The shadow of penal supervision

The Web of Others’ Stories: Reflecting on Pervasive Punishment

This guest post comes from Ewan Glassford, one of those currently studying Pervasive Punishment as an Honours course at the University of Glasgow. What follows is his response to the reflective essay challenge set out in an earlier post… Ewan refers to the song ‘Blankface’ which I have discussed in even earlier posts and which can be heard here: Blankface.  For ease of reference, here are the songs lyrics:

________

Blankface

The clock spins, zero hour begins

This is the end, the end again

Here sits blankface and she spins my tale

I’ve stopped listening now I know that I’ll fail

 

Tick by tick and line by line

Thread by thread now you weave mine

A web of shadows, a silk spun tomb

A windowless room, windowless room

 

Sliding doors open and they welcome me in

This is the place where we pay for sin

These four seasons they reflect in glass

Trapped in a jar here where the time will not pass

 

Tick by tick and line by line

Thread by thread now you weave mine

A web of shadows, a silk spun tomb

A windowless room, windowless room

 

One day ending, a new day begins

Tick says ‘he’ll do it’, again and again

You see what you want but I know it’s not real

Anyone out there who can feel what I feel?

__________

My eyes glossed furtively across the lyrics projected on the screen. “Blankface” was the title. Brilliant, I thought, as I anticipated a musical dissection of the impersonal and dehumanising nature of the lived experience of surveillance – one that could perhaps partially resonate with my own. However, only partially, as in my experience some of the supervising faces where anything but blank.

Faces

Some of my supervisor’s faces were friendly, with empathic eyes and toothy grins. Others where stern, their gaze reproachful, with lips that would chastise and belittle – not in what those lips said but in what they did not. Those were faces that never suggested understanding, acceptance or support, much less verbalize it. Though, yes, I thought, some faces where blank. One makes the optimistic assumption that the faces in front of these supervisory bodies were not born blank but made blank. Wiped clean by statistical data, performance reviews, standard procedures and a heavy caseload. However, this is an assumption that I have found myself questioning increasingly the more blank faces I’ve met. So it seems does the songwriter.

The music begins, the soft rhythmic melodies of the guitar are met with a forlorn and haunting voice and it becomes immediately clear what the emotional landscape of someone who has been met with the blank faces of penal supervision is. These are blank faces in a context I have never seen, representatives of a system I have never been through and emotions I could never hope to understand. The vocalist ends with his call for comprehension from others: “Anyone out there who can feel what I feel?” For my part, the answer is a resounding no. There are, however, certain parallels in my own lived experience of supervision.

The Opening and Closing of Doors

I too, like the songwriter, have at one point, been trapped in rooms. However, unlike the songwriter, the rooms I inhabited were not metaphorically speaking “windowless”. They had windows, but fewer doors. The doors that were there would not slide open – I would be met with those “welcoming” doors later – at that point, in those rooms, those doors here opened at others’ discretion. Those tasked with my surveillance. Those who would take notes of my behaviour, my body and my thoughts. Those who were ostensibly there to facilitate a positive health outcome, but whose implicit motive was to foster compliance.

It is difficult at this point for me to discuss my experience of everyday supervision without reference to the more extensive level of supervision I experienced; one that goes beyond the everyday. How do I discuss my emotional reaction to the gaze of a CCTV camera without reference to of a place where the watchful eye of CCTV was all pervasive? Can I discuss my experience of being stewarded at a football game without mentioning that the sight of someone in fluorescent clothing provokes flashbacks to those uniforms in a more oppositional context? My experience of everyday surveillance is coloured by the past. Surveillance to me is not an abstract concept that lies dormant in the back of my mind waiting for reflective thought but a very real concrete expression of institutional power – power that every individual is subject to, albeit to varying extents. Some doors are shut more firmly than others.

The Jar

Again, the extent of my experience of surveillance is incomparable to that of the songwriter. However, we have a certain overlap of experience in that we have both been inhabitants of a total institution. We have both also experienced a re-entry into society outside the walls of those institutions. However, again, here we diverge. Under the everyday surveillance of my daily life I had to prove I could re-integrate; he had to prove he had reformed. The songwriter “pays” for his “sins”. It was his very soul that was the subject of analysis; his spirit that lay under the spotlight of his supervisors’ gaze. Conversely, for my supervisors my body was the unit of analysis- with the Foucauldian medical gaze reducing my thoughts and actions to mere bio-chemical processes. It seems we both felt trapped in jars, like specimens encased in transparent glass, inspected by others outside that glass in a space much larger than we could comprehend.

The Blankfaced Spider and the Web of Others’ Stories

The image of a “silk spun tomb” provided by the songwriter is evocative of a spider’s web. One in which the writer has been trapped. I ask myself what the web is made of, what makes it adhesive and what the chances of escape from its hold are. What are the webs formed by everyday surveillance?

Perhaps the web is formed of others’ stories. Do supervisors in all contexts enforce their own stories on us? They certainly have artistic liberties with the adjectives used in describing our pasts, the nouns used to describe our present selves and the verbs that map out our futures. As the songwriter puts it, the “Blankface” he met would “spin” his “tale”, taking authorial control over the narrative of his life.

In governmental documentation both the songwriter and I would be categorised as “service users”, but in reality we were allocated more iconographic roles.  We were both typecast; I The Patient and he The Criminal. It seems that these were the roles that we were expected to play with the utmost sincerity. For my part, I would like to think I put on a performance convincing enough that Goffman himself would applaud. My supervisors wrote a story for me and I followed the script.

However, as per the penultimate line in the song — “You see what you want but I know it’s not real” — my interactions with the people tasked with surveying my lifestyle and behaviour were performative. What they wanted to see I showed them. I conformed to the character they had placed in their own story. More checkboxes ticked with “good” rather than “very bad”. More hours accounted for as productive in my weekly routine. Cognitions were challenged, Behaviour bettered and Thoughts tested. With each checkbox my supervisors ticked, my web grew a little less sticky, until I was no longer trapped by the stories they had spun.

I wonder what checkboxes the songwriter had to get his supervisors to tick in order to prove his compliance. What combination of restrictions – both explicit and implicit – gave the songwriter the impression that his own surveillance assumed the inevitability of recidivism? What the “it” of this breach of parole the songwriter refers to when he says “Tick says ‘he’ll do it’, again” does not seem important. Rather it is the artist’s keen perception of what the expectations – and subsequent management – of his criminal potentiality are.  Is it an electronic tag or unpaid work, perhaps even drug testing which are unbreakable contractual obligations of his engagement with probation services? I think of the vast gulf between the prescriptive behavioural patterns I was encouraged to take and the unavoidable stipulations of behavioural compliance for the songwriter.

Our stories are fundamentally different. I was cast as the protagonist, he the repentant villain. My web was a transitory home, his a trap. What would he have to do in order to escape from that web? What would he need to do to be given the freedom to write his own story?

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