Self-Torsion as a Liberating Force in Death Row Art

Many people are surprised to learn that prisons today are overflowing with beautiful new art created by the prisoners themselves. But how do they manage this, under such difficult conditions? In an anthology coming out this August, Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, I describe what I think is true of all prison art, a phenomenon which I call it “self-torsion.” By this, I mean the process of attempting to torsion (or twist) yourself into a better version of yourself within institutions such as prisons (but also schools, mental institutions, and military bases) that channel those attempts into greater conformity and exploitation. What led me to search for this concept was being part of a reading group at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tennessee. While discussing all sorts of things in our group, from philosophy and religion to politics and the arts, I was surprised to learn that almost every imprisoned member of our group had years of experience creating art. And the more I experienced of their artworks, the more a kind of pattern began to emerge—but a pattern for which I could not seem to find the right name.

I eventually found that name in the writings of the greatest African-American theorist of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, and probably the greatest French theorist of the same century, Michel Foucault. Du Bois had the idea of defining African-American art in order to promote social justice, by fighting the (often unconscious) propaganda of mainstream art (in favor of the status quo) with a new, self-conscious, liberating “propaganda.” In essence, by depicting social injustice directly, the creative resilience of the people who survive that injustice indirectly shines through, and beautifully. And Foucault had the (surprisingly complementary) ideas of ancient self-actualization and the soul-creating powers of modern imprisonment. For my part, then, I combined all three of these ideas to understand how today’s prisons encourage (mostly African-American and Latino) prisoners to recreate their own psyches in the interests of—not the prisoners themselves—but the prisons.

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