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Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No.

3, 2001

Five Theses on Torture


In the course of the last decade, a series of writings, centred on the term
‘post-dictatorship’, have articulated knowledges that are irreducible to the
framework of ‘democratic transition’. This irreducibility should not be confused
with exteriority pure and simple, but displays a supplementary character in the
strongest sense of the word: the transition does not emerge as such until it
represses and excludes from its Želd that which makes it possible. Silenced so
that the framework of transition can be established as the unique horizon of the
politically intelligible within the post-dictatorship countries, such experiences
mobilize in their theoretical elaboration a lexicon with certain recurrent terms:
mourning, melancholia and trauma are the most common. The work carried on
during this long period in the Želds of philosophy, literary and cultural criticism
and the plastic arts has had the merit, whatever its ambiguities and inadequa-
cies, of displacing the debate on the transition onto a terrain where such
experiential tensions have found a voice.1
The bibliography is diverse but what uniŽes it is a certain lexical attention,
which is absent in other discussions of the legacy of the dictatorships, be they
social-scientiŽc or journalistic-testimonial. Whilst a schematic outline does not
do justice to the works involved, the following are some of the most signiŽcant
lexical displacements:

1. The term ‘transition’ has been removed from the social scientiŽc terrain (in
which it designates a return to a democratic-parliamentary ‘normality’) and
has been used to designate the truly epochal transition achieved by the
dictatorships in shifting the countries of Latin America from the national state
to the globalized market. This change in the understanding of the term not
only removes the emphasis from an empirical-contingent problem and redi-
rects attention towards a problem of foundational character, but also makes
the truth of the transition visible, namely that the transition has led us to a
place which appears no longer to be in transit, that is, a state of affairs which
threatens us with its deŽnitive stay (Thayer).
2. There has been a critical dissection of post-dictatorship testimonialism, attent-
ive to the complex relations between motifs of betrayal, confession and guilt:
this has had the merit of focusing on the ambiguities and aporias proper to
discourses of restitution, even those which bring to light truths censored and
hidden by dictatorial power (Richard).
3. There has been a demonstration that the rips and breaks in representation
made obvious in the post-dictatorship period refer back to a Latin American
ISSN 1356-932 5 print/ISSN 1469-957 5 online/01/030253–19 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/1356932012009004 5
254 I. Avelar

tradition of the lost object (Lezama, Borges, Piñera, Elizondo), which in

articulating a third space that is irreducible to any colonized or native
specularism, confers on the post-dictatorship narratives of mourning their
genealogy (Moreiras).
4. There has been a theoretico-historiographical argument that links the primacy
of allegory in post-dictatorship Žction to the rupture of the oxymoronic
identitarian-modernizing paradigm of the boom, a rupture that opened the
way for the emergence of a literature which investigated the crisis of the
transmissibility of experience from the point of view of an allegorical tropol-
ogy, in which everything that attains signiŽcation does so only as ruins
The epochal transition represented by the dictatorships offers a complex of
problems to thought and none with more pitfalls than the practice of torture,
which the regimes of the Southern Cone brought to a level of scientiŽc
reŽnement unknown in Latin America up to that point. The body of writing on
the practice of torture under the dictatorships offers a wide terrain for reection
even as it marks out the limits of all reection. In confronting the problem of the
translation of their experience into language, the testimonies of political prison-
ers who had been subject to torture also make manifest the limits of all
representability. The writings coming from human rights organizations and
groups formed by the families of the disappeared are indispensable for record-
ing the truth, in memory and in law, about everybody that was tortured.
Social-scientiŽc writing on the subject, based on a reading of those testimonies
and on courageous empirical investigations, has shown the ubiquity of the
practice of torture in the recent dictatorships. This truth is no longer contested,
nor relegated to the category of ‘accident’ or ‘excess’. Torture is universally
recognized as a central part of the repressive politics of those regimes. Given all
this material, and given how much of a mineŽeld this subject is, given the
suspicion that reection on these topics generates, one must ask: what can
literature and philosophy say about this subject? Better, why should one say
something about the subject?
Following a venerable rhetorical procedure, we have mentioned testimony,
accusation and empirical investigation so as to advance the idea that here we
will be dealing with something different. This approach leads to the Žrst
potential bombshell: testimonial writing, reports or empirical material on torture
have to confront the basic question of legitimacy, of the authority to speak which
often dogs literary and philosophical texts that decide to risk addressing this
subject matter. In the case of the testimonies of those who have been tortured,
obviously, the problem does not even arise: there is no legitimacy more incon-
testable than that which presides over the entry of this subject into language,
given that what enters into language is experience itself—or rather, this experi-
ence is constituted as such precisely by its entry into language, by its conversion
into something that can be narrated. For the writings concerned with accusation,
legitimization takes place by reference to practical objectives, political aims
which are likewise incontestable: the widest possible dissemination of infor-
mation that could help in the Žght against torture. For social scientiŽc research,
for all that its quantitative brutality might shock those who see therein a betrayal
of the irreducible, experiential truth of torture, its implicit justiŽcation—the
importance of accumulating veriŽable empirical data about the where, when, by
Five Theses on Torture 255

whom and to whom of torture—is usually enough to confer on it a powerful

discursive legitimacy.
It is not like this in the terrain that we inhabit, in literature. As a knowledge
that cannot avoid the problem of mediation, literature trembles and pulls back in
the face of any experience where mediation disappears. The pain of torture, the
unsayable, the atrocious nature of torture, appears to literature as the very image
of the unmediable, the unnarratable, since resistance to language is not some-
thing that can be seen as accidental to the existence of pain but is constitutive of
its very essence. Starting from Virginia Woolf’s observation that we rarely read
about pain in literature, which seems utterly lacking in mechanisms that would
allow extreme pain to be represented, Elaine Scarry (1985) in her indispensable The
Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of a World notes the absence of literary
representations of physical pain, in contrast with other forms of suffering. There
is something in the literary representation of pain that tends to convert it into the
formulaic, the stereotypical, the reassuring or the simply timid. Such a breach in
the representational apparatus of literature in the face of pain says much about
the literally brutal nature of the phenomenon, but also something about the
limits of literature. What this paper suggests is that these limits, once mapped
would allow us to say something about what the practice of torture does to
representation, or better, to what extent torture makes possible, or makes
possible the cancellation of, representation as such and, on the other hand, how
representation makes possible, and makes possible the cancellation of, torture as
such. The limit of these questions opens onto a number of consequences,
amongst them the understanding of the link between the practice of torture and
Let us return to our initial investigation, then. Testimony, accusation and
empirical studies have told us all we need to know about the worldwide spread
of torture (even in the First World, where its invisibility grants to the freethink-
ing liberal the comfort of believing torture to be a monopoly of ‘terrorist’
regimes, so as to see it, in a second moment of the dialectic of bad faith, in
Cuba but not in Guatemala, in Cambodia but not in East Timor, in Libya but
not in Chile or Brazil), its organic and systematic character within the recent
Latin American dictatorships, and the persistence of its practice inside the
transitional democracies (as an everyday practice suffered by the poor, by
Blacks, by landless peasants, by immigrants). Given all this, what do literature
or philosophy—neither anchored in experience—still have to tell us about the
phenomenon? If literary studies, and more speciŽcally philosophically in-
formed literary studies that have dedicated the last decades to the mapping
of the conditions, possibilities and limits of representation, could we not
postulate from this perspective some hypotheses about the phenomenon
whose Žrst and most immediate operation is its violent breaking with any
representational apparatus whatsoever? From this proposal, then, we can risk
an initial thesis on the inseparability of the practice of torture from
(non)representation. This thesis can be elaborated in dialogue with Scarry’s
The Body in Pain, a most important book, whose attention focuses on the
devastating effects of torture on language and the world we endorse. However,
we distance ourselves from her postulation of such terms as ‘world’, ‘language’,
‘representation’, ‘body’ with contents already constituted in advance and which
are only subsequently threatened and destroyed by torture.2 The three sub-
256 I. Avelar

sequent theses, on torture and its relation to speech, narrative and sexual
difference, will detail such difference. Our objections to Scarry’s study will lead
us on to a Žfth thesis, elaborated after being inspired by Page DuBois’s (1991)
revolutionary book, Torture and Truth, which postulates a co-extension between,
on the one hand, the practice of truth as the foundation of the mechanism by
which the slave was incorporated into the Greek juridical apparatus and, on the
other, the contemporaneous origins of the western philosophical concept of truth
(alêtheia, veritas). These reections would not have been possible without the
perspective of Michel Foucault’s ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’, which discerned
the possibility of a history of torture in its relation to the juridical paradigms of
the production of truth, that is to say, proof (l’épreuve) and inquiry/interrogation
(l’enquête).3 At the limit of our reection, there is the axiom that torture is a
central chapter of any history of truth.

First Thesis: On Torture and Representation

The name of the atrocity—Holocaust, Apartheid—is a proper name, written with
a capital letter, and by deŽnition untranslatable. The function of proper name
marks its singularity, its resistance to being translated into a common noun.
Derrida’s insistence on Apartheid as the last name of racism4 realizes such a
resistance in a lexico-political programme: maintaining and radicalizing the
untranslatability, the unconvertability of the name, that is to say its refusal to
become sign5 and enter into the general exchange of signs would advance a
mnemonic project that would maintain the struggle of the past, its condition as
past which brings forward a claim and complaint. Obviously, it is not a question,
as has been argued by a certain North American postcolonial theory, of Derrida,
with his call to maintain Apartheid as the last name of racism, wanting to suggest
that racism is over and done with, that Apartheid had been its Žnal manifesta-
tion, etc. The confusion in such an objection stems from its blindness in the face
of everything that the name can achieve as an index that interrupts the historical
continuum, as an instrument that would constitute a monad taken out of
temporal ux. Such a monadic and interruptive singularization was, for Ben-
jamin, as is well known, the very condition of the elaboration of a historical
knowledge which would not be complicit with the victors. In Derrida’s strategy
of naming the catastrophe as irreducibly singular, there is no negation of what
Benjamin postulates, that is, that ‘the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the
rule’ (a denial of the ubiquity of racism according to the politically correct
objection to Derrida), but rather a lexical strategy which seizes racism in the
moment of its consummation—Apartheid—and through care and attention to its
irreducibility, lets this name name its essence, its truth, its odious and despicable
nature. Protecting the name against the sign is, in a certain sense, an engagement
with class hatred, with its indispensability.
But the nature of the proper name as always recalcitrant to conversion into
a common substantive already indicates that a war is taking place inside lan-
guage: the war between this resistance and what Roland Barthes once called
‘the gregarious nature of signs’. The gregariousness of the sign threatens the
proper name with conversion into metaphor, the Žrst step towards its naturaliza-
tion in language as a common noun. There are, then, two movements which
are opposed and antithetical: the tendency to exchange which would force
Five Theses on Torture 257

us to read in ‘Apartheid’ a metaphor for racism and, as such, already in the

process of losing its capital letter, entering into the abode of common nouns, that
can be put in the dictionary and deŽned semantically. On the other hand, there
is a resistance to metaphoricity that pushes such a name, against the current,
towards it maintaining its character as a proper name. As such, with capital
letter and untranslatable, it is in a rigorous sense allegorical and thus cannot be
turned into a metaphor. The war does not take place between language and
something that assails it from outside, but is played out inside language itself.
Our hypothesis is that the ‘resistance to language’, already referred to and
analysed as an insistent feature of the testimony of those who have been
tortured, is nothing other than the proper name, is waging a war against the
gregarious power of the sign, which threatens that experience with the dilution
of its singularity. For the survivor, such a war is worth what the experience itself
is worth, and he approaches it with all the urgency of one who knows that
maintaining experience—maintaining it as material that can be narrated, that is
to say maintaining it as such—is the very condition of survival, its constitutive
Reading the documents published by Amnesty International one crude and
repeated element of the torture apparatus emerges: its exhibition and display, its
representation to the tortured subject. From the forced contemplation of the machin-
ery of torture in the Greece of the Junta (1967–71), to the insistent sound of locks
opening (announcing the arrival of the torturer) in the Basque Country, to the
hysterical verbalizations of torture by its Southern Cone practitioners, or the
exhibition (in sound or vision) of the tortured to their loved ones, whether
prisoners or not: the modern technique of torture systematically includes, as a
central element of the apparatus of terror, its own double in the realm of signs,
its own farcical semanticization, its own display. Such a representation is a
fundamental component of terror itself, a surplus without which the modern
science of torture would not have taken the forms that it has, a constitutive
surplus frequently experienced as the worst possible pain, the pain of antici-
pation, of the representation of the pain to come.
The technology of torture has evolved from its premodern moment, character-
ized by its public display, with spectators witnessing it as a ‘spectacle of
suffering’,6 to a modern moment, which keeps the condemned prisoner in the
classic condition of ‘herald of his own condemnation’ (1985, p. 43), but now
displaced, conŽned, hidden in prison cells and torture chambers. If premodern
torture ‘establishes execution as the moment of truth’ (1985, p. 43), the modern
apparatus maintains the equation between truth and punishment but now
withdraws it from the public sphere, in fact making the latter into the site of a
possible struggle against torture, given that the conŽned space has been technol-
ogized and rationalized to the point where the torturer is granted a power that
cannot be threatened. If, in the premodern moment, ‘a successful public ex-
ecution justiŽed justice, in that it published the truth of the crime in the very
body of the man about to be executed’ (1985, p. 44) the modern science of torture
converts the inscription of this truth into information and, as such, is capable of
being appropriated and monopolized by the state. In both moments of the
technology of punishment, however, torture rests upon an act of representation,
which is not subsequent to the act of the executioner but is its constitutive moment.
The apparatuses and practices of representation—auditory, visual, tactile—are
258 I. Avelar

not instruments added on to the practice of torture, but are central chapters in
its history, moments of its essence. What is proper to torture is the obscene
exhibition, in public or private, of its own power. This gives rise to the truth
which is captured by Kafka’s allegory of modern, rationalized torture, ‘In the
Penal Colony’ (1988, pp. 140–167), a story which is less the narration of an act
that a description of an apparatus.

Second Thesis: On Torture and the Voice

Scarry suggests that the experience of pain in the Bible takes on a certain pattern,
that of the repeated action of the voice of God upon the bodies of men. To be God
is to lack a body but to speak, for example from within the burning bush, ‘being
only a voice’ (Deuteronomy 4:12); to be human is to have a body on which the
divine voice is impressed. The voice commands the body, the word is impressed
upon the esh. In both the Old Testament and the Gospels, ‘the experienceable
“reality” of the body that can be read not as an attribute of the body but as
an attribute of its metaphysical referent’ (1985, p. 184). The repeated functional-
ization of pain in the Jewish Bible (to provide the link that ties the subject to
belief) makes of the body an instance of actualization of a metaphysical truth
incarnated in the word. Pain stamps belief into the body. In reality, there is no
clear separation between the divine creation and the act of iniction of pain
(generation and wounding): ‘Apart from the human body, God himself has no
material reality except for the countless weapons that he exists on the invisible
and disembodied side of’ (1985, p. 200). The making present of the transcendent
reality of the voice of God is the very pain which is felt by the body: ‘God
ordinarily permits himself to be materialized in one of two places, either in the
bodies of men or women, or in the weapon’ (1985, p. 235). The weapon with
which he wounds the body is here the privileged incarnation of the voice of God
in the Jewish Bible. And it is this that gives rise to the strict prohibition, which
becomes emblematic in the command: do not represent God, do not confer upon
him a body, do not make him materialize. His inŽnite power depends upon his
being maintained within the realm of pure voice.
In the very origins of civilization one Žnds such subjection, the same subjection
characteristic of the act of torture: the iniction of the pain of the voice on the
body. Scarry’s reection on what she calls ‘the structure of torture’ presents a
forceful argument about the ‘transformation of the body into voice’ (1985,
pp. 45–51). The magniŽcation of the body for the tortured subject, caused by the
experience of extreme pain, converts him/her into a subject deprived of a world,
deprived of a voice and of a self. ‘The transformation of body into voice’ is the
operation carried out by the torturer: his body is marked by its absence, he is the
one who monopolizes the world, the voice and the self. According to Scarry’s
axiom, then, ‘the torturer has no body, only a voice, and the tortured subject has
no voice, only a body’. To the extent that the very voice of the torturer, the
demand or the question itself, is obviously ‘whatever its content, an act of
wounding’ (1985, p. 46), the torturing voice takes on a greater measure, becomes
the central instrument of torture upon a subject which is now converted into a
body—a body which hurts the subject, which wounds him/her, and therefore,
according to the hateful calculation of torture, produces in the subject a
Five Theses on Torture 259

separation and alienation from his/her body, its conversion into a traitorous
Scarry’s starting point is thinking the voice is fundamental to the battle against
the practice of torture, to the work of depriving it of its political legitimacy and
of making its horror visible. We know that torture does not happen because the
subject who is tortured possesses some information that the torturer would Žnd
useful. Rather, in the modern technology of the iniction of pain, the question
is always a component of pain itself (which is justiŽed because it causes pain)
not in some pragmatic revelation of a piece of information. The interrogation is
obviously not something that once resolved to the torturer’s satisfaction would
signify the end of the subjection of the other to torture. The interrogation is a
constituent of torture. Self-incrimination—or the betrayal of the comrade or the
loved one—is not the end-point of the act of torture, it is not its objective, its
Žnal telos, its closure, and could therefore only be asserted as its justiŽcation in
some hypocritical fashion. Such forced production from the tortured subject is,
as a reading of the copious material would demonstrate, the act of torture itself.
This is why it is Scarry’s starting point that leads us to reject one of her central
theses: we do not describe the act of torture through a phenomenology that
would recount the unmaking of the world. Scarry supports this thesis through
observing how the world of the tortured person loses its functional character, ‘a
refrigerator is no longer a refrigerator, a chair is no longer a chair’. If such a
pragmatic content to objects is indeed lost, then it would still be a risky step, it
seems to us, to postulate that this is equivalent to a ‘suspension of civilization’,
a civilization already hypostasized as something necessarily ‘opposed’ to such a
practice (1985, p. 21). Scarry’s thesis presupposes that what is destroyed by
torture—‘civilization’, ‘world’—is somehow completely uncontaminated by tor-
ture itself. This prevents her from questioning whether there might not be some
connection or complicity between them in the technology of pain, since she
assumes that there is a world, already ordered, which is destroyed by torture, or
that there is a civilization that is civilization precisely because it is the opposite of
torture. In opposing Scarry’s thesis, we take up the position that torture has
always entered into the very construction of what is understood and experi-
enced as ‘civilization’, and not just ‘civilization’ but what is understood as
‘democracy’ in politics, and ‘truth’ in philosophy and jurisprudence.
Our differand crystallizes around Scarry’s commentary on Kafka: ‘Even
Žctional representations of torture like Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ … record
the fact that the unmaking of civilization inevitably requires a return to and
mutilation of the domestic, the ground of all making’ (1985, p. 45). But it seems
to us that Kafka’s story suggests exactly the opposite: that the modern technol-
ogy of torture does not consist in the simple technical perfecting of the apparatus
but in its conversion into an apparatus that can be possessed, something
domestic, private, unwilling to be subsumed or justiŽed by state intelligence.
What everybody knows about Kafka’s torture apparatus is that it belongs to the
ofŽcial, it is his personal project, quite independent of any collective approval by
the polis. Torture does not appear to us as something that serves to destroy an
uncorrupted domesticity, a hypostasized and pre-existing making, but as some-
thing that has already turned into the very foundation of the domestic. In Kafka,
torture does not interrupt the existence of civilization and domesticity, but makes
and remakes them in its own image and likeness.
260 I. Avelar

Our disagreement with Scarry’s thesis on torture and the voice stems from
this: to oppose the idea of a ‘voice that is destroyed’ is not a merely philosoph-
ical dispute, carried on at a distance from the hard truth of atrocity. What is put
forward here is a political position founded on different therapeutic engage-
ments with the victims: the hypostasization of a subject and a civilization
constituted in advance, and which express themselves in a ‘voice’ that is
subsequently destroyed by torture, can only lead to a practice of treatment that
is nostalgic and defeatist, haunted by the project of an impossible restoration of
pre-traumatic subjectivity. This is the terrain on which the topos of voice and
torture is played out. Taking a distance from the Žxed binary opposition,
presence of the voice (in the torturer) x absence of the voice (in the tortured) and
moving towards more pluralist premises (which would not see the voice simply
as a ‘good’ appropriated by the torturer), opens up a possibility that the
therapeutic practice unravel everything that the voices, the assertions of the
tortured subject—no matter when: before, during or after torture—was complicit
with torture, coexisted with it, was appropriated by it, and resisted it. A much
wider Želd opens up for the subject in which to recompose their subjectivity.
Our second thesis, then, is: what is at stake in the critique of the liberal-phono-
centric thesis on torture is not only the loss of illusions (and hopes) that
civilization is not corrupted by atrocity, but also the possibility of a positive
space where the production of a post-traumatic subjectivity is made possible.

Third Thesis: On the Narrative Conditions of the Representability of Trauma

A fundamental component of torture is the production of statements by the
person tortured, the transformation of the latter into a mouthpiece for the
statements of the torturer. Torture, then, also functions as a production of
speech, not, we repeat, because torture is carried out in order to produce a
successful interrogation but because interrogation is what torture is in its
realization. The technology of torture is the calculated production of an effect. The
betrayal that is extracted under torture is only rarely of use for the organization
of the torturers in designating their next victims. Invariably, its objective is to
produce an effect within the tortured subject him/herself: one of self-loathing,
self-hatred and shame. The forced production of language during the act of
torture sets up one of its most hateful effects, that is the preclusion of a
post-traumatic language: it makes it impossible for the subject to articulate the
experience in language. Forcing speech so as to make it impossible to speak,
producing language so as to manufacture silence. ’ ‘Not telling’ a history serves
to perpetuate its tyranny’ (Laub, 1995, p. 64).7
The dilemma of the tortured subject, then, is always one of representability.
The worst insult to the experience of the victims—what Primo Levi once called
‘the obscenity of interpretation’, that is the rationalization and supposed com-
prehension of causes, experience and effects—haunts any attempt to think about
the essence of torture. Any a posteriori rationalization is an offence by intelligence
on experience. This latter reacts by preserving an irreducible element, speaking
from within itself, from within its untranslatability, a traumatic, unthinkable
residue. From psychoanalysis we know, however, that no work of healing,
no genuine work of mourning, can proceed without trying precisely such
interpretation. The traumatized subject Žnds him/herself caught in a quandary:
Five Theses on Torture 261

there can be no elaboration and overcoming of the trauma without the articula-
tion of a narrative in which the traumatic experience is inserted in a signifying
way, inserted as signiŽcation. But this very insertion can only be perceived by
the subject as a real betrayal of the singularity and intractability of the experi-
ence, ‘being treated—whether by drugs, or by telling one’s history, or both—ap-
pears to many survivors to imply the abandonment of an important reality, or
the dilution of a special truth within the comforting terms of therapy. In fact, in
Freud’s early writings on trauma, the possibility of integrating the lost event into
a series of associative memories, as part of the treatment, is seen precisely as a
means of allowing the event to be forgotten’ (Caruth, 1995, p. vii). Therapeutic
recall has as its aim the production of forgetting, the anticipation of which
produces a profound suspicion in the traumatized subject.
It is thus the basic corruption of all language that is the obstacle which
confronts the subject who tries to articulate his/her traumatic experience. The
tortured subject perceives that the experience has caused an implosion in
language, has stained it irreversibly. This gives rise to the sensation of impotence
that is so common in the memories of the survivors. The Žlthiness that is
imposed on language by the experience prevents it being turned into material
that can be narrated, that is it prevents it being constituted as such. One of the
calculated effects of torture is to make experience into a non-experience, to deny
it a place, an abode in language. Any true therapy has to labour against such
effects of the compromised nature of language, as does any real effort to
confront traumatic speech, even when, and perhaps especially when, that very
therapy must include as one of its moments a suspicion about all narrativization.
The confrontation with spurious narrativizations and their fantasies of the past
can only be articulated within a narratability that has been conquered.
If it is true, as Zizek wants to say, that ‘the ultimate goal of psychoanalytic
treatment is not that the analysand comes to organize his confused experience of
life into (another) coherent narrative, with all of its traumas properly integrated’,
and that narrativization itself would have to be regarded as suspect, as a
symptom, given that ‘narrative as such emerges so as to resolve some fundamen-
tal antagonism by rearranging its terms into a temporal succession’ (Zizek, 1997,
pp. 32–33) it is also true, on the other hand, that the work of suture which
narrative carries out, precisely by obscuring the traumatic truth, by organizing
a story which maintains that truth as unnameable, installs such a black hole as
a place of confrontation—possible, promised and in the future. Zizek’s insistence
on narrativization as also part of an ideological ediŽce is welcome. Indeed, we
could say, with Zizek, that narrativization is what masks the most—witness the
case of the obsessive, whose negating mask during treatment, according to
Zizek, consists of his being ‘active all the while, [he] tells stories, presents
symptoms and so on, so things will remain the same, so that nothing will really
change, so that the analysts will remain immobile and will not effectively
intervene—what he is most afraid of is the moment of silence which will reveal
the utter vacuousness of his incessant activity’ (p. 34). Zizek’s argument about
narrativization in the neurotic reveals its nature as an act of denial, its role in the
production of ideological fantasy. The therapeutic argument leads Zizek to
formulate a theoretical argument as well, precisely about the neurotic character
of a great part of contemporary thought, with its desperate attempt to organize
262 I. Avelar

antagonisms and breaks into a story (be it one of decline and fall, or one of
It is precisely here that trauma studies displace the emphasis given by
psychoanalytic critique to the neurotic illusion. The two enterprises necessarily
give rise to different emphases, since for the survivor it is precisely narrative
that is promised, that cannot not be promised. This promise takes on a form,
which is that of the retrospective construction of a witness, just where all instance
of bearing witness has been eliminated. Absolute atrocity produces a world in
which one can no longer be a witness, since the very imagination of the other,
the very postulation of a ‘you’ one could address has been prevented, aborted,
cancelled in advance by the absolute interiority of the victim of such atrocity.
It is just such a sense of interiority which destroys the very possibility of
witnessing that is responsible for the sensation of guilt and complicity that
terrorizes the survivor. The task of constructing narratability must be under-
stood, then, less as the elaboration of a coherent, diagetic sequence about the
past, one that can be uttered (the sort of narrativization whose ideological
effects Zizek warns us against), and more as the postulation of narrative as
a possibility, in other words, the postulation of a virtual place of witness, as
with the child survivor of the Holocaust who clung to the photograph of his
mother, knowing that there, in that photograph, he was constituted as a
witness, and was promised the act of testimony that the atrocity had tried to
The manufacture of a narrative that is not complicit with the perpetuation of
trauma again includes, as one of its moments, a war inside language, around the
act of naming. When the Argentine generals succeeded in spreading the hateful
name, their name, their signature, the Proceso (Process), as a supposedly neutral
and descriptive proper name (so much so that even a great number of the
victims came to refer to the period 1976–83 as the Proceso years) their victory on
the level of language was considerable. The torturer’s great victory is to deŽne
the language in which the atrocity will be named. As Tununa Mercado has
remarked, setting aside the terms ‘dictatorship’ and ‘genocide’ and taking over
the name that the torture apparatus itself created (‘The Process of National
Reorganization’) is already to experience an important defeat.8 Any attempt at
an individual or collective account is already compromised by this defeat. My
third thesis then: to confront trauma is to conquer a space of narratability, in
which even the unmasking of narrativization can have a place; the conquest of
this place of narratability depends on a permanent, collective operation on
language. For the political and therapeutic task of representation of trauma, the
dictionary is a battleŽeld. The future of democracy is not indifferent to the
outcome of this confrontation.

Fourth Thesis: On Torture and Sexual Difference

The Žlm by Roman Polanski and Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden9
postulates a convergence that Foucault would say was proper to a ‘juridico-
discursive paradigm’, that is, the convergence or collapse of confession and truth,
with the latter being understood as a buried truth, something static, to be
dragged out. The Žlm is dedicated to imagining a scene of truth, as nothing
other than a scene of confession. In its very ideological centre, the Žlm
Five Theses on Torture 263

presupposes the identity between what is confessed and what is true. As we will
see, such an identity belongs to a strategy of representation that subsumes the
problematic of torture under the Žgure of interrogation. Such a subsumption
would be constitutive of a certain conception of truth, itself dependent on the
delimitation and abjection of the feminine.10 The problems that will occupy us
here will be the relations that are established historically between torture,
confession, sexual difference, and truth, and at the same time the speciŽc (and
yet very typical) symptomatic appearance of such relations in the Dorfman/
Polanski Žlm.
The dramatic tension of the Žlm lies in the portrayal of a scene of restitution,
of payment (and demand for payment), which comes about quite by chance.
Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), an important lawyer and the head of a new
government commission on the violation of human rights under the recent
dictatorship, and husband of a former political prisoner who had undergone
torture, Paulina Lorca (Sigourney Weaver) gets a lift home (at night, after a
puncture during a rainstorm) from Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), a former
torturer and now a good Samaritan. This is a nice occasion for the unpredictable
workings of chance. Paulina recognizes Miranda’s voice—although the implied
author does not do so immediately, nor does the spectator, necessarily—as the
voice of the doctor who had raped her during and after the torture sessions she
suffered during the dictatorship. The whole action of the Žlm unfolds inside
Paulina and Gerardo’s house, and takes place between the two of them and the
former torturer Roberto Miranda, or more precisely between Paulina and the
two men, until the Žnal resolution, overlooking a cliff, in one of the Žlm’s few
external scenes. Despite appearances, though, we are not dealing with a triangle
At the Žlm’s opening, we see the inside of a theatre, in which the Schubert
quartet, that names the Žlm, is being played. In the audience, revealed by shots
that alternate with mid-distance shots of the musicians, we see Sigourney
Weaver and her husband played by Stuart Wilson. Weaver’s body and facial
reactions are visibly shown as more central for the Žlm than the husband’s,
a difference already indicated by the close-up of her hand as she grabs his,
and then the close-up of their faces, with him trying impotently to decipher
the emotional tension in her features, an impotence that is repeated to the point
of implausibility throughout the Žlm. The shot frames Weaver frontally,
something which cannot help looking odd if contrasted with the end of the
Žlmic diagesis, when the close-up returns, in the scene of the torturer’s con-
fession by the cliff. It is obvious by now that the formal coincidences are not
coincidences, nor are they merely formal. The coincidence we have just pointed
out indicates the equation that the Žlm makes between the confession of the
woman being tortured and that of the torturer, or better, the validation of her
confession in his, made at the end of the Žlm. But let us not get ahead of
Let us just say for now that only the cut and the violent image of water
striking rocks during a night-time storm interrupt the opening scene, which will
be left hanging until the end, when the camera will bring us back to the theatre
where ‘Death and the Maiden’ is being performed. Over the image that indicates
the beginning of diagetic time is superimposed the explanation, ‘A country in
South America, after the fall of the dictatorship’ [emphasis added]. Within this
264 I. Avelar

more or less standard rhetorical procedure for indicating time and place in
cinema, and in itself not necessarily something worthy of note, my attention was
drawn to the incongruent uses of the articles, ‘a’ and ‘the’. If we are in a country
in South America, somewhere imprecise, why is the reference to a moment in the
history of this undeŽned country made by the deŽnite article ‘the’? What could
‘the dictatorship’ mean if we are in a country in South America? Even if this
undeŽned country only had a single dictatorship in its history, wouldn’t the
structure of the utterance itself still require the use of the indeŽnite article? We
can see that here the formal question does not just mark a formalism on our part:
only in ONE South American country could the reference to THE dictatorship be
made like this, without qualiŽcation. Brazilians, Argentines, Peruvians, Ecuado-
rians—have all known many dictatorships. Only in one South American country
could the reference to the dictatorship be maintained in the absolute singularity
of the deŽnite article. Such a fact is of no little importance for the Žlm, since the
achievements or failures of the Polanski/Dorfman Žlm lead back to the ways in
which it symptomatizes (and betrays) the experience that the indeŽnite article (‘a
country’) at once alludes to and hides, the Chilean experience. Such an act of
allusion and elision (and of elision of its constitutive allusions) is, as we shall see,
the backbone of the Žlm’s rhetoric.11
The allusion to Paulina’s trauma, thematized in the Žlm’s opening and
metaphorized by the Schubert quartet, returns in the following scene, which
shows Gerardo arriving home just after his acceptance of the post as head of the
commission has been announced on the radio. Paulina has heard this; she is
‘madly’, ‘unreasonably’ opposed to his taking the post, speaking from an
experience that is totally fetishized. Gerardo is given a lift home by Roberto
Miranda, who came across his car with a at tyre on the highway. When she
sees the car headlights in the distance, Paulina begins desperately to rush
around closing all the doors in the house, putting out the lights and candles, and
getting out a gun, which she has kept in a drawer. In Paulina’s actions,
Polanksi/Dorfman rehearse the Hollywood cliché of the upper class character
who defends ‘his/her property’ against the invasion of a ‘criminal’ or supernat-
ural threat. The property itself is a suburban, North American mansion built in
the best style, situated to the side of a road that cuts through semi-forest, more
reminiscent of Illinois or Iowa than Chile. The female character’s reaction to
‘defend her property’ obviously has nothing much to do with what would be
plausible behaviour in a Latin American activist (unthinkable even in a former
militant now of the upper class, the wife of a minister, and correctly ‘made
over’). Paulina’s ‘false alarm’ is repeated a few minutes later, when Miranda
returns with Gerardo’s spare tyre, and in a series of cuts we see an alternation
between the two environs, the living room where the two ‘reasonable’ men talk
about the future of the country (with the living room brightly lit) and the (dark)
bedroom where the madwoman is frantically getting her clothes together for
what is made to look like a mad ight—but will in reality be the preparation for
the insane theft of Miranda’s car, which will then be pushed over the cliff, in
another scene lacking in historical and diagetic plausibility.
Paulina’s ‘unreasonable’ reactions form a pattern within the Žlm. She system-
atically reveals her ‘obsession’, incomprehensible to her, but not to the two male
characters, the implied author (also presupposed as male) and the implied
reader (likewise male). We see the character’s ‘madness’ when she gets the
Five Theses on Torture 265

revolver out before the car arrives, when she throws her husband’s meal away
(when he refuses to disclose his conversation with the President), when she cries
and yells out ‘I don’t exist’ (when her husband suggests a legal, rational,
parliamentary outcome). Her madness is already there long before she pushes
Miranda’s car over the cliff—like a madwoman—the very car that has brought her
husband and then his spare tyre back to the house. If we were to sum up the
position of the female character, it would be that Dorfman/Polanski put her in
the place of the hysteric: the one who symptomatizes the truth, but who is incapable
of speaking it, of articulating it. Such a reduction of the feminine to an experience
that is fetishized and hystericized is strange and contradictory, because very
clearly the Žlm also wants to make a gesture towards feminism. Obviously, for
this it reserves the melodramatic conŽrmation of the ending, which shows that
Paulina was right in her identiŽcation of Miranda’s voice. But this conŽrmation
only emerges, however, with the torturer’s confession, and is only valid inasmuch as it
comes from his own mouth. Moreover, this is the only possible way out for the Žlm,
since whatever the resolution of the status of Paulina’s testimony (truth or a lie,
true despite her being mad, or because she is mad), this can only be cleared up
with the torturer’s veriŽcation.
What is at issue here is what Foucault maps as proper to the juridico-discur-
sive paradigm of truth, the equation between what is true and what is
confessed. Such an equation is not only presupposed by the Žlm, but is
transposed in a sordid manner into the torturer’s confession, placed at the end
as the key to the resolution of the pseudo-suspense constructed at the cost of
stereotyping the female character. Throughout the Žlm, Paulina’s irrational
body, her hystericized experience, is incapable of completely convincing the
virtual spectator (the spectator imagined by the Žlm) of Miranda’s guilt. In
reality, it is the presumption of a lack of resolution to this question that
represents the only invitation that the Žlm gives us to carry on watching. The
spectator imagined by the Žlm would therefore be a replica of Gerardo, the
husband, the ingenuous, foolish liberal who is incapable of learning the truth
that his hysterical wife screams out. The pseudo-feminism of the resolution is
of a piece, then, with the pathetic, caricatured portrait of the husband. He
comes over as almost mentally retarded, incapable of seeing the absolutely
obvious and incapable of believing his wife who went through torture on his
behalf. Nevertheless, he is oddly capable of being the head of a commission on
human rights set up by the post-dictatorship government, and yet at the same
time does not know what any Latin American would know about torture: the
torture of women invariably includes rape and sexual violence. In other words,
in trying to be feminist, the Polanski/Dorfman Žlm constructs a couple com-
posed of an hysteric and an idiot. The only one of Dorfman’s gallery of
characters who is not pathological, the only one who is rationally credible, the
only one who reasons and is plausible, then, is the torturer—a fact which has
important theoretical and political consequences. The work, which claims to be
a validation of the experience of the woman who has been tortured, Žnishes up
being a sordid psychology of the torturer, crowned by the image of the
‘ordinary paterfamilias’ who attends a concert with his wife and children, the
odious shot that closes the Žlm.
The greater part of the Žlm is devoted to the grotesque ‘cage of justice’ that
Paulina creates. After pushing Miranda’s car over the cliff, she overpowers him
266 I. Avelar

and ties him to a chair. Hysterical and screaming, she demands a confession. Her
husband oscillates between defending the torturer and asking for a ‘fair trial’.
Talking in private with her husband on the porch, Paulina confesses to him that
she was raped by the doctor who is now tied up. Paulina has omitted the ‘detail’
of the rape during her previous conversations with Gerardo, and now confesses,
a signiŽcant fact and one that reinforces the sordid paradigms of the Žlm,
equating torturer and tortured under the sign of confession. The conversation
between Paulina and Gerardo is as follows:
‘I want him… to talk to me, I want him to confess.’
‘To confess?’
‘Yes, I want… I want to have him on video, confessing everything he
did, not just to me but to all of us.’
‘And after he’s confessed, you let him go.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
The husband who utters this ‘I don’t believe you’ is the same person who has
just received Paulina’s confession that she has been raped, which thus becomes
completely invalidated. Such an implausible cretinization of the male character
(with a consequent devaluation of the female) contrasts with the cinematic
atmosphere of production of truth that surrounds the torturer’s confession at the
end, after an hour or so’s denials (with alibis and the whole arsenal of lies, said
in such a ‘convincing’ way as to keep the spectator ‘in suspense’). Such an
atmosphere of the production of truth is constructed through a series of
technical clichés, which are used by the Žlm to validate the torturer’s confession,
and confer on it the status of resolution: its placing at the Žnale, presumably
resolving a dramatic tension, the ecstatic close-up of Ben Kingsley, his ‘human-
ized’ face, marked by emotion, the schlock muzak in the background, the rain
on his face, the confession of ‘feelings’ (‘I enjoyed it, I was excited’), and Žnally,
the whole pathetic, melodramatic apparatus that produces the truth of the
torturer’s confession, that forces us, as spectators, to read his confession as true,
and implicitly to equate what is confessed with what is true. The equation
between confession and truth is not something singular and unique to Dorfman
and Polanski’s Žlm—in reality such an equation characterizes the modern
episteme as such, if we follow Foucault in this matter. What is most singular
about the Žlm is the literality of its staging of the torturer’s fantasy, the power
of reducing confession and truth to a crude rape, to a coarse metaphor of
penetration, that is to reduce the issue of torture to the psychology of the
torturer. Liberal, confessional Hollywood cinema dreams that it gives us the
truth about torture precisely at the moment in which its melodrama stages the
torturer’s confession. Never has the equation of confession and truth taken a
more obscene form.12

Fifth Thesis: Torture and Truth

Torture and Truth is a revolutionary book by Page DuBois (1991) about the
judicial practice of torture in the production of the western philosophical notion
of truth. The book starts from a premise that is recognizably rooted in the
Benjaminian insistence that the document of culture is inseparable from the
Five Theses on Torture 267

document of barbarism. DuBois states: ‘So-called high culture—philosophical,

forensic, civil discourses and practices—is of a piece, from the beginning, from
classical antiquity, with the deliberate iniction of human suffering’ (p. 4). In the
speciŽc case of Torture and Truth, it is a question of mapping the process through
which, in the Athenian polis, the body of the slave is juridically converted into
the place of torture and at the same time the place of truth. DuBois traces the
path of the Greek word which designates torture, basanos, from its oldest uses as
the ‘touchstone that tests gold’, then ‘a test which deŽnes whether something is
genuine or real’, to its Žnal speciŽc meaning as ‘interrogation through torture’,
and ‘torture’, in a trajectory that includes Homeric epic, the aristocratic poets
(Theognis, Pindar), the tragedians (Sophocles and Aeschylus), Aristophanes’
satire, Herodotus’ historiography, the discourses of Demosthenes, Lycurgus and
Antiphon, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is a broad map, but what is
traced through it is the constitutive link between torture and truth, a central
chapter of any project for the history of truth conceived in a Nietzschean
We know that in Greek democracy, the juridical testimony of the slave is
equated with truth if and only if such testimony is extracted under torture
(basanos). We also know that it is the master’s prerogative whether he will offer
his slave to the practice of torture, which latter cannot be applied to citizens, to
free men. DuBois demonstrates that the practice thus acts to Žx and control the
very instability that exists in the binary between citizen and slave. The separ-
ation between free men and slaves can never be completely naturalized, for two
reasons. Today’s free men could be converted through defeat in war into
tomorrow’s slaves, and Greek thought could never found the social fact of
slavery in a biological or ontological way; it could never justify it in terms of a
predetermined essence, despite Aristotle’s best efforts (which ounder, it has to
be said, in the attempt to ground in some essential manner the slave and the free
man). DuBois argues that in the uses of the word basanos we can see a strong
attempt to Žx the division between citizen and slave through the practice of
torture. The slave is that person who can be tortured. And why are slaves
tortured? Because out of torture (basanos) emerges truth (alêtheia).
It is Demosthenes who most clearly articulates the justiŽcation for the practice
of torture in ancient Greece, with the argument that ‘no statements made as a
result of basanos have ever proved to be untrue’ (30.37 qtd. Du Bois 50). In
reality, it is not a question of justiŽcation, since the desirability and necessity of
torture practised on the slave in court is not, for Greek thought, something
which needs explicit defence: it belongs to the realm of the unsaid, that which
is delimited in advance as presupposed and taken for granted, something which
does not become a topic of thought.13 In Lycurgus, the equation between the
practice of torture and the revelation of truth (when, and only when the witness
is a slave) also needs no rhetorical defence. In order to prove Leocrates’ guilt,
Lycurgus tells us that he made an offer that the proof in the case would depend
on Leocrates’ own slaves being tortured. The accused’s rejection of this offer
proves his guilt without any doubt since ‘naturally [kata physin] when they [the
slaves] had been tortured they would have told the whole truth [pasan tên
alêtheian] about the crimes’.14 The fact that one should torture slaves and the fact
that truth will be revealed through their torture are never in question.
DuBois’s hypothesis is that the operation of the discursive apparatus that
268 I. Avelar

installs the body of the slave as a body that can be tortured (and not only as a
body that can be tortured but as necessarily truthful when tortured) has played
a role in the very constitution of the concept of alêtheia. The problem would be,
then, the relation between the slave’s testimony as an instance of the establish-
ment of juridical truth, as an instance of alêtheia which emerges as the resolution
to a struggle, and the conception of truth as buried essence, static, hidden, to be
unveiled and brought to light, extracted from an unknown interior that knowl-
edge attempts to penetrate, in the habitually sexualized Greek metaphor. There
is an organic relation, not merely historical but conceptual, between these two
processes, since the truth that is produced in the slave’s testimony only emerges,
by deŽnition, in the interior of the basanos. Basanos dissolves resistance, brings to
light, drags into visibility and into provability. It replicates in the architecture of
the metaphor deployed to describe it, the very same movement of the philoso-
pher who drags truth from its condition as buried and unknown. If such a
movement cannot but evoke the juridical process of truth through the slave,
neither is it devoid of operational effectivity in the production of gender
difference. We know about the extensive connections that Greek poetry and
philosophy established between alêtheia and ‘hiddenness, secrecy, female poten-
tiality, the tempting enclosed interiority of the human body, links with both
treasure and death, with the mysteries of the other’ (1991, p. 91). Both woman
and slave are receptacles, containers of truth, but they themselves do not have
access to it as subjects: their function is to provide such access to the free man,
to the citizen. Truth is never constituted independently of the abjection of these
It is in Plato’s dialogue The Sophist where we can best see the link between the
extortion of truth (realized by the philosopher on the sophist, through which the
former brings to light the truth that the latter, of course, remains unconscious of)
and the process described by Demosthenes, Antiphon and others, as character-
istic of the juridical production of truth through the body of the slave: ‘the best
way to obtain a confession of the truth would be to put the statement itself to
a mild degree of torture [basanistheis]’ (237b). The relationship that DuBois calls
attention to here is that ‘like the slave, the Sophist yields truth only under
violent interrogation and stress’ (1991, p. 115). DuBois suggests that we could
map an antidemocratic conception of truth in Greek thought, as that which is
unveiled through the body of the other. Such a conception is implicated in the
instrumentalization of the other in the philosophical route towards a truth that
is already reiŽed, buried, in need of being dragged into the light. Clearly, the
process cannot fail to evoke torture, basanos in its legal context, to such an extent
that the following question would clearly be justiŽed: to what extent does the
very conception of truth which is installed in western philosophy take us back
to this procedure carried out on a bastard body? The Platonic metaphor
transforms the Sophist’s argument into a body that must undergo suffering,
harassment by the attack of Logos. Logic and dialectic are arts of torture, are
implicated in it, and are so theorized in Plato in a very explicit way, in the very
moment of their constitution and systemization.
Our itinerary through Foucault, Scarry and DuBois unfolds a double project,
or perhaps two projects that, at points in their trajectories, have to coincide: (1)
the interminable (unrealizable in its totality, but unavoidable as a horizon)
Nietzschean project of the reconstitution, design, elaboration, recounting, and
Five Theses on Torture 269

reimagination of what has been the history of truth in the West—and not only,
and not exclusively in the West, since such a history, of course, could not be
given without calling into question the very process through which the frontiers
of the ‘West’ are constituted and named; (2) the study, critical dissection and
arraignment of the discursive apparatus—philosophical, legal, literary, sociolog-
ical—that has justiŽed torture, and which, as such, is not innocent in the
constitution of the history of truth described in (1), given the historical and
conceptual connections between the practice of torture and the production of
truth. The hunting and cornering of the Sophist in Plato, just like the defeat
imposed on doubt by Descartes, represents a privileged moment of the
metaphorization of truth as imprisonment. Such an imprisonment—we know
from Irigaray and Butler—is not only sexualized, but also founds the sexual as
such. It founds the masculine, the marked term, just as much as the feminine,
which comes to be, precisely, as the moment abjected by the masculine, as its
unavoidable supplement (the masculine in its turn, of course, does not pre-exist
such an act, but is constituted in it). In other words: the very production of the
opposition masculine/feminine takes place by resort to the privileged metaphor
of being caught, locked up, circumscribed as interiority (and at the same time
revealed as truth which is detached from such a container, brought to light, in
a process of extortion).
From this we can derive a project of inŽnite re-reading, which is where we
would conclude: in the very foundation of sexual difference (its invention, its
constitution, its initial coming to intelligibility) we will Žnd a fundamental,
constitutive chapter both of the history of torture and of the history of truth. We
should not underestimate the constitutive tie that binds these two histories

Translated by Philip Derbyshire

1. See especially: Willy Thayer, La crisis no moderna de la universidad moderna: Epõ´logo del
conicto de las facultades (Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 1996); Nelly Richard, Residuos y metáforas:
Ensayos de crõ´tica cultural sobre el Chile de la transición (Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 1998);
Alberto Moreiras, Tercer espacio: Literartura y duelo en América Latina (Santiago: ARCIS-LOM,
1999); Idelber Avelar, Alegorõ´as de la derrota: La Žcción postdictatorial y el trabajo del duelo
(Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 2000).
2. Only after having formulated this sentence, thought it through again, projected a whole reading
of Scarry’s book on the back of it, and then having survived the various rewritings of this article,
did I realize that it almost exactly reproduced the formulation in which Page DuBois expressed
his disagreement in his Torture and Truth, p. 148. I keep the initially unconscious citation as a
tribute to DuBois’s notable book.
3. Michel Foucault, ‘La Verité et les formes juridiques’, in Dits et écrits, II, p. 586. We have here the
odd fact that a text by Foucault of signal importance was only available until 1994, unless I am
mistaken, in Portuguese (original publication 1974, in a series of talks given at the Catholic
University of Rio de Janeiro between 21 and 23 May 1973) and in Spanish (trans. by E. Lynch
in 1980). Now in retrospect, with the publication of the complete Dits et écrits, we can see much
more clearly just how important this text was in Foucault’s thought: it gives the best exposition
of the battle between two conceptions of truth–the mapping of truth as proof, game, contest (in
Homeric epic, and, defeated, in Sophoclean tragedy) against a notion of truth as an unveiling,
dragged, brought to light (in the practice of interrogation). The unfolding of these two poles in
270 I. Avelar

all their malleability, accompanied by a rigorous dismantling of the progressive-mythic concep-

tion of law constitutes central themes of the text. For its length, the radical nature of its
hypotheses, the force of its formulations and its success as a text synthesizing the author’s
genealogical project, it has an importance comparable with The History of Sexuality and Discipline
and Punish. The radical nature of the text as an alternative reading of Oedipus (no longer as a
history of desire and repression but as a staging of the relation between the production of truth
and the constitution of power) had already been noted by Julio Ramos in 1989. See Desencuentros
de la modernidad en América Latina, pp. 233–234. Unless I am mistaken this text has never been
dealt with in the dozens of books on Foucault published in the USA, and has only just now been
dealt with into English in 2000 with the publication of the third volume of the Essential Works
(a partial translation of Dits et écrits).
4. See Jacques Derrida ‘Le dernier mot du racisme’, in Psyche: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée,
5. Walter Benjamin, ‘On Language as such and on the Language of Man’, in One Way Street,
pp. 107–123.
6. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 46.
7. Dori Laub, ‘Truth and Testimony: the Process and the Struggle’, in Trauma: Explorations in
Memory, ed. by Cathy Caruth, p. 64.
8. I refer to ‘The house is in order’, the manuscript of a talk given at Duke University in 1994. I
do not know if Tununa has ever published a version of this text.
9. As is well known, this is a Žlm, directed by Roman Polanski, based on the stage play of the same
name by Ariel Dorfman. The screenplay was a collaboration between Rafael Yglesias and Ariel
Dorfman. Dorfman himself was present during the Žlming, and Žnished up granting the Žlm a
10. Among the expressions that obscure rather than clarify the understanding of this process, I
count the term ‘French feminism’. Concerning the problem of truth and sexual difference, it
would be necessary to distinguish between the positions of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray not
only as different but as radically opposed. As Judith Butler shows, Kristeva accepts in advance
the distinction between rationality (the symbolic, the masculine, the phallic) and the corporeal
undifferentiated of the khora (the semiotic, the feminine) and then goes on to romanticize this
latter as the source of subversion, precisely in terms of the attributes conferred on it by the
Platonic binarization, which remains unquestioned. In Irigaray, however, we Žnd another
position, quite different: a process of genealogical investigation of the constitution of binarism
itself, which reveals the coming-into-being of the opposition reason—body as a process insepar-
able from the emergence of a presupposed and normative masculinity, and the subjection of a
‘feminine’ which does not pre-exist such an operation but which is itself constituted as well
within it. In Irigaray as opposed to Kristeva, there is no prior anteriority of the khora that can
be recovered and recouped. Reading Irigaray, of course, takes us much further than the pious
and redemptive Christianization of psychoanalysis that Kristeva proposes. For the development
of such a dispute, see Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter, especially the remarkable essay that gives
the collectio n its name, pp. 27–55.
11. One more peculiar reference, of course, is what Sigourney Weaver does when they kidnap her
in front of the ‘bookshops’ on ‘Huérfanos street’. The reference is appalling, since (1) it is
incomprehensible for those who are not familiar with the geography of the centre of Santiago,
and (2) for those who can recognize the reference, there is little more than the feeling that the
experience of the street has been profoundly betrayed.
12. Of course, Latin American theatre and literature have known other representations of the
convergence of confession and truth. Although it sets out from less odious and reductive ethical
and narrative premises, Mario Benedetti’s theatrical works about torture share with Dorfman’s
work the naive and romantic belief in truth as something that can be uttered in confession, and
in the awfulness of torture as something that can be negotiated discursively. See Pedro y el
13. Amongst the many examples cited by DuBois, see especially Antiphonus (6.23, 6.25).
14. Against Lycurgus, p. 32. For this text, and for all the other quoted Greek sources, we
refer the reader to the virtual library Perseus, an already considerable archive of Classical
works in the original and in English translation, run by Tufts University. See http://
Five Theses on Torture 271

Idelber Avelar, The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
Mario Benedetti, Pedro y el capitán (México: Nueva Imagen, 1979).
Walter Benjamin, ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’, in One Way Street and Other
Writings, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: New Left Books, 1979).
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990).
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York and London: Routledge,
Cathy Caruth, ‘Preface’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore and
London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Death and the Maiden, dir. by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias
Jacques Derrida, ‘Le dernier mot du racisme’, in Psyche: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987).
Page DuBois, Torture and Truth (New York and London: Routledge, 1991).
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Allen
Lane, 1977).
Michel Foucault, ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’, in Power: the Essential Works of Michel Foucault, III, ed.
by James Faubion, trans. by Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 2001).
Luce Irigaray, This Sex which is not One, trans. by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1985).
Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. by Carolyn Burke (London: Athlone Press, 1993).
Franz Kafka, The Collected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988).
Dori Laub, ‘Truth and Testimony: the Process and the Struggle’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory,
ed. by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 117–148.
Tununa Mercado, ‘La casa está en orden’, unpublished manuscript.
Alberto Moreiras, Tercer Espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina (Santiago: ARCIS-LOM, 1999).
Nelly Richard, Residuos y metáforas: Ensayos de crõ´tica cultural sobre el Chile de la Transición (Santiago:
Cuarto Propio, 1998).
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1985).
Willy Thayer, La crisis no moderna de la universidad moderna (Epõ´logo del conicto de las facultades)
(Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 1996).
Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997).