Archive for the ‘Foucault’ Category

Foucauldian Discussion of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomanic’

December 12, 2016

Before reading, please watch the following clip and read the accompanying film review:

Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II Trailer

Lars Von Trier’s Joyless Sexual Tantrum

Nymphomaniac, stylized as NYMPH()MANIAC, is the third and final film of Lars Von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy,’ which also consists of art house gems Antichrist and Melancholia. These films were created during, and inspired by, a period of depression in the director’s life. Each film stars the bleak, understated acting of Charlotte Gainsbourg as an emotionally tormented upper-middle class woman. Although the attached trailer may make the movie seem like a whimsical and sexy adventure story with a dramatic flair, do not be fooled. Watching this five and a half hour long movie, which is presented in two volumes, is just about the least sexy thing that someone could do, aside from creating the film in the first place; it is grueling, shamelessly depraved, and devastating, and I believe that that is just the point.

If Michel Foucault were alive today, I wonder what he would say about this film. It is well known that Foucault was interested in BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism), and themes such as these play a pivotal role throughout. A vital question that needs to be answered when watching the film is “Who has the power?” My first impression is that Joe has the power because she takes control of her own sexuality and wields it, in an Arendtian sense, like a weapon which she uses to callously destroy the relationships of the strangers around her. Upon deeper contemplation however, it seems more to me like Joe’s insatiable need for sex stems not from an innate internal desire, but as result of exposure to sexualized hierarchical structures of power and her desire to be in control of her own life, sexual or otherwise. Sex in the film is never ‘special,’ the way that it is most often depicted in media, nor does it feel especially pornographic (although technically it is). Instead, it is intentionally violent, tedious, and apathetic. This is because to Joe, the thrill comes not from the act of having sex, but rather from the personal power she feels that she gains as a result of it. Consequently, sex became her vice on which she relied for stability and order in what she considered to be a chaotic and meaningless world.

Other instances of Foucauldian tropes playing out on screen include Joe’s confession of nymphomania at a group therapy meeting (the therapist’s response? “We saysex addict.”), her father being a doctor and subsequently gruesomely dying of disease, Joe’s confession to a naive, asexual intellectual and subsequent attempted rape, and perhaps strongest of all, the bondage scene in which Joe goes to a sadist in order to experience pleasure once normal sex could no longer satisfy her (spoiler alert: it works).

If anyone else has seen this movie, I’d be interested in learning your take on it. It’s a very slow paced and depressing movie at times, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s an unquestionably intriguing exploration of the intersection between sex and power that is worth studying.




He sees when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 5, 2016

Since it is the season, I’m re-posting a piece on the Elf on a Shelf:

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The panopticon in the work of Marquez

December 20, 2014

We have a late addition to the blog! See here.

Thriving Theater in Italy’s Prisons

December 19, 2014

In this post I would like to focus on the emerging theater programs in Italy. Over the years, as a means of rehabilitation, the program has become so successful it has even overshadowered Italy’s real acting troupes. Their effort even came close to being nominated for an Oscar.

This example would resound very strongly with Foucault because of his extensive effort of reform in the French prison system. Much of ‘Discipline and Punish’ is concerned  with the prison and the panopticon as an expression of power. The physical separation of the prisoners and the surveillance of the gaurds is the  physical disciple that the prisoners have to face. Thus the mental discipline is instilled the prison time table; based on the quality of the prison/rehabilitation program is an example of the latent forms of power. The freedom granted through time for recreational activities might appear liberating at first. Yet, when there is free time in a schedule, it shows that freedom can be something that is given and then taken away. Freedom i in the short amount of time that it allowed in  the schedule disappears as the next activity begins. Furthermore, when considering the activities during free time, the prisoner is truly not free because he cannot do whatever he wants – he must adhere to what is acceptable in the prison environment.

Now let’s consider theater. Theater itself is a creative process; it requires an actor to change him/herself to fit a certain role. Through rigorous practice and memorization one can come close to a recreation/accurate reproduction of a role. The time and effort put into orchestraing the entire effort requires seriuos dedication. Judging by the success of the program each prisoner puts an ample amount of commitment into the performance.

Theater and the arts can have a profound effect on the mentality of a person. When considering the mental state of the prisoners one has to realize that many of these prisoners do not have much else to look forward to aside from the theater. Therefore the program is an example of Foucault’s biopwer because the profound influence theater has. The seemingly benign system pervades the mind and soul of the prisoners and they thus relinquish their own power willingly. The system works very effectively in the way that it allows for the ‘betterment’ and it does so in a way that resounds positively with the prisoners – there is no resistance to the program. In fact, some prisoners do not want to leave because  it gives them something to live for. When released, the prisoners have to try to redefine themselves in an context of a society that is not very welcoming towards ex cons. The prison theater gives the prisoners a new identity that allows them to thrive in an environment that they are comfortable in and have a community in.

The seeming concern with the prisoner’s artistic wellbeing shows the excercize of biopower in the way that the program get hte prisoners very inolved.  Moreover the latent power is in effect when each prisoner practices on his own time. Foucault’s theory would involve the prison to create a time table that would grant them time for recreation such as theater. Thus this is the most sinister form of power because it pervades the prisoners’ very soul – the acceptance of this art form as a means of rehabilitation has a deep effect on their psyche as this method seeks to condition the prisoners for life outside  the bars.

He knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when you’re awake

December 18, 2014

I guess in retrospect, this almost seems too obvious of a connection. You should read the whole article (Elf on a Shelf as training children to live with panopticism), but here’s one excerpt:

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The Panopticon in “The Wire”

December 15, 2014

The HBO series “The Wire” is one of my all time favorites.  Set in Baltimore, the show expertly portrays the legal system of the city and captures its relationship with urban crime.  One of the most significant and interesting aspects of this relationship is the almost constant theme of surveillance.  Director, David Simon, seems to obsess over the theory of the panopticon, with its methods of surveillance as well as efforts to battle against it from its subjects.

The panopticon is an architectural structure designed, ideally for prisons, to constantly surveil its tenants.  It consists of a surveillance room, surrounded on all sides by cells with one-way windows.  Using this central room, a watchman would have the ability to watch any cell at any given time.  Although this watchman could not physically observe all rooms at once, the prisoners’ knowledge that they might be under surveillance forces them to exhibit good behavior at all times.  In Discipline and Punish Foucault uses this building as a very effective metaphor for the structure of modern governments.  With the advancement in technology, we see our society becoming increasingly surveilled by the government. Streets being monitored by cameras, wiretaps on phones, and monitoring of peoples activity on the internet.  These are just a few techniques of many exercised by governments to invade the lives of citizens.  What is most important about these techniques of surveillance, and what Simon emphasizes in “The Wire”, is that all these forms of surveillance could be occurring in complete secrecy.  What results from this is an incredibly obedient society, following laws, which we otherwise would ignore, for the fear of being caught and punished.  When writing “The Wire”, Simon was certainly aware of this increasingly apparent aspect in our society.

In the first season of “The Wire” Simon uses the Low Rises to give us a good look at the complex systems the drug crews of Baltimore use to shroud their illegal activity.  The cash transaction is always handled by a separately than the “package.”  The dealers use pagers and pay phones, going far out of the way of convenience.  They use encoded phone numbers and language. They refuse to explicitly mention anything regarding their business except in secure, trusted locations.  When these lines of defense fall through, they manipulate the legal system in order to win court cases. Similar to the panopticon, the likelihood that a given moment is actually being surveilled is low, but the prospect alone is enough to encourage the constant vigilance which is required to evade the law. All these precautions are meant to safeguard in the event that they are being watched. This idea is so engrained in the urban culture that there seems to be an unbreakable rule among the community to never take part in the panopticon.  The “snitch” seems to be among the most dishonorable titles one can acquire.  Regardless of what is most beneficial for the individual, assisting the police in their investigation is by all means unacceptable.  “The Wire” shows this when a testifying witness against a murder is assassinated by a drug crew.

Simon also incorporates symbolism of the panopticon in various shots.  For instance, in the first shot following the credits of the first episode, the camera is angled at a security television surveying the two primary characters as they walk into a courthouse. This is an appropriate way to begin the series, as it immediately gives the viewer a feeling that the characters, even on the side of the law, are already under the influence of the panopticon.  Another significant symbol Simon uses is in the opening theme. In each of the 5 seasons, the series of shots and music that begin the episode changes.  However, each respective opening shares an identical shot of a boy throwing a rock at a surveillance camera, breaking its lens.  This reoccurring shot is clearly meant to stand out among the others and is a representation of the struggle to fight against the panopticon.  Here is a link to the video of the entire opening credits.  Pay attention to 1:15, where the previously said shot occurs. As you will see, the entire sequence is littered with symbolism referring to methods of surveillance.

The last connection I wanted to make is regarding a recent theme we talked about in class.  In “The Wire” we see constant advancement in the techniques used both by the panopticon and by those resisting it.  This progression is related to the notion that these two opposing forces actually support each other.  As the surveillance methods evolve, the drug crews become more efficient in evading the law.  As a result, both parties are continuously progressing in order to keep up with each other.

In “The Wire” David Simon creates an extremely curious relationship.  Viewers shift between supporting both sides.  Simon creates a dynamic causing you switch your support between both sides of the battle:  Between the ever-present  panoptic surveillance of the law and the evasive methods put out by the drug crews.

Observation in Foucault

December 11, 2014

Much of Foucault’s  repressive hypethesis deals with analyzing it’s effects and thus the  discourse and documentation of experience that followed. There are countless examples such as the Libertine  documentation of sexual experiences, the concept of the confessional, as well as the documentatons of trauma and mental illness (the theories of trauma) that would lend explanation to  criminal behavior. The Libertine documentation of sexuality as well as the heightened  discourse thereof was the end result of the attempt at repression of sexuality in society. Confession and self regulation took on a greater role, influencing the construction of institutions and correctional facilities.  Mental institutions were created in  order for doctors of the time to be have the opportunity to record data. There is a distinct pattern  in these events; each response is triggered by the knowledge that one is being observed.

Imposing censorship on sexaulity in Victorain times,  for example, caused for increased discourse. This shows several very interesting societal responses: on one hand there is secrecy, one is strictly discouraged from engaging in sexual activity. The discourse resulting from this kind of censorship shows that those participating have accepted the idea that engaging in this activity is not socially acceptable, however the documentation of it is the reaction to the idea that even the most intimate activity can be examined.  Presentation of one’s sexual experience was done in a matter that would be a reserved, contextual manner – even today one many are not comfortable with blatantly discussing sexuality. Thus one can say that those in that conversation must walk a fine line between self regulation and the observation of their peers. How will one be seen when this sensitive topic comes up? The speaker must worry about  the gaze of both his peers and the norm to ‘watch oneself.’

It’s interesting to note that in this specific situation there are three forms of observers;  the speaker, those conversing, and the relation of the speaker’s lucid experience versus it’s validity in the observer that has been instilled in the speaker himself.  At an early age children are watched and taught self discipline when it comes to certain innapropriate behaviors. In the Victorian ages schools were separated for girls and boys and set up in a way that would give children the feeling that they are observed. Thus the combination of the parents  and institutions  controlling the children’s activity results in the creation of the child being an observer of himself. Thus this shows that there are two observers in the relationship: the school  and the child. The child abides the rules and behaves appropriately and the adult in authority is observing the child’s behavior. As the child grows and becomes more independent he gradually internalizes the gaze of that adult. The important factor in the process is that there is no escape from the gaze – it is either imposed by society or imposed by self regulation.

Similarly, with the construction of the panopticon the prisoners themselves had no escape from the gaze of the warden. Over time the gaze of authority was internalized by the prisoners because of the layout in which the prisoner knew that he was being observed but could not see the warden. Thus the gaze becomes inescapable as it is internalized by the prisoners.  Therefore in this relationship the creation of the interal observer and internal self observation is revealed. Thus there is the relationship of the unseen all seeing authority, the prisoner seeking that is, literally looking for the person in authority and, finding none, creating a representation of this authority in himself.

These are examples of the implied relationship that Foucault’s writing has a strong emphasis on. Foucault’s repressive hypothesis criticized the workings of an inescapable, ever vigilant system which  constantly observes  its subjects to such a degree that they have no choice but to internalize the gaze and become forever self regulating.

Personally, the most frightening example is the documentation of new psychological theories and mental imbalances versus the self monitoring response of the individual. With the emerging amount of studies and discovery of new mental illness one can’t help but wonder if psychologists are creating these terms in order to administer various techniques/cures that would make eccentric and unique individuals, [or those that have not fully internalized the self regulating system] who could potentially challenge the system, complacent.  The latent form of power that is involved in diagnosing certian problems and imbalances heavily encourage the individual at self examination of one’s actions and behavior in context of the vigilant, authoritative system. Thus, when the idiosyncratic actions of an individual who is excluded and labelled by society is examined in context of a society obsessed with self medication and supposed normalcy. [This is by no means to delegitimize the seriuosness of actual mental illness; this is simply to point out the situation in which individuals can be coerced by over self regulation into worries about their behavior after laternt forms of power taken over.]

Self Regulation: Weber vs Foucault

December 8, 2014

In this post I would like to discuss the similarities between Weber and Foucault.  Recall that Weber  came up with with the theory of the spirit of capitalism which motivated one to be more diligent and consider  opportunity costs when seeking accumulation of profit. This is deeply rooted in a Protestant ethic that work is valued above all and that good behavior, rationality, and efficiency leads to good credit which therefore leads to money, the semblance of virtue. Thus, this forces the individual hyper organize, discipline and observe oneself in order to effectively gain capital. Foucault has similar aspects in his theory  that true power displays itself not in authority, but in the authority one has when law that originally external has been organized in such a way that the subject internalized, and was able to inflict the law on oneself, so to speak, thus creating a state of heightened self regulation.

Both Weber and Foucault have a strong emphasis on the idea that when one is discipled enough to have control and audit one’s actions in a way that  makes . Weber’s hypothesis on the Protestant work ethic claims that self monitoring must exist in order to satisfy one’s material needs. The Protestant work ethic itself originated in the idea that in order to glorify God one must fill up the day with work such as manual labor and prayer. Since the religious aspect of the is no longer in context in our society today, the approach towards work has remained. Effectiveness has to be internalized in order to survive a harsh, competitive capitalist society. Every minute wasted  not working results in the loss of material gain, therefore micromanagement of one’s own time results.

Foucault’s ideas on self monitoring is the result of his idea of power that is instilled through organization of people, such as the organization  of prisoners in the panopticon. Eventually, because of the structure of the building each prisoner is forced to self examine one’s behavior because he knows that he is being watched by a force he himself cannot see. No matter what the behavior is, there is no escape from the observer. Even when the system of cruel and unusual physical punishment has ceased the panopticon structure of prisons remained and with that remained the institution of constant observation. In rehabilitation time tables, for example,  the observation and organization of the prisoner’s time has proven to be one of the strongest ways to instill self monitoring. When the prison is given time to reflect and analyze one’s actions he must do so in a specific context which is usually that which is presented by the person in  charge of the activity, thus the person in power. Therefore when constructing the time table the individual who is constructing it must include free time for the prisoner to give the idea that he was granted momentary freedom, when in fact the freedom itself is limited by time and the person in power.

Furthermore Foucault’s repressive hypothesis is another example of self monitoring due to the censorship. The idea that sexuality must be repressed triggers two societal  reactions. On one hand, the repression results in the lack of overt conversation on the topic thus the self observation and prevention of one’s desire to reference to the subject in any way. Or, more commonly, discourse heightens which  makes the people participating in the discourse aware of their own actions and the way the information is presented, in order to conform with the appropriate presentation of information about intimate activity. In either reaction the repression that each individual must  cope with has been internalized after years of societal conditioning i.e. institutions to prevent allegedly illicit behavior.

Both theorists have a strong emphasis on self observation and extreme organization. While Weber is concerned  with the organization of time and gaining capital, Foucault focuses on self observation as the result of legal punishment/legal rehabilitation.  Weber is deals with the translation of organization of time from a religious context to a capitalist context. Capitalism itself is the power which forces the people to behave in a materialistic way;  one begins  to construct a tight, coordinated schedule in order to survive and earn his place in the world. Foucault present the idea of self regulation that results from the ultimate control of power which originated from the so-called freedom that it grants its people. Both theories show similar patterns in which there is a critique of artificially latent power – capitalism supposedly gives us the freedom to choose to how to gain/spend money, and the power involved in time tables/legal systems gives prisoners ‘leisure time.’ The relationship between the observer and the observed is blurred when the observed internalize a constant, critical self analysis.




May 10, 2012

According to 19th century “absolute music” aesthetics (e.g. Hanslick, Gurney), in order for something to be considered art music, it must be autonomous – it must be governed only by its own internal laws (its “identity”) and not serve some social function such as entertainment, communication or expression. To serve a social function is to compromise its essence by conforming to power relations that exist outside of the work, the same power relations that are the subject of Foucalt’s theory. Modernist composers of the post-WWII period attempted to free themselves of these power relations by making music out of rationally constructed laws based on strictly ordered pitches, dynamics, timbres, articulations, etc. In this way, modernists separated the compositional process from their own artistic intuitions, which are tainted by power relations that exist outside of the music itself. Of course, Foucalt might make the argument that the very idea that progress and autonomy are valuable is itself a reinforcement of existing broader social power dynamics.

Until 1964, George Rochberg was a composer of serialist music which appealed to these modernist ideals. When his son died, he decided that serial music was not an aesthetically a viable option for coping with his loss. He needed to express, to communicate, and ultimately to conform to the power relations that value certain utterances over others (e.g. triads over 016 pitch class sets). As we established in class, these power relations are a prerequisite of meaning, and therefore, of successful communication. Eventually, he came to outright criticize modernist aesthetics, the ideals of progress and autonomy altogether. He wanted to embrace culture, the past, connotation and extra-musical baggage. It is these things, he argued, that enable meaning and expression. Excessive rationality, he argues, leads to a separation of oneself from one’s product, the death of true action. Arendt makes a similar argument in her warning against unbridled implementation of rational systems.

The ironic twist is that the broader power dynamics that value autonomy and truth above all are what enabled Rochberg to make this claim publicly. In other words, his music was only in a position to be heard because of his background in academic music and the legitimacy that comes with it. The world only valued his opinion because of his history in music and musical environment that he explicitly rejects. Had he simply begun writing music in A major when he was 20, he would have been the laughing stock of the “serious music” world and his music never would have seen the light of day. So it is power (that which valued modernist ideals over Romanticism in the serious music culture) that enabled him to speak legitimately, and it is another kind of power (the cultural environment that enables extra-musical meaning and expression in a work of music) that enabled him to speak expressively. His story is one of remarkable success, a man who traversed complex and contradictory power-value systems and arrived at the top.  His music’s okay.

repressive hypothesis in Asian countries.

May 7, 2010

When we had a discussion about repressive hypothesis, most of the students in the class agreed that discourses about sexuality are silenced and well-refined, here in United States. Foucault asserts that the western society is based on confessions of Victorian Era, not from Bourgeois society of the seventeenth century. These confessions motivated people to confess about things from their misconduct on sexual activities to even having thoughts about sexuality. Eventually, these confessions became the made people think that sex is bad and secretive and cause of repressive hypothesis. Yes. This is understandable reason for western society to have repressive hypothesis.

What about all the other countries where sex is repressed? For example, most of Asians are not comfortable talking about sex publically and definitely not comfortable dealing with it with easy manner. I talk to many friends who born, spent most of their childhood in Asia and came to America for college educations. Apparently, growing up in Asia and moving to USA with very opened and liberated culture, they experience extreme confusion. I personally lived in Korea till seventh grade and got middle school and high school education in America. But I remember the initial shock I got from such a different culture and I do still get a shock from certain aspect of the culture; especially, aspects on sexuality.  Many Asian parents refuse showing love for each other, some parents even refuse to hold hand in front of people. Those parents work consciously not to show affections for each other in front of people, especially their kids. I think because the power that is operating on the society forces the image that kid should not be aware of anything that is “close” to sex and it is parent’s responsibility to hide it well.

This phenomenon is very similar to repressive hypothesis in western societies. However, Asian countries adopted catholic not long ago and are not used to whole “confession” yet. Most people have religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, that are far from catholic and Christianity. Then what are the causes of repression of sexuality in Asian countries? I am not sure the causes of this but it is definitely different kind of power (confession) that operates in the Western society.

Moreover, Repressive hypothesis insist that people should talk about it more openly and frequently to challenge the repressiveness (However, Foucault disagrees with the idea). However, I do not think Asian countries are even aware that the sex is repressed. Therefore, they are not even thinking about making any action or resolution for this phenomenon. (I think they are quite comfortable of their life style) Is it really necessary for the society, for both Asian and western, to realize the power and challenge it? That should be the points we should think about.