Rage against the Machine

I was thinking about recent discussions on Savage Minds, from Laura’s posts on anthropology and torture, to the petition posted by Oneman when I heard this story on NPR’s On the Media. It discusses how music is being used in interrogations at Guantanamo.

The piece is relevant to Laura’s posts in that the use of music is based on the Army’s own cultural theories about Muslims:

the music that was picked was picked partially because it was aggressive and loud, and it was also meant to be insulting to a Muslim. A lot of very devout Muslims don’t believe they, you know, are allowed to listen to music at all, let alone sort of Western music.

The broadcast, together with a followup piece, also touched on how musicians have reacted to the use of their music in interrogations. This includes efforts to sue the US Government for royalty payments as a kind of protest. The different attitudes of the two bands discussed by David Peisner is interesting. The bassist for Drowning Pool said:

kids in America pay to listen to music. You know, if the worst thing that happens to these guys who are detained that, you know, that they get blasted with loud music for a few hours, I don’t see what the harm is, especially if we might be able to prevent a future terrorist attack.

While the members of Rage Against the Machine “sent letters to the State Department and the Armed Forces to try and stop this from happening.”

I wonder how current debates on this blog would be recast if discussed in terms of music. Would signing a petition against the use of music in interrogation somehow restrict the artistic freedom of musicians? Would failure to sign such a petition meant that artists whose work was used by the military were somehow complicit? Is the really interesting anthropological question the theory of culture in which loud music is considered fun for American youth but torture for Muslims? These are complex issues and I thought it might be interesting to look at them from another angle.

12 thoughts on “Rage against the Machine

  1. Am not sure that the analogies between using a musicians work and using anthropology hold much water. Anthropological collaborations with interrogation are much worse than just using one’s music because any repeated noise will serve the function of torture (I think NPR got this wrong), but anthropological knowledge is gained by negotiated interactions with people.

  2. Krag,

    I think you are wrong on two counts. First of all, it seems pretty clear that it matters to the interrogators that they aren’t just using just any noise. Whatever your theory may be of what works for torture, it isn’t the theory that they are using. Secondly, I think it is arguable that for an organization like the military we could say that “any theory of culture will serve the function of torture” and that from the military standpoint it doesn’t much matter where it comes from or how it is produced.

    Sure there are important differences between anthropology anthropologists and musicians, I just don’t think that they are as simple as you portray them.

  3. Krag, your comment is interesting: you write that “anthropological knowledge is gained by negotiated interactions with people.” How do you distinguish between anthropological knowledge and cultural knowledge? Can anybody “do” anthropology? I’ve been thinking about that a lot and would be interested in hearing how you unpack that – it’s an interesting question. Also, what does it mean to characterize suffering as culturally specific? Would what’s happening in GTMO be miserable to anyone?

    I came across one account in the Schmidt-Furlow investigation at GTMO where music described as “satanic” was being played to a detainee for hours on end – and the interrogator dressed up as a priest and baptized him to save his soul (I was raised as a Catholic and even I found this bizarre).

    There are various versions of this story, actually. In one story, the incidents are split apart: there’s the playing of rock music described as “satanic,” and another where the interrogator dresses as a priest and baptizes a detainee. Which raises another interesting point, one that I hinted at in my Lagouranis post: the circulation of stories, folklore, about what “works” in interrogation.

    Rock music seems to be one of the major coercive techniques that the DoD uses; Lagouranis describes it, too, and FBI personnel complained to their superiors about the DOD using it as a coercive technique.

    I’m not sure where this comes from, actually. I checked “KUBARK”:www.mindcontrolforums.com/kubark.htm#IXE, which suggests using sensory deprivation to force the subject into a state of regression, but its authors are equivocal about the use of sound (you can read KUBARK for the rest of the story about interrogation):

    “A number of experiments conducted at McGill University, the National Institute of Mental Health, and other sites have attempted to come as close as possible to the elimination of sensory stimuli, or to masking remaining stimuli, chiefly sounds, by a stronger but wholly monotonous overlay. The results of these experiments have little applicability to interrogation because the circumstances are dissimilar. Some of the findings point toward hypotheses that seem relevant to interrogation, but conditions like those of detention for purposes of counterintelligence interrogation have not been duplicated for experimentation.”

    I’ll see what I can find in SERE about where this comes from.

    To follow onto Kerim’s question, I wonder if there some (pseudo?) psychological theory justifying this… and if so, would any music do, or does it have to be Rage Against the Machine? Or is this another expression of US male youth culture, as Gregory Starrett wrote in his post?

  4. I remember hearing, right around the time my daughter had colic, that a frequent feature of the torturer’s repertoire is the crying baby. I can say that I have some first-hand experience of just how effective that technique might be.

    So I have a started a petition on behalf of babies everywhere, against using their fundamentally peace-loving emissions for purposes of torture…

    ok. now I know I’ve gone too far 🙂

  5. Ckelty,

    Oh my god, I just about fell off my chair laughing when I saw this.

    I have to admit – I find Rage Against the Machine completely tortuous listening. Perhaps worse than a screaming baby or a wailing llama (actually, llamas are very quiet, but the dogs do wail sometimes).

  6. During Bush the Elder’s invasion of Panama, I recall, the song “Panama” by Van Halen and excerpts from the Howard Stern show where blasted at the Nunciature where Noriega was holed up. Until the Vatican complained that is. Who knew the Pope was a fan?

    The exploration of musical effects on the enemy must have a long history though – bagpipers spring to mind. Since both sides must hear the sound there is, of course, always a gradient of appeal and that is part of the othering of war: what you hate we love.

    I am going off piste now but wasn’t there something somewhere on US troops in Iraq making their own soundtracks to battle? A little Pantera on the iPod goes down a treat while using an M60. I guess they all grew up with Apocalpyse Now and Platoon.

  7. I find it amusing the US government was using Rage Against the Machine music to “torture: prisoners since Rage of Against the Machine’s songs have a largely anti-capitalist, anti-corporate tone. The band has always been explicit that there message is Marxist. You would think that the military would think about the content of the music that they are using.

  8. Tim,

    I do believe you’re right about soldiers making soundtracks. Anne Irwin, a Canadian anthropologist who’s spent time with the troops in Afghanistan, could probably tell you about that.

    Grad Student Guy, Wow, there’s some irony. I’ll go look up the lyrics (but I can’t promise I’ll like them any better). Of course, if the goal is noise, then the lyrics probably don’t matter…

    I don’t know that the content matters anyway – I think it’s the noise level, and the goal of creating disorientation. At one point in Tony Lagouranis’ book, he writes that he got sick of the loud music and switched to something he found far more tortuous: a recording of Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofolo reading _Feel this Book_:

    bq. Their long discussion of relationships was lost on my prisoners, but their high voices and inane antics, when echoed and amplified through the shipping container, became distorted and painful, at least to me. If the goal was disorientation, this would do just as well as anything – and probably would do the job better than the James Taylor albums that I forced some prisoners to listen to.

    If you all haven’t looked at it yet, the web link that JBJ pointed out has a link to an article that a musicologist wrote about music in torture. It’s really interesting.

  9. This reminds me of Saturday mornings in Canada when I used to turn on the channel serving the Indian community in Vancouver. My brother would go ballistic over the Indian music videos which I found quite enjoyable.

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