Friday, 8 March 2013

Out In The Open, But Not Ourselves

The scandal surrounding revelations of the sexual activities of Cardinal Keith O' Brien is yet another in the litany of sex scandals that have dogged the Catholic church in recent years; indeed, the sudden retirement of Pope Benedict has been attributed to his having been exhausted and disillusioned by the public disgrace that has been the consequence.

But, before we throw another stone at the Catholic Church, we ought to consider what conditions are now in place that make the revelation of these sex scandals both possible and necessary. Are we simply more enlightened now, freer to break from institutions of authority that had such a hold over us for all those years?

Foucault begins Discipline and Punish with a vivid description of the spectacularly awful hanging, drawing and quartering of Damiens the regicide. He follows this description by detailing the calm and modest workings of the modern prison, with its constant redistribution of criminals in space and time. Did we, between the years 1750 and 1850, become suddenly more enlightened?, Foucault asks. Did we suddenly become so much more humane?

Not at all, is Foucault's reply. For, if we suspend for a moment our stone-throwing horror at the apparent barbarity of the 18th-century treatment of criminals, then we may begin to see how reasonable such spectacular cruelty really was, how much it made sense. In a feudal-style monarchy, with little opportunity of placing before the people, the king and his right to rule, much had to be made of the few occasions on which the people might feel the god-like power of the king and on which the god-like power of the king might be reconstituted: spectacular excess was the only way, when it came to kingly attire, kingly architecture, and kingly punishment. Once we realize this, Foucault says, we begin to be capable of looking again at the modern prison, with its enlightened, its humane, routines, as constitutive of another kind of power than the kingly one, a kind of power in which spectacle and excess are replaced by surveillance and reserve.

What, then, of sex and the Catholic Church? Was it all barbarity and aberration, or was it, in fact, a necessary, a reasonable, element in the workings of a society? The societies that grew up in the wake of the old-style monarchies were, as Foucault tells it, disciplinary in their nature, and gave rise to modes of social, economic, political and cultural life with which we continue to be familiar, or for the passing of which we are now often nostalgic: the family, the home, education, health...all these, as we know them, are disciplinary possibilities. And what they all have in common is a defining tension: between individuation and normalization, between formation and exclusion, between suppression and transgression. In the disciplinary society, what we came to understand as a fully-realized and mature existence emerged for the first time as a possibility, where full realization and maturity had simultaneously normalizing and individualizing effects, simultaneously galvanizing and isolating effects, simultaneously expressive and repressive effects: one went forth to be a soldier, which opened before one whole forms of togetherness but also made it difficult to fit in to civilian life; one became a mother, which offered untold comforts but excluded one, to some extent, from the 'adult' world; one trained to be a doctor, which was stimulating and rewarding but also time-consuming and over-determining, etc. etc. Normalization and individuation; formation and exclusion; togetherness and isolation. But, through all of this, as the rationale of all of this, there emerged the idea of the true self - who I really am - that is, the truth about all of the inconsistencies and the tensions that inevitably proceeded from the fact that we embraced not just one form of individuality in our lifetime, but many. The emergence of psycho-therapy through the nineteenth century is no coincidence; the rationale of disciplinary society's constitution of individuals with both internal and external fault lines was that the truth will out, that there is, inside all of this, a real me.

And this was where sex came in. Or rather, sexuality and its analogues. Sexuality operated in disciplinary societies precisely as the mode of truth about ourselves, the nature of the real me, as that which was other than the forms of individuality into which we were entered. It was frowned upon, but also necessary; taboo but essential. It was why and how we were transgressive; but it was also why and how we were submissive, for it was the way in which we understood ourselves as being more than disciplinary, and as having an underlying coherence despite the painful fault-lines of our lives. And it was also, of course, another discipline, the various modes of sexuality offering as many forms of individuation and normalization, of togetherness and isolation, of expression and repression, as the various modes, say, of work. Coming out, then, was the basic trajectory of truth in disciplinary societies, the basic movement of resistance, which simultaneously reentered us into the disciplinary machine and allowed that machine to let off steam. A brilliant mechanism! And not at all irrational, or out of control. And the church - with its simultaneous contempt for sex, and focus on sex as that which, observed and documented, expressed the truth about our souls - was, together with its secular equivalents in the various psycho-therapies, the incubator of the sexuality-effect, the institution of discipline's truth, whose smoke and mirrors kept alive the disciplinary dream of the real me. The misdemeanours of a Cardinal O' Brien were, then, no simple aberration, no more irrational and out of control than were the sexual and analagously-sexual truth practices of the secular population of disciplinary societies. Which, we may presume, was why they were not 'uncovered' for all those years. The hidden truth was the form of self-knowledge in the disciplinary mode; it was the way we kept our sanity; it was the way we were kept 'sane.'

But being, now, post-disciplinary, the real me no longer requires to come out from under its various formations, no longer needs to reconcile that variety in another but very special, because 'true,' formation, because the very notion of the real me no longer applies. One is 'free' now, say, to be gay, not because it's okay to come out but because you don't have to come out, because you can't come out, because there is no longer a strong concept of 'you,' of the truth about 'you,' to do the coming out. Such as we are now, we are collections of wants and behaviours, the more fleeting and exchangeable the better, all the better to consume more and more. The late-capitalist continuing requirement for compound growth has overcome, among many barriers to the flow of capital, the barrier presented by the individuation and normalization effects of discipline: someone who is (at heart, we say) a fisherman will buy some things so long as he comes out as a fisherman; but a passing and exchangeable enthusiasm for fishing - easily compatible with many other passing and exchangeable enthusiasms - will buy many many more things and not care whether those things were produced very cheaply indeed.

So, the individual is gone. And with the individual, the 'truth' about the individual - his necessarily hidden, dark, and endlessly-requiring-to-be-confessed sexuality. We look back at that 'truth' now with a righteous horror. How far we have come, we think to ourselves. How much more enlightened we now are...