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In the Penal Colony

John Frow

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To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II
V & VI


What are the periodicities of remembrance shared with others? Writing in the final volume of Les Lieux de mémoire,Pierre Nora identifies two primary forms of commemorative time: that of the centenary,'voluntary, deliberate, impossible either to avoid or to manage', and that of the generation,'involuntary and even unconscious, uncontrollable'.1 These are the interwoven times of the nation-state and of living collective memory. In this paper I ask about the kinds of connection that are possible between the pain or joy of generational experience and the forms of identification invoked by that larger periodicity of the nation. But the generational experience that I posit is not necessarily a direct experience of events, for reasons that Nora explicates: if the past has lost its organic, peremptory, constraining character, he says, commemoration now tends to be made up of media events, tourism, promotions and entertainment; its medium is no longer the classroom or the public square but television, museums, expositions, colloquia, and it takes place not in official ceremonies but in television spectaculars.2 This is to say that the experience of historical events is shared and collectively remembered - of course in very different ways - both by those who are closely involved in them and by those who encounter them in a mediated form. Those experiences of hurt that typically knit a generational cohort together - a war, a national catastrophe, an assassination, a massacre - are experiences of shared grief and shared inability to understand the import of what has happened. They are traumatic in the sense in which Cathy Caruth uses that word: they open up a history which arises 'where immediate understanding may not',3 and which returns to haunt its survivors not because it is known but because it is not. Yet it is important to say as well that there is something glib about the attempt to apply the concept of trauma directly to historical events (indeed, there is already something problematic about its application to non-somatic hurt).4 It is this discontinuity or lack of fit between the historical time of the generation and the historical time of the nation, as well as the continuity between them, that I explore in what follows.

My argument is built around a place, Port Arthur in Tasmania, and around a set of stories associated with it - although these stories are not just there waiting to be told, part of an inherent factuality. The first is the by-now generic narrative of a lone gunman (think of the layers of irony that phrase has acquired since the first of the Kennedy assassinations, as well as the narrative structure that now flows unhesitatingly from it) who, on the 28th of April, 1996, gunned down and killed 35 people at the site. The point of this story is that it has no point. There is absolutely no commensuration between the massive injury of the event, with all its consequences of grief and personal damage, and the triviality of any available explanation in terms, say, of Martin Bryant's low intelligence or of the influence on him of violent videos. The lack of commensuration is exacerbated by the technology: a weak and callow young man is given immense powers of destruction by the semi-automatic rifles which translate an impulse, a movement of the finger, into the mass slaughter of strangers. It is because there is no sense, no cause or motive that could sufficiently fit the crime, that the inevitable consequences flow: a community which at first came together in its grief is now torn apart, there are law suits, recriminations, broken marriages, all the devastation of lives lived in the aftermath of an intensely violent act. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the event comes increasingly to be spoken of as a kind of uncanny repetition in which reality imitates its prior simulation: the carnage around those who survive to give witness to it is repeatedly described as being 'like a scene out of a movie',5 or 'like something I might have seen on television'.6 A security officer at the site draws on the training scenarios he has worked through in a simulated emergency exercise; the ambulance driver who is called and told of a mass shooting at Port Arthur, replies 'Oh yeah. When's the exercise going to be finished?' - only to be told 'This is not an exercise. This is a definite situation'.7 It is for this reason too that the question of an appropriate memorial for the dead becomes so contentious. There are arguments over whether the Broad Arrow Café, where 20 people died, should be left standing as a place of mourning or razed to the ground (in the event it has been left half-destroyed, bullet holes pocked into the bare walls, an instant ruin). Nobody uses Bryant's name, but his denied presence is everywhere. Nobody knows the forms which will lay the ghost. Nobody knows what kind of monument will insert this story into the other story for which this site is known, into that other past which is barely available for understanding.

For Port Arthur is itself a memorial, a lieu de mémoire,its ruined traces bearing ambiguous witness to a whole system of punishment, involuntary exile, and unfree labour which has come to represent the foundational moment of the Australian nation. Established in 1830 in the natural prison formed by a narrow-necked peninsula, an almost-island in the far south-east corner of this island to the far south-east of the Australian mainland, Port Arthur was a secondary penal settlement to which transported convicts offending elsewhere in what was then called Van Diemen's Land were sent for punishment in the chain gang, the treadmill, and the solitary confinement cells of the Model Prison. Never the most brutal of the secondary penal settlements, its harsh and unremitting regime was nevertheless designed to break the spirits of its inmates in one of the most isolated places on earth. Its instrument of last resort was the lash, a switch of nine knotted cords soaked in salt water and dried to the hardness of wire which cut the flesh to shreds. 'A lot of violence has happened there. It must be the most violent place in Australia. It seemed the right place', said Bryant in an explanation of his crime at once compelling and cynical in its displacement of blame.* For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the paradoxical beauty of its setting and of its ruined buildings, Port Arthur has come to emblematize the Gulag created by imperial Britain for its exiled criminal population. But I want to approach it indirectly, by way of another penal settlement and another practice of inscription on the body.


An explorer (der Forschungsreisende)is made the reluctant witness of an execution carried out in the penal colony. The condemned man is a soldier sentenced for 'disobedience and insulting behaviour to a superior' (Beleidigung des Vorgesetzten), and he is accompanied to his death only by a guard and an officer. The instrument of his execution is an elaborate apparatus invented by the former Commandant of the colony, of whose regime the officer is a fanatical but isolated partisan, and the officer explains the workings of the apparatus to the explorer in some detail. The machine has three parts: a bed, covered in cotton wool, to which the naked condemned man is strapped; the designer, which, like the bed, looks like a dark wooden chest; and the harrow which shuttles on a steel ribbon between the bed and the designer. The apparatus is thus a sort of cross between a jacquard loom and an ink-jet printer; its central component, the harrow, made of glass so that an onlooker can see through it the inscription taking place on the body, contains two sets of needles, the longer ones for writing and the shorter ones for spraying jets of water to wash away the blood. What it writes on the body is the sentence (Urteil)that the court has handed down; but because the script is so complicated, so full of flourishes, so much like an illegible scrawl (this indeed is all that the explorer can make of it), it is only after the sixth hour that the radiance of Enlightenment comes to the condemned man, who begins to decipher the script 'with his wounds' until the moment of his death.

During the regime of the Old Commandant, executions were festivals to which crowds flocked to see Justice being done; children were given a privileged place near the apparatus in order to witness at the sixth hour the transfigured face of the suffering man, 'the radiance of that justice achieved at last and fading so quickly'. Now, however, no one attends; the machine is run down and the officer can get no spare parts for it because the New Commandant disapproves of all that it represents. It becomes clear that the explorer has been positioned in a struggle between the old and the new orders: if he condemns the apparatus as barbaric, the New Commandant will take advantage of this verdict (Urteil)to abolish its use; but if, as the officer implores him to, he approves of it, then the officer believes that his fantasy of a restoration of the old days will be realized. As for the explorer, although he is constrained by his position as a guest, a mere disinterested observer, from intervening to try to stop the execution, he is a liberal and humanitarian soul - a man of his progressive times - and he indicates that he does indeed disapprove of the apparatus. This is the end for the officer, who then frees the condemned man and takes his place. For him, however, there is no moment of Enlightenment: in a mechanical frenzy the disintegrating machine tears the officer to pieces, the needles jabbing rather than writing: 'This was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder'. In a coda after the officer's ugly death spitted to the needles, the explorer is shown the grave of the Old Commandant, marked by a low stone lying beneath a table in unconsecrated ground; an inscription prophesies his return. Fleeing the colony, the explorer has to shake off the guard and the condemned soldier, threatening them with a heavy knotted rope in order to keep them away.8

Let me make a number of brief comments on this text.

The first is a question: why are there no convicts in this penal colony? The condemned man is a soldier who has broken a regulation; the story gives us no sight of anyone who is actually serving a sentence. But if we think of some of Kafka's other closed, pointless, and self-perpetuating hierarchies, it is perhaps no accident that it is a guard rather than a prisoner who undergoes punishment. There is no outside of such systems, and in this the penal colony resembles rather closely the hierarchy of surveillance envisaged in Bentham's panopticon, in which it is not only the prisoners in their cells but the warders at every level of the apparatus of inspection who are held under constant scrutiny.

The second comment concerns the nature of the regulation that the soldier infringes. The man is a servant assigned to a captain; he sleeps outside the captain's door, and 'it is his duty ... to get up every time the hour strikes and salute the captain's door'; it is for failing to perform this duty that he will be executed. I shall have more to say shortly about the place of pointless obedience in carceral systems.

The third observation concerns the extraordinary elaborateness and prescriptive detail of the Old Commandant's machinery of inscription. What kind of rationality is at work here? It is a reason informed by what Robert Hughes calls 'a passion for bureaucratic exactitude about pain',9 for the calculation of a precisely proportionate justice. Its philosophical counterpart is perhaps the Bentham of The Rationale of Punishment who, addressing the problem that whipping is administered with variable force and by means of instruments which are not standardized, suggests that

a machine might be made, which should put in motion certain elastic rods of cane or whalebone, the number and size of which might be determined by the law; the body of the delinquent might be subjected to the strokes of these rods, and the force and rapidity with which they should be applied, might be prescribed by the judge: thus everything which is arbitrary might be removed. A public officer, of more responsible character than the common executioner, might preside over the infliction of the punishment; and when there were many delinquents to be punished, his time might be saved, and the terror of the scene heightened, without increasing the actual suffering, by increasing the number of the machines, and subjecting all the offenders to punishments at the same time.10

We recognize this officer, of course, as we do the desire that drives the rationale.

My fourth comment is that the needles inscribing a message on the bound body of the condemned man are the precise analogue of one of the central metaphors in European culture for memory, the stylus which inscribes a message on a wax tablet.11

Finally, let me note the formalism of the opposition of the old and the new regimes in the penal colony. Its point is of course to balance two moral perspectives, and thus to undermine our structural identification with the explorer and against the fanaticism of the officer. Against the brutal and authoritarian justice of the old regime are set the moral complicity and enlightened indecisiveness of the explorer; against the patriarchal authority of the Old Commandant the feminized world of the New Commandant, surrounded by his 'ladies' with their unhelpful pity for the condemned man; against a religious fervour of belief in justice, a modern and tolerant absence of conviction.

In the Penal Colonycontinues with parts III, IV, and V & VI. ...

John Frow delivered this paper as a plenary speaker in April 1999 at an interdisciplinary conference, Refiguring History: Between the Psyche and the Polis, which was hosted by the University of Newcastle (upon Tyne), UK.


1Pierre Nora, 'L'Ère de la commémoration', Les Lieux de mémoire III: Les France,3: De l'Archive à l'emblème,ed. Pierre Nora (Paris: Galllimard, 1992), p. 979 (my translation).

2 Ibid., p. 985

3Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 11.

4 Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 183.

5 Margaret Scott, Port Arthur: A Story of Strength and Courage (Milsons Point: Random House, 1997), p. 130.

6 Ibid., p. 108

7 Ibid., p. 102.

8 Hobart Mercury,25 Nov. 1996; quoted in Scott, Port Arthur: A Story of Strength and Courage,p. 15.

9 Franz Kafka, 'In the Penal Colony', trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, The Complete Stories,ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1971).

10 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (London: Collins Harvill, 1987), p. 430.

11 Jeremy Bentham, 'Principles of Penal Law, Part II: Rationale of Punishment' [1830], The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. 1,ed. John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843), p. 415.

12 Cf. John Frow, 'Toute la mémoire du monde: Repetition and Forgetting', Time and Commodity Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 225-6.

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