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It is easy to assume that our collective humanity is self-evident, that we do not need to search for it. But we live in a time of numbers and facts, in a world where an acceptable response to the news of death is to click the ‘LIKE’ button on Facebook. We live in a world where we can easily find information about GDP and infant mortality and life expectancy but not about that which most motivates people: human desire. We live in a world where we so often quote figures of the number of the dead in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Congo until they become just that: figures. Each time I read these news articles, I find myself thinking – what do they dream about in Congo? How do they fall in love in Afghanistan? How do they resolve family quarrels in Iraq? What do they like to eat? Of course we must know about the dead and the dying, and of course these figures and facts are essential, but they must, they should, co-exist with human stories. We should know how people die but we should also know how they live.

–Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, 2011 Commonwealth Lecture, “To Instruct & Delight: A Case for Realist Literature

This. Because it is beautiful and true and latches on to one of the biggest ethical worries I have about my work:

what if the unintended consequence of advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns is that it ultimately dissolves the very international solidarity and humanity we aspire to achieve?

A question that keeps me up at night. That and rereading Adichie’s stuff. Her writing continues to be my crack.

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To mark “International in Support of Victims of Torture Day” today, Amnesty International’s Security with Human Rights campaign has released a short film called ‘Hooded’.

Just two minutes long, “Hooded” uses abstract images and intense sound design to convey the auditory and visual experiences associated with torture.

Disturbing but gripping, it’s definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect sunshine and kittens. (And while you’re at it, sign your name to some of Amnesty’s actions to tell governments you don’t think torture is ever justified.)

It’s also interesting to watch this film in light of analysis made by Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, which was first published in 1985:

Amnesty International’s ability to bring about the cessation of torture depends centrally on its ability to communicate the reality of physical pain to those who are not themselves in pain. When, for example, one receives a letter from Amnesty in the mail, the words of that letter must somehow convey to the reader the aversiveness being experienced inside the body of someone whose country may be far away, whose name can barely be pronounced, and whose ordinary life & unknown except that it is known that that ordinary life has ceased to exist.

The language of the letter must also resist and overcome the inherent pressures toward tonal instability: that language must at once be characterized by the greatest possible tact (for the most intimate realm of another human being’s body is the implicit or explicit subject) and by the greatest possible immediacy (for the most, crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening). Tact and immediacy ordinarily work against one another; thus the difficulty of sustaining either tone is compounded by the necessity of sustaining both simultaneously. 

The goal of the letter is not simply to make the reader a passive recipient of information about torture but to encourage his or her active assistance in eliminating torture. The “reader of the letter” may now, for example, become the “writer of a letter”

–Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, pg 9 (bolding mine)

Scarry’s observations pre-date ‘Hooded’ by 27 years.  Yet her words still remain relevant at describing how Amnesty drives forward its work on changing public perceptions on torture.

While certainly a wavering balance, ‘Hooded’ succeeds in tactfully marrying the viewer to the victim’s perspective through first-person shots. Immediacy is conveyed through focus on contemporary torture techniques, such as water-boarding and blaring loud sounds, as well as context-setting at the beginning of the clip.

I haven’t read Scarry’s work in detail, but as Amnesty has incorporated more visual and video materials into its advocacy, I’d wager her commentary is even more apt than when simply applied to letter-writing campaigns. After all,  ‘Hooded’ makes it so the viewer becomes the torture victim, literally forced into a hood and exposed to a spectrum of pain.

[As an aside, how did I only just discover this woman?? A textual critic who focuses on the symbolism of pain and how it makes and unmakes bodies in politics and culture? Sounds like Monica all over it.

Not to mention that this interview includes a colleague describing being in a car with her: “She took in each road sign, pondering all their possible meanings. She was being playful but also serious. She feels you’re obliged to read them this way. She feels you need to read the whole world this way.

A woman after my own heart. #academiccrush]