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Punishment in public sphere

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Note: The following text is part of an on going research entitled "Pelurinho; on contemporary forms of Discipline and Punishment, after Michel Foucault".

i. Driving a white convertible through the woods, a teenage couple – the captain of a football team and its cheerleader – run out of gas during their late-night date. The clothes worn by the two characters, plus the style of the vehicle, suggest the well-known sixties portrayal of a Hollywood high-school date. Contrary to the preconditioned idea that the characters would be an American white couple, both characters in this case are black.

The aforementioned narration describes the introductory sequence to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, where the male character, played by Jackson himself transforms into a wolfman and scares the hell out of the female protagonist. In the videoclip, however, this sequence is eventually revealed to be a scary movie being screened inside a theatre, where Michael is on a date with the same black woman who plays the role of the girl being chased by the wolfman in the film. In the case of the movie theatre scene, we are located inside a desegregated public space: this is clearly the eighties, at least in terms of the legislative system that makes black men and women in the U.S. legitimate citizens and gives them equal rights to act in the public sphere, or at least to sit side by side with whites at a movie theatre that screens an American pop classic ‘date’ movie, which now has black actors performing its leading roles. Terrified by the thrilling scenes of the movie being projected, Michael’s date leaves the theatre and, as he runs out to catch up to her on the street, the music begins… As the lyrics go by, they pass a foggy cemetery and finally end up being surrounded by a group of zombies who have risen from their graves.

ii. For Derrida, zombies are creatures that produce undecidability, they blur and weaken the dividing lines that affirm binary relations such as life/death, presence/absence, as they threaten the consoling sense that we operate in a world governed by decidable fixed categories. As zombies are subjects who hover between different categories, they create what psychoanalytical theoreticians, such as Franz Fanon, have called the second trauma: if the first trauma is that which occurs during childhood, when the child is subordinated to the rules of language (the construction of signs and significants that determine categories in culture), the second trauma is precisely that in which an adult is confronted with what he or she believes to be irrational, such as those subjects, objects and/or practices that are either in-between or elude determined categories. At that point, in the confrontation with the undecidable, the nausea that accompanies any type of phobia emerges. In that sense you could argue that, by seeing Michael Jackson dance to the ‘Thriller’ choreography along with zombies, it may come to mind that in America’s past and present (and clearly not only there), black men and women are seen more or less like zombies when they circulate and operate in places where they are unwelcome. One may argue that this happens vice-verse when a white ‘intruder’ enters the social space of a community that is predominantly black. Historically, however, the spaces in which blacks may be seen as zombies are those that paradoxically define plurality and the potential for social action in the public sphere; they have therefore further helped to shape and align social hierarchies related to race – hierarchies that are still related to the consequences of colonial agendas.

ii. Now, more than two decades since the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the music has spread worldwide within the logics of cultural imperialism, where the American pop culture has been embraced or interpreted by other cultures through passive colonialism. Every once in a while this song might be played in bars and clubs in Paris or Jakarta, appear on playlists in people’s iPods, etc. Indeed, one of the most interesting ‘encounters’ with this song and its video could, however, occur if the music video is searched at Youtube.com, the largest free-access video archive on the internet. Here the video mostly viewed under the Thriller-Jackson category is not the original Jackson videoclip, but a remake performed by more than 1,500 inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre in Philippines, in which an openly transvestite inmate plays the role of Michael’s girlfriend. This massive choreography shot in a panoptical frame, was conceived by a security consultant for the local government, who came up with a series of choreographed exercise routines for the prisoners by using pop music.

There are various complex levels of interpretation in this video. First of all, within the logics of the performance: the zombie/inmates attack and devour the transvestite/zombie/inmate. Reinterpreting Derrida’s undecidability concept, transvestites are the ultimate gender zombies who, to heterosexist society, are not only gender undecidable, but also undesirable (undesired) as they are in-between subjects who expose the subconscious alterity that one builds and projects in order to construct one’s own identity. A second reading reveals that, although these inmates may perform a symbolic gesture of emancipation through dance, they are still subjected to a disciplinary choreography. (Bear in mind that this is still part of their routine as inmates.) Hence the words of the city’s Archbishop who upon visiting the inmates and seeing the performance live, noted ‘It was a marvellous show of discipline. If only they had practiced that (discipline) in their lives, they wouldn’t be here.’ Finally, another interpretation takes into account that there are thousands of internet viewers who watch the 1,500 orange-suited prisoners, forming a physically omniscient but virtually anxious audience. In other words, from such a safe and privileged position, these threatening criminals are merely representations on the screen.

iii. Prisons serve to physically dislocate subjects who, being punished for crimes, lose some of their civil rights and are deprived of both their social and physical mobility. Prisoners are placed in a decidable fixed category away from the public sphere. As Foucault has said, their punishment has become less exteriorized and more sterilized indoors throughout modern history and the development of its disciplinary institutions. However, one could say that in recent years contemporary media (T.V. and the Internet) have seemed to transmit images of punishment to a worldwide audience of viewers/consumers on a regular and almost daily basis, whether it be by broadcasting Saddam Hussein’s execution, launching various TV series set in prisons, or by televising crime investigations in which (despite the fact that suspense relies on our assumed prior ignorance of the guilty person) all is geared towards the apotheosis when the criminal is finally caught and put behind bars.

However our view of the inmates in the Philippine prison might be most influenced by the omnipresence of reality TV, a genre that relies heavily on the notion of ‘surveillance’ as it is the CCTV system that allows us to observe the private lives of others. This might be the reason why inmates acting as Michael Jackson’s zombies in the central yard of a Philippine prison do not appear as zombies to our eyes; they do not seem to border-cross their decidable fixed category in a perverse manner, since they are one of those many cases where punishment has been turned into spectacle. In other words, if not so long ago Estates/Nations/Empires carried out punishment, torture and final execution as public entertainment in town squares, today’s virtual spectacles - the 1,500 inmates/dancers and reality TV - seem, like zombies, to have risen from the dead.

Inti Guerrero