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Mango Mao: Infections of the Sacred
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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 161-187

Infections of the Sacred

Michael Dutton


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Figure 1

On 15 March 1666, Louis XIV conducted his first military review. Several years later, a medal was struck depicting the scene (Foucault 1979a: 188). In the spatial layout of this medallion, which showed lines of disciplined soldiers sharing equal space with their sovereign (see fig. 1, above), Michel Foucault would find the first and quite tentative sign of a subtle but utterly crucial shift in the way power was depicted and deployed. The arrangement of the troops; their placement in relation to their king; their movement and how it was ordered, planned, and disciplined by a series of intersecting lines at their feet—all these small, almost indiscernible signs were to cast a shadow over what appears to be a straightforward, ostentatious display of Louis XIV's famous motto, l'etat c'est moi.

From the shadows, however, Foucault suggests that something else was taking place. A new form of power was slowly coming into focus that Foucault would famously label disciplinary. The parade ground drill was an operation that culminated in spectacle but could do so only by employing a series of microlevel techniques of discipline and drill that, in turn, produced the "spectacle effect." This new disciplinary power would end up enveloping not only King but also country. However, it is not the detail of that historical transformation that is of concern here, but the importance placed upon this metal object as an early sign of this transition: "Let us take this medal as evidence of the moment when, paradoxically but significantly, the most brilliant figure of sovereign power is joined to the emergence of rituals proper to disciplinary power" (Foucault 1979a: 189).

What Foucault (1979a) discerned from the surface of this medallion was an inversion of visibility, producing a scene in which the "most vile segment of the population," as Georges Bataille (1979: 77) would label soldiery, was finally brought into discourse in ways that were productive. No longer a discursive absence, these "vile" elements could, with care, attention, and discipline, serve to augment, rather than diminish, the power of the king. While this would have immediate benefits for the sovereign, its real significance lay elsewhere. It was an illustration of the way government had begun to attend to microtechniques in the management of populations. It displayed the type of techniques government had devised to enable even the potentially troublesome to be remolded and placed on the credit side of the social ledger. In pointing to this future focus of government, the medal prefigured new sets of concerns, rituals, and practices proper to power that would move it away from courtly considerations and toward the corporeal, producing new understandings of the people and, as a consequence, of government. Increasingly, a chain of understanding developed that tethered sovereign power to discipline and, finally, to a particular mentality of government (Foucault 1979b: 19). As it did, the rarity of the commemorative medallion depicting ordinary soldiers performing extraordinarily was giving ground to another form of commemoration: the "commemoration" of the ordinary. This other, more ubiquitous, silent, and prosaic form of commemoration was the personnel file.

"Very good, only they breathe," remarked Grand Duke Mikhail when viewing a military parade similar to the one for which the medal of Louis XIV was struck (Kropotkin 1899: 12). The personnel file constituted a means by which government could take one's breath away while simultaneously paying even greater attention to the disciplining of life. Indeed, in this regard, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the file would become the last incarnation of this medallion. The last, perhaps, but paradoxically not the only one. Indeed, reading Louis's famous motto of power, l'etat c'est moi, as a foretaste of the self-legitimizing symmetry of the "Just Do It" media slogans of today (Conley 1988: viii), one discovers a "phantasmagoric," enchanted element to this notion of disciplinary power. It is in revealing this that I am drawn back to the military drill and to reimagining it in less secular terms than Foucault's notion of discipline seems to allow.

For soldiery, parade...



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