Mindful Mindless Bodies
Issue #43, April 1999
The meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life and of the body will soon provide, in the context of the school, the barracks, the hospital or the workshop, a laicized content, an economic or technical rationality for this mystical calculus of the infinitesimal and the infinite.
— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
I waited tables for about ten years, putting myself through college and then afterwards as I tried to figure out if I wanted to go to grad school or do something else. Waiting tables is an activity that requires a great amount of physical discipline: you learn how to carry plates up your arm, to cock your head in a deferential attitude that says I'm listening and The customer is always right. You learn to flick and twist your wrist as you pour expensive Cabernet so as to catch every precious drop on the bottle's lip. To be a really good waiter in a world-class dinner house, you have to grasp the job on a deeply physical level — and make it part of you the way breathing is a part of you — because if your body can't unconsciously perform the habits, gestures, and behaviors of the role you simply can't do it, and no amount of theorizing can substitue (though I have seen people try). It is both a technical skill and a bodily practice involving the repetition of stylized body gestures and actions that eventually become habits sedimented in the body's memory.
Gradually over the years my body became very fluid at unconsciously executing the chain of successive acts that performing the role of waiter in a world-class restaurant requires. I gradually moved up from delis and neighborhood brunch places to world-renowned establishments like The Santa Fe Bar and Grill, Bay Wolf, and Chez Panisse. At first, however, I wasn't very good at the job: my body had no memory for complex physical activities like balancing heavy trays on the tips of my fingers; assembling cups and saucers in relation to one another and to my arm so as not to spill the coffee; and using my fingers as hooks in order to drape up to fifteen wine glasses in one hand. I was clumsy, awkward, and stiff, and each activity was enacted only with a great deal of conscious will. But with practice I was soon able to completely clear a table and reset it (with a new table cloth, table paper, silverware, bread plates, napkins, wine glasses, salt and pepper shakers) in something like three minutes. I did this without thinking consciously about it. I was able to stylize my body to perform the tasks quickly, efficiently, and with the appearance of effortlessness and grace — much the way a prima ballerina seems to dance in toe shoes as if it were no trouble at all.
Just as ballerinas need to be physically strong while affecting the appearance of passivity and grace, a good waiter needs to be in control of almost everything while affecting the appearance of deference and amiability. The waiter is the central switchboard between the customer, the chefs, the bartender, the host (who may pressure the waiter to turn the table so others can sit down), the busser (who often needs direction), the dishwasher, the other customers, and perhaps even the owner. The waiter coordinates the execution of a complex operation: the initial greeting and discussion of the menu, the ordering and timing of the food, the clearing of the courses and replacement of silverware, the selection and opening of wine, the delivery of drinks, beverages, coffee and dessert.
But many people who go out to eat enjoy the feeling of power associated with being served, and having their needs and desires catered to; they must be treated with a deferential attitude that belies the energy, agility, initiative and intelligence it takes to deliver haute cuisine. This deferential attitude is enacted as part of the bodily practice of waiting tables; it consists of mannerisms, postures, voice inflections, stock phrases, and gestures. I have already mentioned cocking the head expectantly, as if the customer were entitled to and did in fact possess your undivided and interested attention, even though there might be a list of urgent tasks raging in your consciousness. Other techniques of feigned deference include: nodding politely after everything a customer says; echoing their wine and food selections with remarks like "excellent choice"; referring to men as "sir" and groups of women as "ladies"; smiling profusely; saying "absolutely" or "right away" to their every request; draping a clean napkin across your arm to indicate your readiness for any emergency; speaking with a foreign accent (I have a British-American friend who only sounds British when he's working as a waiter); wearing glasses (if you are a man) to indicate your intelligence and ability to "do the job" (one friend swears his tips increase by 20% if he wears horn-rimmed, non-prescription glasses); wearing lipstick if you are a woman (one restaurant manual I was given actually insists that female employees do so); bowing your head slightly; holding your hands clasped behind your back as you move through the room; never ever indicating displeasure, unhappiness, anger, sadness, irritation, stress, or tiredness, no matter what the cause and no matter how severely you may be provoked. Your body gets in the habit of doing all these things and more. For you must do all this complicated choreography of postures and actions as fast as you can. You must perform this bizarre role without thinking consciously about it. You must be a deferential waitperson as if it were the most natural thing in the world for you to take orders and perform commands, as if you enjoyed it immensely. And to some degree you must also believe that you do.
Perhaps because it is so physically demanding, and because it requires an assumption of the behaviors and postures of deference, waiting tables is often denigrated as a brainless activity, a completely corporeal practice that requires nothing in the way of intelligence. Chefs are often seen as creative geniuses, but people think that the waiters just carry food and respond to orders, as if we were merely reactive bodies incapable of any sort of agency. The impetus to mark out some bodies as merely corporeal, while others are non-corporeal — and therefore highly capable of observing, controlling, and thinking — can be seen in the context of the larger social and cultural construction of the phenomenon of haute cuisine. The more elaborate and stylized the ritual of eating is made to seem, the further away it gets from its role as a necessity of one's survival. Wealthy, intelligent people are able to convince themselves that they are not slaves to their body's need for food, as other mortals are, because they stylize and ritualize the experience of eating so that it becomes more an art form to be contemplated, evaluated, compared and judged, rather than a crude base material reality. Mindless bodies are then necessary to bring the disembodied critics/connoisseurs their food, which is no longer food but high art.
If being a waiter is about being all body, I thought, maybe I'll become a teacher and be all mind. While I was still working as a waiter, I put myself on a substitute teaching list, and got called to sub a first grade class at the last minute. The first day I read through the regular teacher's notes. The day was divided up into ten, fifteen, and twenty minute increments and each time slot was accorded a certain activity. Each child was to perform the specified task during the specified time, or they would have to stay after school in a study hall detention center. (Study hall in the first grade!) There were worksheets with exercises to train their minds in spelling, math, vocabulary, and handwriting. When the class began, however, I found I had an unruly mass of six-year-old bodies on my hands. They tittered and giggled and jumped up and down in their seats, excited over their substitute teacher. I had written Ms. Simon on the board and when I told them my name they seemed to writhe and shake in one uproarious, out-of-control laugh as many of them simultaneously got a joke. "Simon says! Simon says!" several of the rowdier ones blurted out. It was utter mayhem.
I began to doubt whether Mrs. Reynolds' plans for the day would ever be enacted. I doubted whether I could get a single one of them to do a worksheet or a spelling quiz. I doubted, in fact, whether I could get them to listen to a damn thing that I said. I thought of that Laurie Anderson song from Big Science where she says "This is your Captain — and we are going down /We are all going down, together." I pictured the principal or the secretary or the security guards coming in and telling me what a failure I was as a teacher and then yelling at the kids and telling them they all had to stay for detention. I began to think I had no mind at all and that my only hope was to be in fact a brainless, purely corporeal waiter.
As the whole thing was going to hell, I remembered that the neatest thing about that Laurie Anderson song is that she starts impersonating the Captain of the plane as he attempts a crash landing. What start out as normal directions to the passengers like "Place your trays in their upright positions" quickly become random, insane injunctions to do the pilot's will. "Your Captain says: Put your head on your knees /Your Captain says: Put your head in your hands / Captain says: Put your hands on your head / Put your hands on your hips." I've always loved the way that song parodies the game "Simon says" with its repetition of the phrase "Captain says," and the ultimate injunction to jump out of the plane even though there may be no pilot. In a split second I realized not only that I was supposed to be piloting this plane but that I was doing a miserable job of it because these kids were making fun of my name and mocking my so-called authority.
"Simon says, put your heads on the desk," I suddenly broke out.
Startled, the entire room immediately put their heads down. "Simon says: Put your hands on your heads," I continued.
"Put your hands on your hips," I thundered, and they obeyed, looking so alert and alive and eager to please that I immediately fell in love with them all. I broke out laughing at my own mockery of my supposed authority and the class dissolved into giggles.
By commanding their bodies to assume certain positions I had their attention and their respect, and they began prompting me on the routines and rituals of the day. "Now we say the pledge of allegiance," one girl whispered, and so we pledged to the flag. Next a boy told me to take the roll and then a few of them agreed that it was time for show-and-tell.
I then followed Mrs. Reynolds' instructions and distributed the worksheets as she said. During the math section I wandered around to answer the questions of the kids who raised their hands. One extremely bright young boy was busy working on a complicated drawing of a mechanical robot dragon and his cityscape den. It was a fantastic drawing — detailed, imaginative, and well-executed. It was something I could never draw myself, and I couldn't help but admire it. But then I remembered my role as teacher/authority, and asked him why he wasn't working on his math. "It's just not as fun as drawing," he said. I didn't want to make him do his dumb math equations, but I realized that if he didn't the worksheet would be incomplete at the end of the day, and the monitor responsible for checking would probably discover this failure to do the mind's work and require the boy's body to stay after school.
On the schedule that day was a trip to the library for story hour. Mrs. Reynolds' detailed instructions clearly stated that the kids were to walk, not run, and that they were to walk in a line. The children were to be paired and to hold hands with their partner the entire way. All went well until we reached a patch of dead maple leaves lying on the sidewalk. The formerly docile line erupted into a squealing screaming mass for a few minutes, as they delighted in the feel of leaves crunching under their feet. My instructions were to reprimand and document anyone who broke the rules — and running and screaming clearly were against the rules — but even though there was one particular instigator, it seemed unfair to single him out when all the other kids had participated in the "crime." Then too, I didn't really see what the big deal was about a bunch of kids expressing a little joy. Who wants to walk quietly in a line anyway? I realized my error when we got to the library and the kids were apparently more noisy upon entering than they usually were. A dour-faced librarian informed her story-hour colleague in an urgent hiss to prepare for trouble: there was a substitute teacher. The various librarians fussed and worried the whole time we were there, looking openly relieved by the time we left, but I thought the kids were alive, eager to hear the story, and full of great questions when the librarian asked for responses at the end. I guess docility and subservience in kids' bodies are not only desired but expected, and it seems to be a major factor in the functioning of many social institutions.
That afternoon, as I was leaving a note for Mrs. Reynolds about how the day went, I noticed a little log book. A few students' names appeared each day, accompanied by a list of unacceptable behaviors. "Today when walking to the library, Damian picked up a stick. He wouldn't put it down until I had asked him to a second time." "Sandy spoke out of turn today. She needs to continue working on raising her hand." "Natalie and Susan were giggling and talking during story-time. Separated them; will speak with their parents."
From what I could tell, teaching the first grade was all about managing the bodies of these children; it seemed to have nothing to do with stimulating or broadening their minds, or teaching them how to think and create in the world. Their habits, postures, and behaviors were of the utmost importance, whereas the creativity and intelligence I felt in this room full of six-year-olds had absolutely no place in the curriculum. The most important thing they could learn in school, it seemed, was to fit their bodies into a prescribed grid and participate in pre-designated activities at the appropriate times. Teaching first grade was like training dogs: sit down, be quiet, do your math. This feeling was confirmed for me when Mrs. Reynolds called to say she had been selected for jury duty and would be out the rest of the week. I think I asked her about the Behavior Log Book and what she used it for. "It's all about the very important socialization process that takes place in the first grade," she said.
I had not read Foucault's Discipline and Punish when I taught the first grade class, but I chafed at the idea of a Behavior Log Book for first-graders nonetheless. I chafed at the idea that my role was to observe, examine, and document the bodies of these kids as they moved through space, determining whether or not they fit within the grid of acceptable behavior or veered and swerved away. "The socialization process" of first grade, as Mrs. Reynolds put it, seemed to demand compliant bodies and compartmentalized minds. Creativity was non-existent. But I didn't just object to the idea that I was expected to inhabit an observer role. I objected as well to the kind of observer I was expected to be. The proliferation of minute and meticulous detail about the children's behavior creates them as highly visible physical bodies, while it produces a teacher who, like a sentry on a watchtower, possesses a disembodied gaze. Like the customer/server relationship, this particular student/teacher relationship posits one entity (the kids) as all body while the other entity (the teacher) is all mind. Mrs. Reynolds' reports in the log book obscured the dynamic between herself and her students; of course her own identity, habits, behaviors, and physical presence in the class were never scrutinized as the children's were.
Mrs. Reynolds' integration of surveillance into the classroom — and her use of discourse to register and document the findings of her observant gaze — bears a distinct resemblance to the eighteenth-century schools documented by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Foucault points out that power gradually became less a matter of spectacle and more a matter of discipline, exercise, and surveillance, as monarchies developed into democracies, and the heightened focus on the individual became the method of assuming and wielding power. Moreover, Foucault argues, the effect of increased scrutiny of the behaviors and habits of individuals tends to produce subjects who are themselves self-policing:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to be non-corporeal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound, and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.
I had a chance to observe this principle of self-policing a few weeks after my stint with the first grade, as the same primary school called me to substitute teach the second grade. The difference between the second and first grade class was profound. Whereas the first-graders, on discovering that I was a substitute, had tittered and twinkled and looked at me expectantly and giggled, the second-graders merely accepted the change and prepared to begin their lessons. They spent the entire day, it seems, working out of textbooks, simply picking up where they had left off the day before. They each had in their desk math, grammar, spelling, and social studies books, and in the afternoon they worked with another teacher on French.
There didn't seem to be a Behavior Log Book for this class and they didn't need one. They had undergone Mrs. Reynolds' socialization process in first grade, they knew they were constantly subjected to the field of visibility, and they assumed responsibility for their own subjection. They were docile bodies, obediently attuning their postures and manners to the task of imbibing knowledge page after page. My own presence in the room was hardly necessary: no one doodled instead of doing math, no one talked out of turn, no one had to stay after school for study hall detention because they all knew the rules and complied without being asked. I was sorely disappointed, and came to the heartsick conclusion that the subjection of young minds and bodies is fairly routine, that it's a wonder creativity, originality, and independence survive the education systems at all, and that socialization requires that bodies acquiesce to their heightened visibility and submission to an invisible authority. But the routine nature of the whole operation really floored me: the parents, the teachers, and the administrators all seemed to accept their roles as policing agents as though it were inevitable, as though a docile, subservient citizenry were the highly desirable outcome of the process of education.
Eventually I did go to graduate school and began teaching English to first-year college students. After years of waiting tables and assuming the position of a deferential food server, it was extremely odd to have students treat me as though I were a great mind, an authority on the books we were reading, and someone with all the power vested in me by the University to give them a particular grade. I'd experience intense cognitive dissonance when a student would act submissive or obsequious towards me, and frequently caught myself thinking: who are they talking to? It was the same experience I'd had in the first grade classroom. There is no pilot. There is no one in charge. We are all going down together. Until I got used to running a class and giving grades, and then it felt fairly normal.
After teaching for a year I went back to one of my old restaurant jobs for the summer. I had been reading and writing and holding office hours for months, and was unprepared for the physical rigor of the waiting job. My fingers, hands, and arms were stiff and awkward as I tried to pick up plates and pile them three high. I tried to walk with six glasses of wine on a cork tray and found I didn't have the agility to carry it steadily with one hand. But aside from the physical awkwardness, I was completely unprepared for the reverse power relations of my old job. Whereas students had been deferring to me — or at least acting respectful — I now found that I had to humble myself to perfect strangers. Some of them wanted to be soothed and placated. To be told that everything would be all right. Some of them wanted me to run around and take on a million unreasonable requests and act like I was more than happy to do so. If something were wrong it had to be my fault because The customer is always right.
I approached my first table that day and smiled pleasantly enough, I suppose, but I didn't really care who they were or what they wanted to eat. I didn't think it mattered if I cared: I'd take their order and bring them what they wanted anyway. A few minutes later I was across the room and saw the gentleman in the party snapping his fingers and waving his hand. At first I idly wondered what he was doing, and then I was confused that he was looking at me, and then I realized in horror that it was me who was being hailed with a "Hey you!" I was obliged to come when they called, like an obedient dog, but I'd been running without a leash for some time and it felt totally weird.
I refilled their waters and tried to explain my initial lack of response: "I'm out of the habit of waiting tables," I said. "I've been teaching English at Mills College."
Suddenly the power dynamic changed. No longer was I a mindless body meant to run and fetch the food, but the master of the situation. Viewing me as their intellectual superior, the couple at the table tried to solicit my approval with each new course I brought. Have you read such and such book? and wait for me to pat them on the head and tell them they'd done good. Instead of snapping their fingers and demanding more bread they'd look at me thoughfully and say things like: I'm really interested in the semi-colon; what do you think about it? I listened to their recitation of their experiences in English classes and their opinions about the classics and New York Times bestseller lists.
From that point on, it seemed prudent to mention as often as I could when waiting tables that I was a graduate student and a teacher of English. I watched the customers' faces as their perception of me moved from she's a serving wench (brainless body) to she's an English professor (disembodied mind). I assumed the position of power for my own benefit, to equalize an unequal relationship and to make a demanding and intolerable job feasible for a few months, but I'm very careful to highlight the artificiality of such a position when I'm teaching in a classroom now. Much of what I do is to try to create an atmosphere where many ideas are validated and entertained and my ideas don't become the authoritative last word. Many of my students have been trained for years in classrooms like Mrs. Reynolds', and they equate the role of good student with that of the obedient dog. Never mind that an obedient dog may find it difficult to have an interesting or original idea, what they often want is a good grade and the teacher has the power to give it. My biggest challenge is to get students to see how they comply with their own subjection, how they instinctively look for pre-approved, instructor-authorized ideas. And I try to teach them that thinking for oneself can sometimes feel awkward and messy and new. But like Mrs. Reynolds' process of first grade socialization and like the stylization of the body and mind necessary to successfully wait tables, thinking for oneself can be taught and learned, and it can become so internalized that it is more than a habit. It becomes one's perception of the world; it becomes a way of seeing, eating and breathing. It becomes you, just like subjection becomes you if you let it.
Katie Simon is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at email@example.com.