Exploring the ways in which prisons shape the subjectivity of free-world thinkers, and the ways that subjectivity is expressed in literary texts, this dissertation develops the concept of carceral realism: a cognitive and literary mode that represents prisons and police as the only possible response to social disorder. As this dissertation illustrates, this form of consciousness is experienced as racial paranoia, and it is expressed literary texts, which reflect and help to reify it. Through this process of cultural reification, carceral realism increasingly insists on itself as the only possible mode of thinking. As I argue, however, carceral realism actually stands in a dialectical relationship to abolitionist speculation, or, the active imagining of a world without prisons and police and/or the conditions necessary to actualize such a world. In much the same way that carceral realism embeds itself in realist literary forms, abolitionist speculation plays a constitutive role in the utopian literary tradition.
In order to elaborate these concepts, this dissertation begins with a meta-consideration of how cultural productions by incarcerated people are typically framed. Building upon the work of scholars and incarcerated authors’ own interventions in questions of consciousness, authorship, textual production, and study, this chapter contrasts that typical frame with a method of abolitionist reading. Chapter two applies this methodology to Edward Bunker’s 1977 novel The Animal Factory and Claudia Rankine’s 2010 poem Citizen in order to develop the concept of carceral realism and demonstrate how it has developed from the 1970s to the present. In order to lay out the historical foundations of the modern prison, chapter three looks back to the late 18th century and situates the emergence of the penitentiary within debates regarding race, citizenship, and state power. Returning to the 1970s, chapter four investigates the role universities have played in the formation of carceral realism and the complex relationship Chicanos and Asian Americans have to prisons and police by analogizing the institutionalization of prison literary study to the formation of ethnic studies. Chapter five draws this project to a conclusion by developing the concept of abolitionist speculation, or the active imagining of a world without prisons or the police and/or the conditions necessary to realize such a world, which I identify as both a constitutive generic feature of utopian literature and something that exceeds literature altogether. In doing so, this dissertation establishes an ongoing historical relationship between social reproduction of prisons and literary forms that cuts across time, geography, race, gender, and genre.
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Hennum, Shea, "The Texture of Everyday Life: Carceral Realism and Abolitionist Speculation" (2023). English Theses and Dissertations. 20.