The shadow of penal supervision

Exciting conclusions: Supervision unleashed or restrained?

This time last week I was ensconced in a lovely house in the beautiful Fife village of Anstruther (thanks Heather!), assembling the book chapters into something like a complete manuscript, which now stands at about 72,000 words. Aside from trying to iron out stylistic variations between the chapters and some changes of tone, and responding to helpful comments from my loyal band of reviewers, I was also doing the tiresome work of chasing down references and seeking permission to use previously published sources, figures and text.

It was a real delight to have the luxury of complete focus on these tasks, away from all the distractions of home and work, and to enjoy a few days of isolation as I tried to put the book to bed, as it were.  I’m really going to miss that sort of time and space when I return to a more conventional academic workload next session.

Reviewing the conclusion of the book also allowed me time and space to think and write about the possible futures of ‘mass supervision’, as imagined in the two endings of the short story (now titled ‘Left Hanging’) published on this blog previously. The final chapter begins with the more dystopian ending, and then develops an argument for the kinds of principles and commitments that we need to hold on to if we are to avoid it. I ended the book, very deliberately, with the more positive ending to the story, trying to hint at what Roberto Unger calls ‘the adjacent possible’. I came across Unger’s work by reading recent papers by Ian Loader and Richard Sparks, developing their ideas around criminology’s role in democratic dialogue about crime and punishment. In particular, this quotation made a big impression on me as I neared the end of writing Pervasive Punishment:

“If I propose something distant, you may say: interesting, but Utopian. If I propose something close, you may answer: feasible but trivial. In contemporary efforts to think and talk programmatically, all proposals are made to seem either Utopian or trivial. We have lost confidence in our ability to imagine structural change in society, and fall back upon a surrogate standard: a proposal is realistic if it approaches what already exists. It is easy to be a realist if you accept everything.” (Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Democracy Realized, 1998: 36)

Those seem to me to be both important and troubling words for social scientists. If, as Loader and Sparks put it, we are to move ‘beyond lamentation’, beyond ‘mere’ critique, we need to be able to imagine and offer alternatives. For me, this is perhaps where social science has most to gain from engaging with the Arts and Humanities. My friend Padraig O’Tuama (a poet, theologian and peace-maker) posted this Emily Dickinson poem recently on Instagram:

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit,

By the imagination.”

(Emily Dickinson, 1687.J [unknown date])

I tend to read those words positively, but of course we live in a world where dark imaginings all too often find themselves realised. That’s why we need a constant dialogue between theory, research and practice; between art and science; between law and liberty.

With that in mind, I am really delighted to report that the wider Pervasive Punishment project is not quite finished yet. A month or two ago, I began talking to Jo Collinson Scott (musician, songwriter [as Jo Mango] and musicologist) about whether she might make some songs somehow inspired by or in dialogue with the short story and/or with the book in general. She very kindly agreed and has been working with the musician-producer Adem to produce an EP of 4 songs. Other collaborators in this musical off-shoot include A. Wesley Cheung, Lucy Cathcart Froden (a.k.a. Raukarna) and Martin Cathcart Froden. I’m very eager to see what they  produce, but knowing them and their work, I have no doubt at all that it will provide — at the very least — another angle of inflection upon and another way of engaging with ‘mass supervision’. I hope all these imaginings will light a fuse.

I’ll keep you posted!

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