Romanticism and Biopolitics
"What is Poetry in the Theater of Biopolitics?"
1. The famous distinction John Stuart Mill makes in his 1833 essay, "What is Poetry?" —between eloquence as "heard" and poetry as "overheard"—is subtended by a theatrical metaphor whereby the young political philosopher attempts to reimagine, in aesthetic terms, the organization of the nation. In making the distinction, Mill contrasts two ways of speaking correlative to two interlinked models of theatricality: in "nations" that excel at eloquence, the citizen as actor-spectator addresses himself to the "feelings of others" on whom he depends for "applause," "sympathy," and "concurrence"; in "nations" that excel at poetry, the citizen turns away from directly addressing the audience of his fellows to cultivate in solitude the expression of private feelings the utterance of which constitutes its own end (110). Mill compares the latter to “soliloquy,” with poetry in print being “a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage” (109). Poetry, in this formulation, does not simply consist of an anti-theatrical turn away from the public realm of eloquent discourse but, paradoxically, inhabits and participates obliquely in this realm.
2. "What is Poetry?" may be said to adumbrate a theater of poetic citizenship. Mill imagines citizens as actors and spectators who perceive and become perceptible to one another as participants in public, communal life, but he qualifies his conception of the citizen as an actor-spectator with a conception of this citizen as an invisible speaker and eavesdropper. The present essay aims to reconsider Mill’s political theatrical imagination in the context of the genealogy of modern biopolitics and in relation to its two main influences–the panopticist theater of Benthamite utilitarianism that Mill inherits and attempts to revise, and the Wordsworthian strategy he adapts to formulate this revision.
3. In a series of letters written in 1787, Bentham presented his design of the Panopticon, or The Inspection-House. An architectural proposal aimed at the construction of penitentiaries, this design applied also to workhouses, madhouses, hospitals, factories, and schools. The paradigmatic building would be circular, with an inspector’s lodge at the center. Between the center and the circumference would be vacant space. Around the circumference would be distributed the solitary cells of prisoners, workers, or inmates, each divided from the other “by partitions in the form of radii issuing from the circumference towards the centre” (40). The principal advantage of this plan, according to Bentham, is the “apparent omnipresence of the inspector...combined with the extreme facility of his real presence”; and a collateral advantage is “on the score of frugality,” for the schema would require a minimum number of inspectors and administrators to function (45). Bentham praises the elegance and efficiency of his own design in the Preface: “Morals reformed–health preserved–industry invigorated–instruction diffused–public burthens lightened–Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock” (30). The panopticon, for Bentham, promotes the betterment of the community insofar as it offers a greater number of members of the community the power to augment their happiness.
4. As Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish, the panopticon is exemplary among the instruments and techniques invented in the eighteenth century that accompanied the formation of a new disciplinary society that wields power over subjects through relations of discipline rather than, as in the previous era, relations of sovereignty. This new society organized, categorized, and systematically produced subjects through such disciplinary institutions as factories, schools, clinics, barracks, and prisons. Subsequently, in his 1977-8 lectures, Security, Territory, Population, Foucault would turn his attention from the emergence and operations of disciplinary institutions per se to the concept of “population” that in the late eighteenth century made possible what he calls a new “governmentality.” Linked with the spread of disciplinary institutions, the concept of “population” subjected human beings to mathematization and made them the objects of statistical calculability. “Population” functions as the basis for the development of techniques, e.g., the Census in Britain, first taken in 1801, whereby government undertakes to administer and regulate the very biological existence of its citizens. The new governmentality, according to Foucault, is a bio-governmentality.
5. In his 1978-9 lectures, The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault advances the further claim that liberalism serves as the very framework of this new bio-governmentality. Treating liberalism, construed as essentially capitalist, as a development continuous with utilitarianism, Foucault discerns as the “fundamental question of liberalism” the following: “What is the utility value of government and all actions of government in a society where exchange determines the true value of things?” (46). The new governmentality is oriented by the privileging of the market as site of “veridiction,” or the determination of value, and hence source of criteria for judgment. This new governmentality is “frugal”: government is to be limited and evaluated according to the utility and efficiency with which it administers to the needs of a population. According to this model, the task of government is to take care of the necessities of life as if they belonged to a sphere separate and distinct from the realm of freedom, which would be located beyond governmental jurisdiction in the private sector. Where government ends, freedom begins. In accordance with the logic of the market cycle, this liberalist freedom is, for Foucault, a freedom to consume. “The new governmental reason needs freedom, therefore, the new art of government consumes freedom,” writes Foucault, “It consumes freedom, which means that it must produce it...The formula of liberalism is not ‘be free.’ Liberalism formulates simply the following: I am going to produce what you need to be free. I am going to see to it that you are free to be free” (63). Liberalism concerns itself, then, with the delimitation of government according to the usefulness and efficiency of the latter’s institutions and practices in securing freedom as promise and end of government.
6. This liberalist delimitation presents a reconfiguration of what Arendt describes in The Human Condition as the classical relationship between the polis and the oikos or household in ancient Greece. “The realm of the polis,” she writes, “was the sphere of freedom,” while the household was the site where the necessities of life were taken care of as the “condition for freedom of the polis...What all Greek philosophers...took for granted is that freedom is exclusively located in the political realm, that necessity is primarily a prepolitical phenomenon, characteristic of the private household organization” (30-1). In modern liberalism, government assumes the tasks of the oikos, extending its activity or power into areas of life previously deemed pre- or non-political. No longer the sphere of freedom, the polis loses its hierarchical privilege and becomes conflated with the household to serve the function of making its subjects, in Foucault’s formulation, “free to be free”–to exercise such freedoms as “freedom of the market, freedom to buy and sell, the free exercise of property rights, freedom of discussion, possible freedom of expression, and so on” (63).
7. The market, in Foucault’s analysis, emerged as the privileged site that governs and gives value to public, communal life. The conflation of the polis and the oikos subordinates both to the market insofar as it serves to produce and uphold the conditions for freedom as, specifically, the freedom to participate in activities related to exchange and consumption. Liberalism, as the framework of bio-governmentality, enables the citizen to be free to act and to appear in the market as paradigmatic public space that has displaced the position of the polis in ancient Greece. This public space is not political in the classical sense but rather apolitical or even anti-political. In Arendtian terms, it corresponds rather to the category of the social, insofar as “[s]ociety is the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public” (46).
8. Benthamite panopticism serves as an instrument of the liberalist utilitarian framework of bio-governmentality by operating at the nexus of the governmental and the social. It functions as an instrument of government and caters to the needs of a population by organizing, regulating, and maximizing the efficiency of such disciplinary institutions. And it performs the function of producing and regulating the conditions for subjects to appear to each other in public, managing the terms of perceptibility whereby subjects may exercise their freedom to participate in the activities of exchange and consumption and derive value from such activity. Benthamite panopticism is the principle in the eighteenth century behind a bio-political dramaturgy of public, communal life.
9. In her invigorating reconsideration of utilitarianism and pornography as parallel eighteenth-century developments, Frances Ferguson argues that the achievement of Benthamite utilitarianism was to move politics away from the traditional emphasis on individual beliefs, identities, and essences to the discussion of the social value of actions that acquire significance and exert effects within a relativizing system. In contrast to Rousseau’s notion of the social contract, which “could not be connected with a sensible meaning,” Bentham’s experiments with social structures, Ferguson argues, were “an effort to replace a metaphysical account of the general will with a physical account of how the preferences of a group might visit themselves on individuals” (15). Benthamite social structures–the classroom, the workhouse, and the prison–correlate individuals with the groups in which they temporarily participate. The actions of individuals are evaluated in relation to the group, and the possibility of new actions likewise arises in relation to the actions of one’s group or another contiguous to it. What makes the system work is the high degree of perceptibility it relies on. Benthamite panopticism serves to engineer “an array of systematic social practices that have made it possible for us to evaluate individuals by making their actions look as though they could plausibly be described in terms of their perceptibility and value in public” (xv). It serves to “give social groups the means to make themselves felt by individuals. Such representations...must present the artificial reason that they embody in strongly perceptible terms. They must promulgate order–but, more, visible order. They must create perceptibility for purely social productions–hierarchy, rank order, and social evaluation” (15).
10. For Ferguson, Benthamite utilitarianism reconstituted public, communal life by organizing individuals into highly perceptible social groups within which they may move vertically and between which they may move laterally, e.g., from school to hospital, in accordance with procedures of evaluation. This reconstitution of public, communal life is egalitarian insofar as it gives a greater number of individuals social mobility and the freedom to act and appear to others in ways that are no longer determined by birth or rank. If the polis was in ancient Greece the sphere of freedom, it functioned as such for the few, whose freedom was supported by the labor and work of women and slaves, who administered to the necessities of life in the private realm of the household. The conflation of the polis and the oikos in liberal utilitarianism achieves the result of allowing the entry of the many into public, communal life. This articulation of public, communal life is constrained, however, by the fluctuating criteria of the market as site of a bio-politically promised and produced freedom. Ferguson’s interpretation of Benthamite utilitarianism underlines how much we remain shaped by and inscribed within its legacy, and how the critical effort to go beyond the version of freedom it promises and produces must reckon with and acknowledge its structuring efficacy.
11. The scaffolding of panopticism is evident throughout texts by John Stuart Mill, who bears the distinction of having been pre-eminent proponent, symptomatic subject, and revisionist critic of liberal utilitarianism. Trained by his father from early childhood to become a “Benthamite reasoning machine,” Mill was caught and inscribed like none other within the framework of utilitarian social engineering (111). He gives an account of this formation in his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1873, as well as of his effort to exceed its limitations via an emphasis on poetry as “not only on a par with, but the necessary condition of, any true and comprehensive Philosophy” (131). I would like to revisit this account before turning to passages from "What is Poetry?" and the 1859 essay On Liberty to examine more closely Mill’s interrogation of the limits of bio-political subject formation.
12. Mill’s Autobiography, as many readers have noted, is a strangely reserved and impersonal text. In a tone at odds with expectations concerning the genre, Mill writes in the prologue: “I do not for a moment imagine that any part of what I have to relate, can be interesting to the public as a narrative, or as being connected with myself” (6). He announces, rather, that he has written the text as the story of an education. His insistent aim is to portray himself as a lifelong student, his mind “equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others” (25). Mill addresses his readers insofar as they may be interested in the topic of education in an age in which “education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period of English history” (25). He alludes here to mid-century debates about national education in England, which led up to the 1870 Education Act, presenting his story in the context of these debates to justify its usefulness and interest to the reading public.
13. In its narrative structure, the Autobiography follows in the tradition of spiritual autobiography to take the shape of a conversion narrative. The first four chapters tell of Mill’s childhood and early education, and his self-education as a youth; they are dominated by the figure of his father, James Mill, as his formative, initiatory teacher. Chapter V, "A Crisis in my Mental History," occupies a pivotal position in the text and relates “the important transformation in [his] opinions and character” that took place when Mill was in his early 20s. Mill recounts falling into a serious depression, and being aided in his recovery by Wordsworth’s poems, which offered “a medicine for my state of mind” and would form “the occasion of my first public declaration of my new way of thinking” (121-2). In the last two chapters, Mill introduces Harriet Taylor Mill, his wife, as the second of his two most important teachers. From her he would learn, through the mode of conversation, in a substantially different style than from his father. In between , Wordsworth’s poetry appears to have effected a break and transition: the reading of Wordsworth made possible for Mill a displacement of his father’s model of education and authority.
14. Bentham’s oldest collaborator, James Mill was also a close associate of Ricardo and Malthus in the circles of philosophical radicalism. His reformist agenda manifested itself in his own household as an experiment to educate his eldest son in accordance with his idea of a reformer–to the effect that John Stuart Mill recalls having in his youth the reputation of being a “‘made’ or manufactured man” (126). Mill was immersed in an intense curriculum that involved beginning Greek at age three, reading the whole of Herodotus, the first six dialogues of Plato, among numerous other texts, before age eight, when he began studying Latin and advancing, in another area, from arithmetic to Euclid and algebra. In his account of his childhood, Mill notably does not mention his mother and refers to his younger siblings only insofar as he was delegated the responsibility, at age eight, to begin tutoring them in their studies. He was isolated from other boys because his father, as he recollects, was “earnestly bent upon my escaping not only the ordinary corrupting influence which boys exercise over boys, but the contagion of vulgar modes of thought and feeling” (47). The education was unusual and remarkable on several counts: the early age of Mill’s initiation into various courses of study, the sheer voluminousness of what was prescribed for him, his isolation from others, and the totalizing rigor of his analytical training.
15. The Mill household resembles in Mill’s description a micro-panopticist institution, with his father occupying the central position of the inspector. Mill recalls the ubiquitous presence of his father, noting how he himself “went through the whole process of preparing my Greek lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing” (28). Even on morning walks with his father, Mill would have no break from his schedule of study but give reports of what he had read the day before. Besides being constantly monitored, he was called upon to oversee his siblings by teaching them when he reached the age of eight; and his siblings were asked subsequently to repeat the lessons to their father as part of a two-tier evaluation process. “It was a part which I greatly disliked,” he admits, “the more so, as I was held responsible for the lessons of my pupils, in almost as full a sense as my own” (30-1). In relation to his father as chief inspector, Mill was assigned the part of a subordinate. The household functioned as a site contiguous with and structurally similar to social institutions and served as a preparatory space that mediated Mill’s entry into public, communal life.
16. This strenuous pedagogical program launched Mill on a precocious career as a public advocate of utilitarianism. Writing for newspapers and organizing the Utilitarian Society before age twenty, Mill thought he had before him “an object in life”–“to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object” (111). He recollects, however, finding one day in the autumn of 1826 the insubstantiality of this conception of happiness: “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down...I seemed to have nothing left to live for” (112).
17. In the wake of this crisis, he found relief in reading Marmontel and Byron but singles out, above all, Wordsworth’s poetry–especially Poems 1815–as essential to his recovery. In describing his reading of Wordsworth, Mill uses the language of didacticism, remarking that “Wordsworth taught me this” (121) and writing about “the way in which he was now teaching me to find it” (121). He accounts for the therapeutic efficacy of Wordsworth’s poetry by pointing to the poet’s description of rural objects and natural scenery, in which he himself was also wont to take pleasure. But, more importantly, Wordsworth’s poems do not just express “mere outward beauty” but “states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (121). Expressivism is not, however, the final criterion for Mill’s judgment of the poetry’s therapeutic power, for “poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did” (121). What Mill claims he learns from none other than Wordsworth is that “there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings” (121).
18. The summation of Wordsworth’s lesson Mill finds in the "Immortality Ode," in which “I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it” (122). Mill accentuates here the parallelism of experience between himself and Wordsworth, who in a similar mood had asked, “whither is fled the visionary gleam?,” and who Mill sees as “teaching” the reader “now” a means of restoration. In Wordsworth he claims to have found a fellow and a teacher whose poetic lesson relieves him from the effects of his utilitarian formation. His narrative dates back to this period a turn in which the “cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed,” and from which he would re-enter and seek to re-articulate the terms and conditions governing public, communal life (147).
19. Mill writes of his fellowship with Wordsworth in an autobiographical text that shows obvious structural affinity with the latter’s poems of crisis and restoration, including the "Immortality Ode" and, in book length, the 1850 Prelude. Significantly, Wordsworth’s narratives of crisis and restoration do not simply parallel Mill’s story but, indeed, inhabit it as that which mediates Mill’s restoration. Mill’s account of reading Wordsworth reverberates passim with Wordsworthian formulations. His description of Wordsworth’s poems as expressions of “states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty,” echoes Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and he repeats Wordsworth in his insistence on the importance of “tranquil contemplation.” His claim that Wordsworth’s poems were “a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure,” attest to his assimilation of the language of such poems as “Tintern Abbey” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” His very language of restoration–“Wordsworth’s poems [were] a medicine for my state of mind”–and his figuration of Wordsworth as teacher redouble Wordsworth’s own tropes.
20. The locus classicus of Wordsworth’s language of restoration is, of course, the passage on “spots of time” in Book XII of the 1850 Prelude, in which the poet-narrator attributes to them “a renovating virtue” and the capacity for “our minds” to be thence “nourished and invisibly repaired” (XII.210, 215). These “spots of time” the poet-narrator would “enshrine” as “the spirit of the Past/ For future restoration” (XII.285-6). On one level, the term designates memories from the poet’s past, on another, the very lyrical passages that render these memories as “spectacles and sounds” strewn episodically throughout the poem. The passage provides meta-poetic commentary on the formal structure of The Prelude itself, articulating the new poetics the very discovery of which the poem seeks to narrate.
21. This discovery coincides with the poet-narrator’s resolution to write a “poetry of Nature” founded on the premise that “love of Nature” leads necessarily to “love of Man.” The poet aims to show how “Nature” may serve as the basis for a new claim to community. The most important and, at the same time, most unstable of terms in Wordsworth, “Nature” designates in the exegeses of Abrams and Hartman, the uncertain relationship between sense perception and sense. It is precisely in cases of the disjunction between sense perception and sense, between the apprehension through the senses of the external world and the capacity of the mind to make sense of the data, that “Nature” “teaches” most powerfully; and it is often such disjunctions that are registered as “spots of time.” To such “spots” the poet returns for future restoration as to inexhaustible because essentially enigmatic sources. When he writes, “There are in our existence spots of time,” Wordsworth not only implies, on an individual psychological level, that everyone, like him, has spots of time in his or her own life but that his poems may serve as such for the reader.
22. Mill assimilates to his own prose Wordsworth’s language of restoration. Where Wordsworth makes “Nature” guide and source of renovation, Mill substitutes “poetry.” “Poetry” as “instrument of human culture” plays in Mill’s new “ethical and philosophical creed” a function analogous to “Nature” in Wordsworth’s poetry (147). In making this substitution, Mill appropriates and displaces Wordsworth’s reflections on his own poetry for an attempt to modify utilitarian thought by aesthetic means.
23. "What is Poetry?," published in 1833 in conjunction with the essay, "The Two Kinds of Poetry," marked Mill’s earliest engagement with questions of aesthetics. While the definition of poetry Mill proposes there is most often linked with Wordsworth’s lyric practice, it is important to note that Mill not only does not mention Wordsworth but does not even define poetry in formal or generic terms. Rather, he defines poetry as a specific mode of expression or utterance that may occur outside lyric poetry proper in other genres such as drama, the novel, and narrative poetry; and in other arts such as music and opera, as well as painting, sculpture, and architecture. In distinction to poetry, Mill contrasts narrative, simple imitation or description, and, finally, eloquence or oratory, elements of which, he claims, can be found in varying combination in different works of art across the multiple arts. The last of these modes of speech, eloquence, Mill finds closest to poetry insofar as eloquence and poetry both consist of “the expression or uttering forth of feeling” (109). In contrast, narrative, for instance, is directed towards “action and events,” not feeling (107).
24. At the climactic point of the essay, Mill writes, “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard” (107). In elaborating on this distinction, he uses a theatrical metaphor, invoking in relation to these modes of speech “audience” and “listener.” “Eloquence,” Mill distinguishes,
supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action. (109)The figure of theater comes to the fore when he claims, “All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. It may be said that poetry, which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller’s shop, is a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage” (109).
25. The distinction between poetry and eloquence serves in turn as the basis for a theatrical articulation of the “nation” itself:
The persons, and the nations, who commonly excel in poetry, are those whose character and tastes render them least dependent for their happiness upon the applause, or sympathy, or concurrence of the world in general. Those to whom that applause, that sympathy, that concurrence are most necessary, generally excel most in eloquence. (110)Mill juxtaposes here two theatrically conceived versions of communal life that bespeak two articulations of happiness: one in which happiness consists of the opening up, through poetry, of the possibility for new and unprecedented feelings, and one in which happiness consists of the circulation and endorsement of feelings that have already been in circulation.
26. This contrast anticipates to some degree Mill’s critique of a society regulated by “custom” versus a society of individualist self-expression in the essay On Liberty. In a famous passage, Mill imagines the members of a society regulated by “custom” as inhabitants of a panopticist structure. In this space,
from the highest class...down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves, what do I prefer? Or, what would suit my character and disposition? Or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? What is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstance superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary. (88)Public, communal life is here articulated in terms of a circular, tower-like construction ruled by a central and elevated gaze that defines hierarchy and order. The inhabitants of this vertically arranged society are all alike preoccupied with rank; whatever class they come from, they are concerned alike with the actions and behavior appropriate to their socio-economic circumstances and to those in the tier above them. All alike are governed by what is expected of their group by “custom,” or received opinions that have become unexamined criteria and grounds for action.
27. For its operation, “custom” depends on the central and elevated gaze, the internalization of which is manifest in the questions Mill ventriloquistically has the individual or the family asking themselves. These questions constitute the verbal and audible complement (though the speech may take the form of inner monologue) to the visibility of the individual or the family to the “eye of censorship.” The individual or the family are visible not only to that central gaze but to other individuals and families, of whatever rank, that are likewise oriented by that gaze. It is this visibility that determines the kind of questions that get asked, and it is this visibility that denies the posing of the questions concerning individual preference and disposition. By implication, it might seem that a certain invisibility is necessary to break the congruence between exteriority and interiority–or to open up a space of interiority to begin with–and to disrupt the relationship of adequation between seeing, being seen, and speaking according to the dictates of “custom.” The break this invisibility would facilitate involves at the same time a re-ordering of the relationship between the visible and the audible corollary to a new determination of the terms of perceptibility governing the relationships of subjects to one another in public, communal life.
28. In "What is Poetry?," Mill already places emphasis on the dimension of the audible over the visible in his imagination of a theatrical community oriented by poetry. Both eloquence and poetry are forms of utterance, but eloquence involves a continuity between the visible and the audible, while poetry involves a necessary suspension of visibility: “What we have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us. But no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself” (109). Poetry originates in invisibility, though it may be rehearsed and reproduced before the eyes of others after this originating moment. Likened to soliloquy, poetry is the medium of a voice that circulates beyond the regulatory gaze of panopticism and has the potential to disrupt its effective operation.
29. As evident in the passage from On Liberty, panopticism implies a central and elevated observer around which are arrayed concentric tiers of adjacent cells. The central observer is positioned so that he may see everyone, but in principle anyone may occupy this interchangeable position. As Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power...he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-3). The subject, then, subjects himself by internalizing the capacity to regulate himself and others. The field of visibility constructed by panopticism is circumscribed, at the same time, by inherent blind spots. While the occupants of the cells are positioned to perceive the inspector with whom they may in principle exchange roles, and while they may see others at a distance, they remain necessarily blind and invisible to those in their proximity who occupy adjacent and neighboring cells.
30. As the medium of a voice that circulates beyond the central regulatory gaze, poetry has the potential to open up alternative modes of communication within the theater of panopticism and to introduce an alternative logic of subject-formation. To exemplify his definition, Mill quotes from Burns’s "My Heart’s in the Highlands" and comments, “That song has always seemed to us like the lament of a prisoner in a solitary cell, ourselves listening, unseen, in the next” (111). Such eavesdropping has the effect of de-centering and disorienting the listener away from the regulatory gaze and toward, instead, the song of the neighbor, in relation to whom he is neither superior nor subordinate but peer and fellow subject. The subjection that thus takes place is at odds with the logic of Benthamite panopticist subjection since, in the latter case, what subjects the prisoners and makes them equals of one another is the unitary and elevated gaze, while, in the former, it is a proximate yet enigmatic utterance that is neither addressed to one nor to anyone in particular, and that one can do nothing about, but in relation to which one is nevertheless implicated and interpellated as helpless overhearer.
31. In Mill’s theater of poetic citizenship, citizens are imagined as actors and spectators who perceive and become perceptible to one another in public, communal life, but their capacity as participants in communal life is qualified by supplemental roles as invisible speaker and eavesdropper. In these latter roles, they are temporarily incapacitated as actors–whether the actor be defined within the logic of utilitarian subject-formation as a rational, intentional agent capable of undertaking actions with statistically calculable consequences, or as an agent whose array of possible actions is immanently delimited by the field of already available actions perceptible to them. In this incapacity, they are “unworked” or désoeuvrés, to use Nancy’s term from The Inoperative Community, as members of a maximally frugal and efficient, market-oriented community that promises to produce freedom as, specifically, the freedom to participate in the activities of exchange and consumption–to produce free subjects as, specifically, subjects that perform the roles of seller and consumer. In relation to poetry as the song of the unseen neighbor (or the song that one sings, unseen), the subject is re-oriented and potentially re-constituted in excess of the logic of panopticist subject-formation.
32. This re-orientation and reconstitution of the subject provides the potential means of a liberation from the theater of bio-politics. The means it provides is, however, precarious. The liberation in question may take place as a mere liberation from the constraints of bio-political subject formation, a quietist exercise of “negative liberty” that ends up re-affirming, again and again, the framework of bio-governmentality. In this case, the freedom the subject enjoys may take the form of a retreat or refuge from public, communal life that leaves the basic structure of the latter intact and to which the subject returns, renovated but substantially unaltered. Another scenario involves a re-orientation and reconstitution of the subject that produces or generates a new role, a new form-of-life, as it were, to be added to the, in principle, infinitely proliferating repertoire of roles and forms-of-life in public, communal life. The precariousness of this latter scenario hinges on the question of whether the emergence of a new role would adhere once again to a liberalist-capitalist logic of subject-formation, wherein the new role is molded into that of a seller-consumer, or whether this emergence may manifest the enactment of a genuinely alternative logic of freedom and reconfiguration of political space.
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