Orwell would have liked Photoshop
A few years ago Amnesty International ran a series of spoof adverts for a Clinique-style make-up which women could supposedly buy to cover up the bruises inflicted by violent partners.
These ads popped into my head this week as I read about the Greek “Photoshop” torture story, where, it’s alleged, Greek police have - very crudely - touched up photos to try to disguise torture injuries on the faces of a group of alleged bank-robbers.
It’s a new twist on an old issue: the cover-up. At a very low level it’s a version of history falsification, memorably examined by George Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith’s work in the Records Department famously involves the systematic and continuous re-writing of history to suit the needs of the Party. Smith works on newspapers, but Orwell’s vision is all-encompassing. “This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers”, he writes, “but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs …”.
Under Stalin the Soviet Union notoriously manipulated photos, not least with Trotsky, doctoring images so that the reviled Bolshevik and other “disgraced” officials simply disappeared from Stalinist history. (It was a sort of reverse Zelig-ism. He was there at these key moments in Russian history, but you’d never know it from looking at the approved photographs).
Back to Orwell. Under the blitz of current Orwell stuff in the media there’s a recurring theme: what would the great man have made of the present day / how right was he about the modern world? Recent chit-chat in my office was broadly positive about his “predictive” powers: Doublespeak (modern political/managerial jargon?), Telesecreens (TV, especially those tuned to the Big Brother house on Channel 5!), Napoleon, the revolutionary-turned-authoritarian pig from Animal Farm (echoed by countless depressing post-revolutionary situations in the second half of the 20th century).
Well, OK, but I think we shouldn’t set Orwell up as some sort of “prophet of his age”. He was a creative writer, albeit a politically very engaged one, and we should allow him that creative licence. Actually, listening to the latest episode of the Radio 4 serialisation of Down and Out in Paris and London last night I was especially struck by the slightly patrician distaste that the erstwhile Eric Blair seems to have with poor people’s bodies. There’s a lot that’s “repugnant” and “repellent” about these tramps and derelicts who share body space with Orwell in the doss-house “spikes” of the thirties. (By the way, I was amused to hear the R4 continuity announcer warn the listener about “strong language” in this 15-minute programme. What we got was two fuckings. No warning about “distressing accounts of extreme poverty and hopelessness” though!).
I often come back to Orwell as much for the telling detail, including on the physical stuff, as much as the big ideas. So with the infamous torture scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four, you get a real sense of the visceral pain and fear of the process:
With that first blow on the elbow the nightmare had started … How many times he had been beaten, how long the beatings had continued, he could not remember. Always there were five or six men in black uniforms at him simultaneously. Sometimes it was fists, sometimes it was truncheons, sometimes it was steel rods, sometimes it was boots … There were times when his nerve so forsook him that he began shouting for mercy even before the beating began.
There are pages of this - Room 101, the rat in a face-cage, the torturer O’Brien’s creepy intellectual domination - and I reckon it’s as good a literary description of the dark mechanics of torture as you’ll ever read. Interestingly enough, what’s at issue, in addition to the forced betrayal of Winston’s lover Julia, is that Winston should be forced to undergo a “doublethink” process where he’s made to forget that he’s ever known about a photograph of a now-disgraced party official . It all comes down to whether he can remember a specific photograph. The alleged Greek Photoshop affair is only a weak echo of the Party’s fully-realised falsification processes in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it’s an echo nonetheless. Airbrushed torture photos and falsified interrogation records are the Orwellian tools of criminals past and present.
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