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I’ve been away from the blog for quite a spell. In the short history of blogging it’s already apparent that this is a quite normal devlopment–often followed by complete dormancy. Too soon to tell with me.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on the broad investigation I think of as “In Dark Rooms.” I’ll have some things to share, I hope, in the coming weeks.

But I’ve been mostly focused this year (after teaching and bureaucracy, of course) on what I hope is the pentultimate revision of my book project titled Las Vegas Culture. It will be going to readers again soon, I hope, and I can spend more time on the torture and performance work.

I was thinking today on my walk about whether my mental separation between the Dark Rooms stuff and my “happier” thinking about performance is important or not. I mean, all theatres are mostly dark rooms (or rooms that are sometimes dark), and human rights issues actually play some role, in an indirect way, in my thinking about Vegas.

So there might be a reshaping in the works of how I think about…my work.


It’s been an exceptionally busy semester, which has made for slow work on Dark Room and related work, but I did manage to pull together a talk for an interesting gathering: “Estudos Performativos. Global Performance/ Political Performance,” Centro de Estudos HumanÍsticos, Universidade Do Minho, Braga, Protugal. The company was humbling, but the opportunity to work through what’s bascially the foundational thinking for the academic side of this project was useful. My talk was called “Force Multiplier: What Performance Can Do For and Against Torture.”

I first used a revised version of my earlier rant about Christopher Durang’s play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them to demonstrate “the difficulties which theatre performance faces in doing anything about torture, and introduce the possibility that anti-torture performance risks missing a forest of violence in focusing on a few spectacularly violated trees.” I then fleshed out my argument that “torture is a performance relation” in which performance operates as a “force multiplier,” to use a military term. In short, performance functions to multiply the force of violence and other cruelty. I was pretty happy with the talk and got some very useful feedback. I think they’ll publish the proceedings, so some version of this will go in.

The first performance of Dark Room happened as part of the “Shifts” program of the 15th Performance Studies International (PSi) conference in Zagreb. This showing was developed with Zagreb performers Selma Banic and Vilim Matula in the roles of Dancer and Vocalist. While I would certainly call this the debut performance, it was not really the first of the community-addressed performances that are the eventual goal. Rather, it had the feel of a culmination (or maybe just continuation) of the listening “rehearsals” from the past year.

L-R: Selma Banich, Michael Peterson, Vilim Matula

L-R: Selma Banich, Michael Peterson, Vilim Matula

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Christopher Durang’s hit new play Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them sparkles with classic Durang wit and satirizes with the force Durang possesses at his best, but also reveals troubling limits to how our theatre seems to be able to contemplate violence. Durang understands that torture involves a set of performance relations and makes use of many theatrical elements, but the play first insists on the real violence at the heart of that performance and then turns away from it. Along the way, Why Torture is Wrong… provides a clear example of an ostensibly anti-torture work that fails to account for a broader context of human violence.

(Photo from

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When the CIA says “sleep deprivation,” they mean forced shackling and forced positions, suspension, production of swelling in the lower extremities, disorientation and fear, humiliation, diet manipulation and slow starvation, along with forced wakefulness.(Firedoglake » Torture: What’s in a Name? It Was Never Just “Sleep Deprivation”)

This important post by Jeff Kaye (drawing on reporting from the LA Times and Washington Independent) establishes clearly why, as Kaye says, we must always write the term “sleep deprivation” in scare quotes. This is an important general principle of how “stealth” techniques (what Rejali calls “clean” tortures) work: even if discovered–and here we are having the absurd discussion of sleep deprivation as if it were not in and of itself a torture technique–they mask the violent regime performed to enact them behind the theatrical front of something so quotidian that a casual glance cannot recognize it as torture.

We have failed as a nation in allowing torture. We will fail again if we don’t learn the full story and prosecute where appropriate as many of the guilty as possible.

[Vagabond Scholar: Torture Versus Freedom]

Blogs are producing much of the best writing about the current torture narratives in the US. Firedoglake is a group blog that is very strong on the political angles, and Balkinazation is often an excellent source of legal analysis and features a collection of “Anti-Torture Memos” by law prof Jack Balkin and others. There are many others; the above post from Vagabond Scholar is a nearly comprehensive bibliography and link-dump as well as a clearly reasoned, if impassioned, argument for investigations and prosecutions.

There’s been so much going on related to the overall project and to the performance that I haven’t managed to post about any of it (and, as usual, other projects have demanded attention), but the time in BsAs has moved Dark Room forward in numerous ways, including the inspiring, intriguing and occasionally perplexing theatre I’ve seen here. Read More »

It seems like every week brings more horrible details about the use of torture on “high-value” US detainees (and a corresponding paucity of coverage of our treatment of run-of-the-mill prisoners). This Washington Post piece has a good roundup of the travesty of the torture of Abu Zubaida.

Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots

The application of techniques such as waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning that U.S. officials had previously deemed a crime — prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts. Abu Zubaida began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction.

This paragraph perpetuates the infuriating usage of “simulation” and
other theatrical language to describe waterboarding (my preferred
description is probably “controlled drowning,” which may imply that interrrogators have more “control” over violence than they do, but it at least doesn’t negate the drowning part). On the other hand, the piece is pretty clear about the clusterfuck this technique produced, as the prisoner stopped providing useful information and more or less broke down in multiple senses, both going crazy and making up ever more incredible stories to make it stop.

The blogger Digby has a good take on this in a discussion of “torture metrics” in which he compares Rumsfeld’s pressure for torture-based intelligence with the obsession with “body counts” of the military under Robert McNamara.

Pedro was until recently resident director of Trinity College’s human rights program in South America. He was a law student and activist in Chile’s socialist party until the coup in 1973. After arrest, torture and years of exile, he returned to Chile and was one of the initial organizers behind the re-dedication of the former torture site at Villa Grimaldi as a peace park and memorial.


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The anti-torture blog Invictus has a good analysis of this Daily Mail article about Binyam Mohamed’s account of his torture by the United States. The focus is on MI5’s complicity in his abuse, but Invictus also links Andy Worthington’s analysis, which frames the issue squarely as one of the US attempting to manufacture information–in other words, to use torture to construct an evidentiary performance from him. This passage from Invictus (emphasis added)  in particular grabbed me:

The Binyam Mohamed case is one that wakes people up, at least it has in Great Britain. (See Glenn Greenwald’s story comparing the U.S. to British coverage of the case.) But damn if I don’t know what it will take to unfreeze U.S. society on this topic. Torture remains a little understood and embarrassing subject in U.S. circles. It’s dimly recognized that if the lid were totally taken off, much of the establishment leadership in the U.S. would be revealed as culpable, or at least compromised. Hence, mainstream opinion makers are attempting to keep whatever scandals within “reasonable” limits.