Writers are forever searching for that backdrop of authenticity, but in the supersystemic entropy of late modernity, the bullet scenarios have just about run out. How many dead-end jobs did Ernest, Jr. take to seem a man o’ the people? How many syringes of sweet heroin and balls of crack did they ingest to appear Rimbaudian to ensnare hipster cred that could guarantee ownership of that preternatural Edge so beloved by artist manques for centuries? How many mined horrid family dysfunction and personal acting-out of unresolved pony or sexual trauma to score worthwhile plot scenery?
Only now, during the heyday of mass incarceration, the Academy, within which writers can find isolated sinecures, has discovered – the prison. The prison was there all along, and it has been imbued with a faint Hollywood glow, a righteous swab of HBO veritas in Oz and now the Orange is the New Black if you are a White College Student Dealing Some Drugs, but now the real academy, not Hollywood, is also branching out into the prisons, starting programs with college credits, bringing hard-working young and old profs to pen the odd essay and soon-to-be-remaindered books about good old Prison U.
Knock yourselves out, meaning-searching riders of the mass incarceration storm, but there is the greater social reality therein the Big House , of hopeless ennui, relentless bureaucratic stupidity, the corrosive effects of organized social neglect in late capitalism, with the attendant wonders of childhood sexual abuse, childhood super-neglect, families of murder and rape and guns galore, layers and layers of the ineffable damages that are now America’s specialty, soon to be on major MFA-vetted novel near you.
Yet Barack Obama, along with nearly every other male visitor to the slums, imagines himself to be but one step removed from that natural life-serving prisoner. This facile imaginative projection is statistically untrue – the enforced social horror of mass incarceration is not one wrong step, the prisoner not one half-step from your dance program. Social horror takes decades of erosion of basic life necessities to produce its effects.