The narrative structure of imprisonment provides an alibi for citizenship by suturing reality outside prisons as ordinary.
What Would It Mean to Walk Away from America?
I’m on the ferry from Seattle to Vashon Island with a friend. The wind and rain lashes the ship’s exterior while we’re safely ensconced in its warm belly, and as usual, the ferry speaks to us of its quiet utopian ambitions. Since moving to the Puget Sound from a landlocked city on the east coast five year ago, I’ve been fascinated by the way that ferries are an everyday part of the state’s transportation infrastructure. How strange and delightful it is to live in a place where the ferry is a part of daily life – travel over water, after all, is typically only available to the very wealthy, but here it’s as ordinary as the rain. The ships themselves are a little homely, in a postwar steel and rivets sort of way, but sturdy, and with a kind of utilitarian efficiency that strikes me as elegant. The interiors are lined with wide picture windows and generous benches arranged around tables, like booths in a diner, encouraging a kind of sociality not typical of public utilities. Seeing a ferry from the distance, my heart lifts a little at the promise of it – not just the promise of warmth or adventure, but the promise and possibility of a commons.
Back in the boat, we wonder, what it would be like like if the ferries could be brought one step closer to becoming a common resource. Freed from state management, the ferries could be a miniature mobile floating city-commune. We’re already redecorating – wood floors and a fresh coat of paint would go a long way; a rooftop garden, bunk rooms, and a collective canteen materialize in our imaginations. This upholstery looks like the same stuff they use at the DMV, that definitely has to go. Then a look of concern crosses my friend’s face. “Now when I look at the ferry all I can think about is prison labor,” she says.
Who buys commodities made by prison labor? Mostly the state, and large, faceless firms buying things like office furniture, road signs, or license plates in bulk.
Cold water for utopian dreaming. Why prison labor? Well, the state of Washington’s Department of Transportation (DOT) runs the ferry system, and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) contracts with the DOT to buy certain necessary items from the DOC. These items (in this case, trash cans and worker uniforms, as well as other necessities), are the product of what is un-hyperbolically called slave labor – famously, prison labor is the one form of slave labor exempted from the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Except as a punishment for crime. One wonders if the authors of this amendment knew, 150 years ago, that this exception would serve as a justification for the continuation of racialized slavery at the heart of hyper-incarceration in the United States.
But now we’re wondering about visibility. Not long ago, my friend had been researching prison slavery in Washington, trying to get a handle on how its economy functions. Who buys commodities made by prison labor? Mostly the state, and large, faceless firms buying things like office furniture, road signs, or license plates in bulk. Prisons produce goods that ordinary consumers rarely buy, and as a result the products of prison labor are seldom visible to the public. Instead, they’re circulated as invisible infrastructure built into the environment, whether as trash cans or office furniture.
This invisibility has as much to do with it being a product of prison labor as it does with its function as infrastructure. By design, one rarely notices infrastructure. As Keller Esterling puts it in Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, “Infrastructure is considered to be a hidden substrate – the binding medium or current between objects of positive consequence, shape, and law.” The convergence Esterling describes points to important positive infrastructural elements: positive consequence as that which molds the environment to encourage desired behavior; positive shape as the formal qualities of objects; and positive law as the secular statues laid down to manage human activity. All of it is held together by the infrastructure, which, in its standardized materiality engenders these elements as something natural and given. The .76mm thickness of credit cards, interstate highways, broadband internet – all of these standardized linkages that facilitate daily life are only visible once they are broken, as during highway construction, or a temporary power outage interrupting credit card processing.
Prisons, I’ve heard it said, are broken as well. If this is the case, then why do they remain invisible?
What is the narrative shape of the prison system?
Of all of the places where the products of prison labor circulate, the ferry is one of the few routinely encountered by the general public. Would it be possible to raise awareness of prison labor in the Washington state ferry system? My friend tells me she considered making stickers in an official-looking font saying something like “Made with slave labor,” to post around the ferries, but never followed through with the idea. After all, who would care? Everyone knows about prisons, and some even know about forced prison labor, but aside from a few pockets of resistance (including some prisoners), nobody seems to be inclined to do anything about it. We wonder about this as our ferry cuts through the waves.
“After all, who would care?”
This question lingers, even after I disembark. There’s a way of knowing, I speculate, that can lead to apathy, and a way of knowing that leads to activity. “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war,” writes Susan Sontag in her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others,” insinuating that such beliefs no longer hold. One might say the same of prisons. There’s a problem of being so overwhelmed by the pain of others, rendered as spectacle, that the spectator becomes useless in the face of it. I know about this problem. Just talking about prisons brings me to the edge of tears in my feeling of uselessness. But this does not stop me from thinking about this question, the “After all, who would care?” question, which, with some prodding, morphs into a problem demanding a solution.
As my friend and I reflected during our ferry ride, the problem isn’t quite about knowing or caring – it’s the ‘so what,’ the helplessness that follows the recognition. I think there must be something special about prisons in particular that allows them to elide representation and engagement. That an institution as grotesque as the prison system could continue to exist relatively unchallenged suggests to me that there’s some more profound mechanism that enables its elusiveness. And I think that its secret doesn’t lies in some maleficent ideology, or a sheeplike passiveness on the part of the American public. Its elusiveness lies somewhere at the intersection of an invention called citizenship, the mechanisms of infrastructure that I’ve already mentioned, and, perhaps surprisingly, narrative form.
A set of linguistic norms seems to coalesce around a center of gravity known as the prison-industrial complex. Attempts to represent prisons are usually coded through this language. We encounter terms like hyper-incarceration, the carceral state, crisis, and so on. Rarely do we encounter terms like infrastructure, narrative, or citizenship. This is fine: those first kinds of words point to the systems of power and oppression that give rise to prisons as an existing arrangement, to render them visible through history as a contingent form that came into being by certain collisions of circumstances bound up in particular power relations. The War on Drugs, for instance, might be seen (correctly) as a political imperative that worked in concert with a racist tough-on-crime agenda, coupled with new forms of policing and neoliberal economic policies that lead to a ballooning prison population. This kind of descriptive language is crucial for understanding how prisons operate, and for understanding what kinds of terms of transition – to borrow language from Lauren Berlant – might be necessary to reverse these trends. But prisons don’t only work on the level of politics and economy. They operate along narrative lines as well. Stepping back from the descriptive language about prisons and instead look at how they operate on the level of narrative might offer the opportunity to think differently about prisons.
Narrative is the means by which discrete components of a plot are stitched together. In Aristotle’s Poetics, plot is the usual English translation of the Greek word mythos, forming a unity of narrative elements. Mythos, in the ordinary sense, would have meant something like story to the Greeks (which comes to us by way of French, a refashioning of the Latin, historia), but stories that were specially authorized to make meaning. In our modern age, we’ve come to view myths as untrue stories, something akin to folklore, believed by the naive and superstitious in days past. But as Roland Barthes’ essay collection Mythologies explains, myth serves as a vehicle for making meaning. Or, as he writes in the essay “Myth Today,” the very principle of myth is what “transforms history into nature.”
There’s a problem of being so overwhelmed by the pain of others, rendered as spectacle, that the spectator becomes useless in the face of it.
If myth is the language of naturalization, then narrative might be the language of connection. Like infrastructure, narrative ties together discrete elements, producing a consistency that gives a form to the present. Just like infrastructure engenders concrete subjectivities, relations, and behaviors by structuring the material world, so does narrative consistency cement imaginary horizons by delimiting our desires into discrete genres.
A genre, writes Lauren Berlant, is “a loose affectively-invested zone of expectations about the narrative shape a situation will take.” What, we could ask, is the narrative shape of the prison system?
I find myself on the ferry again, this time alone. The ship is lashed with rain again, and again I find myself thinking about prisons. I decide to ask the people closest to me what they think about prisons. One of them is reading the new Louise Erdich novel and wearing a t-shirt with an owl on it underneath a flannel sweater, and the other is wearing a trench coat and grandma glasses with some dangly jewelry and is absorbed in her cellphone screen. Each of their styles is decisively Seattle weirdo, which I take as a friendly sign. I spend a few minutes gathering my courage, trying to recall my utopian vision of the ferry. Fumbling a bit at first, I ask something like:
“What, uhh, hi, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure...” they reply, indicating with their body language that they’re anything but sure.
“What do you all know about prisons?”
Blank stares. I try again.
“Have you ever heard the term hyper-incarceration?”
“No,” one replies, brightening a bit “but it sounds right. There are way too many people incarcerated for little things.” I nod along as she reaches for talking points on drug laws and non-violent offenses.
“Cool. Um, have you heard of prison slave labor?”
Blank stares again. I can tell they want to have heard of prison slave labor. I tell them about the labor that is used to produce items on the ship we’re aboard, and about the 13th amendment. They look mildly interested, and register their disappointment with the ferry system, but then they become suspicious of me. Am I going to try to sell them something?
“I’m just doing research for an essay, and I was thinking about this ferry-prison labor thing and wondering if people knew about it at all, or just general impressions people have about prisons. Do you know how many people are incarcerated in the United States?”
At this point owl t-shirt surprises me by reciting prison statistics by heart. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population are housed in US prisons, he informs me. At this point I think it might be safe to ask the big one.
“Do you think we could do away with prisons entirely?”
“Oh no, of course not,” trench coat responds. “We have to have someplace to put the really bad people.”
I let the conversation resolve into a discordant ending: failing to carry a tune, we smash down on all of the piano keys at once. I thank them and apologize uselessly: hardly utopian, but I feel a small glimmer of accomplishment at having at least, for a moment, broken the personal space barrier, as I turn my attention back to the stormy waters outside.
More than a few times, in the course of doing research or activism, I’ve posed the problem of prisons from an abolitionist standpoint. Meaning I’ve posited, with little preamble, that prisons are a profound moral wrong, which should immediately be abolished. I’ve found, among those I’ve approached, significant resistance to this proposition. It’s understandable that from the perspective of certain citizens, prisons seem to be a necessary feature of the public good, even if some view them as a tad over-utilized. I’ve found that most people come with a stock phrase pre-installed in their brains that absolutely refutes my claim. “What would we do with all the bad people?” the shop owner, the software engineer, the ferry rider wants to know.
Together we make a world, and therefore we have to decide how to engage our shared reality.
What this reveals is a kind of impasse, born from the incoherence of the prison narrative. Yes, people concur, “prisons are broken,” (remembering the “hyper-incarceration crisis”) and at the same time maintain a stubborn attachment to the state as protector. In essays like “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness” and “The Commons: Infrastructure for Troubling Times,” Berlant finds a similar narrative barrier in the State’s authoritarian attempts to impose austerity measures while hoarding legitimacy in the face of expanding precarity. It does so by reattaching “collective fantasy to the state’s aura as sovereign actor and to block recognition of the similarity of their debt pathos and the corrupting influences of capitalism.” Nevertheless, people experience the situation as a crisis, “an emergency in the reproduction of life, a transition that has not found its genres for moving on.” Here, we encounter something like genre-crisis:
No longer with resources or the will to be proactive, the state becomes an emergency responder, stumbling over broken roads and expectations; meanwhile the people experience the state of emergency not as an exception but as an embedding in the ordinary in which they are always tipped over, walking ahead while looking around, and feeling around their pockets for something, both focused and distracted and getting by, without assurance. A crisis ordinary such as this one appears therefore when the transitions of the present are revealed as precarious by the loss of genre and a hyperactive scavenging for genre.
Infrastructure, remember, is typically invisible until it is broken. In the case of the prison industrial complex, we have an infrastructure that’s noted for its brokenness. And yet, faced with the loss of genre and having to scavenge for a new one, “people experience the state of emergency not as an exception but as an embedding in the ordinary.” Could it be that people hold onto what they know until they arrive at a new genre that enables them to move on? Perhaps we’re in a situation where prisons’ narrative ruptures have not yet resolved into a full-blown genre crisis – or, maybe there’s another story here, one in which brokenness itself is intrinsic to the narrative shape of prisons.
The ones who walk away are those who are unable to forget
This brings me to the question of the citizen. Even saying the word aloud, “citizen,” one can hear the word “law-abiding” that so often accompanies it. Citizenship is an invention that dates back to ancient Greece, which predicates the possibility of democracy on an original exclusion: those who do not, by birth or fortune, attain the status of citizen, are excluded from adjudicating political life. The possibility of exclusion from political participation remains today the condition of possibility for a nation of citizens. Thus the citizen, a status almost universally granted to those born within the borders of the United States, remains a precarious status, in danger of being revoked. Further, the historical (and ongoing) force of state-sponsored racism and settler colonialism ensure that even under conditions of formal equality, the status of citizen remains unevenly distributed: who could deny that from the perspective of an agent of the law, the young, black, urban male has a more tenuous claim to citizenship and the civil rights thus granted?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”demonstrates the limit point ofcitizenship inan ideal republic. In the story, Le Guin paints a nearly utopian picture of a city of free and happy citizens who want for nothing. The picture of the city is so compelling that, like the ferry, it tugs at my heartstrings with its festivals and bright banners, communal dining halls, leisure, and abundance. But of course there’s a catch. Somewhere in the city, in some basement, cellar, or hovel, there is a child kept in confinement, utterly abject, without hope, love, care, or sunshine. And in the logic of Le Guin’s story, the existence of Omelas as a place of beauty and abundance is contingent on the child being there, held in the most miserable conditions. Here, even the good city at its most utopian posits the problem of citizenship as a narrative infrastructure. As Le Guin’s narrator admits, the story is not believable (“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”) without the exclusion of the non-citizen, in this case, the child locked in the basement.
We might have to learn to think prisons in their narrative capacity to provide an alibi to the condition of citizenship. For the citizen, prison provides a convenient narrative infrastructure to answer the question “Where would we put all of the bad people?” Prisons, and their close cousins, detention centers, camps, and interrogation facilities are the answer to that question. They are where ‘we’ put those whose status as citizen is called into question. They are the non-places of citizenship, where inalienable rights are actually quite alienable.They are also the places of narrative elision, the covering of the plot holes that makes citizenship possible. By deleting the citizenship of the prisoner through disenfranchisement, the law-abiding citizen becomes more substantial, while the non-citizen fades into the infrastructural background. Without the figure of the non-citizen, the citizen might be impossible.
Prisons, it might turn out, are an infrastructure of narrative elision. By representing a place for alterity, the citizen is equipped with an imaginary to safely place those who do not belong within the nation. Just as the child locked in the basement or hovel, in Le Guin’s story, provides the narrative condition for a happy city, prisons provide the possibility of citizenship in the United States. To follow Barthes, there is nothing “natural” about prisons, just as there is nothing “natural” about citizenship, a condition that has been taken as so ordinary as to be invisible.
The saving power of Le Guin’s story is alluded to in the title, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The ones who walk away are those who are unable to forget: they are the minority who turn tail and walk away from Omelas, never to return. By giving the reader a stake in the narrative structure of the short story by offering us the onus of co-creation, she also authorizes us to become sensitive to the narrative lubricant that greases our topos. Together, she is saying, we make a world, and therefore we have to decide how to engage our shared reality. This means we have to decide what to do regarding the things we would rather not see, and the things we would rather forget. What would it mean to walk away from America? This is the question surreptitiously posed in the story, cleverly disguised as a moral tale. What would it mean, in other words, to refuse the forgetting that makes citizenship possible and actually confront the terrible, unseen reality of hyper-incarceration?
Confronting the physicality of prisons in their infrastructural capacity and interrupting their capacity to function, whether by blocking supply lines, highways, the movement of prison guards, or the withdrawal of prison slave labor, remains crucial for opening up the possibility of negotiating forms of belonging that do not require prisons or prison slavery. But prisons as infrastructure don’t just operate at the level of the physical: they operate also at a structuring, narrative level as a necessary exception that elides the myth of citizenship. Infrastructure structures reality, and when it does so successfully it’s invisible, only becoming visible when it breaks, revealing ordinary life as a crisis. Prisons remain invisible despite their brokenness because their role is to suture reality outside prison as ordinary. As carceral methods become part of everyday life, however – in the form of a culture of surveillance, criminalization, and control – this may change. The more difficult problem, before and after the prisons have been razed, is how to reimagine ways of being together that aren’t founded in an original exclusion.