- Spaces of Punitive Violence
The United States now operates the largest, most expensive, and arguably most harshly punitive prison system on earth. In a series of articles and books, notably Punishing the Poor and the recently expanded and reissued Prisons of Poverty, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant places this vast machinery of human dispossession at the center of his account of our political present.1 The decades since the Richard Nixon presidency, Wacquant argues, have been defined by "the transition from the social state to the penal state" (1): As an ascendant neoliberalism dismantled the twentieth century's institutions of welfare and public health, and as the industrial economy gave way to a postindustrial order characterized by a heightened instability and the erosion of workers' rights, governments at all levels began using prisons to manage a whole range of social problems—mental illness, drug addiction, vagrancy, and, above all, poverty itself. "Incarceration," Wacquant writes, "has de facto become America's largest government program for the poor" (69). It is only one of the ironies of his story, and not the most devastating one, that the politicians who came into office on promises of smaller government have, in reality, eagerly created this monster.
Wacquant sets out to expose the propaganda and the policy decisions that inform what he calls America's "penal common sense" [End Page 161] (7). What is at stake, beyond the panic over urban violence and the spectacle of a tough-on-crime crackdown, is actually "the redefinition of the missions of the state, which is everywhere . . . asserting the necessity to reduce its social role and to enlarge, as well as harden, its penal intervention" (8). Wacquant's project is to subject the falsehoods disseminated by speechwriters, journalists, and hired experts and think tanks to the more rigorous analytic methods of academic sociology. According to the evidence he marshals, mass incarceration functions neither to reduce crime nor to cope, in any sensible way, with the social instability generated by economic transformation. He hopes to contribute to research and activist programs that might open the way for the consideration of political alternatives.
At the same time, though, Wacquant is concerned with the imaginative aspects of life under the penal state. He wishes to combine a Marxian, "materialist" analysis with a "symbolic" one adapted from Émile Durkheim and from Wacquant's own teacher, Pierre Bourdieu: "The prison," Wacquant writes in Punishing the Poor, "symbolizes material divisions and materializes relations of symbolic power; its operation ties together inequality and identity, fuses domination and signification, and welds the passions and interests that traverse and roil society."2 Thus, his work offers provocations not only for policy makers but also for critics of culture.
From the mid-1970s until very recently—that is, during the decades under investigation in Prisons of Poverty—the study of incarceration in the critical humanities was dominated by Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1975).3 Foucault set aside the question of justice to describe the prison as a site where new regimes of power and knowledge were manifest in concrete. He also turned away from the ideals of many reformers, past and present, by suggesting that incarceration works most insidiously not when it deprives inmates of freedom and humanity but when it cultivates them as peculiarly disciplined subjects. With its critique of penological discourse and its attention to the interior life of the prisoner, Foucault's work was a gift to literary critics. It enabled the reconsideration of such major concepts as character, confession, and self-expression, and some of the studies that drew from Foucault became scholarly classics in their own right. Even as Discipline and Punish was being enshrined as a masterpiece of theory, though, the American prison system was changing in ways that Foucault could not have foreseen.
Foucault's suspicion was that the penitentiary's modes of surveillance and training had become so normalized, so diffused, so integrated into [End Page 162] the institutions of everyday life, that imprisonment itself would dwindle into obsolescence. Instead, the era...