In May, a 13-year-old named Izabel Laxamana took a selfie wearing a sports bra and some leggings, and sent it to a boy at her school. When school administrators heard about the picture, they contacted her parents. What happened next defies easy comprehension: delivering on a threatened punishment for breaking his social media rules, Izabel’s father cut off her hair. He then made a video of Izabel with her hair (in a pile on the floor), demanding that she say breaking their rules hadn’t been worth it. The video found its way to social media. Two days later, Izabel jumped off an overpass, and a day later, she died from her injuries. The reasons why Laxamana committed suicide are of course complex, and may or may not be because of the shaming (and the father may or may not be the one who posted it to social media).* But the videoed retaliatory haircut seems to be real. In a recent piece in Slate, Amanda Hess catalogues the sudden re-emergence of this medieval phenomenon – literally medieval; women were punished by having their hair cut off, often in public – and situates it as part of a more general re-emergence of the public shaming of teenagers by their parents:
“Now, 800 years later, similar displays of ritualistic public shaming are back with a vengeance. The factors that lead a girl to suicide are too complex to untangle, but her parents’ behavior is too remarkable to ignore. Over the past several years, countless other grown adults have pulled similar stunts, albeit with less tragic consequences. There was the mother who forced her 11-year-old daughter to stand at a busy intersection and hold a sign reading, “I was disrespecting my parents by twerking at my school dance.” And the one who caught her 13-year-old daughter posing as a 19-year-old online and forced her to face a camera and admit she still watches the Disney Channel. When one father discovered that his daughters had posted a twerking video to Facebook, he put up his own video of himself whipping them with a cable cord as they curled their bodies in on themselves and screamed. Another father forced his son to twirl for the camera in his favorite skinny jeans, announced that “it look like you stole a midget’s pants,” posted the video on YouTube, set the shaming to music, and snagged a guest appearance on Dr. Phil.”
Citing Foucault, Hess points out that disciplinary power has largely meant that punishments of children designed to humiliate and shame them have disappeared from public view; “shaming became a largely family affair: In the home, parents still held tight control of their children, and they exacted punishments behind closed doors.” So what accounts for the current return of shaming?
Foucault characterizes pre-disciplinary, sovereign power as both manifest in and constituted by the spectacle of violence it inflicts on its victims. It seems to me here that we are witnessing a technologically-mediated irruption of sovereign power within spaces long thought to be biopolitical (or at least private). This happens in at least two ways. First, Foucault characterizes the violence of the sovereign punishment:
“a power that not only did not hesitate to exert itself directly on bodies, but was exalted and strengthened by its visible manifestations; of a power that asserted itself as an armed power whose functions of maintaining order were not entirely unconnected with the functions of war” (Discipline and Punish, 57).
The infliction of shame through physical violence or violence to the self-presentation of victims in this sense seems like a paradigmatic instance of sovereign power at work.
Second, sovereign power requires spectators. Again, Foucault: “not only must people know, they must see with their own eyes. Because they must be made to be afraid; but also because they must be the witnesses, the guarantors, of the punishment, and because they must to a certain extent take part in it” (Discipline and Punish, 58). It is not the bit about deterrence, but the last part of this description which is of interest here: Laxamana’s father presumably was not particularly interested in deterring children in other families from disobeying their parents. But making a video served somehow in his mind to validate the punishment, to make it more real. Social media is particularly good at shaming, as Dan Solove pointed out several years ago, insofar as bits of video can go viral rapidly and become an indelible part of someone’s internet existence. Insofar as that internet existence is a significant part of offline existence, the ability to put videos on social media makes rituals of shaming potentially more powerful and more accessible.
It is worth underscoring, however, that shaming rituals as described here presuppose that the relation of power in question is sovereign (as opposed to disciplinary). That is, the perpetrators of these punishments (and perhaps the victims) view themselves as having a sovereign power over their victims. This is what feminist critics of privacy have been warning about for a while, and it seems worth noting that many of the victims are either girls/women, or boys/men who are being feminized by their punishment. So too, if we look at online life more generally, women are often the targets of “revenge porn” videos, other efforts at slut shaming, and threats or images of extreme (often sexual) violence (often posted by those who hide behind anonymity), all as apparent retaliation for speaking out of turn.
Shaming is of course not the only example of sovereign violence, and in the U.S. in particular there is the spectacle of white supremacy, long associated with media technologies: in the early 20th century, it was not enough for crowds of white people to witness the arbitrary lynchings of black citizens. They sent their families and friends picture postcards of the proceedings. More recently, cellphone videos have raised overall awareness of police killings, though Brittney Cooper notes that videos of police shootings don’t seem to be doing much to stop them:
“Police officers (of all races and genders) routinely act with excessive force and callous disregard toward Black people. But Black people’s witness of racial atrocity is never believed on its own merits. Instead, white people need to be able to pull up a chair and watch the lynchings take place over and over again, to DVR them, fast forward and rewind through them, to smother Black pain and outrage and fear in an avalanche of cold, “rational” analysis. Meanwhile, minds rarely change.”
In order to believe the violence exists, it is necessary to participate in it. This is one of the (many) uncomfortable things Cooper has to say, and it’s important for us (us white people, anyway) not to run away from it, because it indicates just how insidious this form of power is: the act of turning on the news and finding out about it makes one complicit.
Biopower creates the incredulity that makes the urge to see the video compelling: biopower convinces us that such arbitrary violence is the exception, not the rule because (as Foucault noted) death retreats into the private sphere, and because the legal system long ago abandoned such punishments. On the one hand, the endless string of shocking, episodic videos manages to occlude the extent to which violence against Black communities is structural. On the other hand, without the videos, no one believes the arbitrary violence is happening in the first place. These two conditions are simultaneous, and guarantee each other. In other words, the biopolitical retreat of sovereign violence means the videos will always come as a surprise or a shock; the connection between repeated “arbitrary” violence against a certain group of people and a hidden, structural violence against them itself becomes hidden. Insofar as social media blurs the distinction between public and private spheres, it makes this connection harder to ignore.
In the context of the treatment of GWOT detainees, Judith Butler suggests that the violence done to prisoners at Guantanamo be understood as the production of spaces of sovereignty by biopower: “what we have before us now is the deployment of sovereignty as a tactic, a tactic that produces its own effectivity as its aim” (Precarious Life,97). Sure enough, at the GWOT prison at Abu Ghraib, when news broke of the widespread abuse and torture of prisoners, there were pictures: pictures of chained, naked, hooded, humiliated prisoners, often with smiling guards giving a big thumbs-up. The sovereign power had to have an audience. Creating these structures of violence, then, needs to be considered as part of the operation of biopower, as an aspect of what Foucault, at the end of Society must be Defended, calls “state racism.” Here, we see the combination of existing structural violence in “private” spaces with social media and the near-universal adoption of smartphones to enable the intensification of sovereign power.