On Guenther’s Solitary Confinement

December 29, 2014
Posted in European
December 29, 2014 John Drabinski

On Guenther’s Solitary Confinement

Here are my long-ish remarks on Lisa Guenther’s book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, for a book session at the 2014 American Philosophical Association.


It is nothing surprising to say that Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives is a stunningly important work. Her topic – the meaning and significance of the practice of solitary confinement as a form of punishment – could not be more timely and urgent, whether we look to the recently released report on torture practices in the U.S. or to the increasing attention given to racialized practices of incarceration in this country. Philosophy needs this kind of writing and reflection in a moment in which questions of race, nation, and class are increasingly pressing on the center from the margins, whether that is internal to the discipline or because the disasters we bring to our world just can no longer be held so far apart from loving wisdom. Or both, which is precisely what I think motivates Lisa’s book. Her work is no polemic or manifesto; it is phenomenological through and through, a feature that infuses writing and reflection with the terror of lived-experience and all the conceptual richness that comes from writing in such proximity to suffering. Lisa’s work is as moving when it sets the reading close to that lived-experience as when words fail and testimony – so often banal in its formulations – stands in its place, or when she brings social science and history to bear on the phenomenology of confinement, solitariness, and its peculiar form of suffering. Solitary Confinement is a difficult, at times suffocating, read. The book is at its best when it made me afraid to read it. And the book was often at its best. I thank Lisa for her work writing a difficult book – difficult at the level of theme, sentence, and at times word. Lisa’s book is intimate and alienating at the same time, both in its form and in its effect on the reader. Therein lies its success: inducing that experience, while also drawing all the necessary limits around what it would mean to claim any sort of intimacy to the intimacy or alienation. But then, in the end, and this is crucial, never sacrificing solidarity in the face of limit.

To do the book justice would mean writing a companion volume. I know that is cliché, but I actually mean it. In lieu of such a volume, I want to make four interrelated observations. First, a few words on what the phenomenological approach – a practice, here, and not a theory of how to practice – contributes to our understanding of incarceration, solitary confinement, and consciousness. Second, I want to remark on how the sorts of things at issue in solitary confinement are features of the experience of anti-Black racism more broadly, and so, in the end, how we might conceive of the question of solitary confinement simultaneously as a general question with racialized specificity and as part of the African-American intellectual tradition. Third, a few words on the need for an animal ethics – a feature of the last chapter that resituates the preceding phenomenological descriptions in the lifeworld with genuinely unsettling consequences. Fourth, and final, I want to conclude with some words about what Lisa’s book means for how we do and indeed how we ought to do philosophy in the twenty-first century.


First, then, a note on Lisa’s commitment to phenomenology. My own trajectory as a thinker has never much departed from the basic features of phenomenological thinking: lived-experience as the site of the legitimation of claims, turn to the lived-body as the foundation of epistemology and ontology, and the descriptive horizon as the limit-setting evidential principle. This is no small part of what connected me to Lisa’s book. Solitary Confinement is a phenomenological text from the beginning. In particular, I was impressed with how Lisa navigated the peculiar and indeed fraught questions of speaking-for or appropriation when reading first-person texts. The promise of phenomenology has always been that it is capable of retrieving, then rendering in some form or another, the experience at the heart of a first person report, literary work, political value, or philosophical abstraction. Lisa does this masterfully throughout her work, deploying phenomenological language as a frame that allows us to see what might otherwise lie hidden in a testimonial or other text. This is the promise of theory generally: to draw out what remains hidden through a framing or reframing of an object or event. Phenomenology does something more, though: draw out the hidden and sustain the densely textured character of lived-experience, embodiment, and the lifeworld.

Husserl’s texts – and it is Husserl’s work, perhaps unexpectedly, that animates so much of Lisa’s method and approach – are enigmas unto themselves. The method of phenomenology tells us that we return to die Sachen selbst, sure, but the apparatus, language, and modality of theoretical formulation – those elements of rendering lived-experience – always seems to put the text of classical phenomenology in serious tension with its promise. Let me quote two passages here, in part because they articulate two aspects of what Lisa tries to do, in part because they cannot be read the same after encountering Solitary Confinement (the book and the experience described). First, from Husserl’s masterwork Ideas I:

In the theoretical attitude, which we call the ‘natural’ theoretical attitude, the collective horizon of possible investigations is therefore designated with one word: It is the world. Accordingly, the sciences of this original attitude are, in their entirety, sciences of the world; and, as long as it is the exclusively dominant theoretical attitude, the concepts ‘true being,’ ‘actual being,’ that is, real being and – since everything real joins together to make up the unity of the world – ‘being in the world’ coincide. (Ideas I, §1)

Here, Husserl’s promises an absolute inseparability of how we describe singular experience and what that experience looks like in a theoretical register, in the move to a general claim. And then in the second book of Ideas, he writes about embodiment in relation to the emergence from (imaginary) radical solipsism, which then becomes a sense of life with others:

Let us imagine then, however, that at a point of time within the time co-constituted along with the solipsistic world, suddenly in my domain of experience Bodies show up, things understandable as, and understood as, human Bodies. Now all of a sudden and for the first time human beings are there for me, with whom I can come to an understanding. (Ideas II, §18F)

I quote these two passages because Lisa’s commitment to phenomenology sent me back to do something I haven’t done in many, many years: read Husserl’s early work. These two passages stand out because they can be seen as underpinning the methodology of Solitary Confinement – a commitment to translating the particularity of experience into the eidetic (shared) core of something more than merely subjective and a concrete account of how solitary life is lived as embodied in relation to self and others – and how they simply cannot be read again, for me and any reader of her book, in the same way. And, for me, Solitary Confinement enacts phenomenology’s promise to let die Sachen selbst guide and form philosophical expression and explication. At first I thought to myself, yes, but that is because of the power of the topic; solitary confinement and the treatment of prisoners is so morally and politically overwhelming that it overtakes the rather staid character of phenomenological formulation. But then it dawned on me that, instead, this is the promise of phenomenology fulfilled: the things themselves must overtake language, the Saying must break up the Said, and so lived-experience – from its eidetic features to its undigestible engimas – must always exceed what we write and speak. And yet we must always write and speak, up to and at the limit of expression.

For that reason, Lisa’s re-reading of phenomenology, enmeshing it in the moral and political catastrophe of mass incarceration and solitary confinement, affirms the enduring significance (even unique power) of phenomenology for our most pressing social questions, but it also says something important about how we practice and now ought to practice philosophy. More on that in a moment.


The theme of solitary confinement and suffering is an important theme in prison literature in the United States, a literature that took on a particularly intense tone and significance in the Black Power and Black Panther Party movements in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is also a central theme in the African-American intellectual tradition more broadly. I kept coming back to this as I read Solitary Confinement, how what is a particular method (phenomenology) and a particular theme (solitary confinement in prison) describes something at least as old as W.E.B. Du Bois’ articulation of double-consciousness in the 1901 work Souls of Black Folk – arguably the most important foundational text in the tradition. Du Bois’ conception of the veil and a consciousness doubled by a world structured by anti-Black racism – that withdrawal into self that conflicts in its moment of knowledge with how the Black self is seen from the outside – is well enough known, but it is important to note that the origin of that foundational concept lies in a double movement. This double movement begins with the white girl who rejects little Du Bois’ card, that moment in which he first became viscerally aware of his own racial identity, not as a tradition of thinking and practice (that would come later), but as the abjection of the world. The white girl’s refusal sends Du Bois into his solitary life, inside himself and alone, where he discovers his own response to this abjection:

I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. The sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.

This stringy head beating response is of course only his own, and Du Bois is quick to note that this making “an outcast and a stranger in mine own house” was just as likely to produce another kind of Black life. He writes:

With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry…The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unveiling palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

The appeal to the prison-house of anti-Black racism is of course the key rhetorical moment here, as it suggests that the prison is a condition of Black life itself. Perhaps, then, incarceration is a variation on the theme, and solitary confinement a particularly vicious register.

This prison-house of anti-Black racism produces perhaps the most melancholic moment in all of Souls, even in Du Bois’ writing as a whole, when he turns to the death of his baby son in the famous eleventh chapter. That chapter, “On the Passing of the First Born,” is more personal than any other part of Souls; Du Bois is honest and blunt in registering all the affects of his son’s birth, from the love of the baby’s freshness to the silent terror of seeing white features in the boy’s hair and eyes to, in the end, the child’s sudden death. And then the honest reckoning with that sudden death and its ultimate meaning. From the prison-house of anti-Black racism, Du Bois is ambivalent about the passing of the first born. Melancholic because the child’s life cannot be realized, melancholic because, in his judgment, Du Bois knows that the veil had already passed over his son and the pessimism of that passing before death registers nothing but sadness. So he writes, in a set of remarks that absolutely hollow out the world:

All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart – nay, blame me not if I seethe world thus darkly through the Veil – and my soul whispers ever to me, saying, ‘Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.’ … Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.

This is an astonishing bit from Souls. Du Bois doubles the solitude of the prison-house of racism with two evocations: the sea of sorrow and the nameless void. Such catastrophic modes of solitude are not particular to Du Bois’ life, or so he is arguing. They are instead the very marrow of our world, a world structured from the inside in such a way that solitude is negotiated in the relief felt by the nameless void that stands in for, and displaces to the father’s pleasure, a sea of sorrow for those who live. Perhaps this is some sort of proto-version of a necropolitics, played out here as mass psychological effect before and because of the political practice of death and racial terror.

Du Bois’ version here of a sort of afro-pessimism has one of its closest companions in Richard Wright’s fiction. Wright is of course concerned – to the point of absurdity – with the inseparability of Blackness and violence, of which Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Wright’s signature character, is the most famous example. But I am also thinking here of his early short story “The Man Who Lived Underground,” written in 1945. That story revisits the theme of solitude, isolation, and madness in particularly stark terms. The main character Fred Daniels – a man who, like all of Wright’s characters, is guilty before he acts – escapes the world by going underground, literally retreating to the city’s underground system of sewers and basements and tunnels. There are many elements, but the central message of the story is plain: the only escape from anti-Black racist violence is complete withdrawal from the world, cloaking or invisibility, a radical solitude in which no other, Black or white, touches or sees or hears you. Daniels finds freedom in that moment, but also overwhelming despair and depression that comes from this peculiar kind of solitary confinement; compelled to come back above ground, to re-enter the world that does not want him to exist, Daniels is and cannot but be a madman along the lines, intentionally of course, of Dostoevsky’s anti-hero or Nietzsche’s death-of-God cryer. The story ends where one expects a Richard Wright story to end: violence and death. Daniels meets up with white police officers and they kill him. Consider this snippet, from one officer to another:

‘What did you shoot him for, Lawson?’

‘I had to.’


‘You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things.’

Like most of Wright’s fiction, the moral of the story is uncomplicated, almost too blunt: the white world has no place for Black people other than death and abjection, so it is better to withdraw into radical solitude, but then that solitude will drive you mad and back into the world that wants you dead. The compulsion to intersubjective life is akin to a compulsion to die.

This afro-pessimism, or maybe better put as an afro-nihilism, has its counterpart in James Baldwin’s long debate about the limits of Wright’s world as an accurate description of Black life. The details of that are not important here, but I kept coming back to this controversy in mid-century African-American letters when Lisa returned, again and again, to her central claim: intersubjectivity makes subjects, and a life without other subjects disorients and even destroys the meaning of existence. Baldwin’s argument with Wright was simply that: “the relationship Negroes bear to one another,” as he put it in “Many Thousands Gone,” is the counter-narrative to white racism and its effects and affects. That counter-narrative is survival in a subterranean intersubjective life, that relationship that persists despite it all. Underground, threatened by the death-world of the aboveground, an intersubjectivity that produces subjects is necessary for Black people to be whole despite a world committed to their fragmentation.

I say all of this because Solitary Confinement taught me about prisons, cruelty, and the ethics and politics that ought to emerge, but it also underscored how the study of race and incarceration is important not just because Black people are incarcerated at such a shocking rate in the United States, but also because the features of solitary confinement and imprisonment simply continue, in so many ways, a much wider story about Blackness in an anti-Black racist society. That story is central to (though never all of) the African-American intellectual tradition: how resistance to that is formed in the intersubjective, yes, but also how the world is constructed to block that resistance at every turn. For me, this is the afterlife of Lisa’s book: a phenomenology of life under anti-Black racism and the conditions under which something other than that life, however limited, is possible.


Third, and perhaps most importantly in the present context, Lisa’s work raises a critical question for the reader: what is the proper or best function of philosophy in relation to catastrophic social practices? What does all this mean for how we think about philosophy, its place in the world, and what kind of special knowledge or insight does it offers such pressing, even bleak political questions? This is no small query, so I can only offer a few words, all of which draw upon my just previous remarks.

Lisa shows us the force of phenomenology deployed as a mode of reading, getting inside the lived-experience in testimonial and social scientific texts. That is the descriptive contribution of phenomenology, something that all by itself approximates or even functions as a kind of philosophical knowledge. Descriptions of how we experience the world as embodied and situated creatures – creatures in the sense of being subjects created by the lifeworld-structure in which we find ourselves – bridges the gap between describing for the sake of a qualitative appreciation of experience and the exploration of the genetic and synthetic conditions of knowing and being. Across Solitary Confinement we find these sharp, provocative moments that recall the best of classical phenomenological methodology, and they challenge us to stay faithful to the thickness of lived-experience and its manifold grounds for any variety of claims about the structure and meaning of the human person.

And yet the methodological question is only part of this story, and not much at that. Rather, I would say that the story of philosophy we have to tell after reading Solitary Confinement is one that begins with marginal experience. Begins with marginal experience both in our sense of what it means to be and to know as marginal, from which of course we define the center as center, and how the margins expose the remainder of the human when lived-experience breaks up and apart in radical solitude. In that sense, philosophy is revealed to be largely a project about the center as normal and normative, forgetting how that sense is defined in some ways, maybe in large part or wholly, by social experiments in destroying the normal and pushing the margins of the human further and further away from anything we might recognize as human. So, in this sense, I do not think the imperative after reading Solitary Confinement is simply to be more political in our thinking and philosophical writing (though that is plenty important a lesson to draw). Rather, the imperative is to take philosophy into those places where the categories of experience, knowing, and being are broken apart and reassembled in ways we do not yet understand, but are nonetheless part of the human experience, provoked by those long histories of violence that make continuity between slavery, anti-Black racist violence, and the disaster of solitary confinement. There is a lot to say about this after and on the basis of Solitary Confinement, which makes the book as much a new beginning for philosophy as a definitive word on the experience of radical solitariness. (The book is both.) In that saying more, the Black intellectual tradition becomes increasingly important, speaking as it does in so many cases (though not all) from the kinds of dissociations, disastrous solitarinesses (if that’s a word), and general sense that, in Wright’s figuration, to live above ground is to concede to your susceptibility to premature and often cruel death.

Philosophy’s future, then: at the margins, from the margins, in solidarity with the margins. Perhaps to the point of no margins, or perhaps just at the limit of experience in order to delink accounts of knowing and being from hegemonic notions of the normal and the normative. These are enormous questions, of course, and I only raise them because they have been on my mind since reading Solitary Confinement and I have no clear answers or systematic responses, but Lisa’s book makes sure we begin again from a catastrophic, though ethically and politically grounded, place: solitary confinement and its afterlife.


As a final note, and extending this philosophical problematic of thinking the margins, I should say just a bit about the final chapter of the second section of Solitary Confinement. Theorizing the marginal space of human experience raises epistemological and ontological questions, and I like so much that Lisa attends to those questions without hesitation; the temptation, and a righteous one, is surely to write on the politics of imprisonment and leave the analysis there. Philosophy adds something when it raises broader questions of knowing and being, however, and Solitary Confinement does those questions justice. Yet, there is the question of justice – that cross between political questions of policy and rights and ethical questions of what kind of people we are, the structure and meaning of our moral consciousness, and our enduring obligations to one another. Solitary Confinement explores the lived-experience of what, borrowing Paul Gilroy’s term, we might call becoming infra-human, and argues (convincingly, in my view) that our ethics in response need to root themselves differently, otherwise than the human. That is, appealing to “the human” is not enough; we need to begin with the infra-human, the animal, and what sort of ethical life is possible from there. Lisa’s argument is complex, and the honest truth is that it is a challenging, complicated chapter that I am still grappling with. But her fundamental claim is straightforward and follows indisputably from the argument of Solitary Confinement as a whole. She wants to argue that

the hierarchical opposition of humans to animals that humanist discourse presupposes ultimately works against prisoners, who share vital interests in common with nonhuman animals held in prolonged, intensive confinement in factory farms, laboratories, zoos, and other sites. While the demand for human rights makes sense in a prison system that is still haunted by slavery and its (partial) abolition, it is not clear that humanist values always support the well-being of prisoners.

This question of an animal ethics is complicated, but Lisa’s appeal to it is plain: it is not enough to elevate the question of the human to include prisoners. Rather, and this is where we begin thinking about the Conclusion of the book, rethinking ethics in the context of solitary confinement means resetting the grounds for imagining solidarity. Solidarity does not turn on a sameness of experience, but instead – and here is where classical phenomenology gives us such a transformative political lesson – on the idea of intersubjectivity as producing subjects, including the human animal and the non-prisoner, while at the same time producing abject, killable categories like nonhuman animal and prisoner. This move recalls the long-standing claim across the Black intellectual tradition that the idea of whiteness (and, for some, Blackness too) is inseparable from racial terror and violence. “[W]e must study,” Césaire writes in Discourse on Colonialism, “how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him…” Far from being a call to victimization, Césaire’s insight, and Lisa’s phenomenological account of very much the same dynamic, places the burden of justice-work on the intersubjective lifeworld itself – something that produces us as subjects, no matter our position in it. Ashamed of our violence, if we are the non-prisoner subject, we are compelled to some sort of action. Perhaps reform. More likely, revolution.

In the end, this is what I hear after reading Lisa’s book, a double call to solidarity. There is the moral and political call to us as persons, compelled by her account of intersubjectivity and the meaning of subjectivity as fundamentally intersubjective to understand the non-prisoner’s fate as stuck to the fate of prisoners. So, our lives are inseparable, radically different as they might be. And to the point of this gathering, here at the American Philosophical Association, a call to solidarity in our offices, study carrels, and faces in front of the screen in our homes. To do philosophy as a non-imprisoned subject is to be stuck to the imprisoned subject, whether the questions that occupy our precious study time concern justice, knowledge, being, metaphysics, or aesthetics. In each case, we are stuck, our subjectivity entwined and entangled with the intersubjective world we make and that makes us. How do we think in that entwinement and entanglement? I asked myself that question after finishing Solitary Confinement and felt confused. In some sense, I still do, even as I feel the imperative so strongly. It is real and abiding and absolutely cratering of the egoism of our work-habits. Of course, in some sense we already know what that thinking looks like. It looks like Lisa’s book.

So, for that alone, Lisa, thank you for writing Solitary Confinement.

, , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.