READING: Contemporary Photographic Criticism
Thoughts and reactions to essays throughout my MFA Photography class Contemporary Photographic Criticism taught by Greg Foster-Rice at Columbia College Chicago.
Confusion on The Practice of Everyday Life, Panopticon, and a little bit of Paris Is Burning.

While I don’t want to use an inability to grasp this weeks readings as an excuse or a cop-out, I very much feel like I’m at a bit of a stand still with both the excerpt from Foucault’s Discipline & Punish and Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. While Foucault starts his text off with a fascinating discussion of the ways in which primitive forms of surveillance of plague stricken villages allowed for the spread of the disease to be isolated with a decrease in exposure to the uncontaminated public, his later discussions of forms of discipline left me searching and confused. Similarly, De Certeau’s basic thesis, a counter to Foucault’s vision of a self-censoring society, that “Everyday life invents itself” in ways which undermine the structure of authoritarian government while working within it, feels revolutionary, yet is lost somewhere as De Certeau begins to delve further into his analysis. I am uncertain if this confusion is of my own making, or if the specifics beyond both writers theses are just more complex than I am able to comprehend at the moment… regardless my confusion is still there. None the less, I’m hoping that maybe analyzing the essays will make them make a little more sense to me, so bear with me as I work through them.


 Koepelgevangenis Prison, Arnhem, Netherlands.

From his initial discussion regarding plague afflicted communities, Foucault goes on to link the “multiple separations” of power within those quarantined communities and they’re subsequently disciplined society with the ideas behind Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, an imagined style of prison architecture which has been used in many countries today. The Panopticon, a circular building which houses prisoners in a manner that makes interaction between prisoners impossible, houses a cylindrical guard tower at it’s center allowing prisoners to be constantly monitored, and stands as a metaphor to Foucault for the ways in which governmental power is implied without the necessity of direct enforcement. As Foucault states: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” In essence, the prisoners within the Panopticon are “kept in line” not by the use of force by the prison guards, but by they’re awareness of the guard’s constant monitoring. The authoritatively induced self conscious state of the prisoners “automatizes and disindividualizes power.” This can obviously be applied to more situations than the initial discussion of architecture. Foucault goes on to describe the ways in which Bentham’s theoretical prison has infiltrated and influenced larger aspects of the greater society – video surveillance (British CCTV, etc.), the modern military, and our hospital infrastructure being the most referenced examples. It seems as if Foucault is arguing here that we live in a society where the structures of the panopticon have been incorporated into the fabric of our society – that we are aware that we are constantly monitored, and that we live our lives with the constant understanding of this. It seems, to Foucault, that the social understanding of this fact is enough to keep a disciplined society, and that there is no escaping these methods of discipline. This seems accurate, as both the worlds of art and media are constantly discussing the ever slimming distinction between public and private life, wether in the form of a Diller + Scofidio video installation monitoring the banality of daily habits of employees of a transparent Los Angeles office building (see link and video clip below), or the ever evolving dramas of privacy controls on facebook.

Diller + Scofidio, Overexposed, Video Performance, 1995.

Still from Overexposed.

Both of these examples, however, could also be used as counter arguments to Foucault’s thesis that this form of social discipline is positive or inescapable, which is the context in which I understand De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau’s essay is where I have the most trouble, but his basic argument seems to be that those repressed within a given society often appropriate the sources of they’re oppression to they’re own ends. Therefore, by “poaching” from the sources of one’s oppression, those individuals can invent a life simultaneously outside of the governed confines and within them. Particularly within the era of Facebook, it could be argued that the inhabitants of the office building monitored by Diller + Scofidio would not be censored by the thought of being watched, but could in fact, be concerned that they weren’t being watched by others. If a state of viewing is the norm, and it is desired that images of oneself are distributed either on facebook, on the internet in general and elsewhere, doesn’t the political power of the authoritarian monitoring become somewhat diminished? 


A Scene From Paris Is Burning, Post Re-Assesment Surgery.

Another example I used to try and understand De Certeau’s idea of Poaching can be seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning. The documentary, which chronicles a select group of participants in the drag balls taking place in New York around the 1980’s, deals with among other things, the idea of “Realness” - passing as the person one is pretending to be in drag in order blend into the greater culture. While the process of blending is, in some ways, a form of “going back into the closet”, it also allows for a space where one can live as one wants (as a woman, as a wealthy woman, etc.) while “passing” as that person to the naked eye, thereby fitting into societal norms to the untrained onlooker. As stated in the film “If you can pass to the untrained eye – or even the trained eye – and not give away the fact that you’re gay, that’s when it’s realness.” By poaching styles of dress and presentation from the source of they’re oppression (White America, Racism, Reaganomics, Urban Blight, the Educational System, etc.) the participants in the balls find a space where, even momentarily, they become both the image of how they see themselves and the image society is promoting as normal at the same time. To that same effect, drag itself can be seen as functioning in much the same way. If the society at large equates gay men with femininity, the performance of femininity acts as a way of turning that message in on itself – if I’m told I am like a woman, I will act as woman, all the while knowing I am a man.  Therefore while the act of drag may reinforce many notions which cause the oppression of gay men, it also becomes a form of satire to those who are in the know.


A title placard from the description of Realness in Paris Is Burning.

Paris Is Burning, 1990.

From there De Certeau’s essay has me lost.  De Certeau begins to discuss the ways in which people function within these types of governing disciplines - through stategies (“proper” means of behavior governed by an institution, yet designed to conceal they’re relationship to that institution) and tactics (temporary practices which allow individuals to re-appropriate “proper” means of behavior for they’re own purposes).  Outside of those specifics, I’m still fairly lost on the specifics of the rest of his text.  Overall, it seems that De Certeau’s argument is that life is constantly evolving, and while systems of power such as that described by Foucault may exist, they are never inescapable and will always be undermined in various ways.

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