“Driving through this part of Louisiana you can pass four prisons in less than an hour. ‘The spirit of every age,’ writes Eric Schlosser, ‘is manifest in its public works.’ So this is who we are, the jailers, the jailed. This is the spirit of our age.”
– CD Wright, One Big Self, introduction.
(images from One Big Self, by CD Wright.)
Violence is visceral, political, well organized and self-fulfilling. More importantly, violence is dependent on agents. These texts address how agency within the modern political and social systems support and even sustain the structures which violently act against specific individuals.
With the new law passed in Pennsylvania (literally, this week) our reading of “The New Jim Crow,” “Queering Prison Abolition, Now?” and “Social Death” are extensions of last week’s discussion of biopolitics and even Rebecca Scott’s understanding of race and racial oppression.
By speaking prisoners are considered to be “taunting” their victims. This is largely public due to the graduation speech at Goddard College a few weeks ago. I am a proud graduate of Goddard—and I am glad Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice was heard by the 2014 graduating class. With that said, Abu-Jamal was presented as a “cop killer” by Fox News and hatred towards… was supported by many, including the wife of the police officer Mumia was convicted of murdering. Her plea was that hearing Abu-Jamal’s voice on the radio ripped open a scab. What is learned here is that the constitution can be used against one person, and can be used to make prisoners voiceless, less than “man” in our society; or, a form of social death. For one to be “dead” socially, they are no longer validated as a human.
The texts focused on racial “blindness” as the attribute of the new Jim Crow. Blindness can be described as:
Sightless, having less than 1⁄10 of normal vision in the more efficient eye when refractive defects are fully corrected by lenses, unable or unwilling to discern or judge (such as being blind to a lover’s faults), blind loyalty, having no regard to rational discrimination, guidance, or restriction. Lacking a directing or controlling consciousness, drunk, made or done without sight of certain objects or knowledge of certain facts that could serve for guidance or cause bias (as in a blind taste test), having no knowledge of information that may cause bias during the course of an experiment or test, difficult to discern, make out, or discover, hidden from sight, having but one opening or outlet, having no opening for light or passage.
I assert, one is not blind to race, but part of a methodical action of looking away— a choice to shield our eyes from violence, a choice to declare the inability to comprehend a history. This makes Abu-Jamal’s case even more compelling. Turning one’s ears away—to not hear– is nearly impossible. What we see today is the beginnings of a muting, the controlling of sonic space, the loss of voice, on an unprecedented level. We can see… we choose to look away. When we cannot shield voices of those we have deemed voiceless, we take away our “ability to hear” by creating policies of silence rather than laws of compassion.
What does this have to do with neoliberalism? The texts seem to speak to the psychological conditions and ideologies which allow for the material (visceral) violence(s) which occur in systemic and systematic ways in America (these writings did seem to focus on conditions within the US). The timelines coincide with neoliberalism in a few ways—the Reagan administration’s advancement of the War on Drugs, the impact of politics and policies, economics… however, it is much deeper than that.
These texts reveal ways in which knowledge is controlled and how neoliberal mindsets are controlling. Reminiscent of Benedict Anderson’s declaration of map-making and museums as creations of the (n)ation, Alexander and Cacho offer understandings of the ways ideologies and common knowledge serves as power to dictate how spaces inscribe otherness on a person—not to mention the ways race has been constructed an an “other” or an “alien” always, already without rights, always, already criminal, devalued, socially unborn.
Further, violence and capitalism are dependent upon one another. If neoliberalism’s materiality manifests as hyper-capitalism, the violence is multiplied, conditioned as necessary—banality, systematic looking away and muting is necessary for business as usual. Breaks in this cycle come in the form of compassion, radicalism, opting out… violence?
Intrinsically connected to neoliberalism is a loss, or lack of morality. Just as the morality of Mountain Top Removal mining was void from discussions of violence (according to Scott), here facts and data—arrest number, precedents based on illegal (immoral?) searches support violence because the morality of it has been dismissed. Power as control is a key aspect of these readings—but for whom, against what? Neoliberal ideologies present agency as power, and offers systems power to silence or justify egregious acts. This is at the core of sexual violence, policing, silencing, dehumanizing, criminalizing bodies, and consuming—all evident in the readings throughout the semester, but particularly clear in Alexander’s text.
The stakes in this discussion are high: in many ways, agency is twisted to become an agent of oppression. Agency is mis/construed as ability or opportune space. I thought of the term prison, just as I did “blind.” What does it mean to imprison someone, and how does confinement alter one’s being—here there is an obvious connection to psychiatry (psychiatric facilities) and schools. We are given the freedom to choose through the capitalist system, but the choices are already drawn out—as if we were part of a monopoly game, “Do Not Pass Go” is part of the script for many, independent of their choices, and definitely independent of their hopes. Within neoliberalism a false sense of agency looms over everyone, but literally traps women, people of color, “non-normative” thinkers, those with different abilities, and many more.
I am left with questions that cannot be answered: How do we interject, intervene? Grieve the violence’s we commit? How do we alter our agency to allow for optimum capacity of others? How do we ethically survive? How can we create a system in which debts are paid and our “selves” are not dependent on a relation to those in debt? What does a social look like–sound like–that is neither born nor dies?
(above: from http://prisonmap.com/)
 See: Adorno for a full discussion on the inability to mute one’s soundscape.