The Guantanamo Cages

Gaston Bachelard suggests fire is the metaphor of metaphor (1938/1987:111 Psychoanalysis of Fire).

I have been watching harrowing reports from Guantanamo detention camp on the late night news. They shine lights in the eyes of those unjustly interned there – the camp has been open for five years – they play loud music at all hours (see Eroica), they interrogate and interrogate, forcing narrative (this is not just storytelling, though I glossed it as such for effect) and force-feeding those who protest their rights; and we now hear more and more and cannot avoid recognizing that the guards do much worse, much worse… beatings, broken ribs, degrading and sadistic tortures, deaths…and we have known this for too long…

While the inmates in their cages in the camp might be in danger of slipping from our memory, yet they are the brutal truth of our world today. Television has to do more than this to wake us up – I see it as the real Big Brother house, this is the Palace of Dreams, this is the Home of the Brave. This is where we really live, but do not see.

The way in which we manage to accept and excuse continued detention without charge or trial, deaths in custody, atrocity and crime, makes me think we need to rewrite our books and change our thinking. How to do this? Perhaps a shot of philosophy – what if we were to think of the scene on screen as a possible contemporary parable which is displacing or radicalizing the old cave scenario in Plato. Guantanamo might be our new founding myth – an indictment of the way we think, and a guide to how we might rework our ways so that it is not truth and the sun we seek, but justice and redress.

I hope then that it is not too strange to take up the metaphor of the fire-screen in Plato’s cave and rework it as a spark for Guantanamo. There could be many associations with the screen and the flame and this seems as good as any a place to start. In an overdetermined and well known passage, Plato presents us with a primordial cave in which we are offered the image of shadows flickering on a wall. Those watching the shadows – which flicker because they are caused by a fire in the cave – are incredulous when an early release tells them of a greater light, of the sun shining outside the cave, which reveals greater truths. As the story goes, the proto-television shadow wall retains its viewers, who after all are chained to the scene and cannot look away.

That this Plato-routine is mere storytelling is well known – and so it is with a great number of other scenes of media screen and fire. Television hardly moves us. Yet fire, as we know, is both creative and destructive. It is endlessly fascinating (more than television) – ‘hard to light, it is difficult to put out’ – a malevolent spirit (Bachelard 1938/1987:64). A symptomatic examination of flames on the screen might remind us that this is a political place – think of grainy images of the Reichstag fire, of the Hindenburg zeppelin crash, of the burning monk during the Vietnam war, and of late night reruns of Cinema Paradiso. Nevertheless, Plato’s cave establishes the precedent with those shadows on the wall – television, fire and political narrative are inexorably linked from the start – and so I also want to invoke a mythic register as perhaps more than as metaphor, or as heuristic device. I have in mind myth as it might have been narrated in a ‘reverie’ of those gathered around a camp-fire not unlike the one in the cave or as told to the interrogators. There are any number of televisual and cinematic moments that might provide a kind of archive to enable this – I invite readers to come up with their own greatest moments in flames, but let us always remember the storytellers of Guantanamo that we barely hear. The long questionings, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life – though not yet all dead, the dying…

To cite television news reportage as a burning issue under a register of fire is a kind of contrivance no doubt, but a necessary one, and it allows us to rethink storytelling as politics, and so television as ideological social origin myth. The only trouble is that this extravagant metaphorics could lead almost anywhere, and if we free associate television with fire, light, luminosity and insight we might merely meditate upon knowledge and vision, the daylight (let there be light…), the lantern (Zarathustra…) and the lamp (Aladdin…). Stories are not enough here. As if enlightenment were an unproblematic advance (as an alternative to detention camps and god-bothering leaderships on crusade, it surely is… but), fire is also a weapon (literally as fire-power, and also as firewater). So burn your TV. And burn down the camps. Though it destroys, fire may also cleanse. It is divine avenging spirit and productive furnace of hell, with Lucifer it is both the fall and purgatory. May Day though is the celebration of both Beltane and workers’ power; fire produces both steam and ash; energy and residue. It is made by friction or a spark; a smouldering beginning or a sudden crash of lightning; the image of god, spirit, cherubim; yet also hocus pocus, and obscurantist smoke and fug; fiery, inflamed, incandescent, excited; related both to flagrant and flamboyant. Why then is it that so often television does not at all encourage that ‘reverie’ that Bachelard identified in fire (this is also discussed in Moore 2000:130 Savage Theory). Late night TV is especially evocative of the narcoleptic camp-fire – flickering shadows the only light lulling us towards unconsciousness. The embers of the late late show shine with a soporific glow and contemplation need not be profound. We need that torture light smack in the eyes.

I hope old Plato will turn in his cave (and perhaps see the sun). The inmates of Guantanamo do not have sets in their cages, but they are the screen on which our social conscience is shown, and it is found wanting.

For all those in detention everywhere, and for Kadhr, Bisher, Hicks, El Hadj Boudella, the Bosnian Six, Abbasi, Sharif, Shah and all the others.

5 thoughts on “The Guantanamo Cages”

  1. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

    A while back I came across this:

    In July 2005, I took a course led by former US military
    interrogators designed for people in the private sector who
    want to learn their techniques for extracting information. I took a group of six women with me and filmed our workshop. The video, which will premiere in March 2006 at MC Projects in Los Angles, is about our learning experience. The training involved an immersive simulation of being prisoners of war: we were ambushed, captured, stripped searched, thrown in the pen and subject to several interrogations. Afterwards, in a classroom scenario, the tactics used against us were analyzed and we were taught to do what had been done to us.

    The detail I focus on for this group performance is the act of cleaning the floor with a toothbrush. Reports have surfaced that American soldiers order prisoners to clean their cells with toothbrushes for hours at a time.
    I am staging a street performance in front of a building that represents US interests in Sao Paolo. The performers will be dressed in the orange suits that have become an internationally recognized symbol of detention. We will get on our knees and sweep the street in front of the building with toothbrushes together.

    I’m sure she means well, but these works still make my blood boil. If you feel differently about these performances, by all means elaborate, cos I just get pissed.



  2. and you should also dedicate this post to Shilpa, incarcerated in the racist Big Brother House. I know you love that show, and Russel Brand, but wot they are dealing out to the Bollywood star is a scandal.


  3. From: The AGE
    Penelope Debelle, Adelaide
    January 31, 2007

    Lawyers dismayed at chained, unkempt Hicks

    LOOKING older, bearded, dishevelled and shackled to the floor, Australian Taliban fighter David Hicks was heartened to learn on Monday that he had not been abandoned by the Australian public, his Adelaide lawyer David McLeod says from Cuba.

    Chained to the floor in an observation room at Guantanamo Bay during a two-hour visit on Monday, Hicks, 31, had visibly deteriorated in the past 12 months, Mr McLeod said yesterday.

    Both Mr McLeod, on his fifth visit to see Hicks, and Hicks’ other Australian foreign attorney consultant, Sydney solicitor Michael Griffin, who last saw him 14 months ago, were shocked at the state Hicks was in and found the shackles particularly confronting.

    While the Democrats’ Natasha Stott Despoja yesterday called for an immediate psychiatric assessment and Labor’s Kelvin Thomson demanded action from Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said a senior US consular official was due to arrive in Guantanamo Bay soon, hoping to see Hicks.

    A spokesman for Mr Downer said the minister was looking forward to getting a report back from the official on Hicks’ condition.

    It is understood the visit — the second consular visit in a fortnight — was not a direct response to the latest reports of Hicks’ deterioration. After a reportedly cursory consular visit earlier this month, Hicks’ US lawyer, Major Michael Mori, said Hicks was being put on display “like a monkey in a cage”.

    Hicks’ unkempt appearance followed his move in early December from Camp Five to the newly constructed, $37 million, maximum-security Camp Six where his hairbrush, comb and shaving mirror were confiscated. Mr McLeod said Hicks was suffering the effects of prolonged deprivation and lack of privacy and was forced to use a toilet in his cell in full view of the guards.

    His new cell inside the Camp Six concrete fortress — described in a legal claim by another detainee as being like a Nazi camp — was fully enclosed, with no windows or natural light. Hicks had seen the sun only three times since early December, he told his lawyers. He was locked up for 22 hours a day with no access to other prisoners, his meals were passed into his cell and he saw other detainees — most of whom did not speak English — during randomly timed shower and recreation periods, sometimes late at night or early in the morning.

    Mr McLeod said Hicks, who turns 32 in August, looked closer to 40, with receding hair, hollow eyes, dishevelled appearance and suffering serious depression.


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