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The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle

Michelle Brown
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    The Culture of Punishment
    Book Description:

    America is the most punitive nation in the world, incarcerating more than 2.3 million people - or one in 136 of its residents. Against the backdrop of this unprecedented mass imprisonment, punishment permeates everyday life, carrying with it complex cultural meanings. In The Culture of Punishment, Michelle Brown goes beyond prison gates and into the routine and popular engagements of everyday life, showing that those of us most distanced from the practice of punishment tend to be particularly harsh in our judgments.The Culture of Punishment takes readers on a tour of the sites where culture and punishment meet - television shows, movies, prison tourism, and post 9/11 new war prisons - demonstrating that because incarceration affects people along distinct race and class lines, it is only a privileged group of citizens who are removed from the experience of incarceration. These penal spectators, who often sanction the infliction of pain from a distance, risk overlooking the reasons for democratic oversight of the project of punishment and, more broadly, justifications for the prohibition of pain.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3904-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Introduction: Notes on Becoming a Penal Spectator
    (pp. 1-20)

    When I began graduate school, the first course I took was a proseminar on the administration of justice. The curriculum was an unprecedented experience and challenge for me, a former humanities student, in its deep survey of organizational theory through the central institutions of the criminal justice system. The last few weeks of the course were spent on classic and contemporary works in correctional research—leading me to work by pioneers in the sociology of imprisonment. I studied the first wave of social scientists who entered prisons and observed their daily life, including the work of sociologists Donald Clemmer, Gresham...

  5. 2 Prison Theory: Engaging the Work of Punishment
    (pp. 21-49)

    Because of the uniqueness of punishment as a social institution, theory plays a special and critical role in our understanding of it. This chapter assesses the place of the key concepts of this volume—penal spectatorship, culture, and work—by way of an interdisciplinary and theoretical dialogue on punishment, pain, and exclusion. Here I use theory as a means through which to disrupt and expand our conceptualizations of punishment and also as a model to rethink not only the project of punishment and its alternatives but the very approaches and assumptions as social scientists we employ in that pursuit. Perhaps...

  6. 3 Prison Iconography: Regarding the Pain of Others
    (pp. 50-84)

    This chapter sets out to make some of the above claims “meaningful,” but with special regard to Appadurai’s qualifier: That in order to reveal the cultural work of the imagination, particularly in relationship to punishment’s pain, we must first “address some other issues.” Most of those issues pertain to our approaches and theoretical contexts for the study of representation—for how we both pursue and explain this work. The study of representation in criminology remains a field of thought preoccupied with its own justification and the pursuit of a clear articulation of the reasons why we should take cultural texts,...

  7. 4 Prison Tourism: The Cultural Work and Play of Punishment
    (pp. 85-121)

    Another cultural arena in which penal spectatorship is achieving new and unprecedented possibility lies in the realm of prison tourism. Across the United States, commercialized tours of defunct prisons are gaining popularity, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. These sites include such recognizable institutions as Alcatraz and Eastern State Penitentiary, but also a wide range of lesser known former penitentiaries, reformatories, and jails in West Virginia, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, New Jersey, Hawaii, Indiana, South Carolina, California, Pennsylvania, and beyond. This chapter explores the kind of cultural work that these sites and practices perform, including the penal...

  8. 5 Prison Portents: Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
    (pp. 122-152)

    To imagine the individual caught outside of the safety and security of history and society seems impossible, a resolute fiction. However, human rights law, in its very establishment, requires us to acknowledge such a reality—as do prisons. As political philosopher Michael Ignatieff insists, “Beneath the social there ought to be the natural. Beneath the duties that tie us to individuals, there ought to be a duty that ties us to all men and women whatever their relation to us. In fact, beneath the social, the historical, there is nothing at all.”¹ Prisons and their spectators exist in the precarious...

  9. 6 Prison Science: Of Faith and Futility
    (pp. 153-189)

    The science of punishment, like its object, is peculiar. Its story, as this chapter seeks to demonstrate, is very much built upon “the substance of things hoped for,” often moving forward precariously upon “the evidence of things not seen.” For an empirical science, one which quite often claims to be research-or evidence-based, such an assertion may seem strange; however, it is faith—and its collapse—which marks the most fundamental of shifts in the story of punishment’s present. In this chapter, the last case study of this volume, we turn intentionally to science and its cultural labor in relation to...

  10. 7 Prison Otherwise: Cultural Meanings beyond Punishment
    (pp. 190-212)

    I began this volume with a discussion of my own introduction to incarceration in the United States. It was during those first trips to prison in graduate school as an instructor and a tourist when a tension in my own relationship to punishment materialized. Caught between passivity and engagement, lacking the cultural vocabularies and political will to interrogate that tension, penal spectators often miss the ways in which their struggles with how to look and act meaningfully in proximity to pain are submerged. Punishment, I have argued, is a crucial testing ground and resource for understanding our relationship to that...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 213-230)
  12. References
    (pp. 231-244)
  13. Index
    (pp. 245-250)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 251-252)