Monday, May 25, 2009

A Brief Aside on Our Fast Approaching Suicide

One of the paper topics I assigned my students was to perform a Foucaultian critique of a television advertisement after a friend posted an advert on Facebook for Sprint's "4G Network." A number of them wrote stellar papers reading the insidious normalizing and regulatory influences of discursive power in the adverts they chose. It was, I think, something of a coup to get these students to start "seeing" what is barely under the surface of the culture they unreflectively consume.

I am reminded of a beautiful story in the Pentateuch where G-d orders Joshua to prepare his army by having his men drink from the river. Take only those men who cup the water in their hands before drinking it, and not those who simply slurp the water straight from the shore. This reduced his forces to a third of his men, but they still won the battle. The metaphor, I think, is striking: look at what goes into your body, know what is nourishing you.

I am proud of that assignment because, on our last day, I shared with my students that I consider myself successful if some of them, on occasion, don "Foucault's glasses" to see what is before their eyes. A number of them, with true excitement, exclaimed that, in fact, they had caught themselves doing just that in recent days. I beamed!

Last night, before bed, I watched some television--an episode of "Law and Order: SVU"--and was horrified by the technics of power operative in the show. The episode was about a pedophile and the comparison repeatedly made was to the "naturalness" of their desire, just like a homosexual's. For those of us who think it is a dangerous elision of politics and critique to retreat into a position of biological determinism this episode exposes both the prevalence of this ideological commitment, and the dangers associated with it: in the name of "science" we get a new nihilism: all is permitted, for all is "natural." (The Greeks, in their "superficial profundity," knew well enough to distinguish between what is convention and what is "by  nature"--we would do well to re-examine that profundity.)

And, of course, there is Fox News, which now boasts a show called "Red Eye" and last night they were "discussing" an 8 y/o transgender child for the purpose of denigrating the whole idea. What was so wholly terrifying was the following: the show featured a "panel" that included a puppet of the NYTimes, Andrew WK, a gay man, and a "via satellite" Dude-Bro (ostensibly the "voice of common sense").  Fox News is the face of what Sheldon Wolin calls "soft totalitarianism" in action, an ideological structure that creates a "mirror reality" inside the factual common world. We would do well to crack open Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism and read it alongside Foucault's Discipline and Punish...

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