Abolishing the cultural hegemony of the carceral state

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

In abolitionist circles, the role of popular media in normalising police brutality is well acknowledged, and yet someone will always ask if their particular favourite show can somehow avoid the criticism; “even Brooklyn Nine-Nine?!”. Sorry to break it to you, but there is no cop show in the world that gets to pass as prison abolitionist friendly. With increased calls to #DefundThePolice, let’s re-examine what role popular media plays in upholding the carceral spectacle.

Let’s start with a history lesson first. With the abolition of the spectacle of public, visible punishment (such as public hangings), the penal system has disappeared behind, increasingly privatised, walls. Although this has created a comfortable distance for the general public to enjoy, away from the ‘criminals’, our concerns and imaginations over criminality have been displaced into other areas, like literature and popular culture. So, although the ‘criminals’ are now hidden away in prisons, the apparatus of the penal system still remains at the forefront of popular geographical imaginations.

Prisons and crime in television have been popular since the beginnings of television itself. At this point, it’s not even possible to neatly categorise criminal tropes in media. Of course, there are shows and films specifically about criminal cases, but the presence of the penal systems crosses over with all genres. It is the simplest method of keeping viewers engaged through ad breaks, by providing the familiar televisual form of mystery, suspense, and resolution. These foundations have not drastically changed over time.

Photo by Moritz Mentges on Unsplash

So, are we living through what Debord describes as a “degradation of life”? Probably. By applying commodity fetishism to contemporary mass media, we can critique how genuine relations between people are replaced by representations. We consume representations of police and the penal state which influence our perceptions in ways visible and invisible because the majority of the population are unlikely to ever have to encounter the police in their real lives. This mediation leaves plenty of room to create more palpable perceptions of the police state.

Does this make crime and police shows propaganda? No, precisely because they do not portray real life. Whether it’s grossly overestimating the capabilities of forensic evidence, racial profiling of perpetrators of crime, or morally justifying police brutality, the cultural hegemon has been established to the point where most would not dare question whether disappearing people in prisons is an effective solution at all.

Many writers might make the case for a solution to this issue by diversifying the room of film and TV writers and producers. But does it matter if the cop in your show is non-heterosexual when they still perpetuate slapstick police brutality? Does it matter if more women write the same spectacle? Simply ‘diversifying’ does not tackle the issue of the hegemon of the idea that the carceral state is an effective method of addressing harm in our communities.

Instead, I would argue (with the help of Gramsci’s logic) that the first step to #DefundThePolice and dismantling the carceral state is to dismantle the entire spectacle surrounding it. Attempting to achieve police abolition before addressing its grip on popular media would be like putting the cart before the horse. Abolitionists’ first order of business should be to break free of the clutches of cultural hegemony and open the eyes of the general public to the idea that actually, prisons and police might not be what we see in films and TV. If the purpose of the hegemon is to maintain its own position of power, without pulling it apart we cannot begin to imagine on large scales, new and alternative futures. The hegemon does not create the space for us to question it, and it does not question itself to prevent us from getting any funny ideas about abolition.

Black radical feminists already provide us with the foundations for thinking outside the binaries of the state. We are capable of imagining alternative futures and narratives for ourselves. The carceral spectacle prevents us from mainstreaming these ideas because they contradict the systems it props up. The only way to break through is to defeat the hegemon. And yes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is complicit.