All posts by Matt Nissen

My Research Based Assignment

In my Research Based Assignment (RBA), I will be exploring the relationship between prison facilities and social control. Specifically, I will analyze how American military prisons in the War on Terror and supermaximum security facilities are tools to assert the dominance of the American government over those groups of people. It is also my hope that I can explore how these prison systems affect the American population in general, whether as a symbol or in more concrete ways. My mind map, which is linked below, explores the basic concepts I will explore and how they are connected.


Prisons as Post-9/11 Containment: Research Mixer Background

In the wake of 9/11, both the American military prison system and the supermax prison system began to increase the use of extreme methods in order to keep deviants in control. The practice of “enhanced interrogation” and similar methods in both has been increasing since, and will continue to do so unless challenged.

Previous scholarship has noted that the use of what is essentially torture is a direct result of American imperial ambitions abroad. In what one scholar notes as an “imperial paranoia,” the United States sees paradoxically as both a grand world power and one that is also under constant threat. The majority of prisoners in American military prisons, such as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, were discovered to not have been terrorists at all. The reason for their torture was simply a means to display American might and enforce American power. As another scholar notes, the decision to enable torture came straight from the Executive Branch of the government as a specific policy measure. The Bush Administration approved such methods and created an atmosphere where these actions were acceptable.

Furthermore, scholarly articles have pointed out the similarities in purpose and practice between American military detention centers and domestic supermax prisons. The concept of a prison is to constrict an individual person’s liberty and contain people who go against the status quo. Through this containment, the actor displays power and enforces the status quo in the general population. This is true both for Iraqi citizens against the American military and American citizens against the American judicial system. In addition, the practices of both types of prisons are very similar. In fact, many of the guards at military prisons are the same guards that used to work at regular and supermax American prisons. The use of solitary containment in the SHU, as well as physical violence and other methods, in domestic prisons reflects the attitude that permeates the domestic penal system.

In writing my research based analysis, I hope to add to this line of scholarship. I want to further the claim that the American prison system, both at home and abroad, is used as a method of populace control. In addition, the methods used in both systems are inherently undemocratic and are a threat to the founding principles of the American republic.

Science Fiction as Allegory: How Star Trek is a Social Critique

Nicholas Sarantakes discusses how the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” is an analogy to US foreign policies during the Cold War period. The Enterprise and Captain Kirk are thrown into an alternate dimension where they encounter an evil version of themselves and of the Federation. While the Federation in their original universe advocates peaceful contact with other cultures, the anti-Federation is bent on violent imperial actions to subjugate other cultures. The good version of the Enterprise is what the Star Trek writers aspire for US policy to be abroad. As Sarantakes puts it, “The message of the episode is that a democratic country like the United States is different from and better than its autocratic rival, the Soviet Union, and that U.S. foreign policy should reflect these merits. If the United States fails in this regard, it is no better than any other world power.” It is a reminder that in the Cold War the United States is the good guy, and the USSR the bad guy. In addition, it adds the critical point that if the United States strays from this idealized version of foreign policy, they can become the bad guys.

Science fiction and fantasy writing has an opportunity to critique cultural ideologies in ways that most other mediums do not. As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry remarked, “Today in TV, you can’t write about Vietnam, politics, labor management, the rocket race, the drug problem realistically.” It is very difficult to have realistic and critical material approved, and sell, in a typical market. If deep-rooted cultural beliefs are directly challenged, people are likely to shut down and ignore the message. With the same message steeped in a fantasy world, it becomes less a direct attack on people and more a medium for those people to reevaluate that belief. Another example of science fiction that tackles social problems is the X-Men comic book series. The X-Men are “mutants” shunned by the rest of society, and often must deal with hatred and bigotry. These comics created an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial justice and equality in America.

The Anxiety of Urban Destruction During the Cold War and Post-9/11 America

In “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, Matthew Farish discusses the relationship between the suburbs and the city during the Cold War, and how the atomic bomb was largely responsible for this relationship. On the importance of the suburb, Farish notes that “It was these suburban ‘citadels’ that infiltrated the discourse of Cold War geopolitics: they were the quintessential sites of American life, the spaces where history was being actively rewritten.” The suburbs represented the panic of the white conservative “average” American as they fled from central cities. A central theme of Farish’s argument is that these families fled the city because of fear of nuclear destruction. Cities, especially high density ones, were seen as primary targets of nuclear weapons. With images of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fairly fresh in the American consciousness, coupled with constant disaster scenarios in popular media, many Americans were afraid to live in the city. Those who could afford it moved out to the suburbs, which as Farish describes, became the center of the “quintessential” American life

Just like the images of Hiroshima affected the American psyche during the Cold War, so too did the destruction of the Twin Towers affect America post-9/11. The attack on September 11th targeted landmark buildings in a massive urban center, New York City. The imagery of those towers falling reminded Americans of the panic induced by nuclear destruction during the Cold War. A similar fear of a vague foreign threat with the capability and desire to target large American urban centers resurfaced. Once more, it created a fear of living in urban centers and shifted a preference toward the suburban. I think that a general fear of urban destruction can be seen in the resurgence in popularity of destruction movies in the last decade. These movies, just like the magazine articles mentioned in Farish’s essay, fuel the flames of American anxiety towards urban destruction. In addition, the suburbs are still seen as preferable living situations for most American families.

Terrorists and Marriage: The Exclusion of the LGBT Community Post-9/11

In Chapter 1 of Lugo’s book, “G.W. Bush Administration Narratives of Threat and Containment,” they make the observation that in the post-9/11 environment issues regarding the LGBT community and connected to issues regarding terrorism. It is written that, “The War on Terror and same-sex marriage came to connect in the United States public mind to render the threat of perceived terrorist countries and that of same-sex couples in need of strict containment.” In addition, the reemergence of discussion regarding HIV/AIDS is an important insight into the fear that permeated society in this environment. The way that Bush talked about both HIV/AIDS and terrorism simultaneously and prominently in 2003 shows how the threat of a vague and foreign menace also created a fear of a domestic threat “caused” by an Other. In this case, the Other was lesbians and gay men, and fear of terrorism and HIV/AIDS was a major detriment in advancing the cause of same-sex marriage.


Containment Culture in “Stranger Things”

For the majority of the 20th century, the United States was dominated by a culture of containment. This culture has seen a reemergence in the wake of the tragic attacks on September 11th, 2001. Just as containment dictated both policy and domestic life during the Cold War, so too does it have a firm grip on those two aspects of US society today. This containment culture is demonstrated well in the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things (2016-).

At a surface level, Stranger Things is a direct nostalgic callback to the 1980’s, an era where anti-communist rhetoric reached a peak. The show follows a group of misfit kids who are forced to team up against a mysterious otherworldly threat with the help of a young girl with powers. The town, called Hawkins, is a fairly good representation of the Cold War Era United States at large. The otherworldly creature is a force not quite understood that is capable of unstoppable destruction, a fair metaphor for nuclear weapons. Its presence, much like the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, forces the town to live in fear.

This fear, in line with containment culture, creates a strict duality between Other and Same. Thus, the group of misfits is lumped into the category of Other, because they do not fit within the definitions of “average American children.” One has a birth defect, one is African-American, one is thought to be gay, and all are considered “nerdy.” Thus, they face both the destructive threat of the creature and the threat of fellow classmates who see the group as Other. The show is a thought provoking look at the nature of exclusion and of Otherness in an era that in reality is not much different from our current one.