Iran -- Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran by Darius M. Rejali

By Lynd, Margaret | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Iran -- Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran by Darius M. Rejali


Lynd, Margaret, The Middle East Journal


Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran, by Darius M. Rejali. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994. xviii + 176 pages. Appends. to p. 213. Notes to p. 253. Bibl. to p. 276. Index to p. 289. $46.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

In Torture and Modernity, Darius M. Rejali attempts to account for the processes he believes of have led to the normalization of torture in the modern world. While focusing attention on historical and cultural details particular to Iran, Rejali situates his analysis within Michel Foucault's theoretical discussion of the political dimensions of modern disciplinary institutions and practices.(1) Rejali's book offers a thoughtful analysis of the Iranian situation, but also suggests more generally that modern states, regardless of their economic or political structure and even when they do not actively participate in torture, almost certainly have in place the disciplinary structures that allow them to slip easily into the aggressive use of torture to contain potentially subversive subjects.

The troubling question Rejali poses is whether modern torture is an aberration, an unfortunate consequence of singular configurations of circumstance and history, or whether, on the contrary, it is an integral element of the modern disciplinary state. Based on his analysis of Iran, Rejali convincingly concludes it to be the latter, at least when certain cultural features are also present. The insistence on the importance of cultural differences and propensities is central to Rejali's partial rejection of other theoretical positions, particularly Marxism and humanism, which, while useful, cannot fully account for the recurrence of torture. In fact, Rejali argues, torture in the modern state is a disciplinary mechanism parallel to, and fully consistent with, other institutionalized disciplinary systems--education, medicine, the military, law, labor, and penal. Like the disciplinary procedures of these seemingly more benign institutions, torture is contained, systematic, invasive--and very effective.

The function of torture in the late twentieth century, Rejali further contends, is rarely to extract information or confession, to exact retribution, or to underscore and deepen moral responsibility. Rather, in keeping with other disciplinary mechanisms, torture is intended to reform and normalize, to transform real, potential, or wholly imagined dissidents into docile and obedient subjects by invading the minds and bodies of its victims. The effects of modern torture--particularly its traumatizing psychological effects--produce subjects who not only pose little problem to authoritarian governments, but who also are likely to serve well an economic system that requires a tractable and unrebellious labor force.

While Rejali finds Foucault's articulation of discipline as a theoretical concept particularly useful to his own argument, he also faults Foucault for what he considers a general failing to take adequate account of cultural differences in his theoretical formulations. Moreover, he contends, far from explaining the persistence of modern torture, Foucault's writings, especially Discipline and Punish, suggest that as disciplinary procedures become entrenched, torture ceases to be a useful method of control. Rejali's answer to this apparent contradiction is to map out the various forms torture has taken in Iran over the past two centuries and compare them to the changes other mechanisms of order and control have similarly undergone. Torture and Modernity is persuasive in its call to study concrete historical/geographical/cultural situations, especially the specific disciplinary practices that characterize them, in order to understand more fully how modern (European) institutions have insinuated themselves and continue to function within a host of very diverse non-European societies. …

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