Denmark’s a Prison

An interesting article “Drama for Cannibals” over at The New Inquiry by Malcolm Harris muses on the contemporary practice of presenting/studying/creating Shakespeare plays in prisons in the US. hamletThe piece argues against Shakespeare’s supposedly solitary vision of human experience as this only reinforces the capitalist ideology of the oppressor state, its prisons and the multitude of solitary confinements that are both idealized as a general form of human endeavor and a widespread punishment as well– Shakespeare’s ostensible dramatization and elaboration of the jail that is the individual human conscience is opposed to literary forms that would foreground a subjective commonality and dramatize humans laboring in concert much like the seamen of Moby Dick. But is this really a true rendering of Shakespeare’s theatrical vision? And what role exactly does art play in exhorting the subjugated to realize previously invisible common bonds where before only a chaotic state of nature was apparent?

Performances and theater at prisons lends an aura of reality and potential for “truth” that is rare in the cultural sphere– Think of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” or the 1957 performance of “Waiting for Godot” at San Quentin which famously saw the supposedly esoteric modernist riddle of a play overwhelm and intellectually stimulate an audience of 1400 inmates. Harris doesn’t really dwell on this aspect of carceral edutainment, but an audience of convicts can become a sort of litmus test for artistic authenticity as well. The gritty masculine authenticity of Cash and the sere, macabre poetic drama of Beckett are validated by auditors who have already tasted the real and who would (in theory) not tolerate spurious and misleading artifice. It’s difficult to find mention of contemporary prison performances of recent artistic work, or major singers or bands (Godot was first staged in 1953, only four years before its staging at San Quentin) . Metallica played Folsom and shot a music video there in 2003, but the very fact that they used the location that Cash made famous weakens its potential power, moving it closer to a post-modern “do-over”. Metallica at a SuperMax in Texas would have been much more provocative, say, but would they be allowed? And can one even imagine a play written in the past 10 years being presented to a rapt audience in a prison?


I’m unsure of how performances at prisons are produced but my modest guess is that at the very least the number of artists requesting to perform has steadily declined over the years as the revolutionary and counter-cultural energy has also declined over the past 50 years. It would be interesting to know if rappers are interested in performing in prisons and if they have asked whether they have been denied or not. My immediate guess would be that rappers would be denied for racist “safety” reasons but I could also guess that rappers (many of whom have served time) would have no interest in such a performance. Who wants to go back to prison?

The prevailing tactic  is to downplay the fundamental role of prisons in contemporary society, the hypocritical laws that send most inmates there and thus ignore this  immoral travesty at the heart of the “free” world. Harris quotes a New Yorker article that quotes Charles Dickens on his 1842 voyage to America. Dickens was horrified by the Philadelphia prison he visited and the solitary silent punishments it individually and scientifically meted out:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body […] therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. “

The course Foucault charts of the historical implementation of a supposedly more “humane” method of punishment has never fooled more perspicacious minds, but it has been mostly successful in mollifying the population by hiding the process and turning down the volume. It is difficult to be roused by something that has been “reformed” and almost completely removed from public view. When it does choose to focus on the penal system the denotative lattice of the media for the most part does an adequate job of sensationalizing criminality (The Wire) or emphasizing innocence (Prison Break, Shawshank Redemption, The Exonerated)  as opposed to focusing on the racist and arbitrary laws and their enforcement which lead to a systemic horrorshow. [I haven’t seen OZ, aka “the most brutal show on television”, perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule?] As the number of prisons and prisoners grows its reflection in the mediated sphere we inhabit takes up less and less space.

These speculations lead us to the question of what exactly does a prison performance entail and Harris’ essay rightly picks apart the host of prison reform projects and artistic services that barely escape the sinister ideology of uplift, moral correction (corporeal discipline, psychological annihilation) that prison “reformers” have been focusing on since the Enlightenment. Prison performances thus have a hard time escaping from the prison industrial complex as a whole. Harris writes:

If the carceral system is the country’s fundamental fact, then its fundamental logic is that of cuffs, bars, and guns. No readings or performances are going to change that, but they can change the way we see it from the outside. Without a story about 2,266,800 bad choices, America is just a country that keeps its underclasses in cages.

Under this telling the famous performance of Waiting for Godot then maybe would be less a validation of that difficult play’s inner truth and more a sentimental validation that the convict audience was actually “human” because it could appreciate High Modernist Art. pinocchioHarris’ essay is excellent at unpacking the insidious ways the humanistic apparatus is marshaled in a fundamentally condescending direction. Here is some culture for you. It reflects the immutable values we hold to be self evident. When you learn to love it we will know you are a true human. Or a True Boy– This is the Pinocchio vision of society in which a host of disobeying, lying, delinquent puppets have to learn to listen to their Jiminy Crickets and forswear their pasts by acting “brave, truthful and unselfish” before they can be turned into a true human being.

Harris’ essay, however, conflates the often duplicitous prison-reform apparatus with the texts that are assigned. In this case his target is Shakespeare whose supposedly monolithic and obvious politics reveals his work to be an idea candidate for reinforcing an inhumane corporeal warehouse system:

Shakespeare’s drama for cannibals lends a sense of noble inevitability to a prison system that’s not only historically and globally specific, but exceptional. It’s fitting theatre for a society that eats its own.

The cannibal reference is Brecht’s. It’s from 1928 when Brecht, deep in his theoretical confrontation with Marxism expounded on Shakespearean tragic heroes. Here is Brecht as quoted in the article:

Shakespeare pushes the great individuals out of their human relationships (family, state) out onto the heath, into complete isolation, where he must pretend to be great in his decline …

lear_1799310cHow does Shakespeare’s project relate to the rise of the atomized economic actor? The Neoliberal subject? The social contract between monads? Does it trumpet the historical arrival of this theoretical subject? So many books have been written on this that one might as well cite Margot Heinemann in her essay “How Brecht Read Shakespeare” in  Political Shakespeare:

Not only do the ideas change over time, but even at the same period Brecht will emphasize one side of a contradiction in one piece and a different side in another, according to the point being argued over.

She later cites Brecht:

‘The audience should see not simply people who do their own deed . . . but human beings, but shifting raw material, unformed, undefined, that can surprise them. […] There are certain laws that apply to class. They apply to the individual only in so far as he coincides with his class, i.e. not absolutely; for the concept of class is only arrived at by ignoring particular features of the individual. You’re not representing principles but human beings’ (Messignkauf Diaries, p. 80).

The friction between the group and the individual is recurrent, but emphasis on this dynamic hardly has to necessarily betray any potential class cohesiveness or brotherhood. Endless contemporary political formations and fractures only reinforce the fact that failures to address theoretically the group/individual dynamic imperil the revolutionary project. Brecht was reading Shakespeare his whole life, hardly throwing him in the rubbish heap like a Shaw or Tolstoy and one quote of his hardly proves that Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus reinforces a bourgeois subject cleverly unmoored from historical specificity and singularly devoted to “inventing the human”. Harris instead writes:

This dramatic arc doesn’t belong to humanity writ large. It belongs to a particular personality, born of very particular circumstances, and is generalized to whole populations because it’s convenient for an enriched few. When we talk about ideology and propaganda, we should suspect our contemporary media, but also our cultural touchstones. No one has a consciousness more archetypically false than a prisoner who believes he’s free.

This is a problematic argument as it pertains to Shakespeare and there are several ways to approach it. The first chapter of Lawrence Levine’s classic Highbrow/Lowbrow subtitled “Shakespeare in America” tells the story of a playwright whose works the lower classes of the nascent nation were intimately familiar with. Levine’s well-researched argument is that Shakespeare once was the popular poet, the working man’s writer of antebellum America. 263- 872b, digital composite of 4 imagesOnly with the explosion of the urban population and growth of industrial capitalism does Shakespeare’s position in American society upend. The quotidien bard for the urban artisans and frontier riverboatmen ends up “archaic and inaccessible” as the bifurcation of American culture into “highbrow” and “lowbrow” take place. So not only is Shakespeare an elusive figure who nevertheless is a “particular personality, born of very particular circumstances” his association with the “enriched few” also a process that is historically particular and contingent.

A prisoner who loses himself in Shakespearean roles and claims that “I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be,” is naively encountering art, seemingly unaware of the dialectical contradiction of theatrical mimesis, that “escapism” is also “real”. Denying the fundamental tension between representation and reality is the fault of the teacher and student. It surely isn’t Shakespeare’s fault; Hamlet’s meta-drama “The Mousetrap” argues effectively enough as to the magic of the mimetic dilemma. But Harris writes:

At the heart of both the Shakespearean tragedy and the story the American justice system tells about itself is a bad choice. Prisoners, it’s nice to think, are people who have made mistakes and are facing the consequences.

A statement that doesn’t adequately describe Shakespearean drama or tragedy at all– Tragedy’s function or engine is one that at its very heart calls into question why a bad choice might be a good choice, or vice versa. It’s a questioning of categories with terrible consequences– Morality slip in from time to time, but good tragedy digs to the root of our assumptions of what good and bad ultimately stand for. Usually the terrible consequences are created not by “bad choices”, but by societal conditions unable to withstand aleatory human contradictions. Antigone reveals an individual bound to familial rites against a paranoid city-state at war; Ajax cannot abide a hierarchy that fails to reward the most deserving soldier; Philoctetes is the victim of a hypocritical army that demands his participation in a conflict that he was previously banned from joining. Hamlet doesn’t make a bad decision per se, but is driven to madness in a world that is nothing but lies. Lear is driven out to the wild weather of the heath, but only after his “good” daughter herself makes a “bad (good)” decision that drives him to make a “bad(good)” decision that leads us to learn more truth but that exposes the ruthlessness and bare greed that underlay peaceful transfers of power; Othello makes a bad decision, but not alone. More examples only would provide more hues to this palate of the “Great” tragedies of the Western “cannon”. But Harris instead writes:

There is genius in every prison because there is genius wherever people, never alone, make a world for themselves. In the Shakespeare-in-prison stories, the inmates, like Richard III, are eaten “with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end,” but always eaten, and always alone. The Bard’s tragedies are solitary confinement for the mind. America would rather teach its prisoners that man is most human in isolation than learn from them that the opposite is true.

Except that the opposite of this is true–First, on a purely biopolitical level, the theatrical enterprise is a communal one. Different human beings must come together to learn their lines so that they can represent a character with other actors and create a story as an ensemble. hamlet - the playersA world is created, a world of contradiction necessarily as I wrote above because theater and all art creation depend on the strange cohabitation of fantasy and truth. This is also meta-dramatically elaborated on a theoretical level in Hamlet with the arrival of the players–Shakespeare is obsessed with folding his arguments back to the process, the dramatic process, its limitations, the material problems of community and individuality. The creation of art, in the end becomes a powerful truth process that ironically contrasts with the bizarre humanity of the players who decide to “put on a show” (Another meta-drama occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play which perhaps critiques and attempts to deepen the naive dramaturgy of an earlier effort that concentrates on young lovers at odds with their parents: Romeo and Juliet.) So at a biopolitical level the theater is a communal effort that despite its frictions and “dramas” is also a truth process.

Although there isn’t enough time to really develop a serious play-by-play argument here, I would simply argue that The Bard’s tragedies are not solitary confinement for the mind. The most extreme case perhaps makes the point– Take the most isolated Shakespearean hero, Hamlet– He is privileged with a knowledge that leads him to believe that everyone around him is lying. All other characters are mostly corrupt and crazy save his devoted friend Horatio–And yet his anxiety over revenge, action, his mental anguish and solitary musings are still contextual and relational–fortinbrasOne of the interesting flourishes of this play is Hamlet’s foil, or double, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras who is busy invading Poland: “a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name./ To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.” Hamlet makes his decision and steels his nerves by looking at history unfolding around him, the process of armies fighting and many soldiers dying over nothing. This is hardly isolation or a meditation on an ersatz “human nature”, but a soliloquy of a human caught in a deceitful community who uses an historical specificity to help him take a step towards action:

Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

How can I stand by fretting over my own just potential act of revenge when the world is bent on mutual annihilation over contrived pretexts? Hamlet’s act of revenge concerns his family and the state, which are already intertwined and he is pushed into potential action by observing and analyzing history, which is marching around him, and which will quickly invade and subsume his own inward-looking and degenerate castle and country.

This is one example, hastily described, which perhaps makes a poor case that a Shakespearean hero is more than an exercise of solitary-confinement and is instead a truth-seeking machine whose main concern is the world, the contemporary historical processes in development and the relationship of the psyche to the social forms that inhibit or accelerate this truth-machine in its quest.

Harold Bloom and other may prefer to intone on the “invention of the human” and rip characters from their context to create a variety of archetypes of the human condition, but it hardly make his analysis correct. Marshaling this “humane” Shakespeare as a salve to heal the wounds of childish prisoners is a symptom of the liberal humanitarian bereft of a structural analysis– uss-hunchback-crewTrue his art is not one that depicts the communal craft of men toiling together in concert harpooning whales, working with their hands, inhabiting a utopian space of hope where the modern subject can commingle with the ante-mosaic cosmic man. But at the risk of being reductive, the drama as a literary and performative form has never really focused on the community, or communal life in a positive revolutionary way (or am I wrong?). Society and community in drama and especially in tragedy is something with which the self comes into terrible and unresolvable conflict. And dramatizing these conflicts of self vs. society was the paramount concern of the Attic Greeks who clearly have nothing to do with capitalism and much to do with revolution, “democracy” (yes many slaves in Athens, yes no women citizens, I know), killing tyrants, to a radical degree for 500 BC, serving as a model and warning to many subsequent attempts at equality through the ages–The brutal and impossible quandaries of Athenian drama and the birth of this form coincide with the revolutionary political opening of the 5th century BCE and its trials and tribulations to such an extent that it tempts me to claim that drama and tragedy have a special relationship to revolution and the questions it asks.

What is revolution but a truth-process that intensifies discontented masses into a cohesive vector which is able to shatter previous power relationships and replace them with new forms of political (that is polis,  *urban* or *proximity*) organization– athenian revolution - oberIt would seem that the process of revolution is one of many historical incidences of the self subjugated to the whole in the interest of the event or movement, but unlike the Army which asks for a similar subjectivization, the revolutionary process also asks the utopian questions that allow the subject to dream, to stretch his or her mind, to call into question the existing arrangements and theorize about how to make the new now and the now new. Revolution, while a primarily communal process, will also always necessarily be a process of subjectivization in which the previous categories of self-knowledge are broken and remade in the mind.

Tragedy is the artistic form that best captures these inevitable disjunctures that will occur amidst the dust of the rebellion. The slippage between the one and the many. Asking these questions I believe deepens revolutionary praxis, taking extreme cases in order to test the theory and question the inevitable crushing of psyches under a historical juggernaut. The revolution Shakespeare was living under was the painful birth of capitalist land relations under a violent and bloody upheaval in the countryside; his work however is filled with contradictions and questions moreso than any proselytizing for a new kind of man. It is not the art that urges comrades to fight and die in concert, but to what degree is art in that vein superior or efficacious in terms of raising the consciousness of prisoners?

The prisoner in the United States today has been caught up in and caught by a hypocritical, racist and psychotically punitive society. The system is rigged, the powerful are liars, deceivers and cheats. Even friends and comrades can be paid mercenaries of a state intent on your destruction, or at least your confusion. There is a time for rebellion, but there is also a time for a serious dissection of the often tenuous bonds that ask the self to cohere to its collectivities– everyone who has struggled with social movements and the theory of movement praxis is painfully aware of these slippages. Tragedy is the distillation of this negation to a necessarily painful degree.

As harsh and bleak the border between the prison and free society is, there is nevertheless a gradual blurring of the line as neighborhoods, demonstrations and…everything is more and more heavily policed. The panopticon is not just a 19th century surveillance technique but now a synecdoche for society. Successful strategies for the withering away of the prison-state will recognize the seepage of the prison and police deeper into the boring necessities of contemporary self-reproduction. The lines are drawn both by the prison fence but also across it and from it outwards and outwards and reflected and reflected. and Shakespeare’s dark and difficult tragedies

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me

it is a prison.

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One Response to Denmark’s a Prison

  1. Pingback: Miss Cegenation | Guava Purée

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