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Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State

Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State

by Stephen Dillon

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During the 1970s in the United States, hundreds of feminist, queer, and antiracist activists were imprisoned or became fugitives as they fought the changing contours of U.S. imperialism, global capitalism, and a repressive racial state. In Fugitive Life Stephen Dillon examines these activists' communiqués, films, memoirs, prison writing, and poetry to highlight the centrality of gender and sexuality to a mode of racialized power called the neoliberal-carceral state. Drawing on writings by Angela Davis, the George Jackson Brigade, Assata Shakur, the Weather Underground, and others, Dillon shows how these activists were among the first to theorize and make visible the links between conservative "law and order" rhetoric, free market ideology, incarceration, sexism, and the continued legacies of slavery. Dillon theorizes these prisoners and fugitives as queer figures who occupied a unique position from which to highlight how neoliberalism depended upon racialized mass incarceration. In so doing, he articulates a vision of fugitive freedom in which the work of these activists becomes foundational to undoing the reign of the neoliberal-carceral state.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370826
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/08/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Stephen Dillon is Assistant Professor of Critical Race and Queer Studies in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College.

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Shock waves, light waves through earth and air moving us all into one time This time. Our time.


In October 1967 Richard Nixon published an article in Reader's Digest titled "What Has Happened to America?" In the article, Nixon lamented that just a few years earlier the "nation seemed to be completing its greatest decade of racial progress" and was "entering one of the most hopeful periods in American History." Yet the progress of the early 1960s dissolved into a "blazing inferno" of "urban anarchy" where "snipers," "looters," and "arsonists" led an "armed insurrection" that exceeded the disciplinary capacities of the police. Nixon did not see the urban uprisings of the late 1960s as symptomatic of "the deep racial division between Negro and white." Instead, they were the omen of a culture that no longer respected authority and the rule of law. The warning signs of this disrespect for law and order were embedded in the weakness of lenient judges, "opinion makers" who blamed society for crime and not the criminal, and, most critically, in the actions of those "who defy the law in the pursuit of civil rights." Nixon argued that the right to protest outside the limits of the law should not exist because "in a civilized nation no man can excuse his crime against the person or property of another by claiming that he, too, has been a victim of injustice." For Nixon, antiracist and anti-imperialist activism threatened the most basic and "primary civil right" of all Americans: the right to be free from "domestic violence."

Central to Nixon's campaign of law and order was a discourse about the relationship between time and violence. He argued, "We cannot have patience with urban violence. Immediate and decisive force must be the first response. For there can be no progress unless there is an end to violence and unless there is respect for the rule of law." The violence of the period's liberation movements threatened to unravel the progress of time's passage so that freedom, the social order, and the nation itself would be propelled backward into the barbarity of lawlessness or destroyed altogether. By contrasting the "immediate and decisive force" of the state to "urban violence," Nixon rendered state violence invisible, making it the precondition for the progress of time and the nation. Revolutionary violence stopped time, while state violence allowed progress to unravel a future filled with freedom, security, and peace. This representation of temporality and its connection to police and the prison would be central to remaking the racial state in the post–civil rights era. Most profoundly the progress of time was conceptualized as a form of security in and of itself; if time stopped or changed direction, the nation's order and integrity would disintegrate. In his 1968 speeches and campaign ads Nixon made clear that foundational to the nation's future was the stability of white supremacy and the order of heteropatriarchy. Radical protest and revolutionary violence were thus positioned by Nixon and others as a temporal force that would queer the nation's future, derailing the nation's progress to an unnamed place that haunted the present. Within the vision of law and order, police and prisons would protect time's steady march forward and thus would secure the nation and its future. The future was described as a space of safety and security in order to maintain the violence of the present and to temper the rage of those who refused to wait for the future's warm embrace to arrive. Nixon argued in more than seventy speeches during his 1968 campaign that law and order was the solution to the crises of state and capital brought on by the 1960s social movements: law and order would undo the ruin of Western time. In short, progress and the future needed the security, rule, and order of police and prisons.

This chapter explores different conceptions of the relationships among time, race, queerness, and violence. As outlined in the introduction, I understand queerness to be a nonidentitarian force that can be produced by dominant and subversive formations. In other words, the racial state can produce populations, spaces, and temporalities as queer. Insurgent formations can also produce forms of queerness that disrupt the biopolitical and necropolitical operations of the neoliberal-carceral state. By analyzing multiple and contrasting queer temporalities I examine two contrasting visions of how neoliberalism and the prison were connected to time and the future: I analyze the rhetoric of late 1960s law-and-order politicians and the epistemologies of 1970s underground revolutionaries. Specifically I examine how a discourse about time and the future was used by proponents of law and order to suture the freedom of the market to the incapacitation of the prison. In addition, I explore how underground revolutionary activists named this process through a queer engagement with temporality. Throughout the chapter I analyze what I term the "temporality of violence." As I document, racialized and gendered forms of state violence undo homogeneous conceptions of time. When one centers racialized and gendered violence in a theory of history, time does not flow evenly, progressing into a better or unknown future. Instead, violence can slow time, reverse it, loop it, make it stop or rush by in a moment of terror; it can also make it disappear forever. And if the future is ossified by the stability of the present, one can also see, know, and feel the future before it arrives. The 1970s writings of imprisoned radicals and underground revolutionaries can be understood as feminist and queer responses to the temporality of progress that supported law and order. The political fugitive haunted the law-and-order state with the threat of queer ways of being, thinking, and living that were outside the normative systems of sexuality, white supremacy, gender, family, and nation. She also lived outside the ways the racial state attempted to order temporality. I contrast these revolutionary visions to the dreams of people, like Nixon, who understood the prison and the market as foundational to the security and normative order of the nation and its future. Indeed, for Nixon and others the very possibility of a future depended on the immobilization of those rendered surplus or resistant to new economic regimes structured around privatization, deindustrialization, deregulation, and financialization. In other words, embedded in the emergent discourses of the neoliberal-carceral state was a vision of the future, one wherein the freedom of individuality and the market required the mass immobilization of the prison. By contrasting statist and underground forms of knowledge about the prison and market, I argue that underground activists produced a theory of time and history that understood law and order as a way for the prison and market to colonize the future.

The Future of the Neoliberal-Carceral State

To read the work of early neoliberal thinkers and the speeches of law-and-order politicians is to confront the utopic dreams of the dominant. In the visions of many economic and political leaders of the mid-twentieth century the prison would usher in a post–civil rights utopia aimed at producing the safety and security of white life, while neoliberalism would inaugurate a "utopia of endless exploitation." The power of the market and the prison would accumulate with time's movement to determine and capture the future. As Pierre Bourdieu argues, neoliberalism relies on a "utopic vision" of the world wherein the abstract rationality of the market is pure, perfect, and always "implacably unrolling the logic of predictable consequences." Similarly, David Harvey posits that neoliberalism operates at two levels: the theoretical and the material. Neoliberalism's theoretical vision is a "utopian project" aimed at reorganizing global capitalism in order to liberate the accumulation of capital from any and all constraint. Inherent in this theoretical utopianism is the flourishing of freedom, choice, and individuality. In contrast, neoliberalism's material project is to restore power to the "economic elite." According to Harvey, the utopianism of neoliberalism works to obscure the violence, force, and exploitation of its materialist politics. Neoliberalism's utopic futurity is an epistemological diversion from the violence of its materialist politics. We can place the utopianism of neoliberalism within the utopic politics of the modern state more broadly. The modern state's utopian aim is to reduce the disorderly, chaotic, always changing social order under its purview into a mirror of the administrative knowledge central to its observations and governance. The state works to produce temporal and spatial intelligibility with the goal of manufacturing the orderly administration and regulation of the nation's population, resources, and infrastructure. By disrupting and dismantling spaces, populations, and epistemologies that are illegible to its regimes of knowing and governance, the modern state creates a utopia of visibility and legibility that is open to policing and control.

Law and order was an insurgent mode of state building that attempted to dismantle and eradicate people, spaces, and forms of knowledge that exceeded or challenged the future of the post–civil rights state. I call law and order "state insurgency" to name the way the state deploys legal and extralegal violence in order to remake itself in spectacular moments of crisis like 1968. I also understand the state to be in a constant state of insurgency against forms of life that contest or exceed its order and operations. The power of the racial state is not static or given; the naturalness of its power must be made and remade in the mundane as well as the spectacular. Throughout this chapter and others I pay particular attention to the soft, quiet, mundane manifestations of this ongoing insurgency against alternative ways of living, being, and relating, through which the racial state created space for the construction of a "neoliberal utopia." The fugitive and the underground threatened this utopic future and were subsequently targeted for disruption, incarceration, exile, and eradication. One genealogy of the utopic fantasies of neoliberalism lies in the politics of law and order.

While many scholars have turned to the politics of law and order in the 1960s and 1970s to better understand the rise of the carceral state, I want to consider the connections between law and order and an ascendant neoliberalism. In what follows, I connect neoliberalism and law and order by noting the ways that law and order produced the freedom of the individual and the market through discourses and practices of racialized imprisonment and policing. I argue that the politics of law and order connected the regulatory freedom of individuality to the freedom of the market and the incapacitation and death of new policing and penal technologies. Neoliberal discourses of individualism, freedom, and choice emerged, in part, out of the discourses used to justify the expansion of the prison. And the discourses used to justify the intensification of incarceration were also discourses about time's progressive unfolding into the future. In this way, the prison and neoliberalism collude at the level of the population and body but also at the level of discourse, temporality, and affect. We can witness this relationship in the ways Nixon and Goldwater connected the prison to the freedom of the market and the individual (what we might think of as a proto-neoliberal subject). Race and white supremacy were central to this process. For example, in Goldwater's 1964 acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination, we can see an early connection between the liberation of the individual and the need to contain the insurgent and fugitive black body:

We must, and we shall, set the tide running again in the cause of freedom. ... Freedom balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the slavery of the prison cell; [freedom] balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle. ... The growing menace in our country tonight, to personal safety, to life, to limb and property ... particularly in our great cities, is the mounting concern. ... Security from domestic violence ... is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government.

Goldwater ended his speech by speaking of the future: "In our vision of a good and decent future, free and peaceful, there must be room, room for the liberation of the energy and the talent of the individual, otherwise our vision is blind at the outset."

Goldwater spoke at the precipice of the rise of a variety of social movements that, as Business Week put it in 1968, were going to crumble the social and economic order. Like Nixon four years later, Goldwater argued that there must be a countermobilization by the state against this threat if the individual was to be free. Personal freedom would require the unfreedom of the carceral state and its attendant methods of policing and security. Critically, this vision was a racial project of undoing antiracist liberatory movements in order to clear space for the (white) individual. Dylan Rodríguez has argued that law and order was a project of "white liberation" against U.S.-based, third world, black, and indigenous liberation movements and their accompanying urban insurrections. It was not only the deployment of carceral violence that was deeply racialized, but also the attendant use of individuality.

Within the Western liberal imagination individuality is the constitutive sign of civilization, while "the mob" signifies a condition of barbarism, degeneracy, sexual excessiveness, lawlessness, and blackness. The individual is governed by choice, autonomy, reason, democracy, and consent, while the mob is ruled by violence, culture, religion, intolerance, and immorality. In Goldwater's speech, individuality and the freedom of the market are the raisons d'être for an unprecedented expansion of the prison system. Many scholars have observed that individuality is foundational to neoliberalism and is constructed as arising from the governance of the market. As Stuart Hall observes, "However, anachronistic it may seem, neo-liberalism is grounded in the idea of the 'free, possessive individual.' It sees the state as tyrannical and oppressive. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth." Or as Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, "There is no such thing as society. ... There is only the individual and his family." The processes of deregulation, deindustrialization, and privatization beginning in the 1970s required the production of an "exhaustively rational" subject whose value was measured by a capacity for self-care and personal responsibility. Neoliberalism produces a subject who is regulated by a strict adherence to individuality. Individuality is marked as the sign of freedom, choice, and power, but the neoliberal subject is open to regulation, governance, and domination through the freedom it is offered and avows. The neoliberal subject is at once required to make its own life and is always already regulated in this making. This is what biopower and discipline realize together and what neoliberal governmentality achieves beginning in the 1970s. Thus, the power of neoliberalism appears not just in moments of spectacular repression or brutality. The invitation of inclusion or the warm embrace of recognition, freedom, and choice are also technologies of power's subjection. That is to say, power may feel like a fist or a bullet — it might be shocking or dull, numbing or terrifying — but it will also feel soft, loving, affirming, or like the exhilaration of freedom and liberation. Power wraps the subject in its embrace, "intensifying areas, and electrifying surfaces." It does more than discipline or torture the body in order to reproduce its capacities: it titillates and seduces, it caresses the body, it sets one free, it says yes, and it asks for more. Neoliberalism seduces the subject with promises of uninhibited freedom and choice, even as the seduction is performed in the name of management and regulation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. "Escape-Bound Captives": Race, Neoliberalism, and the Force of Queerness  1
1. "We're Not Hiding but We're Invisible": Law and Order, the Temporality of Violence, and the Queer Fugitive  27
2. Life Escapes: Neoliberal Economics, the Underground, and Fugitive Freedom  54
3. Possessed by Death: Black Feminism, Queer Temporality, and the Afterlife of Slavery  84
4. "Only the Sun Will Bleach His Bones Quicker": Desire, Police Terror, and the Affect of Queer Feminist Futures  119
Conclusion. "Being Captured Is Beside the Point": A World beyond the World  143
Notes  155
Bibliography  171
Index  185

What People are Saying About This

Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law - Dean Spade

“In this beautifully written work, Stephen Dillon brings together a variety of threads from the literatures on prisons, feminisms, and queer studies to make novel arguments about fugitivity, neoliberalism, and carcerality. His engagement with poetry, accounts of underground activists, and the other highly charismatic materials he works with will be gripping for students as they read through this compelling entry point into the book's topics. Fugitive Life is a wonderful contribution.”

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity - Sarah Haley

“In Fugitive Life, fugitive women of color emerge as feminist thinkers who expose the inherent carcerality of neoliberalism. This groundbreaking intervention in carceral studies, gender studies, American studies, and literary studies offers deep interrogations of queerness and temporality and an extraordinary model for analyzing the dialectics of freedom and repression. Stephen Dillon provides a dramatic contribution that will reshape urgent debates regarding carceral crisis, influencing future scholarship and activism.”

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