by Tom McBride


Tom McBride

From a forthcoming book, The Surveillance of Icebergs: Great Philosophers and Climate Change

     Life may be a tale told by an idiot, but the climate crisis is a tale told by experts. Suppose your body were the planet and it was getting uncomfortably hotter. You could always go to a guru and just say “cookie” a hundred times to ward off evil spirits, but you would likely consult an expert. This expert would study your body, monitor it with care, figure out what is wrong, and prescribe a treatment. This would entail some technology or other—perhaps pills, maybe surgery, or perhaps a sophisticated mandate for lifestyle change. Foucault termed this a three-step process of surveillance, normalization, and examination. Of course, you chose the first step—you asked to be surveilled—and while you could not define “normalization” in technical terms, you sort of knew what it would feel like.  The expert, once surveilling you with your consent, might well announce that you are deviating from normal, and the expert will then subject you to examination to find out why. Then comes the cure, but you will need to be re-examined as to your progress towards normality.

     This may sound like an innocent and mundane story, even as it has been told here with some mild innuendo, but Foucault wants you to be suspicious of it. At first it seems to be a fine Enlightenment narrative—the growth of science both theoretical and instrumental as a result of continuous empirical observation and model-building—until it has become common for people all over to say, “It’s amazing what they can come up with these days.” Foucault sees it as just one instance of a power arrangement. We have chopped off the heads of kings, or we have removed them from office or neutered them. But power does not go away. It just rearranges itself. Foucault said we lifted repression in the Sixties so that everyone could take their clothes off—no royalty or government to stop it—but then everyone must be thin. The days of the Enlightenment, with its great myth of progress and liberation—has toppled kings but transferred power to experts. Foucault has famously shown this counter-narrative in his studies of prisons, knowledge, asylums, and sexuality. He rejects the grand progressive narrative of the Enlightenment and offers an alternative history of dictatorial experts who are given pantoptically pervasive powers of observation in order to investigate and normalize our bodies, whether in jails or clinics, residence halls or office buildings, with diets and exercise regimes, in traffic or out. The mad man, once seen as a spiritual being free to roam, is now taken in for observation and remedy. “We strongly advise that you not go home yet. We want to keep you a little longer for observation.”

     As an implicit post-structuralist Foucault would have us cast a cold eye on the mono-story of medical progress as one more of the myths to which we are so close that we never question them. He would enlist us to disrupt and fragment such master tales of linear upward movement. He would urge us to ask what we are giving up in order to take the cure,  Do not be suspicious of your doctor because he may be incompetent. Be suspicious of your doctor because he is all too competent, and powerful.

     A medical scientist is not a climate scientist, but both are immersed in the same immense narrative. The plot is familiar: surveillance, normalization, and examination. Here, as with your rising body fever, the plot does become complex and tricky. You asked to be surveilled. The iceberg did not, but it’s just an iceberg. An iceberg is not a rational animal. It is presumably void of any capacity for transcendental subjectivity. It is no kind of animal at all, and the rationality of icebergs would seem to be a far-fetched dnotion. No. The ieberg is like your heart or your lungs. It is a symptom: something to be observed and tested. A high fever is a symptom of something wrong. Melting icebergs are a symptom of something wrong. You give your permission to have your lungs examined, but the icebereg does not permit scientists to watch it, measure it, check it, and so forth. The iceberg is a lung, in effect, out of the body but upon it. Or perhaps, to take the comparison along, if your lungs were outside your body, then the physician could examine them there if they were functional. Then the lungs would be like the iceberg—to be surveilled, normalized, examined.

     Foucault does not necessarily claim that some sort of metaphysics is being smuggled into the process, but we could take a cue from him. Doctors do say things like, “Your heart is not behaving as it should.” There is a normal way the heart should behave. It should. If you question nearly any octor, he will presumably say that this is not a metaphysical but a physical condition. The heart is not behaving as it “should” consistent with good health. In other words: the heart does not have a “normal” or “good” way to behave, no standard it MUST measure up to, except that it happens to be your heart and has a role in your good health. Likewise, icebergs can melt if they want to, more or less, but if we are to have a healthy planet they must not melt too much, for that means higher ocean levels and is a sign of excess global fever, and after a while if the berg melts away too much it will lose its identity altogether. So there is seemingly no metaphysical standard here, only a situational healthy, physical one, for both heart and berg. No metaphysical smuggling here.

     Yet it is nort so simple. Your heart or lungs are not just physical signs of illness, or causes of same.  They also belong to you and you are responsible for keeping them in good working condition. Don’t smoke and eat lots of kale. Your body is still the temple of some Deistic entity or other and it is up to you to keep it holy. If you don’t, don’t be surprised that you must submit to surveillance, normalization, and examination. It might even go further than that. The data bases know whether or not you have gotten a colonoscopy of late, and that is why we called you to get one, and if you don’t, expect insurance rates to go up or the policy to be dropped altogether. Are you keeping the temple holy? Foucault might say that where there is great systematic power, backed by a legitimizing massive narrative, metaphysics of the normal and good cannot be far behind and will make its tacit presence felt sooner or later. They who are required to be normal are rarely free.

     But the more crucial question is about the icebergs. They are in no position to object to their being observed and measured. They are not able to become patients who have read Foucault and have no interest in being normalized. And yet we who are in such a position do not wish them to escape surveillance, for the condition of icebergs is surely a clue to the health of the planet. A liquifying iceberg is like a bad ticker. The experts who surveille icebergs may well help save the planet, but in doing so they will also advance the majestic Enlightenment narrative of progress and knowledge and reason and power that Foucault is eager to deconstruct. There is also the possibility that creeping into the process is the idea that icebergs should have a “correct” temperature range, or that icebergs need norming of some sort. Only experts can know for sure, and so it is they who will tell us we must change our lifestyles. All this seems innocent and decorous enough. Are we not talking pragmatically about what we must do for our heirs to thrive and survive? There is, thanks to Foucault, a sense that there is more to it than that: the authoritarian power of experts, a smuggled sense of “normal” that will not and has not stopped with icebergs but extends to less inanimate beings, and that every inch of the planet needs doctoring and exercise. If Foucault were writing about this subject he might add to The Birth of the Clinic a new title: The Normality of Icebergs. The cure may well not be worse than the disease, but it will not come without a paradigmatic cost to decentralized autonomy. Our descendants will breathe clean air and be forced to be well.

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