Friday, April 24, 2009

the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure

What does Foucault mean when he talks about “the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure?”

Upon first reading this term, I of course attempted to work my way through what exactly he is meaning here, adding another hyphen and term to “power-knowledge,” which I have already encountered in his other work. I know that by power-knowledge, Foucault is referring to the manner in which both knowledge constitutes and informs power whilst also being reproduced by it, shaped if you will according to its operative needs. As such, power and knowledge cannot be separated. Power-knowledge entails the combined “deployment of force and the establishment of truth” within a single whole. In addition, I know that according to Foucault, knowledge is never neutral or objective, such as the tenets of positivism hold, even if it presents itself as such under the guise of science or the like.

Now in bringing in a new term and creating what he calls “power-knowledge-pleasure” one can gather that he is, once again, suggesting that the terms not be viewed in isolation but rather be understood as operating through, within and because of one another, each term capable of influencing the other through variance in force. As both knowledge and power are understood as dynamic, relativistic and decentralized occurrences of a larger system or structure, so too might pleasure be categorized.

In the first half of The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Foucault discusses what he calls “the repressive hypothesis” regarding the manner in which we tend to view those living within the Victorian era as sexually repressed in a way which identifies them as rather non-sexual. He challenges this notion, however, arguing that the very existance of “repression” itself did not operate in erasing or negating sexuality as topic of conversation, but rather produced "a veritable discursive explosion, (17)" "a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex—specific discourses, different from one another both by their form and by their object: a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward.(18)" With the increased presence of sexuality as topic in discourse, there emerged with it (in its interrelated nature) an increased interest on the part of institutions to not only provoke further articulations of sexuality, in doing so, shaping the manner in which it is spoken about, but also to create knowledge about it through discursive practices.

Such practices enable the operation of power in a way that repression does not, through the discursive production of sexuality and subjects who possess a ‘sexual nature.’ The discourses on sex increased not in separation or opposition to power, but within its jurisdiction and as a means of its own exercise. Sex and sexuality was something “to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum. Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered.(24)" This administration is made possible through the production of knowledge about sex made possible through the encouragement of discourse proliferation with sex as its central theme. It is interesting to note that even the practice of silence becomes part of the larger sex discourse, through which power-knowledge operates. While the regulation of sex discourse can be viewed much like the control of criminality, as objects subject to the simultaneous knowledge production and domination enabled by scientific examination, it differs in that with the topic of sex, there emerges a larger sense of not only self-regulating but self-creating subjects as control exercised through internalized knowledge of the self.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. 2 vols. New York: Viintage, 1990.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thoughts on Anti-Prison Activist Discourse

The last three chapters of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish that make up part four titled “The Prison” presented many ideas that I found particularly intriguing. One of the most striking notions that emerged in my reading of this section I found to be particularly useful in analyzing and understanding the experiences I have had within and exposure to the world of leftist activism that concerns itself with dismantling the American prison system.

It is always refreshing to find myself in situations where I can look at my own stances on issues and challenge my former devoted and stubborn dispositions from a removed place through the lenses of newly found concepts and self-dug-with-a-spoon-I-stole-from-the-guarded-refectory-of-my-own-little-intellectual-prison mini dirt tunnels to pseudo-enlightenment sunshine and fresh air. (A tad verbose and dramatic, I know.) It’s nice to see evidence of my own being in a state of intellectual process…more and more I find myself less desperate to define my stances and ideas and more open to a more organic sense of the world and its shifty operative philosophies.

Anyway, I digress. (*self-disciplined slap on the wrist*)

What I noticed as exceptionally applicable to reviewing anti-prison activism discourse lies in Foucault’s stressed discussion of the prison, while perhaps a centrally located physical body, as only a segment operating complexly within a whole overlapping and interweaving system that functions through disciplining practices to establish and sustain a specific normality among social body subjects upon which certain forms and distributions of power depend in order to justify its place and perpetuate itself. This came to me most explicitly when Foucault writes that “the model of the carceral city is not, therefore, the body of the king, with the powers that emanate from it, nor the contractual meeting of wills from which a body that was both individual and collective was born, but a strategic distribution of elements of different natures and levels” (307).

This notion provides strong theoretical grounds to challenge popular anti-prison activist discourse that tends to refer to “the prison system” as a singular object, rendering it an easily defined, identified enemy to oppose. While perhaps serving a purpose of making this form of activism accessible and its respective activist efforts part of a perceivably winnable battle, this method of referring to the prison as a singular and interchangeable object body is problematic because it avoids looking at the other functions of the prison as part of a larger, complex system in operation that maintains particular power hierarchies that depend on disciplinary institutions. In short, the argument made by many of such activists is weakened substantially in that first, it makes assumptions about the purpose of the prison in society, and second, it prevents the potential for any real change by remaining on the surface in challenging the prison as a physical space maintained by a specific group of people, which serves as a distraction from looking into the systemic elements of the matter. While it may seem easier to locate a problem and tackle it as such, organizers calling to “’bring down’ the prison and change the way law works in society as a result,” such an approach is doomed to a certain degree of failure in that it doesn’t address the basic function of the prison, itself “not alone, but linked to a whole series of ‘carceral’ mechanisms…which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization” (308).

human sciences and the "knowable man"

In discussing the “human sciences,” Foucault discusses certain parallel relationships with its emergence and developments in the prison system with its methods of examination and incarceration, stating:

“If [the human sciences] have been able to be formed and to produce so many profound changes in the episteme, it is because they have been conveyed by a specific and new modality of power: a certain policy of the body, a certain way of rendering the group of men docile and useful. This policy required the involvement of definite relations of knowledge in relations of power…The carceral network constituted one of the armatures of power-knowledge that has made the human sciences historically possible. Knowable man (soul, individuality, consciousness, conduct, whatever it is called) is the object-effect of this analytical investment, of this domination-observation. " (305, emphasis added)

This notion of the “knowable man” I find interesting, particularly in looking at specific disciplinary practices in the labeling of the introvert and/or the shifting personality as not only deviant but delinquent. This comes to mind due to having worked as a resident advisor last year in a student dormitory through the residence life department where I was trained extensively to be on the “lookout” (a word perfectly fitting considering the operative role of visibility in the practice of discipline ala Foucault’s panopticism) for “at-risk” students. These students were to be identified by particular qualities that we were to “read” through their externality as clue to their internal operations/states of being which may or may not be a potential “problem” in need of “adjustment.” For example, if a student was not open to establishing a relationship with members of his or her hallmates and most specifically, with you as RA (a curious multi-headed monster of a role including that of friend, peer, concerned family member, security guard and correctional officer), if they exhibited particularly hesitance to ones required efforts at “getting to know” them, then they were branded, as it were, as potential “at-risk” students and may be referred to the counseling center for psychiatric services. This even highlights the manner in which the various disciplinary institutions become interwoven and overlapping, particularly in such a setting as that within a residence undergraduate college where one enters (consciously, willingly, with consent) as a body/mind in process, and in doing so subjects oneself to what Foucault highlights are ever-present “judges of normality,” “the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’ judge,” through whom the individual subjects to the “universal reign of the normative” “his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements." (304)

Moving in quite a different direction, but somewhat along the same track, I wonder too how this might potentially be extended even further to understand the manner in which foreign students (or those otherwise understood as possessing ethic or cultural minority status) involved in crime are portrayed through imagery and language, including accounts from teachers and peers, in what seems to be attempts to locate their deviance in action within a ‘delinquent personality’ defined by an inability (or refusal) to be known. While there are surely multiple examples that may be found in more smaller scale situations, the examples that first came to mind include the reports in media such as television news broadcasts or internet news reporting articles concerning the school shooting that took place at Virginia Tech in 2007. The information regarding the individual charged with the murders focused largely on his being first abstractly Asian, and then locating his nationality as South Korean. In addition, much of the reported news focuses on trying to “know” the student, with quotes from other students at the school who described him as shy, quiet, frail, untouchable; etc.

While this is certainly only fragments of a much more complex conversation and certainly one cannot ignore the real life consequences of certain acts of crime, such as murder in the case of Virginia Tech, but I feel that it brings up some interesting questions concerning how society deals, for example, with resistance to assimilation by foreigners or immigrants. Once again, in referring back to my example of the student at Virginia Tech, one of the largest issues brought up in news media discourse surrounding the individual was that of his refusal to respond to suggestions and requests that he seek counseling services as a means of adjusting his behavior. This makes me ponder to what extent these stories of specific foreigners as examples of deviance and criminality serve a disciplinary role in “keeping in check” other foreign individuals (students or otherwise) who are living, learning, working in America, for example by making them hyper aware of what would cause one to be read as a deviant or delinquent foreigner (through being quiet and withdrawn, for example by not learning and using English, or by not voluntarily complying with certain procedures of adjustment put in place for them either in school settings or elsewhere), and to encourage them to avoid such labeling through a disciplined enactment of “proper” action (being particularly open and known, registered, etc.)

Foucault, Michel. "Complete and Austere Institutions," "Illegalities and Delinquency," "The Carceral." Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books: New York, 1995 (org. published 1977.) 231-308.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Visibility is a Trap" - photography and panopticism

[For this post, I am providing selected passages from a larger paper titled “Visible Invisibility and the Trap of the Flash and Frame” that I have written concerning the manner in which visibility operates within the photographic work of American visual artist George Dureau. I have chosen to include segments of the paper where I explicitly worked with Foucault’s notion of ‘panopticism’ from Discipline and Punish in relation to the medium of photography in “capturing” the racial subject.]

George Dureau’s photographs provide unique grounds for analysis and critique in that the artist publicly claims to have crafted the images with the intention of transcending this traditional form of racial objectification through providing otherwise neglected subjects’ visibility. In addition, the limited available literature written about his work does little more than herald the photographs as positive and progressive, praising them for a capacity to humanize as well as glorify the black male through the use of direct gaze and neoclassical stylization of the nude body. I aim to challenge this notion however, in that while the artist does make the invisible visible by bringing the marginalized subject into the public space, at the same time his subjects are made invisible through their being reduced to (and therefore defined by) their sexuality through a coded way of seeing that draws off of and perpetuates traditional myths of the sexual black male, an echo of past American racist institutions and ideologies, and fixes the subject in a limited, context-less position of objectification and fetishization when viewed and consumed by a public audience.

As the works themselves are photographs dealing with display and consumption of images, the concept of the gaze seems to be a most suitable starting theoretical angle to take in beginning this analysis. While I do find the concept of the gaze centrally relevant to this discussion, I find it also necessary to expand its traditional notion and incorporate concepts of the visible. The notion of the gaze playing a central role in the politics of seeing and being seen has been explored in depth by many and applied to a variety of situations. Most notably, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey (1989) presents a theory of the gaze within a filmic context that differentiates between the gazes of the camera lens, the audience, and the subjects filmed and presented. The gaze operates according to the relationships between these bodies engaged in the moment of visual communication, signifying relationships of power in which the spectator is superior to the object of the gaze. Further, the gaze of the unseen spectator is realized through a heterosexual male perspective, which denies subjects of lesser social power status agency and relegates them to the status of objects.

This concept of the objectifying gaze supposes an ideal spectator, leaving the frame of the gaze conceptually limited to a single unseen viewer. However, throughout the history of interaction across racial lines in America, a politics of seeing and being seen has operated outside of intimate spaces and across state and regional borders. As such, coded ways of seeing produced cultural knowledge of the identity of the racial “other” and of his or her relation to the larger American public. We see this largely manifested in stereotype and myth retold through public images of non-white subjects. With the images representing a larger way of knowing, these coded ways of seeing cannot be understood here as produced by or limited to a single ideal spectator. Rather, the subjects within the photographs exist (having been placed by another) in the public space in which they are always potentially seen. As they exist in the public space to be gazed upon due to having been “provided” visibility, it is necessary that the images must also be addressed in larger terms of the visible.

To move beyond the gaze, I will apply Michel Foucault’s (1975) concept of the visible as expressed through his discussion of panopticism which relates systems of power and societal discipline with a particular process of observation and examination experienced through the visible. According to Foucault, a subject provided perpetual visibility “is seen, but does not see” while those in positions of power may see everything (with selectivity as to its extent or duration) while remaining invisible to he whom they view (1975, p.200). For the subject, this “visibility,” through which he is located, isolated and marked, “is a trap” (1975, p.197-200). The use of light (as related to the photographic medium) in making the subjects visible serves a disciplinary (as in regulatory) function. Through it, traditional power relations may be implemented and reinstated in the unseen viewer’s creation of knowledge about the subjects who are otherwise capable only of being “object[s] of information, never a subject in communication” (1975, p.200)

George Dureau has produced a substantial body of work notably characterized by a thematic consistency in form and subject. In the remainder of this paper, I will be focusing on two specific pieces from the artist’s larger collection, the black and white photographic portraits of John Simpson and William Hines. Both images exemplify the formal, stylistic and subject-representative choices widely found in his other work.

Dureau claims to have provided his uncommon subjects with increased value and liberation from the bonds of their marginalized and highly invisible existence by providing them with visibility. What is the nature of this visibility he provided them? First, the subjects are made visible in the very technical sense of the matter, that is, as a result of the light function within the camera which transfers the perceived form of a real physical object in the moment of the flash to produce a fixed image. By choosing these particular men as his subject- economically underprivileged black men with physical disabilities - the artist is making them visible in a way that they presumably would not have otherwise been, as portrait subjects (either chosen by an artist or of their own accord) in art photography. Secondly, he is claiming to provide them visibility by displaying the images in the public space, both in the context of the high art museum or gallery and in the reproduction of images in print or within online galleries. Within this space, the subjects experience visibility in their being seen and witnessed by a public audience through their presence within the images. Further, Dureau claims that his work supplies the subjects with increased value by making them visible as subjects in the realm of high art in way that other photographers have failed to do, challenging traditional notions of beauty and value by linking their otherwise imperfect and non-ideal (and non-white) forms with those associated with classical notions of beauty and implying that they should share a space.

The artist’s concept of visibility as liberating is problematic here however, in that while he may have strove to “satisfy [the subjects’] need to be seen,” the nature of the images as having been realized through the fixed nude (“a revealing physical and psychological strip”) and fragmented form prove rather to marginalize the men presented than empower and elevate them (Cooper, 1995, p.9). This marginalization occurs in the manner in which the subjects are fixed, frozen and fragmented within the frame of the photograph and through the exposure to the anonymous, unseen public that the photograph displayed provides them. In this way, the photograph “captur[ing]” the subject in the frame through “full lighting and the eye of a supervisor,” functions to isolate and marginalize its subject much like Foucault’s panopticon by its technique of “arranging spacial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize instantly” (Foucault, 1975, p.200). Through the photographic medium, this “visibility is a trap” within which the subject is “segmented, immobile, frozen…fixed in his place” (1975, p.195, 200). The individuals chosen by Dureau as subjects for his photographs are representative of those who exist marginally in society and outside of the expected, normative notions of human value and beauty. Their physical abnormalities and racial otherness fashion them unique in such a way that may code them deviant when held against the normative vision of a white, functioning, clothed (moral) and middle class American society within which, in their apparent difference, they are provided no acknowledgement and little space. With this consideration, the visibility that is provided by the photograph may be further understood in terms of its disciplinary function in which it “fixes, arrests or regulates movements” of the perceived deviant subjects so as to “clear up confusion” (1975, p. 219). This disciplinary arresting of movement is most apparent in the subjects’ still position within the frame. For example, Hines is shown thin and feminized but with a kind of youthful nervous insecurity in his passive stance that suggests both a capacity and restrained impulse to engage in activity. Similarly, Simpson is presented with a muscular build suggesting his athletic nature with a concentration of strength and power in his torso implying a capacity to move. While both Hines and Simpson seem to suggest having previously engaged in activity or the potential for future movement in their physical form, both are presented captured in the momentary frame by the flash of the camera as merely being and not doing.

Within the “enclosed, segmented space” of the frame in which the subjects are “inserted in a fixed place,” each is not only located according to physical space but by a marked identity (1975, p.197). The images function to marginalize the subjects further, once frozen in the framed space, by making highly visible the differences that exist between them and the viewer. By presenting his images as a space within which traditionally invisible and unwanted subjects are given focus, Dureau characterizes the photographs as a “space of exclusion” (1975, p.199). In this knowledge, viewers approach this space with a “them vs. me” binary frame that only re-enforces the notion of the included subjects as abnormal or “other” when pitted against the position in which the viewer believes his or herself to be.

The bodies do not function as slices of reality, but as fragmented “emblems of invisibility” in which their vulnerable nude forms, scarred and disfigured, highlight their otherness without providing details of their struggles or depth to their experience and identity (Lucie-Smith, 1994, p.120). Through the nature of this fragmentation, the subject then becomes inscribed with meaning- “truth”- by the spectator as guided by the framing of the image by the artist. While a connection is made between the spectator and the subject through a direct gaze, the attention placed on abstracting the figure by highlighting his differences and fragmenting his form creates the perception of too many boundaries to cross for the spectator to truly and fully know and understand the subject. The spectator becomes “caught in a gaze [he] cannot return,” dislocating the alleged identity of the subject other, and rendering that identity “problematic” and inaccessible to the spectator’s “perception” (Derrida, 1994, p.7-8). The abstraction within the images encourages this “visor effect” that likens the black male subjects to “specters,” who “watch, observe, stare at the spectators” but too remain “blind seers” (1994, p.100). The response to not being able to fully apprehend the abstracted subject in its embodied form within the photograph, nor “identify it in all certainty,” is to “fall back on its voice” (1994, p.7). As the subjects exist only as frozen bodily forms, they possess no voice but rather remain silent. When the subjects are presented only in silence, the viewer can only give the silence a “meaning it does not have, endowing it with the essence of what we would have liked such subjects to have said” (Vivian, 2004, p.175).

George Dureau is commonly lauded for honest, individualized and humanized photographic images of marginalized racial and physically-abled “others” that progressively “render visible [the] ‘invisible men’” (Mercer, 1993, p.357). It is this very visibility, however, experienced through clearly eroticized bodies, which remains centrally problematic to this claim that links representations of the black male as defined by and limited to his sexuality, an image symbolizing a racially oppressive and unjust past, with claims to reality and social progress. Is it possible to visually render the black male in such a way that artistically presents his sexuality without confining his value and identity as a human individual to that feature and function? Dureau proclaimed this as his intention, but his end product appears to have missed the mark. Instead of liberating, empowering and providing egalitarian dignity and value to the subject by bringing him into the public space, the photographs serve rather to “enclose” and “trap” the subject through a disciplined performance of power realized in the image producing process and regulated by the gaze (Foucault, 1975, p.200). This enactment of power renders the black male subject objectified as the artist utilizes the subjects’ body, calculatedly presented in such a way- through nudity, lack of social and spatial context, imposed fixity and fragmentation- that renders the human subjects mere voiceless canvases upon which the viewer-public, from a position of unseen and unenclosed privilege, superimposes meaning and consumes as truth. While George Dureau may have had “good intentions” in seeking to provide visibility to marginalized black male subjects, his photographs maintain a tradition of problematic representation based in a tradition of black male sexuality through which the subjects are objectified and rendered voiceless, thus enabling the creation/re-creation and superimposition of social knowledge through coded ways of seeing that perpetuates differential power relations on the basis of race.

Cooper, Emmanuel. 1995. Fully Exposed: the Male Nude in Photography. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. “Apparition of the Inapparent.” Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge. 125-176.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House. 195-230.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. 1994. "Minority Sexuality." Race, Sex and Gender in Contemporary Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 94-139.

Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillian.