Monthly Archives: October 2013

Session Review – Heiner ‘Foucault and the Black Panthers’

The text for the 23 October 2013 meeting was Brady Thomas Heiner’s ‘Foucault and the Black Panthers’ (City, 2008). The article traces the evolution of Foucault’s later writing on biopower and the disciplinary society on his encounters with the Black Panther struggles. Exposing connections such as Foucault’s friendship with Jean Genet who apparently gave Foucault the prison writings of prominent Black Panther activists George Jackson and Angela Davis (Genet himself wrote the preface to Jackson’s Soledad Brother), Heiner asks why Foucault committed ‘epistemic violence’ by not acknowledging the Black Panthers as an inspiration for his conceptual framework. Epistemic violence or injustice was defined by Heiner (quoting and following Miranda Fricker) as: when ‘a speaker receives the wrong degree of credibility from his hearer owing to a certain sort of unintended prejudice on the hearer’s part’.

 Book_cover,_Soledad_Brother_by_George_Jackson                 davis_iftheycome01

Initially, the article was contextualised within a current influx of revisionist histories that seek to uncover silenced projects and influences e.g. of Black and Left movements. Examples included Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel and Haiti (2000) and geographer Matthew Hannah’s paper on the Croissant Affair (about the Red Army Faction lawyer Klaus Croissant, not the pastry, although a pile of baked goods apparently also made an appearance in either the affair or the paper presentation…). From there, the conversation centred around the following interconnected themes: epistemic violence; racism, prisons and state control; the impact on Foucaultian discourse.

In terms of ‘epistemic violence’, questions were raised around the choice of the word ‘erasure’ over ‘silencing’, and in what ways erasure might potentially be a more violent gesture than mere silencing, e.g. through the possibility of silenced voices becoming amplified again, but erased voices being impossible to retrieve. Examples from Glasgow based research included a prison art programme where the individual authorship of prisoners was denied. Curatorial practices formed another lens of looking at ‘epistemic violence’ – particularly contemporary ‘curation’ of citations in academic work: of everyone in a particular discourse, who do you cite and why?

Black panther self defense

From here, wmoved to questions around potential non-academic epistemic violence. In this context, the image of Black Panthers was flagged up: why do we know more about their militancy than about their community programmes such as meals for children, medical aid and alternative schooling? How much do we know about the violent sabotage of these successful ‘parallel institutions’ by the US state? A map included in the article prompted further comments on ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ racism, infrastructure and control. The map was reproduced as part of a Black Panther Party petition for community control of police in Berkley (California) and showed three proposed autonomously policed areas entitled I (‘black area’ [sic]) , II (‘campus area’) and III ‘white area’ [sic]).

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Questions revolved around whether the sharpness of these boundaries corresponded to reality and also around through what kinds of violence these boundaries came into being.

A further topic was the ‘prison-industrial complex’ (Davis) and its ethical and economic relation with communities (e.g. Black, poor, affluent).  The dependency of certain communities on the labour and infrastructure provided by prisons was as much highlighted as the dubious justifications for disproportional sentences relative to the crime committed (50 years for armed robbery?) and the fabrication of evidence against Black Panther and other political activists to silence, erase, contain or control these voices. Conversely, it was noted that most political activists still managed to gain a voice through prison writings, although it was also argued that censorship of such outputs was on the increase in line with a general increase in surveillance practices. An incident from prison fieldwork in Canada, where a letter was never delivered from PhD researcher to prisoner, served as an example.

Regarding the still imprisoned, recently released or still persecuted Black Panthers such as Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Assata Shakur, a question was asked about the ending of the article, which argued that ‘[t]he epistemic injustice inflicted upon the Black Panthers and other third world liberation movements can be rectified and safeguarded against only after the social and political injustices inflicted upon them have been rectified’. While the reverse situation seemed almost more logical (the value of BPP activism and the injustices committed against them need to be proven in order to mount pressure for a release), it was also clear that the article was written with political urgency (the need to free the remaining Black Panther prisoners), and thus the conclusion needed to stress this in order to function as a call to action.

Lastly, the soundness of the argument was debated: was the connection convincing? Where was the evidence a bit murky? Feelings around this were a bit mixed, mainly because of certain omissions that could have provided alternative answers, e.g. why was Foucault’s homosexuality never mentioned – and the potential urgency to deal with the persecution of this ‘deviance’ by states around the world? What about French citational practices or expectations of the intellectual? While such alternative explanations might not affect the deed of epistemic violence, they might have been able to provide a fuller set of potential reasons for a shift from racial to sexual politics. Overall, the Black Panther influence was regarded as plausible, given Foucault’s references of racism in his early lectures on the subject and because of his contacts with Genet. Here, we wondered about the influence of a potentially revised history on the reading and use of Foucault. With few Foucaultians in the group that day, some speculations were made about particular applications of Foucault’s theories in the department and beyond. These mostly concluded that the revised history would make a significant difference in quite a few cases.

Overall, the article was appreciated as an interesting provocation that gave pertinent insights into the on-going Black Panther and civil rights struggle. It was also appreciated as a prompt to think about the reasons for and perpetuation of institutionalised/economically motivated racism and the silencing or erasure of diverse groups of people.

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October 27, 2013 · 9:09 pm

Session 1, Semester 1 review

Andrews, J. (2012) ‘Death of the dead-house in Victorian asylums: necroscopy versus mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’

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On the 27th September 2013 the reading group began its fourth year in a rather macabre tone with Andrew’s  grim yet fascinating recent work ‘Death of the dead-house in Victorian asylums: necroscopy versus mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’, published just last year. Chiming with the work of some of the group members, it set the stage for a lively discussion of the history of Scottish asylums.

This article examines the history of the post-mortem within Scottish asylums, charting the spatial ordering of its practice, the ‘medico-moral management’ (2012:7) of deceased bodies and their subsequent dissection. In doing so it also charts the rise of the post-mortem amidst the decline of pathology and doing so details the wider significance of these acts in terms of the meaning of dissection, the means with which it was conducted and the issues concerning consent.

In terms of the spatial ordering of these practices, Andrews’s notes that ‘Dead-house planning prioritized moro – spatial discretion and convenience of ingress/egress for corpse transportation, burial and funeral services, most adjoining coach-houses and stables at rear exists/entrance’ (2012:12) –

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(Andrews 2012: 10)

This image, included in the paper, highlights the attempt at spatial separation of the living from the dead.

However, despite the spatial distancing in physical terms, psychological distance is presented as far more blurred as the author notes the satirical skit’s which pay heed to ‘the abominations of the physic and the dissecting room’ (Morningside Mirror in Andrews 2012:13), and perhaps even more disconcerting for a midday Wednesday was the comment that ‘presumably, as at other contemporary asylums, REA’s paupers were employed in making coffins and shrouds for their cohabitants’ burials’ (2012:9). With tasks such as these, out of sight would certainly not have meant out of mind. That said, having noted that this piece was published in a historical journal, the group enjoyed the inclusion of such spatial language by a non-geographer.

Of particular interest to the group was the issue of consent. The paper states that ‘The 1832 Anatomy Act stipulated that, if unclaimed or burial within 48 hours, pauper corpses could be dissected by authorized institutional parties, or sold to a (licensed) anatomy school’ (2012:10). When consent was sought, Andrew’s suggest that practices varied and emphasized the fact that ‘many [asylums] used persuasive means to secure permission from unwilling relatives or patients’ (2012:15). As such, the paper speaks to the disposability of a particular people, in particular ways, at a particular time. At this point in the discussion, interesting reference was made to the similarities in the ways in which ‘professional pressure was exerted to convert deceased asylum patients into mere pathological artefacts, serving mental science’s higher goals of knowledge production’ (2012:21), with the ways in which asylums were positioned proximate to centers of medical excellence within Canada.

While the paper was generally well received, it was highlighted that the spatial is foregrounded within Andrew’s piece, a focus which perhaps leads the paper to skim over the personal stories, the religious issues involved in death and the debates over the morality of post-mortem practices. It was acknowledged that Andrews hints at concern over these issues but many felt that these concerns were not fully addressed. Such comments brought forth discussion of Sam. A Berty, a historian of science who has addressed these issues in his work and therefore could provide an interesting follow up read.

All in all, not your usual conversation over a piece of cake.

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