Being with being

Image Courtesy BBC article: This is what it’s like spending Christmas in prison (

Imprisoning as a process ruptures affective, cognitive and physical commonplaces. ‘The street,’ or ‘on road’ (UK slang) is a commonplace. Something socially shared, albeit not entirely open. Apartheids – economic, racial, social, etc. – exist, yet the prison is most enclosed apart-regime. Semblances of civil rights or constitutional protections are openly disregarded. Your body is no longer a body for you, it is a body for Them. They strip you; they lock your cage; they allow you to have toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc.; they determine when meals will be served; they unlock doors; they lock doors; they ‘bend you up;’ they humiliate you; they anger you; they are above commonplace interactions with Others; they lock you away after telling you someone you love has died; they violate Being itself. They are the guards, the governors, the chaplains, the psychiatrists, the nurses and other functionaries of the prison-industrial complex. All culpable, all engaged in torture, they are above the prisoner. Paradoxically, as with Hegel’s master/slave dialect, their height above the prisoner requires a prisoner. Ergo, their identity as greater, as (explicitly stated or implicitly implied) morally superior, holders of the keys, ‘gatekeepers’, etc. relies on the figure of the imprisoned criminal. Not only does it rely on the figure of the criminal, the identity of the prison official relies on the ground of oppression that brings makes criminal figurations socially intelligible.

Prisoners astutely understand dynamics of oppression. Whilst I was incarcerated, I heard prisoners regularly taunt guards, ‘education’ staff and others with the ever-present statement: you need us or you’d be without a job! So true, and these same prisoners would always mention the amount of money, jobs and positions involved in ‘the system’ when retorting that it couldn’t be abolished. As the prison industry forms such a huge part of the UK economy (and an astronomic part of the US economy), the argument from many prisoners I encountered is sound. Historically rooted, their statements acknowledge real, material forces and structures. Excluding the prisoner from the commonplace, ‘good citizens’ separate themselves from abjectivity, excreta, excess – the alien. Contemporary practices of administrative dissociating from the alien(ation) place the prisoner-alien into a holding, and enclosure. Affectivity, cognition and corporeal commonplaces are imbued with indurate, obstinate alien-ism, Symbolic totality – the ideology of fascism – seeks to expel this alien. Alien-ism is ruptures: dreams, nightmares, vertigo, cancerous growths, blood, shit, all that is excess – all that is taboo: childhood sexuality, homosexuality, necrophilia, scatological fetishes, money circulations, corpses, death. Alien-ism is commonplace. Yet contemporary signifying aggregates form chains which only attempt to deny the reality of alien(ation). Exteriority and interiority are so intimately relational. Criminality functions to foreground the abject/uncanny within the prison. Questing/questioning against paradigms of exclusionary politics (fascism), which are on the rise in this age of mass incarceration, vindictive imaginary phantasms, etc, requires something more. Or rather, it requires an ability, practised – over and over – to synthesise multiple, differing signifying chains; opening to the incongruent, contingent and messy, with an emphasis on empathy is a taking-care. Those who subjugate, dominate, break and enslave their fellow living-Beings are morally culpable for an attack against Being-itself-For-itself; furthermore, paradoxically by eradicating, annihilating and socially (sometimes) physically killing the prisoner, prison officials lose rights to gather with being-With. Holding themselves in hypocritical logical apparatuses as its active enforcers, positionally relying on power endowed by a historically anomalous aberration, so ethically reprehensible have they become they can’t even be called ‘criminals with keys.’

As I continue to heal from my prison experience, incongruities grow upon reflection. Ontologically, ethically and morally I confront my own ethics of resistance. Whilst I never engaged in physical resistance against the prison officials (guards, chaplains, etc.), I did manage to teach Marx, Bakunin and some radical thought via ‘sneaking’ it into lectures I would give for a Goldsmiths University-Prison Education Trust pilot programme on social research.  HMP Isis, location of my detention, had a severely inadequate ‘education’ department; of course critical thinking was discouraged; mattress recycling, waste management and ‘job skills’ were pressed heavily by prison administrators. Prisoners participated, yet most with disdain for ‘education’ involved a further messaging: you are trash, you will recycle it, you will handle it, it is you. Goldsmiths University pilot programme, thinly veiled attempt for outside academics, Emily Thomas (the Governor), and ‘education’ to collect data from prisoners, bordered on farce, yet remained tragic. Unstructured, uncritical the official Friday lectures – where 10 ‘outside’ students came in – indicated a need for access over teaching. My Wednesday lectures, whilst free-flowing, dealt with incarceration, anarchism, Marxism, etc. I was called a ‘strike maker’ (I encouraged a refusal to submit data), even apparently accused of radicalism. Troubling, I found the structure allowed for instrumental thinking: What can be taken from this? Yet critical contemplation is essentially either discouraged or banned from official activities. Attacking being involves more than confining the space-time of the corporeal being, it attacks subjectivity itself. Attempting to ‘reform’ an ‘abnormal before’ into an ‘adjusted after,’ incarceration’s goal is twofold: stabilise the subject to serve the interests of the elite obediently, or destabilise the subject enough to neutralise them as a ontological-political threat.  All of us outside a cage have a moral duty to reach our hands through the bars of enforced enclosures, realising the alien(ation) in me is the alien(ation) in you. By doing this we can begin to rupture the rupture of imprisonment. Spiritually, ethically, politically and morally standing with all prisoners, refugees, detainees, and others marked outside the commonplace is being with being. 

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