Sara Ahmed: “Gender is an effect of how bodies take objects up, which involves how they occupy space by being occupied in one way or another” [1]

Paul Veyne: For Foucault, “the dispositif consists of the interface of subject and object.” [2]

download-1 In watching Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Crown”, I am obsessed with the Queen’s purse. No matter where she is or whom she’s engaging, the queen has her purse on her arm, or on the table beside her, or on the floor next to her chair. Sometime I am so focused on spotting the purse that I miss crucial plot elements.

The purse functions, I think, as the not-crown, as the persistent object that marks Elizabeth’s femaleness by the very way in which she takes it up, and in all the ways that matter (that materialize and that have significance) to her personal and public struggles. Unlike the actual crown, the purse is pervasive–it follows her into every public situation. Also unlike the actual crown, the purse is utterly unnecessary. What could a sovereign Queen possibly need to lug around in her purse? Money for a taxi in case her security forces lose track of her? Lipstick? Gloves?   Can you imagine a King regularly sporting a man-purse?

Yes, I am aware of the tabloid revelations that suggest the Queen uses her purse as a signaling device to cut short a meeting or indicate her desire to transition to the next part of an itinerary, but in the television show she carries her purse into closed door tête-à-têtes with the Prime Minister, with her sister, with her husband. These are not situations in which she is likely to signal her staff to assist her. The only scenes in which I don’t see the purse are those in her bedroom. It’s as if the purse is the external marker of her sexed body that is deemed unnecessary only when that sexed body is alone and within a strikingly (if not utterly) personal or domestic moment (the sexuality of a monarch can never be considered simply personal or domestic, right?).

Paul Veyne’s notion of the dispositif in Foucault as that arrangement or ensemble that produces the interface of “subject” and “object” is helpful here. I have come to think of Foucault as theorizing his questions about society (self, science, government, power, etc.) through a triad of interactions that flow between bodies, institutions, and discourses. To merge this triad with his notion of the dispositif as “interface” requires grasping bodies as both flesh and practices of the flesh; institutions as buildings, but also the specific objects and tools of and in those buildings; and discourse as technical terminology and rules of language use, but also specific policies and particular logics of categorization.

claire-foy-the-crown-2-838636The dipositif of the British monarchy is constituted by the interface of the Queen (subject) and her purse (object). It is a dispositif that threads together, expresses, and projects the specific humanity of the Queen–the particular personhood of this monarchical hyper-person. This particular personhood is gendered. As interface, the dispositif produces gender, as Ahmed notes, as an effect of the ways in which the purse-object is taken up, and how the queen-purse assemblage occupies and moves through space. The queen-purse interface produces the general type “womanliness” in and as Elizabeth’s particular vulnerabilities and contradictions, felt in her serving as monarch to and in a stridently patriarchal family, nation, and culture.

[1] Sara Ahmed, “Orientations Matter,” in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ed.s, New Materialisms: Ontology Agency Politics (Duke, 2010), p. 251.

[2] Paul Veyne, Michel Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne. (Albin Michel, 2008), p. 115.