Saturday, February 10, 2007

insert somewhat witty orwellian reference here.

(so this is not either of the posts i mentioned that i would write yesterday in the comment thread. sue me. but a comment in that same thread reminded me of one of the against love excerpts that i wanted to post and talk about, so here you go.)

…just for fun, try this quick thought experiment. Imagine the most efficient kind of social control possible. It wouldn’t be a soldier on every corner – too expensive, too crass. Wouldn’t the most elegant means of producing acquiescence be to somehow transplant those social controls so seamlessly into the guise of individual needs that the difference between them dissolved? And here we have the distinguishing political feature of the liberal democracies: their efficiency at turning out character types who identify so completely with society’s agenda for them that the volunteer their very beings for the cause…

she touches again on this idea briefly in the final pages of the book:

[Love] can fasten itself to compulsory monogamy – not a desire, but an enforced compliance system. (Which is not to say that monogamy can’t be a desire in itself, but you’d only really know that absent the enforcement wing and the security state apparatus.)

fridge notes, in the comment thread of the last post, that it seems kipnis’s argument “presupposes that we aren't meant to be submerged in a comfy jelly of docility and numbness or that we'd choose not to be.” this reminded me of kipnis’s point that it’s hard to sort out one’s true desires when immersed in a hegemony that’s attempting to dictate your desires for you.

this is a kind of social control that most people react very strongly against, because it strikes at the very heart of our own sense of agency. the idea that you aren’t exactly "freely" choosing what you think you’re freely choosing is understandably anxiety-inducing. of course, we still have to weigh the options and make the best decisions that we can for ourselves regardless – the dilemma of what to buy for lunch does not disappear with the knowledge that your options are limited by a spectrum of circumstances! but the way in which we, as human beings with a certain time and place, are strongly influenced by the dissipated and nebulous forces of a society seeking its own perpetuation is a tough pill to swallow sometimes.

this morning, i was lying in bed at 6:45 am thinking about Michael Foucault and the Panopticon. because of this, i kinda wanted to smother myself with a pillow. in my two years of grad school, i took in enough theory-based education, conversation, and pontification to choke a horse, and i swore that i would never utter the word “Foucault” or “Lacan” again, except if it were necessary to save my life or win me a million dollars. i have obviously reneged on that promise here presently, and for that i am deeply ashamed. but i had to, and here’s why.

i think Foucault provides a great example of this kind of pervasive yet indistinct social regulation in his book Discipline and Punish. in the book, Foucault lays out the way a state controls its citizens' behavior by – you guessed it! – discipline and punishment. but it’s not the particulars of the discipline or the punishment that really interest him – it’s their intention and their effect. he highlights the example of the Panopticon, a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham that allows for the observation of any prisoner at any time, without any of the prisoners being able to tell when they’re being observed. this limitless potential for surveillance creates in the prison populace a level of obedience that you could not ensure with any other method.

now, while not all of us have been to prison or ever anticipate going to prison, the theory behind the Panopticon is nevertheless hard at work regulating our lives. the “discipline and punish” divisions of society – the police departments, the private investigators, the FBIs and the CIAs and the DMVs and all the rest! – extract compliance not just via the penalties they mete out, but the threat of those penalties.

think about it. you’re driving home one night, it’s 2:00 am, and there are barely any other cars on the road. you approach an intersection at which you can see any cars coming in the other three directions from hundreds of feet away. as you roll up to the cross street, the traffic light above your head turns red. you look left, right, straight ahead – no one's around. do you drive through the red light?

probably not. or maybe you do. but even then, you feel a twinge of something – guilt, anxiety, elation – at the minor traffic law transgression you’ve just committed. in other words, you know you’ve done something wrong. that’s the Panopticon at work.

what does all this have to do with marriage and adultery? hell if i know! no – honestly, i think the subject occurred to me at such an ungodly hour of the morning because i see the overwhelming societal pressure to pair off and get married in something of the same light. it’s a way of life so ingrained in us from an early age – red means stop, stealing will get you in trouble, marriage is what you want! – that it’s hard to know what we inherently believe is true, or ethical, or whatever. could be that the idea of “inherently” believing anything is artificial and impossible. but regardless, the question becomes, how much questioning do we do, how much critical picking apart is useful? because at the end of the day, you can’t get out from under hegemony – you have to make a decision about what to do from within it.

and that’s where i tend to get stuck.

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