For my paper on inmate firefighting programs as both the trap (neoliberalism’s refining spirit, governmentality’s pervasive reach) and the working of the trap (physical labor as personal transformation, friendship and becoming forged in risk), I’m using three different epigraphs. One for the introduction, the first section, and the second section. They are:
I like this as an intro, because as referenced in my earlier post about prisons as not just spaces but times, there is a futility in trying to change these things. But there may be room to move within them, on the edges of them.
This is setting up the section on prison work programs fitting nicely into the neoliberal mode of positive governmentality. That is, yay, work programs shape you into “productive” members of society, look at how you’ve paid for your sins! There’s so many quotes from inmates that can be interpreted as a straight forward performance of this neoliberalism in action.
I don’t just want to explain how prison work programs, and the people that do them, are enacting neoliberalism. That’s boring and easy and lazy. After recognizing this as a fact, I want to spend some time thinking about how the work done out on the fire lines may actually be transformative in a meaningful way for individuals who do it, it may serve as some kind of “becoming.” I like how Nabokov writes “captivatingly majestic,” I like the use of captive there, talking about a man who is sentenced to die the next day. In that book you can’t tell the difference between his dreams and reality, the oppression and the freedom, and that’s what I want to explore.
Driving through downtown Tucson on a Friday morning at 9 am, on the way to the soup kitchen, I saw a very old man in a very new Prius take a left turn onto Stone Avenue, which meant he had turned the wrong way on a one way street, head-on into the relative melee of morning traffic. As the light turned green, there was no honking; all the cars on the road remained still, in order to give the old man time to figure it out. A man on the street corner wearing a business suit was smoking a cigarette with a bemused look on his face, while two construction workers on the other side of the road were leaned up against their excavator, giggling. The business man yelled something across the two lanes of cars to the construction workers, which made them all laugh. After a few seconds of this, another man stepped out of his SUV that idled next to me, adorned with spinning 22” rims and the last name “Navarette” in gothic scrawl on his back window. He chased down the Prius that hadn’t made it very far, knocked on the window, and explained to the old man his predicament. Having sensed a conclusion, all the cars started moving again, slowly, and in my rearview I could see Mr. Navarette jogging back to his SUV while the old man painstakingly executed an 18-point turn until his Prius joined the flow of traffic.
This brief scene - 2 minutes tops - made me wonder: how does one rank a city’s patience? its humor? how do we measure words parried across traffic between tailored suits and hard hats? to the very real extent that we are poor, what wealth can we find in moments, in the ebb and flow of everyday life?