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ABNORMALS, FREAKS, AND MICHAEL JACKSON: FOUCAULT, BALDWIN, AND THE TRUTH OF THE GROTESQUE Brad Elliott Stone

Loyola Marymount University (bstone@lmu.edu)

Abstract:

Anyone who watches the popular news from a Foucauldian

perspective is interested in the Michael Jackson case, given that Jackson is famous for being the epitome of abnormality. In Abnormal, Foucaults 19751976 lecture course at the Collge de France, Foucault describes three kinds of monstersthe hermaphrodite, the masturbator, and the incorrigible. Jackson fits all three of these descriptions. The Jackson predicament was foretold by James Baldwin, who wrote in the essay Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood that Jacksons oddity would someday undo him, just as his own monstrosities (being black and gay) worked against him. In this essay, I offer an interpretation of the current Michael Jackson case from a Foucauldian and Baldwinian standpoint.

Key Words: Michel Foucault, James Baldwin, racism, sexuality, abnormality

With the English publication of Abnormal, 1 Michel Foucault turns the tables once again. In the previously published lectures, Society Must Be Defended (Il faut dfendre la socit), one is left asking Should society be defended? (Faut-il defndre la socit?). In Abnormal, Foucault explores the grotesque and shows that the truly grotesque is actually the way in which

people understand abnormality. He explains how psychiatry is in its own way a monster, and has gotten away with a pseudoscientific coup of the criminal court system. Another thinker who is good at turning tables is James Baldwin. Although Baldwins works have not yet been fully philosophically appropriated,2 his 1985 Playboy article Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood3 (sometimes anthologized as Here Be Dragons) describes the hypocrisy of the American hatred of androgynous freaks who actually reveal the truth about the defunct and false heterosexism (and racism) of American culture. By sharing episodes from his years as a young writer in Greenwich Village, Baldwin reveals the grotesque nature of gay-bashing and racism. At the end of his essay, Baldwin turns his attention to Michael Jackson, who Baldwin describes as having turned so many tables, a paradigm freak. In light of the recent Jackson court case and the similarities between Baldwin and Foucaults idea of the truth of the grotesque, this paper offers a Foucauldian/Baldwinian understanding of the Michael Jackson cacophony. This essay is divided into three parts. In the first section I discuss Foucaults account of the abnormals, focusing on the monster as the transgressor of the law, and the Ubuesque nature of psychiatry. Using Foucaults inversion of abnormality as a point of comparison, I turn to Baldwins Playboy article in the second section, explicating Baldwins understanding of the freak as a revealer of the truth and the grotesque attempt by others to silence that truth. The final section turns to Michael Jackson, whose oddity is highlighted by Baldwin and fits into Foucaults description of the abnormal. I will make a few observations about the recent sodomy case, and what Foucauldians/Baldwinians can think about in light of it.

Abnormals Foucaults Abnormal lectures set up three distinct yet eventually interconnected discursive objects that would make up the domain of the abnormal: the monster, the individual to be corrected, and the masturbator. These three figures appear in one form or another in Foucaults published works. Since the masturbator appears in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 in basically the same manner as Foucault describes him in Abnormal, I will not focus on masturbation here.4 Similarly, given that Foucault devotes much of Discipline and Punish to the individual to be corrected, plus the little said by Foucault in the lectures about this circle of abnormality, I will not spend too much time on incorrigibles. The monster, the figure on whom I will focus in this section, appears in Abnormal in a way that it had not appeared in Foucaults oeuvre; although monsters are discussed in Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things, they play a different role here. Foucault tells us that the fascination and disgust with monsters morphs throughout the ages. In the Medieval period, monstrosity was thought of mostly in terms of the bestial man, the person who is half human and half animal, the by-product of the crossing of two kingdoms. The Renaissance age puzzled over Siamese twins, and the Classical epistm, steeped in its organized tableaux, was unable to place the hermaphrodite. All of these variations or types of monsters share the property of being strange mixtures. Foucault explains this idea of the monster in the following way: the monster is essentially a mixture . . . of two realms, the animal and the human: the man with the head of an ox, the man with a birds feetmonsters. It is the blending, the mixture of two species: the pig with a sheeps head is a monster. It is the mixture of two individuals: the person who has two heads and one body or 3

two bodies and one head is a monster. It is the mixture of two sexes: the person who is both male and female is a monster. It is a mixture of life and death: the fetus born with a morphology that means it will not be able to live but that nonetheless survives for some minutes or days is a monster. Finally, it is a mixture of forms: the person who has neither arms nor legs, like a snake, is a monster. (F 63) Why are monsters a problem? The problem with monsters is that they defy our

categories of understanding, be they civil, scientific, or religious. This is why Foucault calls the monster in his course summary of the 1974-1975 year an Antiphysis, one that is against nature (F 328). Monstrosity, Foucault tells us, is the kind of natural irregularity that calls law into question and disables it (F 64). Like the madman in the Renaissance epistm described in Madness and Civilization, whose madness served as a testimony to the limits of human knowledge, the monster shows the limits of natural, ecclesiastical, and civil law. To use a wellestablished Foucauldian term, monsters are living transgressions: the monster is the transgression of natural limits, the transgression of classifications, of the table, and of the law as table . . . there is monstrosity only when the confusion comes up against, overturns, or disturbs civil, canon, or religious law (F 63). Foucault focuses on the hermaphrodite as the example par excellence of transgressive being. As Foucault explains, the problem of hermaphrodites is several-fold: one didnt know whether to treat [him/her] as a boy or a girl, whether or not he/she should be allowed to marry and with whom, whether he/she could become the holder of an ecclesiastical living, whether he/she could take religious orders, and so on (F 65). It was such a problem that in the earlier epistms hermaphrodites were simply executed. 4 Later on, however, hermaphrodites were

forced to choose a gender and follow all of the civil, ecclesiastical, and moral rules applicable to that gender. Regardless of this shift, the understanding of hermaphrodites as monsters remained. In the Modern period, the understanding of monsters enters a new stage. In the new arrangement of knowledge, [m]onstrosity . . . is no longer the undue mixture of what should be separated by nature. It is simply an irregularity, a slight deviation, but one that makes possible something that really will be a monstrosity, that is to say, the monstrosity of character (F 73). Monsters are no longer natural transgressions; rather, they are criminals. It is important to quickly note Foucaults distinction between illegality and transgression. Illegality presupposes the correctness of the law, whereas transgression puts law itself into question. In the later part of the eighteenth century, Foucault tells us, we see something emerge . . . the theme of the monstrous nature of criminality, of a monstrosity that takes effect in the domain of conduct, of criminality, and not in the domain of nature itself . . . the moral monster (F 74-75). Prior to the Modern epistm, the criminal is understood as a kind of despot who wages war against the sovereign (a theme that appears in Pt. I, Ch. 2 of Discipline and Punish), becomes no longer a regicide but a kind of monster. As Foucault writes, [e]very criminal could well be a monster, just as previously it was possible that the monster was a criminal (F 81-82). Previously, monsters could be executed for being transgressors of natural law, and therefore a committing an illegality against the sovereignty of nature; now, being a natural monster was no longer a crime. The monstrosity being prosecuted in the Modern period is of a different sort. Even in the case of Anne Grandjean, a hermaphrodite whose trial in 1765 signifies for Foucault a turning point in the way hermaphrodites were understood as monsters, Champeaux, who chronicled the trial, argues that Grandjeans true monstrosity had nothing to do with being a

hermaphrodite, but rather that as a woman (the gender she was registered under) she (not he/she according to Champeaux) loved other women. The rest of the story is deducible. As one finds in Discipline and Punish and Society Must Be Defended, society must be defended from these kinds of monsters in a way that is much more careful than when dealing with natural monsters. After all, one cannot immediately detect a moral monster. It is only after the crime has taken place that one can, in hindsight, see the signs of monstrosity, which therefore serve as the symptoms of monstrosity that are squelched when they appear in others that follow. This is the problem of repeatability in Pt. II, Ch. 1 of Discipline and Punish: crimes that are impossible to repeat do not require punishment. Discipline, with its organization and surveillance, serves as the means of prevention in the hope of reducing monstrous characteristics in the populace. It is this kind of worry about criminal monstrosity that empowers psychiatry in the Modern epistm, setting up the Ubu-esque nature of judging characters instead of crimes. Psychiatry is a juridico-medical pseudo-science whose claims have the curious property of being foreign to all . . . rules for the formation of scientific discourse, as well as being foreign to the rules of law and of being, in the strict sense, grotesque (F 11). If monstrosity can be defined as being a strange, unnatural, transgressive mixture, then psychiatry, the industry devoted to monstrosity, is itself a monster. Not quite science, not quite juridical; yet juridicoscientific. This reveals what Foucault calls the Ubu-esque nature of psychiatry as a vehicle of power: it seems to me to be a way of giving a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited (F 13). Psychiatry

is the despicable facade of disciplinary power; this allows discipline as such to continue unscathed. The problem with psychiatry, Foucault argues, is that it is the reactivation of an essentially parental-puerile, parental-childish discourse . . . It is a childish discourse . . . a discourse of fear whose function is to detect danger and to counter it (F 35). Abnormals are dangerous and scary, so the study of them is based in fear, not science. To show this

childishness, Foucault begins the lecture course with passages from two psychiatric reports, neither of which are really scientific, for their descriptions are funny and clearly biased. These reports, although funny, are frightening because discourses of truth that provoke laughter and have the institutional power to kill are, after all . . . discourses that deserve some attention (F 6). Given that the power to punish is contained in such infantile discourses based on fear, we have reason to be concerned about psychiatric discourse and its affect on the way we understand psychiatric power.5 As a result, psychiatric discourse is discounted through its own operation, which should put into question the power that is granted it: the psychiatric expert can only be Ubu himself. He can exercise the terrible power he is asked to take onwhich in the end is to determine, or to play a large part in determining, an individuals punishmentonly through a childish discourse that disqualifies him as scientist at the very moment he is appealed to as a scientist, and through a discourse of fear, which makes him ridiculous as soon as he speaks in court about someone accused of a crime . . . The scientist, who is sheltered, protected, and even regarded as sacred by the entire institution and sword of justice, speaks the language of children and the language of fear. (F 36) 7

As a result, Foucault has turned the tables in Abnormal, showing the monstrosities of psychiatry, the discourse whose task is to show the monstrosities of others. If it is indeed true that Il faut dfendre la socit from monstrosities, perhaps psychiatry should be brought to an end.

Freaks Baldwins description of freaks reiterates Foucaults position about monsters and other abnormals. Baldwin writes that [f]reaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treatedin the main, abominablybecause they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires (B 828). In other words, just as Foucault describes monsters as strange bearers of truth, freaks reveal a terrible and terrifying truth about who we normal people are. Like Foucault, Baldwin uses the hermaphrodite as an example. According to Baldwin, the hermaphrodite reveals the fact that we are all androgynous, possessing both male and female qualities: the existence of the hermaphrodite reveals, in intimidating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human beingwhich is why the hermaphrodite is called a freak. The human being does not, in general, enjoy being intimidated by what he/she finds in the mirror. The hermaphrodite, therefore, may make his/her living in side shows or brothels, whereas the merely androgynous are running banks or filling stations or maternity wards, churches, armies or countries. (B 814) The hermaphrodite outwardly reveals our internal constitution. The hermaphrodite cannot hide his/her androgyny in the way that we do. Therefore, the hermaphrodite is a freak; the fact that he/she has some combination, internal and external, of both types of reproductive organs forces us to see the limits of our classification of animals into male and female, forcing us to use 8

the expression he/she as a kind of via tertia. This he/she, however, is actually not just a term to describe the gendered being of the hermaphrodite; it is secretly our pronoun, too. It has to be this way, Baldwin argues, for love between a man and a woman, or love between any two human beings, would not be possible did we not have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes (ibid.). At the end of the article, Baldwin states it this way: we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other . . . We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it (B 828-829). In short, those we consider monsters (especially those of mixed natures) reveal our own mixtures and monstrosities. It is in light of the revelatory nature of freaks that Baldwin praises artists like Boy George, who served as the poster-child for the androgyny craze of the 1980s, which Baldwin considers an attempt to be honest concerning ones nature (B 827). What is frightening, or to use Foucaults term, grotesque, is not the openly androgynous, but the ones who fight against their androgyny by reinforcing what Baldwin calls the American ideal of masculinity, which grounds Americas understanding of sexuality. This ideal is described as that which created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white (B 815). Akin to Foucault, Baldwin describes such an ideal as being so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden (ibid.). Baldwin writes that

figures as Boy George do not disturb me nearly so much as do those relentlessly hetero (sexual?) keepers of the keys and seals, those who know what the world needs in the way of order and who are ready and willing to supply that order (B 827). In short, we should be more afraid of George W. Bush, defender of world democracy and freedom against those who abuse 9

and torture fellow human beings (under whose watch Iraqi prisoners of war were abused, tortured, and humiliated by American soldiers mixture! monstrosity!), than androgynous people. The majority of Baldwins article is autobiographical, like a lot of his writings tend to be. Baldwin describes his teenage years as a monster. Baldwin was not any of the almost fantastical creatures that Foucault discusses when describing monsters; Baldwin was a black man. People treated Baldwin as if he were dangerous, a fact he considers odd: I certainly had no desire to harm anyone, nor did I understand how anyone could look at me and suppose me physically capable of causing any harm. But boys and men chased me, saying I was a danger to their sisters. I was thrown out of cafeterias and rooming houses because I was bad for the

neighborhood (B 819). To further demonstrate this point, Baldwin recalls his heterosexual encounters. Given that there were no black women in the Greenwich Village that were interested in him, Baldwin dated white women. The problem, however, was that white women really only used him for his blackness. White women slept with him in order to scandalize their racist parents (and were therefore racists themselves), which Baldwin describes in the following terms: more than one white girl had already made me know that her color was more powerful than my dick . . . In short, I was black in that world, and I was used that way . . . I did not find it amusing, in any way whatever, to act out the role of the darky (B 824). The gay world offered Baldwin a way out of the race trap.6 However, the American ideal of masculinity, the same flight from androgyny that Baldwin believes makes America a racialized place to live, placed him in another situation. In the gay scene, Baldwin learned that the male desire for a male roams everywhere (B 821). Baldwin gives us a description of the men he would encounter: 10

These men, so far from being or resembling faggots, looked and sounded like the vigilantes who banded together on weekends to beat faggots up . . . These men looked like cops, football players, soldiers, sailors, Marines or bank presidents, admen, boxers, construction workers; they had wives, mistresses and children. I sometimes saw them in other settings . . . Sometimes they spoke to me, sometimes not . . . But I had first seen them in the mens room, sometimes on their knees, peering up into the stalls, or standing at the urinal stroking themselves, staring at another man, stroking, and with this miasma in their eyes. Sometimes,

eventually, inevitably, I would find myself in bed with one of these men, a despairing and dreadful conjunction . . . (B 820-821) The same men who would beat up openly gay people were the men that Baldwin often found himself with. Baldwin shares this part of his life in order to show that the faggot is a monster that reveals the inner desires of most men to experience sexual encounters with other men. Since that fact cannot be openly acknowledged, anyone who seems to be open about it is a danger who must be beaten up, even killed. Baldwin was dangerous in this capacity, for he was often publicly called faggot and beaten up by the same men who in private wanted to have sex with him. As Baldwin writes, [w]hat was not clear at that time of my life was what motivated the men and boys who mocked and chased me; for, if they found me when they were alone, they spoke to me very differently . . . when they were alone, they spoke very gently and wanted me to take them home and make love (B 822). It was not all negative, though. Baldwin describes how the gay scene allowed him to have got beyond the obscenity of color (B 825), and therefore his overall experience in the Village is positive in retrospect: all of the American categories of male and female, straight or 11

not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven, very early in my life (B 819). Being a freak allowed him to see the truth of the grotesque nature of the American ideal of masculinity and the whole sexualized racism that went with it. The freak is the inverse of the Foucauldian

psychiatrist; s/he sees the grotesque nature of the system that labels her/him as grotesque. And, if we would let it happen, we could become free from the lie of the ideal American life, a theme that Baldwin develops throughout his oeuvre. Therefore, Baldwin, like Foucault, allows for the abnormal to serve as a revelation of a truth that the rest of society flees from. Both thinkers reverse the labeling game, showing that the truly grotesque is not the monster or the freak, but rather the society that craves the safety of order and abhors dis-ease. The tables have been turned.

Michael Jackson At the end of the Freaks article from 1985, Baldwin has the following to say about Michael Jackson: The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring . . . All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; and blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair . . . (B 828) In light of the explorations made in this essay, anyone who follows the news from a Foucauldian or Baldwinian point of view is interested in the Michael Jackson case, given that Jackson is the 12

epitome of abnormality (Foucault) and one of the most interesting freaks in popular culture (Baldwin). I will end this essay with some comments about the case. It is interesting that Jackson is allegedly guilty of being all of the three types of abnormals described by Foucault. First, Jackson is a monster in both the ancient and modern senses. His nose and skin make him appear monstrous: he is black and white, gay and straight, male and female; he is a gentle lover of children, yet sings songs of sex and violence. Also, if the allegations are true, in the modern psychiatric sense, qua sexual predator, he is a monster who preys upon young boys. Second, Jackson is a masturbator. He grabs his crotch while dancing, which is clearly a masturbatory gesture, and, according to the 1993 allegations made against him by a different boy, Jackson masturbates his victims and then requires that the victims masturbate him. Finally, Jackson is incorrigible. The thrust of public concern stems from the simple question, Didnt Michael learn anything from the 1993 allegations? He still had boys over to spend the night and sleep in the same room (sometimes in the same bed) with him. As a result, Jackson is already guilty for being such an Antiphysis. He is guilty either way, either of a crime or in the court of public opinion. His abnormality will count against him in a psychiatrydriven court system where Jackson will not really be judged for his crime but for his monstrous moral character, which is itself a crime waiting to happen. As Baldwin predicted, race is also front and center in this trial. Jackson, who used to think that it did not matter if one were black or white (as his song goes), in light of the allegations has returned to the black world. In his January 14, 2004 Village Voice article I Believe I Can Open My Fly, Richard Goldstein shows how R. Kelly, referred to in the article as the Pied Piper of R&B, is unharmed from the allegations (21 counts) of child pornography, including the statutory rape of a female minor, whereas Jackson suffers incredibly from fewer 13

counts.

The reason behind this discrepancy, Goldstein tells us, is in a racist heterosexist

depiction of black men: Why does Jacko rate contempt while the Pied Piper gets a wink and a nod? The answer lies in the widespread assumption that awakening a young lass is the mark of a potent man. When combined with the racist fantasy that black men are repositories of unbridled lust, sex with girls becomes the ultimate credential for a playa. But Jacko will never qualify as a stud. Hes violated the rules of both racial and gender identity by transforming himself into an alabaster androgyne . . . If [Jacko] wants to save his career, hell have to start fooling around with 14-yearold girls.7 Simply put, Michael Jackson has performed a white crime; black men are usually guilty of statutory rape of young girls; Jackson is a sodomite who victimizes young boys. Race and sexuality mix together in the Jackson case to monstrous consequences. Jackson is primarily a monster because he breaks the rules of being black; in fact, he does more than thathe transgresses them. Add the question of Jacksons sexuality, which is always already

incorporated into the rules of race,8 and we have an even larger problem. Which brings us to another monstrous mixture: the Nation of Islam and their attempt to reestablish Jacksons blackness. In his January 6, 2004 The Guardian article Back into the fold, Gary Younge writes that this union of forces is odd. However, in its oddness, he writes, in similar terms as Baldwin, the following: Quite how a celebrity who has been in flight from his racial features, let alone his racial identity, ended up in the arms of an organisation that is defined by race is a moot point. Why a socially conservative institution committed to racial uplift 14

should open its arms to a man charged with child molestation is similarly baffling. At the heart of it, however, lies not just Jackson and the Nation [of Islam] but three of Americas most intense obsessions after terrorism: race, crime and celebrity.9 By aligning with the Nation of Islam, Jackson (oddly like O. J. Simpson) moves from one kind of monster to another, a monster that is more tolerated than the sexual predator in American society. To use Aaron McGruders The Boondocks from January 28, 2004, Michael Jackson is entering a process of re-negrofication.10 Of course, these moves will not keep Michael Jackson from being a monster, given that he will still be one as a black man if he re-negrofies. He cannot escape the grotesque because he is part of a grotesque society; a society that is fascinated yet repulsed by monsters. Baldwin and Foucault show us how this is possible, and why the case is interesting from a philosophical point of view. Notes
1

Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collge de France, 1974-1975, ed. Valerio Marchetti and

Antonella Salomoni, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003). All references to this text will be made parenthetically as F followed by the page number.
2

This essay is the first of several essays I am working on that deal with Continental readings of the

literature of James Baldwin.


3

James Baldwin, Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood, James Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed.

Toni Morrison (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998). All references to this text will be made parenthetically as B followed by the page number.
4

A whole volume of The History of Sexuality, called The Childrens Crusade, would have addressed the

masturbator in more detail.

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Cf. the 1973-1974 lecture course, Psychiatric Power (Le pouvoir psychiatrique). Baldwin is not suggesting (and neither am I) that racism made him gay. He is rather making an

interesting contrast. In the heterosexual world, Baldwin was dangerous as a black man; in the gay world, Baldwin was dangerous as a gay man. To give up one monstrosity was to take up another.
7

Richard Goldstein, I Believe I Can Open My Fly, The Village Voice, January 14-20, 2004 (Online

source: http://www.villiagevoice.com/issues/0402/goldstein.php, last accessed 26 Feb 2004).


8

Foucault deals with this issue in Pt. V. of The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 and Society Must Be Defended. Gary Younge, Back into the fold, The Guardian, January 6, 2004 (Online source:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1116725,00.html, last accessed 26 Feb 2004).


10

Aaron McGruder, The Boondocks (comic strip), January 28, 2004.

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