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Diagram of Bentham’s panopticon

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons"

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault  traces a shift in how power works, arguing that in the late 18th and early 19th century punitive spectacle went out of fashion as the way of managing illegality.  It was, he describes “Bye-bye public execution, hello panopticon.”

Unfortunately, however, nobody bothered to tell the South.

Indeed, according to Joane Nagel’s 2003 telling of the history in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers, it was not until the 1890s that “lynchings moved beyond instances of local lawlessness to take on the proportions of large-scale spectacles”(p. 114).

These occasions of excessive visual penality, Nagel says, were “publicized in advance and attracted crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands,” and she argues that they “were part of the consolidation of the color line and the construction of whiteness in the postwar U.S. South” (p. 114).

Until well into the 20th century in the South, then, the idea that power had ceased to act upon bodies in destructive rather than productive ways is simply not applicable when it comes to white power acting on black bodies.

Similarly, Tony Bennett (who is damn hard to find on the Internet given that other Tony Bennett)  argues explicitly in his 1995 book The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics that having “witnesses of a symbolic display of power [ . . . ] remained important—and more so than Foucault’s formations often allow” (p. 24). He particularly notes that the museums his own work analyzes made particular use of the display of “other, ‘non-civilized’ peoples upon whose bodies the effects of power were unleashed with as much force and theatricality as had been manifest on the scaffold” ( p. 67).

In Foucault’s defense, there is a sense in which this lapse on his part is the product of looking at the history in one place or set of places and generalizing to all places, which it’s not entirely clear he meant for his work to do.

However, there is nevertheless a real racial absence in Foucault’s work, which is all the more perplexing when racialized difference had to have been relevant in the precise time and place he is intending to describe–France was a colonial power exercising repressive power over bodies that were somewhere in the process of being racialized as other.

Why is it that some bodies were still fair game for this kind of punishment at the same time that others were being subjected to discipline and made productive? Can we explain this simply as those people being seen as ineligible to become docile and productive due to some racialized imputation of unruliness? Is this a product of the production of some bodies as not-quite-human?

These are vital questions, as they can perhaps help us think through things like contemporary uses of torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and Foucault as written doesn’t help us answer them, so now it’s our job.

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