Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shock and Silencing, "curing" on a societal level

I stumbled upon this video today and, although it goes in quite a different direction, I think that some of the ideas Foucault presents in his book Madness and Civilization (and well as later in Discipline and Punish) can be seen in this display of the use of shock and crisis to alter a society's state of being and therefore their compliance with certain expected actions/beliefs.

Other connections that might be made between Foucault's ideas and the video include the connection between the prisoner criminal and the confined madman, particularly in the association between the madman and criminality. The use of shocking an individual into a certain childlike state implies a re-installation of a kind of power structure based on that of the patriarchal family with doctors and scientists (and other positions of authority which have in some way been validated by science [such as the economist in the video] at the father position "looking out only for the good of the subject." The video discusses very literal uses of shock on prisoners intentionally applied through various methods to bring those individuals to a certain state of compliance and docility. However it also plays upon the manner in which the individual and societal experience of shock resulting from certain national and/or global catastrophes (both natural and man-made) are essentially used or taken advantage of for political purposes and for keeping the citizen body in a state of perpetual compliance and docility, trustworthy (to an extent) of those visible and invisible authoritative bodies which are there claiming to carry out operations for the best interest of those citizens. I say perpetual compliance because it can be argued that certain tools under the command of authoritative bodies or those in positions of power, such as the media, military; etc, are used in such a way as to keep the citizen in a continual state of shock (an idea mentioned in the video as well).

The role of silencing and acts ensuring isolation as a means of maintaining this state of shock and therefore a state of docile complicity might be applied to the experience of United States citizens following the events that took place on September 11, 2001 in New York. It goes unsaid that the nation as a citizen body experienced those events with shock and the symptoms that accompany it. It has often been the subject of great debate and discussion as to the manner in which the nation's former government under the direction of former present Bush handled the situation and the nation's state of shock by calling out to each individual citizen to do their patriotic duty and go out and shop. During this past presidential election, then future-President Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration for taking advantage of the grieving nation and, most notably, for missing what Obama believed to have been a momentous opportunity to unite the public through acts of service to their fellow citizens and local communities. In thinking about this issue after having read the last chapter in Madness and Civilization titled "The Birth of the Asylum" as well as having watched this video on shock, I can't help but view the actions of the Bush administration following the nation's shock-inducing tragedy as one which prolonged a sense of shock by encouraging silence and isolation. How? Firstly, through the manner in which we were each called to "go out and shop," a practice which is personal and performed on an individual, often anonymous basis (regardless of its moving in and out of shared serious dialogue takes place in the grocery store.) Secondly, the manner in which we received new information was provided through the unforgettable terror alert system of color coded signs to keep each individual on their toes regarding a state of fear or expectation of something potentially happening, with the color bar changing to a suggestively scarier level at what seemed like random intervals. The very reception of information in this way through the television is, like in that of shopping, an experience defined by its isolating nature in which changing information regarding potential danger is communicated to each individual personally.
Similarly, the national focus on this concept of national unity through patriotism might be understood as a kind of religion. In discussing the changing experience of madness, Foucault highlights the role of religion as being "the concrete form of what cannot go mad (244)." Likewise, religion is something experienced on a personal level and yet provides the religious individual with the illusion that she is part of a greater body/family/community. Fear is the instrument of religion to keep its followers along the "right path." Alongside fear remains the sense of an ever-present judicial body, one which threatens to judge you for a misstep, one which promises to punish should you, for instance, decide to verbalize an opinion viewed as anti-American in that it questions the practices of those in authoritative positions, it questions the doctor, the scientist, the father.

Foucault, Michel. "The Great Fear," "The New Division," "The Birth of the Asylum." Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage, 1988.

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