In Nathanial Hawthorne’s 19th century classic, Hestor Prynne is forced by her Puritan community to permanently wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her clothing, after she conceives a child out of wedlock and refuses to reveal the identity of the father. Though the story is set in the 1600s, the punishment of visual identification as an ‘adulteress’ could be viewed as quite modern: Punish not the body, but the SOUL.
Punishment – Then and Now
In the 20th century, Michel Foucault (philosopher genius/sado-masochist) set out to examine the shift of punishment over the centuries and what it has meant for society. A work far too complex to examine in one or ten blog entries, my friend Shari Pierce’s latest exhibition nonetheless made me consider again the core question raised in “Discipline and Punish”:
How much more humane ARE the modern punitive measures taken against criminals?
That the nature of criminal punishment has changed over the centuries is no question. 300 years ago, crimes such as murder, rape and theft were not only punished socially (the criminal was often put out for public viewing and ridicule) but corporeally. Offenders were flogged, whipped, branded, drawn and quartered, maimed, crucified– and the circumstances of their actions were moot. Nobody asked WHY the crime had been committed. Was the offender rich or poor, abused as a child or not? In his right mind or insane? The crime is what mattered strictly, the crowd was to see an example of what would happen if they behaved similarly, and the flesh of the criminal absorbed the ultimate brunt of punishment. Provided the sentence was not death, they were then free to go and resume their lives.
Somewhere in the late 18th century though, a shift started in Western nations that demanded humane treatment of the criminal’s body. Psychology began to play a role in determining guilt–the public became removed from the process and the idea of ‘revenge’ was purged. The media circus notwithstanding, the public today has no DIRECT contact with those on trial, and incarceration is deemed the most appropriate form of action. As my roommate described it the other night: The German legal system does not desire revenge against criminals–merely that they are put in a place where they cannot repeat their offense and where they may be rehabilitated and reintroduced into society. Arguably, the same motto could be applied to modern American penal justice.
Rehabilitation. Incarceration not as punishment, but as a preventative measure. Certainly never revenge.
While I am not familiar with the state of German prisons, American ones notoriously question the validity of that statement. Depending on the penitentiary, the idea of rehabilitation is a mockery–the criminal is locked away from ‘normal’ society and tossed into a sub-society rife with violence and rape. This is not the violence of a crowd who beat you black and blue in the stocks and then stormed on–or the agony felt from flogging that nevertheless ended once the wounds healed. This is what Foucault would call a punishment of the soul; a slow, steady deconstruction of a person’s humanity, over years or even a lifetime.
Our modern definition of ‘mercy’.
This system keeps the humiliation of the criminal out of sight and we are comforted by the idea of a society both safe and just. And if an offender is able to rehabilitate, they are theoretically able to rejoin society anonymously, without us having to see the stump of a lost finger or the whip-scars on the back. But what about the most reviled offenders–the rapists and child-molesters? Should they be allowed to rejoin society anonymously?
This is one aspect raised by the Agraphobia exhibit.
Shari Pierce is a jewelry artist, but her pieces are not meant to be worn at your next dinner party. Her works focus not on jewelry as superficial decoration, but on its role as a universal form of communication, the symbols worn across all ages and societies to project our self-image, social status, even our political, religious or social views (think of crucifix necklaces or breast-cancer awareness ribbons.) We can argue that jewelry is never just about aesthetics or form and Shari’s work often takes that idea to the extreme. Her latest exhibition asks what it might be like to wear the picture of a known sex-offender around your neck.
Go into her exhibition and you’ll be surrounded by a ghostly parade of men (and a few women) whose pictures have been taken from internet sites listing known sex criminals. Opening night, we looked at the pictures wondering: Do these people look so sinister because we KNOW their crime? Of course, you think of perverts as walking around with glowing eyes or horns on their head (and her pictures played with that idea by defacing faces), but just as many were kept as ordinary photos. These are the guys and girls passing by you on the street.
As I am about to leave, I want to say goodbye to Shari and congratulate her on her opening night, but she’s in deep conversation with someone. I stand around, hoping to butt in for a quick goodbye, and decide not to: They seem to be arguing the MORALITY of this exhibition. “Is your problem with the exhibit,” Shari asks, “that the pictures are for sale?”
The Scarlet A Revisited
I leave saying nothing, but the question is a good one–and the lady she is having the conversation with is a German. What would be considered highly sensitive personal information here in Germany regarding past offenses is posted on public databases for many states back home–this fact is what makes Shari’s exhibition possible–and advocates would argue that making sex-offenders visually identifiable is a cautionary meassure that allows parents especially to take further care.
Unfortunately, what this form of punishment does not take into account is that the majority of sexual offenses, rapes and child molestations are not committed by strangers, but by family members or acquaintances close to the family. And that while some of these databases do categorize according to severity or risk, others make no differentiation between a child-rapist or two underage kids who had consensual sex with each other.
The internet is forever. Once that information is out there, it can never be wiped away and we can argue that this form of caution is just a modern reworking of the scarlet A; a new/old way of destroying the social life, ie, the soul of the criminal.
Are sex-offender databases necessary? Do they help keep people safe, or is it a measure that kills the possibility of rehabilitation? If you haven’t thought about it before, Agraphobia will probably make you think about it.
Check out Shari’s exhibit if you live in Munich: It’s open from March 12 to March 26th, in the Raum fuer Kunst (Room for Art) in Schwabing. Gabelsbergerst. 65. The u2 to Theresienst. will get you close. (In the basement, you can also see some of what I anyway consider her more traditional pieces… don’t miss them!)