The impact of Disciplinary Power on Gypsy Culture in Romania

By: Andre Lopes Massa

The video Suspino takes a very interesting take on a European ethnic group that has often remained invisible to many observers in the U.S for their lifestyle and culture. While not predominantly a part of the history of discrimination in the United States, gypsies, or Roma as they are called in Romania, are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups in Europe even today. In the case of the Roma, marginalization takes place in the form in which Nicolae Ceaușescu denied Roman access to healthcare and other basic social services, the rhetoric used to depict the Roma as diseases, the forcing of the Roma into secluded areas and the continuous whitewashing that still occurs today regarding the Roma. One particular instance that deserves specific focus is an instance in which a Romanian mayor pushed the Roma into ghettos because he described them as having “infectious diseases”. In this instance, the Roma is depicted as representing something less than human, their bodies securitized and constructed as a threat that needs to be exterminated. Racism, as a social construction, plays its role in this form of discursive marginalization insofar as the rhetorical denial of the Roma as human is built upon attitudes of superiority and inferiority based on the human-animal divide; the Roma are seen as inferior because they are simply infectious microbes, undeserving of the rights that humans deserve. In this instance, violence against the Roma becomes sanitized because no one ever has remorse for committing acts of violence against those deemed less than human, against those that represent an infection that could slowly destroy white, European culture. The forced migration of the Roma into ghettos and enclosed areas described by many of them as “prisons” is a tactic of deniability in which Romanians attempt to use these enclosed areas and ghettos to render the Roma invisible so that they cannot stain he culture that Romanians have worked so hard to build. Paradoxically, it is these spaces of invisibility where the Roma become the most visible. While the ghettos are located in the most obscure areas of Romania that remain hidden from the rest of the population, the association of the Roma with ghettos creates a social construction that the inferior lifestyle and culture of the Roma is responsible for their deplorable living conditions. It is through this paradoxical visibility that the Roma are constructed as the other; their occupation at the periphery of society and cultural lifestyle makes their difference visible to the dominant power structures that construct the Roma as the diseased objects that need to be made invisible.

Michel Foucault’s conception of disciplinary power is perhaps the best method available to analyze the inherent racism behind the Roma’s marginalization. The Roma are a fascinating case of marginalization to examine insofar as there is no visible biological difference that is visible that would allow for the social construction of racism to attach itself to in the first place. The reason why the Roma are marginalized is because of their culture and the way that they behave. Discussing how disciplinary power functions throughout society Foucault writes, “The gaze is alert everywhere. This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the Centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. ” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pg. 195-196). The gaze, in Foucault’s terms, is the white gaze of the Romanians. This cultural gaze sets norms and standards for how one should act and behave in front of society’s all power, all knowing gaze. Standing in front of the gaze, independent agency is non-existent as people internalize the gaze and discipline themselves to act exactly how society says they should act. When one refuses to conform to the gaze, they are made visible through their own difference in behavior instead of skin color. When the Roma refuse to send their children to school and insist on a nomadic lifestyle, they are revolting against the gaze. Perhaps the discursive depiction of the Roma as representing “infectious diseases” is a result of the Roma infiltrating the power structures of disciplinary power and destroying it from within like how a virus destroys an organism by destroying individual cells from within the body. Disciplinary power is the root cause for why the Roma are depicted as less than human because disciplinary power and society’s omniscient gaze set the standards for how one should act to be considered human. The nomadic lifestyle of the Roma, in the face of disciplinary power, is that of a wandering animal, a status of inferiority. In order to maintain its hold onto power, disciplinary power mandates that the Roma be made invisible so as to maintain the perfect hierarchy of power that is present in Romania. Visible difference, after all, is a disruption to the perfect mechanism of invisibility that disciplinary power operates on. Visible difference allows for the potential disruption of disciplinary power because it opens up the possibility that people may come to realize the internalization of power that is occurring within their psyche if left unchecked. Thus, the Roma must be marginalized to the periphery of society and made invisible so as not to disrupt the organism of power that grips Romania. The depiction of the Roma as living deplorable lifestyles within these spaces of invisibility is what allows them to be constructed as the other through Foucault’s conception of disciplinary power. This form of racism, after all, is unique in that it is white people constructing other white people as the “Other”.

There are many similarities to how Demba in Waalo Fendo and the Roma were marginalized because of disciplinary power. Much like how the Roma were forced to be made invisible because of the way they disrupted the flow of power exerted by the white gaze, Demba was made invisible under the law because his cultural behavior threatened to disrupt the cultural hegemony in Italy that was so vital to the functioning of disciplinary power there. Demba’s constant revolt against disciplinary power started when he joined in a strike against an Italian planation owner over the poor wages he was being forced to work for. Since then, Demba sunk into a life of drug dealing and invisibility in the periphery of society. Much of the structural conditions that Demba was forced to endure were because he was invisible under the law and thus could not get access to healthcare, or, more importantly, the right to report a crime, justifying the violence done to their bodies. However, the role of disciplinary power in forcing Demba and the Roma to be made invisible ends there. While the Roma at the end of the documentary embraced their ability to survive in obscurity as long as it meant maintaining their culture, Demba and Yaro in particular became products of disciplinary power. They ultimately internalized Italian culture and behavioral norms. Yaro, in particular, dressed like an Italian, acted like an Italian, and worked like an Italian. Even after Yaro’s death, instead of embracing his own culture as a survival strategy, Demba choose to work on silently in an attempt to internalize disciplinary power and overcome his hyper-visibility.

When it comes to the question of how vulnerable groups whose marginalization is the product of disciplinary power should be dealt with, the answer comes down to a celebration of difference. As discussed in earlier papers, an example of this celebration of difference in the case of Waalo Fendo should be the relaxing of immigration quotas on countries outside of Europe to encourage a more diverse cultural that should breed the kind of tolerance that can potentially disrupt the power of xenophobia. The celebration of difference would take form in the fact that immigrants from Senegal and other African countries would be able to enjoy the privilege of being visible under the law. With these basic rights, immigrants can be free to express their culture as they see fit because the law can potentially act as a deterrence factor when it comes to the question as to whether violence should be enacted on their bodies or not. In the case of the Roma, George Soros’s initiative to create a foundation designed to give the Roma more opportunities is a step in the right direction in celebrating difference as it gives the Roma the educational opportunities they want to change structural conditions while also allowing them to express their cultural visibly in some ways. It is this tactic of celebrating difference that is key to promoting the tolerance necessary to disrupt the disciplinary power responsible for the exclusion of people like the Roma.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. 195-196. Print.

Suspino: A Cry for Roma. Dir. Gillian Darling Kovanic. Perf. Rudi Kovanic. Bullfrog Films, 2003. VHS.

Waalo fendo. Dir. Mohammed Soudani. Perf. Saidou Moussa Ba, Baara N’Gom, Souleymane Ndiaye.. ArtMattan, 1997. VHS.


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