Fecal Politics: On Torture under Martial Law

By Vicente L. Rafael

Pinoy Times columnist Pete Lacaba, recently wrote about the time he spent in prison during the Martial Law years. He vividly recalled the conditions of his cell at Camp Crame which had no bathroom. He and his cell mates were forced to urinate kneeling down into empty biscuit cans. Each morning, a group of them were designated to empty the containers. They would walk out of the cell “carrying the foul smelling cans like the Three Kings bearing incense,” and dump them outside. More problematic, however, was the matter of defecation. Access to a toilet was dependent on the moods and availability of guards who had to be hailed by the prisoners with shouts of “Sir, etsas! Sir, etsas!”while banging on the iron bars. If the guards failed to come, Pete and his cell mates were forced to relieve themselves on old newspapers. These were then folded and set aside to be thrown the next day when allowed by their jailers. Once, a fellow prisoner in a fit of rage threw his fetid bundle towards the sleeping quarters of the guards. In retaliation, all the prisoners were subjected to what Pete calls “romansa militar, alyas karinyo brutal.” Not until the prisoners had organized themselves and protested the lack of facilities did they finally get a toilet of their own.

In response to the internet edition of Pete’s column in the listserve Plaridel, some readers wrote back about their own attempts at maintaining some sort of sanitary dignity while subjected to the routines of dehumanization in prison camps. Maria Cristina Rodriguez, for example, recycled the newspapers regularly brought by her mother while she was incarcerated at Camp Dangwa in Benguet. She consumed the paper twice, reading the news and then using it for collecting her leavings. Along with the urinal that was left in their cell, she and her fellow prisoners would deposit their remains by a canal near a volleyball court used by the soldiers. She recalls how they took particular pleasure in leaving behind their stench for the entire camp to smell, reminding their jailers of something they could not capture, much less domesticate.

The history of prisons is often regarded by scholars as integral to the rise of modernity. In the West, punitive institutions were seen to play the role of defining, separating, disciplining and reforming individuals into modern subjects capable of internalizing the law. Such a concept was introduced to the Philippines by the United States. Colonial rule, as the historian Michael Salman has so nicely argued, was modeled after prison reform then in vogue in the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like prisoners, colonial subjects were to be modernized and disciplined, kept under the watchful eyes of colonial rulers and elite collaborators. Once reformed, they were to be paroled, as it were, and given their independence.

As with most other colonial institutions, the model of the reformatory prison (with the possible exception of the Iwahig Penal colony) was never fully realized. In the post-war era and through the Martial Law period, jails primarily became dumping grounds for so-called dangerous and subversive elements. Far from being institutions for the rehabilitation of criminals into modern subjects, prisons came to be governed by the most feudal forms of relations. In the military stockades, the lingua franca of power was torture, both mental and physical, spoken by the State through its chief interpreters, the prison guards. Held in place (“prison” comes from the Latin prehendere, to lay hold of), the individual was cut off from his or her society and introjected into the cavities of a system of deprivation, violence, and unceasing humiliation.

The nodal point of any system of incarceration is of course the prisoner’s body. It is the body and its various functions that are targeted for containment for the purpose of reform or, in the most extreme cases, death. On the way towards these two possibilities, the body, especially in the case of political prisoners, is treated as the dangerous repository of secrets which must be dug out, of truths that must be laid bare, invariably by force. Guards and prisoners find themselves in the most intimate relationship as torturers and tortured, one seeking to extract hidden knowledge from the deracinated body of the other. The prisoner’s body thus becomes the site on which the power of the State is performed. Its bruises, broken bones and bloodied flesh are the signs of the torturer’s ability to make the incarcerated body speak.

But as the accounts of Pete Lacaba, and Maria Cristina Rodriguez show, the State’s victory is never complete and always subject to challenge. That is because in prison, the incarcerated body continues to live. It thinks, thinking enough to eat, for example, and in eating reproduces itself day by day, seeking to adapt to if not transform the conditions it finds itself in. Eating whatever wretched food it is given, it knows enough to give something back to the world from which it has taken a part of. The body lives by taking and giving, and so always leaves behind a piece of itself. Urine and shit are not merely waste products incidental to the body; they are proof positive of the body’s continued capacities to keep on living by giving back to the earth the remains of its reproductive labor. In this sense, we can think of urine and shit as that which every body gives “birth” to.

Indeed, Sigmund Freud theorized that young children often confuse the vagina with the anus. Consequently, they conflate giving birth with defecating. In addition, children subjected to the demands of toilet training realize early on a kind of power they have over their parents with regard to the giving or withholding of their feces. Thus the anus is regarded as the location for the passage of a thing that can cause either horror or pleasure when delivered at the appropriate moment. Shit in this context comes across as either gift or threat: a token of submission that the child offers to its parents by way of recognizing their authority, or a weapon with which to terrorize those on top and repel their demands.

Freud’s insights into fecal matter help us think about the experiences of imprisonment which often entail the return to an earlier, more elementary stage of existence. The State seeks to apprehend, in all senses of that word, the body in and through its incarceration. However, the sheer material reality of the body means that the State cannot totally comprehend its workings. The State cannot, for example, expect the prisoner to stop urinating and defecating unless it also stops feeding it, in which case the prisoner will die. Dead prisoners deprive the State of objects on which to assert its will. After all, domination requires the maintenance, however minimal, of that which is to be dominated. Even in the Nazi death camps, exterminated prisoners had to be replaced by more prisoners in a logic exactly the same as that of an assembly line. Keeping the prisoner alive, however, means acceding to some of his or her needs, such as the need to defecate. Like the child gaining leverage over the parent, the prisoner through her or his feces is able to talk back to the prison guards. In the case of Pete and his cell mates, this meant having some way to protest their conditions to the point of having a toilet built for them. In Maria Cristina’s story, it meant turning shit into a weapon of revenge, releasing its smells as a way of interrupting the play and leisure of the guards.

This last consideration is extremely significant. The translation of feces from an abject source of embarrassment into a potential weapon of vengeance is perhaps the most telling instance of a kind of rebellion: the refashioning of the body from an object of captivity into an agent of its own liberation. Drawing upon its resources, the body fights back in ways difficult for the State to localize much less contain. For it is not shit itself, but its smell that disorients and disturbs. Odor can neither be conceptualized nor detained. It always escapes, only to linger on. Where shit serves as the evidence of the body surviving and living on, fecal odor is the body’s ghostly emanation. It assails the mind and the senses, penetrating the borders and check points of social conventions and political regimes.

The stories of Pete and Maria Cristina remind me of another group of political prisoners. In the late 1970s, incarcerated members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched what came to be known as the “Dirty Protest,” refusing to submit to the brutally invasive bodily searches of their British captors. As brilliantly described by the anthropologist Alan Feldman in his book Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, the IRA prisoners decided to stop washing, brushing their teeth, and shaving while refusing to put on prison garb. Instead they went about naked, wrapped only in their filthy blankets. They also refused to do their business in toilets where they were routinely beaten up by the guards. They began to shit and urinate in their cells. Even more dramatic, they spread their shit on the walls and floors, creating an unbearable stench which made it extremely difficult for the guards to enter their cells. And they did so continuously for about five years. The fetid nature of their prisons meant that guards risked being swallowed up into what essentially had become the extension of the prisoner’s anal cavity. Fecal matter effectively created a wall protecting inmates from guards. It repelled the latter with a stench that clung to them long after they had left work. Thus was the relationship between inmates and guards reversed, as torturers were held hostage to the intractable remains of those they had tortured.