I once visited the torture dungeon inside the Gravensteen Castle in Ghent.
While down in the dungeon, I realized that the flashiness of the torture devices obscured the more creative contraptions -- the instruments used for restraint.
You see, the easiest part of torture is inflicting pain. Humans are awfully fragile. The hard part is getting your victim to stay in one place while you do it!
This caused me to wonder, what if the most creative things humans have ever constructed were mechanisms for restraint?
Restraint and Representation
Take for example an X-ray machine – the X-ray machine functions by shooting X-rays through the body, causing an image to appear on photo-sensitive paper according to where the X-rays were inhibited as they passed through the body.
The X-ray machine captures a phenomenon – the bones inside your body – by restraining it in a certain way, thus causing it to become observable. The device for restraint imputes to a process a definite shape which makes it appear.
Ultimately, tools of restraint serve as "technologies of re-presentation."
These technologies of representation mobilize the opposition between two or more phenomena in order to create a contrast. The emergence of this contrast constructs a representation by imposing an abstract standard of measurement in relation to which a phenomenon can become legible to us.
Technologies of restraint thus provide a phenomenon with a frame, and frames can radically shape what we see – put a picture in a frame, and all of sudden it becomes something more than it was before.
Simply by singling this object out – the addition of a subtraction – we produce an excess of meaning beyond the object itself. The frame provides a context within which and against which the phenomenon can be said to have a shape.
However, we must note that the operation performed by technologies of restraint is very precise – these tools produce a substitute for the phenomenon in question. In making things appear, they facilitate a mediated encounter.
For instance, when the doctor looks at your X-ray, the doctor does not examine your bone, but rather a representation of your bone.
The bone conceals itself, remaining itself at all times.
However, you nonetheless believe the X-ray machine to have produced something sufficiently like your bone such that you would even allow a doctor to operate on you on the basis of their examination of this representation.
Becoming legible, becoming free
Through the introduction of a frame, and through mobilizing the conflicting forces of various phenomena, we restrain an underlying flux of processes – we must make the phenomenon stay in one place just long enough to do some violence to it.
This account raises in my mind the question of legibility in general.
What does it mean to become legible, either to ourselves or to others?
People become legible to us by way of mechanisms which position them under a general category – what do you do for work? what are your hobbies? what are your credentials? where are you from? where do you shop? how do your exercise?
These questions are all ways of asking 'what is your identity?' We can understand identity as that which makes us legible in our relationships with others and ourselves.
Our identity grows through the continuous accretion of elements which compose its concrete markers. Biological realities like our genetics contribute, but also narrative moments such as where (or whether) we went to college, the games we played as children, shocks or traumas which we encountered, and much more.
Perhaps then we can venture to say that society has also produced technologies of representation which serve to give us an identity. They pin down the dynamic process of a human life just long enough that we might become legible to institutional systems, and increasingly, to each other.
This last clause – 'increasingly to each other' – seems to me the greatest tragedy. We're witnessing at mass scale in our society a shift to people primarily relating to themselves and others through identity elements as understood by their bureaucratic definitions rather than through original convivial constructions.
One understands themselves as racial no longer through a messy experience of family and culture in which hybridity and excessive immersion produces conflicts, but rather one is exhorted to take up the Manichean dualism of blackness / whiteness in understanding their thoughts, motivations, and actions.
Simultaneously, one's racial understanding also now requires that one contort themselves into the general categories proffered by the vast demographic data collection apparatus for the purposes of legal compliance and reporting ("Asian or Pacific Islander").
One is no longer German, Finnish, or Ukrainian – simply "Caucasian."
In the realm of the mind and the body, one no longer approaches themselves as a situation, but rather as "having" a "mental illness." This abstract and medically-produced entity instantiates itself through one's body, producing an identifiable set of markers, and including you in a broader community of those who possess similar symptoms and struggles.
The mental illness inducts one into new affinity groups, and promises to ameliorate one's misery by serving as a legible explanation for suffering. In rendering one's self sick with a mental illness, one then also presents their body and mind to medical and legal systems as a willing site of ongoing "interventions."
The human drive to master one's environment and invent new possibilities of living is converted into the demand for the big Other to provide us with 'care.'
I ask – are our technologies of representation rendering us progressively more helpless or are they building our capacity to think, orient, and act in our world?
An awakening to one's racial identity is not sufficient for achieving an emancipatory mode of living if the way that society provides for one to express that newly realized identity is to demand and agitate for more services, more social programs, and an expansion of interventions in one's mind, body, and family.
A freedom which orients itself towards the exercise of agency requires that the tools which it employs towards its ends do not inculcate an excessive institutional dependence. The tools one chooses to work with can produce helplessness and dis-ablement in the long run.
Much like the legal battle of the 'right to repair' which has begun to gain traction in recent years, we must also begin to wage a war on the brittle and captured identities which we have gladly taken up in recent years.
We must discover for ourselves a new 'right to repair' our lives – families, bodies, minds, spirits.
No one will give us this right, and demanding this right from the vast apparatus of care would simply repeat the same mistake – we must pioneer this method for ourselves.
We do not need permission to do this; we only need the love and will to do so.
We are not seeking a new master, but rather to recover our own mastery.
Intersectional discourse has long said that the master's tools cannot dismantle the master's house, and this point is well taken. I only ask that we extend this suspicion also to the people providing us with these supposedly new tools.
Why not simply make our own?