The state and the individual

18. Juli 2012 0

Review: Sibylle van der Walt, Christoph Menke: Physical Intactness. History and Theory of an Elementary Human Right

Picture: bigmama /

The collection of essays written by authors of various disciplines is dedicated to the presentation of history and theories of a human right which seems to be more and more threatened by global developments. The idea originated from a conference held in winter 2005 under the same title at the Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien der Universität Erfurt. Very impressive is the figuration of the cover showing the picture The Blue Dress by the South-African artist Judith Mason (Constitutional Court of South Africa Collection, Johannesburg): The picture is showing a dress made of blue plastic bags done by one of the female prisoners being forced to put off her clothes and being tortured naked by the apartheid-police.

Two contributions concerning historical explanations of the human rights´ sensibilization process by the historical theoretician Thomas L. Haskell, Rice University, and the legal historian Elisabeth B. Clark, University of Pennsylvania and Boston University (died in 1997), present the question of social-political forces and economic processes pushing forward the universality of human rights beyond racial borders.

The human rights´ activist Abdullah A. an-Na´im, originally from Sudan and now teaching in the USA, the professor of Islamic Studies Birgit Krawietz, the theologian and pastor Wolfgang Vögele, the professor of literary and cultural studies of North America, Sabine Sielke, and the lecturer of aesthetics Gesa Ziemer are dedicating themselves to the cultural symbolisms of physical intactness whose semiotic systems in various regions of the world are functioning as differently as languages. Birgit Krawietz impressively describes the prescriptions of “shame borders”, purity and nourishment given by the Islamic religious law, constructing the cultural patterns of feelings of disgust and physical awareness, and refers to the problem of medially transmitted long-lasting offense to religiously fed feelings of aversion and shame.

In the panel “Modern Concepts of the Subject: Law, Politics, Body,” the political historian and philosopher Bernd Ladwig is defending the thesis that the character of the issue of physical intactness protected by human rights is first of all to be understood in the function of the protection of fundamental interests of acting subjects. The philosopher Arnd Pollmann points out similarities between the terms `physical intactness´ and `moral integrity´ 1 and pleads for an integration of the normative contents of the right of physical intactness into an all-including concept of “personal intactness”. The lawyer and law-philosopher Winfried Brugger undertakes a relativization of the right of physical intactness which has to be withdrawn for the sake of higher protected values in individual cases, since it is an important, but not the only basic precondition for an independent sensible and responsible way of life. The sociologist Hauke Brunkhorst dedicated his contribution to the elementary importance of the respect for human rights for the self-referring nature of modern democracies. He explains the negative context of violations of human rights and democratic self-determination in the case of official order of torture by state authorities in a much discussed case of torture in exercising out official power which, as systematic state-terror,  does not only harm the individual human right of a person, but also the conditions of the possibility of democratic self-determination and even destroys the latter.

Especially the last essay by Hauke Brunkhorst clearly shows the difficulty of dealing with human rights in practice, especially in the individual case where participating state authorities have broken the official taboo of torture to save the life of a child (cf. the case of Jakob von Metzler, Frankfurt, Main). The cautious differentiation in the discussion and the comparison with the actions of US-Americans in Iraq states, for the sake of the investigating police-president Daschner, that he had a direct aim to save the life of the child in question in the last second. From a legal point of view though, his action represents an ordinary violation of the law, a fundamental break of the constitution and an elementary offense to human rights, since it is the aim of a democratic constitution to guaranty and protect the security as fundamental precondition of the practice of the right of freedom, but this security finds its limitation in the protected basic right of the individual. The primary purpose of democratic law is not peace by restriction of liberties, but realization of freedom in an emancipatory sense.

The possibility of torture within the democratic definition of law, obligating all western constitutions, lies outside of this transcendental frame. This is especially the case in penal law because the normatively most important issue in a penal case is not the consequent imprisonment or hanging, but the search for truth and, first of all, the judgement as public issue of highest democratic importance. Brunkhorst formulates clearly and sharply that the only reason for the punishment of acts of state terror and political offenses is the perspective of equality: As long as the penal law threatens somebody cheating or stealing in a shop in the Federal Republic of Germany, it would simply be injust and not in accordance with positive effective law of nations and constitutional law to let para-militarists in Columbia and Brazil, recruiting children and youngsters in the slums for their robberies and killings, go free after the judgement. In practice, even democracies cannot avoid the use of imprisonment, but this is exactly the expression of the highest possible non-freedom in a democratic free society.

Arnd Pollmann in his contribution discusses the right to physical intactness in the example of a new psychiatric disease pattern: Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). It deals with the phenomenon of originally (physically) healthy people who have the seemingly bizarre wish for physical self-mutilation to free themselves from psychic sufferings or at least reduce them. Pollmann tries to differentiate between the physical and personal intactness and pays attention to the new category of personal intactness of human beings with auto-destructive tendencies. While the aim of torture, besides a forced and usually non-valid confession, is the destruction and injury of the psychic and physical integrity of a person, the aim of self-mutilation here is rather directed towards the (re-)construction of the psychic integrity of a person. The discussion climaxes in the question whether there is a right of protection of personal integrity which probably cannot be achieved without social conflicts. The acceptance of people not suffering from „too much“ injury, but – in a cruel way – rather from „too little“ (bulimia, scratching or cutting of the skin, anorexia, extreme piercing, tattooing and so on), searching for and experiencing new borders of personal identity by psycho-physical practices, is hard to imagine and will be decided around the question whether such practices of voluntary self-mutilation can actually be called „voluntary“. Pollmann is missing out to mention the factor of „body-decoration“ – so to say: cosmetical self-mutilation – we know from many peoples and ethnia in the world and which newly re-appears in some youth groups or movements, referring to a certain „peer group“ constituting special youth identities and rites of initiation.

Sabine Sielke deals with the question of medial representation of the suffering of others in the domain of visual arts, but also in the transmission of news, and refers to a famous essay of Susan Sontag in her title. The status and cultural function of visual language as well as the effect of pictures in times of highly advanced technologies and world-wide speedy transmission of news is a still often underestimated phenomenon in the representation of culture and cultural consensus. The example of photographies from the prison of Abu Ghraib shows the world that the universally implied right of physical intactness as consequence of secularization and undisputed new understanding of the subject is a harsh battle-ground, especially in the case of US-American human rights policy. Sielke does not call the USA a „special case“, but rather a paradigm for central contradictions of modernity. The pictures of Abu Ghraib are undermining the contradiction between the idealistic claim of US-American policy of intervention and the forms of American war-policy in Iraq: “The images are us”, says David Grossinger, “Look at them and you will see America”. They would not represent “a few bad apples” of un-American elements (so the Bush-administration says), but are the “obscene underground of American popular culture”, showing the “theatre of cruelty” as form of “initiation into American culture” (so Susan Sontag and Slavoj Žižek say).

Analyzing the pictures of Abu Ghraib, the study of Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values: America in Moral Crisis), Guantánamo and Bagram as well as the Bybee-Memorandum of August 2002, Sielke tries to proove that the USA interpreted international law highly individually to their own advantage since 2002 and that from “a few bad apples” soon resulted quite a lot who were mostly coming from the lowest ranks – while the high ranks at once were dissociating from them to wash themselves free of guilt and responsibility by offering Lynndie England (the “poster-child of Abu Ghraib”) as “pawn sacrifice”. 2 Referring to the investigation-reports of Abu Ghraib, it is easy to clearly proove the inequality within US-American society which has the tendency to imprison members of religious and ethnic minorities as well as the lower classes even for misdemeanours. The pictures of Abu Ghraib – all private ones – are therefore unforgettable, because they unintentionally raise storms against the official prohibition of pictures and the legend of a clean war being carried out with surgical precision. They communicate the perverted message of a party abroad among equals, using the motto “Hi Mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib”, and, therefore, are of a pornographic character, because they show what is not allowed to be shown. So, their public presentation represents an immense break of a taboo, because they show torture as an event of communication or an infernal absence of God.

The `power of pictures´ in modern times becomes visible in the fact of them showing injusties and cruelties taking place at completely different regions of the world to the audience; they transport sado-masochistic practices and pornographic necessities as a form of documentary, sometimes accusing form of art and, therefore, seem to emphasize the thesis of Bruno Latour, we have never been modern.

The collection of essays dealing with “physical intactness” in an interdisciplinary way is interesting and useful for such various disciplines as Law, Medicine, History of Medicine, Psychology, Psychiatry, Visual Anthropology, Science of Religion, Political Science, Sociology, Media and Communication Science, Ethnology, Anthropology, Islamic Studies, Art History and Ethics.

Sibylle van der Walt, Christoph Menke (ed.) (2007): Die Unversehrtheit des Körpers. Geschichte und Theorie eines elementaren Menschenrechts. (Physical Intactness. History and Theory of an Elementary Human Right). Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 280 pages, 29.90 Euro.

Published first in: Viennese Ethnomedicine Newsletter (VEN) vol. XI, no. 1, autumn 2008 – University of Vienna, Unit Ethnomedicine and International Health, Center for Public Health, Medical University of Vienna, Austria.


  1. Original German term: Rechtschaffenheit.
  2. Original German term: Bauernopfer.

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