I decided to post an edited version of my paper written for my Literary Theory course a few months ago. I must first state that I do not agree with all of Foucault’s ideas, but his ideas are worth considering. Whenever we watch something, or read a text, it is worth questioning how much of ourselves do we project onto the author.
Foucault’s idea concerning the created subject is central to his philosophy concerning power. Foucault, as a major influence on modern literary theory, changed how a text is interpreted by giving the reader power to interpret a text. His view of the created subject can essentially be viewed as a constant battle between the reader and the author in which the reader has the advantage over the author. He held that a person can be made into a subject by another if given that power. An example of this power is demonstrated in Foucault’s work in which he describes that those within different disciplines, or what he termed “dividing practices” (Foucault), wrongly impose an objective identity on a person. This vision of power was in response to his experience with capitalism and progress which, he felt, threatened his personal identity (Foucault). A person under the care of a doctor, for instance, may be defined as a patient with Alzheimer’s (Foucault). A scientist may define a person as a species, or by some other biological characteristic. A person cannot be objectively defined in its true form, as all humans are not merely physical beings held down by others. In order to regain that control, the power must be given back. Foucault demonstrated that humans seek power over their own identities and those of others, and one must struggle to identify oneself the way one desires. He believed that what we have is an “economic and ideological state violence, which ignore who we are individually” (Foucault). This power struggle forms the basis of every relationship one chooses to engage in, including those relationships within a text.
The other way that power is exercised under Foucauldian principles is through the process of normalization or conformity. Panopticism, a term coined by Jeremy Bentham, is the idea that “Modern society is a society of surveillance” (Wong 37). He argued that all humans are constantly being mediated or shaped to conform to society by the act of being watched. Bentham’s panoptic view synced well with Foucault’s idea of power. The modern application to this type of power struggle is demonstrated in all media. One may, therefore, identify the power struggle characterized within any media displayed, or between an author and the viewer of a show. Television shows are a great example of such power (Wong). The science fiction based show Z Nation, for instance, depicts the Foucauldian idea of power between the characters in the show and through the projection of certain characters to the viewer.
Z Nation is a television show released in 2015. The premise is that a zombie apocalypse, caused by an unknown virus, wiped out most of the human population. Three years later, only a small portion of the human race is still alive, while the rest have been killed or turned into zombies. Z Nation accurately depicts the power struggle between the citizens and the government. The breakdown of the government as the essential force of society has collapsed. There is a group of five people tasked to bring the only known survivor of a zombie bite, named Murphy, to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in California. Murphy, who was a prisoner before the zombie apocalypse, was the given the only test vaccine that worked. All of this effort to bring Murphy to California, however, may be a lost cause as the government never shows itself, except through a character named Citizen Z (Obywatel). Through his voice, the characters of the show maintain power while the viewers of the show are under the influence of Citizen Z. The viewer is able to take power over the author by choosing how to interpret the show and the characters.
Citizen Z periodically interjects messages of encouragement to the task force via telecommunication/radio transmission through a remote government location. This fits well with the description of panopticism (Wong) since Citizen Z is acting as the surveillance of the people. He directs them where to go and how to avoid confrontation using computer based maps and grids. He is the only known voice of the CDC and had been tasked by government officials to lead the group of five people, and Murphy, to the CDC in order to develop a cure using Murphy’s blood. Through the character of Citizen Z, the government maintains its power over the task group and those listening to the radio broadcast. Citizen Z’s presence instills a sense of control since they can choose whether to trust him or not. One can also interpret this as the need for human desire for authority. Having a leader or some type of authority figure can instill a sense of safety. Citizen Z is also under the power of the CDC, as he himself must choose to continue to believe that the CDC is still an active organization.
He eventually finds out that the CDC’s location is compromised, as someone has hacked into his computer system. He loses control of the remote base at which he is located due to a nuclear explosion and is forced to leave with his only companion, a dog, on his own with no means of communication. Once again, he has the power to define himself outside his identity as Citizen Z. The power to interpret the show is left up to the viewer once again while the author is influenced by the perceptions of the viewer. It is also important to note that the creators of the show created a character who is likable; he is physically of small stature, not too attractive, very intelligent, and honorable. One can interpret this as an attempt by the author to make Citizen Z relatable to the viewer by depicting him as a “common man” who was almost sentenced to prison for a major crime that is perceptively non-threatening to the viewer.
Foulcauldian principles of power over subjects applies to every form of text as all communication can be viewed as a struggle between the author and reader. Whenever an author chooses to write a text, the author must keep in mind the viewer’s reaction to the text and attempt to mediate what the viewer perceives, while the viewer has the power to choose how to engage with the text and define subjects. The power of the writer of Z Nation, the character Citizen Z, and the viewer are all products of a postmodern mediated society. This power is akin to a coordinated dance where one person must choose to lead or follow the other partner. It is easier to dance if all move in a coordinated pattern. However, is one person decides to move to a different form of music, then the dance is disrupted.
Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power | Michel Foucault Info.”Michel Foucault Info. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.power.en.html>.
“Obywatel Z, WiadomoÅÄ Dla PozostaÅych (Z Nation) Citizen Z Radio Message [NAP PL].”YouTube. YouTube, 14 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDwF_En6fR4>.
Wong, James. “Here’s Looking at You: Reality TV, Big Brother, and Foucault.” Scholars Commons @ Laurier. N.p., 2001: 33-45. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=coms_faculty>