Conversations

Discipline and Abolish

Writing, power, and mass incarceration

Rachel Kushner, Caleb Smith
Portraits of Caleb Smith and Rachel Kushner
Graphic by Laura Padilla Castellanos; photo of Rachel Kushner by Gabby Laurent; photo of Caleb Smith by Sasha Rudensky.

Over the past two decades, Rachel Kushner has earned a reputation as a writer of strikingly memorable, keenly drawn, and exhaustively imagined characters. Each of her three novels—Telex from Cuba (2008), The Flamethrowers (2013), and The Mars Room (2018)—revolves around people who are often underrepresented within the spaces of American literary culture, from convicts and bikers to agricultural executives and prison guards, and the force of their personalities is the propellant that moves the plot vigorously forward. Her new essay collection, The Hard Crowd: Essays, 2000–2020, is as richly peopled as her works of fiction, and as obsessed with systems of power, iconoclastic art, and carceral politics.

Caleb Smith, a professor of English and American Studies at Yale University and a longtime friend of Kushner’s, is a scholar of the American criminal justice system, the author of two books of nonfiction—including The Prison and the American Imagination (2009)—and the person to whom Kushner often turns to discuss the ethics and histories of incarceration. The two first encountered each other at BOMB magazine, where both worked, in 2001. They spoke on Zoom in April, Kushner from a residency in rural Wyoming, Smith from New Haven, and revisited the dialogue afterward over email. Their conversation touched on novelistic prose and the economics of the prison system.
—the editors


caleb smith Making my way through The Hard Crowd, I felt almost like I was getting to follow the development of your sensibility. There is your childhood in an unconventional family, with beatnik parents who would go on to become scientists, and then there are the coming-of-age years in the underground world of Bay Area bars and rock clubs. There are passages about moving to New York, writing about the arts, and in the title essay you reflect on how memory shapes your novels. Throughout, you have a way of finding the personal detail that makes each character feel strange and real, full of charisma and a kind of complicated glamor that has nothing to do with fame. Of course I was especially inclined to read the book in a personal light, since the twenty years you name in your subtitle, 2000 to 2020, basically tally the span of our friendship.

rachel kushner Yes, twenty years, the friendship with you and the span of this collection almost perfectly overlapping! It’s surprising to me now, looking back, the directions we each went in life, since that era when we first met. You’re a professor of literature, and I’m a published author, and so many of our interests have converged over the years, almost in eerie ways. And yet our experiences together two decades back didn’t exactly anticipate our respective futures. At BOMB, we were both still trying to figure out our niche. At the time, I didn’t feel confident yet about my own writing, or imagine myself into the New York literary world. You and I bonded immediately, but it wasn’t over shared ambition; we bonded over our amusements, which sometimes derived from encountering the actual people behind the books or the visual art; their demeanor, whether gracious or neurotic, and what they had to say, surprising, or not. Looking back into the deep past, I see such continuity in terms of the worlds we’ve each explored in our own work, and how all of that dilates both fast and slow, with other people who were there for our lives as they unfolded and transformed.

It was actually because of that job at BOMB that I wrote “Girl on a Motorcycle,” which is the first essay in The Hard Crowd and was the first essay I ever published. (It was collected in an anthology called She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding.) I think I’d been an interviewer for BOMB and needed a bio for the contributor’s page, but because I hadn’t done anything worth noting, I did that obnoxious thing where you’re like, “So-and-so has worked at a fish cannery, as a corn detassler, a bricklayer, has stuffed envelopes, and is currently living in her uncle’s basement.” But my version was to include that I’d competed in the Cabo 1000—a one-day, one-thousand-mile motorcycle race—on a 600 Kawasaki Ninja. An anthology editor who saw the bio got in touch to ask if I would write an essay about that race. I wrote “Girl on a Motorcycle” five years after the Cabo 1000, when I still remembered all the minute details of preparation and road conditions, and things people said. That essay precedes everything else for me as a writer; it gives a sense of the life I lived before I was a writer. For years I thought of that time in my life as an “Area 51” in terms of what I had to show for myself, but this book allowed me to take stock and see that Hegel’s “cunning of reason” works in all our lives, maybe, and that wasted time is later redeemed in ways we’re not always able to predict.

cs I didn’t know where my life or career was going then either. I was still in graduate school, casting about for a dissertation topic, trying to figure out what kind of work I was capable of doing in a sustained, serious way. As it turned out, the main thing I worked on for BOMB that summer was the painter Roberto Juarez’s interview with the artist James Casebere, who was taking astonishing photographs based on early nineteenth-century penitentiaries in the American Northeast. Jim would build small-scale, tabletop architectural models, then manipulate the light or flood them with water, giving the photographs a ghostly, uncanny effect. I got fascinated especially by the images he had created based on the first American penitentiaries, places like Eastern State in Philadelphia and Auburn in upstate New York. The cells as Jim re-creates them are empty, very austere, haunting and beautiful all at once. In the interview, he talked lucidly about the architecture, how solitary confinement was associated with a kind of spiritual rehabilitation— or penitence, as in penitentiary.

Thinking with these photographs was a really crucial occasion for me. Before then, I felt as if I had an intellectual and aesthetic life as a graduate student and a separate political life, participating in demonstrations and that kind of stuff. I wanted to connect the two, but I was confused about how to do it. I was ambivalent about some of the academic projects that seemed political to my colleagues, like changing the canon or doing sociological critiques of aesthetic value. Casebere showed me how an artist, especially a visual artist working with structures and light, might have special resources for dealing with the historical, political problem of incarceration. As I understand his work, his aesthetics are his way of coming to terms with that problem.

In the book that came out of my dissertation, The Prison and the American Imagination, I wrote about the paradox at the heart of those early prison systems, how the penitentiary cell came to be understood as a space of both living death and spiritual rebirth, both violent dehumanization and the promise of conversion. I remember writing a nervous email to Jim Casebere, asking for permission to use one of his photographs for the cover image. I expected him to ask for a fee, but instead he said, “Well, I’d have to read the book,” and he and I have been in conversation ever since.

rk Right, and Casebere’s emphasis on the architecture shifts things away from the pieties of the liberal individual who is asked to extend their compassion to some incarcerated person they want to believe is innocent, rather than worthy of something better than prison, regardless of any axis of innocence and guilt. It suggests that maybe we, too, are worthy of something better, as a society. Or we should be.

The politics of incarceration have since become a shared obsession of ours, one we’ve talked about a lot in our friendship. I have vivid recollections, over the five years I was working on my novel The Mars Room, of conversations with you about the problem of the “innocence” narrative, and the visible and less visible aspects of the “penal net,” and our shared positions in regard to mainstream prison reform and its blind spots and misconceptions. You had been on to the original conception of the American penitentiary, in Pennsylvania and on the East Coast, before I was. But we can both continue to be stunned that prison, originally, was the reform— from corporal punishment, torture, or death. We were both thinking about Thoreau and solitude, nature, disgruntlement. I’m not scholarly, just interested in stuff, so we weren’t on exactly parallel tracks in these regards. I steal and assimilate, you sift and order and refine.

I remember that you and I had a conversation, before I wrote The Mars Room, about Foucault’s “The Lives of Infamous Men,” which was a book he never wrote, although he did write its preface. Foucault had hoped to capture an “anthology of existences… nameless misfortunes and adventures gathered into a handful of words.” And I knew you would understand what I meant when I said, “I want to write the book that Foucault did not write”: this book about people in the record who pop up in the historical void just as names and dates, people who can maybe ideally speak to the scale of the thing and the reason for the thing without being celebrated or delimited solely as characters, as individual lives. I wanted to explore the idea of what he calls the light of power shining on people who otherwise should have remained in darkness—who should have remained obscure but are in the record for the crimes they were convicted of and the punishments they served.

Be they liberal or conservative, many people are going to react to the idea of prison abolition with suspicion.

CS Foucault knew that being seen is not always a gift. For some people, it can mean being exposed when they might have preferred to stay in the shadows, or being forced to give a confession when they might have preferred to compose a different kind of story. By the time we had that conversation, I had learned about a mysterious, unpublished manuscript from 1858, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, a first-person narrative about a young man of color who spent most of his early life in New York State reformatories and prisons. The draft, which was handwritten, had surfaced at an estate sale in Rochester and made its way to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but no one really knew anything about this thing or where it had been for a century and a half. Was it a novel? A forgery? Along with curators and archivists, I ended up authenticating it as a first-person narrative, written around 1858, by Austin Reed, a free Black man from Rochester who was already tracing some connections between prison and slavery, even in the decades before the Civil War.

When I published my edition, I met many readers who wanted to view Reed as an innocent victim of the system, though he openly confessed to his crimes. I came to believe that the wish for his legal innocence was connected to another wish, the desire to read his work innocently, as a kind of unadulterated testimony. Even when I described the book as a carefully constructed literary memoir, I would get questions referring to it as a “diary” or “journal.” That seems to be the main way many people can imagine accessing a book by an incarcerated writer: as a documentary account of the real conditions of crime and punishment. But Reed was an artist, too, very sophisticated in his thinking about literary genres and how they manipulate their audiences. This was exactly what I loved about his work: that it wasn’t about innocence, that it was so beguiling in its representations and performances. I believe that Austin Reed was all these things: a convict, a writer, and in his way an abolitionist.

In The Hard Crowd, there’s a long essay, “Is Prison Necessary?” about the prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine. You think through a lot of the same institutions, geographies, and landscapes that you’d written about previously, but in a more explicitly political way, making the case for getting rid of incarceration. The ideas in this essay are connected to your other work, but the tone is different. It feels a little more deferential to its subject, a little more cautious in its style. Do you think so?

rk Yes, definitely. And I’ll say why I think the tone is so different, but first, in hearing your question, I remember something you said to me before I wrote that essay, and after The Mars Room was published, in regard to a reviewer whose argument was more or less, “This book isn’t entertaining like television, and it isn’t political like Angela Davis,” and you asked, “Has the reviewer considered that the novel is not meant to perform either function? That art is its own special category?”

Art is its own category, and not, for me, a place to lay out an argument, which the profile of Ruthie Gilmore very much was. I remember talking to you quite a bit over the long two years that I worked on that essay, during which I wasn’t really working on anything else. Unlike you, I seldom teach, and I wasn’t working on a novel because that essay took up so much of my time. I wanted to totally immerse myself in Gilmore’s scholarship and the activism and life history and bodies of knowledge that have shaped her, to the extent that I could. There are limitations: she’s spent her life acquiring that knowledge. I was trying to paint a picture— as a nonintellectual, as a Marxist by temperament alone, which is what I am—of Ruthie’s life that would be very accessible to a reader of The New York Times, while also metabolizing her political thinking without dumbing it down. That essay is not meant to foreground me at all, even as I have my own ideas as a Californian on why we have so many prisons here, as well as my own deep familiarity with what the courts and jails and prisons are like as institutions. But in this piece, my sensibility wasn’t what was called for or showcased.

Part of what might have shaped the tone, ultimately, was that the essay was meant to reach a more hostile or more reactionary public. Be they liberal or conservative, many people are going to react to the idea of prison abolition with suspicion—as did, to some degree, at least at first, the editors of The New York Times Magazine, who kept wanting me to interview and incorporate the ideas of other thinkers, specifically ones they anticipated would have opposing views on this subject. But the people I interviewed at their suggestion, whom they thought would be more measured— Michelle Alexander, James Forman, Jr., Udi Ofer of the ACLU’s Justice Division—kept coming back with praise for Gilmore, praise for abolition as an influence—without which no real reduction in the scope of prisons can take place. But my editors, in the larger sense, in their continual pushing for a broader take, their insistence that nothing be assumed, made the essay so much stronger in the end. And in the course of those two years, I really felt as if the editors themselves came around to see that Gilman’s argument was logical and solid.

But the process of arriving there was long, and even arduous. My editors needed to be able to countenance every sentence of the essay, to believe in all twelve thousand words. It was a very long process. Ultimately, they came around, and I too, came around—to their purpose, which they could see all along and I could not see until later: to truly convince people. This made the essay not just a showpiece offering my “take” on Gilmore’s work to people who already agreed with her. Instead, I ended up with an essay designed to invite any reader, of any persuasion, to think about tough issues, and to feel, by the conclusion, persuaded, but persuaded by their own thinking along with the essay, and not because I am telling them how to think. When you look at Ruthie’s analysis from a variety of vantages, you can come to agree with it not because you’ve been converted but because you’ve used your own faculties to come around to her side.

Before all that, while writing The Mars Room, I was fascinated by how Ruthie’s project in her book Golden Gulag, which is specifically an account of the explosion of prison building in California, shows how this state is like a menagerie in which you can see the ugly future for all the states (even as California is also epically beautiful). I used to say that everything would someday be as brutal everywhere as it is in California, in terms of wealth inequality, limited options for unskilled labor, huge-scale industrial agriculture, climate change, law enforcement. The prisons here are sited in industrial farmland, yet filled with people from urban centers: Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino—counties that, as the parlance goes, are “the big senders.” These city people are then enfolded into these remote landscapes where the automation of farming and cycles of drought mean less and less employment, and where some of the only state-subsidized jobs are for prison guards.

cs You’re describing some important regional differences between institutions in the “Old East” versus those in future-facing California. For me, the estranging thing about encountering the northeastern prisons in Casebere’s work, and in Austin Reed’s, was that I was coming from the South, where the history of human captivity is so much more conspicuously organized around slavery, plantations, and convict leasing. Coming from Arkansas, I found it fascinating and troubling to discover that there had ever been this fantasy of personal redemption through solitude and penitence and self-discipline associated with the prison system at all. That was not the kind of “corrections,” so-called, that I grew up around.

When I looked at Casebere’s solitary cells, their vision of austerity and monastic solitude resonated for me with concepts that had always seemed at odds with power—these pictures made me think about practices of self-culture, ascetic discipline, and sustained attention. I associated these concepts with my favorite bands, like the political punk rock from the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, and artists and writers like Henry David Thoreau. All of that—the idea of transforming yourself intellectually and even spiritually, to become more self-controlled—seemed totally at odds with the way power worked in an Arkansas that was governed by Bill Clinton, Walmart Corporation, and Tyson Poultry, along with some evangelical preachers like Mike Huckabee and right-wing nationalists like Tom Cotton today. This southern brand of power didn’t seem to need any kind of psychic repression of the public, and it didn’t require any kind of sanction from high culture. It was more rough-hewn, folksy, and populist. As a kid growing up in Arkansas, I often felt it was a place stuck in the past—one that hadn’t ever fully industrialized, fully integrated, fully secularized. But now I see it as almost the opposite; it seems to me that Clinton and Walmart and Tyson were actually pioneering the specific future that you’re describing: the future of rugged capitalist deregulation, of a postindustrial order that turns out to be much more, rather than less, bound up with prisons.

A park—unfenced green space for everyone—in a town with bad air and bad water and bad housing and few jobs would be some version of grace. I’m not saying that a beautiful natural environment would magically obviate the very severe and real and worsening inequalities in our society. But I think that without the park, we can’t know what people’s imagined, potential lives would look like.

rk That is beautifully put. A stark narrative through-line that one finds in most stories about people who have ended up serving insanely long sentences in prison is individual and generational underemployment: narratives of work injury, or of a parent or foster parent’s work injury. While writing The Mars Room, I searched through hundreds of intake forms from Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, and most people didn’t have an employment history or worked at a distribution warehouse or a Dollar Store or simply told the intake officer, “I work,” as if the act of doing so were so generic and meaningless it did not require specifying further. Walmart, I believe, is our nation’s largest employer, and seems to benefit, if I understand correctly, from something like a vast government subsidy, in that they calculate how little they can pay their workers based on the federal and state assistance they know their employees’ families, living under the poverty line, are eligible for, state by state and federally. This idea that sleepy Arkansas and its poultry operations, and the Clintons, and Walmart, were all somehow a nexus of the deregulated and jobless future, where prisons draw off the “surplus,” so-called (those excluded, for various reasons, from the economy), makes so much sense.

I’d never considered that the history of D.C. straight-edge and its culture of self-discipline had any connection to the early rehabilitative ideologies of solitary confinement. Anecdotally, I have observed more of a culture of self-discipline among people in men’s prisons than among those in women’s prisons. There’s a lot of weight-lifting and training to kill and reading intensely in men’s prisons. And not so much in the women’s facilities. I’ve always thought this is because the men are treated like they are monsters, and the women are treated like they are babies. Monster at least is given a narrative of agency and strength, even if prison is completely dysfunctional and destructive.

Of future-facing California, I think people don’t realize how poisoned the Central Valley is, where we grow almost a quarter of the nation’s food. One million residents there don’t have access to clean water. Some drink water that is more toxic than the water in Flint, Michigan, but because there are less obvious political villains, the story doesn’t get reported as often. It also has the most poisoned air in the country. We’re so the most of everything in California: the largest economy, highest housing costs, highest functional poverty rate (when adjusted for cost of living). The Guardian did this study a few years back that named Kern County, where Bakersfield is located, the county with the most killings by police of unarmed citizens in America. The day that study came out, I was in Bakersfield, and everywhere I went I asked people, “Did you know Bakersfield has the most killings of unarmed people by police in the whole country?” And everywhere I got the same answer.

cs What was it?

rk “Not Fresno?” They wanted it to be Fresno, which is worse off than Bakersfield in terms of poverty. I was in Fresno with my parents and son a week ago. We were looking for a park where we could eat a sandwich. We could only find three parks, all of which were surrounded by high fences and locked gates; two were closed for COVID and the third had an expensive entrance fee. Maybe if I was more familiar with Fresno, I’d know where to go to find a picnic table. But let’s say I was a traveler who came upon an unknown land, an unknown city in America, and just wanted to rest without engaging in commerce in a space of greenery, which it could be argued all citizens need to have in order to live a healthy and productive life; this could not be found with a bit of effort over the course of an afternoon in Fresno.

cs Occasionally, in The Hard Crowd, even though you write about being raised outside religion, there are glimpses of the sacred, the redemptive. Toward the end of the title essay, after recollecting the “hard crowd,” you write, “Make your litany, as I have just made mine. Keep your tally.” A litany is a holy thing. For me, that’s the utopian side of what Casebere was seeing in the old northeastern prisons: that they were imagined as spaces for the re-sacralization of lives damaged by violence. I wonder what you would want to be available in that park in Fresno, if it existed: What would it be like, this sanctuary for noncommodified self-composure and attentiveness?

rk I have always felt that there’s something sacred in life and in each person, and I do believe in the concept of a soul and that each person is harboring one. This quasi-Christian feeling, which seems to come from nowhere—as my parents are scientists with no belief in any religion—has meant that I had to take apart and put back together my own conception of redemption, and of the future, when I really thought into the work of Gilmore, and of carceral geography. I was rooting my belief in a better world in this idea that everyone is fundamentally good and that we have to regard them that way, to look toward “redemption.” Now this seems incredibly naïve to me. Perhaps I thought forgiveness was key on account of the gallingly cruel and punitive nature of prison. But after thinking about all this for several years now, and especially after thinking about conversations I had with Ruthie, my own emphasis is not on what’s taken place—a wrong someone committed, for instance—but on what didn’t take place. What might have taken place, if everyone was cared for and nurtured, got the resources they needed to live a dignified life. Even on a practical level, this would make us safer, whereas prison does not make us safe.

A park—unfenced green space for everyone—in a town with bad air and bad water and bad housing and few jobs would be some version of grace. I’m not saying that a beautiful natural environment would magically obviate the very severe and real and worsening inequalities in our society. But I think that without the park, we can’t know what people’s imagined, potential lives would look like. It’s like a hundred degrees in Fresno all summer long. It’s the number-one most polluted place in California. Shootings and murders in Fresno have gone way up in 2020 and 2021. The police union will claim they don’t have the budget to prevent crime, but police don’t prevent crime. They manage inequality. Crime is prevented by providing people with education, housing, meaningful work, and dignity—including parks. I’m not saying, because we don’t have a park people go and do bad things, but rather that we don’t even know what California—and the world—would be like with parks for everyone, because we don’t live in that world.

I can even view my own friends this way, as if from below. So many of the people I’ve known have a kind of star quality.

cs Souls without innocence. I guess this may be the thing I appreciate most about the treatment of people’s lives in your writing: how you like and even love them without wanting them to be blameless objects of sympathy. They are impure as hell, but they shine. I think this is true in the novels, as in your treatment of Gordon Hauser in The Mars Room, the failed Thoreau scholar who becomes a prison teacher and finally a kind of lone-wolf radical. He is pitiful and dangerous, but you handle him with grace. The same thing is true of the real lives you take up in The Hard Crowd.

There are a lot of novels in circulation lately that draw on the writer’s autobiography, which they synthesize into a fictionalized book. That’s not what your books are like. In fact, it almost seems the other way around; in The Hard Crowd, there’s actually this sort of novelization of experience. Whether you are writing about Ruthie Gilmore or Denis Johnson or Jeff Koons, I was impressed by your ability to reorient me toward a well-known figure, someone whose work seems stuck or laminated within certain familiar debates, by foregrounding some novelistic detail from their life.

rk I think since I’m often writing about other writers and artists in this new book, I’m interested in their stories, in teasing out the epic qualities of their real lives. We know people’s lives are rich with meaning and drama, given that our own feel that way, right?

I really like the British film director Ken Loach. He understands that the lives of regular and obscure people are absolutely epic and can be seen as epics, on-screen, if handled with reverence and respect. I’m constantly on alert for singular detail: that Clarice Lispector’s dog smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol, for instance. That Marguerite Duras, when suffering from the DTs, spoke to ghosts in her own apartment. That Denis Johnson wanted to be in an astronaut-training program. I’m interested in people whose lives have a kind of mythic sheen to them. I try to transpose into writing how it is people make me feel and what I admire in them from a certain distance that I don’t try to collapse.

I can even view my own friends this way, as if from below. So many of the people I’ve known have a kind of star quality. There’s an essay, “Tristes Tropiques,” in White Girls by Hilton Als, that I didn’t really understand when the book came out. It’s seventy-two pages. Recently I read it again and thought, Oh, the reason I didn’t understand this essay is because for some reason I thought I needed to know who SL is, the person the essay is about. But Als is not writing about someone famous. Or maybe he is, but that’s irrelevant. The way he writes about this figure SL at first led to my misunderstanding, because SL seems so larger than life. The fame that matters in the essay is what I think of as personal fame. Something about Als’s approach to magnetism and influence allowed me to go ahead and write about people the way I wanted to, like my friend Alex Brown, whom I write about in “Bunny,” and all the people named and unnamed in the book’s title essay, “The Hard Crowd.” My goal was to treat people as the stars they were, and are, in a cosmos the reader might already know but probably doesn’t, and doesn’t need to. My understanding of what it means to be a star, come to think of it, is almost the opposite of Warhol’s: the fifteen minutes in the public sphere doesn’t matter at all. It could be two minutes or ten years, but fame to me is a private sphere, that has to do with how brightly people shine.

Rachel Kushner is the author of The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex from Cuba, as well as a book of stories, The Strange Case of Rachel K. Her essay collection is The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020.
Caleb Smith is a professor of English and American Studies at Yale. His books include The Prison and the American Imagination and The Oracle and the Curse. @calebsmith203
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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