Fantastika Journal

A Technology of Torture Porn

November 01, 2022 Derek Thiess (@DerekThiess) Season 3 Episode 13
Fantastika Journal
A Technology of Torture Porn
Show Notes Transcript

This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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: Derek Thiess

A Technology of Torture Porn:
Christian Supremacy, Medieval History, and Revisionism

Content Warning: torture
In my first book, Relativism, Alternate History, and the Forgetful Reader (2015), I argued that historical approaches emphasizing “complexity” and “continuity” were apologetic strategies, producing revisionist histories that downplayed the historical violences enacted in the name of Christianity. Early peer reviewers met such claims with denial, and post-publication reviews wondered why I did not focus on race or gender or Nietzsche. Six years later, Matthew Gabriele and David M.
Perry published The Bright Ages, what they claim is a “New History of Medieval Europe,” working against a supposed “myth of the Dark Ages” and “weaving together strands of time, culture and place that affirm continuity just as they mark significant change (x). I’m not the first scholar to suggest this work advances Christian Supremacy, but historian Mary Rambaran-Olm’s review “Sounds about White” focuses primarily on the text’s treatment of race. Ironically, Gabriele and Perry also argue that their emphasis on continuity “brings people, traditionally marginalized in other tellings, into focus” (xi) and for this revisionist history asked publicly for the text to be nominated for a Hugo.
Taking my cue from the authors, I would put The Bright Ages into conversation with the fantastic, in this case reading it against the germinal work of the film genre known as “torture porn”: Eli Roth’s Hostel films. I suggest that in graphically portraying “medieval” forms of torture, these films highlight the embodied nature of the history in question, and they do so precisely by positing continuity. They urge us to see, instead of the beautiful religious mosaics, cathedrals, and murals of the Middle Ages, the cost: a human, embodied suffering at the hands of actively colonial religious institutions that continues to this day. In figuring this embodied violence, and even in our critical reactions to these films, they emphasize the apologetic nature of our appraisals of medieval, Christian historical violence.

About the Author: Derek Thiess is Associate Professor of English as the University of North Georgia. In addition to Relativism, Alternate History, and the Forgetful Reader (Lexington 2015), he is the author of Embodying Gender and Age in Speculative Fiction (Routledge 2017) and Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction (Liverpool 2019).

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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.


This podcast is part of Panel 7: Violent Oppressions, which will take place at 6:15pm GMT time.

This podcast is presented by Derek Thiess, who is Associate Professor of English as the University of North Georgia. In addition to Relativism, Alternate History, and the Forgetful Reader (Lexington 2015), he is the author of Embodying Gender and Age in Speculative Fiction (Routledge 2017) and Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction (Liverpool 2019).

            In Matthew Gabriele’s and David M. Perry’s 2021 book The Bright Ages, their term for the middle ages, they emphasize the “rich human complexity” of people’s lives throughout the early middle ages and that “out of that complexity, embedded within the stories they told, we find a pathway of new ideas about how to work toward peace” (109).  In a review for Slate, medieval historian Eleanor Janega praises the book precisely for its success in “conveying to audiences the fact that the complexity and subtlety of the Middle Ages allows for fun as well as drama.” In my own, much more negatively reviewed, 2015 book I included the term complexity among contingency and continuity in my argument that in history “popular repetition of a narrative functions as a logomimetic kind of revision” (84). This argument was actually the pulled punch of a scholar whose Ph.D. had “expired” and had no prospects for a tenured position in academia, but was still desperately trying. In fact, as several examples in my book showed, academia does not reward arguments that it deems unorthodox, i.e. my suggestion that this revisionism tended to coincide with religious apologetics. Now, seven years later, I am unfortunately all out of fucks to give about what academia deems orthodox (or civil or professional for that matter), so I will state my position much more clearly: The Bright Ages and the praise it has received represents precisely the critical third rail that is the widespread Christian supremacy systematized across academic disciplines, but especially in the humanities. The book’s emphasis on brightness, the colorful mosaics and tapestries of the primarily religious figures it focuses on, is precisely a fantastic, counterfactual, and revisionist apologetic meant to obscure the religious and colonial violence in the middle ages that even a cursory comparison to other fantastic stories—in this case, Hostel—would urge us to remember.

            I am not the first to suggest a connection between historical work of this kind, indeed of this very book, and the fantastic. In fact, one of the authors of The Bright Ages, David M. Perry, urged his large twitter following this last February to nominate the book for a Hugo in the “best related work” category. Yet neither am I the only one to note that the book signals and supports Christian supremacy. Controversy ensued recently after historian Mary Rambaran-Olm reported that her review of the book for LA Review was “torpedoed” by the editor, a friend of Perry’s and Gabriele’s, in particular because it highlighted the text’s centering of a white, European, and Christian worldview. As she wrote in the review she published on her own blog: 

We can’t change our positionality, but the book would have benefited from an acknowledgement that the author readings and interpretations came from their position as white males[…] Simply naming women who remained subsidiaries in a patriarchal society, or referring to auxiliary figures who were Muslim, Jewish, Mongols, or pagans […] in order to demonstrate how Christianity developed is nothing less than Christian apologia.

It's also worth mentioning that the much more positive review that replaced Olm’s in the LA Review was written by Janega, who has been very outspoken in her desire to get people to “calm down about the Medieval Church.” It is difficult not to see in this controversy a coordinated and systemic effort to privilege one historical narrative over another.

And yet there are points upon which Olm and Perry and Gabriele would agree. As Olm outlines, there is a “myth” of the dark ages that “In public discourse now, if the term appears, it is met with fervent opposition, often on a personal level from medievalists (myself included) as a reactionary impulse to want to prove that the period is misunderstood and/or inaccurately or dangerously romanticized.” In this formulation, the myth is a falsehood that requires correction, or busting, by the historian. But as my colleagues in Folk and Fairy tale studies would remind us, this is a simplistic approach to myth that also may reflect Christian imperialism in its denigration of indigenous ways of knowing. Olm examines Perry’s and Gabriele’s analysis of Beowulf, for example, concluding that it is demonstrative of their privileging of white feminist discourse and urges inclusion of anti-imperial analyses. Yet Brian Attebery, in discussing myth, includes this text specifically as one in which “pagan motifs are revisited by the writers with an overlay of Christian judgment…such texts document the overlap between indigenous oral traditions and imported literary and religious practices” (23). I would follow Attebery’s detailed study of myth itself, and suggest that myth is story, a performative iteration that authorizes belief within a community. Moreover, I assert that Christian supremacy operates in collectivity, not in the individual historian mythbusting, but rather in the repetition of a competing myth, in this case the repeated emphasis on the complexity of the Middle Ages and the medieval church’s contributions to science.

Janega, in her replacement review, actually sums this counter-myth up succinctly as “The medieval era we historians know—a time when Europe thrived, despite not yet being aggressively imperial or expansionist, and where the Catholic Church drove extensive scientific and philosophical invention.” This formula certainly is valid in a sense, though it is worth noting that even Olm, despite calling attention to the “Christocentrim” in The Bright Ages, objects primarily because the emphasis on Christianity is a kind of coded whiteness, the vast bulk of her review focusing on the race of the authors and subjects of the book. One criticism leveled at my own book was that it did not engage race or gender in a significant way, as though religious violence is not, on its own, a topic worthy of study. Still, despite calling out Perry and Gabriele for lack of a positionality statement, Olm does not offer her own exactly. I would suggest this is only a symptom of a more widespread lacking in the academy at large—largely a failure to reckon with religion as a vector of oppression and more minutely a failure to include adherence to a religious ideology in our acknowledgments of positionality, which one would think would be of particular importance when working with a history of that religion. So, I’ll do it: this paper certainly reflects my own position as white, cishet, male, comfortably middle-class, and hovering somewhere between agnostic and atheist.

From that perspective, The Bright Ages is only one recent example of the fantastic, revisionist emphasis on the complexity, continuity, and scientific innovation of the Middle Ages. In the introduction Gabriele and Perry clearly position themselves against the “myth of the ‘Dark Ages’[…which] can be a space for seemingly clean and useful myths, useful to people with dangerous intentions” (xiv). To this they contrast their Bright Ages, but again with reference to scientists who “looked to the sky and measured the stars, built the university, laid the foundations for the European contribution to the global scientific revolution, and did so without surrendering their beliefs in a higher power” (xv). This later is supposedly a testament to innovation, but also to the complexity of the people and insitutions as well as their continuity with later thought. And this they posit as “A new story of the European Middle Ages” (xvii). As Olm responds, however, again emphasizing the way the authors erase the work of scholars of color, this is well-worn territory. Much has been written on complexity and continuity from the medieval Church to later times, as I outlined in my book, and especially in the last few decades in order to compete for Templeton money. But Olm reads this term literally. I suggest it is not so much a reference to a lack of prior stories, but rather an admission that what The Bright Ages offers is a competing myth, another story, and one that authorizes a belief that Christianity’s influence was a net positive throughout history.

This is a story, moreover, that takes form precisely in its own continuity, each chapter of The Bright Ages coming to a similar conclusion: yes, there was violence, but look at the art! Chapter 1 concludes its emphasis on the beautiful chapel of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, saying “Christians did absolutely smash and murder…But Christians also built places of shimmering starlight” (13). In chapter 9, titled “The Brilliant Jewels of the Heavenly Jerusalem” we are told that “that’s the way of the Bright Ages, even when the brightness comes from the fire of burning buildings amid the screams of a conquered city, we have to work from the inside of these all-too-human medieval people, try to see the universe as they saw it” (129). Sure, the crusades saw violence, but the jewels! And such continual redirection exists alongside openly positive appreciation of Christian imperialism, such as in Chapter 2, “The Gleaming Tiles of New Rome,” in which “Justinian and Theodora exported this brightness westward, seeking to spread their message of imperial Roman and Christian magnificence to the newly (re)conquered lands” (28). It may seem that I am cherry-picking statements from random sections of this text, but what I am conveying to you is not controversial—each of the historians cited above would agree on the core point that the so-called Dark Ages is a myth that needs busting through a greater emphasis on complexity. Or as Perry and Gabriele put it in their epilogue: 

The truth of all historical periods suffers under the weight of latter-day myths…the particular darkness of the Dark Ages suggests emptiness, a bland, almost limitless space into which we can place our modern preoccupations…But this we cannot abide. Simplistic comparisons to the past do violence not just to their time but to ours…The way out of darkness is illumination—the way a mosaic can twinkle in the candlelight or blood can shimmer on the street (251-2). 

It's worth repeating that none of this emphasis on “full, complex human beings” is controversial in any way (252). But I am glad that they brought up violence to the past, and invited the comparison to other fantastic media, as violence is worthy of study on its own.

            For the sake of space, I may not be able to do justice to the complexity of The Bright Ages, nor to the genre I want to compare it to: torture porn. Made popular by exemplars of the genre such as the Hostel or Saw series, Xavier Aldana Reyes defines the genre as a form of contemporary “body gothic” that “developed in the noughties” and “rejoiced in the nightmare of an inescapable materialism that leaves no room for transcendence” (120). The films typically show people trapped and imprisoned, and then graphically tortured on-screen. Thus, the genre put violence at center stage, and another typical (though frequently challenged as too limiting) characterization of the genre is as a reflection and critique of the Bush-era “war on terror” use of rendition and torture. Yet a tension already begins to arise between the repeated insistence that, according also to Aaron Kerner, “torture porn contains no supernatural elements” and the genre’s relationship with the Bush era war on terror. Newsweek magazine once praised the W presidency as the “most resolutely faith-based in modern times” (Fineman). If indeed, torture porn contains no transcendence, is its absence in such a reflection of contemporary history not itself noteworthy? Such an absence should, in this context, seem like a rather obvious apologetic. Yet, the claim of a lack of transcendence also falls apart rather quickly. In my current work-in-progress, I suggest that it is present, merely not in the aggrandizing manner that is expected. The characters themselves protest religion’s absence as they exclaim “Jesus Christ” seven times in the first film, eight in the second; some variation of “Oh/my/God” eleven times in the first and thirteen times in the second; “What the hell?” three times, one “God no”, a “God damn”, a “Thank god,” and a single “Holy shit.” It’s not exactly a mosaic, or jewels, but as the old adage suggests, there are no atheists in these foxholes.

            And yet if we insist on a redirection from the violence that some very complex human characters may do in the cause of Christian imperialism, as The Bright Ages urges us to do, then surely the medieval architecture and artifacts of the film will help. For the sake of space, I will not spend considerable time (as I do in the book) on the cloister used as the eponymous hostel in the films nor on the “plague pillar” that features in the second film, which was the site of burning not merely plague victims but witches and heretics as well. How bright those flames must have been. But as Gabriele and Perry and their reviewers pointed out the Church’s driving “scientific innovation” and laying the foundations for “global scientific revolution” it’s worth considering the most scientific artifact from that time in the Hostel films. As Paxton and Josh search for the first of their first friend to go missing, they chase a man into a torture museum. Before they emerge and the scene cuts away to the bells of the Cathedral that towers over the city, the camera lingers on one device in particular: the so-called Iron Chair. This device, originating in Europe though used throughout the world in the Middle Ages, is admittedly highly innovative. It is, in fact, an iron chair, but with protruding spikes lining the seat, back, and arm rests designed to puncture the skin of the victim. Straps were attached for interrogation that could be tightened, driving the spikes deeper into the flesh, and several models featured an opening in the seat, below which fire could be introduced to increase the pain. The real innovation here, however, is the psychological impact—this device would not kill while it was being used. The warmth of that bright flame, and the sharpness of the spikes, with the tight compression of the straps would ensure that blood loss was kept to a minimum and the victim would remain alive until removed. How brightly that chair must have glowed.

            It may seem like a small detail of the film, but consider that each of the victims of the two films, save one, is strapped into a chair in a similar manner. The one exception being an elaborate Elizabeth Bathory style killing, which it’s also worth remembering Bathory was accused of witchcraft and pagan practice. But even more importantly this resonance of the medieval torture device with the film’s torture might also resonate with the debates at the time surrounding the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding, an inquisition-era technique. However, the fundamental difference that I am driving at, between an historical treatment such as Gabriele’s and Perry’s and the fictional, fantastic premise of torture porn, is that the latter emphasizes the material experience of the victims of torture. The Bright Ages, on the other hand expressly avoids this perspective in the name of mythbusting, ironically creating its own legendary figures and privileging the very Christian imperialists who, if they did not personally strap people to the Iron Chair, likely gave the orders. Nor, once again, is its approach controversial or outside the norms of historical treatments of the Middle Ages. Thus, my point is ultimately not to single this one book or critic out, but to point to their averageness, their ubiquity, as symbolic of a larger, systemic Christian supremacy within the academy at large.

And I don’t really expect much will change. I doubt anyone will be giving back their Templeton money, or refusing the book contract to write a “new story” of the Middle Ages. I don’t even expect people will begin to include religious adherence among their statements of positionality. I do fully expect scholars to continue thanking Jesus in their acknowledgements sections, and dismissing criticism of Christian imperialism as unbelievable or not engaging enough with race and gender. But hopefully some will acknowledge that transgressing bodies in the form of torture is not worth, was never worth, transcending bodies, especially not for a fucking mosaic. Thanks.