Punishment Park and Wall Street

by on Tuesday, 24 January 2012 Comments

Two examples to think about disenfranchisement’s relation to the space

The objective of this article is to displace the interpretation of disenfranchisement as « deprivation of rights » from the strict legal perspective in which it is most of the time included. The space of the Law, or as it is usually called, the “state of right”, refers to the subordination of a certain space to the order of Law. It is opposed to the “lawless zones” which are confined to the margins. We have to keep in mind that this space is an abstraction. It is the product of a strict juridical perspective on society and it only has a partial and limited relation to the concrete space-time in which we are living and thinking. The problem is that it descends from a mythological conception of the Law, a mythology embedded in religion. It is quite difficult to get rid of it, and we will see how the myth of enfranchisement is often haunting the disenfranchisement itself. The first judgment was the punishment of Adam and Eve : their fall from the Garden of Eden, the archetypal enfranchised space. Our state of disenfranchisement and our quest for salvation would be the result of the top-down power of God. Nowadays, the Law has replaced this form of power and its social function. My idea would be to see how we could separate the problem of disenfranchisement from this form of thinking, in order to understand how the relations of power could be modified other than by using the Law. Taking a spatial point of view is a way to interpret power relations outside of the presupposed distinction between the legal and the illegal. The disenfranchisement in space would in that sense mean a form of closure, of confinement, of reduction, a tendency which needs to be opposed by something else than a simple right. The enfranchisement could be compared to a certain sense of orientation, or to the transformation of a  relation of power involved in a movement (action), a perception( extension), or an affection( intensity). In any case, it is always relative and partial. It constitutes a critique of the presupposition of a possible absolute freedom which is entangled in the illusory perception of an absolutely enfranchised space.

We'll use two examples : firstly, the space of the camp inspired by the movie Punishment Park by Peter Watkins ; secondly, the proposition of the economist F. Lordon to close the stock market.


Punishment Park is a kind of documentary-fiction. It deals with the situation in the United States at the beginning of the 70's : a state of high tension within society. It seems to me that although it is made as a documentary, the film shows by itself that it is fictionalized if you pay close attention to the way it is made. In fact, Watkins sets up a game of truths with the spectator, inserting different levels of truths in the movie, and provoking different reactions towards what you are watching and listening. We are following two groups of young people arrested for being active in protests against the order and the authority of the State. They are conscientious objectors, civic activists, feminists, anarchists, or to sum up in the language of that time : hippies and communists. Watkins imagines that the McCarran Internal Security Act would be executed by Nixon, because of the protests growing in the society, especially relative to the war in Vietnam. This act of Emergency really exists and is therefore present in “real” life. Watkins is not completely imagining things. He just envisions what is the process in which US is actually carried out, and what could happen if Nixon would declare this state of exception. What is interesting to us is that this fictional power reveals many aspects of the actual mechanisms of power : the limit of disciplinary power, and the terror initiated by the State when this limit is reached. It creates the camp : a park in the desert, a game for life and death organized by the military power. Notice that the defendants haven't committed any crimes. From the starting point, we are in a space coextensive with the Law, but which is not subordinated to it : the desert as a playing field for the cops and soldiers. Half of the movie consists of the pseudo-trial of a group of young people under a military tent. It is an enclosed space where the only ones comfortably seated are the honest people who compose the jury. We are watching Law in action : the power giving itself the image of legality and legitimacy, illustrated by a big picture of Nixon who appears as a kind of iconic figure. Beyond this narrow space is the desert, the open space highly symbolic for the American mind : the stage of a different and maybe more fundamental power, beyond the Law. We are obviously coming back to a picture of the wild West. In the desert, we follow another group which has just been sent for 3 days in Punishment Park by a similar mock trial. Here we face other conditions, and a different set of rules. The punishment consists in traversing around 80km of desert to reach an American flag, a symbol of victory, or should we rather say, salvation.

The park represents the economical technology the power uses to suppress the insurgents. It doesn't require heavy structures, because it is made to be temporary. It doesn't leave any trace or record of its existence behind, even though there are English and German journalists present. As the film progresses, they will actually interfere with the game and get progressively involved on the side of the protesters, and so Watkins is definitively showing that there has to be a moment where you are forced to choose a side and can't merely stand in the middle. The desert is open and allows the protesters relative autonomy of movement. The purpose of the punishment is to test the capacity of resistance of their bodies, not really to correct their ideas, which is specifically justified by the fact that they chose to be there, and so their freedom is ultimately respected. It is also a way to show the different tactics you can have when you enter the game of the military forces : either to enter in a direct confrontation and refuse the rules of the game, or to follow them by escaping the hunt of the cops and hope to reach the flag. In both cases we face the exercise of power on body reduced to a relation of force : dying by resistance, or by exhaustion. It seems to me that one of Watkins's purposes was to make visible a real mechanism of power through the military operation within the American land. The fiction enables the implementation of these mechanisms in a space-time which overflows the narrow frame of the juridical perspective. The disenfranchised space of the desert makes visible the reduction to the “bare life” of these people deemed to have contested authority. It is reinforced by the hostile natural environment in which it is taking place. It echoes deeply the mythical self-representation of United States history. Thus, Watkins shows us how disenfranchisement is ultimately the product of an inscription of the power relations on a body, on its perceptions and affections as much as its thoughts. But it also includes, by means of the desert, the deeply incorporated representations on which power rests.  It is true that he films an exceptional situation which didn't actually happen, but it doesn't mean that the mechanisms themselves were not in place and functioning within the American society of that time. He shows us how a system of repression is reinforced by the performance of a camp organization. It doesn't mean that he grasped all the dimensions of the camp form, but it could help us to understand how this kind of spatial organization so recurrent in today's world manifests in the form of power which cannot be explained or totally understood from the strict juridical point of view.

The second example I want to consider came to my mind after the apparition of the movement “occupy wall street”. It seemed to me that, in this central place of power, what could be disturbing was not so much the slogans like “we are the 99%” but the occupation itself, the fact that these people stay in a place where they are not supposed to be, debating with people they are not supposed to meet. Moreover, there is a kind of general sympathy for this movement, and their protests are often respected because they are accepted as legitimate. It is converted through the media into a certain visibility : a place and a presence in the public space. However, I wonder to what extent the occupation has a real impact on the power of the stock market. These protests emerged after a huge financial crisis. The “neoliberal” economy should have died from this last crisis and yet, it has never had so much power as it has now. It is somehow beautiful how from the worst situation, financial powers grasped the best for themselves. The main point of the counter-movement “occupy Wall Street” is to put the citizens back at the center of the economy. But in order to do this, shouldn't we rather close Wall Street and not only gently occupy it ? I know that for many people this assertion will seem naïve, unrealistic, or even stupid. Some will affirm that it won't change much, because the transactions are in fact so dematerialized that the operations will only be done from another place. So Wall Street is just an empty symbol, the place itself is only a shadow of another space : the stock market. It is a strange feeling that we get when we face this virtual and yet so powerful reality. It has boggled the mind of many a person. I would say on the contrary that it is only a powerful illusion, a new translation of the mythological absolute enfranchised space in the realm of economy. It is why the proposition to close the stock market is not so absurd. It has the advantage to shed light on the relation of this myth to the operation of what is usually call the “real” economy, the place where disenfranchisement is  most obviously taking place.

I borrow the proposition to close the stock market from Frederic Lordon, a french political economist. To justify the assertion that the closure would be beneficial not only politically, but also economically speaking, he draws on the distinction between two dimensions in the world of finance. First, there is the speculative finance, the one which is creating bubbles, buying-selling “toxic” derivative products, the place where the crisis is directly coming from, but which remains despite its mistakes and its irrational mode of existence. It is not this dimension of finance that he is directly targeting when he speaks about closing the stock market. He points out the second dimension : the shareholders funds, where the stockmarket represent the owners. We can easily understand how theses two dimensions are mixed up when we look at the banks or the insurance companies, that is to say at the institutional investors which are operating in both. So they are related, but while we spend most of the debates discussing about the responsibility of the so-called closed world of the speculative finance, Lordon invites us to see why this point of view is embedded in an unseen overthrow of the original function of the stock market, which is to finance business. In short, now it is ruled in such a way that it is business which finances the stock market. We won't elaborate on this reversal which is mostly but not only the result of the deregulation of the market which occurred in the 80's and 90's. What is interesting to us here is that the possibility of the closure of the stock market asserts the material existence of the economical center of decisions ; it shows that the relations of power and their modification are a spatial issue as much as and maybe more than an ideological question ; and it puts an end to the dichotomy between a real economy on one side and a speculative one on the other. This last distinction is actually useful for the people in command, because it maintains the misconception of a system which works by itself, the justification of a global irresponsibility, and so the resignation of those who could look for other possibilities. Now, coming back to the occupation of Wall Street, we see that by itself it doesn't fundamentally transform the rules of the game. It is not in Wall street that the disenfranchisement is the issue. By comparison, there is something much more powerful in the occupation of a factory, because it is there that the stock market imposes its rules, in the name of over-profitability and dividends. Closing Wall Street is the next step, not in a spirit of destructive nihilism of the “evil” stock market, but because it is one condition for the re-opening of a multitude of other spaces : in factories, in companies, but also in other and maybe new public spaces. The actual trend of the economical system is to depoliticize as many spaces as possible, in order to only let us watch passively the foul public arena occupied by politicians. To close the stock market is to redefine politics as a property of most of the space where we live and think : the fact that they are common spaces. To occupy the symbolic place of power is an idea which needs somehow to be pushed a bit further if you want to really disturb the routine of a space in which the agents believe to live in an other reality, and to be unreachable.


The two examples would certainly have merited being developed further. In a way, I only hinted at the question of disenfranchisement in space, indicating how it enables us to think about power differently than when we limit our scope to the perspective of the juridical rights. The examples deal with two different situations, but it seems that in both cases, what is ultimately at stake is to question our sense of “reality”, in order to perceive its complexity and its pre-construction. If generally speaking, to be disenfranchised means to be deprived of power, to perceive and conceive the space in which power relations are implemented is certainly as important than to know your rights in it, at least because sometimes it could show that the latter are powerless. This is often the case in camps of punishment but also of retention, as well as in the world of Wall Street. If I may justify the choice of these two examples, I would say that I chose the camp because it is a form close to the prison, but which works a bit differently, especially when it articulates disenfranchisement with a facet of respect of freedom and/or humanity. As to Wall Street, it seems to me that it opens up the question of the virtual spaces, and it raises doubts about their so-called enfranchised nature. Now, is there a link between Punishment Park and the stock market ?  Perhaps, to use the words of a character in Punishment Park, in the fact that there are places and times where the honorable things to do is to act as a criminal. That is what becomes possible when you distance yourself from the legal/illegal dichotomy, but also when the absolute forms of enfranchisement vanish.

Julien Quelennec

Julien Quelennec is a phd student at Jiao Tung National University ( Hsinchu ). Former student of philosophy in France, he is working now on political history of modernity in Europe and China.

Julien Quelennec 目前於交通大學攻讀博士,主題為歐洲與中國政治歷史的現代性。過去在法國念哲學。

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