The shadow of penal supervision

To be Seen and Heard: A response to songs about supervision

I’m delighted to present the first guest post on this blog, from Jessica Bird, who is Visiting Assistant Professor in Criminology, at the Law & Justice Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Following my last post, Jess followed the links to the Vox Liminis ‘Seen and Heard’ EP of songs reflecting on supervision. Here is her reaction:

“Each of the four tracks on this EP communicates a quality of penal supervision as it is lived and felt, what the fact of misrecognition means to a man who is marked CRIMINAL, where affixing an EX hardly liberates but instead serves to compound the apparently Bad Things he was said to have done and the assumed Bad Person he is now being supervised away from being. There are passing tones of dejection if not quite defeat – ‘we’d up and leave if we had wings for flying’ (Five Days) – and certainly there are wounds on show here but, as a listening experience, there is nothing embittered hiding in this music, which is all the more poetic given the embittering experience it reflects: ‘sleepless nights and an empty bed’ (Five Days) ‘where the time will not pass’ in a ‘windowless room’ trapped in ‘the place we pay for sin’ (Blankface). The music also speaks of love, the suspensions, upendings, yearnings of a love that is ghost-like – just out of human reach but ever hauntingly present.

Metaphors we might expect from artwork responding to criminal justice create the imaginary world we enter: of walls, clocks, webs, shadows, ghosts. The surprise here is that they are mapped onto melodies that dance the line between a misty kind of whimsy and the sweet, mournful turns that are characteristic of a subset of the Scottish folk tradition. It is difficult to write of cages in ways that elevate, and how much more difficult to actually exist within them in ways that are dignified. But without wishing to romanticize the painful journeys of probation, this is a romantic, uplifting piece of art and it is dignified too. Twinning voices, mixing moods, sharp notes that dissolve quickly into melancholy, unfurling slowly a deep sensitivity without the spin of sentimentality, Seen and Heard is like the gorgeous date I once had with a bear-sized furniture maker in a Turkish restaurant in Leith.

Distance may be the soul of beauty, as Simone Weil framed it, but connection is its fragile heart. In Blankface the question is posed ‘can you feel what I feel?’ In the asking – an ancient plea for connection – the song and the EP as a whole does what few things besides art have the power to do; extend the specificity of a distinct lived experience into a set of universal emotional registers from which the audience can conjure their own memories of regret, degradation, and longing.

Grace and patience. If music can have moral totems, the Vox Liminis collective conveyed these, especially in Always a Way – a song of quiet potency recognizable to every apologetic lover, every depleted sinner. As a chorus lyric, ‘there’s always a way to say you’re sorry’ set to piano keys and simple strumming is, as I write this through a bout of insomnia, almost unbearably beautiful to hear. This song, as with You’re Waiting, recalls a kind of patience that is not directed towards a specific, identified or wished-for object; rather, and infinitely harder to achieve, patience for an unknown outcome, an undiscoverable what and a perennial might never be. That sort of patience is what I mean in this context by ‘grace’. A sense, a hopeful emotion more than an abstract analytical category, that is quite different from redemption; being absolved is beside the point.

Just a little a gesture / An acknowledgment of doubt / that’s what being sorry is really all about

This ‘acknowledgment of doubt’ strikes me as the ethical centre of the EP, ‘the beginning of wisdom’ as Clarence Darrow’s father, Amirus, was once quoted as saying. There is a terrible irony, then, that the many gifts of doubt somehow evoked in these sounds and lyrics are the very elements that are so often missing from our treatment of the people we subject to the Malopticon. Under that untrusting eye with its systems of tracking and cataloguing, its ‘tick by tick and line by line’ communicates to the supervisee our belief that ‘you’ll do it again and again’ (Blankface). You’ll do the Bad Thing, you’ll be the Bad Person. No doubt. An expectation of failure is, it seems, the grounding principle of probation.

An additional theme of the EP is waiting, but far from the passive and immobilizing portrayals that are more commonly offered in poetic narratives, particularly where love is concerned, here waiting is represented as another component of the grace-patience dynamic.

you’ve got to know wherever you go / I’ll always hear your call / what if I’m late how long do you wait / what if I don’t come at all / you need me, you don’t need me, you’ll be fine

These ambivalences of need, desire, and disappointment echo the ordinary doubts of being human, those see-saw internal monologues of insecurity that we live with and attempt to resist, mostly gracelessly, with faux certainties. Doubt is uncomfortable. Nothing is so debilitating as the emotional liminal. It’s not a coincidence that, in Catholic mythology, the place of most suffering is called Purgatory, the in-between. This may be why, in our responses to crime, we manage our fears and doubts by attempts at prediction, at scientific measures of risk which provide if not certainty then at least something solid to stand on. We could call it the Safety Fallacy. People living under supervision know the true costs of this falsehood.

This music isn’t about saving or being saved, it isn’t about resolution, or even about redemption. Through its gentle, lilting stokes It confronts the frustrations of being controlled and the unavoidability of regret without striking out in fits of frenzy. It conveys anguish without needing loud drumbeats. More than complete sense-making, the value of creating and regarding the artworks of the people we otherwise reduce to risk-carriers is simply to bear witness, that inner-cringe bromide phrase which nevertheless precisely captures the thing it describes: to bear implies burdens (of attention), to witness requires looking. Our shared cravings: to be Seen and Heard.”

In case you missed the link before, you can find the songs here:

And you can read and hear more about their production here:

Supervision: Seen And Heard