Last Friday saw the release of Alfred Woodfox from the infamous Angola penitentiary, after serving four decades in solitary confinement. Here is Woodfox’s former fellow inmate Walter Rideau, writing in an essay for Mother Jones magazine: “Having spent 12 years like that, I’ll tell you: Life in the vacuum of a cell is spirit-killing, mind-altering, and the zenith in human cruelty. That Woodfox and others like him have survived their experience mentally and emotionally intact is nothing short of miraculous because an isolation cell is designed to break you.”
Lisa Guenther, summarizing her excellent book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, expands on how this breakage unfolds. The images are from a special exhibition sponsored by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, exploring the relationship between architecture and human rights.
Way back in 1842, after a visit to the panopticon-penitentiary in Philadelphia, Charles Dickens took note of the silent cruelty inflicted upon inmates inside the regime of total isolation, and its ghastly signs and tokens:
Though the prison itself may be in ruins, the ideas that it once so perfectly expressed within architectural space remain very much alive. The evidence of severe psychological damage is overwhelming; not acting in the fact of such evidence raises the question as to whether our grotesque regime of incarceration actually applauds such devastation to the mind and soul as a job well done.
We leave the last words to Albert Woodfox: “You go through this psychological self-analysis and then you start talking to yourself, telling yourself that you are strong enough. Just trying to push these walls back and the ceiling back with the force of mind.”
A FORMER PLACE OF SECRET PUNISHMENT
With Lori Gruen’s proposal for “entangled empathy” still fresh in our minds, we turn to the way humans actually “treat” other sentient beings, through their violent transformation into consumer-ready meat.
In Every Twelve Seconds, anthropologist Timothy Pachirat provides an unflinching, meticulously detailed account of his experience working inside a slaughterhouse; we are passing the book from hand to hand here at DP, and urge your close consideration.
For now, we provide a few brief excerpts from Pachirat’s interview with the honorable blogger James McWilliams, author of other essential books about our treatment of animals, such as A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America.
The images are from a manual of recommended practices for the processing of meat, as endorsed by Temple Grandin. On to the testimony of Pachirat, in response to questions from McWilliams:
More information on the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary is available here; a visit, highly recommended. Also recommended, a brief visit to a previous DP bearing on the map of 2012, Wrestling With Modernity.
We note the death of Sheldon Wolin at the age of 93, a political philosopher and theorist with deep insight into the disappearance of the constitutional republic into the shadowlands of corporate kleptocracy.
Below, excerpts from a typically lucid essay dating from way back in 2003; every word rings even more truly today, above all his critical focus on the sycophantic media and the alignment of universities with corporate interests, both of which are central to the grim civic passivity that characterizes life under inverted totalitarianism.
The images are from Tomas Van Houtryve’s chilling series, Blue Sky Days.
Now comes Haverford College philosopher Jill Stauffer with her important new book, Ethical Loneliness. The subtitle reveals the subject of her enquiry: the injustice of not being heard.
The image for the book jacket is Die Witwe I, from Käthe Kollwitz’s series of woodcuts, Krieg. Below, we offer excerpts from a recent interview with Stauffer, together with other Kollwitz images.
WOMAN WITH A DEAD CHILD, 1903
THE PARENTS, Vladslo German Soldiers’ Cemetery, Vladslo (Belgium), 1932
CALL OF DEATH, 1934
THE WEAVER’S REVOLT
Since the early days of DP, we have proposed that the network of black sites and detention facilities assembled under the cover of the War on Terror must be understood in all its multiple identities: as punitive incarceration, obviously; as a pedagogy, with the rest of the world as student body; and as a behavioral lab, with detainees as the lab rats. The last of these is particularly troubling for those who think that the Shining City retains any moral authority whatsoever; how to reconcile practices reminiscent of the likes of Josef Mengele with the supreme righteousness of American exceptionalism?
Now it seems that on the same day Barack Obama was reminding the United Nations of the indispensable virtues of the American Way, lawyers for the ACLU were putting the final touches on a lawsuit filed on behalf of three victims of the psycho-behavioral lab, a suit that singles out two clinical psychologists — James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — yet with legal implications that may eventually work their way considerably up the chain of command, all the way to the Oval Office.
As the legal brief concisely summarizes, Mitchell and Jessen took a theory developed by Martin Seligman with reference to the behavior of dogs when subjected to electric shock, and repackaged it as a theoretical framework for the administration of a regime of torture. We understand that Dr. Seligman would prefer to be known as the father of the “Just Be Happy” school of positive psychology, and not as the midwife of enhanced interrogation. A PDF of his key study is available for scrutiny here; we publish a few excepts below. The images are drawings from the hand of one of the victims, Mohamed Ben Soud.
Below, an excellent video summarizing the cruel excesses of the torture laboratory, elements of which (such as forced feedings) continue into the present:
Let us hope that Mitchell and Jessen, whose consulting firm was paid $81,000,000 from the coffers of American taxpayers, are held accountable for their complicity in such abuse, with the three named plaintiffs duly compensated for their suffering. Though the actions of those further up the food chain are still obscured by the fog machine of national security, this lawsuit represents a promising first step towards justice.
Now comes Guantanamo Bay detainee Shaker Aamer, who has been officially cleared for release since 2007, given the absence of any evidence whatsoever for his involvement in terrorism. Though he has recently been told that his long-awaited return to the UK is now imminent, he remains uncertain of his fate. In an edited transcript of a telephone conversation with his attorney, Aamer provides the following update:
What possible rational could there be for such abusive treatment, days before his departure? Once more details emerge from the punishment-lab known as Gitmo through the testimony of victims such as Aamer and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the utter collapse of US moral authority will be complete, and will likely take many generations to rebuild.
As various European governments qualify and constrain their earlier enthusiastic embrace of refugees from Syria and elsewhere among the disintegrating states of the Middle East, we take note of the ongoing debate within Germany regarding recognition of genocidal atrocities committed in Namibia during the years 1904-1908. In that dark chapter of the Kaiser’s Second Reich, the latent violence conveyed by the German idea of “Lebensraum” — violence which would later explode into World War II during the Third Reich — first found at least seventy-five thousand victims among the Herero and Nama people.
Namibians have held an annual event to commemorate the genocide since 1932; yet Germany remained stubbornly silent until 2004, when Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul issued the following apology:
“I want to acknowledge the violence inflicted on your ancestors by the German colonial powers, particularly the Herero and the Nama. The atrocities, the murders, the crimes committed at that time are today termed genocide and General Lothar von Trotta would be prosecuted and convicted and rightly so. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses and our guilt.”
During the period of extermination, German eugenics “pioneer” Eugen Fischer requested that skulls and other body parts be collected from the concentration camps at Windhoek and Shark Island be sent to Berlin; while most such trophy-specimens were used for research into the bone structure of racial hierarchy, any items considered surplus to scientific requirements were sold as collectors’ items for display throughout Europe. In 2011, twenty skulls were returned to Namibia, representing a tiny fraction of Fischer’s harvest. Since then, there have been a number of subsequent returns from museums and universities. though still outside of any official national policy.
For an incisive summary of the history, we turn to the following essay by correspondent Jon Swan, with captioned images added by DP:
HERERO PRISONERS IN CATTLE CARS: EN ROUTE TO A FINAL SOLUTION
EUGEN FISCHER’S AFRICAN STUDIES IN SEARCH OF RACIAL SUPREMACY
SHARK ISLAND: LOGISTICAL SCHEMATIC FOR EXTERMINATION
A POSTCARD FROM SHARK ISLAND
EN ROUTE TO BILDERBERG IN THE YEAR 2100
A DP correspondent has alerted us to some provocative comments from the historian Yuval Noah Harari, holding forth in the aftermath of his grand (if thinly supported) overview of human evolutionary biology, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Interviewed by the science editor of The Telegraph, Professor Harari speaks with the breathless vacuity of a jester-prophet enthralled by his own spiel, as he cheerfully describes a world where the rich live forever and the poor “die out”:
What could possibly go wrong? The good professor then pumps up that rather distended, tired thought balloon regarding the present displacement of God by technology:
In the happy valley that Harari appears to admire if not endorse, imagination fires our evolution and then consumes it, as “master storytellers” bend the masses to their self-serving fictions:
WE THINK WE KNOW HOW TO READ
Harari describes himself elsewhere as a realist; the best we can conjure in response to such realism comes in the form of a little poem by William Bronk, from which we borrow today’s title:
Seeking deeper understanding of recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere, beyond the shallow and incompetent coverage pumped out like wastewater by the mainstream media, we turn to the extraordinarily prescient speech by Martin Luther King, delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967.
The entire speech, with useful commentary, is available here; excerpts below, with italics added by DP for emphasis. Images are by Kara Walker.
The time to end the “appalling silence” is NOW.
We take note of the following blare of trumpets, announcing the Age of Human Immortality, with the support of none other than Google – no stranger to the vanity business:
Those seeking a deep exploration of the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the human compulsion to muck with absolutely everything, even evolutionary biology, will have to look elsewhere. Can there be anything more culturally toxic than the convergence of the “singularity” with venture capital? For relief from such blather, we turn to Caravaggio and Borges:
LET’S PROLONG THIS MOMENT FOREVER
FOREVER ENTRANCED BY THAT MOST SECRET FORM
RIPPLES ON THE VERGE OF DISSOLVING
The vanity of the likes of Ray Kurzweil and his acolytes in the Church of the Singularity blooms without limit. We urge that Google rent out the Rose Bowl, and assemble therein for a command performance of the Janáček opera, The Makropulos Case:
Ah, but not to worry. Bill Maris elsewhere provides the following assurance:
And the beauty of it is you can always opt out. If you don’t want that extra time, you can always opt out of the system, but I don’t have an interest in opting out of the system, nor do I want the people that I love opting out. It’s not about scary immortality. What if your grandmother didn’t have to die of congestive heart failure or some debilitating stroke where she can’t move half her body? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I find that generally when I can talk to people about it and take some of the scary unknown away it becomes less intimidating.