Becoming Fugitive: Carceral Space and Rancierean Politics
Still image from Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a similar shot to the opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
A few weeks ago architect and editor Léopold Lambert asked me to contribute a post to his site The Funambulist, of which I’ve always been a great admirer. I knew I wanted to write on space and police regimes, but it was the experience of reading Rancière’s work in a brief but intense period (and discussing it with others in a brief but intense period) that helped me articulate some gestational ideas. An alternate short title for this piece would be ‘From Carey Grant to Oscar Grant’ (a bittersweet coincidence of homonyms). I am cross-posting (with permission) below. The original post (which Léopold introduces with an evocative nod to Benjamin) can be found here.
The police regime is endowed with the power of ordering space. This text meets at the crossroads of space, policing, and visual perception, in terms of how I articulate a Rancierean aesthetic dimension of the political and political dimension of the aesthetic. Jacques Rancière is a useful and rich source for this tripartite investigation because in the course of his writings, aesthetics is not only about art, and politics is not only about the state. Politics, as laid out in Disagreement, is that which always takes a stage and takes a theatrical formation, putting ‘two worlds in one world.’ This staging often overturns sense-making at the level of language alone, relying also on microlevels of sensation and sense-making (we inherited the word ‘aesthetic’ from the Greek aisthēta ‘perceptible things’). In Dissensus, Rancière gives mention to artistic works that focus on matters of space, territories, borders, wastelands, and other transient spaces, matters ‘that are crucial to today’s issues of power and community.’ To provide a framework to the concern with visibility and emancipatory politics, my bifocal reading takes into account (1) the work of the police, seen in near vision, and (2) the work of politics, seen in distant vision.
Circulation and the Sensible
I deliberately choose the word fugitive in the title but it would also be appropriate to say ‘outlaw.’ In modern usage, an outlaw is someone who has broken the law and remains at large—a fugitive of the law who flees the scene of crime. Historically speaking an outlaw is someone deprived of the benefit and protection of the law, since the state can choose to ban a product or a person from its protection (e.g. outlawing a drug, an outlawed terrorist group). If you traced the notion of security (sine cura or without care—you are without care for yourself because the police or state care for you) from Plato to Seneca to Machiavelli to Benjamin and so on, it would disclose someone both deprived of the state’s care as well as someone who trespasses the legal system.
There’s also a sense of degradation that is coterminous with this figure of a degraded outlaw in a degraded space (Rancière’s ‘wastelands and other transient spaces’) so far removed are both from genuine concern for collective action or citizenship. The loaded term “degradation” is derived from the Latin etymon de (down, away from) and gradus (step), commonly associated with a lowly or destitute state, or a decline in intellectual or moral integrity. But I am most concerned with the implicit movement involved in de-grading—going or wandering—and how this relates to Rancière’s use of circulation in the police order. In other words, outlaws run, they are almost defined by their movement—but Rancière might say that the movement and circulation of the space in which they run is already a circulatory lattice, or in the nightmares of Hollywood, a matrix.
Thesis 7: Politics stands in distinct opposition to the police. The police is a distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible) whose principle is the absence of the void and the supplement.
In this matching of functions, places and ways of being, there is no place for any void. It is this exclusion of what ‘is not’ that constitutes the police-principle at the core of statist practices. (Dissensus, 36)
In this law of distribution, the police divide up the sensible. (One might question Rancière—and I certainly would—about whether the absence of the void in this schema is as total as he claims.) It might sound clunky to restate it this way, but what is at stake is a division that defines the modes of perception in which it is inscribed. The spatial formation closest to this description and one I will pick up again shortly is the grid. What follows from this is an invocation of the void, with Rancière reminding us that the police regime disavows ruptures, seams, sutures, gaps because the police is a horizon or landscape of continual continuity. It hates cleavages or what Rancière calls bringing politics into being by separating it from the police.
We can return to the outlaw’s degradation of the law. Imagine that the law is a sensory fabric (Rancière: ‘fabric of the sensible’), and the fugitive has pulled a thread or left a hole, as we glimpse in this startling passage from Derrida’s ‘Force of Law’ essay:
The admiring fascination exerted on the people by “the figure of the ‘great’ criminal,” (die Gestalt des “grossen” Verbrechers), can be explained as follows: it is not someone who has committed this or that crime for which one feels a secret admiration; it is someone who, in defying the law, lays bare the violence of the legal system, the juridical order itself. One could explain in the same way the fascination exerted in France by a lawyer like Jacques Verges who defends the most difficult causes, the most indefensible in the eyes of the majority, by practicing what he calls the ‘strategy of rupture,’ that is, the radical contestation of the given order of the law, of judicial authority and ultimately of the legitimate authority of the State that summons his clients to appear before the law. (Bold emphasis is mine.)
Two observations here: the first is a proto-Rancierean notion of disidentification. You secretly admire the person who has disidentified themselves from the police regime or juridico-legal order or state. Second, in laying bare the sheer violence of this order and moving away from it (de-gradus), the grid or matrix that was there to begin with is revealed. To paraphrase both Rancière and the French litigator, becoming a fugitive involves disidentification and a strategy of rupture.
I think that Thesis 7 (the police) and Thesis 8 (politics) are sibling commentaries on the spacio-legal order so I have paired them here.
Thesis 8: The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to make the world of its subjects and its operations seen.
Police intervention marks itself not only in interpellating individuals (Althusser’s ‘Hey, you there!’) but something that appears so obvious we generally do not notice it at first: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’ From the perspective of visual studies one could add: We (the police) are the ones who can see, but you must keep your eyes forward and move along. Politics, in contrast, is involved in transforming the space of circulation into a space for the appearance of a subject, and making subjects (Rancière: ‘the people, the workers, the citizens’) appear. I pause to note it because this is not the commonsensical understanding of visibility. Politics involves the appearance of a claim or dispute over how the sensible is distributed while the police regime demands that you keep on moving, without the pensiveness necessary to make a claim.
Carceral Formation in Hitchock
I want to introduce some film stills and sequences within this discourse of the ordering of space in carceral formation, specifically the grid or lattice I mentioned earlier as a modular space that is already ordered.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the photographer and newly wheelchair-bound Jeffries (James Stewart) watches his Greenwich Village neighbors through a pair of binoculars. Significantly, his proxy in the film is Thomas J. Doyle, an old friend and co-pilot during Jeffries’ World War II days, now a lieutenant police detective. One object of Jeffries’ daily viewings is the songwriter he watches intently, framed by Hitchcock in a gridded window.
In fact, one need not look very far in Hitchcock’s universe for these carceral forms. Look at the opening credit sequence of Psycho, designed by Saul Bass:
Here is another Saul Bass design for the opening credits of North by Northwest. Notice how around the 00:37 mark in this clip the thick outlines of the grid dissolve into the window frames, at once deflecting the prison-like vertical and horizontal lines and augmenting the reflection of the city onto the building’s glass surface.
The glossy, mirrored surface of the glass acts as an uninterrupted sensory fabric, in contrast to the strategy of rupture that follows Roger O. Thornhill (Carey Grant), a Madison Avenue ad executive, as he flees from a case of mistaken identity that threatens to kill him.
But we can move beyond material grids into structures of surveillance—beginning with one of its first systemic modern uses with profound implications on the present day—that relied on less obvious forms of visualizing criminalization.
Suffragette Surveillance—Policing Beyond the Grid
In the first decade of the 20th century, Scotland Yard detectives procured their first photographic cameras, which they to covertly follow suffragettes. It is no surprise that the verb ‘surveil’ is synonymous with following; the women’s circulation to and from their homes and loci of political gathering were duly tracked. The pictures were compiled into (gridded) ID sheets, much like how we still imagine police photo profiles today despite advances in digital storage, for patrolling officers.
We can infer from their oblivious gestures and facial expressions that the women did not appear to know, at least initially, they were being secretly photographed. However, the photos from the National Portrait Gallery in the UK reveal one significant exception.
Evelyn Manesta (No. 10), one of the Manchester suffragettes, apparently ‘refused to pose for a picture [so] a guard was brought in to restrain her in front of the camera.’ The arm wrapped around Evelyn’s neck was removed upon special instruction to the photographer so that the photo would appear ‘less controversial.’
The violence of surveillance could not be made more visually intelligible as in this instance of a phantom ghost arm—later removed via whatever means of rudimentary Photoshop were available at the time—that physically restrains the police subject.
Is there ever a way out of the grid? Thesis 7 delivers an emphatic no, however, the celebrated crop duster sequence of North by Northwest provides an unparalleled opportunity to visualize strategies of rupture beyond the so-called unavoidable void.
If policing is authoritative empowerment in ordering space, there is a way that Thornhill’s taking shelter within the corn stalks—a restoration of the right to see without being seen, which is usually only within the realm of possibility of the police—acts as a protectant. The aircraft tries to literally ‘smoke him out’ (think of the implications of President Bush’s pronouncements on Osama bin Laden) until he re-exposes himself to their field of visibility, but ultimately, the aerial seeing-machine self-destructs.
From Carey Grant to Oscar Grant
Anyone who follows domestic currents of police brutality in the U.S. will be familiar with this next case. In the early morning hours of 1 January, 2009, as a sizeable number of New Year’s revelers were shuffling between the cities, a fight was reported on the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) train from San Francisco to Oakland. As noted by Reclaim UC:
In Bayview, the T-Third MUNI line functions as a gateway to the rest of San Francisco. Especially for youth and others who don’t have access to cars, it’s the primary path toward downtown and by extension to the rest of the MUNI grid that crisscrosses the city. Guarded by armed police officers who, we now know, are ready and willing to use their weapons, the Bayview MUNI station operates as a militarized checkpoint that serves as a form of population control, regulating the flow of primarily black youth into but most importantly out of the neighborhood. (Bold emphasis is mine.)
In the police search for young African-American men, Oscar Grant was detained by several policemen including Officer Johannes Mehserle. While witnesses reported no evidence of Grant resisting arrest—an unlikely scenario given that he was restrained on the ground in a prostrated pose—Mehserle stood up, drew his gun, and shot Grant in the back. Mehserle later reported that Grant yelled, ‘You shot me!’ and another witness heard, ‘I got a four-year old daughter!’
This event is not particularly unique, however, not unlike the Rodney King case, it was captured on multiple video recording devices and watched hundreds of thousands of times. Video shows one officer hurrying toward Grant, punching him in the face several times minutes before he was shot. His family also alleges that he was thrown against a wall, kneed in the face, and so on. It is presumably at this moment in the most horrendous day of his short life that Grant picked up his mobile phone and called his girlfriend Sophina Mesa twice to tell her he was being abused.
Despite overwhelming evidence and public outcry to the contrary Mehserle was ultimately found guilty only of involuntary manslaughter (for which he served less than a two-year term, and now walks freely) because his defense attorney claimed he had intended to fire his Taser, not a pistol. The juridical argument for his release came down to the instrument of shooting and how Oscar Grant was shot. (In North by Northwest there are several methods deployed by the airplane to ‘shoot’ Carey Grant’s character, simultaneously the less powerful and more exposed of the two.) We know that there were many witnesses and bystanders that filmed the Grant event as it was taking place, beyond the regular BART cameras at the station. Police even chased people after the shooting in order to stop filming and confiscate cameras.
One of the extremely rare things that happened in the Oscar Grant shooting is that Grant took a photo of Mehserle just before he was shot. I emphasize this rarity because it was intentional, unlike, say, war cameramen who unwittingly film their own deaths. The photo also shows Mehserle reaching for his holster with a strong right arm. Not only does a Taser weigh far less than a handgun—and ample video evidence exists showing no ambiguity as to which side of his belt this seasoned officer reached—the photo shot by Grant verifies it.
Returning to the term I began with—the fugitive—it might seem in Hitchcock’s world that we are always already being cared for, always gridded and surveilled in an architecture of original sin. On the other side, there is something equalizing about the status of being fugitive. We are all cared for but a condition of possibility remains: any of us could create rupture. Where we are used to seeing the fugitive as an emergency or state of exception there is important ordinariness that the Carey Grant sequence and Oscar Grant incident salvage. In other words, the conceptual and material grid is a space of both incarceration and care. We have come to see gridded, diagonal structures as ‘natural’ to urban planning, though there is nothing that affords them a priori naturalness. Who can even say they are ‘better’ or ‘best’ structures without asking the question of better or best for whom?
Moving beyond Rancierean paradigmatics and toward Rancierean emancipatory politics, one may say that if there is a cleavage between aesthetics and politics, it is that in Hitchcock, we are left with image sui image, largely watching the iconic moment of an anthropomorphized plane chasing Carey Grant within the comfort of our wares (one of my former film professors used to joke that you could watch Hitchcock with your friends while eating popcorn, or study him seriously, but at least you have the choice). Even with Grant’s face in the dust, we know that he will arise, escape, prevail, and ultimately wrap his hands around the waist of a Hitchcockian ice blonde. There is no ambiguity about the iconic moment of Oscar Grant’s shooting; he too is both the subject and object of a look within the police regime. With Oscar Grant, history will remember more than just an image of a black man hunched over on concrete. It will also remember that man pointing a camera back at the police.
Many thanks to the participation of colleagues at the 2011 Rancière Summer Institute at Northwestern University, where a version of this text was delivered.