Lost Water: Towards a Phenomenology of the Kyle Centre

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A crumpled local newspaper, ink bleeding in the rain, a tattoo of useless words on the Styrofoam takeaway. A case of stacked metaphors, every sentence weighted with the freight of muscle, plunge, pressing ahead. Snowflakes of unbreakable material make their way across bladderwrack pavements. Words like eateries and retail melt through the cracks and what’s left is the skeletal possibility of what could be, mulched in quicksand, the mall revamped with luscious funds and pumped to the brim with glass, tiles of parquet impression, leisure. The Kyle Centre mall, as understood in American English (O to cue Idlewild forever in the longing for that sensitive, Irvine drawl), once boasted a fountain where you tossed in your lucky pennies. There was a genuine, operating foodcourt. In the summer, tents would be erected upstairs for sale; a bouncy castle provided cheap joy for children and teenagers bored by another washout July. Many of us stole first kisses in the warm, polyester glow of those tents. We’d take caffeinated beverages and go browsing, the way you do now with the ease of a thumb and the screen, the virtual checkout. The semiology of colour in familiar high street stores, from Next to Topshop, functioned as landmarks in the crisscross abyss of ersatz environs, scaled to micro.

What comes next, next, next—a panoply of signage directs the flow of bodies. There were four entrances and exits, but only locals mastered the correct orientations. Kids drifted aimlessly up and down the escalators, shouting to friends who clustered on the floor below, sharing meal deals purloined from Superdrug, dropping fake grated cheese on the sallow floor. Medievals feeding their daily, carpeted fodder; a spin-cycle draining the pockets of millennials. All was amalgamation, consumerism in miniature. There was the looping belt of process that brought each person’s return on a Saturday afternoon. You might say bustling, even, if you were a journalist running out of words. You felt the bloat, the awkward accrual of bags, the jostle towards actual sunlight fizzled in the imminent night. Evening came quicker by the sea, shaded by islands and cloudy bars. Making impulse decisions, drawing back to the thing that comes without thinking.

To return ten years on is to witness the boom and bust cycle’s distilled effect. Scrunched out remnants of culture, expendable income bleached to regret. Towns throughout Britain, of course, lay waste to the whims of the market; but few as strong as this one. A smattering of bookies, charity shops, pawnbrokers and dingy discount stores spring up where cafés and clothes shops used to be. The supermarkets teem with the deranged ennui of the drifters. Old folks carry their bags to and fro, not gathering—not even picking the fruit of occasional Watt Brothers lipsticks. Their gums sink with cheap mints, the quality of the buskers slackens to fraught renditions of ‘All of Me’. As if the comprehensive self were still a myth to be chased. Pill poppers make the rounds quite openly, TKMaxx installs vein-resistant violet lighting in its bathrooms to stave off addicts. The establishment dwindles. Woolworths closed an age ago; they are slowly getting used to it.

As operational concept, the town brings out its humming despair. Gulls swoop in circles, waiting to descend on their carrion, the fag butts flicked into new oblivions. When dropped from a four-storey carpark, nutmeg stoned, you practise the art of temporal refusal—stepping literally into the upswept dust of the times. Trying out the bone-shattering acrobatics. Something glimpsed on telly. Creating a whirl of delusion which staves off the fear, if only for three hours with side effect headaches. You sit in the sticky dark of the Odeon, chewing peanuts, waiting for the arrival of those who won’t come. A shower runs on in the back of your mind; numeric paranoias flourish like dog daisies in June-green meadows. All of a sweetness, lingering aspartame. River Island being that literalised metaphor for outdoor fashion, something exotic in the lurid schemes. New tribes stranded on the traffic islands of their adolescent years, calling for help but only serving to prompt more crashes. The roadsides fill up with scrap metal, coke cans, broken dreams. Only the criminals pick litter and weeds. Somebody stops you on the street to ask about your pension, your PPI. In trackies you concoct some lie of an income. It feels better to exist beyond form, chewing a pack of mucilaginous candy, taming the jaw towards process. I run, I run, I run.

Practitioners of parkour and skaters clatter up the common walkways, alleys–backflipping normality. In that violent clack or fall of trainers, they emit fresh wavelengths on the general orbit. They are trying to avoid, like all of us, the inevitable, hullabaloo pull of the Kyle Centre, its middling void drawing us back to terrible origins. Returning after years, I found the mall to be almost utterly empty. The floor tiles coated with a fine layer of dust. I could almost hear the tinny echoes of Macintosh Plus resonate in the brain as I glided around, glancing into the charnel grounds of abandoned shop windows. Was this the mall of yesterday, snagged in its vividly bland, retro-futurity? Tacky goods, novelty toys and festive decorations were stacked up without sale, all in a jumble, asynchronic. There was an elegiac quality to the silence, the desolation, the click of my heels on the tiles. Usually, a curated selection of galling chart bangers would blast from some unseen stereo, but this has been replaced by a low-level, Lynchian electrical hum. There’s almost a sense that the whole setup could explode; something of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘reality itself’ feels like some kind of elaborate ‘stage set’, one that ‘could be dismantled at any moment’. Who would do the dismantling–and how violently? An irritated, private developer, snuffling the truffles of riches buried beneath crumbling plaster? When I touch shop signs, the tarnish comes apart in my fingers, along with all youthful glitz of faith. Consumerism comes here to evade its afterlife. I consider the rent rates of a gamble.

April 2017, a fresh visit. The only shop that appeared to be open—beyond a curious popup tent with a sunglass stand of neon hairbands—sold vapes in all sorts of flavours. Oddly appropriate that the vaporisation business flourished under recession. Ye olde Marx strikes again: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. The material basis of capital, of physical living–structures defined and hardened over years of labour relations–is eventually dissipated under the strain of its own regime. Our cloying desires rent free and exhaled as vapour, the flavours of youth recreated with chemical enhancements. Cookies and cream, strawberry sundae, cherry cola; all the treats once devoured in these hallowed walls provide now the scented mists of our caustic lungs. We choke on the smallness of the shrinking world, distracted by flickering images.

Quite satisfying, really, to find oneself wandering around in the new vacuity. Less sincerity than simple dwelling in abstraction, a reminder that such clear plexiglass canvases once held the false cheer of advertisements. Stalking the old trajectories, attempting to align memories of space, place, movement. By posing at the broken fruit machine, sticking post-its upon the locked bathroom doors, peering into grime-smeared windows, are we enacting a form of détournement, constructing a new milieu, hijacking a bland, capitalist reality? EAT ME/DISCOUNTS/SALES/NEW DEALS (Tony Blair’s Cheshire cat grin suspended in symptomatic darkness). The devouring logic of the overdraft reigns, gasps, struggles for land. We snap for Instagram, slathering everything with inevitable millennial humour, a soft irony tinged with longing. These washed-out, fluorine filters; do they augment the dreaminess or merely expose the inherently bland, detached, trifling logic of the fetish? For all love for material is only immaterial. What you trade on a wage, the price of petrol; a burnout dependence, the chalky velocity.

I once saw my friend play guitar here, his voice resonating with surprising boom in the faux-brick cavern. It was a Sunday, no-one around but other hoodies, pensioners, lovers on their way between worlds. More than ever, the c e n t r e becomes transit zone, the overlap of other non-places. Time exists perpetually at four o’clock, the imminent closing of the shops, the light spilling in so grey and serene from tiny windows. It could be any time, in dreichest summer or dimmest winter. With sloganeered t-shirts, devoid of irony (“I Love to Shop Til I Drop”), we depart from resistance and give ourselves freely to the tide of tabloid iconography. It sweeps us inside its beige dripping media, sickly vanilla, till we are left like baby in the corner, picking dirt from beneath our milky nails. Waiting. People stop buying us ice-creams, frappuccinos, smoothies. All sugar departs by the lore of the body’s exhaustion. The inner world of the subject meets its flux in the antique plasticity of a once blazing commercialism. The streets shriek with bird-shit, pollutant buses, football hooligans and irate teenagers. Always there is the sharp, iodine smell of the sea. Someone stuck their disposable fork in an apple, set rotten upon a statue, as if waiting to be struck by lightning, lottery, something. A bottle of vodka is thrown from the luminous heights of White City, the same old hood in its twilight sleep.

The new silver screen dream was deemed a ‘multiplex’, a grand unveiling with the rich promise of quick progress, an ambitious proposal; a snip off the cash boost economy, a successful investment. Two years on and the ghosts still roam the walls, the bleak clichés of everything must go. Go where? Capitalism, in the age of waste, strips us of former ideals for nowhere, elsewhere. We know all the junk floats back somehow; we’ve seen the debris, the bottles, the latex remains washed up on the shore. You can just about hear the dull roar of an old hairdryer, blasting away the years in what once was a trendy hair salon. Temporary beauty, a pencil full of noxious lead. Nobody leaves Yelp reviews for the dead. The eighties decor, the depression of spirit. We circle back round, take the westerly entrance out towards honey-drip sunsets. Nobody weeps for the high street store, nor sheds a penny for the sake of nostalgia. Soon all will be gone, sodium dissolved; as sure as your new emporium, the vapours coming in through the walls, coating each residue thing with virulent mists. For reminiscence, for seconds caught static in the gleam of the fountain, an imaginary power sweeps us northward, drawn to other versions of lost dreams, lost treats, the endless catacomb concrete.

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

(This article was written in February 2015. Note my pre-Brexit, pre-General Election 2015 naivety in places…)

“Imagine you’ve been burgled,” the professor suggests to a room full of sociology students. “He’s taken all your favourite possessions. How many of you would, if you could, have him locked up in five minutes?” Almost all of the students raise their hands without second thought.

“OK, so what about if you knew this man was a relapsed drug addict? What if his family were deep in debt and he hadn’t eaten for three days? Couldn’t get a job? What if he’d been churned in and out of the justice system without decent legal aid more times than he’d had hot dinners? Is prison still the best place for him now?” The lecturer does not deliver these possibilities with the air of derisive triumph, but rather calmly lays them down for all to consider. Everyone in the room looks at each other sheepishly, as if they have missed a punch-line. The joke is that even sociology students (perhaps the most stereotypically liberal sector of society) fall for the seductive narrative of simple, instant punishment.

Criminologists have a phrase for this: populist punitiveness, or penal populism. It’s the idea that criminal justice becomes less of a moral or practical issue and more a party political one; that parties can tap into a general fear of crime or disenchantment felt amongst victims, in order to garner votes. Being seen to be ‘tough on crime’ raises the political climate to the level of populist, Daily Mail hysteria we witness today in relation to the likes of immigration. With penal populism, we have the tabloid recycling of stock, ‘blue-collar’ criminals, but rarely do we have the contextual story necessary to fully flesh out the nature of the crimes we read about.

The problem with this of course is that it leads to extreme, right-wing approaches to criminal justice, seen perhaps most dramatically in the ‘bang-em-up’ North American model of tough sentencing, chain-gangs and super-prisons. This sits uneasily alongside the progressive liberalism, soft conservatism or centre politics that most major parties wield as their ideological banners in the UK. Yet as Jonathan Simon suggests in Governing through Crime (2007), this increasingly punitive approach to justice found in the US but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in the UK, is not just a pragmatic response to problems with crime, but rather a more comprehensive tool of social governance. The United States has quadrupled its prison population in the past three decades, while the UK’s prison population has doubled since 1993. Accompanied by statistics which show a recent broader decline in the rates of violent crime, these figures might seem perplexing or counterintuitive. Why are we locking up more people when less violent crimes are being committed? The fact is that the prison system is becoming less about justice and protecting society, and more about asserting the long arm of the state in a society where its ‘soft’ role of welfarism is slowly crumbling.

And yet this is not just a process that can be attributed to the state; it is also one accelerated through the punitive appetites of the media. In the past few decades, crime has increasingly occupied a prominent pedestal in media reporting. Part of this problem is the sensationalist and individualistic style of reporting, as well as its predominant focus on so-called ‘blue-collar’ crime committed by those who occupy a lower rung on Britain’s persistently rigid social stratum. In fact, if you absorbed everything the mainstream media told you, you’d be forgiven for thinking that crime was something that only happened in urban areas by working-class youths, or else by the odd drug-hazed celebrity entering a spiral of personal decline. Although this outlook on criminality has been changing in recent years – with revelations of MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, police cover-ups in relation to Hillsborough and child sex scandals, as well as the corruptions of bankers – such interest in more corporate or ‘white-collar’ crime continues to generally focus on the ‘bad apple’ individual over the systemic problems which necessarily contextualise the offence in question. The kind of systemic problems that led to the banking crisis and the institutional racism unveiled by the Stephen Lawrence case.

Media reporting of crime often uncritically accepts the view of criminal justice officials as its source, and while criticism of police failures is sharpening in the UK, reporting of individual crimes still relies often on hysteric headlines and moralising quotations.  A quick glance at the ‘Crime’ page of The Telegraph’s website reflects this emphasis on violent crime and celebrity offending over more analytical crime reporting. The media’s power to shape the population’s perception of crime was famously demonstrated in Policing the Crisis, a 1978 study by Stuart Hall and his colleagues which showed how the press effectively invented the term ‘mugging’. By saturating the public with extreme reports of its occurrence, Britain’s media whipped up a ‘moral panic’, so that reporting of violent robberies increased, and as ‘mugging’ was absorbed into official crime statistics, it was the media’s scapegoating of black working-class youths that became synonymous with this apparently ‘new’ crime itself. We have seen this more recently with the politicisation of youth crime and moral panics about ‘hoodies’, ‘Neds’ and ‘Chavs’ – the demonisation of the working-class, as Owen Jones puts it – following Thatcherite attitudes to the ‘feckless’ poor and New Labour’s ASBO legislation and tougher ‘welfare-to-work’ approach to welfare.

What seems to emerge from this interplay between social policy, crime statistics and media reportage is that mainstream media often frame the overall picture of crime through a neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility. While this might help foster the confidence of victims to come forward – for example in cases of rape – it also means that whole sectors of society become demonised as ‘risk’ populations, and with the media’s uncritical reliance on official crime statistics, we often get a distorted picture of the extent of crimes whose definition may have changed along with shifts in sentencing policy. The demand for moralising, punitive justice stirred up by the media is one factor among many that might explain our rising prison population.

When the media does report broader trends in crime, the problem is that even with articles from ‘respectable’ sources like The Guardian, these trends often remain distorted as a picture of UK crime as a whole. This is because such articles frequently rely on the Home Office’s statistics and the British Crime Survey, which focus only on England and Wales, thus giving a potentially misleading impression about crime and sentencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland has had its own criminal justice system going back to the 1707 Act of Union. Traditionally, this system has been seen as more socially democratic, reflecting the endurance of more left-wing ‘Scottish values’ against the encroachment of neoliberal punitiveness. The Scottish approach, then, has conventionally been seen as ‘softer’, offering a more holistic method of dealing with low-level offenders in particular. The Children’s Hearing system is exemplary of this, whereby offenders below the age of 18 are referred to a Children’s Panel which considers both young offenders and victims within a welfare context, paying attention to a child’s needs and how this plays out in the local community. Within the court system itself, sentencing is more flexible and is judged on a case-by-case basis; with the exception of murder, judges are not forced to impose any mandatory sentences.

However, somewhat paradoxically, following devolution in 1999 Scotland’s unique approach to justice has apparently become diluted. The Scottish Government, especially in the early days of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition, increasingly absorbed more Anglo-American ‘risk-based’, populist and punitive trends. This so-called ‘detartanisation’ of Scottish criminal justice is seen in the hardening of a two-tier approach to justice, related to changes to legal aid and to the plea-bargaining system that reflect a move towards efficiency-based procedure. For example, there is a shift into an implicit approach of ‘sentence discounting’. This encourages early guilty pleas in exchange for more lenient sentences; but while it might cut the court’s legal fees, it is obviously profoundly unjust to foster a system where the accused are quickly churned through the system to drive efficiency. It risks threatening human rights if innocent people are being encouraged to plead guilty – even if it is to be ‘let off’ quicker. Moreover, it creates, as Dorren McBarnet puts it, a two-tier justice whereby some have access to a jury trial while the justice of everyday court procedure is diluted by this trend towards relinquishing the right to trial. There is a class issue here too, as more affluent defendants can afford the advantage of personal legal aid. If the quality of legal aid available to all is weakening, then so is social democracy.

Scotland’s somewhat disturbing move towards more efficiency, risk-based and the ‘punitive turn’ of Anglo-American justice is also evident in policy changes within the justice system. There are tougher approaches to community sentencing, which include increasingly invasive methods of surveillance, a re-emphasis on punitive elements and a strict adherence to ‘risk assessment’. In recent years Scotland has also seen the reintroduction of ‘Youth Courts’ for 16-17 year olds, representing a turn away from the ‘child-centred’ welfarism of Children’s Panels and resulting in what has been called a ‘Burberry court’ – named after its predominant association with prosecuting working-class offenders. With measures such as these, Scotland risks joining the trend towards a ‘decivilising process’, whereby public discourse on the working-class echoes the Victorian rhetoric of the ‘undeserving’ urban poor. Our newspapers are unfortunately awash with moralistic, personal attacks on benefit claimants, ‘junkies’ and ‘Neds’, and this filters down into the increasing alienation and demonising of whole communities that already face multiple forms of social exclusion and economic deprivation. A New York-style ‘zero tolerance’ clamp down on ‘antisocial’ conduct is born out of the desire to show a ‘clean’ image of Scotland. We should also acknowledge the impact of (and not just upon) business, as space itself becomes increasingly privatised and issues of beggars, public drinking and young people ‘hanging around’ become criminalised in an effort to preserve the ‘modern’ image of an increasingly service-based, leisure and consumer-driven economy like Glasgow’s. There is a whole other issue here about the ethics and targeting practice of private security firms (used, for example, in nightclubs and shopping centres), but that’s a story for another occasion.

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Img Source: Wikipedia // Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth: established in the 14th century, it was used by the Burgh Council and early parliamentary meetings, as well as being the burgh’s main jail. Incarceration, punishment and physical torture occurred regularly in this prison and after 1785, public executions were conducted. The buildings were demolished in 1817.

With this problem of criminalising the poor, we turn to the matter of prison itself. The thirst for punitiveness which seeps through the layers of British society has of course contributed to a steadily rising prison population not just in England and Wales, but also Scotland. Yet the ‘prison works’ ideology famously championed by Michael Howard in the 1990s clearly oversimplifies things. While prison has a place for violent offenders who pose a danger to the public, in its current state – especially with all-round cuts – it isn’t working as it should, as figures from the Prison Reform Trust prove. Nearly 50% of adult prisoners reoffend within one year of release. This failure to encourage desistance from crime is not just a waste of taxpayers’ money and a risk to the public but also reflects upon the need for a greater emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons. There is a whole concatenation of needs associated with vulnerable inmates. The decaying walls of old Victorian jails tend not to be equipped for elderly or disabled prisoners. Young people have an array of social, educational and psychological requirements which are not always met in prison. Prisoners who require psychological rehabilitation, the likes of violent or sex offenders, would do well not just to be cordoned off altogether but to be integrated with normal behaviour via appropriate treatment programmes. For female prisoners, there may be separation from children or family: since there are fewer women’s prisons, female offenders find themselves disproportionately further from their homes. In England and Wales, nearly 50% of female prisoners are reported as having a history of domestic abuse. In Scotland’s only women’s prison, Cornton Vale, two thirds of its inmates were on suicide watch in 2013.

Related to these mental health issues is one persistent problem that I would like to linger on: the issue of alcohol and drugs within Scottish criminal justice. It is difficult to look at many crimes without recognising the role that legal and illegal substances play. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Howard League Scotland showed that two-thirds of young offenders reported being drunk and 39% on drugs at the time of their offence. Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to pervade prison statistics at all levels, and these problems, stemming from a complex array of social issues, must be treated properly if we are to readdress our approach to criminal justice in Scotland. As it stands, drug users are sucked into the broader decivilising process whereby working-class individuals are excluded from mainstream society, often via criminalisation. People do not take drugs in a vacuum. For example, the association between heroin addiction and poor housing estates is not because of some moral failure but stems from issues of related social deprivation such as unemployment, poverty and localised problems with crime. Areas of deprivation are also more likely to be policed, which means it is possible that working-class users are often targeted by the justice system more than their comparatively affluent counterparts.

Drug charities and various studies have persistently reiterated the links between ‘problematic’ hard drug use and deprivation. One key issue here is that drug users are often ‘recycled’ through the justice system without receiving adequate treatment, and thus fall back into committing drug-related offences upon release. Perhaps, as the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research has argued, we need to acknowledge that ‘reoffending’ itself is a flawed concept which focuses only on legal rather than behavioural criminality, and unlike the notion of ‘reintegration’, cannot do much good for recognising indicators of successful desistance from crime.

Some steps are already in place to tackle this issue by directing offenders towards the correct treatment. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act saw the introduction of ‘Drug Treatment and Testing Orders’ (DTTOs) in Scotland, which demonstrate a specific aim to, as the Scottish Government website puts it, ‘reduce or eliminate an offender’s dependency or propensity to misuse drugs’, and to more broadly address the scale of drug-related offences in Scotland. There has also been the introduction of special ‘Drug Courts’ which tailor sentences to assist with the work of DTTOs and break habitual cycles of reoffending linked to drug dependency. Findings have suggested that these measures are proving somewhat successful, by improving the offender’s accountability and making drug testing and treatment mandatory, as well as helping to avoid a custodial sentence which might merely intensify the problem.

We shouldn’t, however, overestimate the achievements made possible by these measures. Although the Global Commission on Drug Policy has argued for a ‘public health’ approach to drug crime – the kind being adopted by the likes of DTTOs – these should be situated in conjunction with a holistic and therapeutic approach that looks at the opportunities possible for the individual out-with the cycle of drugs and offending. To call someone a ‘junkie’ is to other them; to recognise their illness but also to categorically distinguish them as different from oneself, as morally inferior. While the issue of decriminalisation is beyond the scope of this essay, the question of how we represent offenders and drug-dependency is certainly relevant to a broader imperative to rethink crime and justice outside of the punitive narratives supplied for us by political and mainstream media discourse. A socially just future Scotland would be reflexively critical and aware of the structural conditions that lead to concentrated drug crime (including de-industrialisation and housing) and would take steps to recognise them in its treatment of offenders.

Such a socially just future is not completely beyond the current horizon. We can start sowing the seeds of optimism in relation to the issue of women and imprisonment, with the Scottish Government’s recent decision to cancel plans to build a 500-capacity women’s prison at Inverclyde. Following talks and activist pressure from a number of sources including Woman for Independence, the Howard League for Prison Reform and a campaign by the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, the decision reflects the potential for a more reflexive, discursive and collaborative politics which Scotland can offer towards its justice system. Too many women are held on remand in prison, far away from their families, which raises an unnecessary risk of psychological and social harm. Rather than throwing short-term, low-risk women offenders into a new ‘super-prison’, the government can proceed with plans to divert them from incarceration altogether into alternative sentencing, or into more appropriate community-based units. Ideally, we can build on this small success and move towards an approach which does not make justice a party political issue but one based on a pragmatic appraisal of what works, as well as a foundational interest in social justice, extending not only to the individual offender and victim but also the societal conditions that cannot be detached from the crime itself.

Could this, then, be evidence of ‘re-tartanisation’ following the SNP’s occupation of government? Certainly, since 2007 we have seen various measures taken to reduce the rate of short-term sentences in favour of more constructive community sentencing. There have also been serious initiatives rolled out to tackle organised crime and efforts made towards corporate and cybercrime, which suggests an increasing recognition of the fact that organisations and companies cause far more societal damage (whether economic, environmental, social, political or personal) than the average ‘street’ crime.

Moreover, accompanying these policy shifts has been the more general impact of the Internet on mainstream media narratives. Indeed, the ease of access to a plethora of publications from non-profit organisations gives us the power to be critical and reflexive about the stories told to us by television and print media. It is easier to hold governments, journalists and the justice system to account when we have instant access to the latest statistics, and the possibility of corroborating and comparing these statistics with those gleaned by different studies, or with different nations. To some extent, it is up to us, as readers and consumers of media, to rethink our attitudes towards justice – and what that means exactly.  Rather than passively absorbing, we should be actively critiquing.

Where can Scotland go from here then? It seems the biggest challenges are to resist the continual Anglo-American ‘punitive turn’, whilst remaining ultimately part of the UK; to reconcile local, national and international demands in an increasingly globalised world where crime crosses borders; to move forward with a pragmatic rather than party-political approach to deciding justice policy. Scotland is often compared with Scandinavian nations such as Norway, and perhaps these models provide what might tenuously be an optimistic blueprint for the future. Treating prisoners like people instead of demonised ‘others’ (consider that under UK law prisoners do not have the right to vote, and the Con-Dem coalition’s recent attempts to ban books from prisoners which were thankfully ruled unlawful by the High Court) is the way forward. In Norway, where prison staff are encouraged to foster positive relationships with inmates, and where the emphasis is on education, training and psychological treatments, the reoffending rate is the lowest in Europe. Your punishment is the loss of liberty; everything else should work towards re-habituating the offender into a fulfilling role in the community. Giving a person a chance to reconcile themselves with opportunities they might not have had before conviction is surely the best way we have (short of whole-scale societal change) to not only reintegrate someone, but to protect the public from future reoffending. The media is a big part of the problem, as I have suggested, but it can also have a positive role in making us rethink justice. We need to stop looking at examples such as Norway’s as ‘luxurious’ and a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ and think practically about how we can learn from them, and in the process not only save our own government a lot of the money lost through crime and reoffending, but also work towards a more just society.

 

Things to check out:

  • The ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/ – explores why people desist from offending. There’s lots of interesting research on there and a documentary, ‘The Road from Crime’, in which an ex-offender turned probation office looks at what we can discover from those who have ‘desisted’ from criminal behaviour.
  • Lesley McAra’s important 2008 article in the European Journal of Criminology, ‘Crime, criminology and criminal justice in Scotland’ in which she puts forward the concept of ‘detartanisation’ to explore how devolution has paradoxically resulted in a ‘less Scottish’ model of justice. To what extent, we might ask, is this still happening, or has there been a turnaround since the SNP’s occupation of government?
  • Factsheet from the Prison Reform Trust with statistics detailing who makes up the current UK prison populations and the problems many of them face. Useful for grasping the extent to which those from more working-class or deprived backgrounds are imprisoned, but also issues of gender, age, race and ethnicity in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prisonthefacts.pdf
  • Photos from a Norwegian prison: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1989083,00.html
  • More information on women in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/womeninthecriminaljusticesystemscotland.pdf
  • Document on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Useful for grasping the extent to which many offences were fuelled by alcohol, but also for considering what policies might help to reduce this problem in the future. http://www.ias.org.uk/uploads/pdf/Factsheets/Crime%20FS%20HM%20May%202013.pdf
  • Really useful publication from the London School of Economics analysing the global ‘war on drugs’ and the problems of mass incarceration related to this approach. Considers how different policy approaches to drugs might work as well as detailing the failures of current systems. Situates the problem of drug related crime and social harm by placing the local and national problem of drugs and their policing in a global/transnational context. http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/LSE-IDEAS-DRUGS-REPORT-FINAL-WEB.pdf

 

 

Media, Memory and Identity

‘Technological advances’, Andrew Hoskins claims, ‘have provoked a re-evaluation of the relationship between media and consciousness’. This statement seems significant, and indeed it captures the whole uneasy feeling many of us have when we reflect on the impact technology has not only on our lives, but possibly also on our minds. My everyday routine, my memory and my relationships now seem to be inextricably related to and even structured by the digital technologies I use – and I’m not even a fully-fledged techno-addict.

In this article, I want to talk about the relationship between media, memory and identity. It’s something I’ve been looking at for my sociology revision and finding increasingly engaging as I make connections between the notes I’m reading and the reality of the shifts that seem to be occurring around me in our tech-suffused society.

Firstly, memory. How do we conceive of memory? Often the metaphor is a film-reel, storing a long roll of images that go all the way back to childhood, as if our whole past is wound up in a spool that can be unravelled at will in order to access a particular memory. However, this model has for a while now been discredited by psychologists. Memory is in no way a permanent storage: it is not fixed and unchanging. Instead, our memories are dynamic, imaginative, shifting: always constructed in the present, taking on a new shape according to the context of the here-and-now. My memory of what I did last weekend is contingent on the related thoughts I am having today. We find memories are triggered by association, but to what extent do they become distorted in the process – and what role do the media play in this?

An interesting and well-known phenomenon which accounts for the relationship between media and memory is ‘flashbulb memory’, a term coined by psychologists Brown and Kulik in 1977. Flashbulb memory refers to those highly vivid recollections which have a distinctly visual, often photographic quality. They can be personal or shared. For example, a personal flashbulb memory for me would be perhaps moments when I was told a loved one was dying – those strange unaccountable memories of sitting at the kitchen table, distinctly remembering the maths homework I was doing, are such flashbulb moments, retained for their strong emotive value. My memories of exams also take on a flashbulb quality, probably because exams are significant to my life as a (conscientious) student. Yet these memories aren’t always first-person: often I see myself objectively, writing away sweaty-palmed at a wobbly desk, which is an indication of the malleable nature of memory, as obviously I didn’t experience the event in camera-eye-view.

By comparison to individual memories, a shared flashbulb memory is one held and accorded significance to by a whole community. There are lots of examples of these: the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the fall of the Berlin wall, and perhaps most obviously in recent times the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Unlike personal memories, what all of these ‘shared memories’ have in common is their highly mediatised quality. The latest episode of Mad Men depicted public and private reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the show also examines the reactionary context to the J.F.K shooting in a previous series. What is notable about both representations is their emphasis in the role of TV in broadcasting the present as an event which accords meaningful significance to the whole community, bringing together a nation or collective. There are many shots of characters staring in fear and sadness at their tiny 1960s television screens, of characters weeping and switching the telly off, unable to bear the perpetual presence of the news. As watchers of the fictional series, we become spectators of spectators, a mise-en-abyme effect which conveys the emptiness of representation, the impossibility of the visual at reaching the event itself. Our present and the 1960s past coalesce in a fusing of fictional and historical time and representation. Again, this occurs all on television – it is all contained in the visual. The show thus highlights how vividly images construct our past in the present.

Indeed, many people if asked in an empirical study will say that they have a distinctly visual recollection of such events. One study found that those interviewed retained the original memory of the J.F.K. shooting by referring back to the video of him actually being shot, yet it turned out that this wasn’t broadcast until five years after the event. This indicates that our memories are reconstructed by the media. In my sociology tutorial, someone said that their flashbulb memory of 9/11 was being at after-school club and watching it on TV. Later, he reflected, he realised that there weren’t any televisions at the club, and so his visual recollection of the towers coming down must have come from subsequent viewings. The impact of television news, especially 24-hour news reels, Hoskins (2004) argues, is a ‘collapse of memory’, where the past becomes a perpetual present. Television is ‘always on’, and takes on an ‘ambient quality’. We have the news on in the background while we do the ironing, while we study. It’s on at the gym. Perhaps it’s on where you work, and even at the pub. This creates a sense of the all-pervasiveness of the present-as-past, especially as recent events are immediately constructed through the past by television news.

This works through what Jenny Kitzinger calls ‘media templates’. These are frameworks adopted by journalists to represent a current event, using tropes, headlines, images and other signs drawn from past events. The consequence of this is to make a semantic connection between the two events and draw them under the umbrella of an overall message. This can occur even when there are stark dissimilarities between the events in question. For example, Hoskins and O’Loughlin in their book War and Media draw attention to the media representation of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005, which used the ‘Blitz spirit’ template in an attempt to show collective unity against the ‘enemy’ terrorists. These included The Sun headlines: ‘Worst since Blitz’ and an interview with an actual Blitz survivor still living in London who said: ‘the Germans couldn’t destroy us. Neither will these terrorists’. The presentation of a familiar ‘us and them’ mentality, and the idea of banding together and getting on with daily life in spite of trauma was created by linking together a past and present event. Yet the everyday reality of London in the aftermath of the bombings was a far cry from the determined persistence of the city during the Blitz: at the same time as linking the two events, the media also detail how shops were closed and the streets were empty following the attack.

It seems, then, that the media play a key role in taking control of the public consciousness in times of crisis. Not only do they provide the instantaneous visual material which gives us a sense of the iconic elements of an event, relegating them to an on-going past, but the media also frames these events in familiar narratives by drawing upon previous events and stories. In doing so, the media provides a kind of (albeit artificial, as many of these events may be different in key ways) historical continuity. A continuity which seems to blur the past and present in a diffused mediation of the present through the past. This is a possibility accelerated by the advances in technology which allow the media to provide more immediate frameworks in their real-time broadcasting of events. What we think are our personal recollections may in fact just be a build-up of visual and aural data transmitted to the media.

So much for memory and television. What about the internet – that most elusive and colossal of interactive archives? It is the internet which is transforming our psychological relationship to technology. The internet provides a forum for contested representations of key events: people can challenge the dominant view of current news provided through TV by posting comments on online newspaper articles, and so-called ‘citizen journalism’ in independent blogs, news sites and a variety of other canny uses of social media.

Yet the internet’s involvement with current events is also coupled with its collapsing of present and past. Web-pages are not static: they can easily be edited, added to, or taken down when their owner runs out of bandwidth. Concerns grow everyday about the power of hackers to tap into the ‘official’ social media accounts of organisations like the BBC and broadcast strange messages. Messages which can then be deleted, but will live on in other people’s computer archives and internet history, the screen shots they snapped and saved for future amusement or reflection.

While this bears profound consequences for how we conceive of wider social knowledge, it also impacts on our self. The internet as readily-accessible archive has changed our memory. In a pre-internet age, our sense of self also depended somewhat on our ability to forget. How could we move on from those awkward teenage years or that failed relationship, if we couldn’t put the Goth makeup, yellow skinny jeans, photographs and letters away in a box to be forgotten? With the internet, our past and present are diffused, as our selves are scattered in so many fragments of fleeting words we leave online. Geoffrey Bowker calls this presence of self our ‘paraconscious’: ‘the massive sets of traces of my past that I have randomly accessible to me’. Random access, a term I recall from Higher Computing (oh the joys), is the ability to access something instantly, without having to rewind like a tape through everything to reach it. With a quick Google search, I may invoke and revisit the undead graveyards of my past, all those myriad blog comments, Piczo accounts, my Myspace account; hell, even my Neopets account. And what will I find? A lot of things I probably won’t even recall saying. Language and text – the embarrassingly overused ‘=]’ smiley, the all-pervasive ‘lol’ – that no longer characterise how I write. This ‘cognitive dissonance’ threatens to undermine the stability of our self-concept. It’s like reading an old diary entry and realising your thoughts have changed radically since then, or recognising the strange handwriting with an uncanny feeling that it is not your own. Yet while a diary is an object that can be stowed away, relegated to the past, with the internet, your old self remains, hauntingly, as a perpetual presence. Just as your ex-partner remains, dormant, as a Facebook presence, waiting for you to go back to and resurrect with immediacy the past.

Databases sort our identities out for us. They organise our lives according to tags and categories of names and places. They suggest networks or groups we should join which accord with our apparent interests. I upload a photo and tag its location with ‘Glasgow’ and I start getting invitations to ‘local’ networks or online websites for restaurants, clubs, shops. Databases direct us to new things we should buy with ‘targeted ads’. Our whole selves are assembled online in a way never before possible. And so we ourselves begin obsessively to record every element of our lives: photographing gigs, snapping our meals and uploading them with the delight of vintage filter to Instagram, confessing our rants and sins on Facebook statuses, documenting a running commentary of TV shows on Twitter.

What drives this compulsive archiving? For one, it is the sheer ease at which everything can be uploaded with today’s portable technology. Yet it also goes back to a psychological phenomenon, a paradoxical negotiation between the Freudian concepts of the death drive and the pleasure principle. In Archive Fever, Derrida claims that in archiving, one is driven to conserving the present from eradication (the pleasure principle), and the other is a drive to destruction and forgetfulness (the death drive). We simultaneously put things online because we want to preserve a thought, feeling or event, but also because we want to consign it to the past, as if it will eradicate our need to monumentalise something. Rather than constructing a narrative, the stuff uploaded on the net can also be scattered: images appreciated as beautiful or meaningful in themselves rather than linked to a particular event, images that seem to destroy their initial meaning even as they create a new possibility for interpretation. I see this in Tumblr, where images are endlessly reblogged and given new captions and interpretations by different users as they are presented within the paratextual surroundings of various user ‘themes’. An image of a young woman in a dress can take on different meanings when it is placed in a personal journal, fashion or pro-ana blog.

And so where does this strange archival technology leave us – in the hinterlands of the internet, what exactly is the past, and what the present? I would argue, as Hoskins does, that memory has in the wake of new media ‘collapsed’, in the sense that everything from the past can instantly be re-deployed in the present, transforming the past at the same time as shaping the present through the past. This applies not just to key historical events, but to the everyday cultural images and personal confessions, the vortex of text and pictures circulated around the web which can be copied and pasted, re-blogged, re-visited in the present. The internet has an immediate sense of presence, in its very nature as a fluid, hypertextual network, where old pages – the dregs of individual, organisational or cultural history – are available through random access hyperlinks and web searches.

Furthermore, since we are now ‘always on’, carrying the web in our pocket with smartphones, this state has accelerated to the point that we are continually constructing our past in a perpetual transmission of expression through social media. We have instant access to any information we need, so that our memory is always being transformed as we leap back and forth between the archive and the present, creating an on-going knowledge and construction of history as present. As Geoffrey Bowker so astutely puts it: ‘it is so easy to leave and to assemble traces that we are developing a kind of universal prosthetic memory’. And I wonder, is this a good thing, allowing us to foster a more fluid sense of time, space and self, or are we merely becoming data-fixated cyborgs?

Works Cited/Further Reading:

Bowker, G. (2007) ‘The Past and the Internet’ in Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, ed. by Joe Karaganis, New York: Social Science Research Council, pp. 20-38.

Derrida, J. (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Andrew Hoskins has an extensive amount of writing on the subject of media and memory, but some of the articles/books I’ve referred to include: ‘‘The Digital Distribution of Memory: Memory on-the-fly’, ‘Television and the Collapse of Memory’ and his book with Ben O’Loughlin, War and Media (2010).

Kitzinger, J. (2000) ‘Media templates: patterns of association and the (re)construction of meaning over time’ in Media Culture Society, Vol. 22 (1), pp. 61-84

Law, B. M. (2011) ‘Seared in our memories’, Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/memories.aspx

Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

DSC_2614Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

Picture the wild deer: all elegant neck, soft fur, tawny eyes staring back at you like butter wouldn’t melt. The stag too: a rare glimpse of those striking antlers flashing through forest leaves or the wire mesh of a fence, gazing gallantly over the hillside – a little like a proud lord, a patriarch admiring his land. There is something quite British about the graceful deer; something evocative of country outings, of heritage and sprawling estates, of heads rather unceremoniously stuck on pub walls.

Today, there are more deer in the UK than in any time since the last Ice Age[1]. It seems poetry is the wrong way to go about this; deer have become a real issue.

On the radio this morning I heard reports proclaiming new figures representing an excess in numbers of British deer. Deer, it is argued, in their proliferation, are posing a serious threat to British biodiversity. The overspill of deer will lead to more traffic accidents, more damage to crops and a drain on natural resources. With estimates of the current deer population positing 1.5 million, new research has suggested it will be necessary to kill off 50% to 60% of the animals to fully address the problem[2].

The above arguments may seem persuasive reasons for tackling ‘The Deer Problem’, but I would like to step back and question these fundamental justifications given for widespread slaughtering. I want to question the idea that the – let’s face it, unintentional – disruption of food-chains by deer warrants their culling.

My objection to culling derives not from an inherent concern with the ethics of killing animals – the morality of the practice of culling is another difficult issue – but from the premises given to defend culling by appeals to the negative consequences of an excessive deer population.

The problem I have with culling can be understood by considering a convincing argument offered by Australian philosopher and rights activist Peter Singer. Singer declares, somewhat radically, that ‘all animals are equal’[3]. Yet this statement is not as controversial as it appears. By ‘equal’, he means not that we should treat all animals the same – Singer is not justifying giving rabbits the right to vote or freedom of speech to chickens – but that we should give equal interest to all creatures, regardless of species. Singer points out that any claim asserting the superiority of human beings over other animals is arbitrary, speciesist.

Speciesist? Why?

Consider the reason we typically give for justifying the accordance of moral supremacy to humans:

1) Humans are rational creatures, or at least significantly more rational than other animals, and this makes our lives intrinsically more valuable.

Singer’s problem with this is that not all humans are rational. What about a child with Downs Syndrome, or a person in a coma? What makes them more superior to say a highly-intelligent primate if they lack rationality? Consequently, Singer states, any attempt to argue for human rights over animals is going to run into the problem of speciesism, since there can be no universal claim for the rationality of all humans. Speciesism is just like racism or sexism, in that it appeals to untenable claims about the essentially superior ‘nature’ of a particular race or sex which gloss over the reality that not every person within a race, sex or species shares these characteristics. If the sexist argues that men should be paid more because all men are more intelligent than women, his argument is rendered invalid by the stark fact that this is a sweeping, fallacious generalisation. Likewise, the speciesist cannot justify exploiting animals for human need by claiming humans are intrinsically superior because all humans are more rational than animals.

Therefore, for example, an argument justifying animal vivisection to support the more-valuable lives of humans (by exploring cures for cancer) will have to concede that this argument also, logically, licenses vivisection on non-rational humans. And I think most people would agree this seems a little distasteful.

Singer’s argument is compelling: the only relevant consideration that unites all humans, then, is sentience – the experience of pain and pleasure. An experience inherent to the lives of most animals and all humans.

Back to deer then.

The justification for culls is primarily their threat to the food-chain: too many deer means too much consumption of natural resources, too much disruption to the natural environment which other animals are dependent on. Deer, munching and treading and stomping all over our country’s flora and fauna, are threatening other wildlife. All very well.

But what about us? Aren’t we a threat to wildlife? What about our fossil fuel omissions, waste disposal, annihilation of forestry for paper, our excessive industry, infrastructure? Our pollution of lakes and rivers? Surely all this amounts to much more destruction than an overabundance of deer trampling on the landscape and eating too many acorns?

Well, it may be argued that we are humans; we are entitled to do these things because they fuel our rational progress towards more enriching lives. What gives us the right to think the world is ours to destroy, but not that of the deer? I would argue that our threat to the food-chain is significantly greater than that of our deer population, and yet I hear of no ecological experts advocating human culling.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating human culling. But think about it: are we morally justified in killing deer because too many of them destroy the environment, when we wouldn’t do the same to humans, whose excessive population is also consuming too much of Mother Nature’s milk, and tainting it with acid rain in the process? If there is no relevant moral distinction between humans and animals, I find arguments which devalue animal life in favour of maintaining human interest deeply problematic. And after all, this isn’t just about preserving nature for nature’s sake, this is about preserving nature for people – for farmers, ramblers and future generations.

I acknowledge that there may be other reasons why culling might be justified – I am no environmental expert. Reducing deer numbers may work in the favour of their species, as too many deer means many will starve due to lack of resources. It is obvious how this can be turned around to humans: again, most people would object to human-culling because there isn’t enough bread to go round. Therefore, if there is no plausible moral distinction between humans and animals, then culling is difficult to morally justify, even if it produces certain good consequences.

It’s a thorny issue, and one that people often don’t consider; culling doesn’t seem to raise the same controversy as animal testing, hunting or meat-eating, because it is seen as a largely benevolent, if a little unpleasant, way of improving conditions for people and wildlife. I believe, however, that we should be concerned – at the very least, philosophically – with the flawed argument that lies at the heart of culling practices.