New Essay: “Carceral enjoyments and killjoying the social life of social death”

My rather long(ish) essay, “Carceral enjoyments and killjoying the social life of social death” is out this month in Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloë Taylor’s new volume, Building Abolition: Decarceration and Social Justice (out now from Routledge!).

Rather than try to summarize, here’s an overview from the essay itself:

“One of the (many) problems faced by prison abolitionists,police abolitionists, and anti-carceral theorists and activists is enjoyment.There is a persistent problem that putatively “innocent” members of society receive identifiable material, psychic, and symbolic benefits and privileges from mass incarceration and its direct relation to hetero-patriarchal white supremacy in the United States. They (read: persons that are less subjected to confinement and state supervision) also enjoy these benefits and privileges. They/We enjoy specific material and affective enjoyments from the confinement, torture, exile, disenfranchisement, and generalized forms of social and civil death visited upon others throughout the carceral archipelago in the United States. Those committed to the abolition of such a system must confront such enjoyments, not because they are deserving of respect (they are not), but because they represent a serious obstacle to abolitionist and decolonial projects.

… It is my claim that a part of this project requires the disruption of pleasures and enjoyments that depend on the continued functioning of the prison as a site of moral and political differentiation. And moreover, that such a disruption must also target the very desire to save, perfect, and protect the prison with reformist programs and well-intentioned progressive models of inclusion that continue to accept the premise that prison can be made safe for anyone.

Specifically, I trace a series of claims that together insist on the necessity of identifying, confronting, and disrupting what I will call “carceral enjoyments.” Such enjoyments are produced as parasitic forms of social life, “purchased” through the racialized social death of others, effected in our contemporary moment by the practice of incarceration. If we want to disrupt the functioning of the white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, and settler-colonial state formation in which we find ourselves, we need to be attendant to the specific pleasures or enjoyments of carcerality—the parasitic social life produced by the social death of confinement—and actively develop strategies to disrupt those pleasures and enjoyments. Recognizing both our material and affective attachments to such carceral enjoyments lets us cultivate and redistribute certain kinds of “bad feeling,” and embrace certain ways of “killing joy.” Becoming an abolitionist killjoy, I will argue, is a necessary (but insufficient) part of abolitionist projects and ought to be embraced rather than avoided. This means supporting killjoys, becoming killjoys ourselves, and above all, ceding the floor to those best situated and able to disrupt the flow of the “good feelings” of carcerality, including the good feeling of “reform.

To make this case I explicate three conceptual claims and offer a normative model of abolitionist practice. First, as claimed by critical carceral studies scholars, I describe how incarceration in the U.S. is diagnosed as an institution of social death. Incarceration unites civil and social death through the ethnoracial prison as a site of social death-making, marking the U.S. social order as governed by white supremacy. As a result, these scholars argue that the paradigmatic socially dead figure is less “the slave” than “the prisoner.” Second, by linking this model of social death in the U.S. to scholarship demonstrating how the defense of “property” itself is a function of building and maintaining whiteness as property (through its protection by the police), I show how the social death of incarceration is white supremacist in essence. Racial capitalism defines the United States and abolitionist projects must reflect this reality. Third, I argue that there is another side of social death: namely social life produced through social death, and in the U.S. one form of this is parasitic specifically on the social death of incarceration and confinement. This parasitic social life I will mark as “carceral enjoyments.” A key part of how these “enjoyments of property” operate is through an epistemological block, or what philosophers of race and gender refer to as an epistemology of ignorance. Lastly, I identify one possible resource for frustrating the social life of social death: to disrupt carceral enjoyments and frustrate the flows of affective pleasures which are attached to them through a political epistemological project of supporting and becoming “killjoys.” Borrowing form Sara Ahmed’s figure of the feminist killjoy, I re-read [CeCe] McDonald (and her answer to the question of how it feels to be a problem) as a powerful abolitionist killjoy, and think toward what a practice of abolitionist kill-joying might look like as part of a broader project of building abolition-democracy.