The New ‘Great Confinement’

The language of segregation as lingua franca and the practice of it as normal mark the the 21st century, and 2020, in particular

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 17th May 2020  12:12 amUpdated: 17th May 2020  12:17 pm
Great Confinement

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently published a blog post on the lingua franca of Covid-19, showing how terms currently in vogue – quarantine, safe distancing, self-isolation – have been in circulation for years and, often, for centuries. ‘Quarantine’, for example, etymologically, quaranta (meaning ‘40’), implying 40 days of isolation of any ship suspected of carrying a disease, dates back to a 14th century Venetian practice.

‘Pestilence’ appears in the John Wycliffe Bible (1382). ‘Plague’, ‘blight’, ‘pest’, likewise, have long histories and playwrights like Shakespeare, as his leading commentator Stephen Greenblatt showed in his New Yorker piece earlier this month, employed them effectively.

The language of segregation as lingua franca and the practice of it as quotidian mark the rise of a new age, of a new ‘Great Confinement’. Isolation, segregation, quarantines once used to confine specific kinds of people have become normalised spatial practices. The new Great Confinement covers the globe today, so to speak.

If segregation produced its own language, ideas and modes of segregation also arose from the arts. Take for instance, the idea of the ‘ship of fools’. Inaugurated in a 15th century German satire by Sebastian Brant and made famous by a Hieronymous Bosch painting from the same period, the term became an allegory for the distancing of fools. As the ship sailed away, it segregated the insane, supposedly protecting the society from their (infectious) madness. Like their language, practices of segregation and isolation have a hoary, often nefarious history.

To Divide and Confine

Eyam, the English village that isolated itself in the 17th century – it lost over 200 of its 1,000-plus citizens but resolutely refused to open its borders  –  to prevent the plague within from spreading beyond its borders, has found a resurgent public interest today for its noble act, of segregation and self-isolation. But voluntary self-isolation was unusual.

Segregating people suspected of disease, criminal acts, insanity, witchcraft or any socially unacceptable – for that time and culture – acts is a very old phenomenon. It served monarchs, and today serves democracies and dictatorships alike. Segregation was a part of the process of classifying and ordering people. It is integral to the creation of hierarchies: Apartheid and India’s caste-based spatial segregation come to mind. It enables the creation of a society’s excluded, monitored and often condemned Other: those isolated and segregated were not a part of the social order, but its Other.

By classifying the people into good/bad, healthy/ill, productive/lazy, ours/theirs, insiders/outsiders, practices of segregation were, historically, modes of controlling populations and instantiate what the 20th century archaeologist of knowledge systems, Michel Foucault, would term ‘biopolitics’: the politics of bodies and populations. You could rule populations effectively by identifying, classifying and ordering them.

To exclude persons from the ambit of the social, however required a rationale. Preventing the spread of disease, punishment for a crime, cure and treatment for an illness were the most common justifications for segregating and isolating individuals and entire populations. Welfare was also, quite often, touted as a rationale for segregating people: London’s famous Poor Houses confined the poor, the vagabonds and the unemployed (described from the 17th century as ‘masterless men’). Laws were drafted as part of this ‘humanitarian’ initiative.

Segregation demanded barriers and distances between the Other and the social order, as well as constant surveillance of the segregated.

Prisons, Islands, Prisons-on-Islands

Carceral spaces are often, ironically, made famous by their inmates. Robben Island became iconic for Nelson Mandela, Yerawada for Mahatma Gandhi, the Andamans for the Indian freedom fighters.

The high walls, the watch-tower, the heavy gates are characteristic of prison architecture in the modern world. The architecture was meant to terrify people, and they speculate at the horrors that go on inside (in Asterix and the Goths, with the arrested ‘indomitable Gauls’ singing songs and cracking jokes with other inmates, those passing by the prison outside, comment on the ‘happy’ prison!).

The prison becomes a part of the social imagination precisely because it is incorporated into the city, and yet remains outside it. Indeed, as John Pratt has argued, the prison was a sign of modernity and its emphasis on development and improvement of the population: you were sent to prison so that you could reform yourself and return to society.

Within, every aspect of the population was monitored. Jail manuals from colonial India and commentaries in Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bombay carried detailed instructions on everything, including the quantity of ‘dal’ and wheat that should be fed to prisoners – a ‘disciplinary dietetics’ (David Arnold). David McCay compiled volumes of ‘Jail Dietaries’ in 1910/11, and AJ Buchanan published a Manual of Jail Hygiene for India in 1900.  The Report on the Diet of Prisoners and of the Industrial and Labouring Classes of the Bombay Presidency (1865) asked jail and medical authorities to carefully account for differences in ‘races … climate, habits and modes of life’, clearly gesturing at an imperial biopolitics of native populations.

The English banished its criminals to a distant island, now Australia. The Mauritius government sent its convicted to Robben Island (South Africa) and the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Robben Island between 1960 and 1992 had over 2,000 political inmates – all black. The Island itself was special, writes Harriet Deacon: ‘midway along the European spice route … [with] and natural resources (penguins, seals, water and a harbour)’. It began as a place of banishment, a ‘geographically and symbolically marginal site which, paradoxically, came to represent the core of apartheid and colonialism’. Ahmad Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island and the graphic biography, Nelson Mandela, highlight exactly how the island prison operated.

In colonial India, many convicts were ‘transported for life’ to Burmese prisons (Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was one of them). But new places needed to be found. At the 1877 Prison Conference it was proposed: ‘Port Blair is now a haven where prisoners would be’. Terrifying for both, its isolation and the possibility of losing their caste from being transported across the kala pani, the Cellular Prison (finished in 1906) on the Andaman Island, would become iconic for the incarceration of convicted ‘mutineers’ from 1857 (Liaquat Ali being the most famous) and freedom fighters such as VD Savarkar (see his My Transportation for Life). Muhammad Jafar Thanesari, who was imprisoned in the prison puts it in his Kālā Pānī yā Tavārīkh-e ʿAjīb  (1879?):

the newly arriving prisoners were required to do hard labor for their first ten years, were fed meals only in the mess, had to wear prisoner uniforms, and were lodged in barracks. They were not to be treated with the least kindness.

The penal settlement was not just a prison, it was a mode of colonisation itself, Clare Anderson argues. The confinement is also a colonisation.

Great Confinement

Pathogenic Spaces

In early 14th century France, there was a furore over an alleged conspiracy of lepers to poison the wells. In ‘The Yellow Face’, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, seeking to explain the mystery of Grant Munro’s wife’s former husband, says:

This woman was married in America. Her husband developed some hateful qualities; or shall we say that he contracted some loathsome disease, and became a leper or an imbecile?

In Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’, Godfrey Emsworth contracts leprosy in South Africa when, injured, he escapes from the battlefield (it is the Boer War) and, in the night, unknowingly enters a Leper Hospital for shelter and sleeps in a leper’s bed. He returns to England and hides in his father’s house, for his option is ‘segregation for life among strangers with never a hope of release’, in his words. The leper, in Foucault’s words, is an ‘insistent and fearful figure’, these examples show.

Leprosy was a dreaded tropical disease for Europeans. Associated with the clean/unclean binary since the Book of Leviticus (‘To teach when it is unclean, and when it is clean: this is the law of leprosy’), leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases to enter Europe.   Leprosy has always been used to stigmatise, and ‘leprous’ was affixed to any social group that had to be marginalised. As Rod Edmond puts it, ‘the disease might or might not have been the same, the specific social groups which leprosy has been used to stigmatise have varied, but the suitability of leprosy for the purpose of stigmatisation has been remarkably persistent’.

Hence, of all the spaces of segregation perhaps the most (in)famous are lazar houses (‘lazar houses’, after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers) and leper colonies. Japan, India and the Caribbean have a history of such lazar houses.  Due to the disfigurement and stigma attached to leprosy, the patients were shunned and refused treatment or care. The leper colony was a geography of exclusion par excellence.

And yet, leper colonies were also places of (morbid?) curiosity. Writers as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson (who published a story, ‘The Bottle Imp’, as did his wife, Fanny ‘The Half-White’), Jack London (The Cruise of the Snark), Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and Paul Theroux (‘The Lepers of Moyo’) visited Damien’s Colony on Molokai (a leper colony in the Hawaiian archipelago), and published their experience.

As feared as leprosy, insanity produced stringent measures, including but not limited to what Foucault in Madness and Civilization terms the ‘Great Confinement’. Foucault opens with the observation that the number of leper houses reduced drastically by the 17th century, and shows how the ‘treatment’ of leprosy became a model for the treatment of those identified as insane:

“Leprosy disappeared, the leper vanished, or almost, from memory; these structures remained. Often, in these same places, the formulas of exclusion would be repeated, strangely similar two or three centuries later. Poor vagabonds, criminals, and “deranged minds” would take the part played by the leper.”

By the 17th century, Foucault notes, the mad were taken away and confined to places such as General Hospital, Paris, where they were treated for their moral unreason. This  confinement was useful: it made the insane objects for doctors to experiment on. The ‘Great Confinement’ was, therefore, an exercise in power, medical, legal and social: segregating and monitoring the mad.

Immobility Regimes

In Tings Chak’s graphic ‘novel’, Undocumented, she depicts Canadian cities and their detention centres. Drawing empty, reinforced and surveilled buildings, Chak depicts spaces ready to receive immigrants classified as ‘unwanted’: here they will live, for months and even years.

The ‘Indian Reservations’ in the USA, refugees camps across the world, and (in history) Nazi ‘concentration camps’ are places of segregation, confinement and surveillance. Literature from these places  –  from prison writings by inmates to volumes like Poems from Guantanamo Bay – have generated considerable interest for their documentation of carceral spaces.

The words of Carolyn Strange in her epilogue to a cultural history of isolation are salutary:

“The inseparability and the recurrent intertwining of ‘prevention’, ‘punishment’ and ‘protection’ reveals the historic connection between all of these state-endorsed practices in modernity, as well as between the populations rendered into ‘problems’.”

Practices of segregation and isolation are components of immobility regimes. To restrict movement, to regulate its routes are biopolitical acts that reinforce existing social hierarchies. Whether placing political opponents under ‘house arrest’, confining native inhabitants to ‘reservations’, or camps as ‘transit’ residence, the purpose is social ordering.

The 21st century with its hundreds of camps, and 2020 in particular with its quarantines, containment wards, self-isolation and restrictions on movement, is the new age of the ‘Great confinement’.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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