Heather Ann Thompson | Theory v. Praxis and the Crisis of Carcerality

By Heather Ann Thompson

There are arguably few contemporary issues—indeed contemporary crises—that call for a serious discussion of the power of theory versus the imperative of praxis than the current state of this nation’s apparatus of criminalization, confinement and control that, collectively, comprise the American carceral state. While a carceral state has always existed in this nation, and it has always been markedly defined by the extent to which it is racialized and classed, the particular carceral apparatus that has come to exist over the course of the last five decades is marked by a  size, a reach, and a set of devastating collateral impacts, that are historically unprecedented and internationally unparalleled.

Any state apparatus this large in size, with so devastating a social, economic, and political impact, invites, and perhaps inevitably spawns, a serious intellectual as well as political response. Intellectually it has led scholars from literally every discipline, as well as the myriad communities most directly impacted by the carceral state, to theorize its origins, its present day function, and, ultimately, the path forward to its improvement or even its dismantling. Politically, it has led these same constituents—with varying degrees of passion and sense of immediacy—to act now, using any and all means at their disposal, to resist the carceral state in real time in order to reduce the suffering of the nearly 7.5 million Americans that each day endure this system. Many hope as well eventually to eliminate the system itself so that it doesn’t continue to harm and hinder future generations of poor people–and overwhelmingly black and brown poor people.

In this session I will share my thoughts on the logics, possibilities, and limitations of both reformist and abolitionist arguments for addressing carceral crisis, and will locate my own position vis-à-vis these oftentimes competing efforts to move from theory to praxis. Ultimately, however, I will posit the imperative of assessing the logics (and thus potential) of each position in the context of the logics (and thus potential) of the liberal democratic state itself.