Monday, May 5, 2014

Get Real: Foucault and The Wilderness

While reading Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness, the image of the panopticon  keeps emerging in my mind's eye.

At its surface, the novel is directed by a man on the outskirts of Alzheimers, intimately following his confused spiral into dementia.  If one delves deeper into the narrative, a more optimistic synopsis can be discovered.  

The more I read, the more the "real" world seems to be constructed by semiotics and socially agreed upon markers. Even at his most lucid, Jake does not those achievements and events.

Jake's struggle to maintain the linear concept of time, events, and details, highlights the constructedness of "reality". Like the phrase, get real, suggests, real is something that can be obtained. One person is not born more physically tangible than any other (if we discount social Darwinism), and yet the semiotics of a person's economic status, location of birth, and religion can each decide whether or not any given individual is prescribed value. Though none of those factors change the inherent worth of a person, they do change how that person is valued by others. None of these factors SHOULD affect the value of a person's reality. 

Yet any deviance from the agreed upon "real" is labeled with a moral negative: disease, disorder, disability. We construct moral boundaries for reality, then progress beyond them. What are these boundaries? To Jake, they are what causes him to stare at the pilot's collar, grasping frantically for a word. Linearity became a facet of his internalized panopticon. He could not see within his own linear narrative (if one believes in such things), and he develops a sense of shame at forgetting; from this shame comes surliness, and much unhappiness for those who cannot piece together a chronology. 

This sense of shame is what conjured up the image of the panopitcon- it is the same vigilance, the same "watched" mentality that seems to guard Jake's later years as that which forces girls to wax their legs and pluck their brows.  In the throws of a progressive disease, he was ill equipped to deal with the loss of memory on top of the shame and loss of respect that a productive individual receives. 

As Jake loses his ability to read the map of reality, he seems to escape his own internalized panopticon. Once memory is lost, there is no shame, because there is no real. Only the present effects, constitutes reality. The more I read, the more dementia seems like a kind of freedom  

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