Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around: How Fighting with My Brother Helped Me Understand French Philosophy

Photo of children in station wagon

After attending school for many, many, many years, I have come to the realization that some of the theory I have been assigned to read can be applied at home—my childhood home. It has occurred to me that I haven’t given my parents enough credit concerning the methodology of discipline and punishment experienced by my brother and me by them (primarily my mother).1 Studying the work of Michel Foucault caused me to realize how applicable his ideas are to the more common, everyday institutions I have come into contact with (as opposed to hospitals, military systems, and monasteries). As children, my brother and I were observed by the panopticon that was my mother. Her methods of observation consisted of eyes in the back of the head, the glare, Santa Claus (as all seeing substitute in December), and Jesus (as all seeing substitute January through November). Her methods of discipline included the phrase, “Wait ‘til we get home,” the threat, and a bamboo cane kept under the front seat of the family station wagon during long road trips. These methods were applied to maintain order so my brother and I would appear “normal” in public and be well-behaved, respectable children. We were always encouraged to be creative and clever, but reflecting back, this was never to be done while shopping at the grocery store or kneeling on a church pew; our individualities were to be expressed in private, in the small enclosed rooms of the house.

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DISCLAIMER

My mother is apprehensive about this topic and requires a disclaimer stating my brother and I were never mistreated as children and had a happy childhood. And we were never poked with the cane.

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During a long car ride on a vacation trip to Walt Disney World, my brother and I, the fighters in the rear of the car, were condemned to make the amende  honorable before the door of the Holiday Inn, where we were to be taken and conveyed on foot, wearing shorts and t-shirts, single file; then, to our rooms, where, on our beds, we were to be silent and fall instantly asleep, our right hands, clenched in the fists with which we committed the said fighting, pried open, and, we anticipated, our bodies drawn and quartered by three dwarves and a mouse and our limbs and torsos thrown out of the window and into the motel swimming pool. Or so we imagined, as we unclutched each other and slid to opposite windows as our mother glared at us from the front seat of the Ford Country Squire. The glare came into view after my mother’s warning, “Wait ‘til we get home” failed to restore order. We knew what that glare meant, or so we thought. In hindsight nothing ever happened if the glare emerged and pointed itself in our direction, but for some reason the threat implied by the glare worked its magic on dividing and conquering us troublemakers in the back of the station wagon. That and the bamboo cane that made its appearance when my mother, at wits end from our inevitable fighting, attempted to hook one of us and bring us to the front of the car where we could be observed more closely. We escaped the cane by suctioning ourselves as tightly as possible against the back of the car, thus ending the fighting, at least for a while. My parents were rewarded with a few miles of driving silence until the next time a finger suspiciously found its way into someone’s ear or a left thigh got a bit too close to the right thigh on someone’s side of the seat. We had our own spaces marked by invisible boundaries that were not to be crossed, but we got as close to them as humanly possible.

The preceding tale is an example of one of my mother’s methods of trying to discipline my brother and me. It is interesting to note my mother had never heard of Foucault until I mentioned the subject of this essay to her, in which she replied, “That’s what I did.” Her response mirrors a similar situation where Adam Smith, the Father of Economics, discovered self-referential thinking by accident. Smith, in his own examinations of his students, came upon the idea of self-examination when he “manifested the power of examination upon his own self.” This knowledge was already “to hand,” as something he utilized in his life as a teacher, much like the methods my mother used to discipline my brother and me were “to hand.”2 The concept of discipline and punish seems “to hand,” but the first to name this discipline and punishment philosophy was Foucault; he gets all the credit, while my mother gets some self-satisfaction that she was “right.” 

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the change in penal styles that took place throughout Europe and the United Stated between 1750 and 1820. This change is a qualitative shift rather than a decrease in the quantity of punishment. My mother unknowingly paralleled this shift, who, before any mode of discipline and/or punishment was to be administered to either my brother or me, would ease us into the transition from happiness to sadness (or badness to goodness) with a tale of woe from her childhood: the story of how, when she was a little girl, her mother made her go outside and pick a switch off the tree in the back yard that would be used to punish her. This switch-tale was used to lessen the pain of being sent to our rooms, causing us to reflect on how great it was to be confined to our spaces and not to be hit with a small branch of a tree.3 This target of punishment shifted, Foucault says, so that measures are aimed to affect the soul of the offender rather than just to strike the body; at the same time the objective of punishment undergoes a change so that the concern is now less to avenge the crime than to transform the criminal who stands behind it.

“You’ll thank me for this one day,” my mother would say as we stomped our way up the stairs, reflecting on our future transformations. While I cannot speak for my brother, I do not remember feeling transformed, only intent to extract revenge. My mother might have been able to control our bodies, but she could not control our minds (or so we thought).

Foucault describes a new punishment concern, which the prison introduced, to know the criminals, to understand the sources of their criminality, and to intervene to correct them whenever possible. Consequently, the focus of judgment shifts away from the crime itself toward questions of character, of family background, and of the individual’s history and environment.4

This helps me to understand or gives reason for why I was disciplined; how I behaved in public reflected on how “good” my parents were. Bad public behavior gave the public gaze cause to judge my family. But this gaze was not so much directed at my brother or me, but toward our parents.5 Our parents were watched to make sure they watched us; good children meant good parents.

My parents’ aim was to form knowledge of us as individuals, identifying our abnormalities, and bringing about our reformations. The result of these changes, as Foucault notes, is a system of dealing with us, the offenders, in ways that are not so much punitive as corrective, more intent on producing normal, conforming individuals than dispensing punishments. My brother and I were to be regulated at all times to improve our troublesome individualities rather than be destroyed. Obviously, my parents did not want to destroy us (although I bet there were times…), but wanted us to behave, to be good, and to be “normal.”

POWER, KNOWLEDGE, AND THE BODY

Foucault’s rules for studying punishment are founded on three concepts that he uses to analyze the fundamentals of any structure of domination: power, knowledge, and the body. Systems of production, of domination, and of socialization depend on the successful subjection of bodies. They require bodies to be mastered and subjected to training leaving them docile, obedient, and useful to a greater or lesser degree. And in doing so, these bodies will be there to take care of their parents in their old age. Others, Foucault states, aim to have their commands internalized, producing an individual who does what is required without need of further external force. This self-controlled body is created by exerting an influence on what Foucault calls, “the soul,” which in turn directs behavior. Often my mother deferred to Jesus who observed us from eight o’clock in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon, Monday through Friday (and an hour on Sunday), in the confines of St. Mary’s grade school and the Immaculate Conception Church. Jesus was responsible for our souls and she often reminded us of this if we misbehaved in some way. Time and again we were reminded that Jesus (or Santa Claus) could always see us, even if she could not and would report back to her his observations and suggestions.6 This requirement to be good, to save our souls, and to get what we wanted for Christmas, served to terrify us into submission. While my brother and I could withstand the punishment of intermittent isolation in our rooms, we doubted we could bear the fires of Hell or a lump of coal in our stockings.7

The relationship between power and the bodies caught up in it involve knowledge, a word Foucault uses to describe the know-how on which techniques and strategies depend and the knowledge of its target. The successful control of my brother and me required a degree of understanding (if only subconscious understanding) of power’s forces, reactions, strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities. Conversely, the more power is known, the more controllable it becomes; the more my brother and I were known, the more controllable we became. For Foucault the relationship between knowledge and power is an intimate and internal relationship in which each implies and increases the other. His use of the term “power-knowledge” is used to emphasize these interconnections. I cannot count the number of times my mother predicted the bad behavior my brother and I inevitably committed by warning us, as she and my father went out for the evening, that she “knew” us and knew we would fight or misbehave in some manner. Her knowledge of us increased her power over us; often we would confess without coercion (or tell on the other) as soon as we heard the front door open when they returned home.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states it was during the classical age that the body came to be conceived as an object and target of power that could be controlled and improved without the use of violence, and describes the general methods and principles of discipline. These methods operate on a small scale of control, paying attention to the individual movements and gestures, rather than the body as a whole. My brother and I became more efficient with each movement our bodies made and developed coordination by bearing constant, uninterrupted supervision by my mother, who was alert to our slightest deviations, and had disciplinary control over our bodies. This explains why eye rolls and scowls were not permitted; they were inefficient, deviant gestures (according to my mother) that interfered with the ability to do what we were supposed to do.

THE CORRELATION OF THE BODY AND GESTURE

Disciplinary control is not made up of teaching or imposing a series of particular gestures; it imposes a relationship between a gesture and the overall position of the body, dependent upon its efficiency and speed. A well-disciplined body forms the operational context of the slightest gesture. For example, the contortions my brother and I performed in the back of that car to avoid the hook consisted of a whole routine (not taught to us by anyone) that invested our bodies in their entirety, from the balls of our feet to the palms of our hands. We held our bodies rigidly, at a forty-five-degree angle to the floor, slightly prostrate, our arms (right or left depending on which side of the car we occupied) flat against the floor of the vehicle, while the back of our heads were pressed against the rear window glass; our bottom legs somewhat more forward than our torsos, and our top legs more forward for balance. Our other arms were raised above our heads, on which our palms were pressed into the ceiling of the car. Our disciplined bodies were the prerequisite of an efficient gesture. We became human suction-cups by trial and error in our efforts to avoid the hook, and we could transform ourselves in a hurry.

THE BODY-OBJECT ARTICULATION

Discipline also defines each of the relations the body must have with the object it manipulates (the military man and his rifle/my mother and her cane). Foucault states the object and the body create a methodical framework, creating a body-object articulation that occurs in three stages. At the first stage, my mother brought the cane forward by pulling the cane out from under the car seat with her right hand and bringing it close to her body so as to hold it parallel with the back of the seat. The end of the cane was lifted to eye level and grasped with her right hand; her arm was held close to her body. At the second stage, she brought the cane in front of her body with her right hand, the rubber end between her eyes, while her left hand grasped the seat for support. At the third stage, she let go of the seat with her left hand, which came to rest on the car door, and raised the cane with her right hand, the hook outward and opposite from her chest, her right arm extended, her elbow close to her body, her thumb lying against the top, and her fingers curled around the bottom. This is an example of what Foucault called the instrumental coding of the body. It consists of a breakdown of the total gesture into two parallel series: that of the parts of the body to be used (right hand, left hand, different fingers of the hand, eye, elbow, etc.) and that of the parts of the object manipulated (rubber end, hook, etc.); then the two sets of parts correlated together according to a number of simple gestures (grasp, bend); lastly, it fixes the accepted succession in which each of these correlations occupies a particular place. This is what military theoreticians of the eighteenth century called a maneuver. Over the surface of contact between my mother’s body and the cane, power was introduced, and attached them to one another. It constituted the body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine complex that was my mother.

NORMALIZING DEVIANCE

Individuals are by nature recalcitrant, and so dealing with disobedience is a central problem for any method of control. My mother’s disciplinary methods did not simply punish my brother and me, but instead developed methods of restriction, which Foucault calls “normalization.” This corrective method is concerned with inducing conformity rather than exacting punishment. My mother assessed my brother and me in relation to her desired standard of conduct: she knew how we performed, watched our movements, assessed our behavior, and measured it against the rule (namely other people’s kids). Her constant surveillance and examinations provided her knowledge, allowing incidents of nonconformity to be recognized and dealt with. And since her objective was to correct rather than punish, her actual sanctions tended to involve measures (thinking about what we had done, being sent to our rooms, being compared to other people’s kids, etc.) that in themselves helped keep us in line.

My mother’s methods of observation, examination, and measurement allowed knowledge to develop, while exercising power and control over my brother and me during the time we were under her gaze. In this way she became the panopticon that Jeremy Bentham designed in 1791, which Foucault cites as the epitome of power-knowledge principles, designed to render my brother and me subject to the knowledge and power of my mother. As we got older, my mother’s constant visibility induced self-control on the part of my brother and me. Power was no longer needed to unleash her sanctions; instead we took it upon ourselves to behave in the desired manner.

Foucault states, “the panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it, produces homogeneous effects of power.” My mother was that marvelous machine; she saw each of us in the public and private spaces where my brother and I were constantly exposed to her gaze; by looking at us, she controlled us. Even though her proximity to us has lessened, we still behave as though she is nearby, watching. Her seemingly “to hand” methodology of discipline and punishment has been applied to my brother and me all through our childhoods; her gazes and stares have stayed with us throughout our lives.

The bamboo cane lives on in infamy.

 

1 My father disciplined my brother and me, too, but his method consisted of saying, “Go to bed,” whether he “saw” us or not. It did not matter what time of day it was, or what the circumstances were.

2 This idea is also similar to the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Glenda the Good Witch tells Dorothy she always had the power, the power was “to hand.”

3 Hooray?

4 This is where my mother’s concern for how she might be perceived is understood. While she stands by her disciplinary methods, if the possibility of scrutiny comes into play after many, many, many years, she feels some sense of guilt; guilt that she was cruel or made rash disciplinary decisions, which causes her concern that people she will never meet will judge her is some way, i.e., the audience of this essay. I suppose her consciousness of being observed causes her to want to go back in time and be “more disciplined” herself. But I would wager at the time my brother and I misbehaved, she had no second thoughts whatsoever.

5 It is interesting to note that at this time, my brother and I were not concerned with the public gaze, only the gaze of our parents.

6 We lived near a cemetery, which loomed in the distance as a negative reminder of our futures. For some reason, my brother and I associated this as a scary place—scary meaning Hell.

7 I suppose Catholic school serves as a method of discipline, too. The guilt we felt for every transgression we committed served to keep use in line.

Photo at the top of the page: https://www.vintag.es/2018/06/vintage-station-wagon.html. 

SELFIE INTERVIEW | AJ Colombo

Amy Colombo has MFAs in Photography from the University of Delaware and Creative Writing from West Virginia University. She also received a Ph.D in Media, Art, and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University.

During the Covid stay-at-home mandate she has learned how to install a bathroom vanity, a thermostat, and various light fixtures. Her next project involves replacing a smoke alarm. 

Eckleburg: What captures your interest most in your work, now, as a reader of your work?

AJ Colombo: Irony, sarcasm, and clever ways of returning back to an original idea (bringing things full circle).

Eckleburg: What are you working on now?

AJ Colombo: Everything and nothing. I have ideas (too many). I guess I’m working  on making a decision…after I install the smoke detector.

Eckleburg: Who and what are your artistic influences?

AJ Colombo: Presently…James Whistler, Martin Parr, Tony Ray-Jones, David Shrigley, Lydia Davis…. This changes on an hourly basis.

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