The alignment of spectacle with the political subject rather than citizen is a strong one, and for good reason. Grounded in political history, it reoccurs every time the public gets drawn to a major media event such as the Super Bowl or the outbreak of war. (Hariman and Lucaites 299)

The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested. (Foucault 47)

… where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulpher, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn way, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds … ‘Finally, he was quartered,’ recounts the Gazette de’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints … It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blasphemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St. Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient. …” (Foucault 3)

In the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes in excruciating detail the eighteenth-century torture and execution of Robert-François Damiens. Foucault, as John Durham Peters explains in his book Courting the Abyss, “rigorously refuses to contain the spectacle of the broken body” (88), and instead “Foucault stages a theatre of cruelty, leaving the reader with the unpalatable option of assuming that he is taking a sadistic glee in the torture and inviting the reader to enjoy the show” (88).

But why, as Peters asserts, would Foucault refuse to contain the spectacle?  Perhaps, here, Foucault is undertaking something else as he lifts the veil of spectacle to make present the political infrastructure of how the body is used to “perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (25).  The declarative “signs”of discipline and punishment have always already been impressed in the individual subjects through multiple social pedagogies and when disseminated through mediated formations harness collective publics, celebrate a meeting of minds even with an inclusion of dissent, and create, what Benedict Anderson calls, imaginary communities. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites explain this intelligibility of the signs as a foundation that begins to construct the icon within an aura of spectacle to engage a “direct audience response … which … provide[s] a public audience with sufficient means for contending with potentially unmanageable events” (25).

Image

Spectators at a Public Execution (Kentucky, 1936)

Hariman and Lucaites suggest that media functions through and through this manifestation of power by creating emotional scenarios that not only secure the readers’ everyday habits such as eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, or taking out the trash but also activate “vital repertories of social behaviour”  that include sharing, archiving, and responding (34). Here, I am interested in Michael Warner’s suggestion that “the particular character of a public is that it is a space of discourse organized by discourse.  It is self-creating and self-organized; and herein lies its power, as well as its elusive strangeness” (68-9).

The media facilitates the intimate distance for its readership, a space wherein the practice of punitive action “between the ‘serene’ search for truth and the violence … cannot be entirely effaced from punishment” (Foucault 56). The media’s authority bolstered by naturalized public assumptions of civility support the utopic “search for truth” while it leads the reader into the gallows of punitive action, hand-in-hand to witness, vicariously, the spectacle of execution. The public is present while it maintains a comfortable and congregational distance.

Foucault explains that by the nineteenth-century, as a product of Enlightenment, a distance became necessary between the criminal and justice and “as a result of this new restraint, a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warden, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalist; by their very presence near the prisoner, they sing the praises that the law needs” (Foucault 11).

Image

Execution of Ruth Snyder by Electric Chair (New York, 1928).  The iconic photo was taken with a camera hidden in the photographer’s clothing and published the next day in the New York Daily News.

 

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1977.

Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Peters, John Durham. Courting the Abyss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Warner, Michael.  Public and Counterpublics.  New York: Zone Books, 2002.

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