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Kathryn Hamilton on "Captivating Subjects"

Cover of "Captivating Subjects": Gallows in foreground, Capitol building in background

Jason Haslam & Julia M. Wright, Eds.

Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century

University of Toronto Press, 2005
290 pages

Reviewed by Kathryn Hamilton

“Going to prison is hell,” writes Monika Fludernik, in her essay on Victorian prison memoirs in this collection, before describing the degradation prisoners faced, and face, upon internment: 

handcuffing, being dragged to a prison van, thrust into it in close association with a mass of perspiring humanity, dragged out of the van and marched into forbidding prison architecture, deprived of all possessions…ordered to undress, strip-searched, measured, deloused, given dirty and ill-fitting prison wear, and finally herded into cells.

This passage underscores the central preoccupation of Jason Haslam and Julia M. Wright’s eclectic collection: what they call “the ontological implications of captivity” for writing subjects. The editors have chosen essays like Fludernik’s that deal with the way confinement strips subjects of their identity and how those subjects resist such psychological denuding through writing. What, in other words, is the effect of confinement on one’s being? Each of the essays in this volume treats the way captive subjects used writing to respond to institutional confinement of various sorts, from chattel slavery to serfdom. In its attempt to establish connections among disparate types of confinement, the volume, while clearly indebted to Michel Foucault’s seminal work on the prison in Western society, Discipline and Punish (1975), more accurately takes up an insight of H. Bruce Franklin’s in The Victim as Criminal and Artist (1978): that narratives of criminals emerged alongside colonialism and capitalism in the sixteenth century. This leads toward a connection that Haslam and Wright do much to explore here, the intersections among incarceration, slavery, colonialism, and nationhood. Captivity has helped to form subjects who, in turn, form the modern state. Without settling on what, exactly, it means to be a “captive,” the essays in this volume nevertheless strive to show the centrality of captivity in the development of national identity.

Along the way, the essays explore much more. In both editorial intent and completed form, Captivating Subjects: Writing, Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century is something of a mixed bag. This is a result not only of the genre of the essay collection itself, which invites a certain amount of dissonance, but of the ambitiousness of Haslam and Wright’s vision. They use their dense introduction to situate the eight essays amid a number of conversations currently gripping the academy, from a renewal of interest in prison writing, to reconsideration of the early United States’ relationship with the Arab world. These are conversations whose applicability to the present—one need only think of the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, or the way in which Orientalism has resurfaced with a vengeance in the post-9/11 US—will not escape readers. However, the editors’ desire to trace a coherent path between essays that treat subjects as removed from one another as a British suffragette’s prison memoir (Lady Constance Lytton’s, written in 1914) and the legal testimonies of Russian serfs (one written in 1785) pushes Haslam and Wright to adopt an organizational framework that is overly simplified.

This framework is spatial and psychological at once, moving from the private world of the individual, to the social world of discourse, outward to the international arena. The three essays in the first section, “The Subject of Captivity,” raise “the possibility of the imaginative and discursive transcendence of confinement, belying the aims of captivity to control all aspects of the captive’s subjectivity.” These essays, by Jason Haslam, John MacKay, and Tess Chakkalakal, treat writing by Lytton, Russian serfs, and Olaudah Equiano, respectively. The second section includes essays by Frank Lauterbach, Monika Fludernik, and Julia M. Wright, and these essays—the first two cover writing about the Victorian prison system and the third deals with Charles Hamilton Teeling’s soliciting support for the Irish nationalist cause from within prison walls—are referred to by the editors as “Captivating Discourses: Class and Nation” because of the attention the authors bring to categories beyond individual subjectivity. The essays show how writing subjects, rather than existing in a carceral world apart, were imbricated in a host of identifications brought on by the “disciplinary operation of discourses of nation, class, and genre in prison.” The last grouping, “Captivating Otherness,” continues the progression out from the self. Here, in an essay by Jennifer Costello Brezina about Barbary captivity narratives and one by Christine Marlin about a prison inspector’s writing, the way captivity functioned across national boundaries is contrasted with the preceding examinations of more individualistic and social (but domestic) elaborations of identity in captivity.

These divisions, while convenient, naturalize separations—between an individual and her/his community, or a community (say a social class, or a gender) and the nation—that elsewhere the editors call into question. The trouble is that these categories are too porous, the writings too capacious, to lend themselves to hard and fast distinctions. To their credit, the editors acknowledge the irony of trying to contain writings about confinement, self-consciously observing that they do not “offer a totalizing definition of captivity or restraint…in an explicit effort to avoid overly constraining the subject at hand,” but while they are jettisoning one type of confinement, another slips in.

Of course, it is an editor’s job to offer readers a map, and this is what Haslam and Wright have tried to do. But the writing, as they note, resists strict categorization. In fact, one strength of the collection is the way the authors represented both define and defy the expectations readers may have of a book situated in the general category of resistance literature. While much of the writing in this volume does resist the startling assault on identity brought on by both the type of confinement Fludernik describes above and the type of exclusion experienced by subjects like Lytton and Equiano, an equal amount affirms the institutions that perpetuate such practices. Take, for instance, the prison narratives that Lauterbach and Fludernik analyze. In many of them, written by so-called “gentleman prisoners,” the authors align themselves with authority to persuade their readers of the need for prison reform. Fludernik explains that this identification, as opposed to solidarity with the inmates, makes both psychological and rhetorical sense for those middle-class prisoners. Writing as outsiders on the inside, they identified with those in power in order to save face, distinguish themselves from the lower-class convicts, and establish a common ground with their middle-class, Victorian readership. While undoubtedly persuasive, the strategy of aligning oneself with power does not immediately suggest resistance.

Other authors represented in the volume make interesting use of authority as well. One of the tropes John MacKay notes in his examination of Russian serf narratives is the strategy of appealing to an authority higher than the nobility: God. By comparing narratives written over three centuries, he shows how serfs used divine authority to challenge the nobility’s earthly dominance, the authority of the Tsar, and even on occasion their own power. Is using one authority to undermine another resistant, contestatory—or something else? Though neither the authors nor the editors address this question, Haslam and Wright do observe that the last two essays, Brezina’s on Barbary captivity narratives and Marlin’s on the writing of a prison inspector, are “defensive rather than subversive” because they “define the nation’s power with reference to its control over captivity.” Here, captivity (and the writing that emerges from it) solidifies national identity. Comparing Barbary captivity narratives to Orientalist travelogues, Brezina explains how the United States cemented its sense of nationhood by identifying against the North African nations that, reversing Said’s Orientalist paradigm, held the fledgling American nation (and its sailors) in its power. Resistance to the Barbary pirates morphs into the creation of a new national mythology. 

Captivating Subjects was published in 2005, one of a recent spate of studies treating prison writing that will likely be of interest to scholars in fields as varied as American, trans-Atlantic, and post-colonial studies; British, Russian, and African-American literature. The focus, as this review should make clear, is not on geographic or temporal areas, but on theme. D. Quentin Miller edited a coyly titled volume, Prose and Cons: Essays on Prison Literature in the United States (2005), on the same topic. And interested readers should keep an eye out for the special issue of Texas Studies in Literature and Language on prison writing, edited by Phil Barrish and tentatively titled “Reading, Writing, Detention” (forthcoming, Fall 2008). These studies testify to the interest in and importance of confinement and writing. But Captivating Subjects is trying to do something slightly different, something daring and ambitious. By drawing our attention to the connections among various exclusions and confinements, the editors show that colonialism, incarceration, and capitalism are interdependent systems that cannot be fully considered in isolation. If the essays in the volume do not cohere in a satisfactory way, it is this incoherence to which we should pay attention. It reminds us that the systems these essays describe are multifarious and ruptured, so that resistance to them can look like acquiescence, and acquiescence like resistance.