Breaking out of Foucault.

February 5, 2008

I spent the month of January moving and taking care of some unfinished legal business, which meant that I tried my hardest not to think. About anything. It was, in some ways, a glorious month. However, to make up for it, I have embarked on a quest of intellectual ridiculousness.  You probably could see it coming. I have started reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish while Netflixing Season 2 of Prison Break.  

While the issues of the commodification of the body in the prison system are more applicable to Season 1, I don’t care, Michael Scofield is totally my secret boyfriend and I consider all of his be-tattooed activities to be important research.  Also: reading philosophy is sexy as hell. I want someone to dominate the micro-physics of my power economy, oh boy, do I ever.Moving on! Some thoughts thus far!

Chapter 1, The body of the condemned, discusses mostly the pre-Enlightenment policies of public execution.  This, clearly, does not relate to our beloved Fox River crew directly. However, it is interesting to note the change in societal ideals that our executions are now held in the utmost secrecy. What used to be a public display, serving to unite the populace in condemnation for the criminal, is now hidden away from public viewing entirely. The only witnesses invited to an execution are the press and those chosen, not by the state, but by the condemned man himself. (1) It is now considered the highest punishment that the condemned be completely removed from society, rather than having to face its judgement head-on. (2) 

The state has also been removed from the process. Instead of an identifiable executioner, the process is now completely mechanized and sterile. The actual procedure for a lethal injectionis as medically simple as a blood transfusion, except of course, for the end result. Of course, in the case of Lincoln Burrows, it was to be the electric chair – which is a step more gruesome, but still a far cry from the drawing and quartering that was favored for regicide (3) in seventeenth centruy France.  On this move towards sterility in capital punishment: 

 Today a doctor must watch over those condemned to death, right up to the last moment – thus juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviator, within the official whose task it is to end life.  This is worth thinking about.  When the moment of execution approaches, the patients are injected with tranquilizers. A utopia of judicial reticence: take away life, but prevent the patient from feeling it; deprive the prisoner of all rights, but do not inflict pain; impose penalties free of all pain.  

It is a paradoxical situation that our legal system has created: to avoid becoming murderers by association (for what is capital punishment, really, but legalized murder in the old “eye for an eye” system?), we’ve set up a situation so filled with ritual that it is not unlike any other medical “procedure.” We’ve even got doctors! How bizarre is that!  One of the first things a doctor must pledge is to do no harm, and here they are setting up the system that allows a “patient” (note that the condemned is no longer referred to here as a prisoner, but as a patient, again, as if this were a simple medical procedure) to be put to death. It should be noted that the doctor is not the one who pushes the button to finally kill the prisoner, but that seems like an arbitrary detail in the whole setup.

And, as we know from Lincoln Burrows, a doctor must give a patient a physical before an execution may be performed because the prisoner must be healthy before the state can kill him. A relevant detail in Season 1, where Michael feeds him a pill to induce the stomach flu so that Dr. Tancredi has no choice but to delay the execution for 24 hours, thus giving Michael an extra day to complete the escape plan.

The morality involved is very complicated: it wouldn’t be “humane” to execute someone who was already suffering, since the point of this is to distance the prison system from actual suffering as much as possible. A prisoner can only be executed if he is in good health and not already suffering from any kind of pain – besides, of course, from the mental anguish of his impending death. And that will have to be saved for another post, because it’s time for me to go load up another episode!

1) Yes, I know that women are also capable of crimes that are punished by the death penalty, and that women are sentenced to death, blah blah blah. Until I start analyzing Monster, I am, to my own chagrin, sticking with masculine pronouns.  
2) Or head-off, in the case of the guillotine.
3) Ok, so the President’s brother isn’t exactly regicide, but I think it’s analogously close. Celebrities are the closest we’ve got to aristocracy these days.  Even though the u-SOFA lacks a monarchy proper, our current President is the son of a previous President and one of the leading Democratic candidates this year is the wife of a previous President. C’mon! If that’s not royalty, it’s damn close enough.


The holidays are a busy time, far too busy for over-analysis. Sure, I could have been writing screeds about American consumerism and the collective material guilt that forces us all to go into massive amounts of debt in the month of December, but uh… I think that was really enough. Anyhow! On with the show!

Like any good nerd, I’ve been reading.  Currently, I’m reading Guns Germs and Steel, which I started reading eons ago and never finished. Subtitled “The Fates of Human Societies,” Diamond starts at the very beginning of pre-history – the dispersal of humans from Africa into the rest of the world – and works his way up. One of the first few chapters concerns the Maori and Moriori people who settled in New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, respectively. The Maori and Moriori were both descendants of the same group of settlers, but due to a rather notable difference in resources developed different societies and eventually, the Moriori were destroyed by the Maori.

To sum up:

It is easy to trace how the differing environments of the Chatham Islands and of New Zealand molded the Moriori and the Maori differently.  While those ancestral Maori who first colonized that Chathams may have been farmers,. Maori tropical crops could not grow in the Chathams’ cold climate, and the colonists had no alternative except to revert to being hunter-gatherers.  Since as hunter-gatherers they did not produce crop surpluses available for redistribution or storage, they could not support and feed nonhunting craft specialists, armies, bureaucrats, and chiefs.  Their prey were seals, shellfish, nesting seabirds, and fish that could b captured by hand or with clubs and required no more elaborate technology.  In addition, the Chathams are relatively small and remote islands, capable of supporting a total population of only about 2,000 hunter-gatherers.  With no other accessible islands to colonize, the Moriori had to remain in the Chathams, and to learn how to get along with each other.  They did so by renouncing war, and they reduced potential conflicts from over population by castrating some male infants.  The result was a small, unwarlike population with simple technology and weapons, and without strong leadership.

In contrast, the northern (warmer) part of New Zealand, by far the largest island group in Polynesia, was suitable for Polynesian agriculture.  Those Maori who remained in New Zealand increased in numbers until there were more than 100,000 of them. They developed locally dense populations chronically enganged in ferocious wars with neighboring populations.  With the crop surpluses that they could grow and store, they fed craft specialists, chiefs, and part-time soldiers.  They needed and developed varied tools for growing their crops, fighting, and making art.  They erected elaborate ceremonial buildings and prodigious numbers of forts.

Diamond describes these differences as follow-up to the tragic fate of the Moriori, but I’m going backwards a bit here. This set-up should be familiar to anyone who has ever played Civilization. You start off the game and there you are, you’re on an island. There are few resources. Your civilization can’t really grow all that fast, and without specialized cities, you don’t get very far technologically. Also, without a large network of cities producing military units, the best you can get is a few archers.  If your islands don’t happen to contain copper or iron (which, let’s face it, they probably don’t), you are just fucked. Build all the archers you want, some jackass is going to come over with a force of axemen and wipe your sorry ass off the face of the Earth.

Which, sadly, is exactly what happens to the Moriori, as Diamond describes in the beginning of the chapter I just quoted. I may as well go and quote some more! Ok!

On the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the Moriori people in December 1835.  On November 19 of that year, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori.  Groups of Maori began to walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those who objected.  An organized resistance by the Moriori could still have defeated the Maori, who were outnumbered two to one.  However, the Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully.  They decided in a council meeting not to fight back but to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources.

Before the Moriori could deliver that offer, the Maori attacked en masse.  Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing mostmost of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim.  A Moriori survivor recalled “[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep… [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies.  It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed – men, women, and children, indiscriminately.” A Maori conqueror explained. “We took possession… in accordance with our customs and we killed all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, those we killed, and others we killed – but what of that? It was in accordance with our customs.”

Reading this factual summary of the fate of the Moriori immediately brought to mind the fictional account of this historical event presented in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas Cloud Atlas weaves together six stories from six different time periods, each story containing an undercurrent of man’s inhumanity to man.  From such a bleak setup, it is nonetheless one of the most well-written and beautiful things I have ever written.

I will now commence to quote extensively, as is my wont!

The origins of the Moriori of Rekohu (the native moniker for the Chathams) remain a mystery to this day.  Mr. Evans evinces the belief they are descended from the Jews expelled from Spain, citing their hooked noses and sneering lips.  Mr. D’Arnoq’s preferred theorum, that the Moriori were once Maori whose canoes were wrecked upon these remotest of isles, is founded on similarities of tongue & mythology & thereby possess a higher carat of logic.  What is certain is that, after centuries or millenia of living in isolation, the Moriori lived as primitive a life as their woebegone cousins of Van Diemen’s Land. Arts of boatbuilding (beyond crude woven rafts used to cross the channels betwixt islands) & navigation fell into disuse.  That the terraqueous globe held other lands, trod by other feet, the Moriori dreamt not.  Indeed their language lacks a word for “race” & “Moriori” means, simply, “People.” Husbandry was not practiced, for no mammals walked these isles until passing whalers willfully marooned pigs here to propagate a parlor.  In their virgin state, the Moriori were foragers, picking up paua shellfish, diving for crayfish, plundering bird eggs, spearing seals, gather kelp & digging for grubs & roots.

Thus far, the Moriori were but a local variant of most flaxen-skirted, feather-cloaked heathens of those dwindling “blind spots” of the ocean still unschooled by the White Man.  Old Rekohu’s claim to singularity, however, lay in its unique pacific creed.  Since time immemorial, the Moriori’s priestly caste dictated that whosoever spilt a man’s blood killed his own mana – his honor, his worth, his standing & his soul. No Moriori would shelter, feed, converse with, or even see the persona non grata. If the ostracized murderer survived his first winter, the desperation of solitude usually drove him to a blowhole on Cape Young, where he took his life.

Consider this, Mr. D’Arnoq urged us.  Two thousand savages (Mr. Evans’s best guess) enshrine “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in word & in deed & frame an oral “Magna Carta” to create a harmony unknown elsewhere for the sixty centuries since Adam first tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  War was as alien a concept to the Moriori as the telescope is to the Pygmy.  Peace, not a hiatus betwixt wars but millennia of imperishable peace, rules these far-flung islands.  Who can deny Old Rekohu lay closer to More’s Utopia than our States of Progress governed by war-hungry princelings in Versailles & Vienna, Washington & Westminster?  “Here,” declaimed Mr. D’Arnoq, “and where only, were those elusive phantasms, those noble savages, framed in flesh & blood!” (Henry, as we later made our back to the Musket confessed, “I could never describe a race of savages too backwards to throw a spear as ‘noble.'”

Glass & peace alike betray proof of fragility under repeated blows.  The first blow to the Moriori was the Union Jack, planted in Skirmish Bay’s sod in the name of King George by Lieutenant Broughton of HMS Chatham just fifty years ago.  Three years later, Broughton’s discovery was in Sydney & London chart agents & a scattering of free settlers (whose number included Mr. Evans’s father), wrecked mariners & “convicts at odds with the New South Wales Colonial Office over the terms of their incarceration” were cultivating pumpkins, onions, maize & carrots.  These they sold to needy sealers, the second blow to the Moriori’s independence, who disappointed the Natives’ hopes of prosperity by turning the surf pink with seals’ blood.  (Mr. D’Arnoq illustrated the profits by this arithmetic – a single pelt fetched 15 shillings in Canton & those pioneer sealers gathered over two thousand pelts per boat!) Within a few years the seals were found only on the outer rocks & the “sealers” too turned to farming potatoes, sheep & pig rearing on such a scale that the Chathams are now dubbed “The Garden of the Pacific.”  These parvenu farmers clear the land by bushfires that smolder beneath the peat for many seasons, surfacing in dry spells to sow renewed calamity.

The third blow to the Moriori was the whalers, now calling at Ocean Bay, Waitangi, Owenga & Te Whakaru in sizable numbers for careening, refitting & refreshing.  Whalers’ cats & rats bred like the Plagues of Egypt & ate the burrow-nesting birds whose eggs the Moriori so valued for sustenance.  Fourth, those motley maladies which cull the darker races whene’er White civilization draws near, sapped the Aboriginal census still further.

All those misfortunes the Moriori might have endured, however, were it not for reports arriving in New Zealand depicting the Chathams as a veritable Canaan of eel-stuffed lagoons, shellfish-carpeted coves & inhabitants who understand neither combat nor weapons.  To the ears of the Ngati Tama & Ngati Mutunga, two clans of the Taranaki Te Ati Awa Maori (Maori genealogy is, Mr. D’Arnoq assures us, every twig as intricate as those genealogical trees so revered by the European gentry; indeed any boy of that unlettered race can recall his grandfather’s grandfather’s name & “rank” in a trice), these rumors promised compensation for the tracts of their ancestral estates lost during the recent “Musket Wars.”  Spies were sent to test the Moriori’s mettle by violating tapu & despoiling holy sites. These provocations the Moriori faced as our Lord importuned, by “turnign the other cheek,” & the transgressors returned to New Zealand confirming the Moriori’s apparent pusillanimity.  The tattooed Maori conquistadores found their single-barked armada in Captain Harewood of the brig Rodney, who in the dying months of 1835, agreed to transport nine hundred Maori & seven war canoes in two voyages, in guerno for seed potatoes, firearms, pigs, a great supply of scraped flax & a cannon. (Mr. D’Arnoq encountered Harewood five years ago, penurious in a Bay of Islands tavern.  He at first denied being the Rodney’s Harewood, then swore he had been coerced into conveying the Blacks, but was unclear how this coercion had been worked upon him.)

The Rodney embarked from Port Nicholas in November, but its heathen cargo of five hundred men, women & children, packed tight in the hold for the six-day voyage, bilged in ordure & sea-sickness & lacking in the barest sufficiency of water, anchored at Whangatete Inlet in such a state that, had they but the will,  even the Moriori might have slain their Martial brethren.  The Goodly Samaritans chose instead to share the diminished abundance of Rekohu in preference to destroying their mana by bloodletting & nursed the sick & dying Maori back to health.  “Maori had come to Rekohu before,” Mr. D’Arnoq explained, “yet gone away again, so the Moriori assumed the colonists would likewise leave them in peace.”

The Moriori’s generosity was rewarded when Cpt. Harewood returned from New Zealand with another four hundred Maori.  Now the strangers proceeded to lay claim to Chatham by takahi, a Maori ritual translated as “Walking the Land to Possess the Land.”  Old Rekohu was thus partitioned & the Moriori informed that they were now Maori vassals.  In early December, when some dozen Aborignals protested, they were casually slain with tomahawks.  The Maori proved themselves apt pupils of the English in “the dark arts of colonization.”

Chatham Isle encloses a vast eastern salt lagoon, Te Whanga, very nearly an island sea but fecundated by the ocean at high tide through the lagoon’s “lips” at Te Awapatiki.  Fourteen years ago, the Moriori men held on that sacred ground a parliament.  Three days it lasted, its object to settle this question: Would the spillage of Maori blood also destroy one’s mana?  Younger men argued the creed of Peace did not encompass foreign cannibals of whom their ancestors knew nothing.  The Moriori must kill or be killed.  Elders urged appeasement, for as long as the Moriori preserved their mana with their land, their gods & ancestors would deliver the race from harm. “Embrace your enemy,” the elders urged, “to prevent him from striking you.” (“Embrace your enemy,” Henry quipped, “to feel his dagger tickle your kidneys.”)

The elders won the day, but it mattered little. “When lacking numerical superiority,” Mr. D’Arnoq told us, “the Maori seize an advantage by striking first & hardest, has many hapless British & French can testify from their graves.”  The Ngati Tama & Ngati Mutunga had held councils of their own.  The Moriori menfolk returned from their parliament to ambushes & a night of infamy beyond nightmare of butchery, of villages torched, of rapine, of men & women, impaled in rows on beaches, of children hiding in holes, scened & dismembered by hunting dogs.  Some chiefs kept an eye to the morrow & slew only enough to instill terrified obediance in the remainder.  Other chiefs were not so restrained.  On Waitangi Beach fifty Moriori were beheaded, filleted, wrapped in flax leaves, then baked in a giant earth oven with yams & sweet potatoes.  Not half those Moriori who had seen Old Rekohu’s last sunset were alive to see the Maori sun rise. (“Less than a hundred pure-blooded Moriori now remain,” mourned D’Arnoq. “On paper the British Crown freed these from the yoke of slavery years ago, but the Maori do not care for paper.  We are one week’s sail from the Governor’s House & Her Majesty holds no garrison on Chatham.”)

I asked, why had not the Whites stayed the hands of the Maori during the massacre?

The answer to that comes from the Maori themselves – it was not according to our customs.  To expect benevolent intercession from the peoples who enslaved and slaughtered the Native American Indians is about as reasonable as expecting pigs to fly.  That’s not to say that individual Whites were incapable of compassionate aid, but a colonial power isn’t going to intercede on behalf of the oppressed just because someone else is doing the colonizing.

I don’t think that I’m alone in believing that we need new customs, but this is about the past, not the future. The only thing we can gain from what has occured before is a knowledge of our predecessor’s mistakes and the will not to make them again.

Until once again, we start up Civ and slaughter some useless jerks sitting on an island chain with no metal to make decent weapons.

I just finished reading A People’s History of the United States after about three false starts over the past year. It’s quite an amazing read, but I kept putting it down and then picking it back up again months later as it’s rather, well, depressing to read about the vastly under-reported exploitation that’s gone on in American history.  Of course there’s the obvious genocide of the American Indians that is completely absent from the history taught in schools, and the horrors of slavery, but this book also details the oppression of the poor and working classes under the rich elite and how our Constitution is set up to perpetuate this imbalance.  Even as a self-proclaimed bleeding-heart liberal, it was really astonishing to read the extent to which the government in this country has gone to help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer.

It is not simply the vast imbalance of wealth that is disturbing, it is the uses to which that wealth is put.  Money may be the root of all evil, but in and of itself, it is merely a tool. (1) Gaining money simply for having money is pointless. As appealing as it would be to roll around in a vat of money á la Scrooge McDuck, there is nothing gained in doing so. I am not the sort of person who believes that having a lot of money is in and of itself a sin, nor am I a Communist who believes that all wealth should be equitably distributed (2), but I do believe that those who control the wealth of the country – that is, the government – has a responsibility to use it for the greater good.

Which is distinctly not how money is or has ever been used. And this, I believe, is why we need a revolution. (3) Governments have kept themselves in power without having to kow-tow to the needs of the Average Joe by waging wars, designed to stir up nationalistic fervor and temporarily boost the economy, without having to make any concessions or drastic change to the laws that favor business at the expense of the worker. In the absence of actual war, the government has been known to dwell on the very threat of war (4) to keep the citizenry in the sort of heightened state of panic necessary to build a vast arsenal of unnecessary weapons at the expense of spending money on social reform.  Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged this when he stated:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Zinn goes on to elaborate on this statement:

A radical reduction in the military budget would require a renunciation of war, a withdrawal of military bases from around the world, an acceptance, finally, of the principle enunciated in the UN Charter that the world should renounce “the scourge of war.” It would speak to the fundamental human desire (overwhelmed too often by barrages of superpatriotic slogans) to live at peace with others.

The public appeal for such a dramatic policy change would be based on a simple but powerful moral argument: that given the nature of modern warfare, the victims would be mostly civilians.  To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.  And if the children of other countries are to be granted an equal right to life with our own children, then we must use our extraordinary human ingenuity to find nonmilitary solutions to world problems.

Put like this it’s hard to argue for increased military spending, but this of course not the message that the government puts out.  We allow ourselves to believe, as we hear, that bombs only hit military targets unless by accident. American deaths are tragedies, foreign deaths are statistics. The status quo continues unabated. And yet, as a people, we are sensitive to the issues of poverty – especially in children – in other countries. How many times have your heart strings been tugged by ads for Unicef or other organizations offering to sponsor third world children for pennies a day (5)? People are generally willing to help those in meaner conditions than themselves, unless by doing so they have to give up fundamentally sacred to do so.

Which is why the government as it stands will never, no matter who is President, abolish – or even drastically cut back on – military spending in favor of health care or education reform.  War brings business – and not just in arms sales; just look at Halliburton in Iraq.  Controlling Iraq means controlling its resources, and at this point in time, there is no resource more precious to the American government than oil. Without a serious revolution, the United States government will never invest in its children what it invests in a nuclear arsenal.

If you need me, I’ll be out back singing Kumbaya.(6)


1) As the great philosopher DiFranco says: “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

2) For all members of the CIA reading this: Hello. I am not a Communist. No need to pick up the phone. It’s all ok.

3) I have no opinion as to whether or not the revolution will be televised, but I’m sure it will be live-blogged.

4) See for example: The Cold War. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. The War on Christmas.

5) I can’t even think of those ads without wanting to cry – the flies! Oh the flies! As a kid, I wanted to adopt ALL of the African children and send them my lunch money. I am both a bleeding-heart liberal and a sucker for advertising.

6) No, not really. I hate that song.