Catherine Kellogg is truly an inspirational and innovative speaker.
On Wednesday, January 28, Kellogg presented a spirited talk on the death penalty, solitary confinement, and sovereignty as part of the Cultural Studies Speaks Seminar Series. She attempted to map the language surrounding the use of certain terminologies such as “cruel”, “unusual” and “inhuman.”
She started off the talk with an image from the eighteenth century of the New Gate Prison in London at the Old Bailey.
“What’s about to happen here?” she asked a room filled with eager Cultural Studies students and faculty.
“A murder is about to happen here. What you see are two people about to be executed. I’m interested in looking at what makes this murder not criminal,” she stated.
According to Kellogg, acts of violence considered legitimate, such as the murder she is referring to, happen because of the word, “sovereignty.”
She then proceeded to narrate the story of a famous hangman, William Calcraft, an executioner at Newbury who was famous for a kind of incompetence. Calcraft was incompetent at weighing and measuring the body of the person about to be executed. Kellogg explained this concept well in the video below, and talked about how she is interested in examining how sovereignty and cruelty relate to each other.
Coming from a political studies background, Kellogg talked about how she is drawn to critical theory and to symptomatic reading.
“There are certain symptoms I want to look at. What are they? It’s the killing of African Americans with impunity; it’s the missing and murdered aboriginal women; it’s the CIA interrogating illegal combatants; it’s the changing carceral logic and the death penalty. I will look at some of them and all of them,” she said.
Drawing on Thomas Hobbs’s concept of state and power, Kellogg proceeded to talk about the modern state and how it exercises enormous power over life and death.
“So what puts a limit on this power over life and death? What draws a line between legitimate force and illegitimate violence?” she inquired.
She specifically referred to the language surrounding the words “cruel” and “unusual.” She stressed that this language came from the 1689 English Bill of Rights and finds itself being repeated in various documents today such as the Eighth Amendment to the American Constitution and Section Twelve of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“There’s something about cruelty that is repeated. In order for it to be repeated, it requires procedure. So it’s a term associated with evil and circulates in a discourse of morality. I’m not interested in the moral or religious notion of this term. I’m interested in its psychoanalytic notion. What is it that Freud was trying to say when talking about cruelty? For him, cruelty is repetition. It’s habit. It’s ageing,” said Kellogg.
(A slide from Kellog’s presentation, containing the single word, “Cruelty.”)
Kellogg emphasized that although cruelty can be related to bloodiness and violence, it can also be linked to bloodlessness. She stressed specifically on the cold efficiency of certain execution methods such as electrocution as important to political, philosophical and moral discourses.
“It is forgotten that the guillotine was introduced in France and used as a means of execution as a more humane mode of execution- it was supposedly painless. Its invention and adoption throughout France are symptomatic of modern or post revolutionary death penalty. It evolved out of an anesthesial logic. This is apparent in the US where lethal injection was introduced in 1977 one day after the Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on executions,” she said.
For Kellogg, the ambiguity of the meaning of cruel and unusual requires looking at the origins of these words. She claimed that the words come from the 1689 Bill of Rights- a time when the slave trade was ripe and burgeoning.
“The term was meant to signify the limits of what masters could do to slaves, what men could do to women, and what it was possible to do to this new kind of property which was also human and alive,” she said.
The language of cruel and unusual travelled from seventeenth century England to the new colonies and found itself firmly embedded in the constitutions of the American colonies.
(Listen to Kellogg talk about the notion of civil and social death and the logic of punishment.)
Kellogg also brought in another variable into this whole debacle, which is mass incarceration. She talked about how the US imprisons more people than any other country, with most of the inmates being African American. But what about Canada? Kellogg claimed that Canada incarcerates citizens at rates that are among the highest in the world. In the case of aboriginal women, the statistics are staggering. Why is there this overrepresentation? What’s the purpose of prisons? For Kellogg, the answer lies in how settler colonialism is an ongoing project and is always about the containment of peoples.
Kellogg further argued that colonialism is in fact intensifying but so is the power of the resistance to it. She explained that looking at the renewed resource extraction in Canada can also give one a good picture of the ongoing colonial project. She claimed that the government is primarily concerned with indigenous people with regards to their location with respect to the production of wealth.
“So, in fact, the marginality and precariousness of indigenous life makes it an easy target and yet, it is also this marginality that makes it an important node in the circulation of wealth.”
Kellogg’s symptomatic reading tells us that even though the sovereignty of the state appears to be potent, the resistance to it is enormous as well.