Between Foucault and The Village People: A Transatlantic reflection on Bodies, Race, and Power

The cast of the Village People’s multicultural makeup is a testament to formidable powers of marketing and music business prowess. It is also an instructive note in Atlantic history for the pedantic and those unable to enjoy disco music without dissecting its socio-economic, political, and historical implications.

The original cast of The Village People brought together figures from different historical periods of transatlantic contact in the American story. The Cowboy represents a figure typically associated in modern imaginations as fighting against the ‘Indians’, a signal to some  of  the conflict and distrust between settler and native populations  Where the former is a key figure in celebrations of settler colonialism’s success, the latter  is ultimately invariably framed as a victim of loss of land and culture. Yet, in the context of The Village People and disco music, these differences are subsumed under liberty, freedom and a sense of camaraderie among the macho gay fantasy characters.

Settler Colonialism’s implications on native American cultures are well known: The arrival of European settlers reconfigured and largely displaced existing cultures and forms of social and political organization. In this process and in subsequent  quests for narrative, the native figure appears in history as either a valiant but unsuccessful defender of homeland, deceived or disenfranchised.

The cowboy, a relatively much newer concept, encapsulates  attitudes of self-reliance  and individual ingenuity. He also represents a celebrated use of violence to subdue native populations. The theme of violence against native populations, indeed, forms a core element of Atlantic settler colonialism. Delaney, for example, recounts how violence, rape, murder and enslavement formed a core part of the  mechanisms used to establish a European presence in the Americas (2011). The bodies of native inhabitants of the Americas were thus redefined at first contact as objects over which domination would be exercised and  reinforced.

For queer native Americans or rather, ‘two-spirited’ people,  first European contacts were particularly brutal.  Colonization restructured norms and moral values, and  criminalized  previously acepted effeminate men. Colonial contact also added an additional layer of condemnation and sociocultural exclusion for those that transgressed gender boundaries. In recent years, two-spirit activism has sought to reclaim a pre-colonial acceptance of native American people with fluid gender identity.

In the context of disco, however, the complex history of subjugation and violent repression is forgotten and danced away. However, if Morgensen’s (2011) reasoning is to be borrowed and applied to a popular culture gay fantasy ensemble, it could be argued that the much loved Village People serve to actually ‘naturalize’ relations born out of exclusion and colonial  oppression.  The group’s multiculturalism arguably suggests equality while ennobling a broader structure born out of imperial competition.

Granted, the suggestion of The Village People’s complicity in sustaining an oppressive racial order rooted in settler colonialism by hiding behind a veneer of multiculturalism  could be viewed as far fetched or tortured logic. However,  this opinion is arguably best substantiated when read alongside Foucault’s reflection on the late middle age political context that gave rise to colonial expansion  (and the restructuring of native American life).

Reflecting upon The Village People’s Indian character through Foucault

Foucault’s ‘Society Must Be Defended’ delivered to the College de France in Paris provides an insight into the legal and political forces that shaped the visio mundi of the very first European settler colonists. At the core of their frameworks for comprehending power was monarchy, supported by several jurists that had re-emerged with vigor at the end of the middle ages. In other words, power was primarily defined in relation to monarchy and the imposition of law. Yet, the power of the law was ‘all about the king: his rights, his power, and the possible limits of his power’.

The chief implication of power based on monarchy and judicial power was a strong claim to legitimacy to rule based on  theories of ‘right’ to rule and legitimacy. Monarchs and those who served in their service thus ultimately presided over networks of ‘relations of domination’ as ‘right’ was asserted and legitimacy enforced by the agents of monarchs.

Monarchies descending from the late middle ages thus sought to establish monopoly over war while also fostering political life that consisted of ‘multiple subjugations that (took) place and function(ed) in the (entire) social body’. Dominance and subjugation would also be sustained through the use of power to punish, torture, and imprison.

The implications of these basic tenets of  medieval rule were manifest in the use of brute force in the Americas in the service of all powerful monarchs, and in the creation and sustaining of  new networks of power and subjugation. Right and legitimacy thus empowered agents of monarchies to deploy violence and force in service of Kingly power.

Viewed in juxtaposition with Foucault’s reasoning, The Village People’s most historical figure, the native American, serves a self contradictory role – he simultaneously signals the past through attire and aesthetic while simultaneously depoliticizing and rendering it invisible.

The Village People, it would turn out, are a potentially instructive case-in-point for a reflection on the degree to which the performance of multicultural harmony may be self-defeating. After all, in this case, multicultural bodies serve to mask structural privilege and domination rooted in medieval monarchy and the judiciary-based structures of power about which Foucault spoke so eloquently.

However, given that The Village People emerged as a French business effort inspired by Greenwich Village – the group was conceived by two French music producers while walking in New York – perhaps a more down-to-earth analysis of the disco group would explore this creative process of transatlantic exchange.

Author: George Katito

References:

Delaney, Carol. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Foucault, Michel, and François Ewald. ” Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Vol. 1. Macmillan, 2003.

Scott Lauria Morgensen. Spaces between us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. U of Minnesota Press, 2011.

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