Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.07

Jennifer R. Ballengee, The Wound and the Witness. The Rhetoric of Torture.   Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2009.  Pp. ix, 190.  ISBN 9781438424910.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Nicolas Wiater, University of St Andrews (


[The reviewer apologizes for the delay of the review.]

This book sets out to examine the representation of torture in literature with particular emphasis on its persuasive or rhetorical effect on those who witness acts of torture (under which category Ballengee also subsumes the victims of torture and the torturer him/herself, p. 7). ‘[T]his study’, Ballengee explains on p. 1, ‘focuses on the representation of torture in order to examine the persuasive potential of torture as a rhetorical device. [...] For [...] the audience, or the witness, is the key element in the “successful” practice of torture in its political province’.

After an introduction (pp. 1-16) in which Ballengee speculates about torture as a carrier of meaning and its effect on the ‘witness’, she examines the function of the representation of torture in a series of ancient texts: Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone (ch. 1); Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus (ch. 2); Achilleus Tatius' Leukippe and Kleitophon (ch. 3); and Prudentius' Peristephanon Liber (ch. 4). The book concludes with an epilogue.

While the subject is interesting and the role of bodily suffering in these texts well deserves (further) investigation and discussion, this book left me doubtful as to whether torture provides a helpful conceptual framework for addressing this question. (The notion of the ‘witness’, on the other hand, seems more promising as a concept for exploring the specific reader response created by representations of torture.)

The core of the problem is that Ballengee never actually defines what she means by torture and how it differs from other forms of violence. As a result, there is a considerable discrepancy between the notion of torture as it emerges from her introduction and the concrete examples of bodily suffering and violence she discusses in the rest of her study. Moreover, her approach to the rhetoric of torture and the way in which torture conveys meaning seems problematic for reasons I will explain below. There are also some methodological problems, in particular the fact that Ballengee limits her discussion of the ‘persuasive potential’ of ‘torture’ to the reactions of characters in the literary works witnessing acts of violence. The ways in which such representations of both torture and reactions to it might affect recipients of texts in which acts of torture are described play no significant role in her study, and the ‘ethical implications of the audience's part in the rhetorical function of torture’ (p. 10) remain, despite her statement to the contrary, largely unexplored. The only exception is the epilogue, where Ballengee discusses reactions to the images of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison – but these, of course, are not literary texts and hence, strictly speaking, out of the ‘primary focus’ [p. 3] of her investigation.

In her introduction, Ballengee defines her book as a response to the controversy over the use of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 (p. 1). On the next page she refers to Aristotle's discussion of basanos to support her claim that torture ‘has a persuasive or rhetorical potential’. While the references to Abu Ghraib and Athenian legal practice as well as expressions such as ‘political province’ suggest that this book is about torture applied by an acknowledged institution of power (such as the state or community of the polis) or its representatives (the soldiers in Abu Ghraib) as an instrument to achieve goals (allegedly) in the interest of this institution, Ballengee's focus turns out to be on ‘literary genres’: ‘The choice of texts reflects the primary focus of my investigation, which examines how torture is represented to an audience, not how torture actually inflicts pain upon its victim’ (p. 3).

Two criteria are implied by the above statements which seem to be fundamental to Ballengee's conception of torture: communication and intentionality. The former is suggested by her emphasis on the importance of the ‘witness’ and the ‘persuasive’ purpose of torture. The latter follows from this emphasis on communication, which makes sense only if we also suppose that there is an agent who intentionally employs torture to send a message the meaning of which s/he thinks s/he can control (Ballengee's ‘“successful” practice of torture’, above). (This does not imply that the message will necessarily be correctly interpreted by the addressee, though.) Ballengee thus seems to conceive of torture as an infliction of pain employed by an agent (private or public) with the express purpose of communicating a message to a (group of) recipient(s).

While such a communicative aspect of torture is important, defining it as the distinctive characteristic of torture is methodologically difficult: to begin with, not every act of torture is performed in order to send a message, or as Ballengee puts it on p. 6, to convey ‘an essential, ideological “truth” [...] by means of the representation of torture’. (Here, as elsewhere, Ballengee does not clearly distinguish between effects of acute acts of torture on those who witness them and effects of textual depictions of torture on the recipients of those texts: ‘the sight of the tortured body in literature, as in its political context, bears a nonlinguistic message [...]’, p. 6.) Moreover, the same passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric cited by Ballengee (1376b31- 1377a7) points to a fundamental problem with the ‘rhetorics of torture’ which Ballengee acknowledges (p. 51) but the significance of which she does not explore: in Aristotle, torture seems to be bound up with two different messages. On the one hand, there is the assumption that statements made under torture are trustworthy because they are forced (ἀνάγνκη, 1376b31- 2). I presume that this is what Ballengee would classify as an ‘ideological “truth”’, although she never defines what she means by this expression, either. On the other hand, Aristotle points out that torture is, in fact, worthless as a means of establishing the truth because the judges know ( ἴσασιν οἱ κρίνοντες) that ‘in duress, people are as likely to tell the truth as to lie’. Thus in torture the ‘ideological “truth”’ conveyed is overshadowed by another, involuntary yet unavoidable, message which undermines this ‘truth’. Used in an official context, torture thus carries an inherently and necessarily ambiguous message and therefore cannot be effectively employed to convey this (or any) ‘ideological “truth”’ in the first place. This renders the idea of torture as a means of communication rather problematic, as the message to be sent can obviously not be controlled by the sender (a fact, Aristotle makes clear, that was known at the very least to those who later based their judgment on statements obtained under torture: ἴσασιν οἱ κρίνοντες ); effectively, torture undermines its own potential as a rhetorical means of persuasion. (The Christian martyrs, discussed in chapter 3, are a good example of how the intended message of torture is turned into its opposite.)

Although Ballengee is aware of this problem, which she calls the ‘polysemy’ of torture, or ‘the fact that the body in pain may communicate a number of different associations or messages’ (p. 10), she seems uncomfortable with the idea of an uncontrollable multitude of meanings of torture, probably because it jeopardizes her assertion, quoted above, that torture conveys ‘an essential, ideological “truth”’ (p. 6). In fact, in the course of the study the ‘polysemy’ of torture, that is, the fact that torture cannot be employed to send a single unambiguous message, is re-interpreted as a particular advantage of torture as a means of persuasion: ‘the inherent ambiguity’ of torture, she states on p. 143, ‘makes it a particularly effective and malleable rhetorical tool’ (cf. p. 9).

These contradictions within Ballengee’s theoretical framework result in a discrepancy between her theoretical introduction and the concrete analysis of the texts. To take only one example, despite her observation that ‘torture is [...] apt to fail at sending one particular and clear message’ (p. 10), in her reading of the Oedipus Rex she speaks of ‘the body as proof— that is [...] the resolution of uncertain knowledge in bodily terms’: according to this interpretation, Oedipus' self-mutilation (whether this and other forms of violence discussed by Ballengee qualify as torture in the first place is a question which will be addressed below) is far from being semantically polyvalent; on the contrary, Oedipus uses his own body as undoubtable proof, or as Ballengee puts it on p. 41, ‘as a locus of certainty in the midst of a fog of ambiguity that otherwise clouds events and knowledge of the play’ (p. 42).

Generally speaking, Ballengee's discussion of the ancient texts lacks focus and is only loosely connected to the idea of ‘torture’ as an intentional act of communication through violence. For example, of the 18 pages she dedicates to the discussion of ‘torture’ in the Oedipus Rex, effectively only 7 actually deal with ‘torture’, namely Oedipus' self-punishment. The rest of the chapter is little more than a summary of the action of the play. A similar lack of proportion between summary and literary analysis is characteristic also of chapters 1 and 3.

More serious is the problem of definition: I fail to see how Oedipus' death in the Oedipus at Colonus(if it is simply a death—the uncertainty of what exactly happens to Oedipus and how this uncertainty affects his daughters is an important aspect of the plot but is not addressed by Ballengee), the corpse of Polynices in Antigone, or even Oedipus' self-inflicted mutilation in the Oedipus Rex qualifies as ‘torture’ at all. Of course, both Creon's treatment of Polynices' corpse and Oedipus' self-blinding are symbolically charged (a point Sophocles is not particularly subtle about in either play); but neither Oedipus' death/ transfiguration at Colonus nor Creon's treatment of Polynices' corpse is an act of violence inflicted by one party on another as an intentionally employed means of persuasion. In the Oedipus Rex, on the other hand, the violence is self-inflicted and the message this violence is supposed to convey is (even by Ballengee's reading) a bodily explication of a situation the meaning of which has already been determined (note especially 1182: τὰ πάντ' ἂν ἐξήκοι σαφῆ). In other words, while Oedipus does use his body as a medium to represent forcefully what he has become through the revelations in the course of the play, there is no persuasion involved. On the contrary, Oedipus' self-mutilation makes sense and is readable by others only because it is a reiteration of the results of the preceding investigations. It is not Oedipus' body that provides the proof—rather, the irreversibility of the mutilation embodies the consequence and irrefutability of the proof.

The only text, then, which is more or less linked with Ballengee's explanations in the introduction and which does represent actual acts of torture is Tertullian's Peristephanon liber; of the chapters on ancient literature this is the one where Ballengee's approach works best.

The strength of this book, however, is the epilogue where Ballengee operates in what I assume is closer to her academic comfort zone. Although de facto only loosely connected to the preceding chapters, Ballengee’s discussion in this section provides a well- documented, nuanced and convincing analysis of the ‘rhetoric of torture’ in the context of the American ‘war against terror’. I learned a lot from Ballengee's insightful discussion of the violence commited by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison and the ways in which these images, and the concept of (politically motivated) torture were employed in different social contexts and media to different purposes.

To sum up, as a book, this study disappoints because of the methodological inconsistencies, the lack of coherence between the introduction and chapters 1 through 3, and the limited insight offered by Ballengee's discussion of the ancient texts. Nevertheless, Ballengee's attempt to embed the (near) contemporary discourse about torture in a larger, cultural and literary- historical context is interesting and important, and many of the questions she asks are worth asking. A similar project undertaken by a team of scholars from different fields might be more successful. For readers with a primary interest in these contemporary issues Ballengee's remarks on the ancient texts might be useful to get a sense of the bigger picture, although, strictly speaking, only chapter 3 deals with ‘torture’. A more comprehensive study of the issues discussed in her epilogue is highly desirable.

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