What was not written then, must be written now. The prison, the Kilmainham Gaol, it presses in upon every one of the senses. The bygone holding place for Ireland’s most seditious rebels, you walk their last steps to that little black cross, “x” marks the most final spot. Traces tell history: prison graffiti, bullet holes, and space itself whisper of colonial hierarchy and nationalist rage. The weight of what was presses upon every nerve and tugs at the core of your being. For all its impress, Kilmainham does not suffocate: it attunes, disciplines, positions, and otherwise bears upon the body. Moving freely through a space of incarceration creates dissonance on the level of sheer anomaly, but the way one must move through the walls of Kilmainham also offers a path through a condensed history of penal transformation.
Past the guillotine, through dank bowels of stone internments, and into the newest wing of the prison where it was bright, warm, and dry. The colors of the room were unexpectedly soft, like peaches, pine needles, and sand. In its heyday, too, the Victorian center of the Kilmainham would have met such terms. The kitchens below would have heated the convicts above, and the sweeping skylight would have allowed whatever Irish sun that existed to stream into this main hall. The unexpected pleasantries of the room – in contrast to the stony places of foreboding that precede it – reflect the fruition of what Foucault (1975) described as, “a new age for penal justice” (Foucault 1975:7). Kilmainham, a prison whose making and breaking coincided with the formation and dissolution of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland, was a laboratory for penology.
It was the late nineteenth century during which a shift took place away from torture and the spectacle of public execution, to more subtle forms of retribution. “Another form of punishment was needed: the physical confrontation between the sovereign and the condemned man must end” (Foucault 1975:73). It had to end, that is, because punishment in the form of torture exposed the tyranny of absolute sovereignty, and the blood on the sovereign’s hands shone in such a way that destabilized presumed moral hierarchies. It was an illegitimate show of power (Foucault 1975:74). The doctrinaire penal regimes of the torture era also involved exile, which in Kilmainham, meant that upward of 4000 prisoners were transported to convict colonies in Australia (Office of Public Works, 2016).
The shift focused on the reorganization of the relationship of power to the body. According to Foucault (1975) the body ceased to be the object of punishment per se, and instead became a means by which to discipline the soul. The body as such stays central, even if it is not being tortured. With discipline, there is the emergence of “methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility” (Foucault 1975:137). The operational term, here, is “utility.” Utility as an imperative to make the body efficient, practical. To reorganize a body implies whole new ways of knowing bodies, which implies novel methods of surveillance, which Foucault (1975) described as panoptic.
The airy chamber that I found myself in during the summer of 2016 was, in a word, panoptic. It is an auditorium-like room, where the stage is a series of cells with little windows to peer into; a grim shadow theatre. It is built so that the authoritarian and normalizing gaze is internalized. The effect of constant surveillance is created without the tedium of actually having to inspect. “They are like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible,” writes Foucault. “It reverses the principle of the dungeon … Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 1975:200).
At this point, we are beyond the prison. Kilmainham blurs with modern institutions of surveillance that would seek to pin down, expose, commandeer. Even at the time, part of the incentive to improve the surveillance and control of bodies, was the impact of new regimes of public health. The dungeon became a site of excessive risk because of the interplay between its impenetrability to the gaze of the powerful and the consequent intermingling of bodies and substances that created conditions of living that, like torture, undermined the pretense of good governance. Germs, disease, squalor, and overcrowding presented a newly articulated threat to delegitimize sovereign power.
The history of Kilmainham suggests that Foucault’s (1975) macro-history of the mutual constitution of the prison as the birth place of modern modes of surveillance and public health requires some stipulation. Mid-nineteenth century Ireland, was also the time of the Irish Famine. As such, in addition to housing high-profile political prisoners, its walls were filled with upwards of 9,000 innocuous vagabonds arrested under the Vagrancy Act of 1847. While many of such prisoners eventually succumbed to the disease-ridden overcrowded conditions, for others, the Gaol provided a meagre but reliable prison-diet (Office of Public Works, 2016). Meagerness of diet, however, was not just an effect of famine, but a disciplinary technology.
While testifying to the 1848 Royal Commission on Prisons in Ireland, C.S. Parrell noted this technique of deprivation and voiced his uneasiness. He stated: “One thing that struck me in Kilmainham was the semi-starved aspect which all the convicted prisoners presented. They seemed to be utterly dejected and weak, and unable to undergo any amount of physical fatigue … I do not think that we are entitled to enfeeble the bodies of prisoners in order to reform their minds, or with a view of maintaining discipline amongst them.” Parrell’s discomfiture, however, was not taken up in institutional norms.
In meal dockets from the era, food is measured to the ounce for different classes of prisoners. Breakfast, dinner, and hospital allowances are not just measured but also meticulously documented and tracked over time. As Priestly (1985) describes it in Victorian Prions Lives, “food in the Victorian prison was weighed on scales as delicate as those of Justice herself” (Priestley 1985). Men and women were differentially provided for, and classes of different prisoners were considered as well, such as cooks or non-cooks. The categorical identarian lines along which food was differentially provided thus become stabilized as relevant and intelligible. The effect of disciplining food was, thus, not just of total control and reform, but also of the calcification of segments of the population in terms of a microphysics of consumptive entitlement and normative needs.
In later years, the interconnection of food and discipline became a site for rebellion in Northern Ireland during the years known as The Troubles. Lasting from the 1960s until the turn of the century, and often glossed as sectarian conflict, the Troubles began with Catholic minority campaigns for social justice against religious discrimination (Bartlett 2010:499-504). Northern Ireland was then and now part of the United Kingdom, while “southern” Ireland was not. This discrepancy in nationhood dates back to 1921, when, after two long years of guerilla insurgency by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a truce was declared with the British security forces that resulted in the Anglo-Irish treaty.
The treaty conferred dominion status on southern Ireland. The north, however, had already been partitioned from the south by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Per the treaty, was required to either opt in or out of this status. With the majority of the six countries enclosed within Northern Ireland’s new border being loyalist, Northern Ireland opted out of the treaty and remained a part of the United Kingdom. Violence continued in the north as paramilitaries used increasingly bloody tactics to try to force the British to withdraw from the North.
By 1981, Her Majesty's Prison Maze in the north was a primary site of incarceration for paramilitary prisoners of the Troubles who sought a single, independent republic of Ireland. More specifically, however, the hunger strike arose in response to the British government’s decision to remove Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners, which resulted in the insistence by authorities that IRA prisoners wear regular prison garb and conform with regular prison duties. The prisoners' refusal to do so resulted in the removal of standard allowances. Prisoners were consequently confined to their cells twenty-four hours a day.
Under such conditions, the roots of the hunger strikes took shape in 1978 with different though similarly embodied techniques of refusal; it was a “dirty strike.” Cells were covered in excrement and inmates refused to shower. The hunger strike of 1981 was second to that of 1980, and the political tactics of starvation used by both recalled even earlier uses of hunger strike by Irish republican prisoners of the early twentieth century, twelve of whom died. The strike began in March 1981 with Bobby Sands, and concluded in August 1981 after the death of Michael Devine (Bartlett 2010:523). The British government made no concessions in this time. Instead, Margaret Thatcher coolly announced to the House of Commons that the insurgents had chosen to end their own lives.
It would be simplistic to imagine the strike only failed. A common remark is that, those who protested, “radicalized” Irish nationalist politics. Indeed, nearly a hundred thousand people followed the coffin of Bobby Sands to its final resting place in Belfast. As Bartlett (2010) points out: “Undoubtedly, the IRA had won a major propaganda victory: ‘thugs,’ ‘hoodlums’ and ‘criminals’ – the normal nomenclature for the Provos – did not usually starve themselves to death in order to secure the right to wear their own clothes … At the very least, the hunger-strikers had emphatically proved that they were no ordinary convicts” (Bartlett 2010:525). By the time I arrived in Belfast in 2011, there were both murals to Bobby Sands and his fellow strikers, as well as a booming tourist industry to learn their story through “Black Taxi Tours,” i.e., tour guide services often run by former insurgents.
Recall: Foucault (1977) distinguished disciplinary control of the body from other forms of controlling bodily practice. Disciplinarity is specifically geared toward utility and efficiency, while its primary other, asceticism, “functioned to obtain renunciations rather than increases of utility” (Foucault 1977:137). With the hunger strikes of the HM Prison Maze, there was an incorporation and subsumption of disciplinary regimes toward a mode of politicized asceticism. A radical pacification of the body was enacted in a way that created an imbalance between self and system, which once again cast new light on the excess of sovereign powers. That history repeats itself is not a coincidence but a testimony to structural forms of recollection. As politico-ethical technology of resistance, the hunger strike exists within a long lineage of the fast in Ireland. Going back to legends of St. Patrick, fasting in Irish folklore has been said to be used to comment upon and cause dishonor to an offender. Resonance across time but also across place: the hunger strike was also a technique common to colonial and postcolonial milieus, most notably mobilized by M.K. Gandhi.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977) did not consider the significance of the changes in penology as simply being located within the prison. Rather, he was describing a new modus operandi in society and large. In an era when surveillance has perhaps never been a more ubiquitous fact of life, the subsumption and inversion of disciplinary norms for protest is highly relevant. What might it look like, what might it mean to turn surveillance on its head?