Discourse and Silence in Tocqueville's Study of American Penitentiaries
By Sam Turner,
University of Virginia American Studies masters project
An introductory note by NYCHS webmaster:
The visits by Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville to various NYC area institutions of confinement, of one kind or another, are often overlooked in web accounts since the Frenchmen's report on American penitentiaries focuses on a comparison of the Philadelphia and Auburn systems. An exception is the on-line February 1998 three-part American Studies analysis by University of Virginia masters project participant Sam Turner.
In examining Beaumont and Tocqueville's observations about American prisons from the perspective of constructionalist Michael Foucault, Turner uses their NYC regional tour as a case study to try Foucault's tactic of historicizing universal categories; that is, casting them as mutable social constructs that emerge from defining yet changing opposites.
Omitting or abridging the lengthy and highly abstract analytical sections of Turner's paper [the full version is accessible among American Studies web pages at the University of Virginia site], NYCHS presents excerpts most directly dealing with actual NYC area institutions of confinement. They are presented not for their Foucaultian analysis, but because they sketch Beaumont and Tocqueville's NYC area itinerary with more detail and interesting observations than found anywhere else on the web.
All rights over the excerpts' text are retained by the author, Sam Turner, to whom NYCHS expresses appreciation for his permission to present them here. Other than a photo of Michael Foucault, no images appear on the original Turner pages. To break up what would otherwise be unrelieved text, image boxes with captions have been added as design elements to this excerpts presentation by the NYCHS webmaster. All rights to the image box texts are reserved to and by NYCHS.
In the context of a Foucauldian framework, we may understand prisons, and more generally houses of confinement for the mentally ill, disabled, willfully transgressive and insolvent as among those "dividing practices" by which a normal community constructs and maintains its normality.
We may understand "dividing practices" as any process of social categorization by which a community achieves this end . . . . but Foucault often understands dividing practices as exactly those institutional modes of normalization by which the abnormal are put in a given building and kept there - literally divided from the community which finds them unfit. The process by which a regime of normality invents and defines itself against a given abnormality is thus an "exclusion... usually in a spatial sense, but always in a social one."
This spatial exclusion was most certainly on the minds of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont while they traveled around America in 1831. The two friends were researching the prison systems of the United States in hopes of providing the French government with hard data which could support or refute the plausibility of building American style prisons in France.
To speak of an American style prison is actually misleading. The America of the 1830s was one in which the style a prison should take, (its architectural plan, the ways in which the inmates would or would not be occupied) was a hotly contested space. At the center of the debate were two systems - the Auburn (named for a town in western New York) and the Pennsylvania. The former stressed solitary cell confinement for sleeping, but group labor performed in absolute silence during the days. The latter maintained that solitary confinement was necessary at all times; Pennsylvania prisoners labored not only in silence, but in the same cell where they slept. While prisoners were allowed to keep a small, walled yard in which they could exercise, they were not allowed any kind of contact with one another.
While the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems are remarkable for their differences, it is in their similarities that they are most important to this project. The two systems arise as different solutions to a common problem.
As George Wilson Pierson explains in Tocqueville in America:
the early colonists had brought with them to America the rigorous criminal code and harsh practices of England... A multitude (if not the majority) of offenses had been punishable by death - a simple and expeditious way of getting rid of the individuals whom society found obnoxious... [The penalty for] the other offenses had been... flogging, mutilation, branding, or exposure in the stocks, after which they were turned loose.
. . . . the birth of the American prison in western Pennsylvania cannot be understood as disconnected from the strong religious (specifically Quaker) influence over public policy in that region. . . . The intervention of religion in the system of justice was enabled, Foucault argues, by a shift in the locus of punishment - from body to soul. . . .
Tocqueville's initial investigations of the American prison, which centered on the Auburn system, will serve as our testing ground for the import of Foucauldian theory on Tocqueville's project; and it provide fertile ground indeed!
Tocqueville and Beaumont spent their first weeks in America in and around New York City, conducting first a tour of various kinds of confinement houses in Manhattan and finally a climactic nine-day visit to Sing Sing penitentiary a few miles up-river.
The tour of Manhattan houses of confinement is remarkable primarily for its evidence of the disjunction between prison in the contemporary usage and that thing which Tocqueville and Beaumont understood to be the object of their study. The places which they visited in Manhattan were not limited to spaces in which criminals were kept, though the House of Refuge for delinquent minors, which stood on what is now Madison Square, interested them greatly.
After visiting the House of Refuge the two were escorted uptown to Bloomingdale, "hospital for the insane." The hospital was home to the delusionally religious and to a great number of alcoholics. After Bloomingdale the pair toured the Fifth Avenue Deaf and Dumb asylum and finally Bellevue Almshouse and Penitentiary at the East Side site where [the hospital] still stands today.
The enormous scope of the duo's investigation may evidence either the thoroughness with which they approached their task or their lack of focus at the beginning of their travels. We may, however, understand it as such without Foucault's help.
From a Foucauldian perspective what emerges from this initial confrontation with American confinement is the fluidity of various moral and non-moral designations of abnormality. Distinctions between confinement in the face of legal infraction (the House of Refuge) and confinement in the face of physical or mental handicap are seen as immaterial - nowhere in their accounts (as reproduced in Pierson) do Tocqueville and Beaumont call attention to the distinction between the two.
This is not to say that the two investigators (or the culture they investigated) failed actually to understand that there was a difference, as without such a recognition there would be no need for differentiated spaces of confinement.
Rather, it demonstrates that regardless of the reason for the confinement, the confinement houses served one basic function for community at large; they designated a space of abnormality (be it insanity, disability or transgression) against which the greater community could understand itself as normal (a normality which it thus constructed as sanity, ability and obedience). It is the confined's status as other, and not the specificity of that otherness, with which the two were concerned.
In Pierson's narrative,
Sing Sing... represented the climax of a long development in the handling of criminals... [and] of a certain group of idealistic American theories that had finally been evolved after more than a century and a half of adjustment and experiment.
The climax as here presented is duplicitous - it is also the climax of Tocqueville and Beaumont's first tour of prisons. The Auburn system rested on a foundation of collective labor conducted in absolute silence, but in the case of Sing Sing the system had achieved a kind of sublime perfection. The French travelers were both awe-struck and strangely terrified by what they saw there.
In a letter to his mother, Beaumont wrote:
Sing Sing is very remarkable... [It] contains 900 inmates, condemned for terms of varying lengths. They are made to work, either in the prison court which isn't shut, or in the in the quarries a short distance away. They are at complete liberty, carrying irons neither on hands nor feet, and yet they labor assiduously at the hardest tasks. Nothing is rarer than an evasion. That appears so unbelievable that one sees the fact for a long time without being able to explain it.
Tocqueville came close to a Foucauldian rhetoric when the following year he reflected on his visit to Sing Sing:
Although the discipline is perfect, one feels it rests on fragile foundations: it is due to a tour de force which is reborn unceasingly and which has to be reproduced each day, under penalty of compromising the whole system of discipline.
. . . . we may understand the speech prohibition as the "fragile foundation" on which the power-structure at Sing Sing rested. In depriving the prisoners of language, the power structure deprived them of the capacity to perform; it made them a captive audience for the performance of power - the invisible wall which kept them at work. It insured their status as objects and deprived them agency, subjectivity and even humanity.
One important complication of this reading comes from Tocqueville's transcription of an interview he conducted with Elam Lynds (who had conceived of and overseen the building of Sing Sing and had invented the Auburn system on which it was based) weeks after the two initially visited Sing Sing.
In a pivotal point of the interview, Lynds remarks on the relation between ethnic identity and participation in the Auburn labor system:
At Sing Sing a quarter of the inmates are foreigners. I bent them all to the discipline as I did with the Americans. Those who gave me the most trouble were the Spaniards of South America, a race of men who have more of the wild beast in them than of the civilized man.
In the statement Lynds identifies humanity (and, indeed civilized humanity) not with permission to speak or participation in a linguistic structure, but rather with participation in the appropriate power structure. While all are deprived of language, it is only those who refuse participation in that prohibition who Lynds deems sub-human.
. . . . The penitentiary may prohibit speech, but it cannot prohibit discourse or meaning. While ordinary speech operates as a system of possible utterances which are defined against one another, there are also systems of not-sayings - structures in which silence can be as effective a tool of signification as utterance. Thus silence carries with it always the potentiality of resistance and critique. The very fact of silence can serve to subvert - or partially subvert - the dominance of the exclusionary discourse in which the speech prohibition inheres.
The "fragility" of Sing Sing's disciplinary foundation came not from the absence of irons, but rather from its faith in speech prohibition as an adequate tool by which to make oppositional discourse impossible.