Mar 112013
 

Lynndie-England -Abu-Ghraib-FemdomWell, this had to happen sooner or later. I found this image on the Femdom Artists blog. This is the cover of a Mexican magazine, presumably published sometime in the late 2000s, based on the iconic images of Lynndie England and other American soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “Arrogance and torture in Iraq!” shouts the headline.

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Aug 172011
 

Cinema Sewer 34, Danny Hellman, Cmm3C

Well, sooner or later, somebody had to make an image like the one above.

Danny Hellman created this for cover of the 24th issue of the Cinema Sewer zine, published out of Vancouver, BC by Robin Bougie.

It’s not the only Hellman that satirizes the Iraq and Afghanistan war, viewing those conflicts through the lenses of comic books and exploitation magazines (e.g. 1). This is an obvious take on the previously discussed Israeli stalag novels and the later men’s adventure magazines, referencing the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures. The brunette woman in the background represents Lynndie England, for instance.

The Abu Ghraib pictures put Americans in a quandary. The scenario was familiar, but the ones inflicting the suffering were “us”, not “them”. How could this be? This is what Other people do. It’s telling that England, a female soldier, became the most recognizable name and face associated with this scandal, linking political deviance with female sexual deviance.

I feel somewhat disappointed that this image is too knowing, too ironic to be a genuine expression of fantasy. Maybe we need to wait a few years before the psychosocial impact of the War on Terrorism percolates up from the collective subconscious. Or perhaps the torture porn film genre previously discussed is part of that response. Maybe in North America the feared Other is not the Muslim terrorist, but the out-of-control, paranoid police state. That at any second, for no apparent reason, we can find ourselves strapped to something in a windowless room where we are utterly helpless before an unknown person. Network television is already crawling with surveillance and confinement and competition. Somewhere out there, Room 101 is ready for you.

Aug 162011
 

Continuing my discussion of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the function of violence, here’s the Room 101 scene from the American 1956 film version.

Note that the story pretty closely follows the book and the other two film versions: the electric shocks, the “How many fingers?” routine, Winston seeing his degraded self in the mirror. You can see how much of a perverse initiator O’Brien is (called O’Connor in this adaptation), guiding Winston room to room, preparing him for each stage of his descent into hell.

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Jul 252011
 

In a previous post I touched on the difference between fantasizing about a person being in peril of violence and a person actually suffering violence.

This clip above is the 1954 BBC television adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

In the book, Winston is shown the rat cage device, strapped down and then the device is placed on his face. Only then does he crack.

In this production, they don’t even put the device on Winston’s head. O’Brien merely shows the device to Winston and describes how it operates, and this is enough to make Winston crack and say, “Do it to Julia!”

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Mar 172010
 

It’s already been removed, but FOX was running in interactive website game called “KeepHerAwake”, as a promotion for the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The idea is that the user manipulates a girl in her bedroom to keep her awake so that the supernatural killer can’t kill her in her sleep.

From Susannah Breslin’s post on True Slant:

It’s going to be a long night, so you start with something light. You click an icon and her alarm clock rings. You make her jump up and down on her bed in her underpants. You get her to read a book. But that’s no fun, right? Maybe you’re a little bored.

You put her in the shower, naked, natch, where the camera wanders across her body. You make her do jumping jacks and watch her boobs bounce in that very tight T-shirt she’s wearing. Still, there’s something missing. Isn’t there something else you can do? Something, say, more … fun?

You decide to apply more aggressive methods. You click the switchblade icon, and she picks up a knife. As you watch, she cuts herself in the side with it, gasping. Hm, not bad, you think. You try another. You click the icon that looks like a lighter, and she picks it up. You look on while she burns her arm, trembling in agony. If you’d known torture was this easy, well …

Unfortunately, now you’ve run out of tricks, and it seems your options are more limited than 18 U.S.C. § 2340. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Slowly, she falls asleep. Suffice to say, in the end, she dies. Too bad all your torturing couldn’t, er, save her.

While I’m not familiar with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, I understand that a key aspect of the premise is that Krueger can only attack his victims when they are asleep. Therefore, the dramatic tension comes from the increasingly desperate measures the characters adopt to stay awake and therefore alive.

Presumably, while watching the film, the viewer will empathize with the characters and their struggle to stay alive. (Carol J Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws has a detailed exploration of the complexity of audience/character identification in horror, in which the viewer’s identification constantly switches between killer and victim.) In the realm of interactive entertainment, this seems to be a rather different experience, and one that raised the eyebrows (to say the least) of Breslin and BoingBoing.net’s Xeni Jardin.

The late, lamented (in my opinion) Joss Whedon series Dollhouse had a similar promotional effort in which a visitor to a website could manipulate a version of Echo, the show’s protagonist, by programming her with different personalities. This was an odd choice for a series that is all about questioning the morality of manipulating people like dolls, and came under criticism. Like the KeepHerAwake game, it seemed like an exercise in sadism.

We live in an age of virtual entertainment, in which people create and control online characters and develop a high degree of empathy and identification with them. In this case, the user is presented with a menu of things the character can do in response to other events in the virtual world. In the case of KeepHerAwake, however, the user selects from a menu of things to do to the character. It’s doing with vs. doing to.

KeepHerAwake does present these choices as ways of solving a problem: if the user doesn’t do anything, the character will die. Contrary to the headline of Breslin’s piece, you aren’t trying to torture the character to death, you’re trying to keep her alive. However, I can see why people would be troubled by feeling that they or other people had missed this key point.

Perhaps, if the KeepHerAwake game had been presented so that the user was encouraged to directly empathize with the experience, we would feel differently about it. Perhaps it should have been “KeepMeAwake” instead, but that would have been a difficult game to make. How would the user have subjectively experienced the pain and fear of the experience? KeepHerAwake, unsurprisingly, uses a young attractive white woman as a “suffering body” so that the user can see the evidence of the pain. A male body probably wouldn’t have allowed the same precise calibration of empathy; men in our culture are not supposed to admit pain, and especially not visibly express it through shaking, screaming or other losses of bodily control, which are essential in visual media.

In BDSM, the top must have a degree of empathy for the bottom. He or she must care about the bottom’s subjective experience, and not regard the bottom as simply an inert body with no subjectivity. I think the mise en scene of KeepHerAwake discourages the player from developing the requisite empathy with the manipulated character.

Side note: French documentarians recently replicated the infamous Milgram experiment (“Will you torture someone if an authority figure tells you to?”), though this time in the setting of a fake game show.

Apr 232009
 

The US policy on torture is much in the air today. Some of the defenders of the policy liken the kinds of “stress positions” and the like allowed to be used to fraternity hazings.

One interesting angle is comparing torture to SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training, used by the US military to prepare soldiers for being tortured. Slate compares SERE and real torture, making explicit comparisons between the former and BDSM.

Third, SERE offers interventions that relieve stress and reinforce the unreality of the exercise. Instructors and psychologists are available “to watch the students for indications that they are not coping well with training tasks, provide corrective interventions with them long before they become overwhelmed, and if need be, remotivate students who have become overwhelmed to enable them to succeed,” Ogrisseg noted.

Fourth, SERE has “defined starting and ending points. … [T]rainees arrive on a certain date and know that they will depart on a specified date.”

Fifth and most important, SERE is voluntary. “Students can withdraw from training,” Ogrisseg noted. In a report issued four months ago, the Armed Services Committee added that in SERE, “students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop” any ordeal.

The difference between SERE and the Bush interrogation program is the difference between S&M and rape. There is no consent. There are no mutually understood boundaries. There are no magic words. People who can’t tell the difference between rape and S&M go to jail. What happens to people who can’t tell the difference between torture and training?

In this argument, the social context matters.

Over on Susie Bright’s blog, she talks about the impact SERE training had on her Airforce Academy boyfriend in the early 1970s:

In addition to the group beatings, waterboarding, electric shock, sleep deprivation, sound/noise torture, starvation, dehydration, he was also forced to eat human feces and vomit, in accompaniment with the beatings. They had replicas of “tiger cages’ they kept him in. He wrote me that after awhile of knowing it was all a training, he couldn’t hold the frame anymore and it became nothing but his reality. His sense of time and self evaporated.

His father was Air Force— and I think even he was taken aback by the SERE training. Afterward, as far as I could tell, Robbie had a psychological breakdown. He wasn’t the same guy. I was afraid of him.

They’d given him some very peculiar advice about women— it creeped me out. I was, like, ‘HEY, it’s me, remember?” But he didn’t. He hurt me when we made love, my back bled. He acted like we were supposed to play this out until I got “tougher” and could take it. It didn’t have anything to do with “kink” or fun.

The Slate article says that the “frame” is very important, the subject’s awareness that there are rules and limits to this, that there is a safeword. However, Bright’s account suggests that it is not always possible to maintain that frame.

Jan 252008
 

I’ve already identified the connection between BDSM imagery and late 19th century Orientalism in books and paintings. I’m currently reading Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity, about depictions of the feminine in late 19th century art. This introduced me to the softcore, Orientalist work of Ernest Normand.

Ernest Normand, Bondage 1895

Normand’s work hits the high points of this genre: slave women of various races on nude display before the sale, Orientalist kitsch artifacts such as fans and a sphinx, that kind of thing. Such paintings were displayed in major exhibitions and smaller reproductions were, I think, widely available.

I found the image above on a page about an art show in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, called Orientalism & Ephemera.

Orientalism & Ephemera thus explores the attraction and presence of the East within our everyday experience. For many artists, this awareness presents a way to counter the violence of today’s conflicts. Much of our contemporary cultural exchange is in response to the repeated and boundless violence of the politics of empire-building projects, which attempt to colonize the spatial, disempower the colonized, and destroy cultures. In Orientalism, Said addressed the Orient, not as a threatening other but as “an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (Said 1978). By focusing on ephemeral artifacts, souvenirs, pamphlets, postcards, catalogues, travel and commercial items, documents and photographs, the exhibition I have organized reflects a certain closeness and offers an alternative space from which to consider the innumerable manifestations of orientalism within our everyday culture.

The list given above should include “pornography”. The example of emphemera provided, an undated advertisement for a book, is a classic example of the “anthro-porn” genre, of National Geographic nudes and mondo films. (I could write a book on the overlap of documentary and pornography alone.)

torture-pr

Obviously, the art in the above ad is much cruder than Normand’s technically skilled painting. The woman to the left seems an afterthought, as if to deflect the implications of male-on-male torture, and the way the man on the right is holding the right conveys the sexual implications with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The documentary context puts the reader in the position of the civilized man (presumably) observing the “weird rites” and congratulating ourselves on how advanced we are.

Normand’s high art of Bondage and the low art of “The book of Torture” are both based on Orientalism, the use of what is today the Middle East as an arena for fantasies that unacceptable. The Orientalist view looks outward from the civilized world of industrial, Christian Europe to the rest of the world, but also back in time, to an imagined primordial fantasy where men were men and women were chattel, where social Darwinism had free reign. It was a rejection of liberal society in fantasy.

Such imagery is still published in the 20th century. Witness: