the Prison of the Mind: Punishment, Social Order, and Self-Regulation

In the Prison of the Mind: Punishment, Social Order, and Self-Regulation


This paper examines the relationship between punishment and regulation as represented in Richard Price’s 1992 novel, Clockers. In particular, it considers how obedience to regulation promises avoidance of punishment, even as regulation is often imposed as part and parcel of punishment. I explore how that variable relationship acts on individual subjects and consider how it is replicated and elucidated through narrative construction.

A principal definition of regulation is state control or governance or direction by rule(s). Another and broader definition of the word is any mechanism of control or direction. As Julia Black writes, “The main textbooks on regulation identify three definitions. In the first, regulation is the promulgation of rules by government accompanied by mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, usually assumed to be performed through a specialist public agency. In the second, it is any form of direct state intervention in the economy, whatever form that intervention might take. In the third, regulation is all mechanisms of social control or influence affecting all aspects of behaviour from whatever source, whether they are intentional or not.”1 This third and broader definition is sometimes described in terms of “meta-regulation.”2 The present discussion of the connection between regulation and punishment necessarily examines the connection between the first and third forms of regulation: specifically, the ways in which the third sort of regulation manipulates individual attitudes toward—and thus ensures the social force of—the first sort.

Legal punishment, as Michel Foucault has detailed, is the handmaiden of the first sort of regulation, its “mechanism for monitoring and enforcement,” imposed by the police and the courts, the “specialist public agencies.” And yet, punishment, that essential social and legal deterrent to the contravention of rules, is for Foucault not just an unpleasant consequence of disobedience; rather, it precedes disobedience and so acts itself as an instrument of regulation:

The art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor even precisely at repression. . . . The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes. It is opposed, therefore, term by term, to a judicial penalty whose essential function is to refer, not to a set of observable phenomena, but to a corpus of laws and texts that must be remembered; that operates not by differentiating individuals, but by specifying acts according to a number of general categories; not by hierarchizing, but quite simply by bringing into play the binary opposition of the permitted and the forbidden.3

With respect to the notion of differentiation and homogenization, which could seem to contradict one another: differentiation as described here acts in the service of homogenization. Individuals are differentiated from one another. Positions within a hierarchical system are differentiated from one another. Hierarchical systems, on the other hand, are meant to be homogenized, meaning that social order must reproduce and remain identical to itself. That reproduction of social order belongs to the third definition of regulation: “mechanisms of social control or influence affecting all aspects of behaviour.” And the reproduced social order in question is one in which regulation operates not just to threaten punishment, but to give the subject the impression of being already punished.

On the one hand, since the contravention of rules constitutes a crime, a punishable offense, regulation (in the first sense, as “the promulgation of rules by government accompanied by mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement”) is a blueprint for remaining on the right side of the law, and by extension free from punishment. Punishment, then, according to this model, happens to those who violate regulation. On the other hand, when the “specialist public agency” described by Black is correctional, regulation can be part and parcel of punishment. A common element of judicial chastisement is increased or intensified subjection to regulation in the form of parole and probation after the active penalty phase is completed. Sometimes, of course, that increased or intensified subjection substitutes entirely for the active penalty phase; heightened regulation often is the penalty for certain crimes. Regulation in this formula, in other words, happens to those who are already punished, rather than to those who simply wish not to be punished.

On the one hand, then, regulation is the imposition of rules that, when followed, exempt one from punishment. On the other hand, regulation is the imposition of rules as punishment. In a sense, these meanings correspond to two subtly different connotations of the word regulation. The first is a rather inanimate noun: regulation meaning rules, order, a neutral term for structure. The second has a more active resonance: regulation meaning the act of regulating, with emphasis on the transitive verb underneath the noun, and on the force and (punitive) weight of that verb.

Regulation that precedes punishment is in many ways substantially different from regulation that is imposed as punishment. That former is universal, or at least theoretically so; all people must pay taxes, drive a registered car, stop at red lights, refrain from littering, and so forth, to name a couple of the countless rules imposed on every person (this sort of regulation comes under the first definition that Black provides). The second sort of regulation, the sort that is punishment, though, is limited to those who have committed some sort of infraction: some crime that leads to probation officer visits, submission to drug tests, and the like. This sort of regulation also comes under the first definition that Black provides; it is simply imposed on a more limited population and for different reasons: to punish rather than merely to standardize or manage. In a sense, these categories of regulation are very different: they play different roles in the social order and assume different legal and social statuses—one assumes prior crime and the other does not. The problem is—and this is the crux of Foucault’s notion of punishment that normalizes—that there are all sorts of regulations of the first sort that are not universal at all and that, because of that absence of universality, come closer to being experienced as regulations of the second sort. To use the example of public housing, crucial to the novel at hand: people who live in public housing have to abide by housing rules, including no trespassing, no unauthorized long-term guests, and so forth.4 This regulation is universal in that everyone who lives in public housing has to abide by it. But of course, not everyone does live in public housing, and therefore not everyone is ordered by the government to wash his dishes or take out the garbage in a timely manner; not everyone has to ask official permission before housing a friend or family member. Those who do live there experience a regulation that stands astride the first and the second sort—at once neutral (because it is unconnected to a prior crime) and punitive (because it exceeds the universal regulations and demands more obedience and self-restraint from its subjects).

With this duality in mind, we can return to the third definition of regulation given above. “Regulation is all mechanisms of social control or influence affecting all aspects of behaviour from whatever source, whether they are intentional or not.”5 Christine Parker, Colin Scott, Nicola Lacey, and John Braithwaite also present this broader definition in Regulating Law, giving it the name of “meta-regulation”: “It is useful to think about the relationship of law and society or law and economy in terms of various layers of regulation each doing their own regulating. At the same time, each layer regulates the regulation of each other in various combinations of horizontal and vertical influence. The label ‘meta-regulation’ has been applied to this concept.”6 As I use it here, meta-regulation refers to the abstract mechanisms (social, cultural, psychological) that determine how individuals see themselves situated with respect to regulation and with respect to punishment. That determination varies according to who the individual is and how—and how much—she is regulated. In Clockers, we see the variable relationship of regulation and punishment as an essential component of meta-regulation, and as an essential ingredient in maintaining regulation’s effectiveness.7 Clockers depicts how regulation stands astride its meanings, its relationships to punishment, promising a way out of punishment even as it intimates that punishment is already underway. The specter of regulation carries within it the constant promise or threat of punishment, and reminds the subject—in ways subtle and not subtle—of her fundamental and enduring punishability, and even of her status as already punished. Regulation resonates as a morsel or preview and even, paradoxically, as a residue of punishment—even when the punishment is a phantom one, even when no punishment, no contact with the authorities, has occurred, and even when one is following regulation (as one usually does) with the precise intention of avoiding the punitive reach of the law. What Richard Price’s novel reveals to us, through its thematic content and through its narrative construction, is the ways in which regulation resonates both as punishment and as a way out of punishment, and as such, how it constrains one’s movements and imagination, encouraging one (through what we can call meta-regulation) to assume the contradictory role (with elements of both punisher and punished) of self-regulat or.

When I say that regulation connects to punishment, I am not talking about the fact that when police are always present, which they are in very regulated environments, they are relatively likely to find some violation. Nor am I talking about the fact that intense regulation sometimes pushes the regulated person to acts of resistance, which are in turn punishable—though these forces of causation exist. Regulation functions because it encourages people to see themselves not just as punishable, but as already (and already justly) punished, in some sense. This vision entails a provocatively multifaceted consciousness of oneself as a regulated subject. To obey regulation is to be conscious of that regulation. To be conscious of regulation, I propose, is to be conscious of oneself as existing outside regulation. To put this another way, to see oneself as regulated (a passive state that assumes an active subject) is to see oneself as inherently, organically unregulated—as needing to be regulated, needing to be brought or nudged into a social order that is fundamentally outside one. For instance: when we see a speed limit sign, we glance down at our speedometer. We notice if we are going faster than the posted limit; that is, faster than regulation dictates. If so, we slow down, aware that we can be ticketed. Significantly, though, even if we notice that we are not going faster than that limit, we are nonetheless conscious of our obedience, our adherence, and conscious of the element of choice present in that adherence: conscious, that is, of the possibility of unregulated conduct. And since unregulated conduct is connected to punishment, there is a sort of subtle reprimand implied in even the least punitive of regulations. A division thus arises in the subject: self-regulating, responsible, conforming to social mores, and at the same time regulated, constrained, punished.8 I am interested in what that division—or duality—means for the individual as a member of society and for the nature of regulation in the maintenance of social order.


Clockers has a number of story lines. I will summarize the central one and then concentrate my readings on those moments that dissect regulation’s connection with punishment—that demonstrate the provocative and psychologically untenable combination of passive subjection-punishment and active self-control-personal responsibility. The principal character is Strike Dunham, who sells drugs in a New Jersey housing project under the thumb and the tutelage of an older dealer. That older dealer, Rodney, tells Strike that there will be opportunity for advancement if a rival dealer is done away with. While pondering this idea, Strike happens to meet his brother Victor in a bar—his hard-working, law-abiding older brother, a family man trying to get his wife and children out of the projects—and slanders the rival dealer to him. Strike tells Victor that the rival dealer (whom he doesn’t identify as such, since his brother and he have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship with respect to Strike’s dealing) is a bad man: he beat up a woman, and so on. The rival dealer ends up dead that very night. Soon after that, the older brother, Victor, confesses. He confesses through a minister at his church, produces the murder weapon, and claims that he killed in self-defense. The detective who takes that confession—and that detective is a major character in his own right—does not understand the confession and does not believe it—doesn’t believe the claim of self-defense, doesn’t believe that Victor even committed the murder. He thinks surely it must be Strike, the bad kid who is always trying to get away with something, and not his upstanding brother, who has everything to lose and no connection whatever with the murdered man or the drug business, who shot the dealer. The novel is about solving that murder, and understanding the characters’ motives. Meanwhile, the older dealer under whom Strike was working is arrested, blames Strike for that arrest, destroys his car, and threatens to kill him. The detective ends up driving Strike into New York City, where he boards a bus and heads out of town.9

The characters in Clockers experience various forms of regulation, some of the first definition (rules promulgated by government) and some of the third definition (mechanisms of social control or influence affecting all aspects of behavior from whatever source, whether they are intentional or not). Strike is regulated in connection with punishment: he goes to his probation officer, he is stopped by police, searched, arrested, drug tested, and the like. Victor’s regulation on the other hand is self-generated and functions as a talisman against outside punishment: he does not commit crimes, he does not allow dealers in the restaurant he manages, he works two jobs in order to leave the projects and move to a better place, which would also be—though he does not articulate it as such—a place less regulated. In addition to these regulations, both brothers experience the ambiguous part-standard and part-punitive regulation of government-run public housing.10 Then, importantly, we see the ways in which these characters, who are so regulated, regulate themselves. Throughout the novels, internal, figurative forms of detention and punishment accompany outside regulation—detention placed by the characters on their own dreams and desires, their metaphors, their spatial imaginations, as well as their plots, movements, and accomplishments. These detentions can be seen as the fruits of “meta-regulation,” or a mechanism of social control that encourages individuals to be complicit and even active in their own policing.

Narrative Regulation

As I bring out the instruments of literary and narrative theory to examine the notion of “self-regulation,” I will say a word about examining social phenomena in general and the idea of the self in particular through their representations in a novel. One could ask what could be learned from a piece of fiction that would not be learned, for instance, from a sociological treatise on subjects of regulation. Why not read a few case studies of people who self-limited as a (direct or indirect) result of living in highly regulated or punitive circumstances? There are many such. What the novel form gives us—and what this particular novel gives us, through a third-person omniscient narration—is a multidimensional sense of the reach and power of subjection to regulation—a sense of how people act and are acted upon, see and are seen. This multidimensional sense comes from the fact that when characters regulate “themselves,” they are in fact being regulated by their narrator—that there is no “self” to escape or transcend the narrative frame. To put this in terms of the definitions introduced at the start of this paper, the narrative frame represents a solid circle of “meta-regulation”: it is the border outside which the character cannot step—a border invisible to the character. To discuss narrative structure within an analysis of regulation, or to discuss narrative as regulation, is to use a relatively visible concept (narrative frame) as a window onto its much more abstract real-life equivalent. It is to see the author and the narrative frame as narratological or structural stand-ins—heuristic stand-ins, as it were—for the cultural or psychological phenomena of meta-regulation.

The idea that legal considerations of narrative frame and narrative construction are essential to investigations of responsibility and character is hardly new. Peter Brooks, for one, pointed out that legal questions are fundamentally narrative, and narratological, in nature: “One needs to recognize. . . that narrative is inevitable and irreplaceable: it is not an ornament, it is not translatable into something else. The argument for study of narrative and rhetoric in the law must be that they are not reducible to other kinds of speech and argument, and since they are not, they need analytic consideration in their own right.”11 Brooks is talking about trials of real people, about the presentation of evidence and testimony in court. What we have in Clockers are not real people, but rather characters. But in a sense, this is Brooks’s point, despite his real-world forum—what we have in a narrative (whether in a fictional narrative or in a real testimonial narrative) is precisely characters, and only characters: only through the people as characters and through the narrative that houses and forms them can we access—or approach—what we believe to be the real people and their actions.

Fictional characters are not people in the way that you and I are people: they are a creation, a constructed mind placed within a constructed atmosphere and surrounded by constructed events. The characters’ words and thoughts, then, are as much the narrator’s creation as their surroundings are: there is no real independence, as the frame is always there. Or rather, frames, plural, which is what this fiction provides: a Venn diagram of perceptions and realities, of what is and what seems to be, of what one wants and what one can have, of what one is doing and what is being done to one. The narrator acts as a mediator or manipulator of these Venn circles, even as he occupies one of them, determining what the characters see, what they want to do, and what their (external and internal) limitations are. In analyzing regulation in a novel, and in analyzing narrative as an exercise in regulation even as it is an exercise in creation, I am operating on the idea that subjection to regulation is in a very real sense subjection to narrative constraint. Indeed, Clockers represents them as analogous states. Furthermore, subjection to regulation can be as subtle and insidious as subjection to narrative constraint. Characters, that is, are not conscious of being characters, are not conscious of the narrative hand that moves them around.12 And one who is meta-regulated is not always conscious of the meta-regulation that moves him—or at least, not conscious of the nature of that meta-regulation. He knows he is regulated, he knows that the laws exist, he knows that he can be punished if he contravenes them: what he may not know, and what the novel makes clear, is that regulation depends on his seeing himself as wrong, as unregulated, as punishable. Regulation depends on a paradoxical combination of active self-policing and passive obedience, both of which are rooted, I propose, in a pervasive sense of punishability and of the justness of that punishability. These pervasions are in turn rooted in the fundamental invisibility of meta-regulation, in the limited perception of the subject, just as the verisimilitude of an omniscient narration depends on the limited perception of the character. A character who stands up and leaps out of the book, for instance, contradicting her narrator and demanding different scenarios, stands to collapse the narrative frame, collapse the entire novel.

Meta-regulation operates because individual subjects can sense its presence, its force, its tone, but not understand the nature of it or the scope of its operation. That limited perception is the very core of Price’s novel, and it is also the core, the foundation of regulation. Specifically, I would propose, meta-regulation operates by imparting to the regulated subject a sense, albeit an often false sense, of autonomy and possibility. To be more precise, and to return to the double sense of regulation as escape from punishment versus regulation as punishment: in this novel, when regulation is in the air—when policemen are wandering around, or when some encounter with bureaucracy is in process—the characters’ sense of constraint (and self-doubt and self-limitation) is at its strongest. That in itself is not surprising. And yet, paradoxically, it is also worth noting that those moments contain an intense sense of personal responsibility—of principle and also of autonomy. This is the striking fact: regulation encourages a sense of personal responsibility. And personal responsibility, which resists and yet must operate within regulation, causes characters to claim and deploy an agency that they do not have, that they cannot have, given the narrative (or regulatory) frame. The regulated individual, then, with a strong sense of responsibility and also of punishability, occupies a circumscribed area of movement, where in the end the authority to self-regulate and self-punish is the strongest authority, in a sense the only authority, one can access.

Probation Office

I begin with the scene near the middle of the novel where Strike visits his probation officer. At this point, the rival dealer has been murdered, Strike’s older brother Victor has confessed and been imprisoned, and Strike imagines that Victor has perhaps hired someone to murder the dealer. He thinks he knows who that someone is, but he is not sure, and wonders if he himself has been implicated somehow. This is the mental landscape as Strike goes to the probation office for a drug offense that happened before the novel began. Once inside the probation officer’s cubicle:

Strike scanned the walls. His eyes stopped at a poster of a skeleton on a pitcher’s mound winding up to fire off a hypodermic, with “AIDS” on his baseball cap and “Don’t Let Him Strike You Out” in red along the bottom. The only other poster was a poem called “Invictus” written over a picture of a sunrise. Strike had been coming into this cubicle for six months now, had always stared at that poem but had never read it through. He just liked the name, Invictus. Lynch cleared his throat, opened a huge green ledger with MALES written on the front and started right in, not even looking at Strike.13

Strike mentions the phenomenon of these posters later on when he visits Victor in prison, saying: “If you were poor, posters followed you everywhere—health clinics, probation offices, housing offices, day care centers, welfare offices—and they were always blasting away at you with warnings to do this, don’t do that, be like this, don’t be like that, smarten up, control this, stop that.”14

What I want to focus on here is the sense of being surrounded by walls of stories, stories that encourage one to produce walls of one’s own. The posters around him instruct in how to act or not act, what decisions to make in order not to be cast in the scenario depicted. “Do this and don’t do that” are at least within the purview of the character. But in this particular case—and this skeleton poster is the only poster whose contents we see—the notion of “control this” is elusive and contradictory. As the definition of “meta-regulation” said: “It can be fruitful to think of regulation occurring in a ‘regulatory space’ in which the operation and competition of various regulatory regimes influences [sic] regulatory impact.”15 This episode contains numerous regulatory regimes or messages that conspire, and some that compete. The probation office, the cubicle, the file that describes Strike, the poster that threatens him, the mandated monthly check-ins, these all embody regulation in the form of detention or containment. The incongruous or competing regime or message, though, is the call to action. “Don’t Let Him Strike You Out” encourages prudence and caution, but of course, in actual baseball, the way to avoid striking out is to hit as hard and as precisely as possible: in other words, to go on the offensive rather than on the defensive. With respect to HIV, one side of the message is a pure negative (don’t inject) while the other implies active consciousness and protection of the body.16 But Strike is reading this in the probation office, which underscores the absence of control and decision-making and casts the body as a regulated entity. He is therefore inexorably cast in a double role: of one menaced by HIV, and, at the same time, of one menaced by the state.

This second menace, this second threat, is the one that Strike feels most intensely. It is not HIV that scares him, not that evocative skeleton, but the probation officer. Let us see what happens next. As the visit proceeds, Strike becomes more and more nervous, wondering if Victor has told on him somehow, imagining that he is about to be arrested for something. In connection with his previous drug offense, he is supposed to bring in $50 a month in fines, but he pretends to be short the money, imagining that if he has the entire $50, the probation officer will wonder where he got it, why he isn’t more broke. He makes his excuse: “‘I’m ha-having trouble this month. It a ha-hard month right now.’. . . Lynch looked at him for the first time since he’d come into the cubicle, his face all eye slits, boils and wattles. Strike felt a horrible sliding sensation, a sweaty panic, as if he was a little kid whose mother had taken him in for a routine checkup only to have the doctor pull out a harpoon-size hypodermic. ‘What do you mean, a hard month? How was it hard?’”17

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