Saturday, April 30, 2011

"you're fired"; or, the grotesque cog of power

Michel Foucault on "grotesque sovereignty" in the West (source):
Political power, at least in some societies, and anyway in our society, can give itself, and has actually given itself, the possibility of conveying its effects and, even more, of finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous.
This grotesque mechanism of power, or this grotesque cog in the mechanism of power, has a long history in the structures and political functioning of our societies. There are striking examples of it in Roman history, especially in the history of the Roman Empire, where the almost theatrical disqualification of the origin of power in, and the coupling of every effect of power with, the person of the emperor was precisely a mode, if not of governing exactly, at least of domination: a disqualification that ensured that the person who possessed maiestas, that is to say, more power than any other power was, at the same time, in his person, his character, and his physical reality, in his costume, his gestures, his body, his sexuality and his way of life, a despicable, grotesque, and ridiculous individual.
We know that ethnologists... have clearly identified the phenomenon in which the person to whom power is given is at the same time ridiculed or made abject or shown in an unfavorable light, through a number of rites and ceremonies. Is this a case of a ritual for limiting the effects of power in archaic or primitive societies? Perhaps.
However, I would say that if these rituals still exist in our societies, their function is completely different. I do not think that explicitly showing power to be abject, despicable, Ubu-esqu or simply ridiculous is a way of limiting its effects and of magically dethroning the person to whom one gives the crown.
Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

word cloud #2: domestications, multispecies resettlement, barbarians

Another "words (and ideas) that caught my attention" post, apropos of the "origins of human rule" from entry #1 below. Here are the titles of a set of upcoming lectures at Harvard by the the political anthropologist James Scott:
Four Domestications: Fire, Plants, Animals and… Us

The Late Neolithic Multi-Species Resettlement Camp

The Long Golden Age of Barbarians, a.k.a. Non-State Peoples
Which reminds me, I need to read James Scott!

word cloud #1: human rule, before present

Almost everyday I come across interesting turns of phrase or figures of thought that make me pause and think: "oh, I should jot this down somewhere." So I'm going to start collecting them here. This will also double as a public bookmarking system since, more often than not, I won't actually have had the chance to study the source of the phrase yet.

My first two entries are from the "Ghost Metropolis: Los Angeles since 13,000" mapping project at Hypercities. I don't know enough about either to explain what they are, so I won't fake it. But I do plan to read through the "Ghost Metropolis" materials, a crazy ambitious history of (what we now know as) L.A. In the course of skimming through the first couple screens these phrases wormed their way into my brain:

1. The Origins of Human Rule of Southern California: which, I learned, began "13.1 to 13 thousand calendar years BP" on Santa Rosa, one of the Channel Islands (when you click on the geolocate button  you swoop in from an outerspace view of the planet earth to this reedy blue dot on a desolate virtual landscape. It's not so much breath-taking as heart-breaking). But to the point: what struck me is this phrase "human rule." Not (just) "human presence," but "rule." I'm intrigued with the idea of politicizing early human life through a multispecies frame. More on this another time.

2. BP / Before Present: I noticed that the "13,000" in the project title doesn't have "BCE" or the old-fashioned "BC" attached. In the body of the text I came across this curious (and perhaps unfortunate) abbreviation, BP. Trusty wikipedia tells me this means "before present." But evidently this present, among the scientists who use this time scale notation system, is not the present per se - but 1950, the point at which modern carbon-dating methods became standard.
     There's a certain shabby beauty in the idea that 1950 somehow constitutes an eternal now (though Wikipedia further informs me that "to account for the concern that the year 1950 has by now moved away from the present significantly, the abbreviation BP has also been re-interpreted to mean Before Physics.") But I wish the idea is as relativistic as the term BP implies. That rather than being a series of fixed points, the past is always relative to the present, always on the move.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

micro-cross-blogging: barely verbal

Maybe it's a nano-addiction that will pass, but I've spent a fair amount of time lately on my tumblr Village Dog. Mostly, I just post pictures there. Here are a few very short bits of writing I've done over yonder (linking to them here because, quaint as it may seem, I think of this as a my writing outpost):
And finally:
  • Barely verbal, an image-essay on pictograms, miniatures, and representing the unrepresentable in the post-Katrina world of New Orleans artist Bruce Davenport, Jr.