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Political Detention: Countering the University

Author(s): Barbara Harlow

Source: October, Vol. 53, The Humanities as Social Technology (Summer, 1990), pp. 40-61
Published by: MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/778914
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Political Detention:
Counteringthe University



The mostwidespreaderrorofmethodseemsto methatofhavinglookedfor

in theintrinsicnatureofintellectualactivities,
ratherthanin theensemble
ofrelationsin whichtheseactivities
(and therefore
them)have theirplace
withinthegeneralcomplexofsocial relations.
- Antonio Gramsci,
"The Formationof the Intellectuals"

Aprendere a luchar desde esta celda. Esta sera mi trinchera.(I will

learn to struggle
fromthiscell. This will be mytrench.)

Nidia Diaz, Nunca EstuveSola

We mustpreventthisbrainfromfunctioning
for 20 years.
-Prosecutor at Antonio Gramsci's trial
Walid al-Fahum is a Palestinian lawyerin Israel and the Occupied Territories,an advocate forPalestinianpoliticaldetainees,who began his legal workin
the officesof the Israeli woman lawyerand activistFelicia Langer. TheseChains
thatMust be Broken,1a collection of his writingson prison conditions,under
Israeli occupation, includes the account of an exchange withone of his clients.
During a discussion,fromtheirrespectivepositions,of the unsatisfactory
conditions,the lawyercommentson the excessivecrowdinginside the cells. The
crowding is so extreme, he says, it is as if the detainees were "packed in like
Walid al-Fahum, Wa la budda li-l-qaidin yankasiru(These Chains That MustBe Broken),Acre,
Maktabat al-Jalil,n.d. The texts in this volume were originallypublished in newspapers between
1974 and 1977.

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Cartoonreads:- One eye on my homeland.

- And the other
eye on my son
in Israeli prisons.
By thePalestiniancartoonist,
Naji al-Ali. Assassinated
in London.August1987.

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sardinesin a can." The prisoner,however,responds,"No, myfriend,"and when

al-Fahum expresses surprise at his answer, the prisoner adds, "We are like
matches in a book of matches." Asked to explain, he replies, "Sardines are
arrangednext to each otherin the can withthe head of one next to the tailof the
other.Witha book of matches,the heads of all the matchesare facingin the same
direction" (p. 163).
The prison writingsof politicaldetainees, of men and women, in Israel as
elsewhere throughoutthe world, offera critique not only of the rulingsystems
that have incarcerateddissidents,but of the veryinstitutionof literatureas an
autonomous arena of activity.That critique is generated no matterwhat the
characterof the regime- "liberal democrat," "socialist," or that of a "military
dictatorship."Literature,when abstractedfromthe historicaland institutional
conditionsthat informits production- and its distribution
-serves in the end
to underwritethe repressivebureaucratic structuresdesigned to maintain national borders and to police dissent within those borders. The literatureof
politicaldetention,composed in prison,is bycontrastnecessarilypartisan,polemical, and collective.It is writtenagainstthoseverystructuresof dominanceand of
an historicaltraditionof literaturethat legislatedthe isolationand the political
neutralityof both literatureand literarycritic.Prisonwritingdemands a reading
that runs counter to the passivity,aesthetic gratification,and the pleasures of
consumptiontraditionallysanctionedby theacademic discipliningof literature;it
demands an activistapproach.
Such is the imperative articulated in the exemplary firstarticle in alFahum's volume "Pages froma Student'sNotebook in the Occupied Land." The
lawyer describes, in this anecdotal lesson, two models of counter-strategy
reading. They are determinednot by traditionsof literarydistance or of poetic
license,but ratherby the materialand politicalconditionsof militaryoccupation
and of economic and politicaldisenfranchisement.
Accordingto the firstof these
exempla, "in the long street,under the lightof the streetlamps,severalTulkarm
studentsare escaping the [noise of the] song of Abd al-Halim [a popular Egyptian
film star and recording artist]-'Lamplight.' . . . Their familieshave many
childrenand the suffocating
atmosphereis not conducive to study,eitherat night
or in daytime.The childrenhave developed a serioushabitof studyingwhileout
walkingby day and standingunder the public streetlightsat night" (p. 7). In the
second example, al-Fahum describesthe innovativepractice of reading "upside
down" (bi-1-maqlub)necessitatedby restrictedeconomic circumstances.Because
thereis not enough moneyto provide books foreach child,theymustboth learn
fromthe same book. Facing each other when seated at the table, then,theyread
fromopposite sides of the book (p. 7).
The economic and politicalconditionsof occupation and dispossessionthat
have disruptedthe ideal of the splendidsolitudeof scholarlypursuitshave made
of learninga collectivestreetactivity.They have inspiredas well,over decades of
repression, the emergence of an organized Palestinian resistance movement

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for the
demanding liberationof the land and autonomyand self-determination
people livingunder occupation. The Israeli militaryoccupation has responded to
this challenge by its opponents to its oppressive authoritywith consistentand
massivedetention,oftenwithouttrial.In prison,however,and withinthe frameof
work of the collective work of political opposition,those counter-strategies
developed as criticalweapons in the struggleitself.The theoreticaland practical
reconstructionof the siteof politicalprisonas a "university"forthe resistance,a
trainingground for its cadres, is more than a literarytopos or metaphoric
embellishmentin the writingsof political detainees, whether from occupied
Palestine,South Africa,El Salvador, NorthernIreland, or the United States.

In his novel Requiemfor a Woman'sSoul, the Argentiniannovelist-in-exile

Omar Rivabella narrativizesthe radical exigencies of a criticalreading of the
literatureof politicaldetention,incarceration,and torture.The storyopens in a
local church, at early morning mass, when Father Antonio sees amongst the
congregationa woman "alone in the lastrow of pews, hugginga large cardboard
box, thatpartiallyhid her face,on her lap."2 That box, leftwithFatherAntonio
by the unknownwoman afterthe mass is over, contains,underneath"an intense
odor as of a mixture of urine and human excrement" (p. 5), a collection of
"abundant wads of paper." At once repelled and intriguedby the box and its
confusedcontents,the prieststruggleswithhis politicalconsciousness,his moral
conscience, and his human curiosity.Eventually,however, his daily pastoral
routine is transformedinto the painfuldecipheringof the words on the many
decomposed pieces of paper (matchbooks,toiletpaper, newspapermargins,the
foil fromcigarettepackages) into the chronologicalordering of the storythey
tell. The reconstructionof the "diary of an unknownwoman" (p. 7), is another
story,that of the arrest,torture,and presumed death of "Susana."
Requiemfor a Woman'sSoul, a workof counterpoint;itscomponentsare the
dated recomposedfragmentsof Susana's writingsand FatherAntonio's italicized
account of his paradigmaticexperience withtextualediting,his encounterwith
the contentsof the woman's box. He findshimselfmentionedby name on a piece
of paper, togetherwitha referenceto one Nestor,and realizes his own recondite
implicationin the historyhe is piecingback together:"I had been Susana's family
priest in my previous parish" (p. 17), and, he recalls, Susana had once introduced him to her friend Nestor as "the priest who will marry us"
(p. 17). His involvementwiththe reconstructionof the diaryleads firstto Father
Antonio's neglect of his officialpriestlyduties towards his parishionersand to
chasteningremindersfrom his bishop. There follow the denunciations in his

Omar Rivabella, Requiemfor a Woman'sSoul, Harmondsworth,Penguin, 1986, p. 3.

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sermonsof the growingcorruptionof the nationalbureaucracy,whichbringhim

visitsfrom the police commissionerand an army captain. The searing task of
editing the tortured woman's diary, her daily notations challenging his daily
routine, progressivelyleads Father Antonio back into the communityto Rosa
and the "mothersof the childrenlost to the forcesof repression" (p. 56).
Writteninto the body of Susana's dismemberedand dislocated story,as
Father Antonio learns,is the furtheraccount of the text's own production:the
way in which,togetherwith two of the detainees, Alicia and Luisa, whom she
meets in the prison yard, the woman prisoneragrees to the project of writing
about her detentionand commissioningit for "publication" by Father Antonio.
The other women continueto provide Susana withthe fewscrapsof paper they
are able to retrieve here and there from the prison's refuse, and it is these,
covered withSusana's writing,thatare eventuallydeliveredto FatherAntonioat
thatfated morningmass. By the time he has completed his demanding editorial
work upon the still truncated,still incompletediary,Father Antonio has been
voluntarilyrelievedof his pastoralresponsibilities.Evading the supervisionof his
companions assigned to look afterhis health and mental stability,he seeks out
Susana's parents. He findsthem, old and decrepit,beset by anxiety,in a rundown house in a well-to-doneighborhood.Susana's father,once a physician,now
sitsmesmerizedby the visionof a largejar in his small laboratory:"Inside were
two hands, severed at the wrists.One of them bore a ringon the middle finger.
Together they floated in the bloody liquid, in a macabre ballet. There was
Susana's engagementring" (p. 114). The clandestinestrategiesof prisonwriting
here calls for a new political responsibilityon the reader-criticoutside, the
responsibilityto mobilize still larger popular and literaryconstituenciesin the
reworkingof narrativesnot limited to the text but participatingin a larger
Requiemfor a Woman'sSoul ends withan epilogue, the copy of a lettersent
by Rosa, one of the "mothers of the disappeared" in Father Antonio's local
congregation,to the novelistOmar Rivabella in New York City,containingwhat
mightbe the finalwords of the priestnow hospitalizedin the National Institute
of Mental Health: "He took myhands,just as he used to when he comfortedmy
sorrows,and pronounced some unintelligiblewords. Then he pulled fromhis
shirtpocket a piece of paper he seemed to have prepared forthislast interview.
He gave it to me and said in an enthusiastictone, 'To him,send it to him.' On the
piece of paper was your name and address" (p. 116). This "piece of paper," no
less than the carton withthe "abundant wads of paper" that Susana had leftto
FatherAntonio,calls fora responseother than thatofferedto the literarylegacy
addressed to a posthumousreadershipor a university
archive.That is no naturalized transmissionto posterityof a letteredcorpus. Rather,it demands a political
critique of the institutionalizedcomplicity,political and economic, that transcends national borders and geo-politicaldivides such as that between Firstand
Third Worlds. In Argentina, for example, prisons and detention camps, the

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Catholic Church, even the family,and the metropolitanpublishingindustryare

implicated.In TheBodyin Pain, Elaine Scarryhas distinguishedthe combination
of two languages of pain - AmnestyInternationallettersand "poems and narrativesof individualartists"-as breakingthroughthe resistanceof physicalpain
to "objectification"in language. Father Antonio's own slip of paper in Omar
Rivabella's novel proposes a rethinkingby way of reading and writingof the
contestatorypossibilitiesthat these several institutionalsites contain.4
By virtueof its publicationby Penguin Books, the traditionalguardian of
the classicsin paperback and a major arbiterin the selectionand disseminationto
a mass but choice public of contemporaryworksand writers,Rivabella's novel
Requiemfor a Woman'sSoul can be said to participatein the institutionalnetwork
denounced by the screamsof torturedpoliticalprisonersand challenged by their
counter-strategiesof writing.That participationis, however, a critical one,
wherebycomplicityin the structuresof institutionaldominationcan be remade
as an act of collaborationwithina largerproject of collectivecounter-resistance.
While the novelistRivabella radicallyrecast the fragmentsof Susana's makeshift
prisondiarywithinhis contrapuntalnarrative,another novelist,Hernan Valdes,
has found his novel-in-progress
subjected to a differentkind of literarycritique
thereforeanticipatedby membersof the acathan that generallyprovided
demic establishment.
Valdes, a Chilean writer,was arrestedon February 12, 1974, in the repression immediatelyfollowingthe CIA-assisted overthrowof Salvador Allende's
Popular Unity government. He was held for just over one month in Tejas
Verdes, one of Chile's concentrationcamps, or what Valdes refers to as a
"political detergencyapparatus,"5 until his release on March 15, 1974. His
Camp, was, as he writesin the
prison memoir,Diary of a Chilean Concentration
be inconceivablefor anyone
under such conditionsto findthe means of producinga writtentext,quite apart
from the impossibilityof achieving a state of mind that would allow one to
attemptsuch a thingin the firstplace)" (p. 5). At the timeof his arrest,Valdes, as
author, was writingwhat he thoughtof as a political novel. That same novel,
however,became at one pointduringhis detentionthe focusof his interrogation,
and the question as to its form and content abrasively posed to him by his
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmakingof the World,Oxford, Oxford
UniversityPress, 1985, p. 5.
Fictionand Architecture
John Bender's ImaginingthePenitentiary:
ofMind in Eighteenth-Century
England, Chicago, Universityof Chicago Press, 1988, argues the relationbetween narrativeclosure
and the developmentof the modernpenal institution.What I would like to propose here is narrative
as a way of "re-imaginingthe penitentiary."
Hernan Valdes, Diary of a Chilean Concentration
Camp, trans.Jo Labanyi, London, Victor
Golancz, 1975, p. 6. See also Jean Franco, "Death Camp Confessionsand Resistanceto Violence in
Latin America," Socialismand Democracy,
no. 2 (Spring/Summer,1986).

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criticsforceda reexaminationon his partof hisown

It led, moreover,to a reconsiderationof the
role and responsibility
such as his are constituted,appreciated,
and judged. "What's your novel about?'" the interrogatorsask.
This question throwsme more thananythingelse. My memorygoes a
completeblank. Wheneveranyone's asked me thatkindof question in
the past I've alwaysfeltincapable of replying,but in previousinstances
it was different.This time I have to say something,I can feel their
breath on my face, their fistsare at the ready. There's no plot, it's a
novel of situations.I reduce what I thoughtwas an existentialdrama
to a romance for shorthand typists.Maybe that's all it was. I feel
wretched.(p. 38)
This author, brutallyinterrogatedby the servants of the state, can no
longeravoid criticalpressure;he cannot hide behind his worknor claimjudicial
impunityon the "new criticalgrounds" thatthe work"speaks foritself."Indeed,
the academicallysanctionedquestion,"What's yournovel about?" whenasked in
the contextof torture,disappearance,and politicaldetention,exposes the coercive machineryof political containmentthat is complicitouslyprescribed by
certainestablishedliterarycriticalpractices.The writerthen chooses an alternative that is not freeof compromise:"I reduce what I thoughtwas an existential
drama to a romance for shorthandtypists."Such a "reduction" and the feeling
of "wretchedness" that it would seem to produce for the writer's sense of
professionalexcellence raises,however,stillanotherquestion,thatof the relation
between "high art" and "mass culture." The criticalinquiriesposed by the state
to replot his
apparatus, "fistsat the ready," force Valdes the writer-prisoner
narrativeand therebyto rearticulate,ifonly temporarily,and in the mostprovisional way, his social and political relation to his readership, even to rethink
implicitlywho thatreadershipmightbe. Is he, thatis, writingexistentialdramas
for a letteredelite, or romances for shorthandtypists?And what would be the
differencebetween the two projects?
Prison writingis often prefaced by a criticalapologia -such as Hernan
Valdes's statementthat his diary was not writtenin situbut was "reconstructed
afterthe event." Excuses forlimitationsof styleand literarytechniqueare not to
be taken forthe disarmingdisclaimersof false modestyor for tacitacknowledgmentof "literarystandards." Rather,theybespeak both the coercivepressuresof
traditionalabstractideals of "art" and "culture" and the antisystemicpossibilities for submittingthose same ideals to the political and material demands of
historicalconditions and priorities.Thus, in the prologue to Ana Guadalupe
Martinez'sLas CarcelesClandestinasde El Salvador,6the narrativeof incarcera6.
Ana Guadalupe Martinez,Las CarcelesClandestinasde El Salvador, Sinaloa, Mexico, Universidad Autonomia de Sinaloa, 1980.

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tion and torturein 1976 as a guerrillaand member of the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) in El Salvador's secret prisons, Rene Cruz locates the
woman commander's memoiras necessarilyintegralto the larger revolutionary
[The book] is an initialeffortto write the historyof our revolution
fromthe trenchesof combat themselvesand not fromthe comfortable
desks of inconsequentialbystanders.In thissense we are not going to
findhere in the textany literarypretentionsof a recherchestyle.It is
time now that the revolutionariestransmitin an effectiveway their
experience to our people in theirown language, witha sensibilitythat
the people understandand have lived. Much concreteexperience has
been lostfornot havingbeen processed and transmitted.Stillanother
part has been essentiallydeformed for having been elaborated by
leftizing(izquierdantes)intellectualintermediarieswho adjust it not to
the necessitiesof the revolutionbut to a bourgeois fictionalization
theorizationof the revolution.(p. 12)
Nearly ten years later,in April 1985, Nidia Diaz, herselfa commandante
the FMLN-FDR, the now-combinedresistanceorganizationsof El Salvador, was
arrestedin a helicopterraid on guerrillabases in the mountainsof San Vicente.
The prisonrecord of Ana Guadalupe Martineznow served her as an example of
detainees' oppositionalstrategies.These strategiesin turn become writteninto
her own prisonmemoir,Nunca EstuveSola, of whichDiaz has said, withregardto
the putativeliterarycriticswho would preferCommandanteNidia as an autobiographeror diaristthanas a revolutionaryleader, "I am told thatI have put more
of my revolutionaryideology than my personal emotions into my book. But in
prison,ifyou don't hold fastto yourconvictions,yourideology,you are lost.You
can displaynothingpersonal to your captors and interrogators.Nor did I want
to. And afterwardsthissame thingcame out as I sat down to write.I lived prison
minute by minute, guarded and resistant."7 For Maria Lopez Vigil, in her
presentationof the volume, Nunca Estuve Sola stands as an example of "how
books are and how theyare made in times of war. With urgencyand without
much polish, in hatchetstrokes(a hachachosde esfuerzos),keeping problemsof
style"in the schoolbag" (a mochila),and withthe clear objective of assistingin
the reconstructionand interpretationof an immediatehistory.With the dream
of contributingsomethingto the transformationof the historyof war into a
historyof peace" (p. 8).
Penal institutions,despite their functionas part of the state's coercive
apparatus of physicaldetentionand ideological containment,provide the critical

Nidia Diaz, Nunca EstuveSola, San Salvador, UCA Editores, 1988, p. 8.

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trainingspace foralternativesocial and politicalpracticesof counter-hegemonic

resistancemovements.Crucial to such practices,at once cultural and political,
are the narrativemeans wherebyprison is represented in literature,and the
multiplecontestatoryroles played by literaturein the prisonitself.Accordingto
H. Bruce Franklin'sPrisonLiteraturein America,a studyof the "victimas criminal and artist,"prisonsin the United States,where thereis no recognitionof the
"political prisoner," have contradictorilyserved to reeducate their inmates in
radical self-constructions
through writingthat ultimatelychallenges the state's
withinthe parametersdemarcatedby the penitentiary
walls. "My subject," writesFranklin,
is literaturecreated by those membersof the oppressed classes who
have become artistswith words through their experience of being
defined by the state as criminals.. . . The authors' "crimes" are
mostlythose peculiar to the condition of povertyand forced labor:
refusalto work; desertionand escape; mutinyand revolt;revolution.
Their art expresses the experience of being legallykidnapped, plundered, raped, beaten, chained, and caged-and the understanding
that results.8
Unlike the political detainee, however, Franklin's"criminalnarratoris sharply
marked off from the reader. He or she speaks as a lone 'I'-an
outlaw, a
societyin general, or, more usually,a respectable reading public, incarnate in the reader"
(p. 126).
The intimateideological relationshipbetween criminaland political prisarticulatedand managed by various governmentsand judicial
oner, differently
systems,has criticalconsequences for the practicaland theoreticalorganization
of resistance movements,both inside and outside the prison. For criminals,
whetherconvictedof pettytheft,prostitution,murder,or simplysocial deviance,
the experience of prison can, given particulartimesand circumstances,provide
the historicallynecessaryconjuncturalpremise for recastingthe narrativeof an
individual"crime" as generated by a sociopoliticalsystemof economic exploitaPoliticalprisonersin turn,when confined
tion and politicaldisenfranchisement.
to reformulateideological constructs
withregard to "the people" and interactionbetween a vanguard partyand its
supposed popular constituencies.Prison, then, as an always already immediate
politicalfactforboth paid and self-appointedguardiansof the stateas well as for
its organized opposition, continues to insiston the ever-renewednecessityof
The "criminals" imprisoned over the last two centuries by the United
H. Bruce Franklin,Prison Literaturein America:The Victimas Criminaland Artist,Westport,
Connecticut,Lawrence Hill and Co., 1982.

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Statespenal systemwhose writingsinformFranklin'sproposal forreconstructing

the "victimas criminaland artist"insistently
remindthe criticthat"Whereas the
is extraordinaryor even unique,
most currentautobiographicalwritingfromprison intendsto show the readers
that the author's individualexperience is not unique or even extraordinary,but
typicaland representative"(p. 250). Franklinsuggeststhat "In truth,it maynot
be going too far to say thatthe prisonand the universityprovide the contradictorypoles definingthe fieldof aesthetics,as well as some other areas, forin our
societythe two main competingintellectualcentersmay be the universitiesand
the prisons" (p. 235). This preliminaryconclusionmightbe extended by considering the writingsproduced out of the experience of "politicalprison" in a way
such that,whilerepresenting"contradictorypoles," prisonand the university
also seen to functionas complicitparts of the same operational systemof state
control of dissentand the containmentof anti-systemic

The state and its apparatus of politicaldetentionhave, as theirclear goal,

the isolationof the oppositionleadershipfromitsbase of popular supportin the
larger community.However, that strategyis being disarticulatedand turned to
other ends through the differently
reconstitutedsocial and political relations
across the prison walls between incarceratedmilitantsand the population outside. Already in 1927, when Antonio Gramsci was sentenced to twentyyears,
fourmonths,and fivedays imprisonment,the prosecutorat his trialhad argued
on behalf of the state that "We must prevent this brain fromfunctioningfor
twentyyears." Gramsci's self-proposed"adjustment" to an extended period of
confinementand physicaland worldlyisolationthatwould claim the betterpart
of his life,the middle yearsof his manhood and paternity
-indeed, as it turned
out, would confiscateall the rest of his life-involved the organization of a
major plan of study. The mind that the prosecutor wanted to "prevent from
functioningfor twentyyears" produced instead a writtencorpus of political
theory,Gramsci's "prison notebooks."
That corpus also includes the letterswrittenover a period of ten years. In
an early letter (March 1927), from a Milan prison, to his sister-in-lawTania,
Gramsci wrote, "You see, I'm haunted-and this, I think,is a phenomenon
quite familiaramong prisoners-by an idea, thatit is necessaryto do something
fur ewig. . . . In short,I want,accordingto a prearrangedplan, to occupymyself
withsome subject which will absorb me and prointensivelyand systematically
vide a central channel for my inner life."9 Writingto Giuseppe Berti,a fellow

AntonioGramsci,PrisonLetters,trans.Hamish Henderson, London, Zwan Publications,1988,
p. 45.

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communist,however,Gramscireproached himself,a fewmonthslater: "I'm not

doing any work;you can't call reading workwhen it's purelyand simplyreading
I receive a fewbooks from
forpleasure. I read a great deal, but unsystematically.
outside, and I read the books fromthe prison libraryweek afterweek, taking
whateverI get fromthe farthingdip" (p. 63). Two years later,again to Tania,
the veteranpoliticalprisonerwas givinginformedadvice on how a prisonercan
use his time "to advantage." Firstof all, Gramsci insists,it is necessary"to rid
oneselfof the mentalovercoat of academicism,and not cherishthe vain illusion
thatone can pursue regular and intensivecourses of study;thatsortof course is
out of the question,even forpeople in less difficult
on to add that "Neverthelessit's my opinion that a politicalprisonermust find
waysand means of squeezing blood froma stone. The main thingis to do one's
reading witha certainend in view,and to take notes (ifone is allowed to write)"
(pp. 92- 93).
One of Gramsci's main correspondents,an importantvisitor,and a provider to him of reading and studymaterialsas well as news of world eventsand
partycomrades, was Tania, his wifeJulia's sister.To Julia,however,or Julca as
he oftenaddressed her in his letters,GramsciwrotefromTurin prisonin 1931:
"You intend,you say, to study. . . wouldn't it be a good idea to studycertain
things which interestme too and so start a correspondence with me about
material which is of interestto the two of us because it is a reflectionof the
presentintellectuallifeof [theirsons] Delio and Giuliano?" (p. 184). The student
of politicaltheoryand imprisonedpartymilitantwas findingthatin detentionhis
own sons were inevitablyestranged fromhim, livingnow in Russia where they
had gone with their mother. Julia, furthermore,like Gramsci's own mother
before her, was concealing fromtheirchildren the factof their father'sdetention (243n). The tormentedneed to rethinkradicallytheiraffectivebonds and
maritalloyaltieshauntsGramsci'slettersto his wife:"We musthurlall that'spast
into the flames and build new lives from the ground up. Why should we let
ourselves be crushed by the lives we've led up to now? There's no sense in
preservinganythingat all but what was constructiveand whatwas beautiful.We
must get out of the ditch, and throwoffthat sillytoad sittingon our hearts"
(pp. 225-226). Political reconstructionsof organized opposition and party
structuresare shown to reverberate on the most intimate level of personal
relationshipsas well, and new modes of articulatingthose relationshipsdemand
passionateand painfulnew elaborations.As Rosa Luxemburg wrotetwo decades
earlier fromprison in Zwickau to her "comrade and lover" Leo Jogiches,addressinghim in the feminineappellative of Leonie to avoid prison censorship,
"When I left,you promisedyou'd read one book a day. Do you?You must,I beg
you!Now I appreciateagain the value of makingseriousbooks a partof dailylife.
It saves the mind and the nervoussystem.But Marx, you know, ends up by

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making me angry. I stillcan't get thebetterof him.I keep gettingswamped and

can't catch my breath."10

The experience of prison, fromstate apparatus to prison counterculture,

and its impact on the larger society,proposes new prioritiesand agendas for
politicalorganizingand culturalmobilizationwithcriticalimplicationsforalteras well. "Prison," forMolefe Pheto,
ing the curriculaof otherpublic institutions
"politicalprison,is a university."" Pheto, a South Africanwriter,and organizer
of MDALI (Music, Drama, Artsand LiteratureInstitute)in Soweto, spenta year
in South Africanprisonsin 1975-76 just prior to the Soweto uprisingsin June
1976. His prison memoir,And NightFell, narrates his de-education, his reappraisalfrominside the cementblock wallsof the prisoncompound of the ivy-covered walls of universityquadrangles. His prison experience, which includes
interrogation,the attemptto establishcommunicationwithfellowprisonersfrom
other organizations,and the effortto enlist the aid of sympatheticguards,
provides the foundation for his radical critique of his academic credentials,
and forhis reeducationas a
grantedby westernor western-sponsored
struggleagainst apartheid. Pheto, at the time of his arrest,
was a memberof the PAC, or Pan AfricanistCongress,whichhad broken away
fromthe AfricanNational Congress(ANC) in the late 1950s on the basis of their
programthatemphasized black Africanresistanceto the structuresof apartheid,
as distinguishedfrom the multiracialismof the ANC. Pheto remained a PAC
partisan,but his politicalreeducationin the prisonwas assistedby variousgroups
representedthere: the torturersand interrogatorswhose "language" he must
learn if he is to succeed in not communicatingany informationto them; imprisoned membersof the ANC whose politicaltacticsand ideological analysesdiffer
fromhis own; the childrenof the townshipswho understandas well as Pheto the
meaning of the word "politics." On more than one occasion, Pheto is asked,
across the barriers of enforced isolation, by supposed "criminals," why he is
being held in solitaryconfinement.His effortsto define political detention
usually reveal to him instead the heightened degree of political consciousness
thatcharacterizesthese "criminals."Indeed, it is the mostcommoncriminals,the
women,the prostitutesand shebeen queens, who, by makingavailable to himthe
new rhythmsand songs to which people are now dancing in Soweto, are most
effectivein reintegratingthe partymilitantinto the politicsof popular resistance.

Rosa Luxemburg, Comradeand Lover:Rosa Luxemburg'sLettersto Leo Jogiches,trans.and ed.

Elzbieta Ettinger,Cambridge, Massachusetts,MIT Press, 1981, p. 137.
Molefe Pheto, And NightFell: Memoirsofa PoliticalPrisonerin SouthAfrica,London, Allison
and Busby, 1983, p. 195.

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Carol Ackroydand the three co-authorsof The Technology

ofPoliticalControl address "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland and the concerted British
judicial and technologicalresponse to the organized NorthernIrish resistance,
especiallythat of the ProvisionalIRA, to Britishmilitaryoccupation of the Six
Counties. They raise more generallythe currentissue of a "new type of weaponry,produced by the applicationof science and technologyto the problemof
neutralizationof the state's enemies."12 The authors are all members of the
BritishSociety for Social Responsibilityin Science (BSSRS), founded in May
1969, just a few monthsprior to the battleof Bogside foughtin Derry between
NorthernIrish Catholic residentsof the area and Protestantmilitiaand constabulary with the eventual assistanceof the Britisharmy. The battle of Bogside,
whichfollowedupon a series of civilrightsmarchesin NorthernIreland in late
1968 and early 1969, marked the firstand one of the most extensive uses by
Britishtroops of CS gas againsta civilianpopulation in the United Kingdom. It
announced as well the arrivalof the Britisharmyforcesin NorthernIreland and
the beginningof an occupation more than two decades long. This escalation of
the "technologyof politicalcontrol" was followedtwo yearslater,in the summer
of 1971, by the introductionof rubber bulletsto be used, it was claimed, in the
nonlethaldispersalof riotous crowds and, in August of that year, by the use of
torture,knownas "depth interrogation,"in the questioning
of internedIRA suspects.
Writingin 1977, the fourBritishscientistsindicatedby wayof introductory
remarks that their "approach . . . may seem a curious amalgam of technological expose and politicalanalysis.It is not a particularlyfamiliaror apparently
natural one. But it is an approach which is being used more and more by
scientistswho are becomingaware of the politicalimplicationsof theirwork" (p.
11). Defining"technology"as "any device or method whichexploitsknowledge
fromany of the sciencesfromphysicsto psychology"(19n), theyargue throughout theirstudythat the "motives behind the technologyof politicalcontrolare
not humanitarian.These technologies are used by states to achieve specific
political goals" (p. 21). Such motivesare in particularassociated withwhat are
called "strong states," the liberal democracies in whichpower relationshipsare
largely veiled. The ever increasing incrementsof political control of internal
dissentare made in small,oftenimperceptible,steps such as greaterfundingof
the securityapparatus or expansion of the state bureaucracy.Equally significant
for these governments,however,are the uses of legal innovationsand sanctions
to ratify,for public consumptionand acquiescence, alterationsin the government's modus operandi. Much of the "technology of political control," the
authors indicate, used by Britain in Northern Ireland-computerized intelligence networks,etc.,as well as gas and plasticbullets-was firstdeveloped in the
Carol Ackroyd,Karen Margolis,JonathanRosenhed, Tim Shallice, The Technology
Control,Harmondsworth,Penguin, 1977, p. 11.

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Political Detention: Countering the University





1984. Back
reads: A plasticbullet is a solid cylinderof PVC
measuring4" X 11/2"and weighing43/4oz. Plastic
bullets are now available to many police forces
throughoutBritain.Plastic bulletshave killed
childrenand adults in NorthernIreland. Many
more have been maimed. .
.. Campaign against
Plastic Bullets.

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United States and imported by Britain. As Ackroyd and her fellow scientists
point out, these technologiesare designed to "maximize repression,subject to
the constraintthat any political backlash must be kept to manageable proportions. Backlash depends not on how harmlessthe technologiesare, but on how
harmlesstheyseem.'Humanitarianism,'then, is not an objective, but a propaganda claim" (p. 41). Afterall, as theysay, "It is easy enough to killpeople. It is
harder not to kill them,but to stop them all the same. 'Non-lethal' riot-control
technologyprovides governmentswith sophisticatedmethods for controlling
unrulypopulations. At the same time,it avoids the public outcrywhich results
fromoutrightmassacressuch as Bloody Sunday" (p. 197).
Torture in the twentiethcentury has its own material and ideological
Despite itslong history,datingback furthereven thanancientGreece,
where it was designed to elicit a confessionthat would sufficeas incriminating
evidence to convictand condemn the accused, torturetoday has acquired new
ends and a radical technologizationof its means. The attack on the personal
identityand the body of the victimis calculated now to undermine the social
body as well. Nor is it informationthatthe systemof power is, forthe mostpart,
concerned to extract.Torture in politicaldetentionis calculated ratherto produce propaganda and intimidate,if not destroy,the human and politicalconstitutionthat continuesto resist.The witnessingof tortureby the torturedyields,
however,another kind of information:the testimony,oftenclandestine,of the
political prisonerwho survives.The danger inherentin such testimonyis preciselythatrepresentedby the politicalprisonersthemselves,a danger responsible
fortheirdetentionin the firstplace. The concludingsectionof The Technology
PoliticalControlpresentsthisas a threefolddanger: "Firstly,there is the damaging effectof publicitysurroundingtheirtrialand imprisonment.Secondly,there
is the danger of increasingthe political commitmentof both political prisoners
and 'criminal'prisonerswho are exposed to theirinfluence,and of othersnot in
gaol. . . . Thirdly, there is the danger that political prisonerswill provide a
focus for the organizationof political movementswithinthe prisons" (p. 255).

While historically,
in the Middle Ages, in Latin America,or even as recently
as the 1960s in the United States, the university,or the academy, has served at
times as a recognized site of sanctuary,a countenanced alternativeor counter
of sovereignor statepower, thatformerly
space markedofffromthe institutions
acknowledged space is being ever more systematically
occupied by the various
coercive, ideological mechanismsof state domination.In Chile, for example, in
September 1973, withthe overthrowof the Allende government,troopsinvaded
the National Universityto arrestthose Popular Unitysupportersor even "neutral" observerswho had taken refuge there. Between 1980 and 1984, the Universityof El Salvador was occupied by the Salvadoran army,and professors,staff,

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administrators,and studentscontinue to be regular victimsof the paramilitary

death squads. In the United States,universityadministrationsof the 1980s had
repeated recourse to city,ratherthan campus,police to disperse-and arrestdemonstratingstudents. Palestinian universitiesand schools in the Occupied
closed more oftenthantheyare open. Indeed, in order
Territoriesare militarily
to accommodate the massivenumbersof detained protesterssince the beginning
of the intifada,the Israeli authoritieshave for certain periods used the closed
schools as makeshiftprison centers.
The threat that prisons and universitiespose to the state if not properly
disciplinedis told in a shortstory,published in May 1989,
policed or effectively
by the Israeli writerMatt Nesvisky."The Game's Up" relatesan attackby Navy
frogmenon a boat moored in internationalwatersoffthe coast of Israel. None of
the commandos involved in the operation knows what they will find there.
"Military intelligencehasn't determined if it's drug-smuggling,gun-running,
or terrorism.But we do knowthe gamblingis a frontforsomething
job is to findit. Any more questions?Okay, men, afterme-and
attack is carried throughsuccessfullyand the ship's gamblers
are "herded into the central lounge." But there is stillthe locked door belowdecks. When this final obstacle is opened with plastic explosives, the Israeli
frogmenconfrontfortyWest Bank pupils and their teacher. "'I suspected as
much!'Bar-Bariansnorted.'A clandestinematriculationclass! In the name of the
Civil Administration,I herebyarrestyou for illegal education!'"'s

"Illegal education," the kind practicedclandestinelyoffshoreor in underground prison cells, proposes a counter to the university.Although it may not
bring about its effectivedismantling,it can at least facilitateindividualor even
collectiveescapes fromprison. EscapefromPretoriais Tim Jenkin'saccount of
how he, in the company of two other prisoners, Stephen Lee and Alex
Moumbaris,accomplished their escape fromPretoria Prison's "New European
Section" on December 11, 1978. Although,as Jenkinclaims,"For us an escape
was a politicalact, not an individualflightforfreedom,"14 the veryescape plans
themselvesinvolved considerable controversyamong the ten detainees held in
theirsectionof the facility.Arrestedin 1978 and charged under Section Six of
the Terrorism Act, Jenkinhad been sentenced to twelve years imprisonment.
Lee, his coworker in the distributionof "illegal pamphlets" for the ANC, received an eight-year sentence. Their fellow prisoners included Denis
Goldberg, one of the Rivonia group from 1964 serving three life sentences.
Other of the detainees were in variousstagesof sentencesrangingfromseven to

Matt Nesvisky,"The Game's Up," TheJerusalemPost, May 26, 1989.

Tim Jenkin,EscapefromPretoria,London, KliptownBooks, 1987, p. 95.

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Stagesof makinga woodenkeyand

forDoor Two. (From

London,KliptownBooks. 1987.)

twelve years. Lee and Jenkin's trial had been one of extreme frustrationfor
them, for despite their own political convictions,they had submittedto their
lawyers'decision to appeal to the mercyof the court.Jenkindescribes the two
prisoners' reaction to the sentence when the proceedings were concluded: "In
the cells below, the two of us feltsick. Not because of the sentencesimposed on
us, but because we'd failedto raise our fistsand shoutAmandla!- "Power!" as is
fittingand proper for political prisonersto do when sentenced. Why had we
succumbed to the appeals of our lawyers?"(p. 65). The decision to escape then
was construedas a challenge,at once personal and political,to the South African
court and its penal institutions.

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The debate among theirfellowprisoners,however,concerningthe nature

of that challenge was such as to engage stilllarger and more complex issues of
political organizationand strategiesof resistance:
While our unityand comradeshipwas our greatestsource of strength
it was also the source of the controversiesthatarose over the planning
of the escape. A failed attempt,everyoneknew,would lead to severe
disruptionand threatenthe unitywhich gave us our strength.The
differencesarose out of this: some feltthat the preservationof unity
was paramount; those bent on gettingout found it difficultto accept
that others did not displaythe same drive to get out. (p. 96)
For those who agreed, at various stages of the planning, to participatein the
escape attempt,other more detailed questions were raised: Was it necessaryto
"theorize" the escape before attendingto its practical exigencies? Should the
resistanceorganizationoutside be involved?And if so, in what ways?And so on.
In the end, and in part forcircumstantialreasons,thesequestionswere answered
negatively.The keyto the escape was to be in makingkeys,keysto the ten doors
that stood between the prisoners and freedom. Jenkin became, during his
monthsin prison,a masterlocksmith-and a skilled tailor,in order to remake
used prisonergarb into unidentifiablestreetwear.When the timecame, onlyone
door, the tenthand the last,refusedthe designatedkey,and it was necessaryto
force it open. The escape was successful-for the individualsinvolved- but it
was not withoutits consequences for others,both inside and outside the prison
The escape had profound consequences for many people: for our
comrades who stayedbehind it meant threeyearsof unhappyconfinementin the "condemned" sectionof PretoriaCentralwhereprisoners
awaiting execution are held; for political prisoners in other jails
around South Africait served as an inspirationand a boost to morale;
for a prominentmember of the ANC it meant an internationalkidtrialto
napping; for Sergeant Vermeulen it meant a five-month-long
prove his innocence; for several comrades in South Africa and my
brotherit meant detention,tortureand jail; forour enemy,the apartheid rulers,it meant a terribleembarrassmentand defeat; for Alex,
Steve and me it meant freedom and the chance to throw ourselves
back into the struggleagainst apartheid. (p. 231)
Many were the political lessons of theoryand practice stillto be learned.
Differentlessons,then,would figurein the partiallysuccessfulmass escape
IRA prisonersfrom "The
three years later in September 1983 of thirty-eight
the "H-blocks" as it is popularlyknown-in
Maze, Her Majesty'sPrison"-or
Northern Ireland. Recognized as the largestjail break in Europe since World
War II, the escape, which followed upon the blanket protests,the no-wash

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protests,the "dirty"protest(meaninghere, the smearingof excrementon prison

walls),and a seriesof hungerstrikesduringthe precedingyears,was constructed
out of the strictlydisciplined internal organization of the political prisoners
withinthe prison itself.Out of theMaze, Derek Dunne's account of the escape
based on interviewswithescapees-some recaptured,othersstillon the runand prison officialsand police alike, narratesthe developmentof that organization and the radical challenge it posed to Britain's "technology of political
control." The escape plans involved such extensive strategiesas "getting the
blockssolid" and establishingconnectionswiththe IRA outside whichwas to see
to the eventual transportand securityof the escapees, as well as the details of
smugglingin the needed weapons, settingup a communicationsnetwork,and
memorizingthe minutiae of the layout of the entire prison. The preparations
decision of who would go and who would staybehind.
also involvedthe difficult
On the day set for the escape,
the Provos would carryout the largestoperationin theirhistory.The
escape would be a morale booster,a propaganda exercise and would
put some of their most capable men back into circulation.And that
was the lastquestion thatneeded to be answered. Who was going out?
The lorrycouldn't take any more than fortymen. In H7 there 125
men in the Block. There was going to be some bad feelingon the day
when the takeovertook place, when some men would realise thatthey
had no part in the escape, that theywere going to be leftbehind.'5
In the end, an unanticipateddelay in the rounds of the food truckto be used in
the escape produced a confrontationat the prison'souter gate, and the truckwas
unable to go through.Only twenty-oneof its thirty-eight
passengersmanaged to
get out on foot,and manyof thesetoo were sooner or laterrecaptured.For those
who did elude prison, however,even escape did not necessarilymean untrammeled freedom: "The men from Belfastand Derry could not go home. They
would be recognized immediatelyif they went back to visittheir familiesand
friends.They underwenta period of adjustment,whichin some cases took years.
There were,of course, furtivemeetingswithfamiliesand loved ones southof the
border. But theyhad to break completelywiththeirpast" (p. 130).
Prison escapes, like Tim Jenkin'skey,even as theymateriallyand symbolicallychallenge the state'sapparatus of controland containment,and forall their
effectivenessin assistingthe resistance and its political and militarystruggle
outside, leave the state institutionof detention intact. The escapes do serve,
however,as blueprints,drafts,forthe projectof itsdismantling.Like "statements
fromthe dock" by politicalprisoners,the discursivecontestationsof thejudicial
Derek Dunne, Out oftheMaze: The True StoryoftheBiggest
Jail Breakin EuropeSincetheSecond
WorldWar, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1988, p. 59.

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Political Detention: Countering the University









Generalviewof HMP Maze showingescaperoute.

(From DererDunne's Out of the Maze. Dublin, Gill &

Macmillan. 1988.)

system,the escapes enact an emergent alternativehistorylesson, a collective

against the historyof dispossession,exploitation,and systemic
injusticeswaged by the state'sprisonsand universitiesalike. In 1964, priorto his
sentencingto lifeimprisonment,Nelson Mandela addressed the court assembled
in Pretoria's Palace of Justice: "I am the First Accused,"'16 he said, and proceeded to instructthose presentin the historyof South Africanresistance,from
the formationof the ANC in 1912 throughthe Defiance Campaign in the early
In Mary Benson, ed., The Sun WillRise, London, InternationalDefense and Aid Fund, 1976,
p. 11.

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1950s, the Sharpeville massacre in 1962, and including the establishmentof

Umkhonto wa Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, in 1961. Two years later,
Bram Fischer,who had been a lawyerforthe defensein the trialof Mandela and
othersdetained at Rivionia,addressed the same court fromthe dock: "I cannot
address any argumentto this court. What I can do is to give the court certain
factsregardingthe manner in which the criminallaw has come to be administo
tered in politicalcases in thiscountry.It presentsa picturewhichis horrifying
those brought up withtraditionalideas about justice." 17
In 1975, fouryoungpeople, threemen fromNorthernIreland and a young
Englishwoman,now knownas the "GuildfordFour," were convictedof the 1974
pub bombingsin the Englishtownsof Guildfordand Woolwichand sentencedto
some of the longest prison sentences ever imposed in Britain. In TimeBomb,
Grant McKee and Ros Franeytell the personal historyof these fourindividuals,
the crimeand its investigation,the trial-and the subsequentconfessionsto the
same crime, by four members of a Provisional IRA Active Service Unit in
London who had themselvesbeen arresteda year later. Tried and convictedfor
numerous other bombings, IRA member Joe O'Connell, acting against IRA
policy,whichrefusesto recognize the legitimacyof the Britishsystemofjustice,
rose to address the court fromthe dock followingthe proceedings:
We have recognized thiscourt to the extent that we have instructed
our lawyersto draw the attentionof the court to the fact that four
totallyinnocent people Carole Richardson, Gerard Conlon, Paul
Hill and PatrickArmstrong-are servingmassivesentencesforthree
bombings,two in Guildford and one in Woolwich. . . . Time and
again in Irish politicaltrialsin thiscountryinnocentpeople have been
convictedon the flimsiestof evidence, oftenno more than statements
and even "verbals" from the police. Despite the oft-repeatedclaim
that there is no such thingas a politicalprisonerin England . . .18
In October 1989, the convictionof the GuildfordFour was finallyreversed,and
Richardson, Conlon, Hill, and Armstrongwere released after fourteenyears
spentin Britishprisons.Hill issued a statementon his emergenceintofreedomin
whichhe asked, "We hope thatwe have breached the wall. . . . At the moment,
it's damage control- it's everybody'sdutyto insurethattheydon't shore up the
hole in the wall, so we can ensure that the BirminghamSix [held on similar
chargesand on equally dubious evidence] willeventuallyemerge. Then, perhaps,
we can finallysmash the wall-once and for all." 19

17. Ibid., p. 46.

Grant McKee and Ros Franey,TimeBomb:IrishBombers,
EnglishJusticeand theGuildfordFour,
London, Bloomsbury,1988, pp. 384-386.
Guardian, November 15, 1989, p. 15.

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In the United States, in El Salvador, in Israel, in South Africa,and elsewhere throughoutthe world,the workof politicalprisoners,their"illegal education," is challengingthe contemporaryuniversitystructureand the institutions
of state of whichit is a part to rethinkthe social and culturaltraditionsthatthe
universityhas inheritedand is engaged in reproducing.

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