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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

Category Archives: Refusal to Conform

“Yeah, adjectives on the typewriter
He moves his words like a prize fighter
The frenzied pace of the mind inside the cell.”

-Cake, “Shadow Stabbing”

At times it is difficult to come to terms with the image of self one projects out into the world. There are images we wear in various situations, one for your parents, one for your professors, one in the professional realm, maybe different ones for various groups of friends. It may not be the difference between comedy and drama, between color and a lack thereof. It could be simple, how animated one is, what person you jostle to the top of your list, your favorite song (this may push the limits) or what is the most important to you.

Or, maybe the difference is in genres of music. I used to be punk rock. I wore a lot of black, listened to a lot of Good Charlotte, Green Day, and Blink 182. People that saw me in those clothes, to that tune, they knew a different genre of myself than others. At that same time I was in a long distance relationship, over winter holiday this young man and I got to steal a few hours with one another and I recall his curiosity, “why are you wearing a studded arm cuff?” “I think I’ve only seen you in black.” Because my genre to him was different, Acoustic Alternative Rock. He had the luxury of only seeing me once or twice over a period of time, so he could project whatever image he wanted  onto me, and it would not be a lie, simply a different version of the truth.

It could also be different writing styles. For four years, longer actually, eight, I have been involved in the study of politics. In high school I participated heavily in speech and debate, competing in cross-examination debate primarily. Here one’s linguistics, how one talks about politics, the jargon, is only part of one’s immersion. The rest of it is social. You want friends? You want to be accepted? Be cynical, be arrogant, be anything but a Believer. Talk about international relations, political theory, news, deficit, bizcon, concon, Pork Barrel, disad, K, CP, Solve. Road Map. Say ‘fuck’ a lot. Play poker. repeat. Take that into college, where you better be majoring in some form of politics, here your writing style may lose some of its flair, it’s pizzaz. It will certainly get the point across. How shocking it was, then, when I had a professor in a different department call my writing ‘dry.’ Because it was. Toast. As opposed to the prose I would indulge in when my homework was done and I had too many thoughts in my head, and not enough room in my political cell to express them. Here, here it may be closer to what you are.

It is all about description though, who we are, what we stand for. As individuals, as groups. You wear the mask of comedy, ok. What does that mean? You are so Rock ‘n Roll baby. How do you afford that lifestyle, oh tell me! Democrat, conservative, Libertarian (with an obligatory snicker)? So, are you pro-life? Pro-tax? Pro-war? What do those mean? Every word, every thought, it is just a fight we are having within ourselves to find out what that adjective means.

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The amber waves of grain. The purple mountains majesty. The spacious skies filled with the LA morning smog. Ah, America the beautiful. The fruited plain is worked by immigrants because most Americans are too proud to accept the wage, or maybe it is because landowners are too cheap to pay a fair amount. After the glitter of the Olympics everyone wants to go to Disneyworld. Cars are big, houses are bigger, egos are the biggest. Children are taught their manners by television puppets. Going to a restaurant means a greasy burger wrapped in even greasier paper. ‘Culture’ is something that one has to seek out. There is no false sense of propriety; no one has a legitimate reason to look down their nose at someone else. You can literally be anything you want to be, especially if that happens to be a soldier. This is America as Jean Baudrillard sees it, and how can we deny his view? When looking at Baudrillard’s theory about America as Utopia, both a paradise and a cultural no-place, we must transcend his tone to be able to stomach his text, which is the truth about America.

To see this truth we must first own up to something we, as a society, have been trying to downplay for years: our own ethnocentrism. We are the greatest nation, we know it, and Baudrillard noticed it as well, and so does the rest of the world.

Americans are not wrong in their idyllic conviction that they are at the centre of the world, the supreme power, the absolute model for everyone. And this conviction is not so much founded on natural resources, technology and arms, as on the miraculous premise of a utopia made reality (Baudrillard 111).

Other nations want to be us, for the simple fact that we are the cool kids, we dress the right way, we talk the right way, and we go to all the right UN summits. The citizens of American have the freedom to pierce themselves, smoke up (if they are cunning enough) and generally do as they please. We live within a world that other nations simply aspire to, “We shall never catch them up, and we shall never have their candor. We merely imitate them… and we are not even successful at that” (Baudrillard 111)

However, while countries are secretly coveting our Bill of Rights, or liberal dress and colorful word choice, they are also condemning our lack of “culture.” We exist in McWorld, nothing is sacred, nothing is historical, nothing has a base set firmly in what came before. “…[T]he audacity for what might be called the zero degree of culture, the power of unculture” (Baudrillard 112). There is no cohesiveness to our nation. We believe in freedom, but that is increasingly blocked out by our fear and our everlasting belief in consumerism. The Great American Melting Pot hasn’t quite gotten to the correct temperature yet. Baudrillard’s main downfall is that he uses California to explain his theory, forgetting that middle America is true America. Places like California, New York, and Atlanta, are anomalies. In Middle America, as much talking is done about freedom and equality there are still faint lines drawn in the dirt, between ourselves and The Other. We love God, our Trucks, and the Home Team. However, Baudrillard’s theory (however shaky it may be) still holds up here. Where are the concert halls, where is the education, where are the hallowed halls where greats have walked before us? There is nothing except the Disneyland reality of television and consumerism, and the ever-lacking sense of propriety.

A nation of migrants, of good-for-nothing ill educated media whores. A nation filled with people who have no sense of class, of judgment, ‘good’ social skills. We should all just move to France! This is a wasteland, right? A desert? Wrong. All of the things that Baudrillard finds appalling about the United States are all of the things that should be embraced and held dear. The lack of culture, of a united societal front, is exactly what is necessary in a country with majority population of immigrants. Our lack of culture is our culture, the ability to maintain unique attributes. We are not bogged down by black robes and powdered wigs, by ivy covered stone and stone faced monarchs. America is unlike Europe, and for that we should praise God (whom we do know as a nation, but in tin roofed modular homes instead of Cathedrals) that we are a satellite unto ourselves.

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Power surrounds us always. It is coursing through the walls, the floor, the furniture. Power is in the air, and in every person we see. Power keeps the world going. Cars have to run, lights have to be lit, food kept cold or hot, missiles launched. From one source or another, humanity requires power. In much the same way, the power exerted upon a person by another person, or more appropriately, by the vague Other whom is usually unidentifiable, is equally, if not more necessary. This power is an opaque veil over the lives of humankind. It is such a part of the norm, that it isn’t really seen. Quietly, ever so quietly, the power is accepted, and the people take a submissive stance. Every person, of course, has the ability to deny that power, and to rule over themselves. French philosopher Michel Foucault best (and probably with the most tangible end) described what this power play actually looks like, and how it interacts with society. In a chapter of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the Panopticon, a prison without bars or wire, a prison with no physical control, but a prison from which no one would ever dream escaping, and no one would ever dare misbehave. The prisoner has, at one point, a chance to not accept this power that the guard so silently exerts over him, but, worn down, he does accept the game that is power play. It is so in society as well. However, although Foucault’s Panopticon is a still an extremely relevant model for social constructs; it is a moot point when void of personal acceptance.

Foucault’s Panopticon is a duplicate of that of J. Bentham (Foucault 225). Bentham designed his Panopticon to further facilitate one person’s ability to reign over another. It is circular, at the edge of the building are cells; open with two windows, and in the center is a large tower. At the top of the tower resides the warden, a light behind him. This effect of this backlit authority is that the inhabitants of the cells can never tell for sure exactly where the warden is (Foucault 225). Is he looking at me? Can he see what I am doing? At first this simply causes paranoia. The word ‘simply’ is used because the ultimate end result of the panopticon is far worse than just being paranoid. After days, months, years, of worrying about being watched, the prisoner begins to accept his fate, and he alters his natural behavior to fit what he feels that backlit source of power and authority would desire.

The society that exists within the Panopticon is extremely and devastatingly different from the society of a free person. Everything that a person does, from the moment that person wakes up to the moment they go to sleep, and maybe even in their dreams, is the result of the power of that All-Seeing Eye looming in the light above the cells.

It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease, and his death, his well being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him (Foucault 223).

All of this from just watching? It does seem a bit extreme, but one must realize that it is not just the watchful Eye that causes the end result. Yes, the Eye initiates the paranoia and begins the behavior change, but in the end, it is the resulting actions of society that change the prisoner. Because of the inhabitation of the cell the prisoner has become something other than a human being. Its tormentor has labeled the human, the power behind that backlit authority tells ultimately decides what this human is. The human is ultimately disassociated from what it is to not only see and understand, but to be seen and understood (Foucault 228). Crazy or sane, intelligent or ignorant, criminal or innocent. This individualizes the control function and the coercive assignment causes the constant surveillance to be exercised by the prisoner personally, lest they fall out of the patterns of behavior that meet the labels, and fall victim to whatever vague nameless punishment the warden threatens them with.

The form of this model was destined to spread and become practice, but not in the most literal sense. Obviously, the physical panoptic prison did not catch on. However, the figurative Panopticon became very real. Foucault applies his analysis to the French bourgeoisie, and their suggestive power over the lowly proletariat (Foucault 221-225). This can be applied across the board to any hierarchical society. Europe made this extreme through colonization, by stripping down what a culture once was and rebuilding it from the top down into what was considered acceptable behavior.

One such colony was the nation of India. In 1818 there was an actual Panopticon prison built in Poona (Kaplan 85). This prison was only established after thorough investigation into local customs and behavior. Mountstuart Elphinstone’s report to the East India Company in 1819 outlined the general rejection of British ideology and rule by the deshis. He went on to note that upon attempting to establish European order he was met with more resistance, even though he was simply trying to make the people “less revolting to humanity” (Kaplan 86). The entire colonial project became an offshoot of that single Panopticon prison. Everywhere in India the British tried to tear down the once proud Indian society through use of first observation. When the British were watching, the deshis felt as though what they were doing was somehow wrong, amiss, inhuman. Next the countrymen began to actually question their own history and lifestyles. They joined the ranks of the British army, became educated in the west. The final straw of the Panopticon of colonial rule was when the deshis independently rejected their own culture and saw Europe as being more reasonable, logical, humane and refined.

In modern times a very unique form of Panoptic existence takes place. While in other examples were somewhat noisy and obvious forms of observation. Historically, the Panopticon had the ability to lead to revolution and rebellion. Now the All-Seeing Eye is truly all around us, not just in theory. Increasing observation plays a role in regulating the lives of all peoples (Amey). Not only do we accept this regulation, we gain entertainment from it, with the advent of reality television. Shows like The Real World and Big Brother allow the general populous to watch the private moments in the lives of complete strangers. This power of vision tells society what a human being is supposed to be, and what label goes with it (Amey).

However, in all the discussion of the evils of the authoritarian figure, how the warden oppresses and how the Eye is always watching, there is one constant that is rarely mentioned. Between the paranoid prisoner and the reconstructed and thoroughly labeled being there is a moment of choice. At some point the prisoner decides to succumb to the power that is reigning over him. There has to be some conscious moment where the human psyche cannot within stand anymore pressure, and the sweet relief of just giving in washes over that being. The power of the Eye becomes more real than oxygen, and more necessary to existence, and the institution begins to transform human boundaries (der Derian 295). One would hope for some synthesis between the reality of the world and the internal reality of the prisoner, but that is usually not the case. It is so (or not so, as it were) because the structure of the Panopticon within society exists as a critical activity. The authority behind the warden who resides behind the light is fixing the meaning of existence (der Derian 296). In that aforementioned moment of choice, the prisoner chooses to accept that definition of being.

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection (Foucault 230).

Why? Why not go the other way? Why not make the jump from paranoia to the sweet blissful release of insanity? At one point in history this choice would be so simple, but as soon as the ruling body, the authority, became institutionalized and the individual became marginalized against the whole, the choice was not only not simple, it was not our own choice to make. Oh, yes, at some level we are still individuals: “I like this, I don’t like this…” but this individualism still resides within the prison cell. Currently we choose the Panopticon to be a part of a controlled society. Individualism to the extreme that we exist without social constructs is the stuff of pure chaos. We choose to accept definitions placed upon us so that we may define others and exist within what is labeled as real human existence.

We have observed this inner struggle, the denial of the pre-Panoptic being, in some of the literature we have looked at during our studies this year. In Cliffor Geertz’s article Deep Play a village society is analyzed from the outside. It is noted that the majority of the village goes against law when they believe that no person is watching except their consorts (Geertz 276). Furthermore, power is built upon the fear of loosing in the cock ring. Power is within a more natural, animalistic realm, but it is controlled by the rules of a game and play none the less (Geertz 278).

In Bordo’s essay the image of the man and how it is accepted by society is discussed. Bordo hits upon an important point in the body of her essay. She notes that we still feel natural, uninhibited feelings, such as lust. As a human being, no labels, we want sex, we enjoy looking at a man who is so provocative, so natural, a man who exists outside what a man is supposed to be. However, we are also shamed. Back in the Panopticon we blush because, firstly, why would we be aroused by a man who doesn’t fit the definition of man, and secondly, sex is for the bedroom, it should exist elsewhere (Bordo 168-213).

It is obvious that, given the fact that we are our own subjects in the continuation of this power play, that the All-Seeing Eye is our own, that there has to be a way out of the cell. Foucault does not have or advocate for a solution. In our society we have to wonder if this power play is even a real problem. However, eventually individualism could become a moot point. In order to save ourselves we have to disengage the more technological systems that exert power over us, increasing our opportunity to choose our own definition of ourselves (Foucault 246). And by disentangling our social selves from our authoritative selves we can begin to make our world less like a circular prison, and more like a natural state (Foucault 249).

Works Cited

Amey, Michael. “Living Under the Bell Jar.” (2005).

Bordo, Susan. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin\’s, 2005. 168-213

Clifford, Geertz. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin\’s, 2005. 271-309.

Der Derian, James “The (S)Pace of International Relations.” International Studies Quarterly 34 (1990): 295-310. JStor. 7 May 2007.

Kaplan, Martha. “Panopticon in Poona.” Cultural Anthropology (1995). J Stor.

Foucault, Michel. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 219-254.

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Recently at a debate tournament my Parliamentary debate partner and I tried to be strategic in the allocation of our speeches. Theoretically, I should speak twice, and he once. However, since Scott has been participating for much longer than I, and we were about to compete against the top team on the circuit, I decided that seeing as there was no official rule against it, we would try doing “ins-and-outs” which is a speech distribution that favors the stronger team member, and is allowed by the National Parliamentary Debate Association, but rarely deployed. Essentially, to benefit our win/loss record, I gave Scott my speech.

However, it soon became quite obvious that rules weren’t the issue with this strategy, other competitors and coaches found it problematic for two reasons, one more vocal than the other. The first reason was that our strategy allowed us to essential crush the other team. By allocating time to the stronger speaker we use an advantage outside of the norm to achieve victory.

The later, more vocal reason that our strategy was abusive, is that as a bi-gendered team we had an obligation to compete within the realms of an equal partnership. The view of the community was that Scott was actually speaking for me, oppressing me because of my gender. And my allowing Scott to give my speech wasn’t my idea, but an idea he planted in my head so that I would be a willing participant in my own oppression. Furthermore, this was problematic to women in an activity that is highly dominated by men.

My view of the first issue is that everyone in the round has the ability to access this advantage. In every team there is a strong player, and every team can benefit from utilizing that person fully. As long as Scott and I aren’t breaking any rules, we should not be penalized.

On the second issue, I feel that it is even more problematic and sexist to view all male female relationships (be they romantic, friendly, or professional) through the lens of sexual power play. Why must my relationship with my partner and friend Scott be one of dominance and submission defined by our different genders? Even moreso, why must my entire being be defined by my gender, there is no reason to hold me up as a poster child of women. I would prefer to be defined as a liberal, a student, someone fighting up from poverty, a fan of rock music. One hundred different things define me, why must my gender be the only one seen by what is a usually very progressive community?

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For almost seven years I was involved in debate. In high school it was almost all that I thought about, I spent all possible waking hours involved in it, practicing speeches, rehearsing monologues, helping my team mates, just hanging out in the debate room, going to expensive camps over the summer. In college you skip class to prep, you stay up until all hours of the night, you wish you could live with your partner or team because that would be easier. For some debaters who have programs that offer scholarships, at least. I got burned out working 30 hours a week, going to school, and trying to be competitive. The long and short of it was that for me, debate was like a failing marriage, I wanted to love it, but I just didn’t anymore. If you know anything about the activity, then you know you had better be all in or just get out.
Debate is hyper-competitive. In athletics, interaction with the competition ends after the game, and you once again move into preparation mode, competition against yourself rather than someone else. In debate 4 out of 7 days of your week are spent with your team, at least three of those four are spent in competition. And the hours you catch in between rounds, the brief moments of humanity, are still spent talking about debate, with the other students you just competed against. You have to be friends with the people that you attempt to attack and destroy in rounds, because there is no one else. And even if there was someone else, it seems as though they never understand exactly what you do, the constant discussion of politics and policy, the talk of who did what in which round. Who is hooking up. Who is getting drunk. Who wins. Who loses. Who deserved to win. Who screwed some good team over. It surrounds every part of you, all the time. There is little escaping it. Not that one would want to.
Essentially, you are turned into a different person. You lose the ability to interact in normal society. I remember struggling to even have conversations with non-debaters like, oh, my parents, because they were not constantly thinking of another argument, or counter-argument, and the fact that I was means I just wasn’t listening. I suppose, equally, you lose the want to interact in normal society. It is because they don’t seems as smart as you. Their scope seems more narrow, and less important. They do not know as much about the world. They don’t talk fast and hard. They look at you like you are a crazy person when you do. At one point in time I could read thirty printed pages, out loud, in seven and a half minutes. Non-debaters don’t think of that as a skill, at the time debaters thought that was pretty awesome for a kid from Missouri. Parents get mad at the cool, calm, mouthy rhetorically advanced children the get back. Children get mad at their parents for emphasizing anything above debate. So in the end, it is easier to retreat into the society that debate has created for you, because the real challenge in debate is separating yourself from it.

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