Interdisciplinary feminist scholarship has been at the forefront of attempts to produce knowledge about the world that is critical of the agendas and ideologies of the modern nation-state and that moves beyond U.S. centric conceptions of the world. This paper engages with such scholarship and examines the ways in which knowledge practices in fields such as Women’s Studies both are shaped by and materialize specific understandings of the world (through discursive, institutional and pedagogical practices). Such practices often inadvertently produce U.S national or state-centric conceptions of the world even as they seek to or claim to move beyond such territorial conceptions of the world. The paper provides an overview of such dynamics and then examines the potential of knowledge practices that can provide alternative ethical routes and ways of engaging with the world.
Kinew James was a 35 year old Aboriginal woman who, at the time of her death in January 2013, had spent half her life in jail, beginning as a teenager. She was often kept in solitary confinement and had threatened multiple times to hang herself. On the evening of her death, she reportedly cried for help for an hour about pains in her stomach. Ignored, she died of a heart attack one hour later. At a court appearance in 2011 when she pleaded guilty for damaging prison property and assaulting a guard, a judge compared her to Ashley Smith, another teenager who had a similar history and who died in the same prison in 2007.
Ashley Smith, a white teenager who had been imprisoned since 15, tied a ligature around her neck and strangled herself as several guards watched and the event was captured on video. The inquest (ongoing) has begun to establish that Ashley was a ‘hard to deal with’ inmate who tried to kill herself several times a day, secreting anything that might be used as a ligature. In their dealings with Ashley, Corrections personnel often wore combat gear, of the kind familiar to us in military encounters, and treated Ashley as detainees are treated in the ‘war on terror.’ A video captures the bound and duct taped teenager being transported by plane to yet another prison. When she arrives, eight men and women wearing protective suits and combat clothes tie her down and forcibly inject her five times with anti-psychotic medication. Smith was then left on a stretcher in her own urine for nine hours.
The image of a bound and duct taped Ashley Smith recalls another teenager, also hooded and bound, Omar Khadr, a Canadian of Muslim/Arab origin. Held since 15 at Guantanamo and now incarcerated in Canada, Khadr’s life in prison mirrors James’s and Smith’s in many ways. Each was incarcerated as a teenager and each endured torture and a systematized indifference and brutality defended as necessary. In this paper I want to theorize the power imprinted on the incarcerated body, considering race and gender. The technologies of violence in these three cases are the same, their histories are interconnecting, and for each person, the prison is a space of terror and death. In each of these contexts, violence, far from being exceptional, seemed integral to the social order. I reflect on what this violence holds in place, and, in turn, what gives birth to, and sustains, it. Does the torture and everyday violence directed at one group have anything to do with the other? Is the role of law (or more often law’s abandonment) the same in each context? Am I trying to say something about the relationship between Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies in white supremacy and under neo-colonial and colonial regimes? Where would I place the increasing violence directed at inmates of North American prisons, and the continuous violence authorized against those classified as mentally ill, and the war on women that Andrea Dworkin referred to a few decades ago?