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The Culture of Punishment

Prison, Society, and Spectacle

Michelle Brown

Publication Year: 2009

America is the most punitive nation in the world, incarcerating more than 2.3 million people—or one in 136 of its residents. Against the backdrop of this unprecedented mass imprisonment, punishment permeates everyday life, carrying with it complex cultural meanings. In The Culture of Punishment, Michelle Brown goes beyond prison gates and into the routine and popular engagements of everyday life, showing that those of us most distanced from the practice of punishment tend to be particularly harsh in our judgments.

The Culture of Punishment takes readers on a tour of the sites where culture and punishment meet—television shows, movies, prison tourism, and post 9/11 new war prisons—demonstrating that because incarceration affects people along distinct race and class lines, it is only a privileged group of citizens who are removed from the experience of incarceration. These penal spectators, who often sanction the infliction of pain from a distance, risk overlooking the reasons for democratic oversight of the project of punishment and, more broadly, justifications for the prohibition of pain.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I benefited from a critical set of comments and suggestions on this manuscript in its most distant and earliest stages, provided by a wonderful set of intellectuals: criminologist Steven Chermak, sociologist Katherine Beckett, literary scholar Eva Cherniavsky, historian Ellen Dwyer, and anthropologists Carol Greenhouse and Stephanie...

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1. Introduction: Notes on Becoming a Penal Spectator

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pp. 1-20

When I began graduate school, the first course I took was a proseminar on the administration of justice. The curriculum was an unprecedented experience and challenge for me, a former humanities student, in its deep survey of organizational theory through the central institutions of the criminal justice system. The last few weeks of the course...

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2. Prison Theory: Engaging the Work of Punishment

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pp. 21-49

Because of the uniqueness of punishment as a social institution, theory plays a special and critical role in our understanding of it. This chapter assesses the place of the key concepts of this volume---penal spectatorship, culture, and work---by way of an interdisciplinary and theoretical dialogue on punishment, pain, and exclusion. Here I...

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3. Prison Iconography: Regarding the Pain of Others

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pp. 51-84

This chapter sets out to make some of the above claims "meaningful," but with special regard to Appadurai's qualifier: That in order to reveal the cultural work of the imagination, particularly in relationship to punishment's pain, we must first "address some other issues." Most of those issues pertain to our approaches and theoretical contexts for the study of representation---for how we both pursue and explain...

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4. Prison Tourism: The Cultural Work and Play of Punishment

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pp. 85-121

Another cultural arena in which penal spectatorship is achieving new and unprecedented possibility lies in the realm of prison tourism. Across the United States, commercialized tours of defunct prisons are gaining popularity, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. These sites include such recognizable institutions as Alcatraz and...

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5. Prison Portents: Guant

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pp. 122-152

To imagine the individual caught outside of the safety and security of history and society seems impossible, a resolute fiction. However, human rights law, in its very establishment, requires us to acknowledge such a reality---as do prisons. As political philosopher Michael Ignatieff insists, "Beneath the social there ought to be the natural. Beneath the...

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6. Prison Science: Of Faith and Futility

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pp. 153-189

The science of punishment, like its object, is peculiar. Its story, as this chapter seeks to demonstrate, is very much built upon "the substance of things hoped for," often moving forward precariously upon "the evidence of things not seen." For an empirical science, one which quite often claims to be research- or evidence-based, such an assertion may seem...

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7. Prison Otherwise: Cultural Meanings beyond Punishment

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pp. 190-212

I began this volume with a discussion of my own introduction to incarceration in the United States. It was during those first trips to prison in graduate school as an instructor and a tourist when a tension in my own relationship to punishment materialized. Caught between passivity and engagement, lacking the cultural vocabularies and political will...


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pp. 213-230


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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-250

About the Author

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pp. 251-252

E-ISBN-13: 9780814739044
E-ISBN-10: 0814739040
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814799994
Print-ISBN-10: 081479999X

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 782877952
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Culture of Punishment

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Prisons -- Social aspects.
  • Imprisonment -- Social aspects.
  • Punishment -- Social aspects.
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