- In a recent
"Stirner and Foucault," Saul Newman brings these "two thinkers not often examined together" into a conversation
about freedom, coercion, and individual subjectivity. Newman uses
Stirner and Foucault to explore a discourse of freedom formulated by Kant
and dominant since the Enlightenment, a discourse based on universal
moral abstractions that subtly coerce the mind even as they promise to
liberate it. The aim of Newman's interrogation, as I understand it, is
finally to dismantle these abstractions, and to imagine an individual
freedom that would not have an "authoritarian obverse," an oppressive
shadow--a new freedom not chained to universal norms, but grounded in the
world of power and practice, in "concrete and contingent strategies of
the self." My own research into the modern prison and its cultural
consequences has also approached Stirner and Foucault, also on the themes
of freedom, coercion, and the shape of the mind, and I'm glad to discover
Newman's work. This essay is my effort to answer its provocations.
Max Stirner's major text, The Ego and His Own, is
long, strange, and fitful--and the same can be said of its afterlife. Why revive Stirner now? The answer must
be, at least partly, strategic. The "egoist," Stirner writes, "never
takes trouble about a thing for the sake of the thing, but for his sake:
the thing must serve him" (221). Similarly, The Ego and His
Own is awakened when it becomes useful, when it helps critics to
oppose some oppressive structure in their own time. Newman writes with
this urgency; Kant is a bogey-man in his critique because Kant's theory
of freedom seems to Newman to be shaping contemporary discourse,
dispensing an "illusory" freedom, a disguised oppression, in our own
present tense. But where Newman wishes to reveal the hidden constraints
in a theory of freedom--a theory that, he intimates, has endured the
modernist and postmodernist ruptures and affects the present--I would
measure Stirner's worth against a form of coercion that is partly hidden
but not simply theoretical: the modern prison built for solitary
confinement. The Stirner-Foucault connection becomes strongest and most
material here, in relation to an oppressive form developed in Stirner's
time and given its definitive theoretical treatment by Foucault, a form
that is being reborn and expanded right now in the United States, in
"super-max" prisons and in the cells for suspected "enemy combatants" on
Guantanamo Bay. If Stirner is going to be roused and put to use again,
it might be against these very "concrete and contingent" institutions of
solitude and unfreedom.
Concreteness, contingency, "this world"--material institutions
and practices suggest themselves everywhere in Newman's essay, but he
gestures toward them as if toward something half-real. The opposite of
abstract universals never quite takes a shape of its own. How might a
contingent liberation be achieved by real people? How might concrete
freedom feel? The trouble may be that escape from an abstract
prison can only be, itself, abstract. A metaphoric jailbreak--where can
we hide from such guards, except in another metaphor? But the prison is
not only an idea. It is first of all a concrete coercive institution.
It is an architecture, a practice and a policy with a specific history,
and its history is not over. Today the United States is involved in the
reconstruction of solitary confinement on a massive scale, the largest
experiment in coercive isolation since the middle nineteenth century.
The modern institution whose genesis was witnessed by Stirner and
carefully traced by Foucault is coming back in a postmodern form. It is
this return that gives the Stirner-Foucault connection its urgency now.
I don't wish to quarrel with Saul Newman. I'll grasp and develop
some of his ideas and depart from others, but this is a correspondence,
not an attempt at correction. My thoughts are offered in a spirit of
- The modern prison takes shape in the American northeast
between 1815 and 1840. Two rival "systems," "Auburn" and "Philadelphia,"
emerge, but their competition masks an underlying unity: both accept the
crucial idea of solitary confinement (Beaumont and Tocqueville 54-55;
Foucault 237-39). The main line of cultural criticism since Foucault has
developed his formulations around the processes of surveillance and
social control, but just as important to the modern prison and to the
Stirner-Foucault connection is the architecture of solitude and, with it,
the architectural figure of the criminal soul conceived by reformers.
Prison reform, the discursive and political movement that transforms
institutions, is itself transformed by them. To break up conspiracies
and riots, to quarantine disease and contain sex, the architecture of
solitude is designed. Once established, the new architecture, in turn,
changes the meaning of solitude. From
the engagement of reform discourse and cellular architecture a new image
of the criminal is conceived--a cellular soul. This soul has its own
internal architecture; it is divided and binds itself, struggling to
correct itself through "reflection" into a redeemed and reunified
entity. The spiritual "cell" is the convict's guilt, the flaw
that corrupts him; working to repair this flaw is his
repentance, a corrective agency within that masters guilt and
reshapes the soul.
A crucial fiction of reform in the golden age of solitude is that
the prisoner's suffering is mainly spiritual. The real struggle
of inmates against the forces that hold them is sublimated, obscured,
into the image of a divided and self-binding soul struggling toward
redemption. According to reformers, it is not the granite walls, the
guards and wardens, but the convict's private guilt that, in solitude,
"will come to assail him." Self-correction, in the discourse of reform,
happens through a process of "reflection": "thrown into solitude [the
convict] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate
it" (Beaumont and Tocqueville 55). Again, a tactical reform is ennobled
with spiritual imagery. Prisoners prove resourceful and inventive in the
use of objects as weapons, so any potential weapon is removed from their
reach. Cells are stripped of furniture, accessories, any adornment not
biologically necessary and that cannot be bolted to the floor. In the
imagination of prison reform, this necessary redesign becomes an aid to
redemption: the bare walls become a "reflective" surface where the
convict sees not a wall but the image of his guilt--what the English
reformer Jonas Hanway calls "the true resemblance of [the prisoner's]
mind" (65). The convict burns to repair this reflection, as if his
spiritual correction would liberate him from the torments of confinement.
Foucault traces the subtle consequences of reform's alchemy:
solitude assures a sort of self-regulation of the penalty and makes
possible a spontaneous individualization of the punishment: the more a
convict is capable of reflecting, the more capable he was of committing
his crime; but, also, the more lively his remorse, the more painful his
solitude; on the other hand, when he has profoundly repented and made
amends without the least dissimulation, solitude will no longer weigh
upon him. (237)
The startling last turn is central to the mythology of reform. The
corrected criminal, though still confined to his cell and awaiting the
end of his sentence like any other, waits without suffering, without
experiencing his confinement as a punishment. He sits in the tranquility
of his redemption, liberated from guilt. His soul is of a piece, no
longer its own cell. Despite his shackles, his forced labor, his bodily
exposure to the various tortures wielded by guards, the prisoner is
The modern prison, then, depends upon a cellular figure of the
soul. Stirner's The Ego and His Own grasps precisely this
figure, and subverts it. Stirner's contention is that the deviant,
criminalized dimension of the soul is really its better half, its true
calling, while the spirit of "repentance" is an oppressive social force,
conformity and obedience internalized. Stirner protests solitary
confinement, in other words, by a reversal, by turning its figure of the
cellular soul inside-out: "turn to yourselves," he preaches, "rather than
to your gods or idols. Bring out from yourselves what is in you, bring
it to the light, bring yourselves to revelation" (211).
But Stirner's protest, because it accepts a cellular architecture
of the soul, remains deeply bound to the fantasy of corrective solitude.
Despite a certain structural rearrangement, an inversion of values like a
switching of magnetic poles, the soul stays cellular, provoked to correct
itself by an authority (Stirner) promising a new redemption ("ownness").
Freedom is a spiritual matter; as a consequence, the institutions that
coerce people in the material world disappear. Like the jailers he
attacks, Stirner obscures the violent struggle between inmates and their
Stirner's critique of modern confinement would appear, in this
light, locked in an irresolvable conflict with the prison's cellular
figure of the soul. The terms of redemption are reversed, but the soul
remains its own cell, still isolated and charged with the task of
correcting itself: imprisonment remains an individual matter, and freedom
a state of mind. What saves The Ego and His Own from this
stalemate is nothing but the work's fitfulness, the shifty
self-disruption of Stirner's prose and of his line of thought. Just as the
circle seems ready to close, as the prison is about to complete its
horizon around Stirner's protest, there is an interruption, a heave, and
another possibility breaks open. Explicitly considering the modern
prison and the "saintly" reformers who wish to introduce solitary
confinement, Stirner perceives an insurgent collectivity, a
collaborative uprising by inmates as the menace that these architects are
trying to exterminate. With this insight into origins, Stirner intimates
that the same possibility continues to hold a liberating promise. Not
individual redemption but riotous, collective "intercourse" now appears
as the opposite of solitary confinement:
That we jointly execute a job, run a machine, effectuate
anything in general,--for this a prison will indeed provide; but that I
forget that I am a prisoner, and engage in intercourse with you who
likewise disregard it, brings danger to the prison, and not only cannot
be caused by it, but must not even be permitted. For this reason the
saintly and moral-minded French chamber decides to introduce solitary
confinement, and other saints will do the like in order to cut off
"demoralizing intercourse." Imprisonment is the established and--sacred
condition, to injure which no attempt must be made. The slightest push of
that kind is punishable, as is every uprising against a sacred thing by
which man is to be charmed and chained. (287)
Stirner's brief but important treatment of insurgent collectivity
suggests an absence in his own design, and in Newman's. Between the
isolated, oppressed individual and the oppressive "society" or "authority"
lies a contested middle ground, where individuals might commune and move
together toward resistance: "every union in the prison bears within it
the dangerous seed of a 'plot,' which under favorable circumstances might
spring up and bear fruit" (287). I would develop Newman's account by
restoring not just the material institutions of oppression, but also the
possibility of collective uprising. Toward the material world, toward
insurgent collectivity--critics of Stirner and Foucault have not
generally seen these two movements in their work; Newman tries to make do without them, but his
undertaking will be incomplete, I believe, until they are restored.
Stirner, when he considers the prison explicitly, becomes unusually
conscious of the material processes of coercion. The material "space,"
the concrete "building" of the prison, he writes, is what "gives a common
stamp to those who are gathered in it" and "determines the manner of
life of the prison society" (286). Similarly, Stirner and Foucault,
faced with the material prison, suggest that liberation might be achieved
not by a solitary turn inward, which the prison is built to enforce, but
by communion and riot. Edward Said, interrogating Foucault's theory of
power, insists that "in human history there is always something beyond
the reach of dominating systems, no matter how deeply they saturate
society, and this is obviously what makes change possible, limits power
in Foucault's sense, and hobbles the theory of that power" (216).
Apparently against Foucault, Said holds to "some modest [...] belief in
noncoercive human community" (217). But what Said misses is that the
idea of insurgent collectivity, prisoners and the dominated communing and
moving against their confinement, is in Foucault's own vision of the
prison, just as it is in Stirner's. "In this central and centralized
humanity," Foucault writes, "the effect and instrument of complex
power relations, bodies and forces subjected by multiple mechanisms of
'incarceration,' [...] we must hear the distant roar of battle" (308).
- Newman's essay announces itself as more than an exercise
in intellectual history or a theoretical comparison; its Stirner-Foucault
connections work against oppressive, illusory models of freedom that
"continue to dominate" in the present. Stirner and Foucault matter
because they are useful to us now in our efforts to imagine and realize
freedom. I would follow Newman here, and submit that the history of
solitary confinement has a new urgency in this postmodern moment. "While
society in the United States gives the example of the most extended
liberty," wrote Beaumont and Tocqueville in 1833, "the prisons of the
same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism" (79).
Today, as the United States declares itself the worldwide defender of
freedom, it incarcerates a higher percentage of its own subjects than any
other country, over two million in all (Shane). I make these connections not for the satisfaction
of "exposing" some hypocrisy, but as a point of departure, a way of
establishing what is at stake in the relation between freedom and
incarceration today. At the entrance to the prison camp on Guantanamo Bay
is a posted slogan: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" (Conover 42).
We have in the United States a whole new generation of prisons
built for solitary confinement. The line connecting them to the
penitentiaries of the early-middle nineteenth century is not at all
continuous--the last thirty years have seen not so much an evolution as a
rebirth and redefinition of the modern prison. The super-max prisons and the isolation facility at
Guantanamo represent the largest experiment in solitude since the
nineteenth century. Long discredited as a form of torture that actually
ravages the minds it pretends to correct, displaced for a century and a
half by less expensive practices, solitude is suddenly a major part of
corrections again. And the criminal soul that lay dormant for so long is
reappearing with the cell, though both have been transformed by
technology and new power structures.
Built by Halliburton and operated by the U.S. military, the Guantanamo
Bay prison takes an acute interest in the psychic lives of its inmates.
The prisoner's mind is to be carefully managed in an effort to extract
its secrets. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson describes the balance: "This is not
a coercive effort," he says, "because as you coerce people, they will
tell you exactly what they want you to hear--and that does us no good.
We have to have accuracy and facts, and people need to be willing to give
you that. It takes motivation, not coercion." On the difference between
motivation and coercion, Johnson is evasive, except to offer the cryptic
remark that "fear is very different than pain" (Conover 45). The
high-tech solitary chambers in super-max prisons also hold inmates for a
complicated range of reasons, some of them clearly political--Ray Luc
Levasseur, convicted of bombing a Union Carbide facility, was transferred
to a solitary cell in Colorado's ADX super-max when he refused to work in
a prison factory because the coaxial cable produced there was for U.S.
military use. According to official policy, Levasseur had refused to
perform labor necessary to his "rehabilitation" (Franzen 219-20). The
old criminal soul may not have expired as a disciplinary tactic, after
The sophisticated architecture and functioning of the new
solitary prisons raises more questions than I can hope to answer here,
but these seem to me the crucial questions for the contemporary value of
Stirner and Foucault, writers who engage and resist the solitary cell at
its modern genesis. The point is not to reveal some supposedly hidden
mechanism, or to speak with pious outrage, the usual tone of prison
reform itself, which produced the cell in the first place. But neither
will these troubling questions be quieted by Newman's "affirmation of the
possibilities of individual autonomy within power" (my
emphasis). What kind of insurgent collectivity might develop inside a
super-max unit? How do its technologies of deprivation and computerized
video-surveillance connect to the old barren reflective surfaces and
panoptic supervision? Finally, can theory shift from the bound figure of
the cellular soul, as Stirner and Foucault do, to a vision of practical
communion and collaborative resistance? My sense, only half-formed, is
that we might move toward a collective critical practice whose proper
adversary is not so much Immanuel Kant as the modern prison and its
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1. Conceived in a revolutionary moment,
in the European 1840s, the book attacks, by turns sneering and raging,
the authorities of religion and government and, as Newman shows, a
version of Enlightenment humanism. A few years later, Stirner
himself becomes an authority under attack in Marx's The
German Ideology, where Marx's emergent materialism in
philosophy and revolutionary politics defines itself against the
idealism of "Saint Max" and his generation. In the late
nineteenth century, Stirner enters and helps to form Nietzsche's
writing, but he remains fairly obscure outside Germany until about
1907. In the decade just before the Great War, a group of
Anglo-American anarchists takes a new interest in Stirner as a
source of insight and energy. The American radicals Steven
Byington and Benjamin Tucker produce a translation, and Stirner's
work moves to the center of the early modernism developing in Dora
Marsden's London journal, The Egoist. A Stirnerite
anarcho-individualist cultural politics has been traced through
Marsden's journal to the works of its contributors, among them
Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Rebecca West, Richard
Aldington, H.D., Ford Madox Ford, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence,
and other experimental writers. With the genesis of English
modernism, Stirner is invoked as the spokesman of a radical
politics against the liberal state and against socialism,
whose forms seemed, to Marsden, sentimental and ineffectual. See
Levenson and Clarke.
2. On the architecture of
solitary confinement in modern prisons, see Evans and Johnston.
3. I refer specifically to
Marx's treatment of Stirner as a deluded idealist in The
German Ideology and to a series of responses to Foucault's
Discipline and Punish that includes Frederic Jameson
and Edward Said. Jameson, introducing his own periodizing thesis
in Postmodernism, describes a "winner loses" paradox
the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or
logic--the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious
example--the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as
the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly
closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since
the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed, and the
impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social
transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in
the face of the model itself. (5-6)
4. On these themes in general,
and on the particular relation between Tocqueville's study of the
American penitentiary and his study of Democracy in
America, see Dumm.
5. The modern solitary prison
had its golden age in the U.S. between 1820 and the Civil War.
Even during these years, solitude was never an established fact of
life for most American prisoners; rather, 1820-1860 marks the
period when a faith in the corrective function of solitude and
reflection dominated the discourse of prison reform. This is the
golden age of an institutional fantasy, the desire to rebuild
American discipline around solitude, the expressed belief that
such a rebuilding was socially practical and that it would, if
achieved, produce a better society. With the Civil War, the dream
of a solitary confinement regime encountered vast new problems--in
particular, vast new populations to incarnate. Captives taken in
battle, emancipated slaves, new waves of immigrants: these
criminalized populations were far too large for the existing
reformed prisons, and authorities could not afford to build enough
cells for them all. See Rotman, especially pages 169-176.
Still, isolation persisted in prisons, no longer as the standard
confinement for all convicts but as a special punishment for the
unruly--or, more recently, as a technique of "segregation" to
protect vulnerable inmates from the general population, or the
vulnerable general population from the "worst of the worst." In
the last quarter century, the days of the War on Drugs and the War
on Terror, American prison populations have doubled and then
doubled again, yet solitary confinement has made a surprising
A curious reversal: solitary confinement falls from dominance
during a period of exploding convict populations; now, in another
period of exploding numbers, it comes back. The trick, the
difference, may lie in the new economic structure of postmodern
discipline. Many of the new solitary prisons are built and
operated by private contractors, paid by states and by the federal
government but working for profit. These businesses--the two
largest are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and
Wackenhut--in turn, contribute to the campaigns of "tough on
crime" candidates, fund research into their own effectiveness, and
lobby for longer, more standardized sentencing rules like
California's "three strikes" law. Solitary confinement may be
coming under private contracting for the same reason it faded from
its golden age: because it is expensive. (A note to my Australian
correspondent: Wackenhut runs prisons there, too.)
If the aim of privately contracted discipline is to increase
construction of new prisons, to incarcerate more people for longer
periods of time because more prisoners now mean more business,
more profits, higher stock prices, then the postmodern turn would
seem to be away from the interior life of the convict.
Containment, an industry in itself, has less and less interest in
producing repentant souls, and mandatory sentencing rules appear
to signal a shift away from "individualized and individuating"
corrections. This characterization may well fit the majority of
our prisons--but the solitary lockdowns, I submit, are an
exception, a special circumstance.
On the continuities and mutations in the history of American
solitary confinement, see Dayan's compelling and haunting essay,
"Held in the Body of the State." On contemporary prison trends
and the new solitary facilities, see Parenti's major study,
Lockdown America, and Herivel and Wright's new edited
collection, Prison Nation. Franzen's essay, "Control
Units" in How to Be Alone, is an elegant
introduction. Studies of the new Guantanamo Bay prison are harder
to find, the circulation around it monitored and controlled, but
its mechanics and economics are interrogated in Ted Conover's "In
the Land of Guantanamo."
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