Sunday, August 26, 2007

Foucault's Doohickey

I noticed upon viewing my sitemeter stats that at least 5 or 6 people have come to my site from a search for “Foucault” and “doohickey” or some combination thereof. Is it special doohickey season, or the man’s birthday or something, that prompted this veritable run on Foucauldian doohickeys, not to mention thingamabobs? And was this really what you were looking for? (did somebody write something about my site or link to it that people are trying to find? Who’s talking behind my back? Ok, end paranoia.) Well, far be it from me to disappoint my readers or searchers ---- I shall, indeed, give you Foucauldian doohickeys!

First of all, I should point out that if you want an experiment that will demonstrate the rotation of the earth, you’re looking for a pendulum named after the French physicist Leon Foucault, who is not the Foucault you will be finding here. However, Foucault’s pendulum is quite pretty and fun to watch, so here is a Foucault pendulum in action at the “Musée des arts et métiers” … at least for a few seconds before the bored camera-wielding tourist starts looking around.

Here, have a still photo of a Foucault’s pendulum too:

…as you can see they look quite nice, especially when there’s an elegant gold plumb-bob and fancy compass rose inlaid in the floor. If you go look for more pictures, you’ll notice that lots are in beautiful classical or gothic archways with naves and pilasters and architectural details and things. Mmm, architectural details! Tasty! (Can you tell I grew up in the Western US in the 70s? Square white boxes of rooms, people! The “mile grid” and International Modernism and all that puke! I will go off on this favorite rant of mine in a later post, don’t you worry.)

Anyway, if you’re here for truly Foucauldian doohickeys you know that these pretty science toys are not the real deal and you are waiting for me to bust out with some implements of torture, for some good-old-fashioned Discipline and Punish. Aw yeah. Because this blog is not all about the physics of the earth’s rotation, nor, really, about the novel by Umberto Eco, which I haven’t read but I heard it was nice; no, this is a blog for poststructuralist theory, the hardcore, straight-up-no-chaser kind. Especially that by Michel Foucault, French philosopher, historian, and social critic. And I will deliver:

Ohhh, yeah. Isn’t it so … gridded? Doesn’t it give you that little frisson as you contemplate all areas of your life being quantified and squeezed into those little tiny spaces? What? What!?!? That wasn’t what you were looking for? What the hell! Maybe you want something a little more gender specific? Ok, here’s a favorite:

Now there we go… you’re right. You need to bring together a whole arsenal of implements to really get the effect of the power/knowledge system. Some people say the medical gaze is best, but I say the fashion gaze gets that gridding and standardizing and melds it with an internalized Panopticon! Speaking of, have some actual Panopticons:

You’ll note that the internal view is from a contemporary prison in Spain and the external view is from Los Angeles, where they have the largest jail in the world. I love me some Panopticons!

What is your problem? These aren’t implements of torture? They’re not sexy enough? You were thinking something a little more BDSM? Oh. Well, I blame the American translation. See, Foucault’s book in French is called Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, which links back to surveillance, not torture, and his claim is that society threw out all that flashy, spectacular, sexy torture stuff for shit that would be more effective. (I gotta say, I love the guy, but his History of Sexuality, vol. 1 was pretty much the least sexy book I have read. Where were the body parts and the desires? It was all about the diffuse and anonymous workings of power, and how power was to be defined.)

So if you want the bondage and the sadism and the masochism, honey, actually, you’re going for the child’s play. The froofy cocktail with fruit and umbrellas, rather than the straight shot of Everclear that is a timetable. S&M is actually about the stylization, the overtheatricalized performance, of modern workings of power. The more showy, and less effective, dramatization of power compared to the internalization of the Panopticon, both in terms of cost and in pervasiveness. Why spend all that money paying a torturer and inspectors, who can’t be everywhere, and need, you know, pensions and health plans and all that shit, when we can implement a system whereby citizens police themselves and their other citizens! Who better to become a jailor than the prisoner herself? She’s always there already!

But that’s what’s so great about the Bush administration; after hundreds of years of replacing the inefficient old systems of torture and spectacular power with more seamless, integrated, standardized systems of rationalized time and space and regulation of docile bodies, they’re bringing sexy back! They said, tomato, tomahto, why do we have to choose between the great taste of rationalized corporate control on the one hand and the less filling of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on the other; postmodernism is about both/and! We can have it all! In fact, the very spectacular, flashy nature of torture and all the emotional buttons it pushes can serve as a wonderful distraction from the increasing ratcheting up of pervasive, anonymous power; the largest prison system in the world, the disappearance of undocumented workers or Muslims, stifling of political dissidents, the massive transfer of wealth through mergers, corporate welfare, and the simultaneous unraveling of the social safety net, the atomization of American culture into libertarian-esque hyper-consumerism…

Ugh. I think I made myself sick. Even I can’t handle mainlining that much crap.


heu mihi said...

Wow. Fabulous.

You know--and here's my moment of Lodgian Humiliation--I've never read Foucault. (Insert obligatory mince and cringe here.) And yet your summary is evocative! Hey--could big-T Theory actually be fun?

Seriously. I really enjoyed this.

moria said...

About a year ago, I sat on the floor in the Musée des Arts et Métiers for about an hour watching the pendulum. The meditativeness of the whole endeavor was vastly compromised by the fact that people kept touching it, apparently unaware that they were interfering very rudely with what was probably the only perfect thing they'd see that day.

Also, I don't think I've ever seen the Double Foucauldian Doohickey sightgag before, but it's been aching to be done for ages and I congratulate you on having executed it with style.

Sisyphus said...

heu mihi: No. You are not allowed to have any fun while reading Foucault, or else his ghost will come back and beat you with shoes.

I found reading him incredibly frustrating until I figured out that the last sentence or two of his chapter, worded in the form of a question, actually was the thesis in disguise. But then it was all wonderfulness.

Neophyte ---- the Double Foucauldian Doohickey Sightgag? Wow, that sounds way more impressive than what I thought I did ... like an acrobatic stunt I have way too little flexibility for. Thanks!

Horace said...

gggggrowl...mainlining Foucault. Now that's what I call bringing sexy back. Incidentally, I think Foucault is a lot more fun and sexy than, say, Spivak. Give me some Madness and Civ. anyday.

Oh and it kills me that your What-Not-To-Wear-Hatin' is so dead on. Le sigh.

Sisyphus said...

Horace --- I actually love that show (well, I'm ambivalent). But I could not find internet pictures of dressing rooms with security cameras and the "do not shoplift" signs, even though I see the setup with mirrors and the camera pointing at you all the time.

Incidentally, my picture of a tape measure seems to have gone missing. The mystery of the internets.

gggggrowl...mainlining Foucault. Now that's what I call bringing sexy back. Incidentally, I think Foucault is a lot more fun and sexy than, say, Spivak. Give me some Madness and Civ. anyday.

Ah, Horace, I knew we'd get along!