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The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 7 no 2 (1994)
Screening Cultural StudiesEdited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller
In short, screen cultural studies in a cinema program looked a lot like reinvesting high aesthetic objects with a rejuvenating, recuperative name, and doing so without a great deal of preliminary material or guidelines. A further problem emerged in terms of the perniciously necessary perennialism of reflectionism. Sorry, but all textual analysis that claims a socio-political valency assumes that cultural products reflect their society in some partial, yet to be advised, manner which is then retrieved and explicated through acts of critique. Of course, that condemnation/acknowledgement of the inevitable applies as much to me as anybody else. And the second context for the paper was just this, being asked to give one of the keynote addresses to the Australian Teachers of the Media Conference for 1992. I was to speak in Fremantle's Energy Museum to a group of delegates who had just come down the Swan on a river cruise and were being fed and watered by caterers and wine merchants. My mission, should I accept it (which I did) was to give the ATOMicians a sense of Fremantle, but in a cosmopolitan, international way; a cultural critic's arresting lunchtime talk. This was the other source of what you are about to receive, though how it went down will be left to your gustatory imagination as you read further and imagine the video extract shown.
The point of this lengthy prolegemenon is that it accounts in part for the attempt to perform cultural studies on a filmic object in a way that deals with some of the systems and methods common to both disciplines, and to do so in a mode that makes explicit and - I hope - legitimises an overtly intertextual reflection that combines the deictic (Fremantle) with the distant (Frederick). The paper looks at three things: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies, recently seen at Australian film festivals; the Fremantle Prison museum, recently seen on visitor tours; and their collective implications for our understanding of what I shall call ethical zones.
The first thing to note about Titicut Follies is that although it was made a quarter of a century ago, only now is it available for public viewing. This is because of legal disputes over its invasion of privacy, its presentation of bodies, and the threat it posed to certain political, bureaucratic and therapeutic careers. The second thing to note is that it deals with the occupants of a hospital for the criminally insane. These occupants include doctors, warders, volunteers, filmmakers and, perhaps least spectacularly, forced residents. Some of the above comments could also be made about Fremantle Prison.
The initial fuss over this text arose because a former social worker read a newspaper report of the film which indicated that male genitals were prominently displayed. The fuss developed over the issue of privacy for the inmates and privacy for the career hopes of those responsible for them. Twenty years after it was made, Titicut Follies was used as evidence to have the prison it represents - the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater (MCI) - reformed.
This is a text of impact. It is such a text because it strikes at the fault lines which mark, uneasily, the intersection of public and private, where the shrine-like qualities of incarceration meet the forgetfulness of a public that sets aside its linen once that linen is sullied. As a viewer, you have two opportunities to be offended here; at least two. Firstly, you can be offended because of the depiction of mental illness, and criminal illness at that. Secondly, you can be offended because of the depiction of mens' dicks, and criminal dicks at that. I leave it up to you to find other ways to be offended.
Titicut Follies is a difficult film to follow. It moves backwards and forwards from a revue party of song and dance to interviews between doctors and patients, exercise-yard demagoguery, appeals to release boards, funerals, lady-of-the-manor largesse, cell-time, acts of resistance and response, strip searches, nudity, monologues, bath-time and a recurring hallway wander, a leit motif of Wiseman's work. This is associational narration; it works by prodding recollection and fear, suggestion-through-confrontation. It is not a horror film; in fact much of it is tame and oblique. But it decidedly deals with the abject, with that which we should rather get behind us. There is no narrative and no categorical imperative from the filmmaker. Wiseman sees his work as open-ended, in that whilst it interrogates ideological institutions, it offers no options for doing things any other way. That is for the spectator to decide. Viewers are offered not so much a document of policy, but an invitation to citizenship.
Because of this complexity, the spectator to the Follies is required to read keenly, to follow associatively. We move through an array of sequences that fold back onto one another. I am particularly concerned with a notorious sequence in the second reel, usually categorised as Part 6 of the text (shots 74 to 97 in the Theoretical count by Cunningham 137-39).
After a psychiatrist has told the inmate Mr Malinowski that '[i]f you don't eat food we are going to feed you with tube,' the prisoner is shot in close-up, zooming out to a medium shot of the screws as they apply restraints to his wrists and flank him. We cut to a close-up of the psych. sniffing liquid food. As the naked Malinowski is placed prone on a table, the zoom closes in on the shrink, who is smoking an endlessly ashing cigarette as he greases the appliances and shoves the tube into the patient-prisoner's nose, whose groin and eyes alone are covered.
Then this scene is abruptly interlaced for just two seconds via an extreme close-up of Mr Malinowski being shaved . His eyes are open, a fly is on his brow, and soap on his jaw. Then we are jagged back to the cigarette and its therapist prior to a series of edits which cut between the states of invasion and torpor until what is clearly the work of a mortician sees cotton buds work their way into the dead Malinowski's eyes. This is followed by a series of parallel movements between psychiatrist and mortician: one finishes with a fed Malinowski, the other with a dead one. The sequence re-establishes an equilibirum of sorts via a lingering view of the door behind which his coffin has been slid into a cooler.
It is a juxtaposition that invites some normalcy, but in fact is not anything of the sort, as the rapid montage effect might indicate if we think it through in terms of pace rather than image. Instead of a relief, a movement into the quotidian, this is the end of Mr Malinowski. He is being shaved for his burial.
How might we read this? I'll divide the options into the religious, the psychoanalytic, the cosmetic, the exhortatory, the voyeuristic and the anthropological. The point I am trying to establish is that we can do a lot more with such a segment than was allowed by the furore in courts of law, which sought, as we shall see, so fixed a meaning for the film (without great success).
Mr Malinowski is the man who has fallen from grace. Attempts to redeem him fail, so he must die publicly that we might live, live in normalcy, confirmed in a previously-passive distaste for the abjection of madness, a displeasure that is now rendered active. His passing, a regrettable but necessary corollary of a failure to participate fully in the dietetic economy, signals the way forward for the rest of us: obedience. He starved that we might eat.
The psychiatrist has the phallic authority of the Father's law. If his sons refuse him his power or seek to act independently, they must be symbolically castrated and any right of autonomy over their bodies removed. A punitive, retributive power must be swiftly and overtly exercised in response to such insurrection. And further transgressions must be dealt with by the ultimate sanction. Remember, many of these men are sex offenders (some are not, and some are just thrown in there awaiting trial, a wait of years in some cases). The suggestion is there - confirmed in one instance - that incest is afoot. This is the fundamental taboo that must not be broken, because it is the taboo which distinguishes fathers from others and protects their line from violation and despoliation.
We dress death. The passing of a life, however flawed its performance may have been as a life, is to be noted and respected. Part of that respect must involve a dressing of the body, its face as well as the rest, that restores the normalcy which attended its mythic innocence at birth. The signs of degeneration that designated a failure of lucidity can be allowed no life after death.
Something is rotten in the state of Massachusetts. The medical staff treat people as objects to be manipulated and despised, turned into creatures without a soul. The institution at Bridgewater requires investigation urgently; we must know about any similar breaches of humanitarian principles. Punishment and treatment should always be distillations from a caring cup of humanness. MCI is aberrant. It departs from correct methods of control, treatment and rehabilitation. It treats those classified as civically incapable in a way which, paradoxically, denies any civic conscience to liberalism in limit cases.
This process is sick. It's sick to show people so degraded. The film is deriving pleasure from the pain of others. Why should we look at this degradation? How do the relatives feel? We should turn away from such nonsense (it's too much fun).
Another Malinowski was a famous anthropological researcher. Consider the following precepts of his theoretical work, what he called the "General Axioms of Functionalism":
Culture is essentially an instrumental apparatus by which man is put in a position the better to cope with the concrete specific problems that face him in his environment in the course of the satisfaction of his needs...It is a system of objects, activities, and attitudes in which every part exists as a means to an end. (Malinowski 150)
For Wiseman, the textuality of film must be dedicated to institutions: the public institutions of his first dozen films, the private institutions of his next few, the international reach of the ones after that, and the impact which those institutions have on the bodies and means of sense-making available to those within their ambit. It is for us to determine whether or not these institutions, which framed and then concluded the life of a Malinowski, are functional: in whose interests they function. Finally on this sequence, a mnemonic point: anybody who has seen Bad Timing may remember the controversial scene when we intercut between Milena having her stomach pumped and Alex violating her body. If director Nicholas Roeg hadn't seen Titicut Follies, or Wiseman's Hospital, then I'm one of the unlucky monkeys from the latter's horrifying investigation of animal experimentation, Primate. Part of the reason for the controversy surrounding both sequences is concerned with the operation of the look. The controlling power of the look is a recurring theme in Titicut Follies, but not in neat shot-reverse-shot form. The eyeline match is more common, across shots of about half-a-minute's duration on average (Grant 57). Looks are exchanged between guards and guards, guards and prisoners, prisoners and prisoners, psychiatrists and prisoners, psychiatrists and psychiatrists, and all of the above - but especially the prisoners/inmates/patients - with the camera; and hence with the ultimate disciplinary gaze in cinema, that of the spectator. We are looking at what is locked away, to protect us from a physical and psychic darkness. The double effect of the musical revue sequence is to equate madness with the unacceptable side to playfulness, to draw out the implications of a tightly policed but undefinable distinction between madness and entertainment. What is presented is utterly mad. The maddest person of the lot is a leeringly unphlegmatic screw, whose delight in taniafoolery is equalled only by his craving of attention. Consider the impact of this creature singing a duet of "I Want to Go to Chicago Town" with an inmate (black, and of course unable to go fucking anywhere); and then consider the impact of that alongside Wiseman's sequence of a few minutes before in which the same guard mocks a black man for his colour (Armstrong "Titicut" 22, 30). As Christopher Ricks has argued, 'Wiseman's art constitutes an invasion of privacy': the privacy of the viewers, their right to be left undisturbed in any passive denial of the sometimes unsightly grout which holds their social world in a normal grid (161).
The career of this film is an unstable one; it moves dramatically along the track of political rectitude. At one moment, Titicut Follies is the darling of civil libertarians: Wiseman speaks out against the state, offering a voice to those silenced by the bonds of prison power. At another, the film is a bĂte noire, darkened by its invasion of the privacy of men too abject and incompetent to know the concept or seek to guard it. Some history to the film's career can explain this lineage.
In 1959, Wiseman was teaching a summer seminar in legal medicine at Boston University. His class toured MCI-Bridgewater. Why?
I took my students on visits to places that, either as prosecutors they might be sending people, or as defence attorneys their clients might end up.
At Bridgewater they saw:
Lonely, isolated men, inadequate medical and psychiatric facilities. Buildings dating from around 1855 [the same decade as Fremantle Prison], poorly heated and totally inadequate for that kind of care. But mainly isolated people without any contact with each other and desolate, wasted faces. (Quoted in Taylor 99)
Six years later, he approached the Institution's superintendent with a proposal to make a documentary. After initial difficulties, approval was granted, perhaps because it was thought that exposing the conditions would produce additional resources for the administration from a potentially chastened State government. Filming commenced in April 1966, just as the staff and inmates were about to perform "The Titicut Follies". Twenty-nine days of shooting followed by eleven months of editing saw 80,000 feet of film compressed into 32,000, with an eventual running-time of eighty-four minutes. During the edit, the Institution entered the headlines because of the escape of Albert De Salvo. Albert De Salvo was also known as "the Boston Strangler". After the editing process, Wiseman entered the text for consideration by a series of international festivals. Meanwhile, Titicut Follies was being shown in rough-cut form to various representatives of the State of Massachusetts, notably Atorney-General Elliot Richardson.
In September 1967, a review of the film was published in advance of its planned screening at a New York festival. As was indicated earlier, a former social worker used this review to frame a letter of complaint about the representation of full-frontal male nudity to various civil liberties luminaries and the Governor of Massachusetts. The State then claimed that it had always had censorship rights over the film. This was news to Wiseman. It raised some very interesting questions of image ethics, of who owns the ethical subjectivity of non-persons, those who have relinquished their civil rights. With legal threats afoot, Wiseman engaged Alan Dershowitz as his lawyer. (You may have read Dershowitz' name recently in concert with Mike Tyson's rape conviction.) Dershowitz claimed that oral consent from inmates was sufficient, and Wiseman also flourished those written consents which he had obtained. New York's Channel 13 showed excerpts on TV. An injunction was granted preventing screening in any form in Massachusetts, but in New York attempts to prevent a showing at the Film Festival were unsuccessful. Then it had a commercial release in the City. Meanwhile, further hearings were underway in Massachusetts, but they were brought into question when it was discovered that the noted ethnographic filmmaker Tim Asch had recorded and photographed the proceedings. Sensational allegations about the film emerged: that a prisoner was masturbating when his hand was in his pocket (who isn't?) and that a man with a hand upraised was parodying the Pope (same query) (Taylor 101).
A formal case began in November 1967. Wiseman was accused of three monstrosities: breach of oral contract permitting the State right of veto over material; invasion of privacy of an inmate, James Bulcock; and misdirection of profits (the State wanted moneys to be held in trust for the inmates).
Meanwhile, the prison guards were conducting their own case against the film. And in 1968, it was banned in Massachusetts over the questions of oral contract and invasion of privacy. (As the filmmaker points out, this is some privacy in an institution which invites 10,000 people a year to observe it in order to make them good social-work students or functionaries, and which incarcerates people precisely to deny them privacy (Wiseman 69-71).) In appeals, Wiseman gained support from the American Orthopsychiatric Association and the American Sociological Association. His defence was partially successful: Titicut Follies could be shown in Massachusetts, but only to special audiences of qualified therapists. Screenings had to be accompanied by a statement to the effect that Bridgewater had been reformed (note Wiseman's fabulously laconic way of complying, by re-stating the court order twice, once as a quotation and once as his own words. This concludes the film.). In 1969, the guardians of thirty-five inmates filed suit against the director. In 1971, the restraints on screenings were diminished, and Wiseman won against the guardians the following year. The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts finally supported unrestricted viewings in 1974. Three years later, the first public screening in the State was permitted. Then a university student, who had appeared in the film in a somewhat different life, protested that his privacy had been violated. In 1980, the State again sought to outlaw Titicut Follies. 1987 found Wiseman once more petitioning for the right to exhibit, with network TV screening segments. Then parts were quoted in a TV documentary on Bridgewater. In 1988, the State tried to locate men who had been in the film by placing advertisements in the newspapers. Respondents were then interviewed by an official of the court to decide whether they were competent to give consent; the official recommended unrestricted release. The following year, a conference in the grounds of the hospital included a screening, with Wiseman there, for the first time in twenty-three years. The State was no longer opposed to public exhibition, but two inmates were, and the judge presiding decided that identities should be facially blurred for any screening. Wiseman appealed and, finally, won (Anderson and Benson 161-73). Having established the trace of Titicut Follies, I want now to consider the wider implications of Wiseman's work for contemporary citizenship and then for our understanding of Fremantle Prison.
Frederick Wiseman has made dozens of documentaries. They cover a vast array of topics, held together as institutional optics placed over capitalist America. The films address the constitution of subjectivity: how discourses and institutions produce identity; and in the later texts, how that identity is exported. Again and again, we find Wiseman preoccupied with the notion of 'looking as the fundamental political activity in modern society' (Armstrong "Manoeuvre" 35). This shifts from the controlling gaze exercised in public institutions, in the early Titicut Follies, High School, Hospital and Primate, and onto the consuming gaze exercised in private ones, in the later Racetrack, Model and The Store. Here, the spectacle of commodities and the pleasure of looking at and then purchasing them is seen to segue with the spectacle of persons and the power of looking at and then defining them. The movies he's made outside the US, Canal Zone, Sinai Field Mission and Manoeuvre, explore how the American state operates as an external power, how it looks at what it commands or commandeers. This is the gaze of empire, re-disposing its systems of surveillance and control from the domestic space. Technologies of investigation are central to this world policing (Armstrong "Manoeuvre" 38-39).
Throughout Wiseman's work, we can discern the presence of what Dan Armstrong calls 'the political relations of looking...a moral-juridical apparatus that seeks out anomalies, defects, delinquencies, or other deviations from the norm' ("Titicut" 20-21). This is very much an apparatus of judgement, a practice of division between Manichean fields of the good and its distinct other. But it is a practice which is brought into question at the margins, the boundary-riding site where the difference between normal and not is routinely, but necessarily imperfectly, policed. Docility and utility amongst the people are guaranteed by such practices, practices which are divided between confinement, treatment and training. Wiseman points to an implicit co-optation, that until we identify what is bad, mad and dangerous to know, we cannot deny those aspects of ourselves and play others up. It is this address to the hitherto uncomfortably banal citizen that marks out Wiseman's work. Paradoxically, the design of his version of direct cinema aims to concentrate on the career of human subjects and entities in order that the significatory space between them can open up possibilities for action by viewers in their own social formations, as contemporary citizens.
The doctrine of direct cinema tries to get away from the complicitness of the camera in conventional regimes of representation, to dispense with the polite norms of picturing which are required by orthodox filmic literacy. Instead, direct cinema claims to be beholden to the material objects - and the relations between them - which are present in front of the camera. The recording device takes in what is before it in a comparatively non-distortionary way (Armstrong "Manoeuvre" 40). So the ideology of the social aspect to documentary is prevented from doing its work of seamless quilting, work which makes diegetic space and time singular and encourages spectators to conclude their experience of the text at the same time as their viewing of it. In contrast, direct cinema eschews a concentration on identifiable filmic characters and the mnemonic guide to an expressive totality of their human achievements or imperfections. Direct cinema moves away from such romantic stories and towards an engagement with the audience's knowledge of history and the social order. In place of asking how cinema holds together as a narrative, this poses implicit questions about mainstream documentary cinema's techniques of knowledge (such as interviews) mobilised to produce anecdotes and audience reactions (King 228-29). Wiseman's work stimulates the posing of difficult questions over what it is to be an ethical subject, and, equally, about the abject desire not to know about our abject selves. Example: Wiseman's film Primate details a research centre funded by the US military which looks at monkeys in order to develop techniques of behavioural manipulation. When the film was broadcast on national public TV in North America in 1974, the New York station screening it was deluged with criticism, a bomb scare and a threat to kill Wiseman (Cunningham "The Look" 88-89).
Such a cinema is somewhat different from cinema verite, with which it is frequently associated. Both seem to avoid mediation, or pretend to. But cinema verite is remorselessly individualistic; it will present a tormented individual subject on-screen in full flower. Leacock, Pennebaker, the Maysles and others have been chided for their pre-occupation with the famous and the spectacular: the hypernormal above us all. In contrast, the cast of Titicut Follies is enormous; no-one is selected for a character development that will dwarf anybody else (Atkins "Wiseman's" 2-3). Wiseman calls cinema verite a 'bullshit phrase'. In place of any notion of a pro-filmic ontology which he straightforwardly records, Wiseman refers to his work as 'reality fictions' (Armstrong "Titicut" 20, 22). There are few frills: this is 16mm filmmaking, hand-held camera, lightweight equipment and black-and-white stock (Atkins "Preface" vii). But that is not to deny the existence of a structure: Wiseman conventionally follows a sequence of brief images in montage that are homologous to his own concentration on permission to film rather than extensive preliminary study of what he is likely to find: '[t]he research instead of being on 3-by-5 cards is on film' (Quoted in Westlin 48). This instantaneous institutional grasp is replicated for the audience through a synchronous use of sound and image recording devices which opens up new possibilities for the public uptake of documentary. As he puts it, 'the events...are all true, except really they have no meaning except insofar as you impose a form on them, principally through the process of the edit' (quoted in Graham 35-36).
Wiseman is a multi-perspectival filmmaker. He wants the material to be 'complex and ambiguous' so that it avoids fitting the propaganda systems of ideology (quoted in Graham 37). He doesn't see a singular truth - who could, and yet have as much experience as he with the systems of managing a population? - but seeks instead to present options for public scrutiny and involvement in reform via a 'multiple point of view' (quoted in Graham 40). He says:
If you believe in the idea of the marketplace of ideas, part of that is the idea that in order to do something about anything, you have to understand it. And the more information you have - even information that says it's very complicated - the better chance you have if you're interested in doing anything about it. (Quoted in Cunningham "The Look" 88)
Whereas conventional documentary sets the spectator's gaze up as competent, guided by the knowing and superior hand-eye-technology co-ordination of the director and editor, Wiseman in Titicut Follies provokes an uncomfortable gaze at the self by the spectator: where are we at any given moment? why are we there? what is going on? am I part of a society which endorses/allows this conduct? There is no satisfying response, no closure. The look remains unsatisfied. We are called to bring into question even our surveillance as viewers (Cunningham "The Look" 89-90). Such an excoriating self-gaze is only to be expected of the man responsible for the following comment about making Meat, an account of life and death in a meat-packing plant:
I ate steak every night I was up there, usually something I met earlier in the day. (Quoted in Grant 57)
As Wiseman says in his derogation of applied social science, 'I'm not a pharmacist' (quoted in Westlin 56). There are no prescriptions on his row of desolation, just encouragements for an engaged viewing to transmogrify into an engaged citizenship.
So what of the Fremantle Prison, now a waltzing museum via "Jailhouse Jive", a 'Multicultural Feast' sponsored by the national youth rock station JJJ-FM in November 1992 and starring Kanda Bongo Man, Nbungka Dancers, an Italian Women's Chorus and the "Aboriginal Bob Dylan", Archie Roach? Ironic, given the fact that Aboriginal Australians made up a disproportionate number of former "residents" and that Italian Australians were imprisoned there during World War II without trial, prior to their despatch to Rottnest Island (Treweek).
I have gone about this in entirely the wrong way. I am producing an understanding of the Prison which fits the chaotic sense that Georg Simmel gives us of the modern city. I have not written to the managers of the Prison to find out what their sense is of their mission. I have not conducted a survey of museum educators or users. I have not interviewed Prison museum guides about their work. I have no idea whether Wiseman has ever heard of what Walter Cronkite calls 'the best-kept secret in the world': Fremantle, Western Australia. Instead, I have relied on Simmel's 'touch-and-go elements of metropolitan life' (88), merged with a recognition of Fredric Jameson's need for a 'cognitive map' (51). I am blase in my research methods, and rationally calculating in my demonstration of the fact: confession pre-empts critique. But this confession seeks not so much a pardon as some degree of interest. For there is method here.
In keeping with the translation of concern from the modern to its post that is signalled by the citation of Georg and Fred, I have self-consciously force-fed you with a rather unpleasant filmic text, from a quarter of a century ago and in another country; and besides, the wretch is dead. I have done so in order to suggest that the montage effect of Wiseman's film is rather like the impact of a guided tour around a lapsed site of incarceration, such as the Fremantle Prison. The similarity derives from a mosaic of feelings, memories and mergers of the personal, the private, the public and the educative. The genres of prison life and its commemoration are not indigenous or sui generis, and nor is our apprehension of them.
For a dozen years until the closure of the Prison in November 1991, a small Fremantle Prison museum existed. Its official mission was as follows:
to inform the public of the important part the prison system and prisoners throughout the State have played in the development of Western Australia and to emphasise the contrast between the historical attitudes to prisoners and the present programmes devised to assist and help them. (Policy 23)
Already, we can discern the two great wings of museum activity flapping energetically and demonstratively: firstly, the implied visitor is to be given a proper perspective on the site's history and that visitor's place in such a history; and secondly - here, of course, is the rub and the place where history and its public munificence really commence - a prior, non-Enlightenment age of darkness is to be made known, an age which can be compared unfavourably with the time and place at which such a history is written; i.e. now. Put another way, we are to learn of a time when there was no structural homology between crime and its punishment. This time was in our own physical space and is part of our transcended and regrettable heritage. We can learn from it, but it is definitely over. Such an understanding, that we now live in a better moment, thus activates within us what I call historical citizenship. Historical citizenship emerges in the hic et nunc, but only in reaction to the past. Unlike Titicut Follies' threatening training in civic conscience, a historical citizenship knows that errors lie back there, before we knew. Fremantle Prison is therefore rendered as a very strictly delimited ethical zone, a space in which conduct unbecoming and becoming are divided. But please always to note, this conduct is not criminal conduct; it does not in any sense describe the activities of prisoners which then led to gaol. This ethical zone is that of the historical citizen, sifting out the good, the bad and the sublime in past treatment of those prisoners, and noting discontinuities and linearities in a movement towards present, enlightened, standards.
Consider the Western Australian State Planning Commission's 1988 Draft Conservation and Management Plan for the Prison. The Plan begins by dividing possible futures for the area into the grand binary of citizenship: 'OPPORTUNITY' and 'RESPONSIBILITY'. The Prison is announced as critical to the State's heritage. It is a 'cultural asset [whose] recycling is a major responsibility'. Virtually all colonial convict establishments around the world had been de-commissioned and destroyed by 1988. In contrast, here was a functioning relic, 'possibly the State's most important heritage item'.
So this is a zone which describes the 1850s. For as was noted earlier, MCI-Bridgewater and Fremantle Prison are both creatures of that decade. And yet there are crucial differences between the two. The 1980s idea, following desires expressed by the City of Fremantle, was that the former gaol be an economic site once the last prisoners had gone, a 'city within a city' (Fremantle Prison Management 1-3). Hence its current, hybrid status as a leased profit-making venture reporting to a Trust connected to a State government authority. That public erasure of history - where a disciplining tenet of capitalism becomes both a commodity itself and also a site for the controlled functioning of public memory - has corollaries in the historiographic bearings of the "new" site.
I leave it to you to unpack the meanings available from an official description of the Prison's nineteenth-century architectural significance, a description which reads like this:
As part of the changing attitude of Britain towards colonial administration, the Women's Prison indicated the new values attached to the imprisoning of women. It had its own walls, more intricate and delicate ornament, individual yards to cells and generally a less restricting environment. It was later adapted for use as a facility for the 'mentally confused'. (3.1)
The document continues. We are told more about 'evolving policy,' which saw incremental increases to exercise space and the development of plans for rehabilitation. This is now a zone of the 1900s. This is the modern. Australia has become a Federation of States, recently cast free from its constitutional status as a colony of Great Britain, and well free of the direct association of working people with forced convict immigration. It is now possible to recognise human labour as re-usable and capable of ethical improvement as well as directional change. The state is coming to be loveable for its forgiveness and its powers of transmogrification, that special ameliorating capacity to build new persons where once dross alone resided. But we are, significantly, seeing this occur in buildings described as 'fine examples of the Royal Engineers' Georgian Style' (3.1).
Of course, something else is going on here, a process with which we are all too familiar from the history of aesthetics. First, a feeling, sensate (perhaps male?) romantic figure locates and luxuriates in the radiance of an object of beauty. This romantic soul goes guarantor of the experience, his "other worldly" take on the sublime itself in no need of vindication. Second, this moment of transcendence is transferred. No longer the processual quality that derives from the meeting of a will and a text, the transcendence detaches itself from a specific human agent and becomes a quality of the object observed, the text. Now, the aesthetic is an object (that text) and no longer a practice (the romantic soul and the text). As an object, it becomes available for re-disposal as a method of pedagogic formation. Now, new people are to be formed through the experience of being led to the aesthetic sublime in interaction with this text.
And so it is here. The actual use- and exchange- value of 'the Royal Engineers' Georgian Style' as a site of human labour and human incarceration are lost in history. They are now of 'Architectural and Technological Significance' (3.1). They have a sign-value only. But such processes of reification always have their targets for humanisation, ironically enough. And here, we are told that this very architecture is a 'Demonstration of a way of life' (3.2, my italics). It is a central aspect - both material and cultural-cartographic - of Fremantle. The State Planning Commission goes on to advise that the Prison buildings 'represent a well integrated element in the fabric of the city' (3.3). Now this Plan was being promulgated in 1988, the two hundredth anniversary of English invasion of Australia and the year that the Prison was "occupied" (a quaint term to describe a reversal of control by people whose lives were contained within the Prison), set alight in violent protest at the conditions of everyday life there. We find no reference to these conditions in the text; no reference to the tiny rooms; or the pails for shit; or the two open toilets amongst several hundred men left out in the elements for nine hours a day, each day of the year. I mean, why would you want to mention that in such a document? It's hardly a question of historical significance, is it, if it fails to provide an opportunity to refer to 1988 as a moment of colonial architecture or applied-Enlightenment penology? If we come to speak of texts as occupied sites, then the valency of the labour that made them might also be re-asserted, which would undo the hierarchies that tend architectural history.
We can see more of the same in policies recently adapted by Western Australia's Building Management Authority (Kerr). The Authority allocates the Prison what is described as 'significance' on the basis of international and national comparisons and a reading of the thirteen reports written about it over time. This significance is again to do with the Prison's location amongst imperial and colonial public works: its degree of intactness; the symbolism of its development (acknowledging convict labour in an anonymous way); authorship-functions of its specificied, named engineers and governors; its artworks; and finally its landscape value (4). Now this document makes concessions to life in the Prison in the recent past, to the complexities of a graffito which reads 'Jim Brown is well liked because he is gorgeous', supplemented by 'but not as gorgeous as Billy Little'. These graffiti come from a guard's watch tower post (16). And the Authority also acknowledges the importance of Aboriginal participation in determining the direction and textuality of the definition and preservation of the site's heritage (21). But it is ultimately dedicated to the preservation of a reificatory and non-relational historicity.
What is implied about the ethical zone of the present? To find out, let's look at the pamphlet thoughtfully provided by the Prison manque, and its double interpellation through the first person plural. The pamphlet calls this place the 'most wonderful monument of our history'. It says 'We trust that you enjoy your visit'. The first "We" (that of 'our history') is the historical people of Western Australia, historical citizens who today are securely one, looking back in wonderment at the human cruelty and architectural grandeur of their predecessors. These people were not in prison, of course, although there may be convict lineage somewhere. The second "We" (that of 'We trust') is the managers of the Prison now, 'many of whom were prison officers'. Redundancy becomes a heritage-inspired conservation of your own curriculum vitae. This is advertised as a splendid continuity, a means to 'maintain this most wonderful monument of our history'. Between these "We"-categories, it becomes possible, within just fifty lines of writing in a pamphlet, to say what I have just quoted and to highlight the spaces which the Prison once set aside for flogging and hanging. That's the section of the document which ends with 'We trust that you enjoy your visit'.
The 1992-93 State Budget allocated A$2.5 million to continue conservation works at the Prison. And I'd like to know what is being conserved. I think it's this. What is being conserved is an ethical zone, a buffer space that divides the rotten from the good, the past from the present, the oppressive from the enlightened, the contemporary law-abider from the historic law-breaker, and, critically, the museum visitor from the contemporary citizen. When I went on my tour of the Prison, I was shown sites of unspeakable degradation. I saw spaces - not people inside them, other than my fellow-visitors - dedicated to compulsory mass nudity, strip searching, public showering, public shitting, freezing cold, boiling heat and constant surveillance. And I was re-assured at every point that this was the past. I was shown murals done by prisoners telling Aboriginal stories. But I was not told the appalling statistics of the incarceration of Aboriginal Australians, who make up 3% of the State's population and 40% of its prisoners (although one guide reportedly informs visitors that Aboriginal Australians kill themselves in gaol because they are kept from the call of the wild. Tell that to the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody which investigated this trend in gaols and police lock-ups across the country in the late 1980s). I did hear my guide refer to 'en suites' in the new prison, contained in what she termed 'so-called cells'. And I heard my fellow trippers saying of the prisoners' art, 'so talented even though they were in here'. This was prior to our being given a technical discussion of the old systems for murdering people in the gaol through something called capital punishment (which ended in the 1960s).
In short, I saw a space that spoke of the history you can see - in a seemingly much older frame - in Titicut Follies. But unlike Titicut Follies, this space spoke entirely of the past. No semblance of a task confronting the contemporary citizen here, unlike in Wiseman's direct cinema mosaic. At Fremantle Prison, and in the domain of punishment now, there is no work to be done. Mistreatment of prisoners is a thing of the past, subject to progressive eradication up to November 1991. Then the civiliter mortuus (civilly dead) were transferrd to a new era facility, more thoroughly, electronically, panoptic. As a visitor to Fremantle, you don't have to worry. The ethical zone is upon you. That zone has properties which encourage consideration of how people were once "treated" by the state. The Prison is like the coda which the courts required to the Follies, stating that that was then and something else is now. The zone can be opened and closed quite quickly in the space of the remnant that values the contemporary and will not criticise it. Once we were wrong, which merely serves to confirm that now we are right. The museum tells us. This might be a useful point to resume the reading options outlined in the discussion of Mr Malinowski.
The Prison is a shrine. It commemorates crime and justice, a justice meted out after the revised Judaeo-Christian ethic of nineteenth-century England; rules of progressive incarceration. Here, redemption can be earned and granted.
The social represses its anti-social side, locking away reminders of its own egregious self-aggrandisement. But this is not merely a suppression of sons who currently transgress the law of the Father-state. More than that, this is a repression of the return of guilt-laden reminders to those outside the gaol but inside the law. Why else would we need to lock up such huge numbers of those members of the Aboriginal population who survived the genocide?
Georgian engineering, combined with prison graffiti and heritage historicising, make for an aesthetic experience. They underwrite the essentially fetishised nature of the visiting experience, an experience designed to calibrate a social space so that it ceases to be connected to current penal practice and is instead a cordon sanitaire, a cleansed, beatified and beautified object of architectural and commemorative interest.
I don't think we can make this category work here, unless one can be exhorted to feel nothing about the ramifications of the past for the present and the consequences of writing teleological history.
It's hard to conceive of a more gruesome voyeurism than the one brought out in Titicut Follies. But the gallows experience at Fremantle, with its furnishings re-enacted, its stories of interstate travel by anonymous hangmen, and the ghoulish delight-in-alterity expressed by visitors, must approximate. Yet this is a voyeurism like seeing Jonathan Harker's decline in Herzog's Nosferatu: it is a pleasure felt in the shadow of an imagined horror safely far-distant.
Perhaps all of the above combines in the seamless weave prescribed for cultural theory by the other (Bronislaw) Malinowski. For if there is some truth in functionalist anthropology - and I think there is quite a lot of useful positive description amongst the blindness to disruption, systemic change and categorical inequality - then it surely lies in revealing through demonstration the methods of deploying the past to instantiate the present as a best moment. We can analyse the Prison tour as a technology for writing unpleasant history that is best left behind, left unrelated to the responsibilities of today.
The "touch-and-go" of metropolitan life is, assuredly, held up and re-ordered here by a "cognitive map". But that map describes a cordon between us and the past, a cordon policed by the Fremantle Prison Trust (a quite staggeringly oxymoronic syntagm). The Trust produces logics that find it rejecting any notion of 'freely accessible' cell blocks, because it has its own 'plan to develop the interpretation of the prison' (Archibald). The zone and its "Trust" here serve as guarantors that we remain purely historical citizens.
The threat of sparking off the animation of contemporary citizenship saw a concerted effort by the State of Massachusetts to hold back Titicut Follies from public view. That text conspicuously compressed space and time to interpellate its audience in the present moment; in fact, it continues to do this. The Fremantle Prison Trust has a more comprehensive and visible - but less transparent - modus operandi. It simply translates the citizen through time, whilst remaining in the one place. History can be brought safely up to date, up to November 1991, because it starts and ends in a monument to "Georgian Style", and a pre-emancipatory legacy that moves inevitably forwards in a grand narrative of Whiggish historiography. This monument is of heritage value, a value of disengagement with the present in the name of a preservation of the past as the past. Perhaps it is this zone which is being resisted by former prisoners, who are renowned for refusing to wear identification stickers when they return as visitors, but who are always forced back to the official tour whenever they 'break away'. This is done for what are termed 'safety reasons' (Treweek). I wonder who needs to feel safe here, and what it is that so fills their troubled minds with dread. I do know that a deployed and cross-referential textuality is an interesting way of posing the question. And of thinking through what screen cultural studies in a cinema department might look like.
Thanks to Geoff Bishop for research work.
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Taylor, Charles. "Titicut Follies," Sight & Sound 57: 2 (1988): 98-103.
Treweek, Ann. "Ex-Prisoners Flock to Visit Fremantle Jail: Bleak, Bucket-Toilet Cells Shock Most Jail Visitors". Sunday Times 6 December 1992.
Westlin, Alan. "'You Start Off With A Bromide': Wiseman on Film and Civil Liberties". (First pub. 1974). Atkins. 47-66.
Wiseman, Frederick. "Frederick Wiseman Replies". Atkins. 69-73.
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