The Spectre(acle) of Punishment and the Intensification of Control …

The Spectre(acle) of Punishment and the Intensification of Control ...

An article on biopolitics, the punishing state, and the spectacle by Roshaya Rodness.

The degree to which television spectacles affect our behaviour is a hotly contested question, one that I do not think can ever be answered with quantitative specificity, even if it can and should be qualitatively addressed. Public debates about the influence of media spectacles often concern televised violence and its reproducibility in child or adolescent spectators. These debates tend to be underwritten by three assumptions: physical violence is the worst, most glamorous, and most visible form of behaviour that we might contract from television; our behaviour is affected by visual culture only when we reproduce, or mime, its narratives (mimesis is the only, or at least most malevolent and frightening, way in which we manifest a tight and interlocking relationship with visual culture); and that child and adolescent subjects are the most vulnerable and unstable spectators and are more likely than adults to blur the line between fiction and reality.

These assumptions are ideological indemnifications that work to hide much more threatening narratives about the intersection of behaviour and visual culture, such as adults deep investments in fictions and the way in which influence manifests through non-mimetic channels. While I do not seek to be alarmist and na ve and suggest that televisual influence is terrible and rampant (I cannot imagine a world in which we are not intimately affected by the fictions we consume and I do not believe that moralizing the general phenomenon is helpful), I am interested in how these shows affect attitudes about legitimized violence and the people who suffer state-sponsored violence, and how we might address that influence without simply censoring our entertainment.

Chapter Nine, Pop Culture and the Criminal Element, of Anne-Marie Cusac s Cruel and Unusual (2009) explores the alchemy by which increasingly intense and pervasive public fear of crime supports and legitimates tough-on-crime policies and prison punishment. Cusac examines what she terms democratic fear (188) mediated through the expansion of crime shows since the 1990s.

Building on Daniel A. Cohen s thesis that punishment is the source of American popular culture (185), Cusac prefers to approach the punishment-media contingency as a reflexive paradigm, in which entertainment media also (if not more so)1 galvanizes collective fear towards crime and normalizes severe punishment techniques. In popular reality shows such as America s Most Wanted and dramas such as Law & Order and CSI, she sees a focus on the privatization of criminal behaviour in individuals and on the everyday threat to personal security.

In shows such as 24, she sees the fantastical creation of national threats that legitimate torture and a general no-time-for-rules, all-bets-off form of policing. Fictional crime dramas manufacture social environments in which due process is a pesky roadblock to justice, an attitude that President Obama has adopted with the Defense Authorization Act.

Cusac begins this chapter by comparing the spectacle of crime in TV and film with Michel Foucault s spectacle of the scaffold in Discipline and Punish. She writes, given contemporary home media, today s spectacles often don t take place outside in the presence of crowds. Astounding and provocative displays happen inside the American home, via television (186).

How might we reconceive of the intensity of crime spectacle and its effects with Jeffery T. Nealon s grammar of Foucault s writing on intense power? For Nealon, intense power describes a power that is lighter, diffuse, and that saturates every corner of public and private life.

The intensification of power, he writes, is the maximzing imperative of efficiency (32). The shift from scaffold to crime show follows this logic of intensification. Rather than the localized, unreproducable spectacle of power performed by public executions, the crime show announced the invasion of a simulacrum of power that could be broadcast into almost any living room and democratically consumed by almost any individual.

With advancements in digital media, individuals can watch these shows over and over again at will.

The crime show marks an era of efficiency, in which hegemonic forces can exert their symbolic control over individuals in the living room; in a medium that appears distant from political and legal influence. While public executions were subject to legal codes governing crime and rights, crime shows are private enterprises subject to legal codes governing free speech. When neoliberal power effectively becomes a Baudrillardian simulation of itself, it escapes responsibility and is answerable to no one but those seeking profit.

Even if it can shown that crime shows produce a degree of public affect that influence the number of punishable crimes, prison sentencing, and prison punishment, the television networks receive little serious attention precisely because the power they exert is light, minute, and diffuse.

I am not calling for the censorship of crime shows; rather, I want to encourage a critical literacy of their political influence and the material effects they can have. It is not only through policies defining marriage and contraception access that people in power get into the bedroom, but it is via supposedly nonpolitical forces that neoliberal agendas make their way into homes and direct biopolitical capital to their ends. In order to discuss how entertainment media shape our culture, we need a robust pedagogy that reaches individuals with the same intensity as crime media.

It is only by becoming educated about the confluence of entertainment and hegemonic force that we are able to comprehend and respond to increasingly intense forms of power. A critical pedagogy of visual culture allows us to consume any image with critical awareness and be more reflective, rather than blindly anxious, about the affects of the media on public affairs. Visual literacy is a network of vital skills that we develop in a Humanities education; stressing the need for visual literacy in an increasingly mediated world might be an effective way to communicate the importance and value of the continuance of well-funded Humanities scholarship in the university.

It is worth noting that the question of media influence should not be limited to visual culture, but to non-visual fictions as well. A much more interesting and difficult study would examine the evolution of non-visual media and its place in (and relationship to) our image-saturated society.

Works Cited

Cusac, Anne-Marie. Cruel and Usual: The Culture of Punishment in America. New Haven and London: Yale U P, 2009. Print.

Nealon, Jeffery T. Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and its Intensifications since 1984. Stanford: Stanford U P, 2008.


1 As crime rates fell in the 1990s, the public believed the crime rate was rising, and people reported being increasingly afraid of crime (210).

Cusac notes that there is a studied correlation between watching crime shows and a belief that life is dangerous (211).

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