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November 1, 2005

Indefinite Detention

I'm currently reading Judith Butler's Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence for the paper I'll be delivering at MLA. So far, I've read only the Introduction, but the book appears to address many of the questions I want to discuss, especially in terms of the issue of the public sphere after September 11.

Butler also has a chapter titled "Indefinite Detention," which focuses on the detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay (the current number is around 500), many for over four years now. A number of these prisoners have never been charged with a crime, and as Butler points out, "these prisoners are not considered 'prisoners' and receive no protection from international law" (xv). It's now widely acknowledged that the US does not consider itself bound to the Geneva Convention in its treatment of the prisoners, leading Butler to argue that by this logic, "the humans who are imprisoned in Guantanamo do not count as human" (xvi).

I'm citing Butler in detail this morning because Josh White of The Washington Post is reporting on the attempted suicide of Jumah Dossari, the 36th documented attempted suicide in teh past twenty months. Dossari's suicide attempt is receiving attention because he chose to attempt suicide while his lawyer was visiting him to work on his case. The article also reports on the ongoing hunger strikes by many of the detainees.

Dossari's lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan reads his client's suicide attempt and the hunger strikes much like I do, as an attempt to reclaim some form of identity or subjecthod through control over their bodies:

Detainees "see it as the only means they have of exercising control over their lives," Colangelo-Bryan said in publicly describing the incident for the first time. "Their only means of effective protest are to harm themselves, either by hunger strike or doing something like this."
The article also lists a number of abuses that Dossari and others have reported during their incarceration in Guantanamo. A spokesperson from the prison identifies the hunger strikes and the abuse claims as tactics of a certain terrorist organization. Such a claim seeks to silence even these limited attempts at criticism. It's this second question, the limits of what can and cannot be said, that I'm planning to address in my paper. I'm working from this question as it has manifested itself in popular culture (hence my recent discussion of "independent cinema"), but the intersction of ideas between Butler's book and White's Post article seemed worth noting.

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Posted by chuck at November 1, 2005 8:49 AM

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