Saturday, 17 January 2009

Vale Patrick McGoohan

Like my colleagues here at Acheron I was very saddened to hear the news today of the passing of Patrick McGoohan. His work will live on, particularly the enthralling series The Prisoner that still retains its power 40 years after it was first transmitted. I concur with the sentiments expressed in the attached tribute by Steve Rose in today's Guardian in characterising this series as the "Citizen Kane of British TV."

Mhuthnance, you asked me to post [the above] on your behalf, but for some reason your blogger password didn't work, so forgive me if it looks like I'm hijacking your initiative. I notice as well that Simon Reynolds promptly tipped his hat to McGoohan's legacy too, so kudos to blissblog.

More generally speaking, the allegory of everyday life as prison has proven resurgent in contemporary social theory. Stanley Cohen is probably best known for his pioneering work on the "folk devil" paradigm, in relation to "media panic", but a later work concentrated on Escape Attempts. The later edition was subject to revision, in acknowledgement of critiques of the prior privileging of the rarefied transgressive experiences of white males.

Another representative work is Eyal Chowers' The Modern Self in the Labyrinth: Politics and the Entrapment Imagination, which was reviewed in Foucault Studies. It strikes me that a fascinating exercise would be attempting to test whether The Prisoner is somehow symptomatic of "the entrapment imagination".

Some might see the lack of easy narrative closure in the series as conflicting with such an interpretation. I can understand what The Official Companion means by the claim that if the final episode had simply provided all the answers about the purpose of the Village, in relation to McGoohan's character, The Prisoner might only have being remembered today for the big bouncing balls (making it a merely camp artifact). So although the show is reflexive, insofar as it leads the viewer to question their own motivations for wanting closure, by the same token, it is not unusual today to find this reflexivity portrayed by contemporary theorists as itself a ruse of power. For example, here is how Mark Featherstone describes the logic of deferred meaning in Vincenzo Natali's film Cube, in which a group of strangers inexplicably find themselves trapped in a gigantic punishment machine:

Moreover, as the group search for an escape from the Cube each of Natali's characters seems to play a functional part. With regard to the endless deferral of meaning, a machine that is constitutive of the search for reason, two characters are central. Quentin, a cop, the Law, is the figure who represents individual agency, his role is to both constrain and control the expenditure of desire, and assert the importance of the individual's place in the world. In contrast, Worth, the bureaucrat, stands for the dominance of structure, he represents the de-individualisation of the order of things and the dehumanisation of real being, the alien structure built onto nature. Regarding the tension implicit within this relation the following dialogue proves instructive:

Worth: "There is no conspiracy, nobody is in charge, it's a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master-plan, big-brother is not watching you. If this ever had a purpose then it got mis-communicated or lost in the shuffle, this is an accident, a forgotten perpetual public works project. You think anybody wants to ask questions? All they want is a clear conscience and a fat pay-cheque."

Quentin: "Why put people in it?"

Worth: "Because it's here, you have to use it or admit it's pointless."

Quentin: "But it is, it is pointless." Worth: "Quentin, that's my point."

Quentin: "You make me sick, Worth."

Worth: "I make me sick too, we're both part of the system. I drew a box, you walk a beat, it's like you said Quentin, keep your head down, keep it simple, just look at what's in front of you. I mean nobody wants to see the big picture, life's too complicated. Let's face it, the reason we're here is because it's out of control."

To my mind at least, the most provocative characteristic of The Prisoner is that it is impossible to tell which side of the reflexive boundary it "really" [sics] sits, which has done much to ensure its longevity, and indeed, its prescience. Perhaps Cube is still anticipated by The Prisoner though in the sense that it too problematises any notion of "everyday life", on account of the mediation of agency by sociotechnical networks (to back up this conceptual armoury, think too of Stephen Crook's critique of everydayness as "the minotaur...a mythological figure, pale and only half formed").

One of the more detailed attempts in recent times to map the logic of the "society of control" (supposedly replacing Foucault's "disciplinary society"), is Bulent Diken's The Culture of Exception: Sociology Facing the Camp.

I can clearly remember Peter Beilharz's critical review in Thesis Eleven, which targeted what he regarded as the book's hyperbole and cynical exaggeration. But these things tend to run in circles anyway: for what it's worth, I once posted something on Dancecult about speed and social theory, where I was basically revisiting some territory I'd covered in my thesis. The irony though was how in that case it had to do with Mark Featherstone taking Derrida to task for an [alleged] complicity in the ascendant logic of accelerationism. Hence I regard the recent attentiveness to this issue in the avant garde music meets Continental philosophy/cultural studies blogosphere as revisiting some familiar territory. The telling difference from Diken and Featherstone has to do with how these bloggers are not inclined to reference either sociology or social theory per se.

In any case, evidently the power of The Prisoner remains undiminished, so Mhuthnance I'm just trying to back up your enthusiasm here. My only other thought, with specific reference to sci fi, is that it might be worthwhile to treat J.G. Ballard as a fellow traveller, with respect to his popularisation of "the entrapment imagination" (but I won't begin to comment here on the Kubrickian references described also in the aforementioned Official Companion, although I think the entrapment label is justified in that case as well). For the moment I'm leaving it as a moot point whether or not the entrapment imagination was originally sociologically inspired, in the manner claimed by Chower's book, before taking a divergent (and, according to same sociological readers, critically flawed) path through Foucault et al.

Notwithstanding these potentially important differences, there may be enough continuity remaining to see even descriptions of the postmodernization of the social as touching on aspects of entrapment. This is worth thinking about as Soja describes in this clip the spatial logic behind Los Angeles' Westin Bonaventure Hotel (which will be immediately recognisable to readers of Fred Jameson). In a similar vein, with specific reference to Ballard and architecture, is this piece on

1 comment:

L. Clarke said...

G,day I love the whole sci-fi genre, I have written a book called Doom Of The Shem. It has a whole section devoted to escape from a species of invading aliens from a food processing centre. The humanoids are firstly captured using electro-magnetic brain tampering equipment and then processed into either food packages which contain an added plastic toy for sale out of their empires fast food outlets. Or else the victims are genetically tampered with to transfer their bodies and minds into a slave species used to run the food processing system.
The novel is called Doom Of The Shem.