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Screening TortureMedia Representations of State Terror and Political Domination$

Fabiola Fernandez Salek

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153591

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153591.001.0001

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The Art of Photogenic Torture

The Art of Photogenic Torture

(p.93) 5 The Art of Photogenic Torture
Screening Torture

Phil Carney

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the dynamics of sexual power and desire and how these can lead to murder and torture by focusing on the films Psycho and Peeping Tom. Photographic spectacle had progressively expanded since its first stirrings in the mid-nineteenth century. One important turning point was the decade of the 1920s, when a truly mass cinematic culture coincided with both the appearances of news and fashion magazines and the increasing popularity of portable snapshot cameras. Another turning point was the moment which proliferated the image world of television, youth consumerism, fashion, and pop music, and which was accompanied by further developments in camera technology enabling even faster, more portable cameras. Out of this world emerged a new class of professional photographers and a photography that no longer deferred to the world in its lens. This chapter examines photogenic torture in Psycho and Peeping Tom in relation to violent fantasies of psychoanalysis.

Keywords:   sexual power, desire, murder, torture, film, Psycho, Peeping Tom, photographic spectacle, photography, photogenic torture

The Art of Photogenic Torture

Peeping Tom, 1960

Sometime during the late 1950s and early 1960s the photographic spectacle changed. Mass media and commerce had expanded in a striking way since the Second World War, delivering a mass consumer culture to the West. Rock and pop, perfume and clothes, catwalks and models, TV entertainment and televised sports—all accompanied by a new kind of celebrity—percolated through consumerist spaces to a much broader spread of age groups and social classes. Suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in an ostensibly classless and ageless mass marketplace of the image.

Photographic spectacle had progressively expanded since its first stirrings in the mid-nineteenth century.1 One important turning point was the decade of the 1920s, when a truly mass cinematic culture coincided with both the appearances of news and fashion magazines and the increasing popularity of portable snapshot cameras.2 Another turning point was the moment of interest here, a moment in which proliferated the image world of television, youth consumerism, fashion, and pop music, and which was accompanied by further developments in camera technology enabling even faster, more portable cameras. Out of this world emerged a new class of professional photographers and a photography that no longer deferred to the world in its lens. Class barriers seemed for a moment to dissolve. In London, for example, young, brash, working-class photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Justin de Villeneuve exploited their social mobility and commanded the arena of the celebrity image.

In the middle of this cultural moment a strange, disturbing film briefly hit the screens of the British cinema. Bearing the suggestive name Peeping Tom, its release was separated only by a matter of months from Hitchcock’s (p.94) Psycho, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and two pulp British B movies: Circus of Horrors and Horrors of the Black Museum.3 It was 1960, an important year for the image, particularly a type of image that was later recognised as “predatory” and “punitive.” All four films act as a discourse reflecting on a particular dynamic of the wider spectacle at this moment in the postwar period, in the expanding society of consumerism and mass media. One might go as far as to argue that they are—in the midst of their excited entertainment—better than any more sober theoretical discourse of that time or even since.

The ultimate aim of this chapter is to explore how we might understand torture in the image. Haunting this discussion is the well-known set of war-on-terror images from Camp X-Ray (2002) and Abu Ghraib (2004), but its purpose is to open out the argument to a more general consideration of the play of power and desire across the surface of the predatory photograph. We could use the term “photogenic torture” in a deliberate distortion of the common meaning of the word “photogenic,” but in the service of a return to its more literal meaning. This is not a torture that looks better (or worse) in the image; rather it is a torture created both in and through the image. It is photogenic in the sense that it is a product of the photograph. The photograph is both scene and means of torture. But we should also take into account that photogenic torture is, like other forms of torture (when reduced to their basic forces), an intersection between power and desire, between a power over another body and the desire to wield that power.

The Dangerous Image

Fellini’s celebrated film La Dolce Vita baptised the paparazzo, relaying the atmosphere of a culture of consumption and celebrity already decaying from its inception. It was a culture in which spectating and the image play central roles, as the popping flash bulbs around the bodies of the famous attest. This was the dawn of our late-modern phase of consumerism, yet the awakening from a night of economic depression and wartime austerity to a bright new morning of economic expansion was already infected with a certain boredom and disappointment at the changes in society. Kennedy’s assassination and Marilyn Monroe’s death struck blows to the invulnerability of the celebrity image. At the same time consumerist hedonism seemed to age as soon as it was born. The sense of an essential emptiness inside the bright, novel, fashionable consumerist social forms, inside the mass image itself, was portrayed in La Dolce Vita and also depicted in Antonioni’s photographic meditation Blowup.

(p.95) When they don’t ignore it, social theorists of the 50s and early 60s are disturbed by the commercial spectacle. For Horkheimer and Adorno it is a culture industry, a factory churning out low-grade entertainment for the distracted masses, while for Barthes it is a modern mythology coding the ideology of late capitalism. Meanwhile Debord accuses the spectacle of worse: rendering its audience passive and inert worshippers of the commodity as image, and the image as commodity. Later Baudrillard describes the essentially meaningless nature of a culture of simulated images, echoing Daniel Boorstin’s description in 1963 of the evaporation of the American dream into empty imagery.4

Something deathly seems to move through the fabric of this new world, and though Fellini’s character Paparazzo looks innocent enough, he, too, was born in the mid-1950s, emerging from the cynical chrysalis of the mass culture industry. All these cultural forms are at one with the intentions and effects of Peeping Tom, La Dolce Vita, and, later, Blowup. It is not so much that there is an absence, an emptiness at the core of the new culture, as it is that something new emerges: a violent force that operates on the surface of the photographic spectacle.

As always the B-movie industry was prepared to comment on these times, though not without ensuring that we were cheaply and efficiently entertained. Circus of Horrors, a strange film in which much else happens, features a circus entertainment that becomes more successful as its performers fall victim to a series of fatal accidents staged, in fact, by its new owner. In effect it is a film that reflects on the hunger of the spectator for horror: the more real, the better. In other places in the spectacle “factual” image making at this time is more candid, frank, especially in the new wave of documentary and war photography. It is also part of a new entertainment ethic. But this desire for real horrors has its dangers.

Horrors of the Black Museum, another British B movie, was shot in Hypno-Vista with the tag line, “It actually puts YOU in the picture: can you stand it?” A crime writer—a popular criminologist no less—is suffering a creative block, so he arranges for real crimes to be committed as a stimulus for his jaded writing. The infamous opening story of the film features a pair of murderous binoculars that, when put to the eyes of the viewer, trigger two deadly spring-loaded spikes. This instrument is a fatal punishment for one who dares to look through an optical apparatus. Perhaps the sinner here is the voyeur, but the punishment is also intended to cause the movie audience a certain delighted discomfort from the outset of the film. It plays the game, which the movie audience embraces with delight, that (p.96) film spectatorship is essentially voyeuristic, and therefore transgressive and liable to punishment. If it puts the audience in the picture, it is to remind them of the dangers, horrors, and delights of spectating. The publicity for the film informed the audience that these binoculars, according to legend on display at the real-life Black Museum of Scotland Yard, were associated with a true crime.

The producer of this film had his finger on the cultural pulse: coming from the United States, he had been prominent for his work on the late 1950s classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, films that, with no little irony, tapped into anxieties about changing youth culture of the time. With a characteristic appetite for social commentary disguised as horror, he had turned his gaze to the gaze itself, one of the most important sources of fascination and fear in the developing culture of spectacle.

Also preoccupied by the gaze, Hitchcock’s Psycho depicts a voyeur killer, Norman Bates, and implicates the audience in his murderous desires. The argument of the film, or rather the way in which the audience is folded into the camera’s action, is set up in the opening frames, as we pan across a cityscape, close in on a hotel block, and then on a half-open window. In a technique derived from innovations by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, the camera then climbs through the open gap into the dark space inside, revealing an illicit hotel room scene with the characters of Marion Crane and her lover. The audience is a true cinematic voyeur peeping at the half-undressed couple. Much later Norman Bates peers through a peep hole in a picture on his motel office wall. On the other side is Marion Crane. In the celebrated shower murder scene we learn that the killer has entered the room through an open window, just the kind of aperture through which the audience entered the film. Psycho also asks, Who is Norman Bates? At the end of the film the answer of the mock-psychoanalyst is intended to reassure the audience and lighten the mood, at least until the death grin of his mother is briefly superimposed on the distracted face of Norman Bates. Throughout this film Hitchcock’s clever camera work performs another kind of action, fusing in the same point of view, and in the same movements, the audience and the voyeur-killer. If we believe the psychiatrist, Norman Bates is a pathological, transvestite killer, irredeemably fused with the identity of his mother. Reassuring. But if we watch Hitchcock’s camera, the subliminal action renders the audience complicit in the power and desire of the camera, in its voyeurism, in its violence, and in its capacity to kill. These films are part of a turning point, a decisive moment (p.97) in postwar culture. They deal with the desires and dangers of spectating and the spectacle.

Peeping Tom

The most important film of all, Peeping Tom, was given the tell-tale X certificate, marketed badly as sleazy smut, and was so reviled by the critics that it was withdrawn after a week. In effect it destroyed what was left of Michael Powell’s career. Farmed out for a short time in a cut-down version to the flea pits of the suburbs, it soon disappeared from sight altogether until the late 70s. Martin Scorsese was important in its revival, and no doubt it was also given a boost by Susan Sontag’s mention of it in her 1979 treatise on photography.5

The central character of Peeping Tom is Mark Lewis, who works as a focus puller in the film industry. He occupies his spare time in two ways, first earning pennies on the side as a glamour photographer, taking sleazy pictures of the undressed for under-the-counter sale at a corner shop. His second, unpaid hobby is his work as a serial killer, which is of a particularly perverse variety. His victims are women involved in one way or another with the allure of the spectacle: a street prostitute, a glamour model, and an actress.6 Somewhere between amateur and professional, he draws them into a conversation with his own 16 mm movie camera, and then kills them with a knife unsheathed from one leg of the camera tripod. A parodic phallus, no doubt. His camera is both an erotic apparatus and an instrument of death, and he keeps it running as he murders its targets, thus capturing the faces of victims in the throes of their last agonised breath. We later learn that he is making a documentary, one that will culminate in his own death, for which he is well-prepared in the movie’s final sequence and which he has clearly engineered from the start. This final coup de grâce does not, however, provide us with any comfortable moral closure: his death continues rather than solves the cruel perversity of his gaze. This is just as disturbing and important as Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” where the operator of a cruel punishment machine, when questioned by a traveller to the colony, submits himself to its fatal operation.

In what now appears to be a motif of the time, the audience is directly involved in the opening shots of the film, a point of view through the lens of Lewis’s own camera when he kills his first victim. Rather like Hitchcock’s subliminal opening sequence of Psycho, this puts the audience in the position of the protagonist, looking through his camera’s viewfinder with (p.98) its sniperlike crosshairs, and actively participating in the active gaze of his murderous camera.

Following this opening scene we see Mark Lewis rubbing shoulders with the photographers and writers of the press as they gather with the police around the scene of his crime. He not only commits the murders with his camera but also records the news spectacle they trigger. Perhaps here he is a Weegee figure, arriving at the scene of the crime first. In this way he also films the police arriving at the scene of what is his own carefully choreographed and recorded death at the end of the film.

Played by Carl Boehm, Mark Lewis is a good-looking, diffident, sensitive, soft-spoken, uncomfortably appealing character. Despite all that we know, we are, from the outset, encouraged to sympathize with him, and thus understand the attraction that Helen, the woman he does not kill, has for him. He elicits this sympathy in spite of the fact that he knows exactly what he is doing, whereas Psycho’s Norman Bates is a genuinely split person, a transvestite murderer completely unknown to the shy motel receptionist.

As in Hitchcock’s Psycho, we are provided at the close of Peeping Tom with a reassuring psychological explanation in which we learn that Mark’s father had been a behavioral scientist who made a study of his own son, filming a series of cruel experiments investigating the nature of fear. The psychologist locates the source of murderous aggression in a poor, pathological individual, the tragic victim of a cruel upbringing. So, again, we have fearful disturbance followed by a reassurance that it is, after all, the pathology of a warped individual.

Some have attributed the troubled gaze of Peeping Tom to difficult times in postwar Britain,7 when people were prone to panic about rebellious and delinquent youth—teenage werewolves and Frankensteins—but also about potential obscenity, such as was at stake in the prosecution of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterleys Lover, the British echo, perhaps of the U.S. legal proceedings against Allen Ginsburg’s Howl. Yes, we can detect anxieties about sex and horror films, about permissiveness on TV, about rebellious youth, about salacious scandal in the newspapers, about rising crime. But more than anything else, here we are in the midst of a changing culture of spectatorship and of the spectacle, of the sound and light of the consumer world, of new configurations of desire and power in the photographic spectacle.

More specifically, Peeping Tom also resonates with the new phenomenon of the paparazzi, whose emblematic shot is of the suffering star whose (p.99) privacy has been invaded by an aggressive camera. At some point in the mid- to late 1950s a small group of street photographers in Italy changed the way they photographed the celebrities who strutted the fashionable streets of the big cities.8 Instead of the usual deferential practice of politely requesting permission, they deliberately invaded the spaces celebrities regarded as their own, snapping them in their cars, at restaurant tables, in nightclubs, in intimate trysts. The ideal shot was of the upset star; better still if the target tried to stop the photograph being taken or gave chase to the photographer. With teamwork a double viewpoint was possible: through the lens of the stalker and from the viewpoint of an observing third party. A photography of action and reaction, it brought together the action of a stalking, predatory, invasive camera, and the reaction of a distressed prey.

In this image culture of celebrity the resulting shots sold for as much as five times the price of a polite photograph. The viewing public wanted the usual diet of studio portraits and carefully engineered red-carpet images to be spiced up with a violence that would punish the newly exalted class of imaged bodies.9

Psycho sets up the predatory camera and the pleasures and compulsions of both the filmmaker and the audience. Peeping Tom helps us develop this story further as the camera moves from an implicit to an explicit instrument of predation. The camera is seen. But Peeping Tom adds a final perverse twist, which we discover toward the end of the film. In addition to its knife our focus puller’s camera is equipped with a mirror. Not only does the killer capture and replay the face of the victim at the moment of death, but she can also see her own face in its death throes. Peeping Toms filmmaker kills the victim and captures the victim’s face as she sees her own death. These victims are terrorized by their own terror. If these films resonate with the paparazzo as aggressive intruder, Peeping Tom adds an important refinement, that the celebrity victim of such intrusion is destined, through mass circulation, to see his or her own face at the time of the aggression, as in a mirror.

Perhaps it is tempting to see the film as comparable to the game of reflections and the gaze in Velázquez’s Las Meninas.10 But there is another painting much closer to our world of the spectacle, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergères in the Courtauld, London. In this image we see a woman serving behind the bar, and in the mirror we are are aware that, first, it is a space of entertainment and, second, we occupy the position of a customer who is not just buying a drink but also attempting to buy the woman. Her face is (p.100) not welcoming but sadly resigned to her position as a commodity among others in a hall of mirrors.

Peeping Tom also deals with the hall of mirrors of a commercial spectacle that combines erotic desire and violent power. In his grubby glamour photography studio above a newsagent, Mark Lewis caters to the demand for semi-illicit photographic erotica. In his day job he works in the commercial movie industry as a photographic cog in the mass-culture machine. And his murders will attract the popular press, always hungry for a sensational crime. Peeping Tom’s murder victims are figures in a visual world that mixes erotic glamour, mainstream movies, and crime scene spectacle as elements in the film’s representation of photography, which are also the key features provoking concern and anxiety in the expanding photographic spectacle of the time. Peeping Tom is quite uncanny insofar as it manages within 109 minutes to comment on so much of what was happening in the spectacle as the 1950s turned to the 1960s.

Some elements of the film, for example, anticipated McLuhan’s 1964 depiction of the photograph as the “brothel-without-walls” in Understanding Media.11 Here McLuhan parodies Malraux’s optimistic vision of mass photography as a “museum without walls.”12 What Walter Benjamin13 had ambivalently considered a loss of aura through mass culture, André Malraux sees as an educational advance, opening up the treasures of the museum to a mass gaze. While Malraux is interested in the high-cultural possibilities of the photograph, McLuhan examines a low-cultural, even gutter-bound, popular photographic practice. For McLuhan the gaze of the camera is frankly erotic, directed at an array of celebrity bodies from Hollywood films, fashion magazines, and the images of pop music. These bodies circulate in a commercial spectacle. In these new meretricious places they are commodities for sale. It is, in effect, a new form of prostitution, asserts McLuhan. Just as the riches of the museum are delivered to a mass audience, so, too, are erotic bodies sold to spectators, and both processes occur through the agency of the photograph. For McLuhan the photograph is a brothel without walls.

But the 1961 films of Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock go further. In them the photograph does not merely bring down the screens of modesty separating the voyeuristic gaze from its erotic object, it is now an active predatory force, breaching the screen, seeking to do violence to the erotic object. Mark Lewis introduces the violent camera to McLuhan’s brothel. He combines his roles as glamour photographer and serial killer. The targets of (p.101) his destructive image apparatus are precisely those bodies McLuhan envisaged in the brothel without walls. Eros and Thanatos combine forces.

Critics acknowledge Peeping Tom as a key participant in a turning point of the so-called horror genre. As in Psycho, the killer here is no longer a physical monster or alien but, at least on the surface, an ostensibly normal person living a normal life. Monstrosity has moved from the physical to the psychological, from the outside to the inside, from the body to the mind.14 In contrast, however, what we have seen in the social developments of this period obliges us to move beyond this individualizing approach in order to examine these films not so much as symptoms of an interior psychology but as indicators of their culture. Mark Lewis is, like the paparazzo, not so much a pathological person holding a camera but a person driven by the camera and its desires. The drives do not erupt from a dark interior but circulate in the exterior where desires flow in a flux between bodies and technologies at the level of the social and cultural.

Desire: From Psychology to Culture

A particular kind of psychoanalytic fantasy is tempted to understand the mirror on Mark Lewis’s camera as somehow emblematic of the perversion of a mirror phase in infant development, perhaps of narcissistic rage. This fantasy is at one with psychologizing theory. From Cooley to Lacan to Winnicott the mirror finds a central place in the theory of the formation of the self.15 We have looking-glass selves: we are formed in the gaze of others.

In this fantasy life of psychoanalysis another kind of imaginary will work in the Oedipal register, where there is a desire for the other combined with the fear of an amputating punitive response to a forbidden desire. If this is not properly negotiated it will be expressed either through aggression against a representative of the other or through fetishistic attachment to a part object, a “little other,” a trace that acts partially to discharge sexual desire. This Oedipal theatre is Freud’s “primal scene” in which the infantile gaze is associated with the fantastic desire to unite with the mother, and hence with a fear of castration by the jealous father or an amputating punishment by the law that forbids incest.16 Thus an amputating, punitive modality of power is summoned up, and submission to its threats is a socially adaptive course of action. Of course submission is never total, and another fantasy lurks around the margins of the social: that of transgressing the power of law, overturning that which wields an amputating force.

(p.102) Here, according to psychoanalytic discourse, is where the voyeur is supposed to come into play in a secret, fantastic domination of the other that evades a castrating law. We are supposed to play this out in our relationship with cinema.17 In this way the cinematic spectator may also be regarded as a fetishist, taking a little symbol or token of the other, with the image as a little other, or a fetishistic object: a substitute for possession.

Hence, in this perspective, the figures of both Mark Lewis and Norman Bates offer to the cinematic spectator a symptomatic and attenuated expression of a universal kind of frightened and murderous voyeurism born in Freud’s primal scene.

But instead of reducing these violent dynamics to a psychology, we would do better to look at all of these mirrors and movements of desire as indicators of something happening in the wider culture. We might still use the term “narcissism” but in a more more socially and historically situated way, so that the self we speak of is not a universal identity but the particular self of a narcissistic culture.18 More simply and directly, the mirror in question has a much more material presence as a technology of the image. It indicates another “mirror with a memory,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it, that of photograph.19 For us this mirror is indicative of photography, photographic spectacle, and photographic festival.

In the cultural realm these violent fantasies of psychoanalysis are not the repressed feature of a universalized infantile development, but a life at the level of social processes rather than the psychological interior. The psychoanalytic analysis of desire represses the material and bodily forces that operate at the level of the social and the cultural. First, it misses the rather more tangible processes we have elucidated in these films: the forces of the photograph that fold in the corporeal spectator. We need less of a symptomatic and semiotic analysis of desire and more of an indicative analysis. As Steven Shaviro has argued in The Cinematic Body, we should attend less to what appears to be symbolized or coded or symptomatic in these films, and more to the active entrainment of the spectatorial body.20 We are dealing with a set of visual-material forces rather than a set of semiotically coded signs or symptoms. Desire is transmitted rather than “read.” Second, the psychoanalytic viewpoint universalizes when it should be much more specific and situated. Freud’s theories of voyeurism and fetishism are intended to apply to all times and all places, taking no account of sociohistorical specificities in the production of the image. To ignore the time and place in which Peeping Tom was produced is to repress its most important forces.

(p.103) This has implications for a critical approach to the kind of images presented in these films. Power, if it could be given the status of a person, would be quite happy with psychoanalytic representations of itself and its relation to desire, because it does not, for the most part, operate in this way. Power would also be quite content with this representation of torturing desire as Oedipal, interior, repressed, secret, and universal. Power is not challenged at the level of its operation in the social. Instead the engagement with power is turned into a psychological struggle with the maladapted self.

It is no surprise that both Psycho and Peeping Tom use reassuring psychoanalytic interpretations of photogenic torture, but it would be a mistake to ignore the ironic way in which both filmmakers deploy them. If what is disturbing in the images and narrative of these films has its sting pulled out by the psychoanalytic interpretation, then we are reminded to think of it in another way.

The sociohistorical imperatives that should inform a critical approach to photogenic torture and its desires do not attempt to uncover secret, universal, psychological motivations but instead observe the surface of the film as a play of forces relayed by the film medium itself, the nature of the camera, and the apparatus and images of photography in a particular time and place. The point is to take an anti-Oedipal view of what happens, deliberately rejecting the psychoanalytic interpretation, which soothes, reassures, and places the killer in a maladapted pathological category formed in a cruel childhood.21 Yes, indeed, this is a desire to look in order to violate, and to violate in order to look, but the proper level of analysis is in the register of a camera culture rather than the dark interior of perversion. Mark Lewis is an expression of that culture. And the reason why this film is so disturbing is, first, the protagonist is not a monster; if anything he might attract a certain degree of sympathy. Second, he is one of us because his desire is the desire of a whole culture, a paparazzi culture, a culture that has learned to punish through the photographic gaze.

Though our society still holds on to the fiction that torture might be useful in certain circumstances, we should have learned that torture can serve no instrumental purpose other than to terrorize into submission the community from which the tormented individual comes.22 This practice has been elaborated into a science and technology of terror, a savoir of counterinsurgency, whose cancer has metastasized through the post–World War II world in the form of manuals and training programs.23 Leaving aside the use of torture as information gathering (the convenient fantasy of which (p.104) still inhabits our debates today), the use of torture as terror is also in doubt as a means to an end other than more violence. We are faced with the prospect that torture serves no other purpose than itself. It is this fundamental and inescapable expressive nature of torture that is suffused with the dynamic of desire.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four took a journey with Winston Smith in search of this desire.24 It began with the telescreen, the device of both surveillance and spectacle, and took us into the cellars of the Ministry of Love, and thus into the bosom of the power playing across the surface of the telescreen. Beginning with flickering images and sounds, the narrative journey moved through ideologies and systems of thought, and finally arrived at the meeting point of power and desire in a scene of torture. The end point, the final sentence of the novel, is this: “He loved Big Brother.” Orwell’s theoretical journey is important, for its understanding of how desire and power operate is found in both the culture of the image we have encountered and at the heart of torture itself. But it is important to understand that this is a circular journey taking us back to the surface of the image.

The basements of the windowless Ministry of Love, Minilove for short, are places of torture and death, repression and espionage. Perhaps it is named in a deliberate reversal of meaning (like the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Truth, and the Ministry of Plenty). But, as in all of these names, inversion of significance is not the only game Orwell is playing. The designation “Ministry of Love” is not merely a manifestation of doublethink. Love really is at the heart of this ministry: it is a love of power. At what seems like the culmination of his torture, Winston Smith is told by his persecutor, O’Brien,

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. … We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

O’Brien continues: “But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, (p.105) the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever” (chapter 3).

Winston has learned how power works: power is desired for the sake of power, torture is desired for the sake of torture. Using Orwell as our theoretical resource, we can now understand the great surplus to the ostensibly practical use of torture in the hands of our military and security technologists of terror and counterterror. A tormenting desire operates in the rituals of torture, which no table of military or security interests can account for. It is continuous with photogenic torture, such as the kind we’ve seen in Camp X-Ray and Abu Ghraib, and which emerged in our spectacle in the early years of mass consumerism. Following Orwell we can only understand this punitive gaze as a meeting of power and desire.

But psychology has no place here. This desire is not confined to the criminal and pathological individuals who make up the infamous characters of our popular literature and documentaries of atrocity. It is not merely found in a Sadean fantasy or a figure lurking in the shadows of Edgar Allen Poe’s work. Nor is it buried deep in the badly bolted dungeons of our unconscious. Rather, in the form of photogenic torture, it flows through the bright lights of our social world, across the visible surfaces of our culture, and parades itself in our photographic spectacle.


(1.) Phil Carney, “Crime, Punishment and the Force of Photographic Spectacle,” in Framing Crime: Cultural Criminology and the Image, ed. Keith Hayward and Mike Presdee (London: Routledge, 2010).

(2.) Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

(3.) For an account of the social context in which the British films appeared, see Sarah Street, British National Cinema (Oxford: Routledge, 1997); and David Pirie, A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1946–1972 (London: Avon, 1973). Pirie calls the three British films a “Sadean trilogy.”

(4.) Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein, (London: Routledge, 1991); Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972); Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1994); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983); Daniel Boorstin, The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream (Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican, 1963).

(p.106) (5.) Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979).

(6.) Note that Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: British Film Institute, 1992), sees more than the now conventional film-theory perspective on the sadism of the masculine spectator (of the horror-slasher film). She argues that there is a more complex, interacting, less gender-determined set of identifications.

(7.) See Marcia Landy, British Genres: Cinema and Society, 1930–1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); and Pirie, A Heritage of Horror.

(8.) See, for example, Karen Pinkus, The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Montesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellinis Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

(9.) For the punitive analogy, see Anthony Burgess’s prefatory essay in Daniel Angeli and Jean-Paul Dousset, Private Pictures (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).

(10.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1971).

(11.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964).

(12.) André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

(13.) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970).

(14.) Robert Yanal, “Two Monsters in Search of a Concept,” Comtemporary Aesthetics 1 (2003).

(15.) Charles H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Scribner, 1902); Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977); D. W. Winnicott, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family,” in Playing and Reality (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974).

(16.) Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. John Strachey, 7:133–243 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953).

(17.) See, for example, Andrea Sabbadini, “Watching Voyeurs: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 81 (1960): 809–813; and Elisabeth Bronfen, “Killing Gazes, Killing in the Gaze: On Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom,” in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, ed. Renata Salecl and Slavoj Žižek (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996).

(18.) Christopher L. Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979).

(19.) Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1859, 738–48.

(20.) Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

(p.107) (21.) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (London: Athlone, 1984).

(22.) Ruth Blakeley, “Why Torture?” Review of International Studies 33 (2007): 373–94.

(23.) See chapter 6 of this book and Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan, 2006). See also Neil McMaster, “Torture: from Algiers to Abu Ghraib,” Race and Class 46, no. 2 (2004): 1–21.

(24.) George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949).