Saints of S&M, or the Art of Torture and its Contagions (featuring Potatoes, Abu Ghraib, and Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane)
At some point in our ongoing study of the potatoesque, Feng Sun Chen and I learned about the alarming existence of potato torture chambers. The electrocution of a potato in these chambers, as scientists have discovered, ends up nearly doubling its production of antioxidants. As this article puts it, “Antioxidant levels rose in a natural reaction usually used to survive stressful events such as droughts.”
If the potato, as we have argued, is the model par excellence for the ‘mushy body of the contemporary’ (a phrase I’m stealing from this blog’s ‘About’ page!) what are we to make of its material self-conversion under such extreme duress? What might the potato torture chamber tell us about the shocks and convulsions we, as a culture, both suffer and inflict?
Coupled with a drawing by Richard Serra of the most iconic photo taken at Abu Ghraib, Johannes’ post about blurry masculine bodies clues us into the appeal of torture rendered in art. While the imagery of Wojnarowicz and Bacon “opens up the holes in Jesus’s body, subjects it to media” and “makes Jesus erotic slaughter with its ‘blur’ of paint (or ants),” Serra’s drawing similarly perforates and smears the terrorist/prisoner’s body right off the page. The image stutters, preventing its own fixation. The prisoner is even featured in a classic torture pose that borrows from a technique used by the British army known as ‘the crucifixion.’ The drawing, in turn, presses us to ask if it’s not martyred Christ himself who is covertly electric, connected to wires and cloaked in black.
This effect, or spillage of affect, was in some sense already produced in the original photograph. It was only through the Abu Ghraib photos, after all, that mainstream media allowed us to feel a kind of monstrous sympathy for Arab terrorists/prisoners—themselves cast as the would-be monsters of our patriotic Christian stage.
As in Amit Rai and Jasbir Puar’s equation of “monster, terrorist, fag,” a collusion of nationalism, religion, sexuality, and race intensifies the Abu Ghraib photos so that we experience their charge multifariously. These are bodies at once emasculated and profaned in the hands of military personnel. The photos of naked prisoners piled atop each other and forced to simulate anal sex, especially, recall Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, whose captive protagonist the camera can’t help but eroticize and puncture:
By tearing open the body under captivity, both Serra’s and Jarman’s depictions of torture invest, in difference, a capacity for dissidence. When one character calls Sebastiane divine because he resists his pagan captor’s advances, his sanctification becomes the result of an unshakeable puritanism that is nevertheless other. At the same time, Sebastiane is deemed a “Christian faggot”–a signifier of degeneracy used despite (and, in this case, because of) his rejection of gay desire. The saint’s monstrosity, in other words, is at once faith-based and sexually inscribed as an irrational threat to Diocletian’s empire.
If the tortured saint bleeds like the Abu Ghraib prisoner, the bodies of both individuals seem to scramble identity while foregrounding the latter as a mechanism of power. In the Roman desert and the Iraqi prison, the identitarian markers of the individual don’t so much collapse as clash and materialize wound-like; they criss-cross and scar the body, turning it into yet another vessel for sensation. In fact, just as the electrocution of the potato is what transforms it into an antioxidant-rich superfood (like spinach), Sebastiane’s martyrdom elevates him beyond mere humanity. By inviting lacerations upon his gorgeous naked body, Sebastiane becomes the saint of S&M–a being whose cut of difference takes on the force of erotic, violent, and religious contagions. In this saint’s arrows, we might thus identify art itself piercing, fucking, and infecting us, provoking not unwavering humanist faith but countless shocks of queer intensity.