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Lucille Spurr

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About the author

Lucille Spurr is a PhD candidate at University of New South Wales. Her thesis, ‘Dancing in the Spaces’, is an investigation into the affective body and everyday life. Her fictocritical work incorporates theories of the body, subjectivity, socialisation and performativity; and auto/biography.

Publication details

Volume 15, November 2006

Instituted bodies: the institution and the unruly woman

Ideas come to me when I’m in the shower … as I dwell on Foucault’s theory. I think about its subject matter – the institution – as well as the performative aspects of gender. The water on my skin splashes me with insight, which I decide l will use to collate my own perceptions.
I reflect on my lived experience to correlate with the theory.
As I try to focus my thoughts on Foucault’s concepts of institutionalisation, memories of my mother’s and grandmother’s clinical incarcerations continually intrude. Can I move through this theory without drawing on these memories? I shut my eyes and feel the full force of water on my face. Elucidations appear to explain the theories I’m working with. The water cleanses my body of socialisation.I step onto the tiles – they look like grid lines – and sense my mother and grandmother tapping me on the shoulder. I tell them this is about me, but they won’t go away. They won’t let me open my bathroom door. They become unruly. These familiar ghosts throw themselves around the bathroom. I have visions of my mother and her relentless hand washing. Of my grandmother’s many attempts to escape her incarceration. I want to indulge in the repetitive act of washing my hair, to wash out the debris of my past. Is this what my mother had been doing, when they’d decided to put her in the car and take her away?
I once heard a story about Charlie Chaplin’s mother, and it comes to mind now. Apparently, after she ‘went mad’ and had been institutionalised for years, she said all she’d really needed that day was a cup of tea.
I lean against the inside of the bathroom door and take a slow breath. ‘Okay,’ I think to the ghosts, ‘You’re in.’
It’s as easy as that. The ghosts disappear (for now). Throwing on clean clothes, I move to the computer, thinking of how my mother had perfected the role of the unstable woman, the hysteric, the one they would inevitably take away and (re)settle so she could come back into the order and function within the social rules. In my excruciatingly ordinary life in the western suburbs of fibro and cement, she was my gift. In her primary role within institutionalised motherhood in the 1960s, she performed her dissonance. They took her away whenever she dramatised being ‘out of control’. Pity they’d never asked her what she wanted on those days.

This fictocritical piece considers the subject’s relationship to the institutions of the family, the church, the workforce, the state, and the clinic within the theoretical frameworks of Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Grosz and Luce Irigaray. The three strands of Foucault’s thought I draw on are the ‘Panopticon’, the ‘medical gaze’, and the ‘docile body’. Foucault’s omission of gendered relations of power is challenged and disrupted in this piece by the auto/biographical narratives of three women: my grandmother, my mother and myself. Together we represent three generations struggling within the bounds of the socially structured roles so common from the 1960s to the 1980s and even up to the present time. The psychoanalytic perspectives of Grosz and Irigaray are incorporated to account for Foucault’s exclusions of gendered relations to power and to critique the auto/biographical narratives. Grosz identifies the psychical processes that produce men and women as social subjects through familial, social and linguistic structures. Grosz includes Irigaray’s concepts of a genealogy of women in her discussion of mother/daughter relations. I consider in this paper the contentions of the subject’s ability to (re)view and transform the inscripted forces imposed on the body, and move with and away from what has been, to articulate new positions.

Foucault (1979) discusses how historical institutions, despite their de-institutionalisation or less stable constructions, continue to function and adapt as a form of social control. Elements of a disciplinary society, he suggests, can be traced back to the seventeenth century to the time of the plague when the state began to monitor the activities of the family through surveillance and disciplinary mechanisms to control the spread of disease. In the eighteenth century, stemming from these disciplinary methods, the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design of a prison system, was developed and adopted as an all-seeing enclosure (Foucault 1979, 208-209). It consisted of a central tower above a circular transparent cage in which all prisoners could be seen at all times, although the prisoners were unable to see the officers in the tower. Panopticism, Foucault states, is the general principle of a new “political anatomy”: whose object and end are … the relations of power … a design of subtle coercion for a society to come’ (1979, 208-209). The general principle of Panopticism not only arranges power; it becomes a mechanism for a more effective economic, productive, educational and moralistic social body. Strengthened by social forces, it penetrates the behaviour of the subject on an everyday level (Foucault 1979, 208-209). The disciplinary power of this model spreads to other institutions including the asylum, schools and the hospital, and continues its surveillance techniques to control the functioning of the norms of society and of subjects who deviate from the norm (Foucault 1979).

I speak and write from a third generation of incarcerated women.

My Grandmother – in State Care aged 44 till death at 53.
My Mother – in State Care aged 27, aged 36, aged 54
My Self – State Ward, aged 3 (1year). Then cared for by relatives, gradually returned to family.
Implications – bodily enigma, loss of self and locus.

The mother, the unruly woman who enacts ‘out of order’ is moved from one institution (the family) to another (the clinic). The productive subject in the institution of motherhood disrupts the routine of her role as mother in the family institution. What will the consequences be for the subject who deviates and becomes unproductive?

I’m three years old. I can just see over the top of the table to the other side of the room. And that’s where my mother is standing when I see her tall, rigid figure fall backwards to the floor like a statue. I wait for her to smash into tiny, stony pieces. My stomach churns in the dun room with the grey tiles and the sight of her lifeless body on the floor. I step back, feeling the familiar chill of the cot’s metal rungs against the puffy flesh of my fingers. A nurse props my mother up at the desk then leaves her with her head resting on her arms. Occasionally, she moans. My body is shivering. I want my mother to wake up. Will they take me away again? I don’t want to go back to the orphanage.

How will the (un)coping mother be placed? The subjected mother violates the political economy of her role. This disruption will nonetheless be held in check in the medical and mental institutional regime. Her treatment will consist of the prescription of drugs and Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) until such time that her behaviour is modified to enable her return to the family. She returns to the family with its own set of appropriated norms – normative ‘behaviour’ advocated by the state and the church. Periodically she is transferred back to the restrictive and state-controlled codes of the clinic. My mother, without volition, is caught in a revolving cycle of institutions.

My mother’s condition is ultimately controlled by the ‘loquacious gaze’ of the reputable clinician. Foucault (1973) traces the medicalisation of society back to the time of the French Revolution whereby a nationalised medical profession develops a ‘nosology’, a classification of diseases, which sets up the signifying practice of distinguishing the subject as normal or pathological. The focus is therefore on normality rather than health. The methods and norms of the clinician’s observation develops within language and thus records, normalises and totalises the epistemological structure of the clinic. (1973, 35, 58, 129). Foucault suggests that the change transformed a purely theoretical discipline into one in which symptoms became concrete, and treatment practical. Foucault’s concern is the underlying objective truth of the patient’s disease in the overarching gaze of the medical profession, whereby the person is classified within a singularity of physical conditions which is separate from their suffering. (1973, 109). The medicalisation of society described by Foucault prevailed to the extent that it still impinged upon my mother’s treatment in the second half of the twentieth century.

My mother’s doctors were always male, always trusted, never questioned. She talked of being in love with her doctors, yet according to Foucault’s theories the patient is a text [not a sensed body] to be read, the subject of the disease, a case (1973, 59). Perhaps her faith in her doctors transformed the relationship into a mythical fixation. Foucault suggests medicine’s model of a healthy man [sic] permeated the social life of the individual in terms of physical and moral relations (1973, 34).

In the network of disciplinary institutions, another influential site, in more settled times of familial daily life, is the church.

On a gusty winter evening my mother bribes me to go to church with her to do a ‘novena’. She offers me a packet of Twisties - a rare treat. I agree if my sister can come too. There are fourteen Stations of the Cross, each hung between stained-glass windows that my mother prays to. Watching her, I wonder what she means about being granted an intention. I think it means a wish. I try to pray so I can get a wish too. I forget my intention after seven stations, as I get deliriously bored. I decide that I will try again another time. My sister becomes fidgety after three. It’s hard to pick one wish out of all the wishes I have anyway. What is my mother praying for?What is her wish?

Is she praying for something within the order of her maternal role, or for transcendence out of her lived socialised existence? The church, another institution, contains her through its constructed norms of behaviour, yet at the same time offers her something more – a faith.

Foucault discusses the church (or religious groups), strengthening in the Counter-Reformation, as one of society’s ‘centres of observation’, which is capable of functioning as a disciplinary force in relation to morals and ‘the struggle against discontent or agitation’ (1979, 212). The church influences morals and behaviour in the home and relationships between families and neighbours from within the congregation, as well as laying down regulations such as attendance at sacraments, and the teaching of prayers (Foucault 1979). Further, Foucault (1979) suggests, confessional techniques originating in the church have spread to other aspects of everyday life, in justice and family life for example, as a self-disciplining practice.

I wonder what my mother tells at confession? Why does she go there all the time? I can’t imagine all the bad things she does. She says sometimes it’s also about what you think as well as what you do. I make up lies, while I am waiting in the church, sitting on the huge wooden stools near the confessional cubicles. I am so nervous about talking to the priest, especially when he slides open the cover on the grated window. The sudden slide always comes as a shock when you’re kneeling there in the box. What should I say?
I can’t think of anything
I have done wrong. I make up things to say because I can’t go in
and say nothing –
‘I was mean to my brothers and sisters and I told a lie.’
I wonder how many prayers I will have to say for penance before I am forgiven and if I will get through them all. Some days, if I forget my hat, I worry some ogre is going to come and punish me. I worry too about getting to heaven if my mother says I have a wild streak.

The subject speaks to the authority, the listener, and this one-directional line of communication establishes a power relationship in which the agency of domination resides in the one who says nothing. The subject internalises his/her own modifications, as an obligation to speak and self/monitor truth (Foucault 1979). The church is my mother’s new agency of domination – from the family, then the clinic, now the church.

I move from the family and the church to the workforce. According to Foucault (1979), social discipline was eventually transferred from religious groups or monastic communities, ‘the masters of discipline … the specialists of time’, to the judiciary and subsequently throughout society (1979, 150). It spread to the workforce with rhythms, timetabling and repetitions of occupations. (Foucault 1979, 149). Thus the body becomes ‘a body of exercise ... a body manipulated by authority, rather than imbued with animal spirits’ (Foucault 1979, 155).

The concept of the ‘docile body’ is that of a mechanical or useful body that ‘may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’ whereby it becomes a product of labour within a discipline of ‘docility-utility’ (Foucault 1979, 136-7). The mechanics of the productive yet subjected docile body, the provider of labour controlled by labour authorities, becomes defined by the place it occupies and the working day becomes the ‘productive power of social labour’ (Foucault 1979, 163-4). Foucault states that ‘disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination' (Foucault 1979, 138). The combination of the productive yet subjected ‘docile body’ functions in the workforce under disciplinary power. The body, the provider of labour, is controlled and ordered by the rules set up by labour authorities and its innate condition is made docile. In the workforce I become a de-animalised docile body. I question where the wild streak is now.

Living on the fringe of Sydney in the 1970s, my family holds traditional views, especially when it comes to the education of women. Tertiary education is free when I leave school and I don’t know it.
It’s a stifling day when my father ushers me into the mailroom of a bleak city building. Cowering beneath the skyscrapers is the City Mutual Life Assurance Society, the office where I am to work full time.
I am fifteen and a half. I have just completed the school certificate. My father’s view is that my employment is temporary, for my destiny as a woman is to reproduce and be supported by a male.
I progress to the position of clerical typist after two years. During this time, I am accepted into an art institute on the merit of my work to train as a commercial artist. I decline because I cannot support myself without working. Meanwhile, my four brothers are strictly educated to upper high school level and supported through tertiary education.
I am resigned to this situation yet I want to flee from it. I adhere to this institution, yet it deprives my body of its desired expression. My body prefers to work with paint and imagery. I am locked into this regime because I don’t know how to articulate my desires.There is also the inequality between male and female wages.
Gazing out the metal-gridded windows of the grey marble building on Hunter Street, silently wailing over the containment of my own body, stiff and lifeless in this office environment, I surrender my impassioned imagery to the city smog.

The woman is a girl, just fifteen-and-a-half. Where is her image of difference, of deviating from the father’s construction of her in the work place she occupies? She is unable to see other options for herself. She does not want to be defined by this workplace, an institution. Her mother has shown her that eruption is possible (albeit with dire consequences) but she has not seen a movement beyond the law of the father. The transgression from the familial to the social into a self-desired position is confusing. Where is the mother’s performance of agency to assist the daughter in the social?

Gendered relations to disciplinary institutions are negated in Foucault’s theories of institutionalisation. Lois McNay, despite her acknowledgement of the sophistication of Foucault’s work, states that his ‘indifference to some of the issues raised by gender … is striking’ (1994, 10). She further comments that cultural and gender theorists raise the difficulties of the ‘gender blindness’ in his work. Elizabeth Grosz provides a gendered analysis of familial and social relationships addressing some of the issues of gender in relation to disciplinary power. Grosz critiques Lacanian psychoanalysis in relation to the Law of the Father or the phallocentric order. She further incorporates mother/daughter relations with reference to Luce Irigaray. Grosz’s work provides an account of the subject from a psychical or interior position in relation to familial and social relationships.

Grosz states that the ‘child becomes a subject only with reference to the name-of-the-father and the sacrificed, absent body of the mother’ (Grosz 1990, 71). According to Lacan, the name-of-the-father is the historical structure that functions as and symbolises the law (Lacan 1977 in Grosz 1990, 71). The regulation extends beyond the family as the absent father figure maintains order and thus becomes the Symbolic Father, the historical structure that functions as and symbolises the law. The Symbolic Father continues to govern in the social in other figures such as the headmaster, the policeman, the clinic or even God (Lacan 1977 in Grosz 1990, 71).

I witness a third encounter of my mother’s incarceration in my late twenties. I have the privilege of a few minutes with my mother between her withdrawal from one set of prescribed drugs and the start of the next. We are sitting with all the other residents of this institutional clinic. As though waiting at a bus stop, we are perched on long benches at the corner of the corridor, squashed up against other residents. What exactly are we waiting for? More drugs? Another round of ECT?
My mother is shaking. She apologises for being so feeble. I hold her hand, it seems for the first time, and tell her it’s okay. Without drugs, my mother actually feels real to me – until now, I’ve never felt this way about her. Everything vanishes except for the space occupied by our two bodies - bodies that connect at the heart, momentarily in acceptance, while we grapple with the trauma in our guts.
A couple of days later, I return to the clinic to see my mother before heading back north. I stand at the end of the metal bed, looking at her lying on an altar of vacant space. She moans. She’s back on drugs.
I scream silently while my veins pulsate in outrage.
‘You’ve taken her away again, you bastards.’
I have lost my mother once more. Aren’t there any other options?
Whose decision was this?
At home that evening, I sit trembling on the verandah. Under the light of the full-bodied moon in the northern sky, I see an enormous Hawk Moth on my impatiens plant. It has gorged all the rich, red blooms.

Moth full

            my fabric

                       cast drunken

                                      to bellied moon

                                      (re)loom shredded flesh

Grosz states that, ‘The burial of women under the phallocentric reduction to maternity is crippling for both mother and daughter’ (1990, 181). She suggests that under the Law of the Father, the woman (having given up her name and identity) remains unrepresented except in her role as mother. Her role as woman is obscured by maternity and by being an ‘object of desire’, which are her only social values, thus constricting her agency as a woman. Grosz says we must move beyond such repressed positions to articulate women’s agency and new representations (1990, 181).

Irigaray, Grosz explains, is concerned with the mother’s position within the phallic, claiming that a child, boy or girl, does not experience a depiction of agency of the female sex or a sexual difference (Grosz 1990). Irigaray further explains the mother’s propensity to suffocate the child, gaining her identity through it, causing the child to escape (Grosz 1990). Articulating the child’s point of view and sense of engulfment, Irigaray states:

But you give yourself too much, as if you wanted to fill me up with what you bring me. Put less of yourself in me and let me look at you… Do not swallow yourself up, do not swallow me down in that which flows from you to me … So that one does not disappear into the other … (Irigaray 1981 in Grosz 1990, 182).

My mother often said to my younger siblings ‘you’re all I’ve got’. Even as a child, I would ponder this statement and wonder what else there would be for the mother other than the consumption of the child. Will I be caught in the same cycle, or will I escape? Irigaray considers this constriction as excess rather than lack, without an expression or outlet. She suggests that the daughter symbolically murders the mother by taking her place, without differentiation, and without having learned an identification of woman. The daughter is exiled (Grosz 1990, 182).

Like my mother and myself, my grandmother was constrained by the patriarchy. Permanently in the clinic, my grandmother, is even more contained than my mother. This does not stop the performance of her ‘disruptive excess’, a product of even deeper historical constructs. In a different society, what would her preferred lived experience look like?

My nanna comes to visit on Saturdays. My mother instructs all of us to be nice to her mother. My mother buys my nanna two cans of beer. Nanna, in her polyester dress, sits most of the time sipping the beer, which the institution she lives in won’t let her have. My mother washes nanna’s other polyester dresses. My nanna speaks loudly and slowly and is robust – yet when she laughs it is as if she is three, as if she doesn’t know anything about looking after herself. She seems out of order compared to other grandmothers. We hear my mother telling stories to her friends about her mother’s escapes from the institution. She climbs out the window, or runs out the door when no one is looking. She goes downtown to place bets on the horses and to buy beer before returning to the institution. They put her in this institution with people who have had disabilities from birth. I don’t understand why they have locked her away. I think she’s clever to escape so she can study the form guide. They treat her as if she is intellectually impaired.

My grandmother enacts Bakhtin’s carnivalesque resistance by creating her own world of laughter, drinking and gambling that opposes the normality of the institution (1984, 88).

The subversion of psychoanalytical theory, according to Irigaray, is to give up the mother, despite the painful sacrifice of nurturing to allow her validity as woman. The daughter in return is able to ‘speak to, rather than at her mother’ (Grosz 1990, 183). The new relationship disrupts the ‘socio-sexual exchange’ demanded of patriarchy, whereby the daughter replaces the mother – the daughters therefore must make their own ‘sexual, political, and economic exchange’ outside the maternal order (Grosz 1990, 183).

The daughter attempts to speak to the mother and unconsciously realises the mother, and the mother before, have desperately tried but lost (in their performance of ‘disruptive excess’) so consumed by the density of the phallic order, unable to see a new position. In order to find a new direction as a young woman the daughter has no alternative but to escape. How does she find direction, without having seen the woman creating new alternatives? Perhaps the disruption is a starting point, through education and a different geographical location.

I’m twenty-six when I return to school to do my Higher School Certificate. I study with seventeen and eighteen-year-old students. I do all the subjects I enjoy – including art, English and drama – and socialise with the younger students. At the end of the year, having recently conceived my first child, I play Hecuba in ‘The Trojan War Will Not Take Place’, our college production. I invite my mother to the performance and at the same time announce my news. Before the grand play, I act in a short skit. I play a nun who visits the priest’s quarters at night. The culmination of her daughter, pregnant out of wedlock, going back to school, and playing characters deviating from religious norms is overwhelming for my mother – I just want her to be proud of me for graduating with my HSC, and for performing in a stage production. In her eyes, I’ve become the ultimate manifestation of the Wild Child she called me all those years ago.

Foucault’s perspectives in this paper have been effective in defining the subject’s disempowerment through institutionalisation by providing an historical account of the institutional developments of the clinic, the church and the workforce. They illuminate the social formation of institutionalisation within which the women in this family representing three generations were subjected. Foucault’s theories, however, provide little account of the gendered constructs that have repressed women through such institutions, or of how the subject achieves autonomy against these relations of power. To address these omissions, the historical account of women’s oppression has been expanded in this paper through Grosz and Irigaray’s psychoanalytical perspectives. These perspectives identify gendered constructs through their incorporation of familial and social relationships. Together these theories have provided an historical underpinning in which to explore the repressive experiences of the three generations of women in this family through institutionalisation. Against these theoretical underpinnings, the auto/biographical accounts have offered insights into the women’s body centered displays of dissonance against repression and their difficulties of achieving autonomy or new articulations particularly in the 1960s, the era preceding de-institutionalisation. The theoretical underpinning and auto/biographical account provide a standpoint in which to view the generational disempowerment of the women in this family and to consider alternatives, particularly through the perspectives of Grosz and Irigaray and the auto/biographical inquiry of the younger woman.


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