Photograph by Ken Light from "Texas Death Row Series" (1994)
Ken Light, from Texas Death Row, University Press of Mississippi
(1997); to order this photo book call: 800-982-6371
. . . talking about our prisons seems a good way to
talk about our society; for when you are talking
about prison you really are talking about society.
—John Bartlow Martin
The repressive apparatus that sends people to jail
is merely an organic part and, in fact, a culmination
of the general pressure totalitarianism exerts against life.
There is history only as long as people revolt, resist, act.
Total institutions— asylums, prisons, concentration camps
—or dictatorial states are attempts to institute an end to history.
. . . prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the
social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral.
IThis analysis, although focusing on the representation of prisons and prisoners, also pertains — as Bartlow Martin's observation in Break Down the Walls (1954) and Jean Baudrillard's in The Precession of Simulacra (1981) suggest in the above epigraphs — to society in larger terms. In turn, the exercise of that field of social forces constituted by what Michel Foucault calls power/knowledge also pertains to the carceral context, as Foucault theorizes in Discipline and Punish (1975).This field of forces produces a "discursive regime" of the prison that mimics in concentrated form, and plays intertextually with, those other semiotic edifices constituting so-called "free" society.
Foucault and Baudrillard both problematize the stable dialectic of division between social outside and social inside the prison. Outside/inside — and its many diversified nuances such as active/passive, public/domestic, etc. — is a mutually-dependent binary opposition that undergirds many of the texts coming under my scrutiny. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1958) tells us that this binary "form[s] a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains." As a verbal construct, he observes of this binary that "it is made the basis of all images that governs all thoughts of positive and negative." Sensing its semantic aggressiveness, he warns us that "Formal opposition is incapable of remaining calm. It is obsessed by myth."
Theorist Jane Gallop describes this mythic economy as "polarization"; it is the way the patriarchy has historically dealt with difference, particularly racial and sexual difference, "Polarization, which is the theatrical representation of difference, tames and binds that anxiety." This myth, as per Roland Barthes, is "discontinuous," it is "a phraseology, a corpus of phrases (of stereotypes)." But this corpus has a density, says Barthes, "woven of habits, of repetitions, of stereotypes, of obligatory fragments and key words." The mythic — for my purposes the carceral mythic — "constitutes an idiolect (a notion which twenty years ago I designated as writing)." Women and other social "Others" — such as criminals that, I argue, are coded Other/passive/ female within our patriarchical society — have historically been tamed and bound — discursively and physically — by such a idiolect. Akin to Gallop, Barthes sees this idiolect as rooted in "a mythological paradigm of two terms." For feminists the primary, static binomial (in which the first term is privileged under patriarchy) is that of male/female. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak succinctly captures the implications of this in her phrase, "the discourse of man is in the metaphor of woman." Other binaries with their analogously privileged initial terms — like presence/absence, active/ passive, etc. — follow from this primary difference. The violence that can erupt when these neat, static binary distinctions — such as non-political/political — are disrupted is remarked upon by Black Panther George Jackson: "We attempted to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality. As a result, each of us has been subjected to years of the most vicious reactionary violence by the state. Our mortality rate is almost what you would expect to find in a history of Dachau."
The penitentiary, since its inception, has become mythic both in a positive and negative sense. As Laura Mulvey observes, "Myth flourishes at the point where the social and psychoanalytic overlap, redolent of fascination and anxiety and generating both creative energy (stories, images) and the ‘taming and binding' process through which collective contact with the unconscious is masked." Mulvey, like Foucault, would see the carceral as rooted in a discourse. Discourse is founded by a polarity of persons — the I and the not-I (i.e., you), a basic condition of language. This polarity is not equal, nor symmetrical. Roland Barthes describes this disjuncture as being where "ego always has a position of transcendence with regard to you," he points out that despite, "I being interior to what is stated and you remaining exterior to it," the "I and you are reversible" and, as in Martin Buber's existentialist argument in I-Thou (1923), the "I can always become you, and vice versa." As Buber puts it, "The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one's whole being. . . . I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You." But as Buber points out, there are other more static attitudes that constitute the split between "Self" and "Other," such as I-It and Us-Them. Barthes also notes that "this [reversibility] is not the case for the non-person (he or it), which can never reverse itself into person or vice versa. . . . the non-person never reflects the instance of discourse, being situated outside of it." It within a discourse using the static I-It and Us-Them attitude that the carceral "Other"—the B-movie stereotype of the "con" — is produced. It is by photographic means that one can stare in private at this "Other."
Mugshot, No. 7213 (c. 1915) from Richard Lawson's
"The Joliet Prison Photographs 1890 - 1930" (1981)
Click on image to go to Lawson's website
Tattoos of Criminals from Cesare Lombroso's L'homme criminel
As both a discourse and a real place, the penitentiary is the central means by which this social "Other" in our society is — figuratively and literally — tamed and bound. Yet as Mulvey's comments suggest, the penitentiary has also been the site of rebellion, of counter-discourses. As Foucault puts it, "no matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings." M. Arc, an anthropologist convicted on a security matter, observes in an essay that a duality of behavior — the appearance of conformity to the official system coexisting with an "underground pattern of nonconformity" meant to maintain one's individuality — exists in prisons to this day. Writings from prison, inmate-edited prison journals, poetry and artwork by prisoners constitute instances of such resistance. But there is a pernicious "catch-22" in this, a limit point to resistance. If the prisoner's resistance is viewed by officials and the public alike as mere rebelliousness, it may confirm the public's negative stereotype of the prisoner. Benjamin Lach, editor of the Echo of the Texas state prison in 1980 remarks apropos to this issue that inmates "are viewed as the trash of society, and the only way I have to change that is to continue doing what I am doing every day — namely being a model prisoner." But model prisoners aren't rebellious. How then to achieve empowerment?
Newgate Prison, England; from the east
side, as rebuilt after the Great Fire. On
the old gateway, the Tuscan order framed
statues of Justice, Fortitude, and Prudence
(in this illustration their attributes
are only vaguely generalized).
"If spaces are always institutional and institutions always spatial, it is maintenance of their secret, the secret of the space's constitutional violation, that is the basis of their power. . . . Each structure masks its own structural violence in order to produce the effect of a space, an interior governed by a legal system that has the power to include or exclude. Inasmuch as institutions are always ‘interior spaces' of domination, . . . their regimes of violence are mechanisms of domestication" (The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt, Mark Wigley)
How a society treats discursively and physically its most marginalized group — the incarcerated — speaks about the economic, political, and ethical health of that society. Within the purview of that examination, the United States does not fare well. This is especially so since the neo-conservative retour d'ordre. Texas, for instance, boasts of having 90 per cent of the citizenry support truth-in-sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, and the death penalty. In Iowa, recently, such laws resulted in a young man without any prior offenses being sent to prison on a 25-year sentence for home invasion; he saw his girl friend in the arms of another man, broke her door down and poked the fellow in the face, doing little actual physical harm to his rival. The judge, noted the injustice of the sentence, but his hands were tied by the mandatory sentence exacted for breaking into a home.
Prison populations are increasing to record levels, a "poverty draft" of the socially marginalized and economically deprived, drawn largely from our urban inner-city populations. The Statistical Abstract of the United States records that our nation's incarceration rate has leapt 3.5 times its 1975 level, while the rate for Black males has skyrocketed to 7 times the current rate for Whites. Black males now comprise the majority of the prison population, yet Blacks make up less than 13 per cent of the nation's population. Staunch proponents of "law and order" repeatedly ask for, and get, longer prison terms and the speeding up of execution dates. As the problems of gangs, assaults on guards, and AIDS continue to plague the prisons, more Bureau of Prison officials are keen to develop high-security units. Therein, inmates are kept under constant electronic surveillance, in perpetual lockdown all day except for an hour's minimal, isolated recreation. Failure to abide by the prison rules, often arbitrary and petty, brings harsh goon-squad tactics upon the hapless inmate who is shackled face-down on his bed for days on end.
Humanistic concern for such men and women in our prisons is not a popular topic with the majority of our citizens today. As a society we exude anxiety over the supposedly increasing numbers of social deviants. The polarization of our populace into normal/social deviant is used to code the prisoner as our social "Other." This "Other" is, explains E.E. Sampson in Celebrating the other: A dialogic account of human nature (1993), a figure constructed to be serviceable to the historically domi-nant White male group. In order to provide this service," continues Sampson, "the other cannot be permitted to have a voice, a position, a being of its own, but must remain mute or speak only in the ways permitted by the dominant discourse."
Given the controlled access to the carceral and the "colonized" status of the inmate, what the public knows about convicts and what occurs "behind the bars" is highly selective and limited. It is gleaned mainly from news coverage of prison riots and slaying of guards, from television specials on maximum-security facilities aimed at "scaring us straight" rather than sparking reform, and from Hollywood films that often reaffirm the B-movie stereotype of the "vicious con": angry eyes, bulging muscles, misshapen features, bared flesh suffering an excess of tattoos, pornography taped to the walls exposing more naked flesh, contraband "shanks" at the ready to stick in the backs of fellow inmates, and escape plans being hatched to free the restless, desiring bodies lurking within. The stereotype of the "con" is borne by the body, a body that is, "traced by language and dissolved by ideas," writes Foucault, "a body invested by history and history ravaging the body." This, of course, is literally envisioned in Franz Kafka's "The Penal Colony": " ‘Our sentence does not sound severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow. This prisoner, for instance' — the officer indicated the man —‘ will have written on his body: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!' " But today, our inhumanity to inmates either remains hidden, or is rationalized by coding the inmates as "deviant monsters" deserving of subhuman treatment. This official discursive regime repre-senting the prisoner to us can be understood by applying Homi K. Bhabha's account of colonial power (substitute "carceral power" for "colonial power" and "prisoner" for "colonized"): "Colonial power produces the colonized as a fixed reality which is at once an "other" and yet entirely knowable and visible. It resembles a form of narrative in which the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality. It employs a system of representation, a regime of truth, that is structurally similar to realism."
However, alternative voices have been heard from the margins: the personal memoirs of the inmates themselves as well as exposés by humanitarian penologists and concerned photographic documentarians. Thus, these verbal and/or visual representations of the incarcerated—whether mass media productions or singular texts designated as "art" or not by the curatorial powers-that-be — may be seen as negotiating a course between society's basic ideological positioning vis-à-vis the incarcerated as expressed in two mutually implicated discourses. On the one hand, the reader/viewer is positioned as opposing these "Others" (the objectifying repressive position) and, on the other, as identifying with them (the empathetic honorific position). However, ironies or contradictions may arise in which a discourse, often parasitic upon either of the above, complicates the reader's positioning in relation to the text, overturning the simple binary logic of against/for the plight of the inmate. Here is where Michel Foucault's concept of power/knowledge — an epistemology that refuses the simple oppositions of essence/appearance and ideology/science — becomes useful; it places subjects in a relation of power and recognition that is not part of a symmetrical or dialectical relation — self/other, master/slave — which can be simplistically subverted by being inverted. Instead, in Foucault's conception of agency, "Subjects are always disproportionately placed," explains Bhabha, "in opposition or domination through the symbolic decentering of multiple power-relations which play the role of support as well as target or adversary." Foucault put it in an interview thus, "I do not think that is possible to say that one thing is of the order of ‘liberation' and another is of the order of ‘opposition.' " In this look at different modes of carceral representation, I'll examine strategies that construct the inmate either negatively or positively within the master/slave, self/other dialectic and those that complicate the carceral subject by decentering this oppositional logic.
Thus, an opportunity presents itself to wed these theoretical concerns with photography within the context of recent discourse critique with broader, pressing social issues. Social activism, supported by a synoptic history of the penitentiary, develops here out of a concern with a body of texts, which taken as a whole, provide insights into a nexus of knowledge/power/practice that Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish terms the "carceral regime." In this "discursive regime" of the prison, Foucault sees the "effects of power peculiar to the play of statements . . . from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations."
This struggle, this agon of power/knowledge, according to Foucault, is productive of subjects, of hierarchies, of reason and truth; it is, as well, prohibitive of certain objects and practices of discourse. As for the negative aspect, a "symbolic violence," it molds the individual into the structural and formal demands of the carceral order; it is an extension of a more extensive, imperial violence aimed at maintaining in the world what Seamus Heaney calls "riven situations." Text and world will be seen as mutually implicated, co-producing each other; a critique of one will involve a critique of the other. Hence, my discussion will equally examine the strategies and practices of the documentary text, probe for any type of recurring (often stereotypical) narrative structure underlying the multitude of carceral texts.
This "carceral regime" of Foucault's is what Morrie Camhi, in the title to his photographic book on the California Medical Facility at Vacaville (CMF), calls "the prison experience." Although his phrase has a phenomenological ring to it, Camhi understands that "experience" as arising from a discursive regime of contending perspectives closer to what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms a "field." These agonistic "language games" that Camhi brings together greatly exceeds the simplistic self/other, master/slave dialectic. So the plural — "prison experiences" — would be a more accurate description of the purposeful collation of imagery and text Camhi has culled from inmates, guards, staff, administrators, victims, and penal reformers to represent this highly rationalized "field." The important point to glean from Camhi's text (and others discussed herein) is that actual individuals are not merely subjects ("cons") wholly positioned by the system or the strategies the carceral field constitutes
The book's presentation of divergent points of view could be described as hardcopy version of a World-Wide Web USENET group devoted to penal issues. Camhi, like Jean-François Lyotard, sees the field of the social (prison in this instance) as heterogeneous and untotalizable. It's akin to Nietzschean perspectivalism (i.e., the production of various "meaningworlds") in which the prison would be constructed by various subjects speaking from different positions of knowledge/power. In The Will to Power Nietzsche notes: "Appearance is an arranged and simplified world . . . the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being . . . it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point, every point resists it — and the sum of these is in every case quite incongruent."
Camhi senses that for structural change to occur vis-à-vis prison, dissimilar groups must exchange information, resources, and influence; they must also change the terms of their relations. Camhi polls many subjects involved in the justice system, not just the inmates. When he does focus on the inmates, he often ironically juxtaposes their words against his photographic interpretation of them; this subtly subverts Nietzsche's heroicizing of the marginalized as espoused in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), where the philosopher suggests that those behind bars may have better access to certain aspects of the truth: "But there can be no doubt that for the discovery of certain parts of the truth, evil and unhappy men are better suited and have a greater probability of obtaining success. Perhaps hardness and guile are better qualifications for the development of a strong independent [i.e., male] thinker and philosopher."
Camhi's The Prison Experience (1989) constructs the carceral as a system of differences in which the "prison experience," as a unified totality, never emerges. Neither the documentarian's camera, nor the statement of the subject photographed, result in closure — albeit, there is an unwritten and unachieved ideal of the stable, happy family against which all the disruptions to the lives of inmates, victims, guards and their families are plotted. There is a sense in which Camhi's text foregrounds the strategic nature of power relations in constant flux, what Foucault terms the dispositif or apparatus of a discursive regime. His book is a representation of the representation of prison, not simply another representation of prison. And this, inside a prison that is notorious for its suppression of inmate voices. In the early 1980s, Vic Diaz, then editor of the CMF's inmate-publication the Vacavalley Star, fought the officials' censorship with court order after court order. Once Diaz was told to remove three "inflammatory" articles and a letter from an upcoming issue. Instead of replacing the articles, he left blank spaces where they were to appear and "splashed the word ‘censored' across the white holes." The paper was seized, the entire run carted off and burned.
Connie O'Connor, wife; Timothy O'Connor,
prisoner and family during a conjugal visit, from
Morrie Camhi's The Prison Experience (1989)
This fluidity, ambiguity, and unfixed aspect of Camhi's text is at odds with Danny Lyon's reports from the Texas Prison System in Conversations with the Dead (1971) and Ken Light's similar study in Texas Death Row (1997). Both Lyon's and Light's narratives construct an oppressive carceral totality founded upon an array of antinomies accepted as human universals — outside/inside, masters/slaves, spectator/ spectacle — which I will explore in relation to Jurij Lotman's theory of plot typology. The "surface events" that Lyon relates are underpinned by a "deep structure" that despite the valuable insights given by the images and the fact that Lyon later testified as to the poor prison conditions, ultimately rewards the reader with the pleasures of recognition (stereotypes) and narrative closure (return of the status quo).
Lyon focuses on a single "hero," Billy George McCune, whose carceral adventure takes on mythic proportions and closely parallels the narrative structure of Russian folktales as schematized in Structuralist Vladimir Propp's influential text The Morphology of the Folktale (1928):
1) Preparation — a prohibition is broken (allegedly McCune raped a woman);
2) Complication — this misfortune is made known (McCune is ac-cused, tried, and sentenced to death);
3) Transference — the hero is tested, attacked, interrogated, and as a result, receives a magical helper (McCune suffers on Death Row, his sentence is commuted to life in prison and he is placed in isolation for over a decade until Lyon discovers him and attempts to ameliorate his plight and obtain his release);
4) Struggle — the hero is branded (McCune mutilates himself); the villain is defeated (McCune — assisted by his helper, Lyon — over-comes the antagonistic warden's attempts to prevent McCune's writing from being released for publication);
5) Return — the task is accomplished (McCune's autobiography is finally published and Lyon exhibits McCune's drawings);
6) Recognition — the hero is recognized (McCune's writings and art-work are recognized and he is finally released from prison, eight years after being befriended by Lyon).
Ken Light creates a carceral drama whose antimonies are founded in that basic opposition, light/dark. This primary antinomy is then figured formally in the photographic medium's inherent oppositions of highlight/shadow, observer/observed and broached contentially by those of seen/unseen, understood/not understood. Unlike Lyon, however, Light at times "grays out" this opposition, creating ambiguities and ironies that aren't found in Lyon's narrative. Light, although not a postmodernist in strict sense, does not remain unaffected by the recent critique of traditional documentary's epistemological status.
Given the differences in the handling of narrative between Lyon's Conversations with the Dead and Camhi's The Prison Experience, the former text may be categorized as "structuralist" and "modernist," and the latter as "poststructuralist" and "postmodernist." Analogously, I argue a comparison between Gary Glassman and Jonathan Borofsky's "modernist" video tape Prisoners (1985), the "quasi-post-modernist" tape Other Prisoners (1987) by Stephen Roszell and the "radically postmodern" tape Nomads at the 25 Door (1991) by Jeanne C. Finley. The contrast of these major aesthetic and epistemological tendencies constitutes a major thread running through my analysis.