Last Stop of the Academy: Teaching Gender in the Men’s Prison by Jane Chin Davidson and Shreerekha Subramanian

The American penal system is perhaps the world’s greatest example of neoliberal reform wherein prisoners’ access to university education is posited as the means to transform  “criminal” into “citizen.”  As female professors teaching all-male students in a particular MA Humanities course in the Texas state penitentiary, we have the opportunity to address the problematic assumptions that relate to the “authentic” work of a reconstituted materialist feminism – our project adopts an empirical strategy for teaching issues of gender, “race” and relations of power, which complicates the question of the materialist “real” in the context of the academy and the prison. This particular prison institution in Texas was built upon the oldest cotton plantation in the state, emphasizing an American system of punishment that appears to pick up where slavery left off.  Feminist activists such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have advocated against the prison industrial complex based on the growing understanding that the prison is an institution of sexual and racial injustice. Davis looks to communal and educational remedies outside state rehabilitation, a solution that would seem compatible to her role as a university professor.  However, as Davis is aware, the academic system can itself be viewed as another type of industrial complex.  In the current budgetary crises for higher education, business and occupational fields of study become the “useful” educational investments since they can prove their monetary worth.  The subsequent erosion of fields such as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and the humanities in general renders impotent the idea that the university’s imperative is to generate dynamic cultural consciousness.

Feminist institutional critiques of both the prison and the university were based on the analysis of structures of state apparatuses, managing the “raced” subject as much as the sexed subject.  Early feminist goals for challenging the academic system were invested in creating equal opportunities for women and minorities in order to affect “real” work and life conditions of disempowered groups.  Admittedly, these are still the motivations that lead some of us to teach – we are the ones who received the opportunities because of feminist/civil rights activism.  And as teaching partners at the Texas prison, we believe unapologetically in the radicalism of a teaching practice that impacts the “production and reproduction of real life.”  But reiteration of this statement now appears naïve in respect to the complexity of understanding “real” conditions and relations of power. It is equally naïve to focus solely on the position of the teacher as the only problematic in theorizing material realities of subalternity in the so-called first world.

Thus, amidst transitions in feminist activism, we find ourselves located at once in the feminist past and present, putting to the test old and new materialisms for an affective ideological pedagogy.  Our role as two female professors teaching male prisoners does not exactly fulfill the old feminist activism, defined by Martha Nussbaum as intervening on behalf of “woman” as a class of the socially oppressed.  The prime examples of constituents of this class are the battered, raped or homeless women who are the ostensible victims of those who are incarcerated.  How are we feminist activists if we are giving opportunity to male perpetrators?  Nussbaum’s old materialist representation of “woman” as the “feminized wounded state” has come to seem outdated, and her excoriation of Judith Butler’s new model of feminist advocacy appears at odds with today’s anti-essentialist views of “woman.” Robyn Wiegman concludes that “Nussbaum produces ‘old feminism’ as the authentic and authenticating project of social transformation,” and thereby reclaims the “very notion of the liberal humanist subject” configured from the utopia of the “university as a public political institution in its own right (p.119). In this way, Nussbaum rejects the new feminist anti-institutionalism and clings to old feminist alliances, seen now as colluding with the structures and (white) privileges of the state.  In contrast, Davis and Gilmore’s  feminist critique of the neoliberal structure of the prison does not exactly support the penal system as a judicial solution for women. (Duly noted, however, neither does it address the continuing problem of women as victims in patriarchal cultures of male violence.) Rather, Davis’s objective is specific as she argues that the prisoner today is constituted by the “persistent power of racism,” in which ‘criminals’ and ‘evildoers’ are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color.  The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers”(Davis, 2008,16).

Davis’s work in disclosing the prison’s neoliberal aims marks the transition away from old feminism’s reliance on the legal institution, one that Wendy Brown problematizes because it rarely recognizes, addresses or regulates “the injuries of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty”(88). Davis and Brown provide a starting point for a new femininist-materialist critique of neo-liberalism. Following the neoliberal mythology of a democratically equal and just legal system, Nussbaum’s re-instantiation of the victimized “woman” supports the ideological premise for abstracting the prison population – in the collective unconscious, the evildoer is identified as the violent nonwhite male as exemplified by the typecasting of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin by the five white female jurors who acquitted his killer George Zimmerman. In addition, the continuing “search and seizure” policies that have been enforced for decades as part of police training continue to target African and Latino Americans, and Carbado, Devon Carbado, Cheryl I. Harris, and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw asserted recently, the policies “expose African-Americans and Latinos to surveillance, harassment, violence – and death” (Carbado, Harris, and Crenshaw, 2013). In assigning a “criminal class,” the pressing issues that afflict communities are simply covered over by the woman-as-victim assessment.  Davis exposes the specific practices and particular histories determining the prison structure and its relations of power, which differ greatly from subscribing to old feminist formulations of the state apparatus that merely simplify the “cause and effect” of materialist reproduction.

Butler suggests that the reconceptualization of institutions in the “theoretical rearticulation of structure as hegemony” would “mark the shift from a form of Althusserian theory.” Rather than viewing “woman” as a victim of the structure of state apparatuses, the structure itself should be acknowledged as the source of patriarchal power. Contextualizing for the institutional present, Butler focuses instead on “contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power” and in the example of our own empirical study of teaching in Texas, the understanding of material conditions affecting relevant communities needs to be updated to acknowledge the contingent site of slavery and “race” that historically underlies the industrial complex. The structural complexity of these relations of power can be rearticulated through the “material real” of our own specific experience as institutional agents who negotiate a fraught relationship between the university and the prison (Butler, 13). As a form of embodiment of structural violence, the prison industrial complex is “an architecture of the philosophical system” that ensures its material operation (Foucault 1972).  Taking a cue from Ranajit Guha’s account of the prison memoirist (Guha 1977) who, shocked at the absence of a jail manual, the prison is a center that is run on memory.  In contrast, Texas prison education is heavily regulated, “by the book” so to speak, but we argue that the prison classroom is a space which remembers the historical order and liberal-bourgeois ideas of progress and redemption. This historical order, with its roots in slavery and the cotton plantation, perpetuates the logic of culture/capital regimes during the antebellum period for regulating the newly-enfranchise populations of African-Americans. Through convict leasing, lynchings, and other forms of retribution, the ongoing plantation system culminated in the disproportionate expansion of the prison industrial complex.  The tracing of the social order of the plantation-turned-prison and its exclusionary state policies contributes to Isabella Jinkings’ project linking “crime” with capital reproduction  (through reading Loïc Wacquant’s reading of Marx) (2009). It is necessary here, to consider not only the public funding and “budget” of the prison industrial complex, but the intimate psychosocial impact of incarceration on specific communities with its invisible impact on extended to family, friends, and community members. (Mullings 2004).  We argue moreover, that women prisoners are subjected to the harshest penalties of the prison.  They are excluded systematically from rights applied reluctantly to male inmates as they face double exploitation in the US prison complex.  The statistics are grim:  the United States is home to 5% of the world population but houses over 28% of its world prisoners.   In our classroom, conflicting “figures of oppression” converge at the intersection of the prison and the academy, the figures of those who are the ostensible victims and victimizers:  Asian “women” teachers and a student body of white male convicts.  Moreover, we are teaching the figure of oppression – the subaltern – as a subject of our humanities course.  This concept of the “figure” is the outcome of more recent investigations of feminist materialism, concerned with the structures of identity rather than thinking of sex and “race” as origins of identity.

We are of a generation that heeded Gayatri Spivak’s mantra “learning to learn” initiated as early as 1981 when she identified her own “female academic” path, describing an “upper-class young woman in the Calcutta of the fifties….[b]ecoming a professor of English in the U.S” in the “morphology of a feminist theoretical practice” (Spivak, 1981,p.155).  Spivak’s mode of acknowledgement resonates for us as individuals, two immigrants to the U.S. from China and India. Spivak’s 1992 article “Teaching for the Times” elucidates the self-conscious and conflicting terms on which we conduct a relationship with our students at the Texas penitentiary.  She had interrogated the well-meaning university teachers whose “instructions in otherness” posed a threat to the Eurocentric mainstream of literature, history and anthropology. In a kind of self-figuration, her subjective inquiry cited herself as both the teaching subject and the teaching object of the “other”: “Who speaks here? Who is the implied reader of this literature, the researcher of this history….For whose benefit is this knowledge being produced, so that he or she can have our otherness made palpable and comprehensive, without reducing it into an inferior version of their same….Shall we, today, be satisfied with the promise of liberal multiculturalism…with a now contrite universal humanism in the place of the same, and us being studied as examples of otherness?”(Spivak’s italics, 1992, p.6).

The strategy for teaching through the promise of Spivak’s “learning to learn” and “educating the educator” comes late to the Texas prison – especially embodying “otherness” as we are both representing the subjects and objects of China and India. Our course is one of a three-part series in which the first two sections comprise the European heritages of Classical and Modern art and literature, while the final third part assigned to us (as specialists in visual culture and comparative literature) engages a “non-Western” conclusion.  How are we to approach our given task in teaching “national origins”?  In our humanities teaching experiment, we introduce the construction of “woman” through Spivak’s subaltern and the construction of culture through Said’s orientalism, whilst introducing the “nonwestern subject,” the historical texts and images of the Siddharta/Boddhisattva/Buddha and Confucius’s Great Learning. These objects present a clear disjunction from ourselves as examples of “native informants” – we are not the ninth-century “native” to any degree. The Orientalist figuration, however, is always the preconceived identity of Asians who teach the “orient.”

The dilemma fits neatly into Spivak’s critique of the liberal multicultural classroom which aims to “identify with the richness of the texture of the ‘culture’ in question.” (Spivak, 1992, p.7)  Spivak was already questioning the structures of identity, suggesting that neo-liberalist culture and the “entire agency of capitalism” wants to claim and recode cultural identity through a teaching practice that creates sympathy and “the feeling of same difference among the various national origins.…. People from other national origins in the classroom (other, that is, than Anglo) relate sympathetically but superficially, in an aura of same difference.  The Anglo relates benevolently to everything, ‘knowing about other cultures’ in a relativist glow” (Spivak, 1992, p.7).  This invented sense of unity (related to assimilation) plays a critical role in the recoding of capitalism to signify democracy; but most importantly, the belief in the “origins” rather than the structures of identity perpetuates the orientalist mythology that we seek to deconstruct.  As teacher and cultural other, the performance of identity disrupts the relativist tendency since our position as “raced” subjects delimits the assumptions of privilege, unity and authority. At the same time, our students who fill the role of the “criminal class-subject” recognize immediately their own “same difference” as another inherent form of unity.  The neoliberal recoding of competing stereotypes would require a sovereign/supremacist subject, which does not appear in our classroom.

The population of our particular class, made up of predominantly Anglo and Hispanic students, is determined by the criteria in which only “model-prisoners” who have the resources to pay tuition can enroll in the course. The U.S. prison population overall consists of seventy percent non-whites, and in the Texas penitentiary system, the population is 36.2 per cent Black, 31 per cent White and  32.3 per cent Hispanic  (TDCJ Fiscal Report, 2010, p.8). The tendency to apply a “relativist” practice informs the engagement of difference between the Anglo and Hispanic in response to our China/India subjects. The sole African-American student, however, did not initially engage “in an aura of same difference” but chose an overly-respectful silence when asked to speak.  Should this be viewed as a superficial sympathy to the non-Western subject?  Maybe, but this lone African American represents a racial embodiment of the hierarchies of the Texas prison that are specific and historical – the status of the Anglo in a majority non-white population reflects a particular disciplinary order established for the African American.  Exploitation was a sanctioned practice in the history of an institution built on antebellum slavery and the law of the plantation. How much of this system was inherited and passed on to the prison industrial complex?   The thirteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares an exception to the abolition of slavery by its use for punishment of a crime.  Thus, in regards to the African American prisoner, what are the differences between convict leasing and slavery, between corporal punishment and lynching?

An update on recent scholarship on the US penal system is important for emphasizing the persisting structural links between the institution of “Slavery” and the contemporary prison-industrial complex.   Robert Perkinson’s  historicist study is exhaustive as he synthesizes archival material spanning the late 19th to early 21st centuries. He draws attention to corrective practices that oscillate between punitive-retributive and reformatory modalities in their establishment of prison normalization.  Perkinson provides a striking instance of resistance to systemic injustice toward prisoners in a fragmentary biography of Lula Sanders, a female African-American convict who was released from a Texas penitentiary in 1907 after three years of incarceration. Although prison records marked her as illiterate, Sanders was able to collect stories of the torture and punishment meted out to inmates.  She also  researched laws and regulations that jailors were supposedly subject to and compiled these into a letter that she sent to the governor.  Though political opportunism prevailed, Sanders succeeded, nevertheless, in mobilizing press, church and legislature by openly defying norms of submission and silence that were imposed on former convicts.

While Perkinson collates and analyzes two centuries of systemic injustice, Blackmon deploys a different approach through an intense focus on the impossibility of recovering the voice and subjectivity of Green Cottenham, a black man arrested for vagrancy and leased to work in one of Birmingham’s most productive mines.  Blackmon’s conclusion addresses the enduring questions initiated by historiographers of the South Asia and the British Empire in their early contributions to Subaltern Studies.  Demonstrating the effacement and erasure of subjectivity in the state’s archive, Blackmon avers, “the absence of his [Cottenham] voice rests at the center of this book” (10).  Through a sensitive approach to history, Blackmon names the logic of incarceration (accumulation of a labor reserve without rights) as Slavery by Another Name.  Blackmon corroborates Michelle Alexander’s recent argument that the principle of racial-caste at the foundation of today’s state-of-art US prison-industrial complex should be called what it is: the new Jim Crow. Dissident scholarship espousing liberal-humanist principles abound, and while we have argued for acknowledging the limits of a critique/ dissent that fails to address the inherent power structure, these works were nonetheless effective in provoking constructive debate and argument in our classroom.

The study of the woman prisoner reveals even more dire circumstances for the lowest subject in the prison hierarchy.   Ex-female convict Piper Kerman’s recent activist project brought to light  the plight of women inmates in Danbury, Connectictut who might be relocated to a distant facility in Alabama in order to ease over-crowding in men’s prisons.  Instead of imprisoning women in concrete cement and wire structures, Kerman suggests a more flexible surveillance of female convicts from home, thus allowing them to stay with family and children through a newly proposed program:  Justice Home is one of a host of prison activism and advocacy programs that she supports, including Women’s Prison Association, Nation Inside, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. We are writing in a key moment in the American public sphere when the activism toward change in the criminal justice system is not the sole vanguard of poets, intellectuals and academics but a movement that has gained ground and built solidarity across borders enough so that attorney general Eric Holder has conceded that it is time to reduce our bloated prison population, noted by ACLU deputy legal director in her op-ed in the NY Times, Vanita Gupta (2013).

In returning to our classroom, the male-inmate-criminal in our course is now the implied reader, researcher, beneficiary of the knowledge being produced as he gains fluency in multiple subject-positions. This includes the figure of the subaltern in contrast to the female power of Draupadi, the polyandrous queen of Sankritic antiquity.  Draupadi is often read as the mascot of feminist subjectivity as she sets the terms of war, argues points of fine legal complexities with kings and warriors, and then defeats them in intellectual debate. Within the prison, the men’s world is fraught with hierarchies based on conflicted masculine and feminine identifications. Thus, in our reading of Spivak’s 1981 translation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story, “Draupadi,” the opportunity to discuss gender and violence is made by Devi’s rewriting of the indigenous subaltern woman, “Dopdi,” the figure who refuses to clothe herself after being gang-raped by the police who arrest her. Dopdi’s famous opposition was when she looks at the officer in the face and retorts, “come on, counter me – ? (402).” Every prisoner knows what it is like to be a “girl” to survive in the prison system and what it means to stay silent. Dopdi’s “counter” is a challenge that every prisoner wants to make with prison authority. And the fact that several students considered themselves represented in the figure of the subaltern appears to follow the tradition of Antonio Gramsci, who first used the term in the context of political hegemony in his Prison Notebooks.  Within the framework of citizenship rather than class, it is possible  to think of the Texan male prisoner as inhabiting Gramsci’s position of subalternity recoded as a permanent condition of non-arrival or non-becoming.

What do we make of the white male prisoner who identifies with Spivak’s definition of the subaltern as the “third-world, brown, global south, woman”?  Is he simply appropriating the victim status, adopting the “feminized wounded state”?  Or, is this form of  figuration, an effective means to rearticulate the construction of gender in a way that foregrounds relations of power?  Spivak’s question – “Can the Subaltern Speak” – would forever connect this figure who exists “in the pores of capitalism” to the voicelessness of the non-speaking subject.  In this way, the silence of our sole African American student shares an uneasy affinity with the status of the illiterate woman in India, described by Spivak as one who is unable to access the capitalist dynamics of the “free” man (although, all of us “are imprisoned by habituated capitalism”) (Spivak, 1992, p.16).   In the case of the African American student/prisoner/slave-place-holder, he complicates the meaning of the “sign” of subaltern “woman” and thus, potentially transcends the material signifier of gender.

For those of us who confront ideologies and practices of representation in our daily lives as well as in our research, the shift in feminist theorizing that is personally and politically meaningful is the focus on embodiment and subjectivity. We began our essay by reviewing the definition of “woman” according to the embodiment of the “victim class” that distinguished the feminist past and present of old and new materialisms. The institutional program of the university and the prison exemplifies the neoliberal solution in which the criminal-as-student is transformed from his embodied status as the non-white male offender. It quickly and repeatedly became evident to us that no “rescue” is possible. (Between us teaching partners, however, we argue vehemently about the meaning of the “criminal” title and the effective role of prisons as deterrents of continuing and incessant violence against women.)

For us, this teaching journey has involved trials of honesty; we face our own fears that involve notions about violent offenders placed alongside the actual reality of men in prison. The inmate is represented by those who have been indicted for a diversity of crimes from murder, rape, child molestation, hate crimes and repeat drug-related offenses to those who are innocent, “offenders” on the long journey of self-recognition, growth, and intellectual awareness (including self-reflexive students of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).  It has been eye-opening to see the sophistication with which our students in prison understand multiple narratives of Draupadi as they read the text through a complex temporal and spatial analysis – they read antiquity and modernity through a disrupted rather than linear comprehension as they relate these concepts to their own lives in a true manifestation of the humanities curriculum. The cultural critique that we teach provokes radical responses in the classroom: a walk through the monumental landscape paintings of the Song dynasty, the exegetical writings of Buddha on suffering and the soul, literary constellations of Draupadi, all these impress and transform the knowledge of resistance. It will not be an exaggeration to say we have encountered our most serious and thoughtful humanities students in the prison-classroom, students who practice Spivak’s approach of learning to learn and learning from below. For us, witnessing the extraordinary dedication of these students who labor to understand each and every sentence of dense reading materials with theoretical precision and creative insight convinces us that the last stop of the academy is a destination where the teacher is taught – more so when we consider that the students do not presume to translate their learning into a methodology of neocapitalism.  The integrity of their practice presents a strong argument for the transformative potential of a humanities education in times when these disciplines are under pressure to conform to dictates of market capitalism.

In conclusion, our negotiation of identity, representation, and figuration in the classroom emerges from the effort to maintain a sense of self-empowerment for all involved. In our working relationship, the aim is to focus solely on teacher-student roles to render implausible neoliberal mythologies of agency, victimhood, and reformation.  Nonetheless, the figuration of oppression and the diverse representations of oppression are the central subjects of our classroom study. This is the tightrope that we traverse in embodying the subject without personally identifying with it – our success is contingent on our ability to complete the epistemological mission that upholds our status as professors and graduate students.

The body and the embodiment of the subject has become the “key term in the feminist struggle for the redefinition of subjectivity” as Rosi Braidotti explains on behalf of feminist philosophers who understand it as “neither a biological nor a sociological category, but rather as a point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic and the material social conditions.” (Braidotti, 2003, p.44).  Defining through an ontological materialism, we teach the subject which the prisoner knows himself to be embodying: one who is from the oppressed class as a condition of the prison (rather than as the presumed-to-be criminal oppressor).  As an example of Braidotti’s “specific brand of situated epistemology,” identification of the prisoner through the “practice of the politics of location” reveals the way in which figuration and representation are always shifting, depending on the position and place of the subject (Braidotti, p.11). The subject is an ever-changing entity, a work in the process of “becoming,” which is a metaphysical conception adapted from Gilles Deleuze’s theory of the molecular. The new model of “woman” for feminist materialism defies established forms of representing gender, especially Nussbaum’s figure of the victim class.  The uneasy figuration of the Gramscian political “criminal” helps us to understand that resistance to the neo-liberal aims of the prison institution will not follow a clear coalitionist path because of the contingent nature of representation.  Instead, the “real” work of material feminism lies in the potential to rearticulate institutional violence through accepting fraught but interconnected relationships that are forged among embodied subjects who are students of their own oppression.

We wish to thank Robyn Wiegman for reading this essay and providing her important comments.


Works Cited

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Statistical Report Fiscal Year 2010.  Texas Department of Criminal Justice.                                      

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