Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24Jan/141

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

ArendtWeekendReading

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

origins

Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-RB

10Jul/131

No Middle Ground

FromtheArendtCenter

David Simon, writer of “The Wire,” has a great post responding to my recent essay on the “Misreading of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’” Simon writes:

Reading this essay, I began to understand that it suits no one of an ideological bent to land anywhere in the middle on the question of who the Eichmanns are and how they come to be.

This simple sentence speaks volumes of about the way ideological thinking leads away from common sense and towards artificial polarization. As one reader commented in a private email to me:

On one side there are the mostly more or less violent critics, always looking for arguments against Arendt; on the other side we have the Arendt-lovers, hating and mistrusting everyone who is naughty enough to write about her subjects. Both sides are more believers than thinkers, so one has the choice between getting simply killed or hugged to death.

Simon sums up the opposing positions quite brilliantly. On the one side, for those who “see us all as ripe for totalitarian brutality given mere circumstance, there is little to be contemplated in the human soul.” We are all controlled by our situations and cogs in larger systems. On the other side, we are free actors without constraints. “There is no narrative beyond the individual for those that see nothing systemic in the world that cannot be overtaken by the life-force of the great and vile men and women of history.”

eich

What Simon rightly sees is that Arendt fits in neither extreme:

Ms. Arendt had blind spots, to be sure; she at points wrote of Holocaust victims with less patience and sensitivity than their standing requires. But in finding a more truthful place between fixed, ideological points when it came to Eichmann himself, Ms. Arendt offered real, but complicated insight.

The most interesting part of Simon’s post is what follows, where he draws the lesson from the ideological response to Arendt’s book about the dangers of ideological conformism.

There is a small irony here, given that “Eichmann In Jerusalem” is itself a study in the cost of ideological purity to the human spirit.  That those on either side of a philosophical divide would go so far as to mangle and mischaracterize Ms. Arendt’s work to assert against a middle ground is a shorter journey on that same, worn road. Perhaps, this is why her report from that Jerusalem courtroom still matters.

Look around at the hyperbolic and uncivil discourse between Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, Zionists and anti-Zionists, libertarians and liberals, the religious and the secular, pro-choice and anti-abortion: If you believe in anything completely — to the point of a rigorous purity — then you will at moments behave as an intellectual cripple.

I could not agree more. In fact, I had a paragraph in my essay about the way that political movements today insist on ideological purity even at the expense of common sense and of facts, so much so that belonging to and defending the movement is more important than being right. My graph landed on the cutting room floor, but Simon draws the very same conclusion from the essay anyway.

This does not mean we should not belong to movements or to groups. Committing ourselves to causes and believing in collective enterprises is part of being human. There are some opinions and some collectives for which I would sacrifice myself. Any political leader must be ready to lead obedient soldiers into war in the defense of freedom. Politics, as Max Weber wrote, is not a nursery. There is a time for the noble commitment to nation or ideals.

But there are limits past which obedience and conviction turn from noble to execrable.  It matters both what ideals one defends and what means one uses to defend them. It thus matters that when we join a group we not abandon ourselves fully to thoughtless obedience and thoughtless and unlimited pursuit of group ideals. Politics today, on the left and the right, resembles too much a game and a battle rather than a collective pursuit of self-governance.

Read the rest of Simon’s post here. And check out the comments and his responses as well.

-RB

21Jan/130

Violence, and Thinking With Others

“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

- Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey

30Aug/120

Are American Prisons Totalitarian?

This question may appear curious if not ill-formed. Many of us certainly associate prisons with the minute and pervasive exercise of power over the inmates who inhabit them, but we are also more accustomed to using “totalitarian” to describe dictatorial governmental regimes and sociopolitical movements. As a result, we may be inclined to think that the term is not of the same category as the institutions that, in this instance, it purports to describe.

At the height of the Cold War, however, a number of scholars posed the question of prisons’ totalitarian character in all seriousness and with considerable urgency. And not uncommonly they answered it in the affirmative. One of these was the Princeton sociologist Gresham Sykes, who conducted archival and field research at the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in Trenton in the early and mid 1950s. The book that resulted, The Society of Captives (1958), is one of the classics of modern criminology.

Sykes has the following to say about prisons near the beginning of his treatise:

The detailed regulations extending into every area of the individual’s life, the constant surveillance, the concentration of power in the hands of a ruling few, the wide gulf between the rulers and the ruled—all are elements of what we would usually call a totalitarian regime. The threat of force lies close beneath the surface of the custodial institution and it is the invisible fist rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand which regulates much of the prisoner’s activity. The prison official is a bureaucrat, but he is a bureaucrat with a gun.

The combination is a fearful one, for it is the basis of the calculated atrocities of the concentration camp and the ruthless exploitation of the Soviet lager. It is true that the American maximum security prison is different from these in terms of the nature of the tasks which the prison seeks to perform, the characteristics of the officials who direct these tasks, and the matrix of the democratic community in which the prison is embedded. The prison is not planned with an eye to annihilating its captive population—either physically or psychologically—nor is it designed to wring the last ounce of effort from an expendable labor force. Instead, it pursues an odd combination of confinement, internal order, self-maintenance, punishment, and reformation, all within a framework of means sharply limited by law, public opinion, and the attitudes of the custodians themselves. None the less, attempts to exercise total social control through the use of a bureaucratically organized administrative staff would all seem to be cut on much the same pattern and the prison appears to offer many clues to the structure and functioning of the new leviathan (pp. xiv-xv).

In formulating his argument in this manner, Sykes takes a stance on prisons that resonates with the ideas of another noted sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman’s work on “total institutions,” much of it collected in his 1961 book Asylums, also likens psychiatric hospitals, boot camps, and prisons to Nazi concentration camps.

Significantly, Sykes bases his characterization of totalitarianism on articles by Norman Polanski and David Riesman as well as the 1954 volume Totalitarianism edited by Carl Friedrich. He also makes reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the social psychology of the concentration camp. Yet in the entirety of his book, Sykes never refers explicitly to Arendt, although his comparisons practically beg for some consideration of her writing. This omission is telling, for Arendt was deeply skeptical of any effort to apply the concept of totalitarianism to superficially similar practices and institutions in other historical contexts. By her lights, such extrapolation denied the distinctive, indeed unprecedented nature of concentration camps under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, just as it banalized totalitarianism’s departure from other modes of tyrannical and authoritarian rule. Sykes’ qualifications (“It is true that…”) were not minor caveats that could be quickly passed over (“None the less…”), but fundamental objections that vitiated his argument. It was precisely this kind of conceptual and historical imprecision that, for Arendt, fatally compromised the bulk of social science scholarship. (For more on Arendt’s objections, see my post on Peter Baehr’s book Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences here.)

But Sykes’ argument can be questioned not merely on these broad theoretical grounds, for his own empirical material and close analysis challenge the notion that prisons wield “totalitarian” power. First, the efforts of prison staff to exercise control are undermined by the contradictory imperatives to which they must respond. Penal institutions are commonly justified on the basis that they punish convicted offenders and (ostensibly) deter potential criminals, but since the nineteenth century they are also supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they forego crime and productively rejoin society at large. These tasks, as Sykes notes, are “not easily balanced in a coherent policy” (p. 12), and they tend to result in inconsistent procedures and practices.

Second, prisons are simply unable to discipline inmates in any exhaustive way, even as they impose heavy restrictions and deprivations on the people subject to their regulation. On the one hand, prisoners do not typically regard prison guards and other staff members as figures of legitimate authority, and the staff members lack an effective system of rewards and punishments that might encourage inmates’ conformity in the absence of a felt duty to obey. On the other hand, the very conditions of prison life—the severe limitations on inmates’ autonomy, the absence of physical security, the material impoverishment, the curtailment of heterosexual relations—tend ironically to encourage behavior that defies institutional rules and norms. As a result, “the prison official…is caught up in a vicious circle where he must suppress the very activity that he helps cause” (p. 22).

And third, prison guards in particular are in close contact with the inmates they supervise, and they are subject to a variety of pressures that inhibit their ability and willingness to exercise power as fully as they might. In order to manage their everyday duties, Sykes finds, they commonly refrain from reporting infractions they have witnessed, neglect basic security requirements, and even pass forbidden information to inmates (about, say, upcoming searches for contraband). In the end, most corrections officers can “insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted. Only by tolerating violations of ‘minor’ rules and regulations can the guard secure compliance in the ‘major’ areas of the custodial regime” (p. 58).

Based on my admittedly limited insights as a Bard Prison Initiative faculty member, I find much to commend in Sykes’ analysis of the structural tensions that define American penal institutions. Judging from my interactions with incarcerated students, many of his observations remain relevant to present-day correctional facilities in New York State. But it is precisely Sykes’ insights on these matters that lead me to doubt the notion that American prisons represent total(itarian) domination. As his detailed analysis of “prison argot” indicates, prisons do not destroy inmates’ sense of personhood, spontaneity, and collective solidarity, and his closing account of rioting highlights how they can mount serious opposition to prison authorities.

All of this might lead us to wonder why Sykes and other social scientists even entertained the question of prisons’ potentially totalitarian character. What were the circumstances that made such an inquiry intelligible? On this count, we would do well to recall the Cold War context in which Sykes’ book was written. For many Euro-American commentators in the 1950s and ‘60s, totalitarianism was the overriding problem of their time, and one that was all the more disturbing because it had seemed to emerge so abruptly and unexpectedly. There was thus a keen interest in attempting to comprehend what totalitarianism was or at least might be. This interest led a fair number of scholars to seek out cases that could illuminate the concept, including ones that ranged beyond the paradigmatic instances of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

At the same time, totalitarianism was widely perceived as a mortal hazard to Euro-American liberal democracy and Western civilization as a whole. As Carl Friedrich suggests in his introduction to Totalitarianism (1954), however, the perceived threat could come not merely “from without,” but also “from within” (p. 3). His implication was that the U.S. and other “free” societies could harbor their own forms of brutality and terror—and that the line separating them from “totalitarian” states was not as bright as often presumed.

I would suggest that Sykes turned to the concept of totalitarianism, in no small part, to lend moral and rhetorical force to his critical analysis of American penal institutions. Even as he professed that he sought to avoid value judgments, he also admitted that like other skeptics, “I too believe that attempting to reform criminals by placing them in prison is based on a fallacy” (p. vii). We might therefore read his recourse to totalitarianism in the light of the subversive questioning of American ascendancy that was beginning to coalesce in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Such recourse is all the more striking given that “totalitarianism” became one of the chief weapons that conservatives used to denounce leftists and other critics as “pro-Soviet” sympathizers. In the end, then, Sykes’ book speaks not only (and directly) to the nature of prison as a modern institution, but also (and more obliquely) to the wider cultural and political ferment that defined Cold War America.         

-Jeff Jurgens

 

17Feb/121

Prisoner of Time

Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.

Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.

This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.

Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:

“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”

My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.

Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.

Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.

We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.

There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.

-Jeff Jurgens