The Subject is Torture: Rollins Prize Winner

The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film. Hilary Neroni. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.


Note: This book was selected as the Rollins Prize Winner as the best new book on popular/American culture by an author living or working in New York of New England.


imgresHilary Neroni’s excellent new book The Subject of Torture breaks exciting new ground for the disciplines of pop culture and body studies. Her central argument posits that in the wake of the Al-Qaeda attacks, American popular culture became deluged with images of torture particularly in film and television, but also in print images and that society was ready and eager to absorb these images. She argues that American society was already well positioned to accept the prominence of these images as the function of biopolitics in American culture had prepared the media to disseminate images of the dehumanization of individual bodies for a public that accepted that bodies- especially foreign and Islamic bodies- could easily be viewed and exploited as sites of pain and political power.

Neroni builds her argument brilliantly and with great expertise. She begins with the historical moment, specifically the photos released from Abu Ghraib in April 2004. As shocking as they were, these images seamlessly entered the American mainstream media and migrated easily into pop culture. She analyzes the cultural response to the photos and explains their historical and social importance. Then, she turns her attention to their influence on the growing acceptance and prevalence of torture in documentary films such as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), Taxi to the Other Side (2007) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008). All of these documentaries condemned the use of torture as a military weapon, a theme that contrasts sharply with fictional depictions of torture that tend to be more patriotic, glorious and glamorous. From documentaries, she moves to an examination of the evolution of torture porn as an increasingly noticeable genre in film, a genre that she feels has grown in popularity based on Americans’ constant exposure to images of torture and acceptance of its use in places such as Abu Ghraib. Specifically, she looks at the films from the Saw and Hostel series. Finally, she continues following the connections from historical event to documentary to silver screen to television. Neroni argues that the explosion of shows featuring torture fantasies and American force as evidenced in 24, Homeland and Alias reveal a new phase in the development of American identity and its sense of place in the world- namely as a protective nation empowered to use any conceivable method to guarantee security in a frightening world.

Neroni’s careful and thoughtful argument addresses all facets of torture in contemporary American culture. She meticulously defines her terms, provides the legal and political context in which to understand the international understanding of torture and engages current theory as well as Freud and psychoanalysis. She unpacks the historiographical arguments that have been made about power as well as current academic work being done on bodies. She wrestles with theories of sadism and desire. She explains and responds to both Foucault’s and Georgio Agamben’s theories on biopolitics as she advances her own theories about the role biopolitics play in dominating American popular culture’s fascination with displaying bodies in pain.

This book is beautifully written and organized. Each chapter solidly advances and develops her thesis. Neroni offers a deep analysis of a variety of pop culture media that she constantly relates back to her main thesis. The writing and analytical strength of this monograph would be reason enough to assign the book in an undergraduate course.

The Subject of Torture demonstrates all that the academic study of popular can be. She analyzes the images found on film and television to identify the ideological shifts happening in American politics and public discourse as the result of recent profoundly violent historical events and an emerging emphasis on biopolitics because of pop culture’s growing fixation with torture.


Katherine Allocco

Western Connecticut State University

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