FROM SPECTACLE TO SURVEILLANCE - A FOULCAULTIAN READING
OF JOHN UPDIKE'S THE COUP
Roberto Carlos de Andrade
Universidade Federal de Roraima
This essay proposes an analysis on John Updike's The Coup under the light of some concepts developed by Michel Foucault on Discipline and Punish, especially the shift from a "primitive" regime to a more humane modern regime, based mainly upon surveillance.
Este ensaio propõe uma análise de The Coup de John Updike sob os conceitos desenvolvidos por Michel Foucault em Discipline and Punish, especialmente no que concerne uma mudança de um regime `primitivo' para um regime moderno e mais humano, baseado, principalmente, na surveillance
There is in John Updike's The Coup a strong relation to some basic concepts discussed by Michel Foucault in some of his writings, especially in Discipline and Punish. Kush, the fictitious African country created by Updike, is emblematic of a shift detected more generally by Foucault from a primitive regime, a regime in which the spectacle is the most important, to a modern regime, in which ever more profound intervention in all the details and all the relations of social life (Foucault, 1991: 216-7) is the rule. The controlling mechanisms, or the panopticon applied to the observation of human behavior, are present in the power relations that appear between Hakim Félix Ellelloû, the President of Kush, and Michaelis Ezana, the Ministry of the Interior. Ellelloû, after putting an end to the spectacle age represented by the King Edumu, tries to maintain his power by moving in the shadows in order to investigate, mostly in disguise. But Ezana, representing the modern age of surveillance, is able to perceive and to manipulate every gesture by Ellelloû.
One of the aspects which enables us to see The Coup under the light of Foucault's writings is the presence of torture and of the spectacle, basically represented by the decapitation of the king. These are elements that connect Kush to a more primitive state, a state governed by the spectacle. The first woman to appear in the novel is Kutunda, a nomad that Ellelloû takes for his lover. This woman at first represents all the primitive aspects found in Kush; the very fact of Kutunda being a nomad is an important sign of her inappropriateness within a new regime, since as Foucault points out, discipline fixes; ... it dissipates groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways (Foucault, 1991:219). Kutunda's description of the torture that she suggests to Ellelloû is very close to some of Foucault's own descriptions: Have you tortured the king...? ...a reasonable precaution would be to slice off the old king's hands.... Cut off his testicles... Tear out his eyes and stuff them up his rectum... Dismember the king; tie his limbs to four stallions and give them the whip. His shrieks will dislodge the atom of evil and happiness will descend' (Updike, 1978:63-64).
Foucault describes the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle (Foucault, 1991: 8) as one of the main changes brought about by a new age in the penal justice: a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared (Foucault, 1991: 8). For him,
[t]he modern rituals of execution attest to this double process: the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain. The same movement has affected the various European legal systems, each at its own rate: the same death for all--the execution no longer bears the specific mark of the crime or the social status of the criminal; a death that lasts only a moment--no torture must be added to it in advance, no further actions performed upon the corpse; an execution that affects life rather than the body (Foucault, 1991:11-12).
Although the king's execution in The Coup can be seen as a ritual to bring rain, there is also a punishing element in it, since it represents the end of an exploitive regime. According to Foucault, the public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial, but also as a political ritual (Foucault, 1991: 47); Foucault's statement that [t]he public execution did not re-establish justice; it reactivated power can be applied to Updike's novel in the sense that the king's public execution enables Ellelloû to show who holds power now. The image of the king is completely diminished in the public's eyes, since there is a total inversion going on; the king is one and the same with the condemned man, and these two characters are, according to Foucault, the two extremes of the power game: the king's body is the physical yet intangible support of the kingdom.... At the opposite pole one might imagine placing the body of the condemned man; ...[due to] the `lack of power' with which those subjected to punishment are marked... the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king (Foucault, 1991: 28-9). Thus, we can see that whereas in the age of the spectacle any threat to the body of the king would be a source of punishment, in Updike's novel it is the king himself who endures punishment, as if to symbolize the total end of that age.
Another aspect that shows Ellelloû as an element of transition between the spectacle and the more humane society is the use of the guillotine to execute the king; the narrator--Ellelloû himself--even ironically describes the coming of the guillotine to his country: Think of the blade of that guillotine, wrapped in straw and burlap to protect its edge... as the pack-camel swayed on its ways as it brought humanitarian murder to this remotest and least profitable heart of Africa (Updike, 1978: 83). For Foucault, the guillotine... was the perfect vehicle for these [more humane] principles. Death was reduced to a visible, but instantaneous event (Foucault, 1991:13).
Before the king's execution and Kutunda's gloomy description of torture, we can consider the sacrifice of the American official agent Donald Gibbs as an example of the spectacle, here directly linked to the rejection of capitalism: The people of Kush reject capitalist intervention in all its guises. They have no place in their stomachs for the table scraps of a society both godless and oppressive (Updike, 1978: 51). The ironical tinge becomes subtly present because the reader has a feeling that by contrasting the spectacle of a primitive society with the beneficial help that the American government always tries to give to third world countries, Updike is in fact calling our attention to the danger of the infiltration of American ideology, or hegemonic ideology, into completely different cultures. What happens is that American help, most of the times, is not only useless, but it is used as a way of infiltrating American or Western ideology in order to impose a Western way of life. The novel already starts with the scene of the American agent uselessly trying to help the Kushites by piling up boxes of food on the country border. In Ellelloû's mind, there seems to be a hidden interest in the American helping other nations: In the lands of our oppressors the fat millions have forgotten how to live and look to the world's forsaken to remind them (Updike, 1978: 28). And Ellelloû knows perfectly well that the kind of food the American government has sent is not fit for the reality of Kush: you have favored its [Zanj's] suffering citizens with tons of number two sorghum, a coarse grain grown for cattle fodder, which gives its human consumer violent diarrhea (Updike, 1978: 51); when the agent shouts, `...here you go... Carnation... add three parts water', Ellelloû answers, `But we have no water!' (Updike, 1978: 53). While trying to describe the American influence on Ezana's mind, the President says, These people are pirates. Without the use of a single soldier their economy sucks wealth from the world, in the service of a rapacious, wholly trivial and wasteful consumerism (Updike, 1978: 127). Here, we already have the idea of surveillance, as used by a highly modern society--American--as a means to achieve the domination over less-privileged countries.
We have a hint of the American version of their help to other nations when Ezana is trying to negotiate with Klipspringer, the American diplomat sent to deal with the problem of Gibbs' death; Ezana talks about an African humanism, to which the American answers,
We want to help you become yourselves. A settled identity is the foundation of freedom. A nation hates America because it hates itself. A progressive, thriving nation, whatever its racial balance and political persuasion, loves America because... America is downright lovable. America loves all peoples and wants them to be happy, because America loves happiness' (Updike, 1978: 248-9).
Almost by the end of the novel, Ellelloû still argues with a transformed Kutunda--who even wears blue lenses--about the American presence:
'Where their libraries come, Coca-Cola follows; as our thirst for Coca-Cola grows, our well of debt deepens and the circle of sky above...is filled with Klipspringer's smile. The oil revenues will bring you dollars good for nothing but to buy what the makers of dollars also make' (Updike, 1978: 301).
The problem is that Ellelloû and Ezana see the American infiltration through completely different perspectives, and crucial to the whole novel is the conflicting relation between these two characters. Ellelloû, besides being against American influence, seems to be concerned only with disturbing the superpowers:
'The rich blocs each have client states whose prosperity is of more strategic moment than ours. Our place at the table will be the nethermost chair; let us remain standing, and at least trouble the conscience of the feast' (Updike, 1978: 69).
Ezana's point of view is in radical opposition to Ellelloû's:
'There is no way a nation cannot live in the world. A man, yes, can withdraw into sainthood; but a nation of its very collective essence strives to prosper' (Updike, 1978: 69).
To another statement by Ellelloû:
'Defiance is our safest as well as noblest policy'--Ezana answers, `Even your shy friends the Soviets... are not exempt from American influence, now that the unspoken standoff has been translated into détente' (Updike, 1978:127).
The ideological conflict between the two main characters in the novel develops into a hidden attempt from Ezana to depose Ellelloû from his powerful position, and although Ellelloû is aware of Ezana's tricks, he seems to be unable to fight them because of his radical ideas against America or any other nation that tries to inflict its ideology upon Kush:
Michaelis Ezana... has set up a talking head in the Bad Quarter to discredit my regime... Ezana manipulates the body.... He admired the French, he admires the polluting Americans and their new running dogs the Chinese.... He hired Russian double agents to impersonate Tuareg, so I would become confused (Updike, 1978:109-110).
The contrast between Ellelloû and Ezana is one step further from the contrast between Ellelloû and the king. Ellelloû is caught between the other two: the king, as we have already seen, represents a more openly exploitive regime, while Ezana represents a modern regime based on discipline and surveillance. Foucault points out that [the] dysfunction of power was related to a central excess: what might be called the monarchical `super-power' (Foucault, 1991: 80). Thus, what we see in The Coup is a readjustment of the super-power, once concentrated upon a single person--the king, --to a number of persons responsible for a new distribution of power, a
better distribution, so that it should be neither too concentrated at certain privileged points, nor too divided between opposing authorities; so that it should be distributed in homogeneous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body (Foucault, 1991: 80).
The king's execution represents the shift detected by Foucault in relation to punishment: the right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defence of society (Foucault, 1991:90). Ezana, on the other hand, represents an even more radical shift; as we have in Foucault, from a certain point in time--the 18th century--on, with a new penal system, we had the rise of a
modern soul which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint (Foucault, 1991: 29).
In this new shape of things,
power is exercised rather than possessed; it is not the `privilege', acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions--an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated (Foucault, 1991: 26-7).
The subjection of the body to this new network of relations is, according to Foucault,
not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical...and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organized, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror.... (Foucault, 1991:26); against force, another force, but it must be the force of sensibility and passion, not of armed power (Foucault, 1991:106).
Hence the distinction between the way Ellelloû exerts power, always reacting violently against things he does not agree with, and always supported by armed bodyguards, and the way Ezana plays the game of power, manipulating discourses so as to achieve his aims.
Simultaneous to the shift in the way punishment is used by different regimes, Foucault detects a
general change of attitude... an effort to adjust the mechanisms of power that frame the everyday lives of individuals; an adaptation and a refinement of the machinery that assumes responsibility for and places under surveillance their everyday behaviour, their identity, their activity, their apparently unimportant gestures.... (Foucault, 1991:77); [r]ather than imitate the old system... and be `more severe, one must be more vigilant'.... the machinery of justice must be duplicated by an organ of surveillance (Foucault, 1991:96).
From this more juridical concern, surveillance gradually spreads through society, becoming more and more important because of the growth of capitalist regimes:
Surveillance thus becomes a decisive economic operator both as an internal part of the production machinery and as a specific mechanism in the disciplinary power. `The work of directing, superintending and adjusting becomes one of the functions of capital...' (Foucault, 1991:175).
And it eventually takes on a physical representation: Bentham's Panopticon; Foucault now and then emphasizes the social repercussions of the Panopticon:
The Panopticon... must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.... the panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form... (Foucault, 1991:205); The panoptic schema... was destined to spread throughout the social body.... Panopticism is the general principle of a new `political anatomy' whose object and end are not the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline (Foucault, 1991:207-8).
Ezana seems to have learned very well from Foucault's words about surveillance. His connection to progress definitely links him to this fundamental concept in Foucault. When describing how Ezana manages to flee from his cell and get to his office, the narrator says,
Ellelloû, however far away, would feel the nation rumble under his feet, the gears of progress re-engaged.... Already Ezana was beginning to feel snug, nestled back into place and reconnected to the power terminals (Updike, 1978:184).
To Ellelloû's question, `What has electricity brought us... but godlessness and even more dependence...?', Ezana answers, `Without the mercy of electricity... we would be deprived of communications such as this' (Updike, 1978:98), referring to a cable from American government talking about Gibb's death; for Foucault, the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge... (Foucault, 1991:217).
Surveillance is, in fact, pervasive through Updike's novel, and most of the time Ezana is involved in its manifestations. In the beginning of the novel, before the king's execution, the first-person narrator says, At a glance I saw in him a police officer, and knew that my conversation with the king would be reported in full to Michaelis Ezana.... (Updike, 1978:25). Kush, poor and insignificant as it might appear, is directly connected to the Kremlin:
Once during the night the telephone...rang.... Through the long tunnel of silence I seemed to see into the center of the Kremlin.... One's impression could only be of a power immensely timorous, a behemoth frightened of even such gaunt black mice as we poor citizens of Kush (Updike, 1978:37).
Still in regard to communication, one is reminded of the surveilling power of the satellites when Ellelloû asks Gibbs, 'Who was it... who informed you of this supposed neediness?' and the American answers, `These cats are starving. The whole world knows it, you can see 'em starve on the six o'clock news every night' (Updike, 1978:50); 'The air of Kush is transparent, there are no secrets, only reticences' (Updike, 1978:67). Surveillance, in the book, seems to be intricately connected with capitalism, with the circulation of money, which 'exists above us in a fluid aurosphere, that mixes with the atmosphere, the stratosphere, and the ionosphere, blanketing us all with its invisible circulations' (Updike, 1978:100); as always, Ellelloû is against this new importance given to money: 'A barefoot man is not poor until he sees others wearing shoes. Then he feels shame. Shame is the name of it. Shame is being smuggled into Kush' (Updike, 1978:109). When Klipspringer talks to Ezana, he emphasizes the importance of trading: 'You guys were taking an incredible risk, not owing us a thing all those years' (Updike, 1978:284).
Concerning yet another cunning manipulation of surveillance by Ezana, we have the episode of the king's talking head. Ezana knows exactly what he is doing; in order to catch Ellelloû in a trap, he uses a place where surveillance is not yet conspicuous:
'the king's head, magically joined to its spiritual body, talks prophecies from a cave deep in the mountains. (...) Where not even the National Geographic has been' (Updike, 1978:102).
Besides, through the use of spies, Ezana is able to know where Ellelloû goes and so he can manipulate the information concerning the president's trips and whereabouts, as Ellelloû reads on page two of the daily Rift Report:
The Government today acknowledged official fears that Colonel Ellelloû, Chairman of SCRME, while seeking to negotiate the phasing-out of Soviet Russian missile sites within the Hulul Depression, has been abducted by leftward-leaning terrorists.
So the ground for his official extinction was being prepared (Updike, 1978:281)
As we can see, Ezana not only represents, but he is extremely involved in the mechanisms of surveillance developed by new capitalist regimes after the 18th century. And he uses these mechanisms as a way to depose the president and take his place, thus providing his fellow Kushites, in his view, with a better, more thriving way of life. The transformation of the citizens of Kush is already felt in the inhabitants of "Ellelloû", a very modern industrial town secretly built by Ezana on the interior of the country, where people wear cowboy hats and blue jeans, chew bubble gum, and go to a MacDonald's (Updike, 1978:252), in a clear attempt to copy American way of life; this means that along with American customs and behavior, the Kushites are being inundated with one of the aspects capable of maintaining modern societies working--surveillance. So, the shift from the more ancient, exploitive regime of King Edumu to the modern regime of surveillance is complete. Ellelloû, though being representative of a more humane regime, must also be subjugated by the official discourse, the official history, because he poses a minor threat to the hegemony of the powers that be. Thus, Ellelloû, by telling his story, becomes the representative of a counter-history, as Foucault calls it in Genealogia del Racismo,
la contrahistoria que... hablará justamente de parte de la sombra, a partir de esta sombra. Será el discurso de los que no poseen la gloria o--habiéndolo perdido--se encuentram ahora en la oscuridad y en el silencio (Foucault, s.d.:79).
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Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish (The Birth of the Prison). Penguin Books. 1991.
_____________ . Genealogia del Racismo (De la guerra de las razas al racismo de
Estado). Las Ediciones de La Piqueta.
Markle, Joyce B. Fighters and Lovers - Theme in the Novels of John Updike. New York
University Press. New York. 1973.
Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. Twayne Publishers. New York. 1998.
Updike, John. The Coup. Fawcett Crest & Knopf, New York. 1978.
Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. New York. 1980.
Roberto Carlos de Andrade é Professor Assistente II da Universidade Federal de Roraima - UFRR - liberado provisoriamente para realização do curso de doutoramento. em Inglês e Literatura Correspondente pela Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina - UFSC - Florianópolis - SC.
Endereço Particular: Avenida Ivo Silveira, 130 (Bairro: Estreito)
Florianópolis - SC - CEP.: 88 085 - 000
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