Debate Magazine

Soul Imprisonment

By Cris

As the American empire advanced toward and eventually swept over the Great Plains during the mid to late 1800s, attempts were made to persuade the Plains Indians that the American or “civilized” way of life was superior to their own. The thinking was that if Plains Indians could be shown the material benefits and delights of civilized life, this would inspire them to settle down, become farmers, produce surpluses, spend money, and acquire property. To this end, tribal chiefs and leading men were often taken on grand tours of the east, with visits to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC usually on the itinerary. Few expenses were spared on these tours, with fine dining, premier lodging, and monumental sightseeing at every stop.

These tours made quite an impression on the chiefs. The impression, however, was precisely the opposite of that intended. Though the chiefs were duly impressed with industrial society and its material manifestations, they were horrified by the density, stench, clamor, artificiality, and nervousness of the cities. But nothing horrified them more than the method by which citizens were punished for crimes. For Plains Indians, the most bizarre and barbaric aspect of civilized society was the prison. Confining people to cages was, in their estimation, simply unfathomable. An immobile and isolated person was, in an existential and ontological sense, no longer human.

Preferring suicidal death over continued imprisonment, the Kiowa chief Satanta famously launched himself headfirst from an upper floor jail window at Huntsville, Texas in 1878. It is no small irony that Huntsville today is ground zero for one of the largest prison-industrial complexes in the world. Between 1875 and 1878, seventy-two Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho were held as prisoners of war at Fort Marion in Florida. Despite intensive efforts to educate and indoctrinate them into American ways, for most the ordeal served only to convince them that their primitive cultures were utterly superior to civilized society. Their amazing story is told in Brad Lookingbill’s War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners (2007).

Most of us don’t think too much about the price paid for civilized progress, primarily because if America’s nearly 3 million prisoners are out of sight, they are out of mind. The ones most out of sight in solitary confinement are also the ones most out of their minds, as this powerful Aeon piece by Lisa Guenther reminds us. Her treatment of this subject really resonated, and reminded me of the Plains Indians, because she approaches it from a phenomenological perspective. As some may know, phenomenological approaches have also been used, with great effect, to reveal the philosophical richness and experiential complexity of animist worldviews. Plains Indians were, of course, carriers of these views.

It should go without saying that solitary confinement is a recipe for human disaster and definitively insane, but it apparently needs to be said. Guenther’s saying of it is an ironic inversion of the vacuous American slogan “freedom isn’t free.” The sordid details aside, I particularly enjoyed her precis of phenomenology:

[Solitary confinement] raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.

Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time (1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.

Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unraveling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation. If the task of phenomenology is to show how we make sense of the world through lived experience, then what should a phenomenologist make of prisoners’ accounts of a living death that no longer makes sense?

Guenther goes on to explain, in long and painful detail, how solitary confinement deprives people of the embodied, relational, and social experiences that enable our humanity and ability to make sense. Because these same qualities are foundational to animist worldviews, we can perhaps better understand why Plains Indians considered imprisonment to be an annihilation or degradation so severe that death was often preferable. Guenther’s story should be required reading for all who believe we have progressed from savagery to civilization.


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