I was staring at my bookshelf this morning, as I usually do in the early hours before I really open my eyes to the world outside of screens and lamp-lit rooms. This time, I was looking for a book. I had just read Margaret Atwood’s review of David Eggers’s new book The Circle, in which she determined that Eggers was writing about facebook, and this new social media world we live in, as a sort of prison. She situated Eggers’s new book within other literary prisons, of course Orwell’s 1984, but also Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim living in a glass cage always looked upon as an object, as an otherworldly animal by his alien captors. These types of prisons, she wrote, were all shot through with stares and machines, never hidden, maybe exalted, but always inescapable. Reading this, I had an inkling thought.
We anthropologists always talk, and talk and talk and talk, about Foucault’s panopticon, which as we know was actually Bentham’s idea first. You know, self governance by being watched and watching each other, all that jazz. It’s interesting, I thought, that even in a class I took called “Prison Nation Time” - taught by an academic who finds little value in Foucault and instead reads Bentham and Gramsci and Aristotle - even there we never really looked to any other written genre as a viable alternative to finding prisons, those cages in our literary midst.
We defined prison in an interesting way in that class, which I intend to mine for my dissertation - prison not as a “culture” or an “other” or even an actual place. Instead, we talked about prison as, for all intents and purposes, the abject requirement of the nation, the constitutive outside to the moral inside. It is, actually, not even distinguishable as “outside,” because for those who are locked up, getting out is never an option. Inside and outside, as a binary concept, is erased, while the deontology-as-necessary-for-ontology stays in tact. I haven’t yet figured out what neatly takes that analytic place, but I think it has something to do with folding up past and present, there and here, moral and immoral, into some kind of way more complicated thing.
So, OK, I thought. I have a penchant for Vonnegut, so when Atwood referenced him, I pulled down some of his books off the shelf. What about Vonnegut’s cages? He actually writes about this in Breakfast of Champions as well as Slaughterhouse. Vonnegut liked cages. Like this quote, about the bird in the gilded cage:
Then he thought about what Bill himself might want. It was easy to guess. “Bill,” he said, “I like you so much, and I am such a big shot in the Universe, that I will make your three biggest wishes come true.” He opened the door of the cage, something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.
Bill flew over to the windowsill. He put his little shoulder against the glass. there was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors. Although Trough was in the storm window business, he had no storm windows on his own abode.
“Your second wish is about to come true,” said Trout, and he again did something which Bill could never have done. he opened the window. But the opening of the window was such an alarming business to the parakeet that he flew back to his cage and hopped inside.
Trout closed the door of the cage and latched it. “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of,” he told the bird. “You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for—to get out of the cage.”
There’s this trope that just keeps emerging in Vonnegut, the see-through cage, the freedom that seems there (it’s glass and zoo-like, in Slaughterhouse Five) but never actually is. And then there’s the matter of time and space as it relates to being trapped in them. Vonnegut has some stuff to say about that, too. From Slaughterhouse:
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
The serenity prayer’s a nice touch, Vonnegut, especially when we’re talking about prison here. But anyway. I could find a million quotes from Orwell, too, or Atwood, or LeGuin, or Gibson, or TS Eliot, or Borges or….
The prison isn’t new. The prison industrial complex, in fact, isn’t new. Nor is the panopticon actually the way people in prison conceive of their experience (probably because the idea never took off, officials opting instead for entire islands as penal colonies), though of course governmentality is there, it haunts us all. I guess all I’m saying is that I want to look at prison not just as Foucault does, not just as anthropologists or academics do. I want to see it as glass, as gilded, as all-seeing, as past and present and future all rolled up into one. I want to look to fiction, because as Margaret Atwood says in her review,
Social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.
What happens when public becomes solitary, the prison becomes us, and we all become a little more monstrous?