Sep 13, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #1: Kathleen Biddick

Post-lecture, still in an abstracted awed daze and without any notion of how to structure this article, I failed to snag the speaker for an interview. The following is the product of a late-night email exchange between her and I, to which she responded with adroit speed and enthusiasm. This interview is intended for students who either attended the lecture or are in B.A. Proseminar (or have otherwise read of Biddick’s theories before), because it would take far too long to explain the terms and context of her talk otherwise.
Kathleen Biddick starts her email (and in effect, this interview) with a word of caution: “It is late at night. I left Great Barrington at 6:30 am and I have taught from 2 pm -10 pm this evening... So I might not be making sense, I am sure you know this feeling. But here goes.”

LL: What, in your opinion, is the effectiveness of the panopticon structure in terms of creating a sustainable and effective system in which people become constructions of spectacles of abandonment? What are the logistics of this system of incarceration? Does the Inspector have to be ever-vigilant, living in the Center Eye? By sustainable, I mean how stable is this prison structure to stay functioning as it is designed to for an indefinitely prolonged period of time (or, as long as the prison sentence lasts)?

KB: You get at the heart of the LURE of the panopticon.... of course, the INSPECTOR is not always gazing and in-scripting the archive of the deadtime of the prisoners. The frightening genius of the panopticon as articulated by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1780's is this: the Panopticon is an illusionist machine. The Panopticon only needs to instill the fantasy that the inspector "might" be there, "might" be inscripting-- recording 24/7 that illusion is what forges the "panopticon loop" This loop is about desire, power, knowledge and the discipline of that loop. Yes, the panopticon was/is a highly effective system that is sustainable only in that feeds off spectacles of abandonment. For me the question is: how is the panopticon a ZOMBIE feeder and what does zombiedom have to with sustainability?

LL: Is the spectacle of abandonment something that people want to see, or is it a spectacle meant solely for the Inspector involved?

KB: Wonderful question: this is a paradox of the panopticon... The spectacle of abandonment  is an OPEN SECRET (it takes place behind prison walls, detention center walls, security walls, refugee camp perimeters, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Grhraib. under highway overpasses, in the rural mobile home)... and that is the perverse pleasure of the spectacle of abandonment. The consumers of spectacle know that it is taking place... they don't even have to go see it. That being said, in Victorian England (19th century) panoptical-style prisons were open to invited reforming elite for guided tours, so that they could observe the "good work" of the new penal discipline… so, the spectacle of abandonment as a guided tour for donors.

LL: You said that the video installation at Mountjoy enabled dead time and events to merge for a single moment -- just a moment, and then it was gone. Did you find that the work was rewarding for that one moment, as fleeting as it was? This is not to disparage the value of your work at all, I'm just curious about your emotional reaction to all of this.

KB: This is a very beautiful question. Let's pause and think about the word “fleeting”, which is so acoustically and semantically rich (lovely to trip off the tongue). In the long-dead language of the Anglo-Saxons (who wrote in England from the 6th-12th centuries CE), the word “fleet” signified their meaning for floating. I want to use this rich temporal version of fleeting/floating to describe the Mountjoy Project. At one moment, many disparate human "ecologies" (prisons, public, fellowships, reformers, rock stars) floated together. Is floating fleeting? Perhaps we need to think of the possibilities of fleeting floating, which is slightly different from fleeting. To be continued on this suggestion. And there were many poets among the students I encountered. So have a newspaper poetic clash: Fleeting/floating and all its permutations...what a fun way to think about some of the strands of my talk.

LL: What are some differences that you have found between working with prisoners and working with college students in your academic work?

KB: Clelia, you pose a KEY question about teaching and I can only beg you, no matter what your area of passionate intellectual and artistic interest might be, that you "teach" it somehow, sooner rather than later. What can I say: at our Proseminar at Simon's Rock with faculty and students engaged in passionate critical inquiry, was my very same working assumption when I very shyly met for the first time the prisoners who had volunteered to join my proposed project, as well as the prison guards who were chosen by the powers that be to supervise the prisoners in the project. Yes, there were dramatic differences in reading and writing skills between my friends in the Simon's Rock Proseminar and the the Mountjoy prisoners. But as for "critical inquiry", the method was the same, because, critical inquiry is an engagement with the world that can carry on profoundly without conventional ABC's, but such critical inquiry also shapes a further engagement for "literate" critique. One of the Dublin prisoner-team, now ex-prisoner, is pursuing what we would call in the US, "community college courses" and we correspond by e-mail about his work....So our episodic correspondence also problematizes what and how “CELL” was/is fleeting.

KB: May I humbly suggest that you forgot one question? May I pose it for you?

            Yes, Kathleen Biddick. Yes you may.

KB: How do new things come into the world? How do they come to Simon's Rock? Here my answer would be: My home Temple University in Philadelphia is very poor right now. The Governor of Pennsylvania cut the higher education to only 19% of annual funding. We have a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, and a freeze on hosting scholars at Temple. In other words, if we would like to invite Professor A. Abbas or Anne O'Dwyer to speak to us there would be no funding for their travel or a modest speaking fee. You students at Simon's Rock, I hope will understand, the incredible gift of your administration, and the intellectual outreach of Prof. Abbas, who invited me to speak. I was so honored to receive the invitation to Simon's Rock from such a brilliant and engaged scholar as Prof Abbas. I remain deeply grateful to your intellectual hospitality for all that makes such a visit possible: Administration, Faculty, Staff, Students. 

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