Author Archives: Typhoon

Beyond Shackling

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, I immediately felt fear for her. My fear was quite specific; I feared she would be shackled.

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, not only was I in a state that outlaws shackling pregnant women, I was in the prison as a volunteer for one of the main organizations that lobbied for the law against shackling. So, my fear found an apparently strange focus. But, of course, laws and policies banning shackling of pregnant women don’t guarantee pregnant people protection from shackling. New York, for instance, has a law against shackling pregnant women, and yet shackling still occurs there. Often.

Perhaps, then, my fear was not so strange. And knowing someone who may experience a torturous injustice can heighten one’s own sense of powerless. My regular movement in and out of prisons and jails has shown me how little there is I can do to keep these institutions from grievously harming those sentenced to time in them.

Nevertheless, I think my first reaction served as a bulwark. My initial fear and subsequent scrambling to pull together what resources I could to ensure that correctional officers would not shackle this woman gave me something to do that did not involve reflecting on a different practice she would certainly be subjected to. This woman, who wanted to keep her child, would not be allowed to do so. No matter how well the labor went, this woman would loose her child. And she would loose her child potentially forever if she could not remove the child from foster care within a year herself, or find someone who could do so for her.

And she is not alone; about 6% of women who are arrested are pregnant.

Prisons are technologies of social death. One of their key effects is the destruction of social relations, not just for those sent to them, but for the communities from which people are removed. This practice of removing children from mothers who would otherwise choose to keep them is just one way the prison produces social death through literal natal alienation. The kinship ties between women in prison and their children are perhaps most obviously severed when a newborn is removed from the mother minutes after she has given birth, but it is also just one way in which prisons interrupt and destroy social relations.

As I greeted the pregnant woman, distracted with fear for her, I distracted myself from reflecting on this other practice to which she would be subjected. I fear the current public attention to shackling could be serving a similar purpose on a bigger scale.

Shackling pregnant women is clearly wrong, and yet we struggle to end that practice. Given recent studies, we now know that if we succeed in passing laws against it, we have not guaranteed the safety of pregnant women in prison. But further, if we manage to end the practice of shackling – that is, if the current groundswell of moral outrage results in the modification of material practices by correctional officers in prisons and not just the passage of laws and policies – we should not rest easy that all is well for pregnant women or anyone else in prison.

As shackling receives more attention and public condemnation, we must keep the larger system in focus, along with its broader set of social death producing practices. And we must focus on what things are required to maintain it. We must ask: does the reform of one practice ameliorate the larger problems with the prison system? Is this system keeping us safe? Who do we mean by us?


Thanks to Andrew Dilts for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Reflections on the Prison and Theory Working Group at SPEP 2014

On Friday night at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) yearly meeting, the Prison and Theory Working Group hosted a session in which participants were asked to reflect on the relationship between prison and theory. The PTWG, framed the event by introducing the group’s 10 principles. Everyone in the room was then asked to briefly state what brought them to the session. Participants included invited anti-prison activists from New Orleans and members of SPEP who attended for a variety of reasons, ranging from curiosity to direct experience of the carceral system. The group’s aim is to create spaces for relationship building, support, and accountability for people theorizing and taking action against mass incarceration.

The PTWG event was unique in my experience of SPEP – no one read papers, we were in a big circle that broke up into smaller circles for discussion, people talked seriously about accountability. In talking seriously about accountability, participants brought up problems of accountability at SPEP. There was a strikingly open conversation about the fact that people known to have committed harms, like sexual assault and sexual harassment, operate within the organization without public acknowledgement of or accountability for what they have done.

Of course, in our retributivist context, the idea of acknowledging or seeking accountability for such behavior makes a lot of people nervous. “Witch Hunt” comes quickly to people’s lips. But we need not reproduce that retributivism within SPEP. Indeed, SPEP offers us an opportunity to build a noncarceral space through practicing the very difficult work of seeking accountability, rather than retribution for the community, which usually involves the loss of autonomy for the people who have been harmed and isolation of the person who has committed harm. And I think SPEP could be one site within the larger discipline of philosophy for this accountability work. As the many public cases of sexual harassment and assault within the discipline attest, there’s work that needs to be done.

So, inspired by work at the PTWG and in the spirit of working to decarcerate all aspect of our lives, I ask: What would it look like for the members of SPEP to hold people accountable for the harms they have committed without treating them like irredeemable monsters? I am thinking specifically of sexual harassment and assault, because that is what I have heard most about, dealt with directly, and it’s a pressing issue within the discipline right now. But, as we begin this accountability work, we can and must expand the range of its concern. We will be in practice and more capable of addressing harms that are now mostly only spoken of in hushed voices among trusted friends – for instance, overt and covert exercises of white privilege and transphobia.

Every year there is harassment and inappropriate behavior that targets those of us who are underrepresented in philosophy – these interactions run the gamut from overt acts of aggression and harassment to more subtle microaggressions (there will soon be a website about what it is like to be a person of color in philosophy).  Members of SPEP, let’s be less comforted by the thought that at least it’s not the APA. It’s not, but that doesn’t make it a good place for all the people who practice or want to practice Continental philosophy. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it can be tempting for members of SPEP to think that since Continentalists are a minority in philosophy our conference spaces are therefore free of domination, or at least better than the APA. The former is simply false and the latter is not a standard.

In the spirit of the PTWG, we could start with a session in which we discuss the need for community accountability at SPEP. It is possible to address harms to members of our community without demonizing those who have committed harms, but that will take a great deal of reflection on the part of members and the broader SPEP community.

The PTWG states: “Mass incarceration is a legacy of the failure to achieve abolition democracy.” So, calling for accountability at SPEP may seem like a strange take-away from the PTWG session– like I’ve missed the point that we’ve got bigger problems than some misbehaved philosophers. But the PTWG also states:

We are committed to activism in an expansive sense. We understand activism to include any abolitionist theory or praxis—that is, any activity that unmasks carceral logic, de-centers whiteness and patriarchy, and unsettles the inside/outside binary. Such activism can occur in the university in everyday ways through the texts we read, the topics and figures we discuss, the people we hire, invite, mentor, etc.

Motivated by what the PTWG brought to SPEP, I’m calling for those of us who love Continental philosophy to work within one of the most important organizations that sustains its practice in the US to make it better – a lot better. And in the process, we’ll learn how to decarcerate other parts of the world.

There are many resources that can guide SPEP in this work, but here’s a good starting place is the decades of work done by people who are addressing harms in their communities without resorting to retribution.

What if philosophers actually wanted to talk with people who had philosophy PhDs?

When I think about white supremacy, I think of Cheryl Harris’s grandma. It’s actually not the story of her grandmother passing as white in order to make a livable wage that comes to mind first, though that’s usually not far behind. No, I think about her grandma when she’s already become Harris’s grandma, long after she quit the job she could not have as a Black woman. I think about her sitting in her chair, bent from advanced arthritis, talking to the child at her knee. I think about that old woman sharing her experience of the Great Migration and the later indignities of “[a]ccepting the risk of self-annihilation [that] was the only way to survive.” I think about this elderly Black woman philosophizing with her grandkid about survival in a world ordered by white supremacy.

Thanks to that intergenerational philosophical work, sometime in college I inherited (from the Harvard Law Review, of all places) a guide to how white supremacy became and continues to be the norm in the US. Harris traces how a property interest in whiteness itself was established and has continued to be protected by the law in the US. I learned about the power of affirmative action to expose and unsettle the settled expectations of white privilege that arise from that property interest. Affirmative action acknowledges the advantages to whiteness constructed by the US history of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation and offers a systematic approach for dismantling those advantages in all kinds of institutions. And I learned that the power of affirmative action is the reason it has been the focus of so much resistance. Harris and her grandma gave me a powerful gift: a taste for questioning what is with the people you love.

So, I find myself before the latest evidence of philosophy as an academic discipline betraying philosophy as an activity, convinced that the damage being done is profound. Philosophers must certainly be contrarians. Obviously, many people have and will dislike, dismiss, and even harm people who question settled expectations (like whiteness as property) and expose the construction of normalcy (like generations of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation to produce and then secure whiteness as property). I am devoted to you out there doing that questioning and you can carry my devotion with you through the day.
What is damaging is the alienation academic philosophers produce through patrolling the boundaries of philosophy. Perhaps it’s easy for some of those border guards to recognize Harris as philosophically interesting, even if she did not receive a philosophy PhD. But her grandmother?

Some people have gained fame through disparaging other philosophers and how they choose to approach philosophical work (I don’t mean only Brian Leiter). Let’s have a cheer for academic philosophers finally working together to question that practice. But we need to think bigger. A lot bigger. Philosophy, mostly, isn’t about what we do in our journals and at our conferences. Philosophy, mostly, is what adults say to kids when they are helping those kids wonder why the world is the way it is and vice versa. Philosophy is what friends, of any age say to each other when they question whether the world has to be this way. What would happen to the profession of philosophy if we who have devoted ourselves to formal training came to see ourselves in that much broader tradition?