The shadow of penal supervision

“Academic changes mind!” (But only his own…)

In preparation for writing chapter 6 (the penultimate chapter of the book), I’ve been reading up on debates about ‘public’ or ‘civic’ criminology — and about the relationships between criminology and democratic politics more generally. The slightly sarcastic title of this post is an allusion to the oft-repeated complaint or analysis in some of that literature about criminology’s apparent lack of purchase on and influence within public and political dialogue about criminal justice. In chapter 6, I intend to discuss these issues and to focus more specifically on whether and how we might foster meaningful and constructive public dialogue about mass supervision; and about the potential risks and benefits of doing so.

Here however, as the parenthesis in the title suggests, I want to discuss a different kind of ‘mind-changing’ process that I’ve been thinking my way through over the last few weeks — changing my own mind about something I’ve just published… and which, instinctively and instrumentally, I feel inclined to preserve and protect rather than (self-) criticise. It strikes me that my own resistance here is a problem; or maybe a symptom of a wider issue in academia. The ‘publish (very well) or perish’ ethos of the Research Excellence Framework (by which we are judged ever 7 years), and the related injunction to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of our work (in both academic and non-academic terms) isn’t really conducive to changing one’s mind as an academic. Our publications are supposed to do so much for us, and to say so much about us, that to admit an error or misjudgment or overstatement seems like an act of self-harm.

I think my error was perhaps to overstate an argument that I now want to moderate or refine. It’s not so much that the analysis was wrong; rather it was incomplete in a way that now seems important. So, here goes…

Chapter 5 of the book is provisionally titled ‘Punishment helps, punishment hurts’. Its main focus is on how people experience (mass) supervision. I draw on survey and interview research, before focusing more extensively on recent ethnographic studies and on the ‘Supervisible’ and  ‘Seen and Heard’ projects which formed the basis of my recent article on Punishment and Society: ‘Mass supervision, misrecognition and the “Malopticon”‘.

I’ve already posted a couple of times about that paper, which was a long time in the making. But then, in my last post…

Landmines or second chances? The enforcement of mass supervision

… I wrote a little about my experience of co-writing a song called ‘Helping Hand’ with my friend John, who is subject to supervision following a long sentence. In writing chapter 5, I returned to that experience in a little more detail, and started to draw out comparisons between Teejay’s experience of supervision (as reflected in the song Blankface and in the P&S paper), and John’s experience. It was that comparison which I think requires me to reframe the conclusion of my recent Punishment and Society paper. Here’s how I conclude chapter 5:

“In a recent paper based mainly on my encounters with Teejay in Supervisible and in Seen and Heard (McNeill, 2018), I suggest that institutional forms of mass supervision that generate these forms of misrecognition might be conceptualised better as a ‘Malopticon’ than as a Panopticon [that is a penal process or apparatus that sees its subjects badly, that sees them as bad and that socially projects that negative assessment]. That paper argues that Teejay’s representations of supervision are more concerned with its persistence and with its construction of him, rather than with its penetration into his ‘soul’ or psyche. These are pains associated as much with civic degradation as with penal discipline. So long as a person is under supervision, he or she is constructed as untrustworthy; as unworthy of dominion. John accepts and tolerates this (for now) as part of a proportionate and time-limited punishment; he wants his supervisor’s help and he accepts the need to earn his supervisor’s trust. By contrast Teejay refuses to accept a permanently discredited and diminished status and a process of supervision from which there is no prospect of release…


This chapter refines and, to some extent, qualifies the pessimism of that analysis of Teejay’s representations of supervision by comparing them with John’s and with others involved in the two creative projects above. The comparison sheds light on the crucial importance of supervision’s legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects; a legitimacy that is related to the extent to which they can or cannot recognise themselves in the ways that the system sees them. This in turn relates to the temporal dimensions of these representations; whereas John can see himself being who he is and becoming who he wants to be through supervision, there is literally no way through or beyond supervision for Teejay. So, the only way for him to preserve his self-respect and to assert his vision of himself as a man who has settled his debts and learned his lessons is to dispute and resist how indefinite supervision portrays him.”

This might seem like a small example, but I think it shows how useful mistakes (and admitting them) can be; this self-correction opens up new lines of enquiry about the contingent relationships between legitimacy, recognition and temporality in penal processes. It hints at ways in which supervision can be constructed and practised so as to minimise its Maloptical tendencies. It offers a little hope and opens up new possibilities for how this book might end.

Maybe, resisting the REF’s imperatives, we need to disagree with ourselves more often.



Leave a Comment