Saturday, July 26, 2014

Food for Thought (and Comments)

In a summer intensive we are especially ruthlessly confined by available time to a focus on assigned texts and topics. And one of the costs of that confinement is that we really have little occasion to think about the ways in which the ideas we are reading about might illuminate daily events in our lives and in the public in the moment.

This is disappointing because even though I can't ever know in advance as an instructor just how such discussions will go they are often incredibly clarifying of theoretical issues for the same reasons -- personal stakes are raised because people living with quandaries in the moment often haven't determined for themselves exactly what they feel about such events, even as the urgency and feelings in the moment are all the stronger for the upset occasioned by the events in the first place.

Since folks are looking for an opportunity to provide comments this weekend, I've been posting lots of extra material to give you a richer field of texts, YouTube clips, and so on to react to and talk about in comments. Let me provide another one as well. Feel free to add your own as well.

How might our understanding of the recent spate of botched executions in Arizona and elsewhere be clarified or complicated by the discussion of torture and human experimentation and "benign" incarceration in Foucault's Discipline and Punish? Discuss!


J Seagull said...

I was in fact just thinking about this earlier. While browsing Facebook, I noticed somewhere in the comments that someone had referred to these botched executions as "human experimentation," and I was reminded of the point that one of the commonly overlooked features of Bentham's panopticon is its function as an experimental space.

But my reaction to prison-related topics like this in general actually relate more to the topics we went over when you covered History of Sexuality. Foucault discusses how the apparent hiding of sex can actually be seen as an explosion of discourse on sex in other forms. I'm thinking about the transition of punishment and execution from public spectacle to something that happens behind closed doors, but noticing how, with executions in particular, we've still devoted a lot of time and energy to finding the "best" way of executing someone. In the botched execution in the book, what was aimed for was the most spectacular, gorey, and painful option possible. What we do now I suppose aims at something like efficiency and humaneness, since we are meant to avoid "cruel and unusual punishment." I remember reading that the most recent botched execution victim's attorney complained that his client'a punishment was indeed cruel and unusual. And I remember seeing user comments that suggested things like "a shotgun to the back of the head" would be more humane. My personal objections to capital punishment full stop aside, it is interesting (the bad kind of interesting) how our attempts to devise new technologies for better killing still result in unspeakable suffering for those who are subjected to them. The real digference now is that we don't have to (get to?) watch.

Clinton Barnes said...

I agree with J Seagull's connection between Foucault's observation of the panopticon as an experimental space. Ever since states have been unable to purchase the drugs used previously in lethal injections, they literally have been experimenting with new drug cocktails in an attempt to find the most optimal method of executing criminals.

Our understanding of the botched executions can thus be clarified through application of the panopticon. From the state government's— the guard in the watchtower— perspective, they are experimenting on death row inmates— inmates in the open cells— in order to find the most cost-effective method of execution. In these examples, their experiments have failed; the method's cost ineffectiveness is apparent to the state not in the criminal's suffering, but in the reaction of the public.

Eric Gentry said...

From comments above I pose a question: is it the capital punishment itself you are opposed to or the method in which it is carried out? Prison has not changed much over the years, it has just adapted to new times and customs. They torture people every day, and I'm not just talking about Guantanamo. Who has the right to kill another person, according to law, nobody. Yet prisons put people in the horrible position of being executioner; not only punishing the 'criminal' but also the prison guard/staff who administers the shot. The psychological torture is worse than ever before. So one could make the argument that prisons have actually become worse! You not only have the physical torture still in affect, but now the isolation from all human contact drives your average person insane. Prison is worse than ever before.

Cheyenne Overall said...


After reading the comments posted above and rereading the question posed a few times, I would have to disagree with some of my peers. Though it may be useful to read these experiences of botched execution as symptomatic of the experimental setting, I think that external forces have to be considered to understand what is happening in the carceral space of botched executions.

I think we cannot forget that many of these botched executions are taking place because pharmaceutical firms are refusing to send prisons execution drugs in protest of capital punishment. Yes, these prisons are sort of experimenting with dangerous drug combinations to see if they will be successful in taking the life of a prisoner. However, I don't believe these experiments are being reproduced for any potential application to the least I hope not. These seem to me to be acts of resistance against external opposition to capital punishment. Instead of conceding that they have lost the (formerly) acceptable means of executing prisoners, these prisons attempt to continue out its mission to punish anyway. For me, this is an example of the more coercive and disciplinary conception of the panopticon. However, it does complicate my reading of Foucault as this panoptic space is both one of resistance and one interested in ensuing violence at any cost... even an extra legal one.

My understanding of Foucault would also be complicated here as these prisons seem to be returning again to the more physical mode of punishment rather than a purely psychological one. I can't explain this turn and this turn certainly cannot be explained by Foucault.