Time Has Been Stolen, but we Can Get it Back

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 21.07.2020

About the poet and Afro-American culture scholar, Jackie Wang

“Sometimes I don’t know what to tell you or how to end. For some time I’ve been thinking about how to convey the message of police and prison abolition to you. But I know that as a poet it is not my job to win you over with a persuasive argument, but to impart to you a vibrational experience that is capable of awakening the desire of another world. Our bodies are not closed loops. We hold each other and keep each other in time by marching, singing, embracing, breathing. We synchronize our tempos so we can find the rhythm through which the urge to live can be expressed, collectively. And in this way we set the world in motion. In this way poets become timekeepers of the revolution.”

That’s how the American poet and performance artist, also a PhD candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Jackie Wang, describes her mission. This is a quote from her 2018 book Carceral Capitalism, with which Wang earned international attention, and it illustrates her modus operandi very well. She skilfully complements the conventional essay form through carefully thought-out and aptly placed inserts that, in what seem to be excerpts taken from some sort of personal journal, read very much like poetry[1]. This is clear from listening to Wang's lectures at various conferences - she reads her texts as a rhythmic, even gently melodic recitation, sometimes supplementing it with a sampled musical accompaniment. It can be compared to the mnemonic techniques of ancient singers, which have allowed important ideas to be embedded into the listener's memory and so, passing down orally through the centuries. Jackie Wang's research, observations and insights are worth keeping in mind. She has had to think a lot about prison. It has personally affected her life, as her brother, who ended up there as a teenager, has been in prison with a life sentence for 16 years.

The prison system, as well as police management practises, are playing an increasingly important role in late capitalism, and in the service of the debt economy, prisoners are, in a sense, all of us. She looks at the "torture by time" inherent in imprisonment, both in terms of the length of imprisonment as well as the strictly regulated schedule, which is designed to break a person's subjectivity and psyche, and it may appear  more humane, it’s no less cruel than corporal punishment which was abolished long ago.

This system is considered legitimate because there is a consensus in society that it’s only possible to inflict physical pain on another, for, as emotional pain doesn’t leave bodily harm, so it cannot be considered a crime against the persona. Wang sees that everyone is subject to the slavery of debt and other fixed-term periods and to increasing restrictions on their liberty "for security reasons". Time has been weaponized by power to ensure control and subordination on both sides of the prison walls.

As the list of criminal offences grows, so does the need for a system of total control and mass imprisonment, which, as always, primarily affects the most vulnerable groups in society. Wang writes that in a neoliberal system, the state turns from a tax collector to a debt collector, thus becoming a predatory state. If the sustainability of government structures was once ensured by tax revenue, then - and this particularly applies to the United States - much of the revenue now comes from penalties for overdue debt, which is soon followed by the threat of incarceration.

Debt is directly linked to time, because as long as it exists, the debtor's future belongs to his creditor. In this way, governments do not represent their citizens, but do battle with them. In the case of the United States, this new form of a repressive system is also closely linked to structural racism, where the majority of the poor, i.e. those subject to debt persecution, are black and Latino Americans. They make up the majority of the prison population in America, which is now larger than the slave population was in its “golden age”.

The looter of our time, kidnapper of possible futures and weapon of control is the smart technologies. On the one hand, the offer of instant gratification built into internet social networks traps users into a constant present loop, on the other hand, this natural desire for the recognition of others, makes their private life data voluntarily available to service owners or law enforcement.

Preventive policing and the development of algorithms that can calculate potential offenders and apprehend them before an offence is committed are ideas that are gaining increasing influence around the world. In societies where racism and all forms of xenophobia prevail, everyone and everything different and non-normative automatically becomes a suspect. The essence of bureaucracy as a maintainer of order and legitimacy is to follow prescribed algorithms, and now they are increasingly determining where and what to observe, by what features to identify potential threats or how to predict the possible actions of suspects.

Predictionsare largely about constructing the future using the current management of entities that are classified as threats or risks. In this way, predictions do much more than show us a possible outcome. They set the future. A change in supervisory arrangements, or the emergence of predictive supervision, makes future uncertainty an issue that justifies overcoming technical uncertainty in current public administration. 

In the age of big data, uncertainty is presented as an information problem that can be overcome through comprehensive data collection, statistical analysis that can identify features and relationships, and algorithms that can predict future outcomes by analysing them in the past. Predictive surveillance promises to remove the existential terror that uncertainty about what will happen, generates. Data sets itself up to be a solution to the problem of uncertainty, claiming that full understanding has been reached and human analytical limitations - overcome. ”

Wang refers to the dystopic techno-fascist predictions of the Swedish philosopher, the famous critic of artificial intelligence, Nick Bostrom, and also strikes a blow at my personal enthusiasm for big data and the statistical analysis on which all exact sciences are currently based. The poet Wang sees resistance to this data totalitarianism and even the possibility of rebellion within the ineffable and the incomprehensible.  In everything that cannot be subjected to counting and categorization. One such phenomenon is the world of dreams, which offers a different way of prophesyingthe future, another - the “oceanic” feeling or spiritual ecstasy, which was once talked about by Freud and Romain Rolland, as well as Lacan and Julia Kristeva. Wang is interested in ways to turn this sense from a deeply private into a collective one, and how to fashion it into a tool in the fight against the capitalist privatization of time.

She talks about this in her recent essay, Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect, and her online presentation as part of the RIBOCA2 Public Program will be based on this. Awareness of one's personal rhythm helps you to resist oppression, but one is not a fighter. A person is never alone either, even if he feels isolated and driven into an impasse created by the prevailing powers, he still feels alone. Solidarity is enhanced by the ability to feel and synchronize with the heartbeats of others, and Wang investigates sensual techniques that can make this possible.

Jackie Wang reading Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect took place on July 23, 2020 within the framework of the online lecture and discussion cycle organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website.

[1] From a book review

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