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NICK CHEESMAN, Australian National University

  • When: April 12, 2017
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor, Lakeside, Chicago IL 60611

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Theorizing about torture

What are the possibilities for theorizing torture independently from the question of whether or not it “works”? This question has to be posed because to ask whether or not torture works is to narrow our focus to its instrumentalities, and tolerate largely irrelevant debate, based on unrealistic assumptions, about acceptable circumstances for torture’s use. It is to give rise to theorizing aimed not at understanding torture but at justifying it, by contriving to have us view the practice from the standpoint of a hypothetical torturer. To theorize about torture would seem to call for a different kind of question, one concerned with what work torture does. A question of this sort would invite us to attend to all aspects of the torture situation, in which a totally dominated person is subjected to torment deliberately inflicted in the name of a public authority, for a function that remains to be determined. Beyond torture’s instrumentality, its epistemology of pain, and debates about human dignity, it is the special structure of domination, the arbitrariness of interference, and its relationship to public authority that make torture distinctive, and politically significant.  

Courtesy of Australian National University

Currently, Nick Cheesman holds an Australian Research Council grant to document where, when, and how torture occurs in Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. Through this research, he aims to reinterpret the relationship between torture and the state, and ultimately, answer the question of whether torture can ever be eliminated, or merely suppressed. For the 2016-17 US academic year, he is working on this project at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. 

The study follows his doctoral dissertation on the politics of law and order in Myanmar, which in 2013 was awarded the ANU's Crawford Prize for academic excellence, and the prize of the Asian Studies Association of Australia for best thesis on Asia. In 2015, Cambridge University Press published a book building on the dissertation, "Opposing the Rule of Law: How Myanmar's Courts Make Law and Order." 

Before coming to the ANU in 2008, Dr. Cheesman worked in Hong Kong with a regional organization aimed at protecting and promoting human rights. Earlier, he convened a people’s tribunal on food scarcity and militarization in Myanmar, for a Thailand-based non-profit group. He also lived and worked in a refugee camp for a number of years.

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