Posts Tagged ‘cw violence’

“…The thing to bear in mind is: the fact that physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence doesn’t make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. I’m not of course denying that actual physical violence happens in the world: not denying that men beat women, that people injure and kill people. But I am suggesting that, outside actual warzones, other forms of violence are more pervasive and intrusive. A punch to the gut hurts for a while; growing up female, or gay, or Black in a sexist, homophobic and racist society presses violently upon your very soul the whole time. Some rape involves the sort of additional physical violence that leaves bruises on the skin or bones broken. Most rape does not do this. But only a fool would suggest that a rape victim who emerges from the trauma without bruises and broken bones has not suffered. On the contrary, such a person is likely as badly, or even more severely, traumatised by the experience because the violence of rape is not essentially the violence of broken bones but of broken spirits: domination, violation of personal space, invasion of personal integrity, degradation and breaking of peace of mind.

To the extent visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination—so as it might be, people end up making the (false) distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘real rape’, reserving the latter category for instances where physical violence has been added to the fundamental violence of the traumatising invasiveness of the act as such. Sometime post-facto justifications are added to this prejudice, such that bruises show a victim ‘fought back’ or ‘resisted’, a datum treated as justifying our compassion as the expensive of implying that a victim who does not garner such addition, visible markers of violence somehow doesn’t deserve our pity. Germaine Greer’s recently comments about the need to reform our rape laws were vehemently criticized by many. It seems to me, for what it’s worth, that her actual proposals have something to recommend them (‘rape trials are foundering and not ending in convictions as lawyers argue over the issue of consent; why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?’) but I wonder if there is a one-dimensionality in the way she uses the term violence: so that when she says ‘most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever’ she is consicously or unconciously conflating externally-evident physical injury (where her statement is probably true) with internal less-evident injury (where her statement is, clearly, simply wrong).

It all speaks to what is, I think, a widespread belief that physical violence is more ‘real’ (more important, more terrible, more worthy of representation) than psychological or conceptual violence. This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in weeks, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That’s a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence—by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe—that is the most radically destabilising.

In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It’s not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera.  It’s just that people’s responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, vastly more pervasive, and internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I’ve always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. It is terrible to be beaten-up for being gay, but being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It’s not that sticks and stones won’t break your bones; it’s that it’s the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.

Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I’d suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.

I’m not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek’s oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I quite like his 2008 book Violence.

Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence: Z. is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn’t quite the distinction I’m trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it’s actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces (in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts) whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate—actual violence, by any measure—are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.

Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it—all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.

That said there is, I think, a correlative here. If we take conceptual violence seriously, then we need to take it seriously across the board. There is, of course, an asymmetry to the way marginalised groups suffer, and the inertia of history and privilege determine a steep gradiant of oppression from privilege downward. But being born into a privileged group is not the same thing as being born wicked. We can certainly say that the pervasive social and cultural pressure telling gay or trans people that they are disgusting, unnatural, shameful and so on enacts a violence upon those people worse, because it is both ubiquitous and liable to be internalised by the victim, than bruised skin and broken bones. But we might also want to ask ourselves: is there anything to learn from people whose atttudes are shaped by conscious or unconscious homophobic or transphobic views? Maybe your answer to this question is: no, these are bad people, worth only our contempt. Most people aren’t bad, though; and cleaving to a different set of life-values is not in itself an index of moral turpitude.

Imagine somebody for whom fixity of gender was one of the conceptual props that helps them navigate the various shoals and whirlpools of everyday life, perhaps as a function of a larger religious faith supporting and maintaining the stability of their life. Lets’s say the performance of gender fluidity by others enacts a degree of conceptual violence upon these assumptions, and makes the person unhappy and upset and unnerved. You may think: good, they deserve it. You may go further (fuck their feelings, this is right-and-wrong and they’re wrong. It’s possible they think the same of you). Maybe that’s justified. But it’s hardly an approach calculated to end hostilities. How might negotiation look, in this particular situation? How to defuse a stand-off in which both sides’ strategies boil down to loud declarations of fuck your feelings? To say ‘their feelings don’t matter, only mine do’ is self-evidently unsatisfactory, even given the asymmetry of the social status quo. My point is, retreating to ‘what I’m doing is not really violence, it’s not as though I’m literally punching them in the face’ also isn’t a load-bearing position in this context. Which backs us, rather, into the situation of believing something along the lines of: ‘though it would be bad if it happened to me, it’s good for them to have their values challenged’. I find this really difficult to process, I’ll be honest. It seems to me ‘it’s good for them, but not me, to be on the receiving end of violence’ both ethically untenable and not a probable position from which a mutually satisfactory compromise could be negotiated. Of course, it may be that neither side is interested in compromise. “

– Adam Roberts,

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence.” A Mechanical Art. June 21, 2018.

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I was thinking, as a historical researcher, about Black History Month and how best to commemorate it. I’m conflicted – not only because I’m very aware that these are not my stories to tell, and that there are better equipped people to tell them. What is the responsibility of someone who studies the history of criminality and incarceration in Canada – especially as that history risks becoming a parade of “suffering black bodies” (Marianne Noble). Writing something, relating something, seems better than keeping silent, especially when we consider the historic continuities of the penal system, and its ongoing expression of white supremacy in Canada.

There’s no question, even sticking to the period I’m most familiar with – 1895-1945 – that the criminal justice system, from police to courts to prisons, fell hard on Black folks in Canada. My familiarity with legal trials is…not as good as it should be, so I highly recommend Barrington Walker’s excellent monograph “Race on Trial” (which I discovered while helping the descendants of the Freemans – one of the cases studied closely by Walker – do research into their ancestors) for more information. Looking just at the Dominion penitentiaries, there are the raw statistics – discrimination is visible just in the higher percentage of Black prisoners compared to their total percentage of the Canadian population. Certain communities – Chatham, Halifax – specifically accounted for a high proportion of prisoners arriving at Dominion penitentiaries (and provincial prisons).

Beyond the use of numbers – why repeat the process by prisoners were already having their identities stripped to numbers? – it is clear that the disciplinary and coercive regime of the early 20th century penitentiary fell especially harshly on Black prisoners. To cite a specific example, William Smith, a British immigrant from Manchester, was sentenced in the summer of 1914 to two years at Kingston Penitentiary for stealing a watch from a pawnbroker in Toronto – and despite the newspaper claims that he had “a bad record,” his only previous experience with any sort of criminal sanction or incarceration was a few months in Toronto’s Central. Once inside the prison, Smith became a disciplinary problem to the authorities – his “violent temper,” “gross insubordination” and construction of improvised weapons – a lead pipe club especially – caused “a lot of trouble” to the police staff, who sentenced him first to the Prison of Isolation (long-term solitary) and then, after Smith destroyed his cell fixtures there, to be lashed in August 1915.

Always, according to the reports, the prisoner brings these punishments upon themselves, but the limited evidence of Smith’s record suggest that he was harassed by staff and white inmates – and it is evident, too, from the records of other inmates that Black prisoners understood they were being targeted excessively and acted accordingly. In 1901, as he was being dragged to the Dungeon, for yet another count of ‘insolence’, William Wallace accused – an analysis as accusation – the Chief Keeper, William St. Pierre Hughes, of “being down on all the Colored people” at Kingston Penitentiary. Hughes, brother of Sam Hughes and later the Superintendent of Penitentiaries, was barely exonerated, during a Royal Commission no less, of the shooting death of a Black convict named Hewell in 1896. At Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick between 1900 and 1920, a species of official neglect reigned instead – Black prisoners were not recommended for parole as often as other prisoners – the odd “unfortunate young boy” that could be removed from the prison notwithstanding – but very rarely do Black prisoners figure in the Warden’s reports on disciplinary problems, either.

In the early 20th century penitentiary, the “endless, monotonous, unvarying, un-movingly eternal stretch” produced what novelist and former prisoner Chester Himes called a sort of “bare equality.” At times, the demands of the penal regime – for universal labor and “ceasless toil” – as well as the frugal, chaotic, capricious and incompetent administration – upended the expected racial hierarchy of the prison. Prisoners, whatever their background, were put to work where the prison needed them, manufacturing mail bags, cobbling shoes, cutting stone, carting coal and farming produce. In 1900, a white prisoner named Geo. Shipman was recommended against for parole due to “bad conduct” and constant insubordination – “his trouble arose from the fact that a colored convict was…a sort of Deputy Instructor” in the Mason department, and “was not well liked by Shipman”. The documentary record is silent as to who this inmate was, but the fact that he managed a work gang of 30 to 40 inmates was itself an unremarkable fact in the Warden’s report – the prison could not operate without the experience and skills of inmates at all levels of the administration, and indeed many inmates were far more knowledgeable about their trade than the staff instructors.

During the 1930s, the fraternity of agitators, rabble-rousers and “barracks room lawyers” included people of colour – both Charles Cross at Kingston Penitentiary and Chester Crossley at St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary were instrumental in the political riots that erupted at those prisons in late 1932. The latter’s rallying cry was ‘Hurrah for revolution!’ – and Crossley was considered so popular at the Laval penitentiary that he was eventually transferred to Kingston in 1934. While on trial in 1937 for the murder of a guard during a “psychotic” fit – a complicated and horrific example of the concatenation of race and racism, self-defence, staff harassment, madness, and systemic neglect – the prisoners at Collin’s Bay Penitentiary staged a sympathy strike for Crossley. Attempts to smuggle out a petition for clemency from a number of ‘incorrigible’ prisoners were thwarted at Kingston Penitentiary.

There’s much more to all these histories – especially with the great changes in Canadian prisons of more recent decades – and hopefully more histories will be brought to light and retold. I’m certainly not the best equipped to do so, nor should I be the only one. Finally, it’s always worth remembering that Black prisoners, like most other prisoners, could look forward to eventual release and returning to their families and communities – and putting prison behind them. These lives were not just prison, nor should they be reduced to just prison. Smith’s story was arrived at through genealogical research, and is presented with permission of the (some) of his descendants.  

Documents show, from top to bottom: mugshot of William Smith, Kingston Penitentiary, 1914; punishment entry for William Wallace, Kingston Penitentiary, 1901; one of a number of documents attributed to Chester Crossley, St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary, 1932.

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“… About half past nine that first morning, the doctor came to me and saw the breakfast tea and bread and butter lying untouched. He pointed to it and said: “Will you not reconsider?” I answered, “No”. Then he felt my pulse and sounded my heart, and went away.

At twelve o’clock a wardress brought me a chop, some potatoes and cabbage, and some milk pudding. At five came supper—bread, butter, an egg, and a pint of milk. I left them all untasted, and sat reading the Bible hour after hour. I had nothing else to do.

So two days passed. I felt constantly a little hungry, but never for one moment did I wish to eat a morsel. I was very cold—partly, I suppose, from want of food, partly because the temperature of the cell was very low, the hot water pipe—the only means of heating—having little warmth in it. I sat with my feet on the hot-water pipe, wearing a woollen dress, a thick knitted woollen sweater, a long cloth coat, and with thick woollen gloves on my hands; but still I was cold.

On the morning of the third day I was taken out into the corridor to be weighed, and some time afterwards the two doctors came into my cell to sound my heart again. They said: “Will you eat your food?” And—when I said, “No”,—"Then we have only one alternative—to feed by force.“

They went. I was trembling with agitation, feverish with fear and horror, determined to fight with all my strength and to prevent by some means this outrage of forcible feeding. I did not know what to do. Ideas flashed through my mind, but none seemed of any use.

I gathered together in a little clothes basket my walking-shoes, the prison brush and comb and other things, and put them beside me, where I stood under the window, with my back to the wall.

I thought that I would throw these things at the doctors if they dared to enter my cell to torture me. But, when the door opened, six women officers appeared, and I had not the heart to throw things at them, though I struck one of them slightly as they all seized me at once.

I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I. They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees, and the ankles.

Then the doctors came stealing in behind. Some one seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart,—getting inside,—and I felt them and a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth.

I felt I should go mad; I felt like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap. I was tugging at my head to get it free. There were two of them holding it. There were two of them wrenching at my mouth. My breath was coming faster and with a sort of low scream that was getting louder. I heard them talking: "Here is a gap.”

“No; here is a better one—this long gap here.”

Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted—I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat.

I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up.

They left me on the bed exhausted, gasping for breath and sobbing convulsively. The same thing happened in the evening; but I was too tired to fight so long.

Day after day, morning and evening, came the same struggle. My mouth got more and more hurt; my gums, where they prised them open, were always bleeding, and other parts of my mouth got pinched and bruised.

Often I had a wild longing to scream, and after they had gone I used to cry terribly with uncontrollable noisy sobs; and sometimes I heard myself, as if it were some one else, saying things over and over again in a strange, high voice.

Sometimes—but not often; I was generally too much agitated by then — I felt the tube go right down into the stomach. It was a sickening sensation. Once, when the tube had seemed to hurt my chest as it was being withdrawn, there was a sense of oppression there all the evening after, and as I was going to bed I fainted twice. My shoulders and back ached very much during the night after the first day’s forcible feeding, and often afterwards.

But infinitely worse than any pain was the sense of degradation, the sense that the very fight that one made against the repeated outrage was shattering one’s nerves and breaking down one’s self-control.

Added to this was the growing unhappy realization that those other human beings, by whom one was tortured, were playing their parts under compulsion and fear of dismissal, that they came to this task with loathing of it and with pity for their victim, and that many of them understood and sympathised with the fight the victim made.”

– E. Sylvia Pankhurst, “FORCIBLY FED: THE STORY OF MY FOUR WEEKS IN HOLLOWAY GAOL.” McClure’s, August 1913, pp 87-93. 

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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island Penitentiary murals, 1934-1935. Photographed by Walker Evans. 

All gelatin silver prints, donated in 2000 by

Bernarda Bryson Shahn to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

A selection of photographic records of now lost large scale studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top to bottom they show:

1) Down and out in the big city – the conditions leading to crime. #P2000.57 

2) A typical scene from a Southern US labor camp, meant to show the barbarity still practiced in American prisons – the implication being that Riker’s was a ‘new deal’ for inmates. #P2000.48

3) Prisoners in stalls, possibly at a work site. Again, another example of something that shouldn’t be happening anymore at a penitentiary. #P2000.47

4) A black prisoner being giving corporal punishment – that is, being tortured – at a public whipping in Delaware.  These displays of state power against (frequently black) bodies were actually revived in some Northern US jurisdictions in the 1930s, and like the above mural, imply that Riker’s discipline has moved on from this barbarism. #P2000.46

5) Prisoners being returned by guards to their cells from yard time.  A typical part of the prison routine, this mural appears to have been based on photographs Shahn took at the old New York Penitentiary on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. #P2000.55


6-7) Prisoners, from left to right, at school, learning automotive repair, taking tests, out in the yard, and in the back, playing baseball. #P2000.49 & #P2000.50

8) Prisoners receiving their visitors at the penitentiary.  #P2000.56

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Peter Hope & Richard H. Kirk, “Surgeons,” 12" Mixxx from the 1988 Surgeons/N.O. single.

Video cut together from film Early Treatment of Mental Disorders. Source.

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“Koje is Blasted, Subdued,” LIFE. June 23, 1952. Pages 29-31.

Photos and stories about the Communist insurrection / POW rebellion inside the 

Geoje-do prison camp (Korean: 거제도 포로수용소) in 1952. The main focus is the fanaticism of the Communist prisoners and the incomptence of the US prison authorities.

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“Le fouet, pour qui bat sa femme,” Photo-Journal. March 10, 1938. Page 03.

Much reproduced photograph, distributed by International News Photo, of a man, Clyde Miller, sentenced to 3 months in jail and 20 lashes, forr domestic assault, being whipped in the Baltimore city jail by Sheriff Deegan.  Although the lash was still fairly common in American, and Canadian, prisons – indeed many of the more dangerous inmates at St Vincent De Paul Penitentiary in Montreal, where Photo-Journal was published, would have given the lash as part of their sentence – this was one of only a handful of photographs of the act in progress.  Notably, Baltimore had abolished corporal punishment, then revived it in 1882, and this occassion in 1938 was the first time since 1931 a prisoner had been ordered whipped by a judge.  The use of the lash was sharply debated, in Canada and the US, and these kinds of pictures, showing a ‘deserving’ villain being punished, were widely disseminated – I’ve personally found two dozen copies.  

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