Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thoughts on Anti-Prison Activist Discourse

The last three chapters of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish that make up part four titled “The Prison” presented many ideas that I found particularly intriguing. One of the most striking notions that emerged in my reading of this section I found to be particularly useful in analyzing and understanding the experiences I have had within and exposure to the world of leftist activism that concerns itself with dismantling the American prison system.

It is always refreshing to find myself in situations where I can look at my own stances on issues and challenge my former devoted and stubborn dispositions from a removed place through the lenses of newly found concepts and self-dug-with-a-spoon-I-stole-from-the-guarded-refectory-of-my-own-little-intellectual-prison mini dirt tunnels to pseudo-enlightenment sunshine and fresh air. (A tad verbose and dramatic, I know.) It’s nice to see evidence of my own being in a state of intellectual process…more and more I find myself less desperate to define my stances and ideas and more open to a more organic sense of the world and its shifty operative philosophies.

Anyway, I digress. (*self-disciplined slap on the wrist*)

What I noticed as exceptionally applicable to reviewing anti-prison activism discourse lies in Foucault’s stressed discussion of the prison, while perhaps a centrally located physical body, as only a segment operating complexly within a whole overlapping and interweaving system that functions through disciplining practices to establish and sustain a specific normality among social body subjects upon which certain forms and distributions of power depend in order to justify its place and perpetuate itself. This came to me most explicitly when Foucault writes that “the model of the carceral city is not, therefore, the body of the king, with the powers that emanate from it, nor the contractual meeting of wills from which a body that was both individual and collective was born, but a strategic distribution of elements of different natures and levels” (307).

This notion provides strong theoretical grounds to challenge popular anti-prison activist discourse that tends to refer to “the prison system” as a singular object, rendering it an easily defined, identified enemy to oppose. While perhaps serving a purpose of making this form of activism accessible and its respective activist efforts part of a perceivably winnable battle, this method of referring to the prison as a singular and interchangeable object body is problematic because it avoids looking at the other functions of the prison as part of a larger, complex system in operation that maintains particular power hierarchies that depend on disciplinary institutions. In short, the argument made by many of such activists is weakened substantially in that first, it makes assumptions about the purpose of the prison in society, and second, it prevents the potential for any real change by remaining on the surface in challenging the prison as a physical space maintained by a specific group of people, which serves as a distraction from looking into the systemic elements of the matter. While it may seem easier to locate a problem and tackle it as such, organizers calling to “’bring down’ the prison and change the way law works in society as a result,” such an approach is doomed to a certain degree of failure in that it doesn’t address the basic function of the prison, itself “not alone, but linked to a whole series of ‘carceral’ mechanisms…which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization” (308).

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