Sweat the Technique:
On Discipline

Guest Blog Series on Craft (2)

Jason Magabo Perez

I backtrack—a disclaimer for this series: Whenever I intellectualize my own work, I’m haunted by the specter of Carlos Argentino Daneri, the librarian, the poet, the know-it-all from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The narrator describes Carlos Argentino Daneri as “authoritarian but also unimpressive.” Daneri simultaneously recites and shamelessly applauds his own craftily intellectual poetry. “Daneri’s real work,” suggests the narrator, “lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired.” Daneri is his own best critic and publicist. I caution against ever becoming as wiggity wack as Daneri; however, I’m certain that my Catholic self-debasement is merely a variant of Daneriesque self-applause. In any case, you should know, these fears guide my hesitations, and I’m super suspicious of our becoming the Carlos Argentino Daneris of our day.


Discipline/Disciplinarity/Disciplinization. The Disciplining. It/I begin(s) early. I'm five years old. I'm in kindergarten, what my parents call, keen-dayr. We're at McKinley Elementary School in Redlands, CA. It's morning. It's hot. We're in a classroom—part hardened carpet, part cold vanilla tile, a holding cell for crybaby kids who miss mommy. We've been learning how to follow rules and how to open the mini milk cartons without spilling. (Discipline.) We've been learning how to square dance like white people who wear funny-looking boots. (Discipline.) I'm identified as bright, a rule-follower, perhaps one of the muddy-mouthed brown kids that the white teacher can save. (Discipline.) Today, we're coloring the king. The king is plump with a beardly beard and a pointy nose. I crayon the king's skin a gentle orange and his beard a harsh copper. I copy the method of some of my classmates—first, I trace the inside of the king's outline, then I color within the line of my own tracing. Eventually, I color the king's cape red. This time, I lay the red crayon on its side. As I shade the cape, a gorgeous texture emerges—a vastness of uneven strokes, punctures and embossments caused by pebbles pressing up against the underside of the paper. I finish it and I hurry to show my teacher. "I'm disappointed," she says. She runs her fingers across the now three-dimensional cape. "I expect better from you." Never mind that my crayoning shows traces, the process of my art, the transparency of my method—a very process-not-product-anti-fetishism kind of performance, no? But my teacher remains disappointed. My teacher tries to smooth out the cape. My teacher expects me to color more cleanly, like a good pupil, like a good subject. I might never color like this again. Ever. I might forever stay within the lines. I might never again lay the crayon on its ribs. And I might never again let myself imagine another way. The disciplining begins quite early.   


I continue thinking through French philosopher Michel Foucault's meditations on discipline. (Yes: another white French philosopher! Consider this part of my disciplining. My method: perhaps I'm exorcizing myself of white men epistemologies.) While it offers insight into the culture and structure of the prison and the carcerality of our society, Discipline & Punish also tells us much more about the pervasiveness of power and how it is exercised in other institutional contexts like schools, the military and hospitals. "Discipline," writes Foucault, "defines each of the relations that the body must have with the object that it manipulates." That is, discipline is about controlling the body's movement, making certain ways of being and doing seem impossible. Foucault considers 'discipline' a technology of power. Through this definition, an artist who is disciplined is not someone who demonstrates an unwavering commitment to his/her/their craft; rather an artist who is disciplined is an artist whose practices may be heavily (self-) regulated due to the demands of Power. An artist who is disciplined is an artist who may never lay a crayon on its ribs. 


I encountered creative writing proper as a spoken word artist. I was inspired by groups like I Was Born with Two Tongues and 8th Wonder, and solo artists such as Saul Williams and Sarah Jones. At that time, writing was about immediacy. If there was a protest, we'd write poems to articulate our grievances and demands. If we were performing in front of a class, we'd weave in references from our readings and reinterpret the relationship between history and the present. We and our poetics were prepared to fight for justice at all times. Some of us romanticized ourselves as cultural workers. On this basis, this practice of writing and performance, I applied for MFA programs. (I wanted a shortcut to teach college.) When I got to my MFA program at the (now defunct) New College of California, I unwittingly wrote texts that were a hybrid of poetry, memoir, fiction and political history. My cohort members would get into debates about whether or not my use of footnotes was distracting. Some of the white students suggested that I get rid of the footnotes. They'd say, "Is there a way to incorporate these notes into the text? Or maybe you can make them endnotes?" My Dominicana homegirl argued that my references to Philippine history helped her understand the relationship between her own history and mine. Eventually, after sitting through workshop after workshop of my cohort debating over the wrong aspects of my writing, and after being told that the performative gesture in my texts was not always pleasurable to read, I scotched writing 'experimental' texts and began writing fiction. Still, I wonder how such disciplining affects how I write this to you right now. I'm convinced that my cohort's anxieties about footnotes was a result of the racial and cultural politics of form—a suspicion of the trans-disciplinary and the performative. Now eight years out from the MFA, I continue to slowly make my way back to the immediacy of a literature I once wrote in order to survive, a literature I had been taught to disown and to snobbishly distance myself from.           


Discipline is violent. Epistemologically. Interpretively. Discursively. Psychically. Emotionally. Materially. Physically. Discipline forecloses possibility. Discipline is about the regulation of the body, the mind, the desire. Discipline is often what helps even the most radical of academics become legible to the institution. In fact, discipline helps academics get jobs. Discipline helps writers get published. This, I think, is part of its violence. This, I think, is part of its danger for us. We become all too legible for the wrong people. We become consumable through our having been disciplined. We become good and disciplined (colonial) subjects. Discipline is part of what keeps cops pulling the trigger, is part of what keeps killing Black people in the U.S., brown peoples, poor people everywhere, is what wants Ferguson (and the rest of us) to stop fighting for our dignity. In my estimation, this is all the same technology of power, this is all about the making of impossibility, of life, of imagination, of desire, of a better us.      


For now, I fashion myself as an interdisciplinary thinker and artist. Yet, interdisciplinarity, too, itself has its limits. Even interdisciplinarity might be violent and violating. It presupposes that we retain disciplines, the disciplining. I'm after anti-disciplinarity, which needs no justification, which makes me only accountable to my communities and not to any structures of power that need to make sense of what we have been doing all along anyway. I'm after—


Where and when and how is it that we've learned to discipline our body and imagination? Where and when and how is it that we have come to do what we do without regard to what has been done to us? 


I revise this in a very crucial historical conjuncture in which discipline is yet again something worth meditating on:


(More and more later / I have that privilege to live think through.)


1. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph," in The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), 118-133.

2. Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977, 1995), 152-153.      


Jason Magabo Perez is a writer and performance artist. His writings have appeared in TAYOWitness, and Mission at Tenth. Perez has been commissioned by Kularts and funded by an NEA Challenge America Grant, and he has performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, the National Asian American Theater Festival, and the International Conference of the Philippines. Currently, he lives in San Diego.