Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison, 1975) accounts for the modern ‘individual’ through low-level but accumulating changes in penal justice. From the 1600s to the 1800s penal tactics gradually shifted from direct corporeality to what Foucault calls “moral orthopaedics” (10). Instead of the spectacle of public torture and execution, or strategies of publicly marking and humiliating the body, “the apparatus of penal justice must now [by the mid-19th century] bite into this bodiless reality” of the soul (17). The vampire of penal technology does not feed on blood, however, but affect. The courts assess the crime committed, of course, but also the suspect’s “passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, …aggressivity, …perversions, …drives and desires” (17). Affect is elicited, devoured, and then regurgitated and reformed (re-formed) as the soul of the prisoner.
The attraction of this bodiless reality to the circulations of social power spreads beyond the prison. Like Weber’s iron cage (but without a Protestant ethic to blame) the normalizing processes of disciplinary power apply also to schools, families, factories, and barracks, and “by means of a general visibility” (170) pin us to power precisely in our ‘individuality.’
Jason Reitman’s new release, Men, Women and Children showcases a very different world, even if the film could easily borrow Foucault’s French title, “To Keep under Surveillance and to Punish.” The film is saturated with relations of gaze: we see characters seeing almost more than we hear them speaking, and even when characters do dialogue, a good chunk of their words concerns surveillance and control (of an other or a situation) rather than meaning. Tiziana Terranova has pointed out in Network Culture: Politics for an Information Age that in Internet society “there is no meaning…outside of an informational milieu that exceeds and undermines the domain of meaning on all sides” (9). When bodies talk to each other, their meaning is a reflection or refraction of their online encounters, engagements, or personas.
Visually, the film conveys this difference between meaning and information by contrasting the smooth, gyrating course of the Voyager space probe—carrying the ‘meaning’ of human culture through sounds preserved on a golden record that was constructed, so the film’s narrator (Emma Thompson) tells us, to last a billion years—with the cluttered, fragmented palimpsests of smart phone information—texts, images, Youtube videos, Facebook pages—that splay across the screen when humans are traversing hallways or malls. The singular and meaningful purpose of Voyager is contrasted with the infinite and meaningless purposes of text culture. Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” forms the film’s aural counterpoint to the Voyager, and its central ‘melody’ (if not thematic): there is no meaning, and that is the ground of all meaning.
Society’s “general visibility” has intensified, but not in a manner that crystallizes an interior soul. Affect is not elicited from and then re-formed inside a body, but pulses through and between digital circulations. Chris Truby’s addiction to pornography; his parents’ use of online escort and casual sex services; Hannah’s “acting” webite that promotes her 2-dimensionally as erotic skin; Allison’s starving body that screams for nourishment through her texts to Brandon; Brandy’s Tumblr account; her mother’s paranoid surveillance of her online activity; and (finally) Tim’s thousand-hour investment in an online game, his constant ‘swipes’ to ignore hate-filled texts from peers angry that he quit football, and his ability to track on Facebook his mother’s abandonment of his dad and him—all of these gazes and clicks show the substantiation of self, if we can call it that, through the circulation of affect embedded in often meaningless information. (see the IMDB.com webpage for this film to connect these characters to the actors who play them)
One last word: The film is set in Texas, and has no reference to religion. None. The patriotism of 9/11 pops up, but nothing Christian. I find this almost unbelievable for a Texan, white, middle class suburban school district.