The Mean Maxima


In the pilot study for Stanley Milgram’s famous Obedience experiments, the subject could dimly perceive the victim “learner” receiving his measured voltage of electric shock through silvered glass. The visible discomfort of the victim appeared to unnerve the subject, a behavior that Milgram wished to explore more deeply. To better understand the impact of proximity on the subject’s propensity to deliver maximum volts to the body of the victim, Milgram designed four different scenarios:

In Experiment 1, the victim sat in a remote location, invisible to the subject. At 300 volts, the victim was instructed to pound on the wall. After 315 volts, the pounding would stop.

In Experiment 2, the ability to perceive vocal feedback was added to the scene. No more pounding, just yells and other audible responses from the victim.

Experiment 3 made the relationship physically proximate, and the victim was in the same room, visible as well as audible.

Finally, in Experiment 4, physical contact between the subject and the victim was required for the delivery of the shock, via forced placement of the victim’s hand on a shock plate.

In all four experimental situations, the role of the victim is performed not by an actor but by a volunteer who usually works as an accountant. He has been trained by the psychologist Milgram to simulate gradually increasing distress.

The results are summarized in a graph recording mean maximum shocks throughout the proximity series, data that indicates a significantly reduced willingness to inflict pain as the physical relationship between subject and victim becomes more close. 


Inside a different sort of laboratory across the Atlantic in London, at roughly the same time that Stanley Milgram was meticulously accumulating his proximity data, another researcher with a deep interest in the interplay between human conscience and the behavior of bodies in tight spaces observes the young Glenda Jackson using her hair as a whip. The researcher’s name is Peter Brook, and he is in the midst of rehearsing the Peter Weiss play, Marat/Sade, for its English language premier.

The setting is the asylum of Charenton, and the script indicates a “many stranded whip”. Brook has decided to take this idea and make it part of the actor’s body. Patrick McGee receives the whipping; Brook observes the rhythms of Jackson’s lashings carefully, as that rhythm will provide a sort of narcoleptic metronome for one of the most important speeches in the play. Jackson will play the asylum patient who in turn plays CORDAY, with McGee playing SADE, who serves as both director and victim within the scene. In the 1967 film version, here is how the experiment played out:


The basic scenario unfolds as follows:

A pudgy middle aged man sits on a chair in a small room. Across the room, a teenaged girl stands still, wearing a dirty apron to cover her naked body. She looks scared. The man is talking to someone on the phone. He claims to be a police officer. Or a director of Homeland Security. Or an agent of the Permanent Emergency.

The voice on the phone claims the girl is a thief. Or a terrorist. Or a sympathizer with the terrorists. Or a law abiding protestor who carries within her the potential for future violence. He tells the girl to take off the apron; he needs to inspect her. He tells her to come closer, so he can see. He tells her she is hiding something from the law. In a body cavity. He tells her to jump up and down. She looks terrified.

He tells her to perform jumping jacks. Nothing falls out from her body cavities. So he tells her she needs to come closer. He needs to have a closer look. To make sure she has no secrets. She now trembles with fear, weeping.

He inspects her, touches her. He tells her to call him “sir”. She refuses. The voice on the phone tells him she is a bad girl. Disrespectful of his authority. He must spank her, to restore her obedience.

The man spanks the girl, tentatively at first, until he gets the feel of it. Then he spanks with abandon, producing bright red welts – hand prints – on her flesh; her painful cries fill the room. The man is very close now, groping her, using her. He is not a pudgy puppet anymore. He is his own man, serving his own needs. He forces her head into his lap. The search is now officially over; the rape has begun. The voice on the phone goes mute yet the caller listens intently, satisfied with how the basic scenario has played out.

The victim is no longer in the room. She has gone somewhere else. Somewhere she can be safe. Somewhere, she will survive.

Conclusion: There are certain conditions in which the inverse relationship between proximity to the victim and the propensity to inflict pain does not apply. Under these conditions, we can expect to see an intensification of abuse as the victim is stripped of corporeal privacy and sexual autonomy. Let us call these conditions TORTURE. 


Comments are disabled.

%d bloggers like this: