Torture — a presence without an absence

Eric Harper  

When someone is subjected to torture, something external impinges and breaks down the individual's protective shield, which leaves the person in a helpless state with the result that, internal and external registers get confused. Having survived, the person is left with a residue of something excessive that is too much to bear, something intolerable that disrupts the process of getting through the day - linear time - and overburdens the signifying apparatus. The disruption of the signifying apparatus, a defect in signification, is the point at which anguish interrupts and the subject encounters the real which engenders non-sense. The object (a) is implicated in a too much and produces anguishing affects due to a lack of signification.

Following torture there are moments when it is difficult to think. Put another way, one can say that there is no substitution, that is a displacement of signifier to signifier in a chain lending itself to semanticisation and an affect of sense. Without substitution, based on similarity, selection and continuity, there is only the present as the future present, a presence that negates the subject's presence, thought, conscious awareness. For example a man from Rwanda told me how after been tortured and escaping he went home and found the body of his mother, her breasts having been eaten by dogs. The image never left him and was as present and real when he first saw it.

Torture attacks the metonymy of the signifying chain, and the subject ceases to desire. One wonders whether in this situation it is not a survival technique. Describing this process a friend states:

To survive you must break emotional ties with the outside world. You wipe out connections to survive, no attachments, I don't remember daughter's birthday and no longer feel affection.  What you feel about your wife, children, this is suppressed and wiped out. When you come out of prison the links are broken. The torture severs the links with the outside world. You are separated from reality when all the links to the outside world have been broken. When the links break then you break. Your identity is taken away from you, you loss all your old attachments. Your struggle is to try to hold onto something. The links with another comrade during torture is vital. People protect each other. Your link with comrade becomes more important than the link with your family.

They deliberately set out to break down your links to the outside world. They play mind games; your reality is put into question. At times you loose your mind, you loss touch with reality and live in a state of unreality. It is as if they wiped out  your mind. I don't feel one is able to speak the truth about what happened, one does not know if one is simply repeating the words of others or whether it is it what transpired. The effect of torture results in a distortion of what is real and after awhile this affects your perception of reality. I ended up not knowing what is real. Sometimes there is confusion as to what actually happened and even doubting what really transpired. Is this real or unreal? Can one put the pieces of ones life together? You come home and get the same questions over and over again - but don't remember and cannot piece the story together. What others tell me becomes my version. You don't remember and cannot piece a story together. What others tell you becomes your version (Friend).

When overwhelmed with intrusive imaginary - flashbacks and acute anxiety - a discordance exists between the present biological status of the person and the bodily unity that the specular image, plan of identification, once provided. The subject is jammed between the real and imaginary with an effect of hate and fear as the object (a) drops onto the scene and the jouissance of the Other is imposed. Instead of the known and familiar the subject is present to everything — "to see everything naked" as Nietzche would put it. So saying the effect of torture is a scrambling of sensations, for example feeling out of control, with extreme and unmanageable rage and torn between feelings of helplessness whilst at the same time trying to control everything around them.

One way of trying to control what you feel is to attempt to control everything. You end up seeing the world in black and white terms. You need to see the world in rigid boxes and clear-cut terms, but when something does not fit into your box you panic. You get very angery and scared. It is terrifying (Torture Survivor).

After torture you try to build up a set of defenses to carry on, but it is like carrying around a time bomb. You cannot admit to yourself that you are depressed. So you block off all experiences through tight schedules. What would you do without your tight schedules? You need to be strong and carry on as if it never happened (Torture Survivor).

There is a residue of anger which affects your every day. You have to deal with your anger on a daily basis. It affects your work. You try to put a lid on it but it comes out (Torture Survivor).

The assumptions the person had about the world are shattered.

After coming out of prison I found relationships had become very difficult. I withdrew and cut myself off so as to protect myself. I found that I could not trust anybody, all my faith and trust in the world, in people was gone (Torture Survivor).

I avoided people, did not want to see anyone, but they crowd in on you, want to see you, go for a beer like the old days. Your wife and children have been praying for this day, you try keeping up things from them, not showing them that you are fucked up, but then you explode. You feel terrible afterwards. What have I become? She wants to cuddle up wit you at night, wants contact, to communicate, but you just can't! It drives you crazy and eats away at you. There is no one to talk to about those days, instead the frustration, mistrust. That is what they want to do to you, break bonds and build mistrust (Friend).

You feel all bad inside. Your reality becomes so colored by the torture. Reality becomes bad. You feel let down by the world. It is not what I expected it to be. The hurt sits there it does not go away (Torture Survivor).

With the horror of torture the subject is taken beyond the range of ordinary human experience — beyond the pleasure principle — and persistently re-experiences invasive and intrusive (imagery) representations, which are experienced as imposed from outside. The subject is flooded, left in a state of wonderment in which s/he becomes the subject of their own nightmare, unable to wake up from the dream and finding themself suffering from acute de-attachment and isolation. In this state when trying to re-present to themselves what is going on it is like a mouth that opens to scream out in terror but does so without sound. Thought is knotted, torn and cut leaving a sense dislocation and lack of navagiation between the familiar and uncanny. As a person who was tortured put it when seeing more horror: "Dead bodies loaded on the truck, in no order, mixed...But what order do you put dead bodies in? What rule is there for that?"

These foreign images can result in confusion, bewilderment and disorientation as the person has incorporated something alien, which does not correspond to their previous self-image. The person is haunted by foreign images that replace the former self-representations. The ego is unable to make these images its own. The imposed images are more real than imaginary, they are indelible.

What is perceived cannot be thought, as there is a disruption within the perceiver - the body as the other of signification. There is a breakdown in translation, a translation from an ego/body - system of perception - into a body with signifiers. Put another way, with torture the victim's ego/body - system of perception - becomes an object, an abject object. It is a body that has been left in the lurch and cannot be represented by the subject who has been dropped (from the stage of language). The subject is no longer in a scene and as such his/her speech is no longer address an Other. In this situation the social function of communication, interlocution, is broken down with the result the subject's relationship with the outside world is disrupted. Instead of self-representation there is a void/hole.

The fear of pain drives you crazy. When they ring the bell, the cell doors open and close (kluk, kluk, kluk) you wonder who is going to be tortured. Then there is the relief that it is not you; then guilt that you feel relief. There is terrible fear and suspicion. Someone comes back after being tortured. "What did they do to you, they told me you were a state witness". Sometimes to hear the moaning of others tortured is as bad as being tortured yourself, it eats into your mind and your imagination gets the better of you. It is like a wound that festers. Afterwards you suffer tremendously, have to deal with anger on a daily basis, it affects your work, family, everything. (Friend).

The effect of torture is a breaking down of thought, and an inability to put into words what transpired. When asked to speak of the torture in order to establish the facts of the case, the person is confronted with an impossible situation. Something of the experience cannot be absorbed into any symbolic framework but at the same time the individual is haunted by images of what happened. What is remembered are surrounding events, often apparently arbitrary details, which offer some kind of way to frame the pain for even if the event is remembered in detail, the hole remains.

These gaps (in Foucault's words, a discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit) place the subject outside of the community of speech due to a break in the social bond. The social-bond is broken, with the result that the person is unable to continue to re-constitute them selves in existence through identifications. The subject is unable to live through his/her traditional forms of identification but is forced into identification with the horror.

This shrinkage of one's world view (weltanschauung), is a world that is not based on dialectic, what Lacan calls a lack of a lack, Richard Klein (1997) translates it in his own way as pure presence, as presence without absence. The lack of a lack is the character of these indelible images. Klein (2000) remarks that torture is a presence without absence. Ordinarily, in our daily life everything is based on dialectic of presence and absence. In effect, presence and absence is a traditional ethics, Aristotelian, not too much of anything, not too little. It is an ethics that recognizes the pain of existence but tells us to keep on the good side of pain. Torture is a presence without an absence. That's how Freud defines pain in the Entwurf (1895), as summating Q.

This presence without an absence, pain, places the subject outside the field of the sovereign good, the symbolic and outside of themselves. The person is then positioned separately to himself or herself in that at the moment of impingement the person is present in a bodily form, but no longer a free conscious agent, a subject without intentionality (Brentano). The person can at certain moments becomes nothing but the pain; they become an object without human attributes and essence. The person is no longer human in the way s/he was before the torture; they are alien to themselves in that something alien - a remainder, a foreign body not only resides inside them but engulfs them.

With torture the world that belongs to me, the visual as the property of my representations, has been narrowed to the recurrent representation of a horror, a representation that does not belong to me. In the everyday taken for granted, my world is rather restricted going no further than the field of my representations, the visual is seen as property. I own my representations, my habits represent me, and they become the frame through which I am pictured. Representation is marked by the smell of property. The world falls on its feet every morning, becomes familiar once again, which may not have been the case for my dreams of the previous night, because I represent it. It's a way of saying that I have libidinally invested my world. (R. Klein 2001).

Following the work of Richard Klein (2001) we can argue that with torture, the indelible image has the function of a look and and functions like a frozen image projected onto a screen disrupting the process of representation and freezing time and space. The subject becomes a look of horror and perhaps the look replaces self representation. The process of self representation, is frozen and replaced with a look that is imprinted onto the mind in much the same way when a film freezes on the screen and you become aware that you are caught up in a look.

This pain is something that people cannot believe is happening to them, as they cannot believe their own eyes. The subject is unable to witness, that is represent to themselves what is occurring and will speak of being utterly helpless and unrecognisable to them selves - a state of helplessness that includes a loss of control, agency and dignity. What is seen is something so strange that it can only be ‘witnessed' as something alien.

With horror the subject is taken beyond the range of ordinary human experience beyond the pleasure principle and persistently re-experiences invasive and intrusive (imagery) representations, which are experienced as imposed from outside.

The memory of being completely out of control is very, very shocking. I would panic, beg and even pissed in my pants. You even wish to be killed. When I remember I end up feeling hate but also guilt. Why was I not stronger? I no longer have confidence in myself (Torture Survivor)."

The memory of these events is often very shocking. How is it possible for me to have felt and experienced things like that? The torture was usually filled with sexual innuendoes, which were very disturbing (Torture Survivor).

With torture time is no longer within the field of the Other, but becomes an object (a) as pain subsumes the moment and becomes one's constant and only companion. Time is symbolic but is it necessarily within the field of the Other? When time becomes real, the subject itself is an object (a).

Solitary confinement is just one element of the unholy trinity: torture, interrogation, and detention. To which can sometimes be added a fourth element -- conditioning. I reckon the effects of isolation depend a lot on the extent of interaction between those elements. For instance if someone has been physically tortured, then isolation tends to magnify the intensity of pain, because it's one's constant and only companion. The same goes for mental pain. Torture involves disorientation in time -- losing track of what day it is, and sometimes whether it's night or day. A situation made worse due to sleep deprivation (Friend).

There is not only the physical pain but also then being alone with this pain. Being left alone after the torture is for some individuals as painful as the torture. It is to feel very cut off and alone with very frightening thoughts (Friend).

When isolated and consumed by pain, the experience of torture, like a bad smell, cannot be processed, that is thought. The person is left with the repetition of the unthinkable and what is unprocessed, lives in the body like an alien body refusing to go away. Unlike a bad dream in which once you wake the world falls on its feet again, with torture, there is no waking and you cannot wake from the nightmare and cannot stop seeing what you see and have seen.

When the subject cannot stop seeing what they see, there is an undialectised real. The subject does not have a protective screen to act as a "contact barrier" against this summating jouissance. Without this "protective membrane," jouissance cannot be screened and redistributed, for example to the various libidinalised zones (rims) of the body via the construction of fantasy. The person struggles to evacuate and transform the anguishing effects of this intolerable jouissance, and instead finds that jouissance is eternally returned, often in the form of a self-reproach.

The manifestation of this undialectised real - a "lack of lack and a pure presence without absence" and not being able to stop seeing what you see and have been seeing — results in an altered state of consciousness and sleep disturbance. Major sleep disturbance is perhaps the most dominant and consistent symptom experienced by torture survivors. These sleep disturbance and being woken by terrible anxiety dreams do not only occur immediately after the torture but can carry on for many years after the event.

I am afraid to go to my room at night. The torture happened around midnight. It gets really frightening, voices, images. I know that it will be another long night, as each night is. I only fall asleep when the sun starts to come up and then it is only a few hours of sleep. Sometimes there are nightmares, I am chased, they are going to kill me, but I have nowhere to hide (Torture survivor)."

The sleep disturbance is equivalent to object (a). The sleep disturbance, via the intrusive imagry and waking flash backs is the imposition of jouissance, a real intrusion and drives the subject "crazy." This situation is untenable in that there is no escape. Without the emergence of the lost object, the person remains trapped. The person is unable to construct a fantasy as there is no lost object with which s/he can construct the fantasy. Without fantasy there is no screen to conceal the intrusive imagry and waking flash back - the imposition of jouissance, the determinant in the function of repetition.

Torture has foreclosing effects in that the person becomes a real living body engaged in a nightmare. There is difficulty to wake from this (anxiety) dream, that is to drain the body of jouissance and symbolise the real. The physical body is not mortified by language, as in neurosis, but filled with an excess of jouissance. The person is left with a terrifying jouissance and is consumed with unbearable anxiety. There is no absence from the anguishing presence of that nameless thing which is too much to bear, as the body is not mortified by language but panic-stricken by a jouissance that is not extracted from the body, as an effect of the signifier, but exists as a constant force demanding discharge.

In torture we have to distinguish between Jouissance as such and Jouissance as object (a). In torture there is Jouissance as such. The object (a) functions as equivalent to time. In torture the object (a) is not only outside of language but also no longer an appendix of the body, which is sublimated by a connection to an absence. With torture the person'identifies' with a body-in-pieces. The object (a) as such can not exercise its function as sublimated, correlative with its fall, and instead the person falls into undialectised space - non-space. So saying time is what is left over from the Jouissance of torture.

In conclusion, when my friend tells me that what others tell him becomes his version of reality, he is using the other as an ego to reconstruct representations. The person is having to find a way back from death, the death drive, from something impossible, that cannot be thought as it does not enter thought. The land of the dead is real in that it is a time and space that has no law. The law is absent in the real. So saying, to it is like needing somebody to take your hand and lead you out of dark room, to once again illuminate a system that helps you get through the day, reconstructs time.

The burdon of surviving torture is to both be able to make a concept out of the alien thing and exist with the alien thing (das ding) as a non-concept. Sadly many cannot make a concept out of torture nor live with torture as a non-concept. The person is left with an impossible paradox, a break down in representation and too much representation. As a torture survivor put it: "I often have the images right in front of my face but I cannot remember anything. Images in front of me but no memory of them."


Richard Klein
Public lecture on "Civilization and its Discontentments." London (1997).
Personal communication (2000).
Draft copy of a paper on representation (2001).
Nietzche, F. FW, Joyful Wisdom, pp 11-12; trans; pp. 35-36.