Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You are, No. 6

[Author's note: Years ago I designed to write a paper about how Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner" TV show (1967) anticipated in eerie ways the revelations of Foucault's work on systems of power. I never wrote it. So recently when I came across the notes I'd made, I said to myself, "Blog it!"]

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered."
(episode one, “Arrival”)

In “The Prisoner,” a protagonist known only as No. 6 qualifies his opposition to the power structure of the Village by resisting all of the things he already has been as a secret agent of the Crown. Briefings and debriefings were his stock and trade as long as he was employed; and we can only assume that, like 007, his real name is classified, and neither he nor anyone else reveals it through all 17 episodes of the series.

To escape being pushed, filed, stamped and indexed is why he left Her Magesty’s Secret Service. Yet to No. 2's incessant question, "Why did you resign?" he never replies, "I’ve already told you." Perhaps No. 2 realizes the question has been answered; and perhaps he doesn’t care. We hear him demand “Information, information, information”; but perhaps this is actually an order: perhaps he is commanding No. 6 to get “in formation.”

Almost a decade after No. 6 made his stirring assertion, the French thinker and historian Michel Foucault would write, "Discipline 'makes' individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise" (Discipline and Punish, 170). Read the 169 preceding pages if this assertion seems to you counterintuitive. To hastily condense and summarize, Foucault demonstrates how the concept of individuality had little meaning before there were instruments to observe or measure individuals. The phenomenon, in other words, is a byproduct of the apparatus.

Surveillance is a constant quantity in McGoohan’s (here I yearn to insert an adjective, yet “prescient,” “surreal,” “bizarre” all ring insufficient) television series. No. 6 defines and redefines his identity and individuality by way of opposing to the wardens of his prison. Likewise, the wardens try to remake his identity: from trying to elect him No. 2 in the second episode (“Free For All”), to creating his doppelganger in episode eight (“The Schizoid Man”), to placing him on the throne in episode 17 (“Fall Out”).

Independent of these machinations, we know nothing about No. 6, save his late occupation and romantic life as detailed in episode 13 (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”). In "The Schizoid Man," No. 6 is robbed of his identity when They abduct and recondition him, transforming him into No. 12. Then, a play-actor assumes the No. 6 mantle. No. 6 is literally duplicated (6 x 2 = 12). Realistically, in the end, the only identity No. 6 reclaims is that he is given by Them.

His only recourse and only weapon is anonymity. He never gives his name (nor does anyone ask it), and he refuses to wear his numbered badge. Only after his final "escape" does he take on a new appellation: the closing credits of “Fall Out” list him as "The Prisoner."

"The power in the hierarchized surveillance of the disciples is not possessed as a thing, or transferred as a property; it functions like a piece of machinery. And, although it is true that this pyramidal organization gives it a 'head,' it is the apparatus as a whole that produces 'power' and distributes individuals in this permanent and continuous field." (DP177)

Whether he knew it or not, Foucault was describing the Village. Why is No. 2 played by a different actor in every episode? Producer Bernie Williams said it was merely a way of keeping the audience interested. A reasonable claim: think of “The Prisoner’s” contemporaries on television – like Adam West’s “Batman” -- where there was a new villain every week. But what sets “The Prisoner” apart from and above its peers was the fact that the ever-changing villain was never defeated, merely replaced. No. 6 occasionally wins moral victories, and in one case (episode 12, “Hammer into Anvil”) drives No. 2 mad; but always his adversary is replaced by another one intent on breaking him. Beneath him are equally anonymous mechanisms of power, from the Guardians to the Committee to the surveillance team overseen by “the supervisor,” No. 28 (who, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to M. Foucault).

Anonymity is the last resort and refuge of resistance; though No. 6 often, and sometimes successfully, interferes with those slotted into the mechanisms of the Village’s power structure. As Thomas Pynchon reminds us, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures” (Proverbs for Paranoids #1, in Gravity’s Rainbow, 237).

In “The Eye of Power,” an interview transcribed in Power/Knowledge, Foucault muses that Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the panopticon, never stated clearly who should be in the central tower of the prison, who should hold the power that is constituted by the ability to see without being seen. From the standpoint of the seen, anyone at all could be the seer. This is certainly borne out in “The Prisoner.” No. 6 in “Free For All” vows to “discover who are the prisoners and who are the wardens.” He never succeeds. Foucault observes: “[A]n unbroken succession of observations recalling the motto: each comrade becomes an overseer.”

No. 6: Has it ever occurred to you that you're just as much a prisoner as I am?
No. 2: My dear chap, of course -- I know too much. We're both lifers. I am definitely an optimist. That's why it doesn't matter who No. 1 is."
(episode five, “The Chimes of Big Ben”)

Of course it matters who No. 1 is. Finding out, of course, is one reason we keep watching. In "Free For All," No. 2 urges No. 6 to run for public office, and explains, "If you win, No. 1 will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean." No. 2 clearly does not say No. 6 will learn who No. 1 is; he merely states that No. 1 will no longer be a mystery. In a way, the mystery’s solution is obvious from the outset; yet its implausibility makes it perpetually compelling.

Iconic as No. 6’s refusing to be numbered is his demand to know, “Who is No. 1?” The eternal reply is equivocation: “You are No. 6.” The delivery of this response is uniform throughout all the No. 2s. They appear to dodge the question, refusing the hero’s question and slapping him down with the mark of order they wish to impose upon him. But clever viewers and critics long ago began re-punctuating the reply thusly: “You are, No. 6.” The insertion of that comma makes the statement anticipate what is evidently shown in the series finale -- that No. 6 is No. 1.

The startling revelation is debased into a joke in the final episode. While No. 6 sits upon the throne, restored to his own clothes (“We thought you would feel more comfortable as yourself,” says No. 2), No. 1 observes the proceedings with a giant mechanical eye: a childish pun on the number one: Roman numeral I. When No. 6 takes the podium to deliver his victory speech, the only way he knows how to begin is with reference to the ego, “I…”; but he is repeatedly drowned out, before he can ever utter another word, by the chorus that shouts, “Aye! Aye! Aye!” Here, an assertion of selfhood and individuality is subsumed by a signal of agreement, compliance, subordination.

What does it mean that No. 6 -- the resister -- is also No. 1 -- the master, the state, the archon, God? For Foucault, the individual is to a large extent a fiction or an artifact; yet, having been engineered, the individual nonetheless becomes vital. Each individual is an “atom” helping to constitute the totality of the system. There’s something more than implicit in “The Prisoner” about the individual’s complicity in the power structures of the world. No. 6 moves from playing a very active role in that system as a secret agent to being a dissident; he revolts against the system he once defended. His resignation, whatever the reason behind it, does nothing to extricate him from the system; it only enmeshes him more thoroughly within it.

See also:
Thomas M. Disch, The Prisoner (I Books, 2003)
Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (D.C. Comics, 1990)

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