Oh my God Paris, I know you’ll be reading this, ‘cause you said you weren’t going to be a stupid girl anymore, so “Dasein” is pronounced just like “design,” as in fashion design, which is something you know a lot about! Only with an “ah” sound after the “d,” instead of an “ee” sound. Like the British say “dahling,” when they really mean “darling.” Not to worry, though, you don’t really need to know what Dasein actually “means,” it’s just one of those silly words we’ll find out more about, later! [Smiley face!] [kiss kiss!].
So I opened up the Los Angeles Times and Peter Y. Hong has written a great article on Phil Spector’s lawyer, Bruce Cutler. Hong, P., “Defense Lawyer’s Famous Roar Is Muzzled,” Los Angeles Times (Jun. 12, 2007). I found myself looking at the picture of Mr. Cutler accompanying the article, thinking, “Where have I seen this before?” Then it occurred to me – Mr. Cutler is a dead ringer for none other than Jean Genet, the famous writer of novels like Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and The Thief’s Journal (1949); and plays like The Balcony (1956) and The Blacks (1958).
Not being the shy retiring type, I e-mailed my suspicions to Mr. Hong, who promptly replied, confirming he also saw the resemblance. Then, throwing fuel on the fire, he remarked that, to his eye, the Judge in the Phil Spector trial – Larry Paul Fidler – somewhat resembled the famous French historian-sociologist-philosopher, Michel Foucault. Foucault is the writer of, among other works, Madness and Civilization (1961), and The Order of Things (1966). I should know this, because I’m working on a book in which Foucault (among other personages) is significantly implicated.
Here are the pictures, make your own decision. All images are the property of their respective owners.
Larry Paul Fidler
On reflection, this exchange made me realize how fortunate we culturistas are, to be living right here in Los Angeles, in the Summer of 2007. It ain’t the Summer of Love, that’s for sure, but all things considered, it’s not half bad. In fact, it’s a veritable three-ring circus. In the left ring: we have the lovely Lindsay Lohan, off for yet another stint in rehab.
In the right ring: we have the inimitable Mr. Spector, tightening up, as John Kay of Steppenwolf once sang, the latest in a weird assortment of wigs. Busily (and, I dare say, foolishly) ignoring Mr. Cutler’s advice. Spector’s gonna get his ass convicted, that’s for sure.
But then, in the center ring, is the media psycho-drama that has gripped all of us – and if it hasn’t gripped you, you’re just not down with the zeitgeist. I refer, of course, to the sad saga of the charmingly bewildered Paris Hilton.
Paris Hilton – mug shot
The facts need little recitation. She was sentenced by the Court to 45 days in County Jail for violating probation, with the unusual addendum to the effect there would be no mitigation of her sentence. No sooner had she checked in, though, than the Sheriff’s Department unilaterally commutated her confinement, ostensibly for “medical” reasons. Had the Sheriff acted because of “jail overcrowding,” the alignment of interests would be quite different, as the Los Angeles County jails operate under a Federally-mandated consent decree, prohibiting overcrowding. As a result of which, most female offenders are released after a few days.
Whatever the reason, Ms. Hilton’s early release did not cotton well with the Judge, who ordered Ms. Hilton back to his courtroom – no telephone appearance, thank you, we want you here in person. The Sheriff’s Department came, and picked her up. Thanks to the diligent and conscientious services of a veritable horde of paparazzi, all armed with high-caliber telephoto lenses, we have disturbing photos such as that of Ms. Hilton crying in the back of the Sheriff’s car. And we know that, as she was led from the Courtroom enfettered, she looked back and cried out to her mother, “Mommy, it isn’t fair!
Paris Hilton – in Car
It probably isn’t. Little did Ms. Hilton suspect she was the foil in what evidently is an on-going battle between the Superior Court and the Sheriff’s Department, over issues like, who controls how long a prisoner stays in custody, or what are the terms of the prisoner’s incarceration. Furthermore, again unsuspectingly, Ms. Hilton has become a lightning-rod for provocative and important social issues like, “Do celebrities get more lenient treatment than ordinary people,” or, in her case, “Do celebrities get made examples of, for the moral edification of ordinary people.”
And this is where Foucault comes in. Foucault’s primary aim in Madness and Civilization is to narrate a history of social responses to crazy people. In the Middle Ages, for example, cities placed them on boats, which then endlessly plied Europe’s rivers – the so-called “ship of fools.” Surely this had the virtue, among others, of being entertaining; if you were bored with your own lunatics, then you could amuse yourself with the antics of those from a few towns over. This comic juxtaposition illustrates “the acute ambivalence with which they were regarded.”
Such peregrinations subsequently gave rise to policies of isolation and confinement – not so much for the benefit of the afflicted, but rather, for society’s. They “were isolated from the inhabitants of the city and, at the same time, kept close enough to be observed … [A]t the edge but not beyond.” This trend began, says Foucault, with the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656. Conveniently, its walls accommodated not only the mentally disturbed, but also criminals, and the poor.
After the French Revolution, this miscegenation became increasingly untenable, if for no reason other than all three types of miscreants exhibit completely different pathologies. “The mad, it was now felt, must be liberated from their chains and cages, and returned to health.” Furthermore, with advances in medical science – or, at least, the evolution of different, seemingly-more-efficacious treatment modalities – they increasingly were seen as amenable to cure. This in turn led to the evolution of different techniques, such as, eventually, Freudian psycho-analysis. As far as the poor were concerned, well, they could work; and best for all of us, if the criminals simply were left in jail.
Foucault is one of those charming rascals who never quite goes as far as you want for him to go. His grasp always slightly exceeds his reach. He is so brilliant, you always want for him to take the “next step,” but he always seems to be one move short of having that bold insight you’re always wanting for him to have. Typically, this would involve assessing the social and cultural implications of whatever theory he’s conjured, pretty much out of thin air. He wrote a fascinating history of how societies regard the mentally ill, but then didn’t really draw any conclusions from it.
It therefore has fallen on a cottage industry of Foucault-inspired academics to analyze and explicate the text – in some cases, telling us what Foucault “should have” said, or “really” meant. Putting words into the poor guy’s mouth, which aren’t so much what he “actually” said, or even “meant” to say, but rather, what they want for him to say. Which is useful, I’m not trying to be overly critical here, I just want to observe that in some cases, the starting-point recedes in the distance. And, as a result, many of the faux-Foucaultians, simply miss the boat, at least insofar as Foucault is concerned. Because for them, Foucault only is a foil, a launching-pad, or a spring-board, for their own insights – some of which are incredibly profound in their own right – albeit highly attenuated in derivation, vis-à-vis Foucault.
One of the most compelling commentators on Foucault, however, is Hubert Dreyfus, a Professor of Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. Dreyfus puts his finger on Foucault’s real significance. Social and cultural practices – such as how we treat those with mental illness – “solicit coherent articulation.” We therefore “make the best sense of people and things when we understand how they are shaped by … problematization,” Dreyfus, H., “Reply to Charles Taylor” in Wrathall, M. & Malpas, J. (eds.), Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science 342 (2000).
Here’s what I think Dreyfus means by this. In the end, what Foucault is talking about is our cultural or societal concept of what it is to be mentally ill. Societies reveal an important aspect of their “ontology” – the way they view themselves – by the ways in which they regard mental illness. Because this shows how their inhabitants understand their own being.
“Mental illness” in turn is particularly poignant, in that it is bound up with issues of cognition and “normalcy.” Although Foucault does not explicitly make this point, mis-function or malfunction of the brain provides an excellent window through which to view a society’s perspective on what counts as “normal,” to begin with. It is particularly piquant, in that it goes to the heart of what it is to think thoughts, and feel emotions – something we all do, or, at least, think we do. It is quite unlike any number of other, more benign metrics, such as, for example, the quality of a society’s restaurants, what it houses in its museums, or its concept of God. In this way, by serving as a counter-example to what’s considered “normal,” the mentally ill person attunes us to what’s going on. He/she clarifies; crystallizes; and focuses.
To loop back around to Ms. Hilton, I’m not suggesting, of course, that she is mentally ill. However, I think our public fascination with her contretemps – exacerbated, as are all good pop-culture phenomena, by the media – says a lot about how we as a society constitute and comprise the landscape of our practices and institutions.
For this, we owe Ms. Hilton a debt of thanks. She has enlivened public debate on the “fairness” issue, which is a worthy topic of discussion. She has exposed a latent issue between the Superior Court and the Sheriff’s Department, which frankly I doubt any but the cognescenti even knew about. And, most importantly, she continues to define the role of celebrity – a role for which she particularly is suited, seeing as how she doesn’t claim expertise at doing anything, other than being herself.
Commenting on the “flatness” and “drabness” of the modern cultural experience, Dreyfus says: “[W]hen there are no shared examples of greatness that focus public concerns and elicit social commitment, people become spectators of fads and public lives, just for the excitement,” Dreyfus, H., “Nihilism, Art, Technology and Politics” in Guignon, C. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger 348 (2d ed. 2006). Ms. Hilton is far from being an “example of greatness.” However, as she stumbles through life, I believe she will continue to “focus public concerns and elicit social commitment,” if only by way of counter-example.
I have some more thoughts about the problem of “being Paris,” which I’ll post soon.