Soul Imprisonment

As the American empire advanced toward and eventually swept over the Great Plains during the mid to late 1800s, attempts were made to persuade the Plains Indians that the American or “civilized” way of life was superior to their own. The thinking was that if Plains Indians could be shown the material benefits and myriad delights of modern society, this would inspire them to settle down, become farmers, produce surpluses, spend money, and acquire property. To this end, tribal chiefs and leading men were often taken on grand tours of the east, with visits to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC usually on the itinerary. Few expenses were spared on these tours, with fine dining, premier lodging, and monumental sightseeing at every stop.

These tours made quite an impression on the chiefs. The impression, however, was precisely the opposite of that intended. Though the chiefs were duly impressed with industrial society and its material manifestations, they were horrified by the density, stench, clamor, artificiality, and nervousness of the cities. But nothing horrified them more than the method by which citizens were punished for crimes. For Plains Indians, the most bizarre and barbaric aspect of civilized society was the prison. Confining people to cages was, in their estimation, simply unfathomable. An immobile and isolated person was, in an existential and ontological sense, no longer human.

Preferring suicidal death over continued imprisonment, the Kiowa chief Satanta famously launched himself headfirst from an upper floor jail window at Huntsville, Texas in 1878. It is no small irony that Huntsville today is ground zero for one of the largest prison-industrial complexes in the world. Between 1875 and 1878, seventy-two Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho were held as prisoners of war at Fort Marion in Florida. Despite intensive efforts to educate and indoctrinate them into American ways, this punishment or “rehabilitation” served only to convince them that their primitive culture was utterly superior to civilized society. Their amazing story is told in Brad Lookingbill’s War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners (2007).

Most of us don’t think too much about the price paid for civilized progress, primarily because if America’s 3 million (most in the world) prisoners are out of sight, they are out of mind. The 100,000 most out of sight in solitary confinement (another dubious world record) are also the ones most out of their minds, as this powerful Aeon piece by Lisa Guenther reminds us. Her treatment of this subject really resonated, and reminded me of the Plains Indians, because she approaches it from a phenomenological perspective. As some may know, phenomenological approaches have also been used, with great effect, to reveal the philosophical richness and experiential complexity of animist worldviews. Plains Indians were, of course, carriers of these views.

It should go without saying that solitary confinement is a recipe for human disaster and definitively insane, but it apparently needs to be said. Guenther’s saying of it is an ironic inversion of the vacuous American slogan “freedom isn’t free.” The sordid details aside, I particularly enjoyed her precis of phenomenology:

[Solitary confinement] raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.

Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time (1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.

Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unraveling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation. If the task of phenomenology is to show how we make sense of the world through lived experience, then what should a phenomenologist make of prisoners’ accounts of a living death that no longer makes sense?

Guenther goes on to explain, in long and painful detail, how solitary confinement deprives people of the embodied, relational, and social experiences that enable our humanity and ability to make sense. Because these same qualities are foundational to animist worldviews, we can perhaps better understand why Plains Indians considered imprisonment to be an annihilation or degradation so severe that death was often preferable. Guenther’s story should be required reading for all who believe we have progressed from savagery to civilization.


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4 thoughts on “Soul Imprisonment

  1. Gyrus

    A powerful piece, agreed. As you say, it implicitly highlights a lot of what anthropology reveals about our social nature, and to me casts an interesting light on the false Hobbesian notion of our “solitary” nature, which forms a foundation for so modern much political and economic thought.

    You probably saw in the comments a number of people raising specious arguments involving monks isolating themselves for spiritual reasons, leading to some idea that this “spiritual” benefit of isolation should mean solitary confinement would lead to repentance, etc. I’m always fascinated by the genuine overlaps between methods of torture and techniques of spiritual insight. But of course the latter are voluntary, and preceded by years of preparation.

  2. Bob Wells

    It’s always been very interesting to me that in virtually every case when “civilized” peoples collided with “primitive” people, the only way we could get them to join us was to slaughter and imprison them. Nearly always death was preferable to “progress.”

    I’ve made “devolving” my goal in life.

  3. Chris Tolworthy

    I could not agree more about prisons. The existence of a prison is a sign saying “whatever you have done, we do worse”..A murderer causes death, but prison is for many a fate worse than death, as demonstrated by the efforts prisons must take to prevent inmates killing themselves.

    Prisons do not even work from a capitalist perspective: they are monumentally expensive in multiple ways. Even a capitalist solution would be better: chain the person to a desk until he’s earned some monetary sum (and if necessary taught himself the skills to start earning). Yes, that would be a highly unsatisfactory outcome still, but nothing could be worse than the current system: causing pain and loss to everyone, including ourselves (and creating new future victims when dysfunctional inmates are released).

  4. Larry Stout

    The earliest English interlopers in South Africa took one of the indigenous young men (the native people were termed by the English “Saldanians”, as I recall from the book “Washing of the Spears”) back to England, where he became an experiment in “civilizing” savage man, a notion to which a wealthy Englishman subscribed, taking “Corey” (as the native man was dubbed) into his charge, washing him up and down, stuffing him into English clothes, teaching him to speak English, and initiating him in “table manners”. According to the book, Corey over some time (a year, as I recall) demonstrated an adequate aptitude for learning, but ultimately not for adaptation to English culture: at some point he “snapped” and began “bouncing off the walls”, forcing his sponsor to ship him back to South Africa, where he was deposited ashore with a brass suit of armour as a parting gift. What Corey’s ultimate fate might have been is not recorded.

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