Printer Friendly

Torture as rhetoric.

Proponents and opponents of torture have made use of diverse rhetorics to argue their respective cases before the general public. Diverse texts focused on the issue also reveal that, while the "War on Terror" may have created an upsurge in interest in the topic, these debates are long-standing. Yet across this broad swath of discourse, a distinctive theme emerges, one that demands additional consideration by scholars of communication--torture itself as an embodied rhetoric. I believe that analysis of the rhetorical situation where juridical discourse transforms into corporeal reality through the application of pain provides a unique opportunity for exploring the disruption of standard notions of audience and rhetor, individuality and commonality, shedding light on how these dyads are reconfigured by contexts of forced identification and dissociation.


Elaine Scarry describes torture as a powerful (and power-full) act with the capacity to destroy a person's self-identity. It can even affect his or her ability to construct reality. Comparing the agony of torture with other forms of ritualized pain, such as those associated with religious practices, Scarry determines that there is no expiatory effect that then permits "the return of the world itself' (1985, p. 34). This kind of pain can only destroy or erase, because it does not encourage a purification and renewal of perspective that nonetheless acknowledges the individual's subjectivity; instead, torture destroys a person's perspectival frameworks to realign their subjectivity with that of another. Seemingly, those tortured have the ability to ease their suffering through confession or surrender, but they have no real control over the duration and intensity of experienced and expected agony. This control which other forms of ritualized pain can foster, Scarry suggests, allows individuals to maintain individual agency. But the pain of torture denies that and, in rendering the tortured person's body a weapon or threat against itself, torture realizes "an almost obscene conflation of private and public" (p. 53). It erases fundamental boundaries between a person and his or her tormenters that encourage self-preservation, and so proves a highly efficient rhetoric that aligns the will of the receiver with that of the "rhetor."

Consubstantiality occurs when individuals come together for a common purpose based on perceived commonality; rhetors create consubstantiality by persuading their audiences that their interests and those of the many are joined (Burke 1969). Through identification of "common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes," consubstantiality arises as the sharing of "substance" through an "acting-together" (p. 21). Identification also depends on an appreciation of dissociation, which stresses division rather than unity. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain that identification invokes dissociation automatically--since "the same form which unites various elements ... dissociates them from the neutral background" (2006, p. 190)--and vice versa, although one or the other may be emphasized in argumentation. Notably, identification and dissociation are only possible when a sense of self as an integral individual is upheld, when one's own ideals and beliefs can be compared to those of others.

Torture deliberately disrupts these processes by mystifying basic divisions between the "rhetor" and his or her "audience." As the victim incorporates the aims of the tormentor through physical coercion, the torturer's power transforms into material reality even as the individual remains the "actual cause of his [own] pain" (Scarry, p. 47). By producing the illusion that he or she has the power to end the pain, the values of the oppressor become embodied expression. And, the victim's body becomes the instrument of his or her own torment. This process highlights the break of the individual's body from the private self, shattering the holistic terministic screen through which reality is constructed and interpreted. Torture manipulates how consubstantiality and dissociation are utilized by individuals as a means of making sense of the world, disrupting these processes within the self (and possibly outside the self by separating the individual from his or her community in siding with the tormentor).


Torture also functions to create communities exclusive of the tortured individual through mystification of the victim's shared human corporeality with the public. As a rule, torture is regarded as categorically appalling, even by those regimes that view it as a necessary evil; this universal supposition proves the basis of torture's efficacy as a cruel tool of coercion. As Foucault states in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the idea that a tortured individual should experience more suffering than members of the general public seems natural only because most identify punishment with supplementary pain (Foucault, 1995), and certainly, punishment is assumed to be deserved. Since it is generally assumed that torture grates against the moral values inherent to any society, even that of the torturer, and that extraordinary circumstances alone dictate its need, the tortured individual's body is framed as exempt from that order even as the value system of that society is implicitly established as legitimate. The rhetorical effects of torture are increased through a visual or imagined spectacle that permits members of the social order to empathize with the tortured's pain and yet perceive themselves as consubstantial in mutual dissociation from the person deserving of such pain. Consequently, the embodied rhetoric of torture reaches broad audiences even in the absence of physical pain; its persuasive power extends beyond the tortured body to influence those seemingly distanced from it ideologically. The public is one of torture's main audiences, as consubstantiality is created between the torturer and the many through a generalized sense of dissociation from the tortured on the basis of a presumed social decency.

And yet, torture establishes an ethical connection between the tortured and the public that cannot be easily ignored, despite deliberate attempts at dissociation. This matter is perhaps best summed up by the illustrative situation presented in Kafka's (1995) short story "In the Penal Colony." An official observer arrives in a prison camp where a machine inscribes prisoners' crimes on their bodies in a deliberately drawn-out process that forces the condemned to "understand the inscription" through corporeal discernment (p. 150). Although the explorer finds this abhorrent, he fears speaking out against the machine in an official capacity. When the officer in charge of the machine kills himself, the explorers run away--even threatening a condemned man in his haste to escape the island. Kafka's story highlights how the explorer allows his social standing to silence his repugnance. It also implicates the observer and reader alike for preferring to ignore the state-sanctioned torture and the humanity of its victims. Any notion of a neutral stance on this issue is fraught with culpability, a lingering effect of the ambivalence that permits the public to identify with the tortured person's pain while seeking to rationalize it.


Along those same lines, constant media exposure to visual and verbal rhetorics surrounding the ongoing "War on Terror" ensures that few among us can claim complete ignorance of the public conversation on torture. Much of the discourse has centered on the potential gains or drawbacks of using torture as a tool of interrogation. Those who would argue for torture as a viable option proffer hypothetical situations contingent on convergent utilitarian moral quandaries (Scharf 2008; Walzer 1973; Yemeni 2013), including the well-known "ticking time-bomb scenario" that asks whether one would be willing to torture an alleged terrorist if he or she had valuable information that, if obtained, could save countless lives. In contrast, critics of torture prefer to focus on torture's inability to secure useful information or on the torture victim's basic humanity, a matter summarily dismissed by the simplistic pronouncement that terrorists deserve harsh treatment (Langbein 1978, 2004; Twiss 2007; Neier and Martinez 2007).

I suggest that if we are to ponder the effects of torture on a person's humanity, we must consider not only how political discourses construct bodies as deserving of torture, but the effects of torture on the everyday material experience of individuals. Interrogational torture proves at a most basic level a highly effective means of persuasion, a corporealized rhetoric of world-shattering power (Scarry 1985; Parry 2004). Therefore, we must consider the epistemological violence inflicted upon its multiple audiences, for an ethical consideration of rhetoric entails scrutinizing its effects on any imagined audience. The victim's standpoint cannot be ignored in discussions about torture as a mode of questioning, nor can that of the public implicated by its practice; only by examining these perspectives can we determine the vast extent of torture's power. In looking at the use of interrogational torture as a form of rhetoric that blurs boundaries between one's body and those of others--the torturer, the tortured and society at large--I suggest that torture creates new forms of consubstantiality and dissociation that mystify the division between the self and others. This may complicate the horizons of a victim's and torturer's identities and objectives, as well as those of the individual and his or her society, even though these distinctions prove crucial to ethical rhetorical exchange.


Eduardo Galeano states that "[s]ince the days of the Inquisition it has been clear that the information obtained through torture is not credible, or barely so, for the simple reason that pain transforms anyone into a prolific author of fiction" (2005, p. 5). Surely that has held true for a lot of the unfortunate souls, past and present, who have endured torture during the course of interrogation, and it is not beyond the understanding of any torturer to know that those subjected to an inordinate amount of pain might formulate a narrative or an accusation to impede further pain. Thus, one may question flatly the application of a rhetoric that does not guarantee that which it supposedly seeks-the acquisition of useful information.

Beyond pragmatic inquiry into torture's efficacy, however, we must contend with the more subtle aims of torture that include the demonstration of the torturer's ability to reorganize the logics of reality via threats to the tortured person's body. Because the tortured body is framed as contiguous and simultaneously juxtaposed against the bodies that compose the body politic, the everyday principles of consubstantiality and dissociation that serve as the foundation for humanity's individual and communal identities are distorted. As a result, one individual or group may impose its will on another by forcing the tortured party to force him- or herself into acquiescence. Even the basic human drive to act selfishly to preserve the self is turned against the object of supposed preservation by a rhetoric that exploits the embodied experience of its audiences to make them their own persuaders. Consequently, torture as an interrogative technique emerges as efficient yet unethical, as one of the worst cases of "evil rhetoric" (Weaver, 1965) imaginable.

Key Words: torture, embodied rhetoric, dissociation, consubstantiality


Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Random House.

Galeano, E. (2005). Confessions of the torturer. New internationalist, 5.

Kafka, F. (1995). In the penal colony. In N. N. Glatzer (Ed.), Franz Kafka: The complete stories (W. Muir & E. Muir, Trans.) (pp. 140-167). New York, NY: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1919)

Langbein, J. H. (1978). Torture and plea bargaining. Faculty Scholarship Series [Paper 543]. Retrieved from

Langbein, J. H. (2004). The legal history of torture. In S. Levinson (Ed.), Torture: A collection (pp. 93-103). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Neier, A., & Martinez, J. S. (2007). Torture, human rights, and terrorism. CLAS Working Papers, Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley. Retrieved from TortureTerrorismWeb.pdf

Perelman, C, & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (2006). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation. (J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver, Trans.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1958)

Scarry, E. (1985). The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Scharf, M. P. (2008). Tainted provenance: When, if ever, should torture evidence be admissible? Washington and Lee Law Review, 55(1), 129-172. Retrieved from

Twiss, S. B. (2007). Torture, justification, and human rights: Toward an absolute proscription. Human Rights Quarterly 29(2), 346-367.

Walzer, M. (1973). Political action: The problem of dirty hands. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2(2), 160-80. Retrieved from

Weaver, R. (1965). The ethics of rhetoric. Chicago, IL: Gateway.

Yemini, M. (2013). Conflictual moralities, ethical torture: Revisiting the problem of "dirty hands". Ethical theory and moral practice, 1-18. doi: 10.1007/s 10677-013-9429-0

Christina Cedillo is an assistant professor at Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christina Cedillo, BALA 282, 3100 E. New Orleans St., Broken Arrow, OK 74014-3501.
COPYRIGHT 2014 American Forensic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cedillo, Christina
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Towards a rhetorical understanding of incitement: unfinished conversations with James Arnt Aune.
Next Article:"Forcing" and "consenting" social struggle: reflections on rhetoric and Jacobinism.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters