Eric Philippoz: Shared Solitude: tactics from the prison cell

Mentor: Doreen Mende

Independent reviewer: Kerstin Stakemeier

Arnhem, July 2012


The prison cell as an empty space at the margins of society, where time for reflection is allowed. Prison as the result of society's double gesture of inclusion and exclusion, that aims at banning outlaws while still maintaining them within the reach of institutional power. Prison as a place of solitude. Does prison constitute a fertile ground to create from? Does solitude allows one to emancipate or question the dominant culture? What can artists learn from prisoners? Which tactics? In this research, I will take a close look at the figure of the prisoner and determine whether it can help us, artists, to articulate our relation to society; more specifically when it comes to the problematics of sharing and the responsibility it involves. Can solitude become political? Can we share solitude? In order to try and answer these questions, I will rely on two figures of prisoners in literature: Meursault, the main character of Camus' novel The Stranger; and Jean Genet. E.P.


Eric Philippoz lays out his topic in a elaborately structured and highly knowledgeable way and thus succeeds in setting up the theme of the prisoner in the works of Albert Camus and Jean Genet as a productive foil to discuss the role of artist in our contemporary society in general as much as his very own relationship to this situation in his production and life. His introduction of theoretical references such as Michel Foucault and Bruno Bersani help to create a social backdrop in relation to which the 'de-socialization' of the figure of the prisoner becomes expanded as a social and artistic figure - an operation which could and should be productively pursued further. Philippoz choices, that of his sources, is very concentrated on the elaboration from Genet and Camus, a choice which I find highly productive. Herein an erosion of the assumed barrier between art and life, which defines the artist as a member of bourgeois societies on the one hand but keeps him/her confined within a demonstrative social isolation, is suggested, which does not dwell in simplifying abstract negations of the assumed social function – but rather 'perverts' its implications. Philippoz combinatory work of biographical fiction, historiographical theories, literature and political theory demonstrate an extensive reflection of this own role within a sociological scheme that returns on different levels of society (and thus marks society as a whole). As a remark to further elaborations of this relation it might be interesting to also look at Sartre's short introduction to Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers", which again tackles the brutality of an exclusion which effectively consists in an immobilizing inclusion – a problem reflected in its political as well as psychological extreme in writings related to the solitary confinement of the RAF prisoners, most prominently the writings of Ulrike Meinhof. I ll end below quoting a letter she wrote while being imprison in isolation, unfortunately I could only find it in German.

 "Das Gefühl, es explodiert einem der Kopf. Das Gefühl, die Schädeldecke müsste eigentlich zerreißen, abplatzen. Das Gefühl, es würde einem das Rückenmark ins Gehirn gepresst Das Gefühl, die Zelle fährt. Man wacht auf, macht die Augen auf: die Zelle fährt, nachmittags, wenn die Sonne reinscheint, bleibt sie plötzlich stehen. Man kann das Gefühl des Fahrens nicht absetzen. Rasende Aggressivität, für die es kein Ventil gibt. Das ist das Schlimmste. Klares Bewusstsein, dass man keine Überlebenschance hat. Völliges Scheitern, das zu vermitteln. Besuche hinterlassen nichts. Eine halbe Stunde danach kann man nur noch mechanisch rekonstruieren, ob der Besuch heute oder vorige Woche war. Einmal in der Woche baden dagegen bedeutet: einen Moment auftauen, erholen - hält auch für ein paar Stunden an - Das Gefühl, Zeit und Raum sind ineinander verschachtelt..."(Ulrike Meinhof, Brief aus dem »Toten Trakt«, 1972-73)

Writings by Berlin based theorist Kerstin Stakemeier have been published in magazines such as Afterall, Jungle World, Phase 2, and Texte zur Kunst. She is currently working on reformulations of realism as a take on artistic production. Stakemeier lives and works in Berlin and Maastricht.