10/28 | Lisa Guenther

Unmaking and Remaking the World in Long-Term Solitary Confinement

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry analyzes the structure of torture as an unmaking of the world in which the tools that ought to support a person’s embodied capacities are used as weapons to break them down. I argue that the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison functions as a weaponized architecture of torture in precisely this sense. But in recent years, prisoners in the Pelican Bay Short Corridor have re-purposed this weaponized architecture as a tool for remaking the world through collective resistance. This resistance took the form of a hunger strike in which prisoners exposed themselves to the possibility of biological death in order to contest the social and civil death of solitary confinement. By collectively refusing food, and by articulating the meaning and motivation of this refusal in articles, interviews, artwork, and legal documents, prisoners reclaimed and expanded their perceptual, cognitive, and expressive capacities for world-making, even in a space of systematic torture.

Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her latest book is Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). She is currently working on a book that is tentatively entitled, Life Against Social Death: From Reproductive Injustice to Natal Resistance. The book explores the structural and historical connections between reproductive politics and the politics of mass incarceration and capital punishment in the United States.  It begins with a biopolitical analysis of philosophical and political debates over abortion and the death penalty from the 1970s to the present.  The main chapters of the book then situate these debates in relation to the politics of mass incarceration and prison abolition, elaborating a critical phenomenological method for naming, mapping, and dismantling the oppressive structures that (re)produce the carceral state.  The book concludes with concrete case studies of prisoner resistance and other radical social movements for decarceration.