Soulless Embodiment

“The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The body, according to this penalty, is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions. Physical pain, the pain of the body itself, is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights. If it is still necessary for the law to reach and manipulate the body of the convict, it will be at a distance, in the proper way, according to strict rules, and with a much ‘higher’ aim.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage 2nd ed. 1991), p. 11.

While Michel Foucault accurately describes in his intellectual histories the evolution of various discourses of social and political hegemony from feudalistic monarchies to modern capitalist states—a transition from, in essence, the “body” as a ruling, controlling metaphor of cultural/technological domination to “spirit” as the ultimate definition of civilizing essence—his analysis is too abstractly universal to accurately describe the historical processes that reinforce the exclusion of certain “real” bodies from the idealistic classification of “spirit” even within the seemingly linear technological processes of “discipline and punishment” from a distance that he asserts is central to the more modern forms of torture and punishment.

While I tend to agree with him that “higher” aims or, better said, rationalizations, of specific forms of domination and exclusion allude optimistically to “spiritual” essences of all humans in the assertion of “higher” forms of culture and statecraft—liberal, democratic, capitalist republics are better than feudal, monarchical, inheritance based dynasties—it is not so clear during his analysis of docile, criminal, and condemned bodies that there are different kinds of “bodies.”

Indeed, in traditional feudal, monarchical pre-“modern” cultures serfs, peasants, and the deviant under-classes were conceived solely in terms of their physicality. Spirit was only available as a cultural form among the inherited, divinely appointed castes. Of course, the ages of modern revolution and reform overturned those cultural and political rationalizations of essential power in favor of notions of democratic spiritual access and essence and resulting notions of mass cultural and political enfranchisement.

But these notions were not necessarily extended to the cultures that increasingly became the objects of exploration and discovery for their mysterious and seductive “spiciness” and treasure.  As becomes clear with the increasing colonial exploitation and extraction of non-European resources, the importance of diminishing the essence of subordinate, dark peoples as primitive and heathen—wild and chaotic—to their physicality was central to the project of modern state formation and, even, the technological rationalization of modern forms of “discipline and punishment” that Foucault describes.

So when I read about the “higher” aims—citizen safety, border security–of Arizona’s new immigration law expanding the notion of reasonable suspicion in order to legitimize clearly unconstitutional random stops of supposed illegal immigrants, and the ongoing “stop and frisks” that have targeted the dark bodies of Blacks and Latinos over whites by an incredible documented ratio of at least nine to one in New York City, I am not convinced that the “distance” or abstraction of discipline and punishment has increased that much, especially for subordinate classes and races.

The only distance that leads to abstraction in Foucault’s terms is the fact that the continuing process of disciplining bodies of color–at some level they/we still aren’t defined by a spiritual essence or soul; we just aren’t capable of rational thought and action, you know that disembodied kind of performance–is largely hidden from popular media scrutiny. (How much more regular intimidation and harassment is not reported or documented by law enforcement? Hard to say, but my guess is it’s significant.)

But this is part of Foucault’s point with which I agree; the gradual disappearance of the spectacle such as the hanging, torture, etc. in the public square in favor of the containment of torture and punishment in the prison. But the fact of the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, especially boys and men of color, signals the ongoing process of criminalizing populations that are still imagined primarily as bodies and, as such, as inherently deviant and pathological.

The reported fact that, in the over-represented population of Black and Latino “stop and frisks” in New York City to ascertain whether or not the suspects possessed guns or any kind of weapon, force was more likely to be used against them despite the fact that actual arrest rates for whites and Black and Latinos was nearly the same is represents, I think, a symbolic representation of the fact that dark bodies primarily communicate through the body, not the mind. Physical force is what we best understand and respond to. We are not rational enough to “respect” state power embodied in law enforcement officers. In fact, our bodies will act on their own accord and therefore the need of law enforcement to first domesticate and tame the natural, wild body. (Actually Blacks and Latinos were arrested and found with weapons at a lesser rate than were whites, according to the New York Times piece this morning.)

In thinking about how reasonable suspicion will be interpreted and applied in Arizona should SB 1070 not be implemented in August this year—90 days after the end of the Arizona legislative session—we again return to the imagination of the bodies of brown people acting “furtively” (a central profile of the suspicious, shifty, sly, always ready to bolt or pounce beast of a body in New York City’s profile of gun-toting criminals) or wearing certain kinds of shoes in Arizona.

Of course, under certain culturally xenophobic, paranoid conditions, specific bodies need not really perform in furtive fashion or dress as if they just crossed the southern U.S. border to be imagined a soulless heathens. These are pre-existing conditions, so to speak, that are harbored in dominant cultural imaginations of subordinate cultural groups. It just so happens that brown-skinned cultures have been historically imagined to be incapable of superseding their bodies in order to attain the “spirit” of civilization which means not acting furtively because you’re already and always suspected of being ready to do something dirty and evil.

This is the conflicted narrative of “embodiment” that has its ironic cultural deployment in the fetishization of cultures of the body (brown people are exotic; they are such hard workers and beautiful people; we will celebrate them nostalgically; we will visit their cultures in awe and buy and wear their lovely trinkets; we will imbibe in their mystical ways and return to the earth to heal ourselves in order to feel more embodied as well) and its denial and containment (they can’t be trusted [where are your papers?]; they take our jobs; we need their cheap labor; learn English; go back to where you came from [the border crossed me; this is my home]; dirty Mexican!).

Can’t live with us. Can’t live without us.

Can’t live with the imagination of soulless brown folk. Can’t live without the imagination of soulless brown folk.

So, there may not be the spectacle of the scaffold and public hanging anymore—we’re smarter and better than that!—unless one imagines such television and media fare as “COPS!” and other “reality” programming as not so subtle ideological reinforcements of the containment and punishment of poor whites and people of color.

In some way the tortured spectacle has become the mass hysterical response nationwide, the return of white nativist racism that has used its privileged rhetorical and institutional muscle to advance policies and legislation to enforce its racially coded containment and punishment of suspect bodies in the name of “higher” civilized aims. It is this “furtive” movement that effectively exhibits a deeply ironic soulless embodiment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *