Tortured Confessions: from the Inquisition to Guantánamo


Team-taught graduate seminar for Law School and ICLS, on torture and confession. Students interested in taking the seminar are encouraged to submit a statement of interest to Professors Harcourt and Velasco.

The use of torture to extract confessions and obtain information has formed an integral part of legal and political practice throughout history, from the inquiry that Oedipus conducted in Oedipus Rex to the CIA interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. At times, these practices have been strictly regulated according to legal manuals detailing the precise forms of torture that could be applied to a suspect; at others they have been strictly prohibited by human rights conventions and used nonetheless. During several historical periods, these practices comprised a specific juridical form of the “inquest”; at other times, similar kinds of practices (e.g. the threat of death) have been permitted under adversarial legal methods.

This seminar will explore torture and confession from an eminently theoretical perspective. What we are proposing here is not to explain a certain history, and even less to explain torture or confession. We want to think critically on the ever-changing apparatuses, systems, tactics, devices, justifications, and strategies that make possible the presence of torture and the adequacy of confession in the name of certain transcendent goals (i.e. the integrity of the ecclesia christiana, universal western peace, the state, one nation under god, blood, lineage, security, etc.). As we will explore in this seminar, torture and confession, tortured confessions, are in a permanent regime of exhibition that at the same time aestheticizes the ultimate purpose of this kind of violence and anesthetizes the audience, in what has often amounted to, over the ages, a particularly perverse form of catharsis. The seminar will explore how efforts, over the centuries, to tame these perverse practices –through manuals, prohibitions, instructions, directions, exhibitions, legal opinions, justification, and denunciations–have shaped us, as subjects, and society more broadly.

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