This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness

By Richard Paul Hamilton; Margaret Sönser Breen | Go to book overview

Six
Condemned to Artifice and Prevent from Being a Pirate:
How Prisoners Convicted of Terrible Crimes Recognize
Themselves in Discourse

Diana Medlicott


1. Introduction

A strong tradition of reflection exists about evil and human wickedness in abstract terms,1 as well as evidence of terrible individual acts. The problem of forming a dialogue between abstraction and specificity in this area has been with us since the Enlightenment, when the assumption was born that human reason could definitively answer a wide range of questions fundamental to human life.2 Abstraction has an inherent instability and ideas need to be considered alongside concepts and contexts in order to become intelligible. Problems of theory involve problems of practice, of social relations and historical change.3

This chapter is an attempt to relate the abstraction of human wickedness to the fragmentation of experience. I will be drawing on the experiences of five prisoners who have been convicted of terrible crimes, using material from interviews in which they engaged in personal accounting,4 talking openly about their identities.

Such troubled identities, with highly charged personal histories, are neglected in research,5 except as examples of clinical pathology. I will begin by outlining my particular approach to achieving frank interviews in the difficult environment of prison. I then describe the relevant penal contexts, in terms of the historic evolution of an actuarial and managerial culture. In the context of this culture, I analyze some interview data in response to one significant question. This analysis suggests that prisoners' responses are usually grounded in discourses that are historically implicated in a process of subjectification, whereby individuals are systematically categorized as subjects of a type, for the purposes of governing subjectivity and regulating behaviour. Finally, I draw upon Rose (1996) to claim that psychology, psychiatry, and related disciplines are the mode through which modern subjectivity in this context has been constituted, but that this is reductionist and masks understanding of and by those who have committed terrible crimes.


2. Talking to Prisoners: Disciplined Empathy as a Research
Tool

Prisoners are a valuable but elusive and neglected source of data about a wide range of penal, institutional and behavioural phenomena.6

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