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  • Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives by Lisa Guenther
  • Perry Zurn
Lisa Guenther
Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 256pp.
ISBN 978-0-8166-7959-1

As a book-length phenomenological interrogation of penal confinement practices, Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement is long overdue. It is also incredibly timely, given the exponential rise in supermax prisons today. In this work, Guenther places “intensive confinement”—by which she means techniques of sensory deprivation as well as sensory overload (147)—within the larger context of prison history and the phenomenological tradition. Through an inquiry into early, modern, and postmodern prisons, Guenther does the genealogical work to trace the shifting justifications of imprisonment alongside the coterminous development of confinement practices. Then, through a phenomenological analysis of those practices, drawing primarily on Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, Guenther argues that intensive confinement turns the very capacities of the human being for world making and interrelating against itself (35). In doing so, it “unhinges” or pulls the human being apart (191). In her own words:

Persons who are structured as intentional consciousness but are deprived of a diverse, open-ended perceptual experience of the world, or who are structured as transcendental intersubjectivity but are deprived of concrete relations to others, have the very structure of their Being-in-the-world turned against them and used to exploit their fundamental relationality.

(15) [End Page 155]

Guenther concludes that intensive confinement—and perhaps even confinement in general—is inconsistent with classical and contemporary justifications for the prison. There is nothing redemptive, reformative, disciplinary, or productive about solitary. More than this, Guenther insists that intensive confinement is not only radically destructive of the prisoner. It also destroys the fabric of society (245).

Solitary Confinement proceeds in three chronological parts, devoted to the early U.S. penitentiary, the modern penitentiary, and supermax prisons, respectively. Guenther begins Part 1 with the early American theoretical foundations of solitary confinement. In nineteenth-century U.S. political discourse, individuals were seen as isolated cogs in the “republican machinery”—cogs best fixed by extraction and intensified isolation (6–7). After making the basic observation that one’s capacity for civic duty crumbles in solitary, Guenther turns to identify two serious limitations of this early penal discourse. First, as indicated in chapter 2, it assumes an independent individual. This assumption, however, fails to take into account the intersubjective quality of human experience, of which Husserl gives a preliminary account. Second, as argued in chapter 3, it assumes a universal individual. This assumption fails to consider the differential allocation of social death prior and subsequent to imprisonment, especially along racial lines post-slavery.

Rather than touting the value of solitude for the republic, modern administrators, heavily influenced by Cold War behaviorism, saw intensive confinement as one of many mechanisms whereby prisoners could be reformatted. In Part 2, Guenther therefore traces the symbiotic development of military interrogation techniques, psychiatric treatment, and penal confinement practices. Having done so, Guenther then turns to identify two primary limitations of this second justificatory discourse. First, as demonstrated in chapter 5, it denies the meaning-making character of human beings (114). Using Merleau-Ponty, Guenther argues that the conception of human—and in fact nonhuman—life as merely a stimulus/response network refuses to recognize the obvious fact that these are meaning-making organisms. Second, as shown in chapter 6, it denies the creaturely nature of human beings. Addressing the classic claim that reducing a human to some kind of mechanism is dehumanizing, Guenther argues that, insofar as animals are equally relational beings in a world of meaning, intensive confinement is in fact “de-animalizing” (141).

From a place of redemptive education to behavioral modification, the prison becomes, in the era of the supermax, a platform through which merely to control and to punish. The goal here is not to change prisoners, but to simultaneously calculate the risks they represent on a neoliberal model and hold them accountable for their crimes (161). Guenther addresses both aims in Part 3. [End Page 156] In chapter 7, she offers a Merleau-Pontian account of a prisoner’s sense of spatiality in supermax, while...


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pp. 155-160
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