Accidental Dignity: Torture Memo no.7 and the Challenge of Maintaining Dishonest Abstraction in the Written Word

Slept too little to attempt very much on the blog today. So I’ll offer up one of my favourite excerpts from the Torture Memos suite in place of the daily personal reflection:


drawing distinctions
between gradations of pain
is not an easy task.
[oh no]
it’s not an easy task.

– John Yoo

This is definitely my favourite lyric from the whole set (and, coincidently, the shortest). It’s such a striking juxtaposition with the cold, technical belligerence of the rest.

Of course it’s lifted from a section in which Mr.Yoo is attempting to establish pseudoscientific divisions between “acceptable” and “severe” levels of suffering. In this case he’s talking about sleep deprivation and how many days it can “legally” go on for.

Extracting this one line and taking it at face-value suggests the hidden possibility of a deep regret and troubled conscience behind the authorship of the torture memos. Of course it’s hard to believe in that possibility as intentional or, looking at in its actual context, genuinely meaningful.

To the contrary, I think it’s more likely that a degree of dignity and sympathy is inevitably built into written language. Regardless of the unlikely context, zooming into the microscopic details of communication brings out these essential qualities.

So I was glad to notice this fragment and include it in the suite. I find it hopeful to see that, with all the ways human beings contrive to fool themselves and manipulate others, the way we’ve constructed our means of communication interferes with completely dishonest abstractions.

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2 Responses to “Accidental Dignity: Torture Memo no.7 and the Challenge of Maintaining Dishonest Abstraction in the Written Word”

  1. Multibeat Records Says:

    Could this also mean that language/musical language becomes a weakness or threat to the artistic intent of the piece? That through the exposition of the subject matter, using this particular setting and these particular chosen fragments, the listener’s mind conjures empathy and emotion, instead of being overwhelmed by the coldness of the original documents? Either way, the questions are being asked, as the piece unfolds – this seems to be the main point.

    • Benjamin Mueller-Heaslip Says:

      That’s an interesting thought, Multibeat. But I don’t think there’s a contradiction between the intention and the reaction it evokes.

      In the set, this piece falls between a really vicious number (“Medical Personnel Are On The Scene”) and the beginning of three pieces dealing with legal/moral defenses. So this bit is more of a surreal glimpse into an Yoo’s alternative-reality ego. When you go onto into the see-through justifications the nature of this one becomes pretty clear.

      But that’s a reason why it’s interesting to post this one on its own. No. 9 ‘Self Defense’ is weird too because on its own it really does sound like an uncritical validation of torture. I’ve got to be more careful with that one.

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