Our Fear of The Other

April 18, 2012

What I find most interesting in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison chapters is “The constant division between the normal and the abnormal, to which every individual is subjected…” [199] The ‘othering’ and exclusions of “incompatible” persons, ranging between lepers and plague victims to beggars, vagabonds, madmen, and the disorderly. Through extreme measures of surveillance, power, control and order, models of purity were sought towards a “disciplined society.” Constant observation and registration, restrictions of space, social isolation and exclusion were employed to correct abnormal individuals. This systematic ordering and controlling of human populations was best visualized in the Panopticon, where ”a permanent gaze may control prisoners and staff.” [250] …The all-seeing eye, scanning for signs of delinquent activity.

This may be likened to, (in a rather less serious scene), a gardener standing in the middle of her neatly manicured landscape, examining its inhabitants for the tiniest of flaws, the most miniscule of inadequacies, clutching her sharpened pruners and shiny steel shovel. She also aims to reform unruly occupants, to “make them conform to the “norm.” Part of this colonization includes the adoption of a normative taxonomic classification system of organisms. Foucault reminds us of Marquet-Wasselot’s Ethnography of the Prisons, 1841, cataloging a “zoology of social sub-species and an ethnology of the civilizations of malefactors, with their own rites and language…”where the criminal belongs to a typology that is both natural and deviant…” [253] Here we see how quickly and easily we designate and diminish all forms of life.

In Richard Mabey’s book Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants, he problematizes our suspicions, superficial branding, treatments and exterminations of plants. Our culture views weeds as displaced, toxic, as parasites to society, invasive and threatening to order, ugly, wild, and that “we morally disapprove of their behaviour.” [9] These botanical thugs unsettle our perceived state of equilibrium, and like the Prison Institution, we aim to enforce regularity.

In discussing structures of space, Foucault’s heterotopias offer “a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live.” He describes the first principle as ‘heterotopias of crisis’ or the “heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” He speaks of retirement homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons. Later, in the third principle he exemplifies the garden as a contradictory site, “juxtaposing in a single real place…several sites that are in themselves incompatible” [25] I argue that gardens can belong to both principles.  “Weeds are not only plants in the wrong place, but plants which have slipped into the wrong culture.” [11]  Slipped, as if through the mirror, “both isolated and accessible, public and hidden” another set of relations.

The four-legged woman of my illustrations is meant to represent minoritarian identities in contrast to the institution. Whether her legs, heads or hair marks her as an ‘other,’ she stands on her own. Through the provided and supplementary literature, she may be compared to prison  convicts as her differences criminalize/demonize her, or viewed as a weed, with her misfit activities and refusal to play by the rules. Her acts are subversive, and like a thorn or thistle, this maverick refuses to be constrained by our cultural concepts.



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