Crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The video enters the dramatic space of the hypothetical terrorist nuclear bomb threat.

Pan and scan over cover of Newsweek with op-ed essay on torture.

A hand turns the magazine’s pages revealing the ordinary contrast of text and attractive consumer advertising images.

Page turns to a “My Turn” guest editorial opinion essay, “The Case for Torture,” by professor Michael Levin.

A pan left shows the adjoining page, an ad sponsored by U.S. banking interests addresses fears of losing one’s money (at a moment of the Reagan Recession). The terrified sleepless man is assured that putting his money in a bank provides the solution to his worries.

Computer-generated text intertitles echo key words in the essay as the text is read on the voice track. The intertitles serve to emphasize and simultaneously question the essay’s rhetoric and thus meaning.

Several minutes into the video, the title appears.

A rapid pan pulls back to re-present the paired pages of monetary anxiety and terrorist anxiety. The banking industry offers fiscal security while the neocon philosophy professor argues state-conducted torture will offer civil security.

Close up follows voice reading the essay.

Intertitles dramatize the professor’s ideology and method of argument.

A title overlays images from an Armed Forces recruiting ad showing a fighter pilot inspecting his craft before takeoff.

Another magazine cover represents a feature article on terrorism with a masked figure holding a handgun.

Krauthammer: "Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?"

Media converted to an entertainment model.

Enemies are Others, defined outside the category of humanity.



A case for torture redux

by Martha Rosler

Introducing A Simple Case For Torture
by Chuck Kleinhans

Martha Rosler’s essay below reconsiders her 1983 experimental video, A Simple Case for Torture in the context of torture as a government authorized interrogation method in the George W. Bush presidency.While some things have changed, the tape remains startlingly prescient and relevant to today’s political situation. (A number of Rosler's video works can be found online at Ubuweb: http://ubu.com/film/rosler.html). With 24’s Jack Bauer weekly pushing the edge of the ends vs. means argument over torture, media images intersect with the need for ideological analysis.

When it first appeared A Simple Case for Torture forcefully intervened in key civic issues of the early Reagan era:

  • U.S. training of police and military torturers in Latin America, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the developing world;
  • state terrorism;
  • a deliberate cranking up of the arms race with the Soviets;
  • an increasing discussion of the U.S. using nuclear weapons in foreign combats;
  • the slashing of federal social programs;
  • the growing gap between rich and poor; dramatizing terrorism as a form of fear-mongering;
  • U.S. alliances with repressive military regimes while posing as a champion of “democracy.”

The hour long video is best described as a visual essay relentlessly arguing its point of view with an exhaustive and exhausting piling on of arguments and counter-arguments, news articles as demonstration and data, and a layered sound track of assertive quotes and narration. Unprepared audiences are startled by the fierce point of attack, which never lets up or modulates in tone, though it does change in topic and emphasis along the way. There are no humanistic interviews with experts and authorities gently offering a personable face and voice. The video continually asks its viewers to concentrate on the ideas presented. It is one of the most insistently didactic videos ever made.

The piece represents one important aspect of Rosler’s artistic career in visual arts, performance, installation, video, and critical essay. [A full record to 1998 is in Catherine de Zegher, ed., Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World, MIT Press] But it also fits into a larger set of political art-world concerns of its time. The emergence of semiotic and ideological analysis of images in the 60s and 70s brought an analytic frame to what might be seen as “natural” or “taken-for-granted” visual material. Roland Barthes’ famous discussion of an image of an African soldier saluting the French colonial flag began a period of scrutiny that reappeared in diverse forms. This path was joined by Situationist confrontations such as Guy Debord’s ironic re-appropriations of mass culture for tendentious critique.

Jean-Luc Godard’s use of book covers as interpolated intertitles in the films Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (1966) and Le Gai Savoir (1968) or the insistent analysis of a single photo of Jane Fonda in Vietnam in Letter to Jane (Godard and Gorin. 1972) created a new form of political analysis. Godard continued to pursue this in much of his television work of the 1970s, such as Over and Under Communication: 6 X 2, with Miéville (1976), which contains a memorable analysis of a French newsweekly magazine in which he tears out all the advertising and ends up with a small pile of editorial pages against a large pile of ads, dramatically pointing out the cash nexus of “news” publishing.

Many forms of analysis contributed to this kind of analysis. From an academic sociological perspective, Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements teased out the connotations of commercial images. At the same time, U.S. artists, across the various arts often responded to political and social issues of the day with similar attention to extracting, underlining, dramatizing, and confronting the dominant ideological materials of the day. Pop Art ironically recirculated commercial world images. Postmodern appropriations ranged from severe critique to mild snark through juxtaposition. This kind of work ranged from Barbara Kruger’s poster images with a contrary text calling for thinking through and past habitual thought to AIDS activism confronting the dominant media’s bias in covering the early stages of the pandemic. Hans Haacke’s installations confronted the ideological nature of art institutions and elite ownership of art. The mainstream of radical media art adapted familiar televisual and social documentary forms, as with Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions (1986), an analysis of racist images of African Americans in popular culture.

In this context, A Simple Case for Torture contributes to the analytic strain of video art with a vengeance. Like a terrier gripping its prey, Rosler savages an editorial column written by a philosophy professor making an "ends vs. means" argument justifying torture under a “ticking bomb” scenario. Literally layering the screen with news articles whose headlines back up her points and contradict her opponent, Rosler overwhelms any attempt at careful processual thinking. The image track is matched with a layered sound track reading news items and theoretical analyses of the dominant discourse. The tape ends with a credit roll bibliography referencing major thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Michael Foucault, and Theodor Adorno. The standard “rule of thumb” for expository lectures of providing one major idea every 10 minutes is abandoned in the first 20 seconds of the analysis’ eruption. For most audiences, especially if unprepared, the effect is startling and alienating. Yet the form also evidences Rosler’s passion to explain.

This relentlessness can be read in different ways. Her earlier video work such as the short, deadpan comic, and didactic Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) juxtaposes gender politics with a cooking-show type of presentation. Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977) records a performance of Rosler being stripped and measured in a technological, clinical reduction of personhood to data. Made for Paper Tiger TV, a series of low production cost analyses of (mostly print) media, Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982) dissects the fashion magazine’s gender politics. And in the 1985 piece If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, Rosler takes on government propaganda which has promoted false news reports to further secret policies; here she uses a form of unremittingly bombarding the viewer. Writing of Vital Statistics, Laura Kipnis describes it as “an experiment in radical unpleasure,” stressing its contrast to the dominant forms of “visual pleasure” which naturalize ideology.

While risking audience alienation, Rosler’s work of this period in her career mixes acidic irony with in-your-face aggression and demands to be taken seriously as an intellectual stance. Fifteen years later, it remains the case that women critics can seldom get the kind of media respect accorded to aggressive males. (For a current example, consider how deftly MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow must navigate combining her intelligence, wit, and irony with an endlessly smiling face — “see, I’m no threat!” — and fashionably dykey look and demeanor.) Revisiting A Simple Case teaches us about both about torture and the forms of the dominant ideology.

A case for torture redux

by Martha Rosler


In 1982 I was en route somewhere and picked up a copy of Newsweek that — unusually, to my mind — featured a contemporary painting on the cover, a "realist" one by an artist whom I did not know. It struck me as odd that, in that moment of (neo-neo-) Expressionist, mostly Italian and German, painting, the featured work was a modest little portrait of a sitting woman. But lo! the breasts of this young, rather ordinary looking woman slightly slumped in her seat were exposed. The headline was THE NEW REALISM. I opened the magazine and leafed past the ads and the table of contents. The first article caught my eye: a full-page “My Turn” column (the type now called “op ed,” or guest editorial). The title? “The Case for Torture.” I was shocked, and I was meant to be, for this article was a provocation. The belligerent, rhetoric-spouting president, Ronald Reagan, was ratcheting up the Cold War, smashing what remained of Jimmy Carter’s détente by planting nuclear- armed Cruise missiles in Western Europe … and some obscure nut had made his way onto Newsweek’s front page arguing for the United States to torture people — to embrace torture as policy. Such advocacy was unheard-of in polite, not to say academic, circles — the author was a philosophy professor, as we shall see. And it certainly contravened anything you might read or hear in the media or in official pronouncements.

Officially, of course, we as a nation were on the side of justice and human rights, despite the many reports, throughout the previous decade, of the chronic use of torture by the Latin American military and its death squads, supposedly under the tutelage of the United States — a relationship unreported in the mainstream media. Torture and brutalization of military prisoners and suspected enemies had also reputedly been widely practiced during the war in Vietnam, but reports of that had been quickly swept under the rug, along with the most widely publicized war crime, the My Lai massacre[1] [open endnotes in new window] which finally saw a reluctant prosecution well after the event. As signatories to the Geneva Convention, the United States insisted on the need for dignified and humane treatment for military prisoners — at least in public, and at least for home consumption. But now, in 1982, something seemed to have changed.

I discovered from the by-line and short bio accompanying the Newsweek column that the tendentious screed — for that is what it was — was written by one Michael Levin, an obscure philosophy professor at The City College of New York. His argument mixed together sentimental fears for hypothetical kidnapped infants and the equally hypothetical parental desire to inflict pain on the perpetrators ; fear of Arab plane hijackers (a repetitive scenario in the 1970s); and fear of a nut with an atom bomb in Manhattan, where, of course, City College stands. The answer to the inevitable question Levin poses, “Won’t we turn into them ?” was predictable in advance. This smarmy fellow[2] tried to argue that like the (failed) plot to kill Hitler (in 1944), torture, judiciously applied, far from marking a descent into barbarism, was a moral imperative. Could you sleep at night if your prissy scruples led to the death of 6 or 8 million innocent New Yorkers?

Here is Charles Krauthammer, prominent “neocon”[3] and, interestingly, a trained psychiatrist, writing at the end of 2005 in the neocon journal The Weekly Standard, “The Truth about Torture: It's time to be honest about doing terrible things.” He begins by categorizing types of enemies and reaches the heart of his subject:

"Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

"Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

"Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty."[4]

We have traveled a long way down the torture road since 1982 — not least in the emergence of men like Krauthammer, many following the arguments of Carl Schmitt (a legal and political theorist in Germany, a member of the Nazi Party referred to as "Crown Jurist of the Third Reich”) on the necessity for secrecy in government and the adjustment, indeed suspension, of the rule of law in wartime to legitimize exigent situations (“states of exception”). Thus, legal policy in wartime, however defined, is not abandoned but formed around government-identified needs.

Schmitt’s ideas were put in fateful combination with those of the German Jewish émigré professor Leo Strauss. Strauss propounded an authoritarian theory of government in which rulers are far superior to the masses of the governed, who need to be kept in the dark on most policy issues. A populist “myth ” needs to cover a hidden elite truth. Thus, in philosophy there is an exoteric message and an esoteric one, the true meaning of the text; a Straussian would argue that Machiavelli’s sole error was his failure to keep his prescriptions secret. At the University of Chicago, Strauss’s students were known as a “cabal,” with a reputation for forming “truth squads,” harassing those who disagreed with their ideas. A number of Strauss’s acolytes went on to seize the reins of the Republican Party and to enter government, where many of these so-called neoconservatives hold sway. Members of this group in and around government, academe, and influential small policy journals have included Paul Wolfowitz, Allan Bloom, William Kristol, Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Kagan. Many are familiar for their statist enthusiasm for war making and empire.  

The velvet glove has come off, and under a ferocious secrecy, the United States has returned to the business of protecting its global hegemony, by sweet talk, posturing, and, if necessary, aggressive actions. A requisite step has been the identification, for public consumption, of a new, quasi-mythical enemy to replace the fallen Evil Empire (as Reagan’s speech writer dubbed the Soviet Union back in 1982, as we see in my video ). The designated new demon is the Muslim Other, an enemy that came into clearer focus in the persons of criminal attackers such as those who crashed their planes into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001.

There is no doubt that many in the Muslim world are sworn enemies of the United States, or, further, that there are now international networks of militant Muslims, and their supporters, who want to attack the United States and its allies and inflict large numbers of casualties among civilians (the hallmark of terrorism). Understanding their motives and tactics is critical to deterring their actions and preventing their success. But, one hardly need stress, the question of who we are, of what values we uphold and practices we follow, remains at issue. A popular slogan since the attacks of September 11, 2001, has it that if we do such and such, the terrorists win. But it is impossible not to notice that the eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration have gone far toward instituting something of a police state, and  an ever-greater expenditure on military matters.[5]

At the same time, the nation is being stripped of many of its long-held legal and ethical principles — among them, indeed, fundamental elements (such as habeas corpus) of much of our legal system. Can we fail to see this as a victory for those who deplore the Western rule of law,  with its Enlightenment values that stress a person’s ability to conduct public and private affairs free from the surveillance of moral police and (at least in principle) of the state? If the question is, won’t we turn into them, our barbarian opponents, the answer surely depends on defining the characteristics of them. But by the logic (the mythos) underlying this point of view, they are the forces of darkness and we are the forces of light; therefore, anything we do is done for the cause of good, while our opponents can never cross the divide into goodness without sharing our attitudes and goals and accepting our hegemony. We simply cannot become evil barbarians; we cannot become them, though they can become our junior partners, allies, or even silent members of a grateful world.

And who are they? How can we tell? It has turned out to be simple: A ny sign of serious dissent from our leading policies on the part of any group, anywhere, leads to the suggestion that that group (or nation) is not a friend, or worse, that it is an active opponent that could at any moment rise to the level of enemy. We have a list of candidates waiting in the wings: Iran, Syria, North Korea, even Pakistan, and possibly our old familiar enemy, Russia. A ny crime or designated outrage will serve to justify to a believing public the most barbaric and inhuman treatment of our enemies, all for the cause of good. More often than not, outrageous incidents are invented or framed as part of a campaign of disinformation — a term of art for systematic government lying, also termed psyop (psychological operations), against the home audience,  a practice pursued with single-minded determination since the Reagan White House (but with special fondness and dedication by the Republicans). It is the systematicity of the message — what George Bush has called “catapulting the propaganda” — that creates others as them, defined out of the category of humanity and repositioned as subhuman, fanatical, indefatigable murderous beasts. This Manichaean figure of the Enemy has been with us a long time.

To quote former vice-president Al Gore (commenting on what many less politically prominent people have remarked upon — at least since Harold Lasswell’s Propaganda Technique in the World War [1927] and advertising and public relations pioneer Edward Bernays’ Propaganda [1928]) —

"The potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis."

Who makes up the “new generation of media Machiavellis”? It is sufficient to name one, of course, Rupert Murdoch, and sufficient, as well, to look at his creation of the television network Fox, under the leadership of a Republican party operative, Roger Ailes. Fox relies on Murdoch’s long experience in trolling the bottom of the print media tabloids in England and Australia, exploiting gossip, scandal, and demagoguery. Like most of Murdoch’s outlets, Fox’s programming is a cover for its demagogic political message, whose Machiavellian slogans are “We Report, You Decide” and, more to the point, “Fair and Balanced.”[6] Changes in the U.S. “media landscape” include the great slide in public confidence in media objectivity (prominently featuring the desire to “blame the messenger” for the defeat in Vietnam, a tendency promoted by the right, both in and out of government) and the corollary repeal, under Ronald Reagan, of the Fairness Doctrine. The latter was a rule of telecommunications that had previously kept broadcast media from precisely the partisanship that Fox represents.[7]

A related development has been the conversion of all forms of media to an entertainment model, egged on by media concentration in ever-fewer corporate hands and abetted by their aggressive demands for ever-greater returns to shareholders, including from print media like daily papers even as readership undergoes precipitous decline. We might observe that by the mid 1960s, the Paris-based Situationists had systematically described the central importance of the image world for the conduct of advanced industrial (and post-industrial) Western capitalist society, which they consequently dubbed the Society of the Spectacle.

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