point is that you already believed the hunted to be guilty before starting the hunt that culminates in arrest. Brandon Mayfield has been profiled and now arrested on the basis of what the Spanish police say is an 8-point match on a single fingerprint (the FBI claims 15 points, but see the report by The Weekly Detail, below, on the problems of quantifying matches). Most significantly, he has been arrested on the basis of prior profiling and surveillance. The fingerprint was just the excuse. This has been happening to non-whites in the US since forever. But now it’s hitting the “white” (albeit wrong religion) guys, too.

Who’s next?

One of Mayfield’s influences was the family matriarch, Lydia Mayfield, his paternal grandmother, who died more than a year ago at age 99. Opinionated and strong-willed, Lydia Mayfield was a teacher and an avid reader who studied several languages, including Latin. She wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper and often spoke out about her view that U.S. leaders should pay more attention to domestic affairs than international ones.

“She instructed all of the family: ‘If you believe something, if you really believe it, then you can say it,’ ” Alexander said.

Mayfield’s father, a self-described “wave-maker” and “avowed” atheist, shares some of his mother’s traits. He’s outspoken, for instance, when it comes to his disdain for organized religion. “In a small community,” he said, “that in itself makes you stand out a little bit.” [More…]

The report said Spanish forensics experts found only eight points of similarity between the print and the one of Mayfield held in U.S. files because of his status as a former member of the Army.

The FBI said it found 15 such points, El Pais said.

The Weekly Detail, an Internet newspaper for fingerprint experts, says a certain number of coinciding so-called Galton points used to be required by various countries before an identification was legally accepted.

However, it said that investigators now evaluate prints on a number of levels, thus “there is no statistical foundation for a minimum point requirement” because modern tests are both qualitative and quantitative and too complex to be quantified. [Another more….]

Anjana Malhotra, an attorney for Human Rights Watch, called the practice an “end run” around normal probable cause requirements for holding suspected criminals. “They hold him until they have something,” Malhotra said by telephone. [More more….]

But Spanish police say they have not turned up any sign so far that Mayfield was in Spain during the time the bombings were plotted and carried out, two senior officials said.

Nor have Spanish police found evidence that Mayfield had meetings, phone conversations or Internet communications with any of the two dozen bombing suspects, a predominantly Moroccan group of Islamic extremists with limited ties to Americans or the United States.

In a report prepared more than three weeks ago by Spanish police about the lead involving Mayfield, he was described as a U.S. military veteran who was already under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged ties to Islamic terrorism.

It is not known why Mayfield was being investigated, though the mosque where he worshipped was also attended by defendants in another terrorism case. Known as the “Portland Seven,” the six men and one woman have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to wage war against the United States.

One of the men was a client of Mayfield in a child custody case. [Another big more….]

And the beat goes on…

May 9, 2004 at 10:30 am | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

David Leigh of The Guardian reported yesterday that UK forces taught torture methods:

The sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison was not an invention of maverick guards, but part of a system of ill-treatment and degradation used by special forces soldiers that is now being disseminated among ordinary troops and contractors who do not know what they are doing, according to British military sources.

One shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. But one does wonder how anything new can be thought in a world so completely scoped out and plotted in both extremes: mass extermination on the one hand and individual degradation on the other.

What would you prefer? The anonymous mass-produced death of an engineered holocaust? Or the close and personal scrutiny of torture with all the pain that attends the deconstruction of personality?

What, can’t decide? But you’re sure you couldn’t take the latter, you say? You would prefer the former? In that case, the bastards have you exactly where they want you: immobilised and anaesthetised, dead to the world already. When all your senses are numb, it will be easier to bundle you tight to the others, and then we’ll see who can beat whom the hardest.

Poxy? Posy?

May 7, 2004 at 10:31 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

The breaks between my blog postings have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Well, much goes on offline and asks for attention, and some things online take up mental energy but don’t leave traces. So much to address, even as the “writing spaces” shrink like the night in the face of summer’s longer days…

I do have a not-yet-written entry planned about Francisco Goya, his Majas, the illustrados, Napoleon, and how it resonates in my mind with certain geopolitical current events. That’s for tomorrow, maybe.

For now, just a personal entry about an email from an old friend. The other day someone I knew a decade and more ago contacted me through this blog. Among other things, she wrote:

Hey, Yule, is that you? Looks like it from the photo, although you’re appearing very ferocious and severe, in a glamorous way.

You have to understand that my friend — whose touch I had lost — is a Classics scholar who knows a thing about Ancient Classical Women, and even if I’m not a Classical Woman, I sure feel ancient from time to time. To be described by her as “appearing very ferocious and severe, in a glamorous way” just tickled me pink, a feeling which was neither ancient or classical in any glamorous sort of way, but it sure made me smile. It’s also important to know that my children have told me that I need to change that picture because it makes me “look older.” (Awww, what darlin’ little liars they are!) And of course, I’ve been growing my hair out since that picture was taken a year ago last January. I got weak several times and ran to the stylist twice for another cut, but lately I’ve stayed strong through the worst phase of it. Now, finally, it’s longer — a bit: my bangs graze my nose. My skin is also darker: in the blog picture, light reflecting off a baby grand’s black lacquer lights up my face — the light of a low January sun on a West Coast morning. Now, in the real life of a post-vernal equinox march into summer, I’m slightly splotchy with tan. This is annoying because while I love the idea of a tan, the fact of it doesn’t suit me at all.

But to return to the friend who found me through my blog: we go back a long way to days way past ferocious glamour. All the way back to ferocious motherhood: although she’s 10 years younger than I am, her babies and mine arrived in Massachusetts just days apart, and we shared the schizophrenia of diapers, milestones, nursing, academic research, and career plans. She reminded me of just what life was like 10 years ago: exactly that many years and a month ago, I had a son who celebrated his third birthday while his 3 week old baby sister dozed, and the next day that son woke up with a big fat chicken pox on his nose. Within a few weeks — it must have been the end of April or the beginning of May 1994 — my not-even-two-month-old daughter came down with chicken pox … and, at the grand old age of 37, so did I. (My husband, who has always done everything by the book, had of course naturally enough dealt with this illness as a child.) Somehow, in all the precariousnous of my childhood, I had evaded the banality of chicken pox. I couldn’t evade it now, and neither could my daughter who — as the third in line, heir to viruses strengthened on strong, hale hosts — had the worst bloody case of chicken pox I’ve ever seen. She had them twenty to the square inch of skin, on eyelids, in ears: everywhere. Luckily, she was (and remains) a ferocious strong person. It wasn’t glamorous, though.

Neither was it glamorous to be sent the final proofs of my book manuscript just a week or two later, wherein a young (and on my part much reviled) editor decided that all my active voice should be changed to passive. There I sat, recovering from chicken pox, nursing a recovering-from-chicken-pox baby, and some young guy tries to tell me that I may not use discombobulate because “it is not a word” (hello? do you read? do you know how to use a dictionary? whom did you sleep with to get this job??), and — this was the worst — that I would need to change everything from my carefully calibrated active voice to passive. I would dearly have loved to discombobulate this editor with a few poxy bits and a baby or two clamped to his nipples, which I’m sure would effectively have brought him ’round to my view on the active voice. But: reality check. A senior editor intervened on my behalf instead and straightened things out.

Ten years ago my friend also had her 2nd baby. We. were. very. very. busy.

Hot and humid summers, long cold winters. Struggles: “Are you going to finish your dissertation?” “What about that adjunct job?” “Are you going to do those catalog entries for the Busch-Reisinger?” “Will you apply for that job?” All of it backing up against these little ferocious and unglamorous persons who demanded our real time in spades.

All that, and yet severe good luck, pox and all.

Years later, and my friend is now a massage therapist — there is life after academia! And I’ve once again managed to achieve a comfortable bound lotus.

I feel downright discombobulated! Time runs backwards, forwards, and every which way. It twists, it turns, it folds itself in binding poses. “…is that you?” It is when I’m sitting-standing still. …Heading out, it’s someone else altogether.

Ferocious! I love it!

War crimes

May 3, 2004 at 10:58 am | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

The Christian Science Monitor has a stunning comprehensive report on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war by American soldiers: US general: Abu Ghraib abuse coverup, by Tom Regan (posted May 3, 2004). The article includes many hyperlinks to other news sources and background information. It quotes both sides, those who are outraged as well as those who say this is a nearly meaningless flap. But the latter easily discredit themselves, as the quoted Jed Babbin of the National Review does, when they equate “the empty heads” of John Kerry and Noam Chomsky in what can only be considered a cheap attempt at demagogic obfuscation. Perhaps putting Kerry and Chomsky in the same group was an attempt at levity — I can just see the Rightwingers laughing their asses off at this one — but it’s hardly funny given the evidence:

The New Yorker reports that a military investigation carried out by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, uncovered evidence of “war crimes” against the inmates, including: breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick. [More…]

So, aside from punching the wall, what can you do? Write letters to your political representatives — regardless of whether you’re in the US or in Canada or elsewhere — and let them know that you support the actions of whistleblowers and those who expose abuse, and that you’ll support politicians who share your views.

The allegation by Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the former head of US military prisons in Iraq, is the first hint that the “patterns of abuse” (as she described it) could go farther than originally expected. Brigadier General Karpinski was relieved of her command earlier this year during the investigation into abuse at the prison.
The Washington Post reports that Brig. Gen. Karpinski blamed most of the abuse on a group of regular military intelligence officers. Karpinski said in an interview that the US military was trying to shift the blame “exclusively to her and the reservists.”

“We’re disposable,” she said of the military’s attitude toward reservists. “Why would they want the active-duty people to take the blame? They want to put this on the MPs and hope that this thing goes away. Well, it’s not going to go away.”


If you can stand it, take a look at these photos on Memory Hole.

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