Theory Teacher's Blog

Free Subjects

A couple years ago, The New York Times analyzed all of the “State of the Union” speeches by President Bush and discovered that he used the word “freedom” more than any other word, even more than the word “terror.” Probably nobody reading that article would be surprised by this fact considering that no other word is more important to American identity today (though, we might also wonder why, to our founding fathers, the word “equality” was just as important.)

A year later, I was flipping through the 2007 edition of the World in Figures — it’s a reference guide for information such as which countries have the highest and lowest GDP, which countries produce the most coffee, which countries have the worst standard of living, etc. One of its statistics surprised and impressed me. The United States has more people in jail than any other country in the world — even more than China, which is a significant fact when you consider that China’s population is more than four times as large as ours and also since we tend to think of China’s government as excessively strict and repressive. If you measure the population of prisoners in per capita, the U.S. is second only to Rwanda, a nation that recently experienced a massive genocidal terror, and with 0.72% of our people in jail (almost one out of every hundred people), we are far ahead of the third place country, Russia with 0.58%. The World in Figures only includes the top 23 countries, with 23rd place being 0.33%, so I don’t know what the statistics are for other “first-world” countries such as Italy or Canada, and even China doesn’t make the top 23 countries. The U.S. is the only “first-world” country on the per capita list.

What does it mean that a country that considers itself the “land of the free” should have so many more people in jail than other countries? Does this mean that our penal system is more effective or less effective?

The fact of America’s ideology of “freedom” and the fact of its excessive imprisonment of its people is a surprising paradox — a surprising contradiction — that might give us a way to think about Michel Foucault’s history of the penal system, Discipline and Punish. One of Foucault’s main points is that our very souls (our subjectivity) are not as free and immutable as we tend to think they are. That, rather, we are in many ways “effects” of a complex of disciplinary apparatuses including schools and the workplace — a complex of apparatuses epitomized by the penal system.

Another way to think about it is this. When we celebrate our own freedom, we inevitably point to how we are different from those who aren’t free. In other words, our very identity as “free subjects” who can exercize our “free will” depends on how we are different from those who are in jail. In other wourds, our subjectivity is always in part an effect of our position vis-a-vis the penal system. And the penal system always involves a lot more than just putting criminals in jail — it also involves the ideology of a nation and the many forms of discourse (psychology, sociology, etc.) that labels and stigmitizes various people in our society. Even if one has never had any trouble with the law, his or her identity is still structured by it, whether he or she is conscious of it or not. Perhaps this is perhaps why so many television shows, movies, and novels are about crime. Foucault’s discussion of the penal system in the 17th century illustrates how the King literally terrorized his “subjects” into submission in part through a public spectacle that made them feel happy that they weren’t the ones being hung.

Considering the effect of “position” vis-a-vis the “penal machinery” that both Foucault and Nathaniel Hawthorne talke about, I began to wonder if a “free” person might read differently than a “slave” or a “prisoner.” Interestingly, last fall, the NPR radio program This American Life had an episode about prisoners performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a maxium security prison. All of these prisoners had been convicted of murder, and of course, if you’ve read Hamlet, you know that Hamlet contemplates the murder of his uncle and mistakenly murders his uncle’s advisor. The radio show interviewed the prisoners, asking them to “interpret” the play, and as I listened to their interpretations, I began to think of the play in ways that I had never thought of before, even though I had read it numerous times, seen it performed numerous times, and even taught it.


February 3, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. I posted the same thing today about the U.S. having more prisoners than China while China outnumbers the U.S. population by 4 to 1.

    (Overall, your post is much more eloquently stated, with a lot more nuanced thought.)

    Comment by Thaddeus | March 3, 2009 | Reply

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