Part Two of Carceral Dreams, Nuclear Afterthoughts
Guest Post by Lisa Guenther
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the history of the world. We both know, and don’t know, that this is a disaster.
Artists like Chris Jordan have created digital images to help us imagine this disaster, to witness the mathematical sublime of 2.3 million people behind bars. Others, like Richard Ross and Taryn Simon, have used photography to give these numbers a human face.
In this second post of my three-part series on Carceral Dreams, Nuclear Afterthoughts, I will take a somewhat different approach to the visual culture of mass incarceration. Beginning with an image of the building site for the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, lifted from a developer’s website, I want to sift through the layers of meaning and absurdity that structure this image.
I call my method critical phenomenology, understood as a practice of critically suspending “common sense” accounts of reality in order to map and describe the structures that make these accounts possible, to analyze the way they function, and to open up new possibilities for re-imagining and re-claiming the commons. Critical phenomenology is a method for pulling up traces of what is not quite or no longer there – that which has been rubbed out or consigned to invisibility – but which still shapes the emergence of meaning, and of absurdity.[ii]
Absurdity is not a lack or absence of meaning, but rather a powerful sign of that which exceeds the framework of common sense and flouts it, mocks it, takes a shit right in the middle of it. Absurdity makes it possible to laugh again, even in the face of a disaster. Its refusal to disappear, like a piece of shit that keeps popping up in the toilet, may become a powerful gesture of political resistance. Then again, it may not – but it still feels good to laugh.
So what do you see when you look at this photograph?
News Channel 5 sees “a place of unfilled potential.” Corrections Corporation of America sees a brand new member of its “family.” Trousdale County Mayor Jake West sees more than 300 new full-time jobs and $1.8 million in utility payments (Hartsville Vidette). Tennessee House Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver sees “spawning” profits for her own adjacent district (Hartsville Vidette). Trousdale County Superintendent of Schools Cliff Satterfield sees a surprise check from CCA for $15,000 (Macon County Times).
I see a shit show. I see a nuclear Ozymandias at the edge of a future graveyard. I see the set design for a carceral-eugenic theatre of the absurd. I see a missed opportunity for a surrealist theme park. I see the concrete, material sedimentation of social practices structured by white supremacy and patriarchal domination. I see vectors of global capitalism intersecting in a clear cut. I see a palimpsest of disaster.
A palimpsest is a manuscript page where the original writing has been rubbed or scraped off to make room for later writing, but where the traces of previous inscriptions still remain, barely visible, but still affecting the texture of the page. The word derives from the Greek palimpsēstos, meaning to be scraped again or rubbed smooth again.
What would it take to read this scraped surface as both a building site and a text? As the warp and woof of collective memory and forgetting, but also as a factory of social death and a node in global capitalist networks of investment, security, and risk management. As a palimpsest of nuclear, carceral, and industrial disaster.
I take my cue for thinking about disaster from Blanchot, who writes:
We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future; it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival… [T]here is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment. (The Writing of the Disaster, 2)
A palimpsest of disaster. A litany for the future of no future. A basic infrastructure of social death. By “social death” I do not mean a state of non-social or de-socialized existence, but rather the social production of a structure that includes some people within a circle of personhood, citizenship, and equal protection under the law, by excluding others from this circle.[i] Social death is the (social) production of both a “society [that] must be defended” and the delinquents, gang members, terrorists, “illegal aliens,” and other threats against which it must be defended. It is a system for locking in as well as locking out; it produces gated communities as well as prisons, jails, and detention centers. The logistics of this interlocking system are so tightly-meshed in the US carceral state that they appear inescapable, and yet its logic is so obscenely wasteful and absurd that it could not possibly be sustainable, even if it is highly profitable.
So let’s bracket the common sense image of profit and potential – without letting it disappear – and map out the structures that make this image possible. What would we have to see and remember, and what would we have to ignore, forget, or make disappear, in order to produce this image? And what would it take to stop (re)producing this image, to dismantle the carceral-eugenic structures of social death, and to write a different story on the palimpsest of disaster?
In my next post in this series, I will take a close look at the global supply chains that are currently assembling the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility.
[ii] See here for my preliminary sketch of a critical phenomenology of “SoBro,” a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in downtown Nashville. Ultimately, I would argue that SoBro and the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility are counterparts in an interlocking structure of social death. See this essay and this book for a critical phenomenology of solitary confinement.
Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives. Together with Geoff Adelsberg and Scott Zeman, she co-edited a forthcoming collection of essays called, Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration. She is a member of R.E.A.C.H. Coalition: Reciprocal Education and Community Healing on Tennessee’s Death Row.