Academic journal article Social Justice

Enlightenment as Punishment

Academic journal article Social Justice

Enlightenment as Punishment

Article excerpt


AS THIS ESSAY'S TITLE SUGGESTS, I AM THINKING ABOUT HOW ENLIGHTENMENT may be considered a kind of punishment. To identify enlightenment with punishment is not simply to suggest that the transparency associated with a particular strain of enlightenment thinking constitutes a punishment in and of itself, even though I think that one form enlightenment as punishment can take is as a form of thought. Rather than pursue that line of flight directly, in this essay I wish to oppose the idea of enlightenment as transparency to another, less apparent idea of enlightenment. To reach such a resolution is the task of most of this essay, but I would suggest, in anticipation of my argument, that this alternative understanding -- what I call enlightenment as acknowledgment -- would figure enlightenment as an exemplary instance of what Stanley Cavell has called "living our skepticism." [1] The form of enlightenment as punishment that I am interested in moving toward may be figured as an enabling of freedom, one that comprehe nds being free as a situated practice, dependent upon the imaginative destruction and construction, or the constitution and amending, of laws of self and polity, based upon ethical principles that come not from above, but within the situation of everyday life. Most of us aren't likely to identify enlightenment along these general lines, repairing instead, I suspect, to a different sort of Kantian common sense. Yet the sort of enlightenment I am trying to describe, though not necessarily incompatible with the general form of Kant's categorical imperative, may be outside the most common sense of Kant abroad today.

What follows is an attempt to reach a place where we might be prepared to understand enlightenment as punishment in a way that evades what appears to be the scripted finality of transparency. Enlightenment as punishment alternatively may bethought about as a kind of thinking and acting that we perform on ourselves and each other as citizens in various degrees to correct and chasten ourselves. My minimal hope, as the specifics of this alternative idea unfold, is that it may provide us with an ameliorative shock to restart thinking about the politics of punishment. The current conditions of our prisons (and our souls) suggest that something shocking is needed. Or as Emerson once said, "Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis."

Current Conditions of Punishment

Why do I think that punishment as practiced is such a bad thing as to risk thinking of radically alternative ideas of enlightenment? I will provide relevant information that many of us already know, but the figures are subject to constant updating, usually to account for increases. According to data gathered by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 1996, 5.5 million people were in prison, in jail, or on probation in the United States of America. (This is the most recent year for which an official census is available in early December 1999.) That number constituted 2.8% of all adult residents of the country. At the end of 1998, 1,302,019 prisoners were held in federal and state prisons, and at mid-year 1998, 592,462 prisoners were in jails, either awaiting trial or serving sentences. This population has been growing drastically, resulting in more overcrowding: in 1998, state prisons were operating at between 13 and 22% above capacity, and because of sentencing policies enacte d by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s, federal prisons were 27% above capacity.

Who goes to prison in the United States? Men are much more likely to go to prison than women. About 90% of prisoners are men, though in recent years the rate of increase of female populations has been higher than for men. Among American men the rates of imprisonment are extraordinarily biased against African-Americans and those of Hispanic descent. At the end of 1997, for every 100,000 black males in the United States, 3,209 were in prison or jail; for every 100,000 Hispanic males, 1,273 were in prison or jail, while the rate of imprisonment for white males was 386 for every 100,000. …

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