Rhetoric in the Time of Torture argues for a renewed attention to the rhetorical dimensions of torture, in light of the U.S.’s post-9/11 reliance on so-called heavy interrogation techniques, by analyzing the relationships between rhetoric, torture, and temporality. In rhetorical studies, we rightfully celebrate rhetoric’s democratic and emancipatory possibilities, including the efforts of survivors to exercise agency in spite of their experiences of trauma. However, we tend not to think of torture itself in rhetorical terms. Scholars have compellingly examined the rhetoric of representations or justifications of torture, torture’s effects on witnesses/audiences, as well as the ways in which bodies in pain can nevertheless maintain forms of rhetorical agency; but we have shied away from thinking about interrogational torture as itself a rhetorical practice. I argue that recognizing torture’s rhetorical dimension is crucial to our understanding and critique of interrogational torture in the present day. Indeed, interrogational torture is never separate from its rhetoricity or its communicative urgency. The question remaining, then, is where does rhetorical theory fit in a world in which people torture others to make them speak.
This project articulates new dimensions to rhetorical and philosophical work on how rhetoric can both “unmake” and “make” the world. Following a curve from rhetorical “unmaking,” or destroying, to “making,” or creating, I analyze a variety of verbal, visual, and digital texts, including legal documents (i.e., select Torture Memos from the early 2000s), the Abu Ghraib image archives, and the Web sites of several humanitarian aid organizations. This textual and temporal breadth enables me to consider a range of audiences and rhetors, from attorneys in the Department of Justice to activists for Amnesty International, as well as the role particular media play in the production and dissemination of texts. While the dissertation’s framework is explicitly rhetorical, an attention to how temporalities structure “making” and “unmaking” highlights rhetoric’s reparative possibilities. Central to this project is the question of where rhetorical theory fits into a world in which people torture others to make them speak.
The first body chapter, “Torture-Memo Rhetoric and the Circumference of Torture,” is an avidly rhetorical approach to the language justifying torture in the Torture Memos. The chapter first proposes a renewed attention to the relationship between rhetoric and torture, particularly the way the two terms might engage in a reciprocal dialogue with one another. Using theories and terminology from such figures as Lloyd Bitzer, Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Kenneth Burke, I examine the bureaucratic and militaristic terms through which the authors of select Torture Memos rhetorically frame interrogational torture. I investigate how they characterize the human body, and, ultimately, how these rhetorical moves complicate our understanding of torture and its resulting disintegration of selves. Indeed, interrogation is not simply an invitation to speak, despite the emphasis often placed on information-retrieval. And yet the Torture Memos’ “ways of placement” seem to define interrogational torture as just that sort of stable question-and-answer scenario. The physical and psychological abuse of detainees is framed as either reinforcing the invitation to respond or inducing response once the invitation has been refused. Persuasion and force are both incompatible and complementary. So the rhetoric of torture begins to push back on our conceptions of the primacy of rhetoric. That is to say, while in this chapter I analyze torture-memo rhetoric, it becomes increasingly clear that rhetoric is not merely the way torture is expressed or justified verbally. Rhetoric is also framed by torture and produced within its coercive bounds. Despite the world- and language-destroying power of pain, in Scarry’s terms, the relationship between rhetoric and torture is far more complex than the term “of” in “rhetoric of torture” permits. As the next chapter discusses in more detail, when a third term is brought to bear on the rhetoric/torture pairing—in this case, temporality—all positions shift in orientation.
“Tortured Temporalities,” my next chapter, approaches the relation between torture and rhetoric through the lens of temporality. Philosophical theories of time and rhetoric scholars’ work on temporality and rhetoric help underscore the connection between the Torture Memos and actual torture. Indeed, one of my core assumptions is that temporality and timing are essential to contemporary understandings of torture, and I identify several aspects of torture’s temporal entanglements in order to better conceive of how time factors into justifications for and practices of torture. Interrogational torture, for example, achieves a kind of rhetorical efficacy due to its reliance on such kairotic scenarios as the “ticking time bomb.” From the horrifying call and response of torture-heavy interrogation, to the pre-interrogation “softening up” period, to the prolonged emergency state, to the temporal confusion that threatens to “unmake” the torture victim’s world, the process of torture is imbued with a morbid attention to timeliness. And, as these brief examples suggest, rhetoric is one of the means through which this tortured time plays out. Entailed in this rhetorical work is a temporal aspect of how torture itself functions.
Following the often destructive relationships outlined earlier, I shift to consider the ways in which digital rhetoric repairs or “makes” the world in the midst of torture and other human rights violations. “The Rhetorical Dimensions of Repair” argues that, from within the contested time-spaces of Abu Ghraib, there are opportunities for repair, or making right, even amidst a seemingly permanent state of unmaking. This chapter investigates making’s textual forms, particularly in digital texts designed specifically to promote awareness of, and hopefully alleviate, human rights abuses. Extending the work of digital rhetoric scholars like Barbara Warnick and Gregory Ulmer, I study the Web sites of the International Committee for the Red Cross and Amnesty International, with particular attention to the sites’ embedded social media, to suggest that rhetoric is also a way of making the world, of enacting the kind of distributed sentience so vital to the human experience. Through rhetorical interaction we can perform the ethical self-extension and meaningful “remaking” Scarry associates with artifact-creation. To understand interactivity as essential to making is also to recognize making as temporally situated, whether we see making as a process unfolding over time or comprised of networked forces that act and retreat in a complex temporal knot. Just as temporality is configured with rhetoric and torture, so too is it central to repair. The dual temporalities of Abu Ghraib—its life cycles and torture’s persistence over time—provide kairotic openings for action, if we consider the notion that repair itself takes time. Relying on theories of poiesis, kairos, and chronos, I argue that digital advocacy rhetoric and other forms of making are entwined with particular temporal logics. Kairos, by dint of its inventive and improvisational possibilities, proves especially crucial to making as an interactive process essential to living in the world. In light of broader concerns about the relationship between rhetoric and torture, the Web sites of the two aid organizations demonstrate what that interactive making process might look like in contemporary human rights contexts.
I close by considering the broader implications of these triangulations of torture/temporality/rhetoric for rhetorical theory. In particular, I highlight possibilities for the continued study of how rhetoric and kairos create opportunities for ethical intervention amidst pervasive structures of violence. Such an attention to timeliness in rhetorical action emphasizes the responsibilities of rhetoric as a generative, inventional, and human-centered approach to being in the world.