Monday, October 5, 2009

Interrogations - Coco Fusco and a call to arms

A Field Guide for Female Interrogators

Coco Fusco

A review, sort of:

Coco Fusco’s A Field Guide was oddly powerful. Short, only 142 pages long, with large type, it took me less than an hour to read. Yet, I wouldn’t call it an easy book. It hits home in a number of ways – asking, in essence, that we confront our understandings of, and admit our biases and stereotypes about, women, war, torture, and fear to name just a few of the things she covers.

I found myself taking notes on almost every page. Not just about my project on the Hercules Teams in NYC but about the importance of thinking about how our accepted cultural norms are embedded so deeply that even those of us who consider ourselves feminists, even those of us who (think we) oppose(d) the War on Terror and all it entails, and even those of us who were horrified and sickened by the (fraction of the total number of) abuses revealed in Iraq, are in many ways complicit with the very actions we (conceptually) abhor.

Fusco starts with her own reactions to the photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and follows those reactions through to a rather despairing conclusion: that at least in the military, feminism seems to have devolved into a simple equation: equality = act just like a man. And that includes perpetrating violence in a number of arenas – particularly in interrogation rooms.

In order to understand interrogation techniques so she can hope to understand why women seem to be participating without qualm, Fusco and a group of women academics attend an interrogation school. While she learns a lot, she doesn’t seem to learn quite what she’d hoped to; she was looking for the why, and she got the how. Still, she successfully gives us a sense of the setting, and the possibility for understanding how sexuality and vulnerability come into play in the wielding of power.

Fusco’s continued use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to refer to women bothered me at first. In essence this phrasing pulls all women into her point of view, and assumes that our perceptions and reactions will be the same as hers – because we are women. Cultural theorists and feminists have spent a great many years taking this notion apart. “Women” is not ‘a group’ defined by any characteristics that cross all the boundaries, and cannot be understood as such. Eventually I realized that Fusco does this on purpose. ‘We’ are indeed who she speaks for – maybe women, maybe Americans, maybe Westerners, maybe the readers of her book. Whoever ‘we’ are, she is part of us.

This is based on the same argument as her exploration of the source of our shock when we find out that women have participated voluntarily in strategic aggression: power plays with fellow soldiers, and harsh and violent interrogation techniques. Her argument is that our shock at finding out that women participated in the abuses in Abu Graib, and that female soldiers in fact (appear to) use their femininity as power, is unfounded because it is based on American society’s belief in a false collective female ethical or moral high ground based on our history as oppressed victims. In other words: we believe women wouldn’t really participate in torture because they / we are somehow not wired that way; they / we are ethically / morally unable to use power in that manner.

I felt the same resistance to her use of the initials US (without the periods, as in U.S.) to refer to the United States). The United States became US became us, became me. Her use of language made me part of the problem.

And yet, that indeed is her entire point. I am complicit. Her book is a call to arms, really, and a challenge. Do ‘we’ sit back and continue to rationalize this War on Terror and the abuses it is perpetrating on hundreds of thousands of people away by ignoring it, by assuming that our protests of its inception were enough, by feeling horrified? Or do we step up?

At least, that’s what I took from it. And my answer is that I step up.

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