Thoughts arising from Sophie Oliver, ‘Sacred and (Sub)humanPain: The Body as Witness in Early Modern Hagiography and ContemporaryLiterature of Atrocity’, in Nancy Billias, ed., Promoting and Producing Evil (Editions Rodopi, 2010), pp. 119-137. An earlier version of this paper is available online here. In the following I draw on both versions.
Oliver contrasts the suffering of Christian martyrs with that of victims of the Rwanda genocide. She takes as her starting point Gentille’s assertion that she is ‘a body that’s decomposing, an ugly thing I don’t want you to see’, in Gil Courtemanche’s novel Un
dimanche à la piscine à Kigali (2000), translated into English as A
Sunday by the Pool in Kigali (2003), p. 257. Oliver starts from the
observation that ‘while Gentille’s story as she tells it attests to the loss of her human subjectivity, to her sub-humanity, stories of Christian sufferers bear witness to a sacred humanity attained through suffering, in particular corporeal suffering’.
She then makes the point that the outcome of suffering – the sacramentality or dehumanizing of the disfigured body – depends largely on how it is perceived by others. She cites Primo Levi’s
Se questo è un uomo (1947), translated in 1957 as If this is a Man,
as evidence of how the eyes of others have ‘a crucial and active role to play in providing psychological and emotional restitution for victims of atrocity’. Without the audience, without ‘the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity’ and ‘the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh’ – without these, ‘the saint would quite simply not be a saint’:
The apparently passive observer is always also an actor, performing – consciously or unconsciously – a specific symbolic function within the logic of the spectacle of violence and oppression enacted by the perpetrator.
Kyriakidou summarizes research suggesting that dehumanization of the victim is only one of a range of responses:
the spectator’s engagement with the distant other can vary from empathetic identification or compassion (Höijer, 2004) to the reproduction of cultural stereotypes (Philo, 2002; Philo and Berry, 2004) to hostility and de-humanisation (Butler, 2004; 2009). (Maria Kyriakidou, Watching the Pain of Others: Audience Discourses of Distant Suffering in Greece, unpublished thesis, p. 59.)
Oliver effectively conflates these different responses, asserting that ‘Abject embodied sufferers…almost always fall into the perceived character of (subhuman) other in the minds of even the most humanitarian long-distance spectators of atrocity’. Kyriakidou cites Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2001, p. 194) on ‘a general sociology of “denial and bystanding”, the essence of which is the “the active looking away, a sense of a situation so utterly hopeless and incomprehensible that we cannot
bear to think about it”’, which Oliver echoes in her characterization of the body as ‘a symbol of the inhumanity of the act of cruelty perpetrated against it’, leading to ‘The desire to look away, the wish never to have seen’.
Oliver emphasizes the semantic origins of the word ‘martyr’, noting its original sense of ‘witness’, and makes the point that ‘The Christian narrative of sacred (non) humanity, like the universalising gaze of the western, humanitarian spectator of suffering, fails, precisely, to witness, and thus deprives suffering subjects of their individual, specific experiences of pain, and the knowledge that these imply’. She wraps up her argument with the observation that ‘representations of atrocity…run the risk of symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’, and emphasizes the need for recognition of this risk; ‘an ethical reception of embodied witnessing implies…in the first instance, a self-conscious acknowledgement of the potential for dehumanisation in our own perception’, so that, instead of – consciously or unconsciously – denying the humanity of the victim, the witnesses acknowledge ‘the particularity of real experiences of suffering’ and so recognize, in its ‘terrifying specificity’, the ‘universal’ humanity of the victim of atrocity.
Oliver’s paper takes on a particular resonance in the context of the current furor over Facebook’s policy on videos of beheadings. Jenny McCartney, writing for the Telegraph, makes the telling point that
The victim in a beheading video, of course, has not given their consent either to their own murder or the filming and circulation of it, a dynamic of helplessness that applies equally to child pornography. Yet we do not circulate child pornography on the understanding that decent people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?” (‘Facebook beheading: Some videos should never be watched‘, Telegraph, November 03, 2013.)
The issue of consent probably forms a large part of the public response. Political suicides, such as that of Thich Quang Duc, who invited the press to his own public immolation, are not considered taboo in the same way, and the video of Thich Quang Duc’s death features prominently on his Facebook page.
The outcry in the present case, however, was enough to force Facebook to rethink its policy, though the portrayal of suffering and mutilated victims in the media continues to be a thorny issue. Oliver’s comparison of such portrayal with the representation of the sufferings of martyred saints throws into relief some important points, but it is – as she herself recognizes – an imperfect analogy. The martyr is a witness in the sense of bearing testimony to her faith
(rather than, as Oliver seems to understand it, as a testimony to her suffering), whereas the victims of atrocity are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and not setting out to bear testimony to anything. Thich Quang Duc’s act of self-martyrdom remains very much what martyrdom always has been. Even in the modern world, the martyr is exalted by suffering.
The debate, then, would appear to centre on three types of depiction – the voluntary suffering of the martyr, the involuntary suffering of the victim of atrocity, and the staging of involuntary suffering as spectacle. There are further distinctions to be made based on who actually inflicts the suffering; Quang Duc lit the match to burn him to death himself, the anonymous Mexican woman in the Facebook video was murdered by a criminal, and other victims may be the result of the handiwork of governments (including one’s own), dissidents, accidents and so forth.
Like the stagings of martyrdom, videos of beheadings have been orchestrated as media events, whereas cameras which capture scenes of violence and cruelty simply happen to be there. Unlike the martyr, however, the unwilling victim of cruelty is a cipher, with no choice and no voice. But there is more to it than that. The victim whose suffering is incidentally recorded can be given a voice, of sorts, by making that suffering public, by letting the world know. By contrast, the victim whose suffering is orchestrated as a media event is being mocked for her helplessness; her lack of choice and of voice is part of her humiliation.
Jenny McCartney is writing for the Telegraph, which – like most of the major media – publishes videos of people being stoned to death, being publicly hanged, or receiving other gory punishments. What is the rationale for broadcasting this kind of material if not that ‘decent
people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?”’ – the very rationale that McCartney condemns? McCartney begins her article with the words, ‘The question of our time is not “what am I allowed to see?” but “what do I have the right to see?”’ – but what useful purpose would be served by removing such material from the eyes of the world? Ultimately, as Oliver points out, ‘the pagan torturer’s power…is undermined’, partly by the martyr’s heroic resistance, but also by the very act of making the demonstration of power into a spectacle. The public enactment of corporal punishment during the early modern period is a closer parallel to videos of public stonings than the burning or dismembering of martyrs, and the lesson we can learn from the past here would seem to be that such spectacles carry the seeds of their own destruction; the stocks, the whipping post and the gallows are no longer features of our urban landscapes. As Foucault observes, the horror of the spectacle of such punishments was not only ‘apt to transform the shame that was inflicted on the sufferer into pity or glory’, but also ‘often recast the executioner’s legalized violence as an atrocity’ (Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, 1975, p. 15; my translation).
The recent flare-up over Facebook’s policies shows clearly where the line between acceptable and unacceptable portrayals of cruelty is drawn in today’s (western) world. There is a need to give those who suffer a kind of voice, the chance to cry out and perhaps be heard by others who will respond with horror, with outrage, with determination to stamp out the root causes of such suffering. There is even some justification for cameras recording public executions, which would have taken place whether or not the camera was present. But viewing atrocities orchestrated for the camera is, as Oliver says, ‘symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’; the viewer is almost inevitably drawn into perpetuating the intent of the perpetrators, particularly when – as in the case of the Facebook video – the violence takes the form of coldblooded murder by criminals.
An atavistic response to cruelty lies at the animal roots of the human psyche, but it is not the only response. Acknowledging that, at some level, the spectacle of cruelty satisfies an instinctual capacity for cruelty that lies within everyone is, as Oliver says, a first step towards an ethical response.
UPDATE: June 2020; The Telegraph is behind a pay wall these days, but it appears that the videos of stoning and hanging have been removed. The video of Thich Quang Duc‘s immolation is still on Facebook