Confinement - Catherine Malabou - Life and Prison

Life and Prison

Catherine Malabou

Drawing by Smiljan Radic.

October 2020

The Prison of Language

In his inaugural lecture for the opening of the Chair of Semiology at the Collège de France in Paris (1977), Roland Barthes made a very strange and striking statement: “Language is fascist.” His explanation:

Language is legislation, speech is its code. We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive… Jakobson has shown that a speech-system is defined less by what it permits us to say than by what it compels us to say. In French (I shall take obvious examples) I am obliged to posit myself first as subject before stating the action which will henceforth be no more than my attribute: what I do is merely the consequence and consecution of what I am. In the same way, I must always choose between masculine and feminine, for the neuter and the dual are forbidden me… Thus, by its very structure my language implies an inevitable relation of alienation. To speak, and, with even greater reason, to utter a discourse is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate; it is to subjugate: the whole language is a generalized rection… Language—the performance of a language system—is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.1

The problem, of course, is that there is no way to escape language; there is no way out. “Unfortunately, human language has no exterior: there is no exit.”2 We are then in the prison-house of language, as Jameson says.3

The Prison of Philosophical Concepts

The capture of language is even more conspicuous when it comes to philosophical concepts. Let’s look at the etymology of the word “concept,” at least in French and in English. It comes from concipere, which itself comes from capere cum, to grasp together. The term concept, then, has the same origin as capture, captivity:

captive (adj.): late 14c., “made prisoner, enslaved,” from Latin captivus “caught, taken prisoner,” from captus, past participle of capere “to take, hold, seize” (from PIE root *kap- “to grasp”).

captive (n.): “one who is taken and kept in confinement; one who is completely in the power of another,” c. 1400, from noun use of Latin captivus. An Old English noun was hæftling, from hæft “taken, seized,” which is from the same root.4

The term “prison” also derives from the act of seizing, prendre in French, from the Latin pre(n)siōnem, accusative of *pre(n)siō, contraction of prehensiō, “the action of apprehending the body,” becomes preison, then prison, with the core inflation of pris, past participle of prendre, “to take.”5 In German, the verb greifen (to capture someone) can be heard in Begriff (concept). It seems that philosophy is doomed to redouble the fascism of language.

I want to link these preliminary remarks with the fact that the most important and profound contemporary philosophical texts devoted to the issue of life practically always comprise, in their very core, a reflection on the prison, on what it is to live in prison. As if life was the privileged victim of philosophical concepts as well as the privileged victim of language, of language’s fascism. Some of the important texts providing us with a reflection on concept, language, captivity, and life include: Captivity Notebooks by Emmanuel Levinas, Marx by Michel Henry, Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault, Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben.

I will start by referring to Michel Hardt’s article “Prison Time,” devoted to Jean Genet, to expose first how philosophers generally account for the relationship between life and imprisonment, and second how they explore the possibility of a way out from within language. I will then question the way in which the traditional philosophical approaches to both language and captivity have been challenged by Black thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frank Wilderson.

Prison and Writing

In his article “Prison Time,” Michael Hardt develops a metaphorical connection between actual prison and the prison of language.6 Through Genet’s life, he is able to situate the fact of being in jail in parallel with being trapped within language. Hardt writes: “Inmates live prison as an exile from life, or, rather, from the time of living.” They think: “The first thing I’ll do when I get out is…Then I’ll really be living.”7

Captivity produces the fantasy of an outside: authentic life is outside. Outside walls, and—we might add—outside concepts, outside language. But this fantasy disappears, as Hardt shows, when one discovers that there is no outside, that the outside of prison does not liberate life from its capture:

Those who are free, outside of prison looking in, might imagine their own freedom defined and reinforced in opposition to prison time. When you get close to prison, however, you realize that it is not really a site of exclusion, separate from society, but rather a focal point, the sight of the highest concentration of a logic of power that is generally diffused throughout the world. Prison is our society in its most realized form. That is why, when you come into contact with the existential question and ontological preoccupations of inmates, you cannot but doubt the quality of your own existence. If I am living that elsewhere of full being that inmates dream of, is my time really so full? Is my life really not wasted? My life too is structured through disciplinary regimes, my days move on with a mechanical repetitiveness—work, commute, tv, sleep… I live prison time in our free society, exiled from living.8

In a certain sense, life in prison just reveals life as prison. My life outside is a prison, my life as a free subject is a prison. Because I speak. Because I am a speaking subject. Being a speaking subject in the prison of language paradoxically brings me close to those who don’t speak, to animals, animals in captivity, when they develop what is called stereotypic behaviors, made of repetition and routine.9

What Hardt describes when he says that prison is everywhere, that our lives are always already captured by power, is the series of stereotypes in which we are always already locked in—those repetitions, habits, routines, and manifestations of meaninglessness that first appear in language, and are redoubled by philosophy.

Prison as a Condition for Liberation

Barthes also characterizes the originary entanglement of power and language as what gives way to the production of stererotypes:

The sign is a follower, gregarious; in each sign sleeps that monster: a stereotype. I can speak only by picking up what loiters around in speech. Once I speak, these two categories unite in me; I am both master and slave. I am not content to repeat what has been said, to settle comfortably in the servitude of signs: I speak, I affirm, I assert tellingly what I repeat. In speech, then, servility and power are inescapably intermingled.10

Philosophy usually radicalizes such a situation by affirming that captivity is not a specific state or mode of being among others, but constitutes the very form of being in the world. This means that power would not only be the external force that subdues life and captures it, but also that which exploits a virtuality of life itself, something immanent to life itself. Stereotypic behaviors would then reveal a potentiality of life, something that is always already present in life.

The specific task of traditional philosophy is to affirm that instead of trying to escape the closure of concepts, we have to first accept it, and to acknowledge the essential complicity between the closure of concepts and the captivity of life. It is the task of philosophy to understand captivity as internal to life. Philosophy, as Plato so powerfully demonstrates with the cave, starts in prison.

Philosophy wants us to think that there exists something within life that constitutes its own tendency to imprison itself. Heidegger, in his Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle (written at a time when he still talked about life and not yet of existence), brings to light the category of Abriegelung—“blocking-off” in English, or verrouillage in French—from Riegel, German for “lock.” Blocking-off is the prefiguration of what he will later express, in Being and Time, as “taking care,” the inauthentic version of care. It is a form of closure, of Benommenheit. Life necessarily imprisons itself, and the lock is an essential structure of life:

…life blinds itself, puts out its own eyes. In the sequestration [Abriegelung], life leaves itself out…Factical life leaves itself out precisely in defending itself explicitly and positively against itself.11

Why does life need to “[defend] itself…against itself?” The lock, the Riegel coincides with life’s immediate understanding of itself—rather, its misunderstanding of itself as a consequence of the language used to describe that understanding: life appears as something that is ahead of me, as a free space. In stating this, it precisely locks itself out. It misses the authentic opening, which is the opening toward death. Life is imprisoned because it disavows its own death.

In the philosophical tradition, the concept of alienation has long been used to designate this originary captivity of life. Michel Henry’s Marx contains an interesting analysis of what he calls “subjective alienation,” as distinct from objective alienation.12 Henry’s thesis is that Marx’s main concern is life, life understood in its most material, empirical determination. In Hegel, Henry explains, alienation characterizes a becoming-object. For example, if I say that my life is alienated, in Hegelese, this means that my life has become a thing. It is true that labor, for Marx, is what transforms life into a commodity, a thing. The problem is that the worker’s life is inseparable from the worker, so what they alienate is something subjective, something that they cannot depart from without dying. Labor is subjective alienation, the selling of something that cannot become an object:

If alienating oneself does not mean to objectify oneself any longer, to posit oneself in front of oneself as something which is there, alienation then occurs within the very sphere of subjectivity, it is a modality of life and it belongs to it…Alienation is “a specific tonality of life, when life means suffering, sacrifice…” What is the most proper becomes the most alien.13

In Henry as well, social alienation comes from an immanent tendency of life. Life is always already alienated, imprisoned, because it cannot speak of its own alienation. It does not have the words. Here again, the first prison is language. The ambiguity of philosophy is that it roots alienation, or Abriegelung, within life itself.

Prison and Disalienation

Philosophers have also thought how to disalienate life, which amounts to elucidating the issue of the outside where there is no outside. Hardt affirms that Genet succeeded in carving out a space of freedom within captivity. He was able to build an outside from inside the prison, an outside which was not an elsewhere:

The fullness of being in Genet begins with the fact that he never seeks an essence elsewhere—being resides only and immediately in our existence…Exposure to the world is not the search for an essence elsewhere, but the full dwelling in this world, the belief in this world.14

Hardt explains that prison is still a world, and being captive a modality of exposure to the world. And it is from the experience of prison, when we learn how to dwell in prison, that we can get out of it:

When we expose ourselves to the force of things we realize this ontological condition, the immanence of being in existence. We merge with the destiny we are living and are swept along in its powerful flux.15

The important term here is “immanence,” which means “inside.” There is a possible transcendence in immanence. Through writing, Genet is at one with the bodies of the prisoners, their living bodies: “in this exposure the bodies are fully realized and they shine in all their gestures.”16 This gain in intensity inside is what Hardt calls the saintly, divine, sublime passivity of being in prison. Writing, or as Heidegger would say, thinking—a certain use of language that emancipates the writing or thinking subject from stereotypes.

Hardt uses a Spinozist, Nietzschean, and Deleuzian vocabulary to characterize how Genet increases his power of acting, how life becomes joy, affirmation, creation, in the “energy of erotic exposure” of captive life. This transcendence in immanence is not only an artistic or erotic gesture; it is a revolutionary one. Hardt even begins his article by writing: “Lenin liked to think of prison as a university for revolutionaries.”17 But “exposure itself, however, is not enough for Genet.”18 Exposure has to transmute itself into the revolutionary event. Instead of getting out, into the outside, the externality comes from a reversion from within. Writing is an enduring movement that inverts directions.

Revolution is defined by the continuous movement of a constituent power…Revolutionary time finally marks our escape from prison time into a full mode of living, unforeseeable, exposed, open to desire. This mode of living is at all times constituent of our new, revolutionary time.19

The redemption of prison space first has to happen within prison itself. In the thesis defended by Hardt and Negri in Multitudes, prison time characterizes the situation of the global proletariat, the carceral mode of living imposed upon it by globalization. We find here again the point made by Henry about subjective alienation and the cutting of life in two by the capitalist exploitation of labor. The revolution to come appears first as a revolution of language in language. Barthes again:

But for us, who are neither knights of faith nor supermen, the only remaining alternative is, if I may say so, to cheat with speech, to cheat speech. This salutary trickery, this evasion, this grand imposture which allows us to understand speech outside the bounds of power, in the splendor of a permanent revolution of language, I for one call literature.20

Revolution starts with an upheaval of language, an event that keeps language “alive.” Such an operation coincides with Hardt and Negri’s “liberation of living labor,” the counterpower to “Empire seen as a mere apparatus of capture that lives off the vitality of the multitude.”21

Life, through revolution, does not negate its capacity to be captured, its essential relationship to exile, closure, and separation. The originary passivity of life can always be exploited and subjugated by revolution itself. Therefore, there is no clear and univocal meaning of the way out.

What does the outside look like? This question is very difficult, and to answer it requires taking a different direction. The outside of prison though revolution consists mostly in the transformation of the social jail into the emancipated community, the building and fashioning of the commune, of networks of interrelationality. Through this network, life returns to itself, is restituted to itself. But this interrelationality, in turn, can be considered a new prison. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. affirms in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the interrelated structure of reality.22

Black Death and the End of Prison Idealism

King’s words describe something like the universal condition of life, what all people share, caught as they are in the same net. The “inescapable network” may be considered the origin of freedom, in the same way that Sartre said that men are doomed, or destined to be free.

However, they can also be read as announcing a new mode of being locked in, within the community and the revolutionary act itself. The network formed by humanity, even if interrelated, is a mechanism of exclusion.

In his book Red, White & Black, Frank Wilderson proposes an interpretation of Hardt’s text from the point of view of Afro-pessimism.23 For Wilderson, Hardt’s analysis acts like a lock and a new modality of separation. His discourse on revolution “assumes a universal grammar of suffering,” which does not exist. There is no universal grammar of prison or concepts of imprisonment. The very concept of life, Wilderson states, necessarily precludes Blackness: “Black time is the moment of no time at all on the map of no place at all.”24 The duality inside/outside cannot apply to Blackness.

The slave, who for Wilderson is the fundamental identity of Blackness, is not a prisoner, but a slave; that is, a non-being, a life that is not one. “Marxist…[ontologies] either take for granted or insist on…the a priori nature of the subject’s capacity to be alienated and exploited.”25 Revolution itself is a concept, is a capture. “One cannot think loss and redemption through Blackness, as one can think them through the proletarian multitude or the female body, because Blackness recalls nothing prior to the devastation that defines it.”26

Furthermore, Wilderson states that “Blackness exists on a lateral plane where it is possible to rank human with animal.”27 The Black subject is therefore exiled from the human relation, which is predicated on social recognition, volition, subjecthood, and the valuation of life itself. For Wilderson, Black existence is marked as an ontological absence posited as sentient object and devoid of any positive relationality, in contradistinction to the presence of the human subject. White life is constructed upon Black death, whereas Black lives are Black deaths.

Philosophy and literature never take into account lives that are excluded by the concept or the immanent passion of the word. When Wilderson affirms that Blackness is ranked with animal life, it is to the extent that animal life itself is excluded from the concept, and that Black lives and animal lives are both reduced to pure stereotypes.

Black Lives Matter, the international activist movement created in July 2013, has evoked many reactions. Its perception in the US varies considerably. The phrase “All Lives Matter” sprang up as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, “All Lives Matter” has been criticized for dismissing or misunderstanding the message of “Black Lives Matter.” And following the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson in 2014, the hashtag “Blue Lives Matter” was created by supporters of the police.

We can see through this example that life, whatever its definition, seems to always fall back into ghetto, prison, separation, and fragmentation. Blackness is the most obvious case of the impossibility to open a space of freedom within life, because Black life is deprived of any inside; it is always already emptied by non-Black concepts of non-Black lives.

In conclusion, literature and philosophy, as Barthes, Hardt and Genet define them, are others ways of reintroducing a form of almost religious transcendence within the analysis of life as closure and the fascist essence of language. Revolution remains idealized as a way of finding one’s own salvation from within the prison of reality. What kind of language has then to be found that would not be a reimprisonment of Black lives? Does it still belong to philosophy? Does it still belong to literature? For sure, this issue requires the opening of a yet unheard of space. Afro-pessimism might be its name. A name born in prison.


Roland Barthes, “Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France,” in The Continental Philosophy Reader, eds. Richard Kearney and Maria Painwater (New York: Routledge, 1996), 365–366.


Ibid., 366.


Cf. Frederic Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).


See “Captive,” Online Etymology Dictionary, ; see also “Prison,” .


“Prison,” Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, 2012, .


Michael Hardt, “Prison Time”, in Yale French Studies, “Genet: In the Language of the Enemy,” special issue 91 (1997): 64–79.


Ibid., 66.


Ibid., 66–67.


“Stereotypic behaviour is an abnormal behaviour frequently seen in laboratory primates. It is considered an indication of poor psychological well-being in these animals. It is seen in captive animals but not in wild animals…Stereotypic behaviour has been defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function. A wide range of animals, from canaries to polar bears to humans can exhibit stereotypes. Many different kinds of stereotyped behaviours have been defined and examined. Examples include crib-biting and wind-sucking in horses, eye-rolling in veal calves, sham-chewing in pigs, and jumping in bank voles. Stereotypes may be oral or involve bizarre postures or prolonged locomotion. A good example of stereotyped behaviour is pacing. This term is used to describe an animal walking in a distinct, unchanging pattern within its cage…The locomotion may be combined with other actions, such as a head toss at the corners of the cage, or the animal rearing onto its hind feet at some point in the circuit.” Nora Philbin, “Towards an understanding of stereotypic behaviour in laboratory macaques,” Animal Technology: Journal of the Institute of Animal Technicians 49, no. 1 (1998): 19–33.


Barthes, “Inaugural Lecture,” 368.


Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 80.


Michel Henry, Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality, trans. Kathleen MacLaughlin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).


My translation. Ibid., 608.


Hardt, “Prison Time,” 67–68.


Ibid., 68.




Ibid., 64.


Ibid., 70.


Ibid., 68.


Barthes, “Inaugural Lecture,” 369.


Michael Hardt and Tony Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 61–62.


Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Birmingham City Jail, April 16, 1963.


Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).


Ibid., 279.




Ibid., 281.


Ibid., 288.

Confinement is a collaborative exhibition curated by gta exhibitions and e-flux Architecture, supported by the Adrian Weiss Stiftung and the ETH Zürich Foundation.

Language & Linguistics, Bodies, Philosophy
Police & Prisons, Everyday Life, Blackness
Return to Confinement

An earlier version of the text was published by Alienoscene on October 23, 2018. It is the edited transcript of a lecture given at the European Graduate School on August 13, 2018.

Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher. She is professor in the Philosophy Department at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at Kingston University.


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