Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mind-Forged Manacles

A number of campaigners for prison reform quote Blake's line about Mind-Forged Manacles.
While they make some good points about the ineffectiveness of prison, they are not talking about mind-forged manacles. Prisons are physical constraints, forge-forged manacles if you like.

So would mental constraints be better? In Blake's poem, the phrase "mind-forged manacles" can be understood as a reference to "hopeless and depressing thoughts [which] imprison the people ... on the street" [Planet Papers]. I don't think that's quite what the prison reformers have in mind.

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains (Rousseau). I tried an Internet search for Blake's phrase, and found it used in a variety of contexts. In Mind-Forged Manacles and Habits of the Soul, Peter Lucas traces Foucault's notion of subjection back to Heidegger. Blake's phrase also crops up as the title of a book about cults, and in polemics about religious freedom.

As Monbiot points out, prison performs a socio-economic function, removing large numbers of people from the statistics of poverty and unemployment, so it makes the rest of us feel safer and wealthier. Surely no other mechanisms of discipline and punishment could have this comfortable effect?

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