witness as torture

More from Jill Lepore – in re King Philip’s War [after recounting a scene of vicious and sustained torture – as the English observe their Indian allies punish a fellow Indian for defecting to the opposition].


“The way the story is told, we know that the English are disgusted by the cruelty they witness, and as both anthropologists and historians have pointed out, disgust is one way that one culture differentiates itself from another. The story’s expression of disgust goes a long way toward preserving the Englishness of the soldiers present. But the other side of disgust is desire, and, despite their protestations to the contrary, clearly the English feel that, too. Their disgust takes the form of revulsion, their desire fascination. While they may find it painful to watch as a young man has his fingers sawed off, they also find it pleasurable. But for an English soldier to confess his fascination, to admit his pleasure, is to become indistinguishable from the Indian beside him…

“The Indian in the middle of the circle does not himself ‘shew any Signs of Anguish.’ Instead, the English do. He bleeds but they cry. The scene is so painful to the English that it is torture just to watch it. By feeling [his] pain, feeling it even more than he does, the English onlookers put themselves in his place… Their Englishness has been preserved.” (from In the Name of War)


In representing genocide, we need to take great care that we are not trading on the double delight of witness to suffering – the enjoyment through moral filters the proxy of power (and on the other side, moral surrender – the wish to be taken – to be taken from accountability); also the self-reward of a kind of colonial empathy – where the subject of witness becomes the virtue of the witness (replacing the suffering of what we see with the suffering of our seeing…).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *