[-empyre-] what is to be done?


My sincere apologies for entering this conversation so late. I have lurked a bit, and today I sped-read through the month's posts, but I have been unable to join you up to now because of a pressing project deadline. I have been working around the clock to prepare for the launch of project that I have been engaged in for more than three years. This project, "Public Secrets," will be published online in Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology in just a few days. "Public Secrets," is, in part, why Christina invited me to participate in this discussion - because it implicitly and explicitly addresses the question "What is Bare-life," the second Documenta leitmotif and the focus of an earlier exchange on Empyre.

The 'public secret' - the secret the public keeps safe from itself - is interposed between the question of "what is Bare-life" and the question of "what is to be done." It is difficult to acknowledge the atrocities that we are implicated in - the pervasiveness of bare-life (the refugee, the prisoner, the illegal immigrant, the shanty-town resident), when we cannot see "what is to be done."

There have been many interesting and valuable points made so far in this discussion of "what is to be done," particularly in the various critiques of the of the question itself; its focus on futurity and problem solving, its assumptions and presumptions, its self-reflexivity in this context, and its implicit acceptance of power relations. I am too late to join in these threads and not sure I would have anything useful to add except to paraphrase Foucault (just in case no one else has) 'all domination is power, but not all power is domination?" Power relations are inevitable but I believe that ethical resistance is possible.

To explain briefly what I am suggesting by the phrase "ethical resistance" I will to quote David Hoy -

"I use 'ethics' broadly to refer to obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but that are neither forced on one nor enforceable?
Ethical resistance involves the individual more than the institution or the population. It may be the basis for an individual's choice of engaging in social or political resistance. Yet it requires a different kind of explanation. For Emmanuel Levinas, ethical resistance is not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilize sectors of the population to exert their political power; ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless." - Critical Resistance

To build on Hoy's explanation of ethical resistance I would like to return to an earlier adaptation of our question - "what is being done." The most obvious approach to me is to look at the practices that each of us engage, from within our own ethos, as artists, scholars, activists, colleagues, daughters?

I am interested in developing an anecdotal theory of what can be done by looking at what we do and what we learn when we act out of our own ethos in response to our socio-political context on any scale - global, institutional or personal. I'd like to thank Ricardo Rosas and Dirk Vekemans for providing descriptions of wonderful projects in their recent posts. This is what I have to offer (not as an answer to "what is to be done" but as an indication of what I feel I should do - how I see my own responsibility to act in ethical and critical resistance), two projects; "Palabras_" and "Public Secrets".

You can find "Palabras_" here - http://palabrastranquilas.ucsc.edu
"Public Secrets" will launch in just a few days, here http://www.vectorsjournal.org/ or you can go directly to the project at http://vectorsjournal.org/issues/04_issue/publicsecrets/ but you will miss all the introductory statements . Here is a copy of my "authors statement" about the project below. I apologize for the length.

"Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it."
Walter Benjamin - The Origin of German Tragic Drama

There are secrets that are kept from the public and then there are "public secrets" - secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself, like the troubling "don't ask, don't tell." The trick to the public secret is in knowing what not to know. This is the most powerful form of social knowledge. Such shared secrets sustain social and political institutions. The injustices of the war on drugs, the criminal justice system, and the Prison Industrial Complex are "public secrets."

The public perception of justice - the figure of its appearance - relies on the public not acknowledging that which is generally known. When faced with massive sociological phenomena such as racism, poverty, addiction, abuse, it is easy to slip into denial. This is the ideological work that the prison does. It allows us to avoid the ethical by relying on the juridical.

The expansion of the prison system is possible because it is a public secret - a secret kept in an unacknowledged but public agreement not to know what imprisonment really means to individuals and their communities. As the number of prisons increases, so does the level of secrecy about what goes on inside them. The secret of the abuses perpetrated by the Criminal Justice System and Prison Industrial Complex can be heard in many stories told by many narrators, but only when they are allowed to speak. After a series of news stories and lawsuits documenting egregious mistreatment of prisoners in 1993, the California Department of Corrections imposed a media ban on all of its facilities. This ongoing ban prohibits journalists from face-to-face interviews, eliminates prisoners' right to confidential correspondence with media representatives, and bars the use of cameras, recording devices, and writing instruments in interviews with media representatives. Women incarcerated in California are allowed visits only from family members and legal representatives. Inmates are not allowed access to computers, cameras, tape recorders or media equipment of any kind. Such restrictions preserve the public secret.

For the past three years, I have visited the Central California Women's Facility [CCWF] as a legal advocate. I work with a non-profit, human rights organization, Justice Now http://jnow.org. Together we have been documenting conversations with women prisoners at CCWF, the largest female correctional facility in the United States in an effort to unmask the well known, yet still secret injustices that result from our society's reliance on prisons to solve social problems. Given the ban on conversations with the media, I would not have had access to the women who have contributed to Public Secrets without the support of Justice Now. As a "legal advocate" I am allowed to record my conversations with the women and solicit their stories, ideas, and opinions.

The visits require adherence to Kafkaesque regulations and acceptance of invasive search and surveillance procedures. I am registered for each visit in advance and searched on entry. I am allowed to bring in only a clear plastic baggie with a clear ink pen, my drivers license, a blank legal pad and my mini-disc recorder. The recorder has to be approved weeks in advance (the serial number is registered and checked) and the device is inspected on entry and exit. Only factory-sealed discs are permitted in.

After our interviews the women are subject to strip search and visual body cavity searches that may be performed by male guards.

Clearly, the women I work with are highly politicized and are seriously committed to this endeavor. For these women our conversations are acts of ethical and political testimony - testimony that challenges the underlying principles of distributive justice and the dehumanising mechanisms of the prison system. They are quite literally historians and theorists who speak out in an effort of collective resistance. I collaborate with them first as a witness and then as a "context provider." After soliciting their opinions and collecting their stories, it is my responsibility to create a context in which their voices can be heard across social, cultural and economic boundaries. My conversations with these women therefore form the basis of Public Secrets which in turn brings their voices into dialogue with other legal, political and social theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Catherine MacKinnon, and Angela Davis. While this is a dialogue that I have constructed between interlocutors whose perspectives originate from very diverse social locations, for me all of their voices emerge out of a shared ethos and converge in critical resistance.

The linking of these voices that occurs in Public Secrets began in an essay "The Public Secret: Information and Social Knowledge http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol6_No2_community_domain_daniel that I wrote for a special issue of the online journal Intelligent Agent. The essay also provided a point of departure for the design of the data structure that organizes the content of Public Secrets. In all of this work, I see the public secret as an aporia - an irresolvable internal contradiction, between power and knowledge, between information and denial, between the masks of politics and the goals of an open society (one in which the state is expected to act for the people as guarantor of human and civil rights). Building on this concept, we have created three main branches within Public Secrets, each structured as an aporia; inside/outside, bare-life/human-life, and public secret/utopia. Each aporia frames multiple themes and threads elaborated in clusters of narrative, theory and evidence. Together they explore the space of the prison - physical, economic, political and ideological - and how the space of the prison acts back on the space outside to disrupt and, in effect, undermine the very forms of legality, security and freedom that the prison system purportedly protects.

Three years ago, on visiting day, I walked through a metal detector and into the Central California Womens' Facility. It changed my life. The stories I heard inside challenged my most basic perceptions - of our system of justice, of freedom and of responsibility. Walk with me across this boundary between inside and outside, bare-life and human-life, and listen to Public Secrets.

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