Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis and the Civilizing Process

What could possibly be left to say on the aftermath of Troy Davis' execution? Words on the evil of the death penalty? On innocence and guilt and doubt? On the inability of the law enforcement mechanism to accept the possibility of mistake? Just in case you missed some of the commentary, here were my favorite picks:

Yesterday, my  criminology students and I discussed Norbert Elias' The Civilizing Process. Written in 1939, the book was forgotten for several years as Elias' career was derailed by the second World War. A Jewish European scholar, Elias worked in exile and relative obscurity until he arrived in England, where he resumed an important place in the sociological universe. Still woefully undeacknowledged among the pantheon of sociological giants, Elias' work deserves much praise and recognition.

In The Civilizing Process, Elias argues that the 18th century was a "watershed" time that saw a profound top-down change in European society: From a society of knights to one of courtiers. This change, the reaction to the formation of the modern centralized state, was accompanied by a profound change in etiquette and social sensibilities, including the development of various subtleties in interpersonal interaction, table manners, bodily functions, and the like. Among other things, says Elias, our bloodthirstiness and daily exposure to violence have decreased. While life in the middle ages included a daily unmitigated experience of violence and a relishing of violence, we came later to see it as distasteful.

Much of Elias' theory has been confirmed by later studies. Indeed, the rate of violent crime, especially homicide, has been repeatedly proven to have declined in the last few centuries. One explanation for the decline of violence is that the centralized state came to resume the functions of violence usage as proxy for citizens, and those, in turn, became more sublimated, more docile, and more amenable to its power and thus less violent on their own initiative (the increased regulation and decrease in the use of duels is a case in point.)

But the state changed its practices, too. Following Elias, excellent Dutch historian Pieter Spierenburg's The Spectacle of Suffering points out the change in how executions were carried out in Europe. The "watershed" years, and the years to follow, saw fewer and fewer executions, and a marked toning-down of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded them. According to Spierenburg, the society of courtiers increasingly lost its taste for public corporal rituals and moved away from them.

So, what do we have now? Perhaps the ultimate sublimation: An execution that is nothing more than a sad coda to years of quiet confinement and increasingly technical litigation. Conducted away from the public eye, its only witnesses are those closest to the case--the offender's family and the victim's family--arguably the parties who retain some of that pre-civilizing, raw connection to the act and the social connection. The story is mitigated by its sanitized media coverage. As Austin Sarat argues in When the State Kills, the coverage removes our visceral connection to the violence we delegated to the state; and as Frank Zimring argues in The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, it masks its origins in lynching and public relishing of violence.

The true strength of the protest in Troy Davis' case was in breaking this boundary of sublimation and sanitation. Millions of people around the world were moved by Davis as a symbol of human suffering. They did not fail to recognize this act for what it is, even when carried out away from the public eye and using advanced chemicals, needles and machines. They saw the racial overtones and origins of the practice and the way they played out in this particular case; and they did not shy away from expressing their utmost distaste with it and the deep ways in which it offended their sense of justice. Distressing as this was--an unsatisfying coda to the tragic death of Mark McPhail, who deserved a better police force and a better inquiry as to his slaying--the public reaction, a vehement expression of our distaste for the modern "machinery of death" and ability to see it for what it is, was an important moment in American history, whose ramifications may bear fruit in the ballot box and in the courtroom.

Props to my Theoretical Criminology students, whose commentary yesterday prompted much of this post. 

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