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Pathologizing Subjecthoods: Pop Culture, Habits of Thought, and the Unmaking of Resistance Politics at Guantanamo Bay

J. Marshall Beier, David Mutimer
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ips.12059 311-323 First published online: 1 September 2014


Beginning with a recurrent discussion about the choice between two imagined Star Trek technologies, the holodeck and the transporter, this article explores how popular culture can be revealing of ways in which political possibilities are variously made and foreclosed by dint of deeply held but underinterrogated ideational commitments circulating in the mundane and carried forward by what might seem unlikely voices. Tracing a few such commitments as they pertain to the legitimation and delegitimation of political subjecthood, we examine the political stakes of questions of agency and delusion through what were initially reported to have been the June 2006 suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the crisis that emerged with respect to multiple hunger strikes at that same facility some seven years later. Through these we ask whether there might be resistance-enabling possibilities as yet unimagined in agential choices that can so deeply offend prevailing sensibilities that it is sometimes difficult to abide them as valid choices at all. As we struggle with these resurgent security politics, it might seem frivolous to turn to film and television, or pub games at conferences, for guidance. What this article demonstrates is that these popular renderings of the limits of acceptable subjectivity draw on deep currents in our very broadest culture. In a very real sense, we are all very well prepared for our present political rendition.

Some years ago at York University, an otherwise mundane topic of lunchtime conversation gave rise to what has become an enduring and oft-times surprisingly impassioned debate. Carrying over into conference settings, its seemingly irresolvable deliberations have drawn in ever-widening circles of both faculty and graduate students, all of whom have committed with very little hesitation and quite unshakable resolve to one side or the other of an as yet unrealizable choice: transporter or holodeck? For those of us veterans who recall the first such discussion of the relative merits of these two imagined Star Trek technologies, its propagation has become part game and part alliance-building in the sense of seeking new adherents to our own preferred side (conversion, it seems, is next to impossible) in hopes of vindicating our enduring expressions of preference. As it happens, the split is very nearly even between those who, invariably citing its practicality, favor the promise of instantaneous, hassle-free site-to-site transport and those who, though often maligned as motivated by a prurient interest, opt for the ability to conjure illusory worlds of their choosing within the confines of the holodeck. It also happens that the debate has unfolded in ways unexpectedly revealing of the enduring hegemony of modernist commitments which underwrite an impoverished conception of political agency and delineate limits on imaginable oppositional subjectivity.

In the course of our own long advocacy for the holodeck as the more desirable choice, we have become increasingly attentive to the uneasiness evinced by many of our detractors at the thought of immersion in un-realities and, no less, at the possibility that one might be so seduced by them as to quit the “real world” altogether. In a construction that turns out to have quite widespread cultural purchase, self-delusion is simultaneously portended and pathologized—that is, the holodeck is marked as threatening for its potential to disaffect and a “real” life lived in simulation is implicitly understood to be bad. Agency is thus obviated altogether (the subject is seduced) or made suspect (no one in their right mind would choose disaffection). At the same time, however, there are important senses in which willful immersion in the “holo life” can be read to have unanticipated subversive potential. This article explores questions of agency and delusion through what were initially reported to have been the June 2006 suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the crisis that emerged with respect to multiple hunger strikes at that same facility some seven years later. Through these, it asks whether there might be resistance-enabling possibilities as yet unimagined in the worlds of imagining.

In pursuing this argument in the context of Star Trek's imagined technologies, we are building on a growing literature which is concerned with the intersection of popular culture and world politics (Weldes 2003; Weber 2005a,b, 2010; Campbell and Shapiro 2007; Grayson, Davies, and Philpott 2009). This body of scholarship has identified popular culture as an important site where power, ideology, and identity are constituted, produced, and/or materialized. There are a range of signifying and lived practices such as poetry, film, sculpture, music, television, leisure activities, and fashion which constitute popular culture. The point is that all of these elements contribute to a terrain of “exchange,” “negotiation,” “resistance,” and “incorporation” where the construction of the political and the type of politics it engenders are formed (Storey 2006:1–12). We are concerned with the formation, and negation, of forms of political subjecthood, and show how the ideas circulating through popular culture constrain possibilities in thinking about resistance.

Barclay's Dilemma

At the 2006 Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in San Diego, less than three months before the US Department of Defense reported that three suicides had taken place at Guantanamo, our persistent little contest played out in what have become quite predictable ways. New initiates who were offered the choice could scarcely have suspected what was at stake for those of us who sat waiting to exclaim a minor triumph or, alternatively, to mount our defense anew. Soon, however, they too were eagerly engaging others from one of just a very few familiar positions. No matter one's ultimate preference, the appeal of the transporter is never in question. An imagined teleportation device enabling unlimited and instantaneous travel across distances great enough to satisfy anyone's transportation needs on a planetary scale, the transporter was first and most vociferously championed by a colleague who measured her commute from home to the university in hundreds of kilometers. And it must fairly be acknowledged that missed connections and cancelled flights seldom fail to elevate for all of us the idea of simply “beaming” from site to site. But as compellingly as those things we must sometimes endure might speak the case, the argument in support of teleportation typically turns more on desire than on necessity: “Wouldn't it be wonderful,” transporter proponents suggest, “to visit Istanbul on a whim, and still be home for dinner if need be!”

Our answer to this has consistently been in the affirmative. It would indeed be a wonderful thing to trip off to faraway places for an afternoon but, we have hastened to add, this is something we can also accomplish with the holodeck. Rather than delivering travelers to other settings, the idea of the holodeck is that environs and contexts of one's choosing are simulated by advanced technologies that manipulate matter and energy in combination with holographic visual overlays. Though artificially generated and sustained, all things and beings on the holodeck are, per the generous imaginations of Star Trek's writers, experienced as tangible and corporeal in every sense and there is no place or encounter that cannot be convincingly simulated. To us, then, the choice of the holodeck has seemed patently obvious. We are already able, after all, to visit the “real” Istanbul by other, albeit less convenient, means such as air travel. If time were at a premium, we could also “visit” via holo simulation. Of course, the holodeck also raises the possibility of remaking or embellishing our destination in ways of our choosing, but we could just as easily opt for fidelity to “reality” in all aspects of look, feel, and experience. It is against this suggestion, however, that transporter proponents raise their most strenuous objection, reminding us that even if our holo simulated places seem real, they will never be real. And it is on this point that our more academic interest in the debate turns most vitally.

For passionate followers of the Star Trek franchise, our detractors' objection will already be intelligible. Indeed, since it was first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the holodeck has been rendered by the show's writers in ways that have paradoxically made this essentially recreational space one of the most dangerous of any found aboard the Enterprise and other ships, stations, and outposts of “The Federation.” While several episodes have played with the ill-effects of malfunctioning hardware and software, it is a failing of the wetware—that is, of the human user of the technology—that has been made to pose the most serious dilemmas. Soon after introducing the technology, TNG writers conceived the problem of holo-addiction: the (in)voluntary submission of oneself to a delusion, a perfectly realized simulation/simulacrum (Baudrillard 1994) of an external reality. Most memorably through the character of Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, a socially incompetent and perennially apprehensive officer whose many anxieties are a constant threat to his career, a number of Starfleet personnel have struggled with temptation in the lure of holodeck un-reality. Though he is by no means the only one we have seen succumb to some measure of holo-addiction, Barclay's has seemed the most acute case inasmuch as intervention and eventual sanction by his superiors ultimately proved necessary to curb his compulsion.

What is interesting is the particular way in which Barclay's obsession is pathologized. We might well imagine that sound appeal could be made to the collective needs of the crew since it is unlikely that a vessel on an extended voyage through deep space would carry superfluous personnel. But it is not on these terms that the reproach of his shipmates is predominantly premised. In Barclay's case, as much as with others who have flirted with the holo life, the principal objection of the writers through the characters to whom they give voice has been that what is seen, felt, and lived on the holodeck can never be “real.” Recreational illusion thus becomes pathological delusion in the instant that the a priori privileging of the “real” over the “un-real” is disputed. For Barclay, then, pathology resides in his inability to resist the compulsion to return to the simulation, to the un-real. His dilemma is that he cannot resist because it is only in simulation that he finds the confidence he otherwise lacks, with the result that the holodeck is the only place where he seems able to self-actualize. Importantly, this is not unconnected to his experiences off the holodeck where he is frequently the object of ridicule from others without regard to rank. Nevertheless, holo-addiction is in every instance a potential crisis and can never be allowed to go unanswered. Pace Star Trek's oft-repeated deference to the free choice of the individual, life lived too deeply immersed in simulation can only be understood to issue from some failing of discipline or rationality, so that none are permitted to make that choice.

This is entirely consistent with the wholly modernist frame and, to the extent that the legitimacy of the choice and competency of the agent to choose are disturbed, need not fatally contradict the heavily liberal-individualist leitmotif of TNG. But what preoccupied us in the airport departure lounge in San Diego was the recurrent puzzle of hearing these same objections from colleagues who, far from sharing the Enlightenment values and liberal-inspired inclinations of the imagined twenty-fourth century, are strongly committed to the constructedness of social life. That even poststructuralists seem not so easily to eschew them speaks to the enduring hold of modernist commitments that can be found lurking beneath the surface of so much trepidation at the idea of the holo life. This denial of legitimate subjectivity, it should be remembered, belongs not to the imagined future, but to the present in which it is intelligible. It is similarly revealing, then, to find so many other instances of its broader popular resonance as, for example, in the 1999 movie, The Matrix, in which the heroic figures of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus all choose existence in the hideous “desert of the real” while the murderously treacherous Cypher is desperate to return to a life of illusions. Here too, the choice of simulation/simulacrum over the “real” is presented as unambiguously pathological. It also bespeaks weakness of character and at least some measure of degeneracy: We see this very clearly in The Matrix as Cypher pauses to violate Trinity's unconscious body before moving to kill her; similarly, Star Trek's Barclay behaves inappropriately with a holographic simulation of a shipmate; and, of course, our own little game has invariably occasioned wry aspersions about the motives of those who would choose the holodeck.

Curiously, for all their concerns, the holodeck's critics do not disdain it altogether. On the contrary, just as we happily concede that we would quite like to have the transporter were the choice of the holodeck not available to us, so too transporter advocates simply express a preference. Likewise, even Barclay's harshest critics on TNG do not refrain from recreational use of the holodeck. What this suggests is that it is not imagined that it is the holodeck that corrupts those who use it. Rather, pathology precedes the decision to enter and belongs entirely to the holo-addict such that a preference for simulation/simulacrum over the “real” is merely a manifestation of latent degeneracy. Similarly, what transporter advocates in our game mark as pathological is not the desire to “visit” the simulated Istanbul, but the personal attributes of character producing the choice to put the simulated Istanbul more readily within reach than the “real” one. And since this preference is even more explicitly prior to the holodeck itself (none of us has yet been in one) than in Barclay's case, the pathology it signals can only be inscribed on us directly and is not reducible to the corrupting influence of the technology. Once more, there are but two possibilities as regards our disposition as agents: It is obliterated entirely by an apparent and recalcitrant incapacity/incompetence to decide, or it is rendered illegitimate by innate perversity. This very circumscribed agency admits of the capacity to choose but, as on TNG, the choice cannot be abided.

The Prisoners' Dilemma

By the time our plane from San Diego touched down in Denver and we settled into yet another lounge to await a connecting flight, our discussion had brought us to a point we might have liked to make to the transporter advocates at the conference, and perhaps most especially to those among them working through postmodern or poststructural social theory. Following the advice we have taken from this growing body of theory, we have a strong sense of our implication in myriad violences, not only through our work but in all aspects of our everyday. And we are no less sensitive to the indeterminacies of the “real,” however it may be (made) manifest. What, then, could be more subversive than willful—and purposeful, insofar as it is subversive—immersion in simulation? Surely there must be at least the potential for this to be a political act, born of a bona fide and legitimate oppositional subjectivity and recovering agency from the unduly abbreviated and stark duality of incompetence or perversity. And if this is not so, then we must ask whether the terms of the denial are so very different from those upon which postmodernism and poststructuralism have themselves so often been consigned to the apolitical and solipsistic abyss by their critics. Predicated on the (unsustainable) charge of infinite regress into relativism (Harvey 1990; Gross and Levitt 1994; Sokal and Bricmont 1998), this stock dismissal is reliant upon the disappearance of the subject in much the same way as are so many of the objections to the holo life. Having made this connection, we let the puzzle rest for a while, though we did resolve to write something about it at some point in the future.

All of this was recalled for us with the June 2006 deaths of three detainees at the ultra-high security “Camp One” at Guantanamo Bay. The three inmates who had reportedly hanged themselves using clothing and bed sheets, two Saudis and a Yemeni, were said to have been the first to successfully take their own lives since the United States began depositing prisoners in the “War on Terror” in the interstitial, sovereign-legal abyss at the US naval base in Cuba. Although it was subsequently alleged that the men in question may in fact have been murdered under torture by their captors, the official claim that they took their own lives nevertheless exposes aspects of the rendering of political subjects whose importance can scarcely be gainsaid. As Ali Howell has shown in a previous issue of this journal, the deaths were placed within two competing narratives, one of madness and one of despair (Howell 2007:30). Both of these narratives, however, deny the prisoners access to political agency. The report of suicides wrought a not insignificant politico-diplomatic crisis for the Bush Administration and gave renewed strength to international calls for the deliverance of all detainees from the limbo of “Gitmo” to the protections and guarantees of the Geneva Conventions, if not of the US Constitution. Marked as “unlawful combatants” by their captors, the prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere are also caught in a seemingly intractable crisis of agency inasmuch as they are utterly unable to affect an oppositional subject position that is simultaneously legitimate and practicable. That is, the legitimate conventions of the “lawful combatant” are not practically at their disposal against the unmatchable capabilities of the US military (something already demonstrated to dramatic effect in the 1991 war), but the more practical asymmetric forms of armed resistance are denied any legitimacy. On these terms, they are definitively denied any subject position other than acquiescence.

Given the widely publicized austerity of the conditions of their confinement, charges of abuse whose credibility rests at least in part on the Bush Administration's defense of practices widely regarded as constituting torture (to say nothing of the 2003 photographic revelations from Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison), and their essential non-status in sovereign-legal terms, the reports of suicides of the three prisoners at Camp One readily summoned an expectation of utter despair. But without at all diminishing the anguish and desperation that must certainly come of indefinite imprisonment under harsh conditions and without recourse, it should be noted that this has the effect of repeating the denial of agency and erasure of an authentic subject position accomplished to such great effect in the rhetoric of the “War on Terror.” That is to say, if suicides are induced by despair at circumstances entirely beyond the prisoners' control, then they are merely consequences of the agency of others and, in this case, an expression of little more than the limits of what the three men were able to bear. The dilemma for the prisoners, then, is that sympathy at their plight divested them of agency and thus occluded what might otherwise be read as the exercise of an oppositional politics.

Under extraordinarily regimented high security conditions of incarceration, the only potential for prisoners to exercise any form of control over their circumstances might be in taking their own lives. Indeed, even this is disallowed—a prohibition enforced by rigorous prevention measures which themselves signal a focus for oppositional action if they can be breached. Underscoring this, even before Manei Shaman Turki al-Habadi, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, and Ali Abdulah Ahmed were reported to have succeeded in strangling themselves (the low headroom in their cells precluded breaking their own necks) on June 9, 2006, they had already endured forced feedings in response to a month-long hunger strike (Rose 2006).

Suicide as something more than an outcome of despair is not at all a new idea. Though demanded of him by the law, Socrates famously drank the hemlock prescribed as the manner of his execution without protest or hesitation in what can only be read as a political act. And agency is found wedded to an explicitly oppositional stance in the case of every condemned person who ever “cheated the hangman.” For Friedrich Nietzsche, even natural death follows from the agency of the one who has died, “[o]nly it is death under the most contemptible conditions, a death which is not free, a death at the wrong time, a coward's death” (Nietzsche 1998:61). His aversion is to “natural death,” which he sees as a choice since one could always have chosen to end one's own life at some earlier point. Nietzsche (1996:355) therefore champions “rational death” (suicide):I am speaking of involuntary (natural) and voluntary (rational) death. Natural death is death independent of all reason, actual irrational death, in which the wretched substance of the husk determines how long the kernel shall or shall not continue to exist: in which therefore the stunted, often sick and thick-witted prison warder is the master who decides the moment at which his noble prisoner shall die.

While the metaphor of the prison warder is quite literally applicable to the case of the Guantanamo suicides, Nietzsche's is still an impoverished account of agency in the context we wish to explore here to the extent that what he advocates is little more than mastery over the timing of a death that cannot be avoided. Though he is able to connect this to broader social concerns, his is still a case about the management of death itself as opposed to the use of death in some other political purpose. What interests us here, by way of contrast, is an understanding of suicide not simply as an act of desperation or of surrender to the inevitable, but as an ultimate act of subversion, purposefully conceived.

Whatever the limitations of the agency he sketches, Nietzsche does crucially expose the violence of denying a legitimate subject position. Specifically, he rails against the Christian and concomitant cultural prohibition on suicide that pathologizes with imputations of, variously, sin and irrationality. Analogous to those who would choose the holo life, the choice of suicide connotes either desperation or derangement but cannot be decoded as a legitimate choice—the person who commits it either suffers from pathology or is caught in circumstances that are pathological. It is in one or the other of these senses that any remedy must be imagined, but suicide itself can never be allowed to be a remedy. Suicide therefore can no more be abided than what is pathologized as “holo-addiction” can be. Consequently, those who have been disallowed a legitimate subject position in war are similarly and, paradoxically, even by voices raised with sympathetic and emancipatory intent, denied the possibility of this oppositional subjectivity as well. And denied subjectivity, their actions cease to be their own and become, indirectly, those of their jailers. Though this in itself is certainly pregnant with oppositional political potential, it is contingent on the disappearance of the agency and political subjectivity of men who, for all practical intents and purposes, are reduced to little more than a form of “collateral damage.”

Without wanting to valorize the violence of suicide, can we not still recognize the possibility of something more in it than mere pathology or desperation? This too is fraught with peril and nowhere is this more apparent than in the ascription of agency and oppositional subject positions to the three men at Guantanamo from what might have seemed an unlikely source: the commander of Camp One, US Rear Admiral Harry Harris. Explicitly refuting the suggestion that the reported suicides of June 2006 had come of despair, and while holding steadfast to the claim that the prisoners had taken their own lives, Harris described the dead men as “smart” and “creative” but added, “They have no regard for life, either ours or their own.” And, finding a clear oppositional political purpose in their imputed final acts, he offered that, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us” (BBC News 2006). But even as they are imbued with agency and ascribed an oppositional subjectivity, Harris' remarks about the men who died in his charge betrayed a refusal of legitimacy that reinscribed them as “unlawful combatants” who did not even value their own lives. Still, the danger in seeking to recover a richer agency is that it might well be that the three men said to have taken their own lives at Camp One did indeed do so, and out of despair—to argue otherwise might thus be to ally oneself with those who imprisoned them without due process and who therefore had a stake in casting them as oppositional subjects when they might better be described as the hapless wrongly accused. The point, then, is not that the reported suicides were suicides, or that they necessarily were oppositional political acts, but that they could have been.

Camus' Dilemma

The question of permissible and impermissible forms of political subjectivity has been posed throughout the history of Western political thought. Perhaps the first expression of what we have termed Barclay's, or perhaps Cypher's, dilemma is in Plato's famous allegory of the cave. At the outset of Book VII of The Republic, Plato has his Socrates pose the problem of enlightenment through the extended consideration of what is perhaps the earliest description of the virtual reality that would later be imagined as the Holodeck, or perhaps more accurately the Matrix:And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. (Plato 2008:972)

The people in Plato's allegory know only this existence, but then Socrates imagines what would be the result of one of them breaking free, turning around and seeing the sun, and from there leaving the cave to experience the “real” world. He wonders about how that transition would happen, building an analogy of “enlightenment” from the effects of bright light on those kept in darkness, but when the former prisoner has acclimatized to the light, Socrates asks: “And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?” (Plato 2008:976).

So, just as Barclay and Cypher make impermissible choices by choosing to live in the Holodeck or Matrix, so too those in the cave are to be pitied and drawn to enlightenment. The technology with which Plato was forced to work, of course, makes this point seem obvious, as being chained in a dank cave is not in any way pleasant to contemplate for most. The immersive technology of the Matrix reverses the creature comforts of Plato's allegory, as the “real” is the nasty, difficult, post-apocalyptic nightmare while the Matrix provides whatever life you choose. Such a technological turn would, we think, make Plato's point much more strongly, as his Socrates consistently eschewed comforts of the body in pursuit of enlightenment. The cushiest cave, you might imagine, would not tempt him to agree to it as an acceptable choice!

Indeed, Socrates faced exactly such a choice at the end of his life. In a series of dialogues, Plato gives an account of what may reasonably be considered the first political suicide: Socrates' drinking of hemlock as punishment for his conviction of corrupting Athenian youth, to which we referred above. While the hemlock was a prescribed punishment, execution rather than suicide, Plato makes it clear throughout the dialogues that Socrates could have chosen another path. First, in the Apology, upon his conviction, Socrates was permitted to argue for a penalty other than death, which had been proposed by Meletus. Socrates refuses the opportunity, proposing penalties it is clear that the jury will not accept (Plato 2000a:35c–38b).

More clearly, however, Socrates refuses an easy life in exile for expressly political reasons in the Crito. In this dialogue, one of Socrates' friends and followers, Crito, comes to him in prison shortly before the hour appointed for the execution to convince Socrates to escape with him. Crito makes a series of arguments to convince Socrates to leave, including one suggesting the impermissibility of suicide: “Besides, Socrates, I do not think that what you are doing is just, to give up your life when you can save it, and to hasten your fate as your enemies would hasten it, and indeed have hastened it in their wish to destroy you” (Plato 2000b:45c). Socrates dismisses most of the arguments Crito raises, spending the bulk of the dialogue exploring the political consequences of flight:If, as we were planning to run away from here, or whatever one should call it, the laws and the state came and confronted us and asked: “Tell me, Socrates, what are you intending to do? Do you not by this action you are attempting intend to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city, as far as you are concerned? Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” (Plato 2000b:50a–b)

His answer is that the law must be upheld and that by fleeing, he would be seeking to destroy the political community in which he had chosen to live his entire adult life. His acceptance of execution, even when he explicitly did not accept the justice of the jury's verdict, was a political act in support of the Athenian regime.

The impermissibility of suicide, for any reason including political, is then rigidly reinforced through the domination of the Church in Europe until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We noted Nietzsche's arguments above, that suicide was the only truly philosophical way to die, as it was the only means of mastering death through your own will. As we also noted, however, this is little more than an assertion of the timing of an inevitable death, rather than a philosophical position on suicide. It was Albert Camus who posed the problem in stark terms, and ones that make political suicide difficult to imagine. In the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus conducts a meditation on the absurdity of life, wondering centrally at the outset what the consequences are for recognizing that absurdity:One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth—yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others. … (Camus [1955]1983:8)

Absurdity, therefore, can be responded to in one of two ways: death or hope. Surely, however, hope is necessary for politics, particularly a politics of opposition or resistance. It is only in hope that change is possible and that your actions may at least contribute to change if not effect it, that politics becomes possible. Suicide as an acceptable political subjectivity demands the possibility that the suicide will help induce change and that others' lives will be improved because of it. The choice to live in the Holodeck or the Matrix is political when it is not simply that life outside is unbearable, but rather by doing so makes life outside more bearable, even if you cannot experience it yourself.

The Prisoners' Dilemma, Redux

We find the preceding instructive to a fuller understanding of what is fundamentally at stake in the renewed and greatly expanded recourse to hunger strikes by Guantanamo prisoners which began in February 2013. What began in protest of a seemingly provocative search of cells by guards grew within a few months to include as many as two thirds of the 166 inmates still held at the prison—the majority without having been charged and 46 “indefinite detainees” confirmed among them (Rosenberg 2013). More than 11 years after prisoners began arriving at “Gitmo,” and some four and a half years after the 2009 inauguration of US President Barak Obama, who had campaigned for his first term on a promise to close it down, the hunger strikers succeeded in reviving international attention to their plight by means of what was arguably the only practical course of collective resistance at their disposal. In so doing, they succeeded in rendering visible not only the dire circumstances of their ongoing confinement, but also the failure of the Obama Administration to resolve what it had itself long before identified as a priority issue. It was perhaps unavoidable, then, that the closure of Guantanamo reemerged as a central feature of Obama's much-vaunted May 23, 2013, national security speech presaging the winding down of the War on Terror—a speech in which he explicitly referenced the hunger strikes that had, by then, become a “public relations disaster” for his administration (Harris 2013a). This was compounded as the details of painful force feedings of the hunger strikers emerged, prompting Obama to suggest that the practice was at odds with a sense of justice and even with American self-identity: “Look at the current situation where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that” (quoted in Harris 2013a).

It is worth recalling here that the prisoners who reportedly committed suicide in 2006 also endured force feedings in response to their earlier hunger strikes. Though they may threaten the same ultimate outcome as politically motivated suicide, the hunger strikes are less persuasively reducible to expressions of despair. Whereas the “suicides” (if they were that) may have been ambiguous as to the possibility of a calculated political purpose (certainly all the more so in light of subsequent revelations that the men might actually have been murdered), their own earlier hunger strikes were not. Likewise, the 2013 hunger strikes clearly bespeak functional agency and bona fide political subjecthood brought to bear in an evident political purpose. Explicitly casting the action as resistance to the situation of indefinite incarceration with “no end in sight,” hunger striker Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantanamo for more than a decade, articulated a clear subject position and a considered course of political action in an April 2013 New York Times op-ed: “Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made” (Moqbal 2013).

But if the choice cannot be denied, it also cannot be abided and must therefore be pathologized. Like suicide beyond despair, or the preference for simulation, the prisoners' choice to refuse feeding cannot be permitted legitimacy in the highly managed space of political subjecthood. Accordingly, the regime of force-feeding, which includes the forcible restraint of prisoners who resist the twice-daily ordeal, is cast by their jailers not as an equally political counter-measure to the hunger strikers' purposeful acts of resistance, but rather as a remedial measure in defense of the prisoners' own well-being. Defending the ethical position of prison medical staff in carrying out the force feedings, Colonel Samuel House advanced what amounts to a duty of care argument in claiming that “the health and well-being of detainees is [the medical staff's] primary mission, and they take this duty as seriously as they take their duty to provide medical treatment to US service members or any other patient in their care” (Harris 2013b). Despite the charge by prominent US physicians that the use of force in the feedings violates fundamental standards of medical ethics (Annas, Crosby, and Glantz 2013), House went on to say that “The enteral feeding procedure is medically sound, and is based on procedures performed not only in US prisons, but in hospitals and nursing homes worldwide” (Harris 2013b).

House's equation of the force feedings with practices appropriate to hospitals and nursing homes, in particular, goes directly to the matter of agency, implying inability or incompetence on the part of the prisoners to appreciate and/or tend to their own well-being. Whereas force feeding may be ethically justifiable in these other contexts, the determination is made by means of balancing patient well-being and autonomy such that the mental capacity for free and informed choice is crucially at issue. House's ethical defense of the Guantanamo force feedings thus turns once again on a denial of legitimate subjecthood, relying upon what amounts to a pathologizing of the prisoners' choice to engage in this form of resistance. Concomitantly, Obama's rendering of the situation, with its explicit appeal to justice, seems to rearticulate the narrative of despair as determinant of the hunger strikes. In both instances, the prisoners' explicitly political actions are divested of political meaning and purpose. As in the case of the 2006 “suicides,” the terrain of possibility is confined such that either the prisoners themselves or their circumstances are pathological, but the possibility of a bona fide oppositional politics is foreclosed.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, Annas et al. (2013:102) recognize both the hunger strikers' capacity to choose and the political nature of the choice:Their goal is not to die but to have perceived injustices addressed. The motivation resembles that of a person who finds kidney dialysis intolerable and discontinues it, knowing that he will die. Refusal of treatment with the awareness that death will soon follow is not suicide, according to both the U.S. Supreme Court and international medical ethics.

Moreover, the claim that force feeding is carried out in defense of the prisoners' health and well-being seems irreconcilable with the fact that malnutrition is actually permitted to proceed to a considerable extent—a circumstance which further unsettles the likening of the practice to what might, with ethical approbation, be elsewhere carried out in a hospital or nursing home setting, as suggested by Guantanamo hunger striker Shaker Aamer:If you have a medical standard for when a detainee should be force-fed for his own health, then force-feed him when it can still save his health. Don't wait until his body is so harmed by the lack of food that all you are protecting is the US military—from the harm of a prisoner dying for a principle. (Townsend 2013)

Revealing something of both the indeterminacy and the contestation attending questions of agency and political subjecthood at Guantanamo, and in the War on Terror more broadly, this assessment of the situation from the point of view of one of the hunger strikers is remarkably consistent at the level of its enabling assumptions with the earlier-noted characterization (by the then-commander of Camp One) of the 2006 “suicides” as “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.”

And yet, the prison at Guantanamo remains and the force feedings continue, even as calls to abolish both operate through the same denials of agency and subjecthood that have enabled them. Thus, Obama's call to close the prison contains, and is premised upon, containment of the prisoners' possible subject positions every bit as much as are the jailers' responses to the hunger strikes. In a sense reminiscent of Barclay's actualization of his fantasies on the holodeck, it seems those with the discursive reach and authority to do so are neither averse nor unable to summon persuasive renderings of others in satisfaction of their own preferred worlds. If Nietzsche's mastery of death is revealed as little more than management of the inevitable, we see in the problem of Guantanamo no less an exercise of managerial cunning, here put to the task of managing the problem of visible articulations of political subjecthood by those whose political subjecthood must, perforce, be denied.


One of the most disturbing of the many disturbing political consequences of the rebirth of “security” in the past decade is the ever-greater narrowing of the space available for opposition. Former US President Bush's expression of this effect, that one now must be with him or “with the terrorists,” may have been laughable in its simplicity, but it was the clear expression of the direction taken by the security state in the years since (Neocleous 2008). What is happening at Guantanamo Bay is, therefore, only the most extreme manifestation of this broader denial of oppositional political subject positions, and is all the more important because of that. As we struggle with these resurgent security politics, it might seem frivolous to turn to film and television, or pub games at conferences, for guidance. What we have shown, however, is that these popular renderings of the limits of acceptable subjectivity draw on deep currents in our very broadest culture. In a very real sense, the rendering of Barclay's Dilemma, of Cypher's Dilemma, is the rendering of the Guantanamo Prisoner's Dilemma. In that very real sense, we are all very well prepared for our present political rendition.


  • Avid Star Trek devotees will no doubt recall the episodes of TNG dealing with a holodeck simulation of Arthur Conan Doyle's arch-villain, Professor Moriarty, who somehow achieved sentience with near-catastrophic results for the crew of the Enterprise.

  • In Jean Baudrillard's formulation, the simulacrum is a copy of an original that does not really exist. The copy elides the non-existence of that for which it stands to the extent that it is taken as an authentic representation. The idea of the holodeck is such that the lines between simulacrum, simulation, and “reality” might easily be blurred. This has been explored in TNG episodes in which the holodeck has inadvertently or deliberately become an instrument of deception.

  • Others, including Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (TNG) and Captain Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager), have formed interpersonal relationships with insentient holographic projections.

  • Even the adolescent Wesley Crusher participates in this.

  • Before taking cyanide in his cell at Nuremburg, Nazi convict Hermann Goering penned a letter to the Allied occupational authorities who had condemned him to death, in which he wrote “I will not facilitate execution of Germany's Reichsmarschall by hanging! … Moreover, I feel no moral obligation to submit to my enemies' punishment” (Borger 2005).

  • In particular, the callously utilitarian position that the sick and infirm impose a burden on social resources disproportionate to their contribution.


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