Knowledge, Categories, Tags, and Crime

Well, I have been furiously putting together my syllabus for the class on Early American Crime Narratives I’ll be teaching this first Summer session, which starts tomorrow! The class will be tracing a series of narratives from the colonial period through the U.S. revolution. More specifically, we will be examining the reformulation of crime and criminality between the 17th and the 19th centuries. The logic of this class comes from the superb work of David Kazanjian: a brilliant scholar, teacher, and person.

The class deals with a lot of different modes of “literature” (i.e., historical, political, popular, etc.) given the fact that it precedes the moment when the idea of a rarefied national literature of the U.S. was established with figures like Emerson, Fuller, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and the like. Most literary anthologies of North and South America are re-imagining themselves along these lines -but for a long time literature in the Western hemisphere centered around writers like Emerson and Whitman, with a preface of Ben Franklin, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper -often neglecting much of the contemporaneous work from South America and Canada, not to mention the innumerable narratives and histories from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and lest we forget the ever elided Native American cultural legacy. But I digress, all this is to say that the course will be approaching the literature of crime as a means to examine the space of early America as a prismatic lens for numerous and variegated contact zones (thanks Barbara) of cultures, contexts, and disciplines -in fact, one could argue that early American literature is “always already” (sorry Gardo!) inter-disciplinary- one more reason why it is such a shame it has so little representation as “literature” at UMW 🙂

Ok, but somewhere along the way I was planning on making a point, hmmmm -let me see… Oh yeah, I am planning on having the class write nightly reactions to the work we read on the class blog (one centralized blog for this endeavor). The logic of these reactions to the readings will be in line with what I think Foucault is beginning to trace out in Discipline and Punish, namely that as large historical narratives congeal, they offer the intellectual, student, etc. a series of more generalized categories by which to understand a particular moment of time. For example, I recently listened to a podcast on Victorian Literature and Pessimism from BBC’s “In Our Time.” Much of the discussion focused on Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as a way to trace the more general historical trends of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian zeitgeist, namely an increasing loss of faith, a concern with the state of hierarchy, the rise of the middle-class gentry (parvenus), fear of alternative political systems (framed often as anarchy) -but all of these ideas are so general they can be read into just about any Western literature of the last four hundred years!

But thankfully, many of these anxieties of the day can be further contextualized within the historical effects of the industrial revolution or the intellectual impact of Darwin’s theories on evolution, or even Hegel’s philosophy of dialectics, etc. Now all of these things make a lot of sense, especially when framed by scholars as a series of key intellectual developments and social/historical phenomenon during a specific period of time. But, what I started to realize today while re-reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, is that this more generalized historical mapping of ‘key concepts’ often limits our approach to any given time period to these more generalized categories. Much like most of the survey approaches to themes and topics within literary periods, often packaged neatly in centuries with some over-arching ideas about faith, throw in some unrequited love, peppered with aesthetic principles, a smidge of historical context, a large portion of biography, and a couple of literary terms for good measure.

Now I am not saying this is wrong, nor do I fail to see the value of such intellectual categories for organizing and cataloging information and relevance -or even for testing or paper writing. However, it might also be important to keep in mind that they are systems and that perhaps they offer up a series of pre-fabricated approaches to a series of questions that might be more generatively approached from a perspective that doesn’t assume the preconditions of historical/literary generalizations. That is the point of most original research, in fact, start with the particular and dig your way out somehow to add to the conversation -yet how much harder is this when the tradition is re-framed for you consistently in various time periods according to the same general principles?

Well, here’s where I loop back to Foucault and eventually my class. The theoretical premise of Discipline and Punish does not necessarily depend upon the common historical and thematic explanations of the changing nature of punishment in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e., public execution and bodily torture was barbarous and necessarily leads to more civilized modes of incarceration, reform, and rehabilitation (think Clockwork). Rather, he begins by asking the question of whether or not the changing nature of penality in the Western world from the late 18th century through the 20th century suggests a shift in the very definitions of crime and criminality -which, at its root, allows for a juridical abstraction of the subject. In other words, a re-formulation that affords the definition of crime, guilt, and punishment a much less direct and bodily conception of punishment towards a much more indirect, abstracted, and pervasive framing of the crime in relationship to one’s “soul”. And with such a change does the very nature of judgment change as well? Does judgment now move beyond the specifics of “Who committed it?” or “What law do we enact?”

According to Foucault, we move into a series of questions surrounding, what he terms the “scientifico-juridical complex,” or the space wherein crime and guilt intersect with a large number of different and competing ideas of expertise wherein the legal process is judging something other than the crime, but rather the mental state, intentionality, circumstantial evidence etc. All of this may seem natural and logical given the way in which judicial power must account for more complexities within a society, yet the side-effect is the absence of a referent point for responsibility for judgment or punishment. All judgment is directed in terms of a cure and hence becomes entangled with various fields of knowledge, technology, and science that effectively distributes and changes the power to punish while simultaneously displacing the point at which judgment is conferred.

Now whether or not you agree with this is certainly fodder for the comments I look forward to. However, the point this reading brought me to today was that Foucault’s conceptual framework is not dependent upon the general categories of a historical period or literary movement. Rather, he is using the historical archive to closely read the subtle discrepancies in descriptions and definitions surrounding crime over a two hundred year period to make some more specific claims on its changing nature. This is literary close reading at its best! This is a means to approach and challenge the general, categorical descriptions of a historical moment from within the archive.

Now, all of this got me thinking about the problems with more general categories on blogs and the ways in which we might be able to imagine categories on posts as very specific, close readings of our content. Or, even cooler, our content as close readings of our quite specific categories we choose for each post. Point being, at the end of any given course you have a number of core ideas that you are coming away with, how about asking students to frame and author those “core ideas” as categories (or tags) and explain why they choose these two or three categories to explain Foucault’s Discipline & Punish or Daniel Williams introduction to Pillars of Salt or Patience Boston’s crime narrative, etc. The idea here is to have an active, reflective and conscious series of writing exercises designed around the process wherein they are asked to both closely read and define (categorize? tag?) something they have thought about before they write it. One possibility is to encourage the focus on the particulars of a work (perhaps this may be a bit closer to the idea of a tag than a category) while the notion of categories can expand or contract according to the ideas that we want to fill them with. Additionally, as they do these writing exercises the categories/tags they define for each response will begin to proliferate, cross pollinate, and reproduce one another. As a nice feature, these category tags can be visualized through a weighted tag/category cloud (thanks D’Arcy), offering a collective visual index that represents how they are framing their ideas around a series of texts. I don’t know, it’s kind of a wild way to think about category tagging not so much as an after-thought or general repository for ideas, but as a specific act of declaratively defining the way in which they closely read the works and write about them.

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13 Responses to Knowledge, Categories, Tags, and Crime

  1. Jeff says:

    Okay, so I began the post thinking I wanted to figure out a way to team teach a class on narrative and history in 18th/19th Century America, but by the end I decided I need to do some remedial Foucault reading (and get much smarter) if I want to keep up. 🙂

    Looks like a great class. I’ll be eager to read your posts following along with your category tags as representing (and furthering) your class’s intellectual exploration and thought.

  2. jimgroom says:


    You know all too well it is a front, thinly veiled. In fact, the impetus for this idea cam from Barbara Ganley’s workshop, Patrick’s work on the ordering of tags, and your discussion of the class you taught with Michael Bibler as a historical and literary approach to post-bellum Southern reconstruction. It all works together in some cosmic flow of ideas, inspirations, and tags. OK, we all know that to be bubkis -it is all about the people you surround yourself with, in person, virtually, and/or by paper proxy.

  3. Jim, also check out the SimilarPosts plugin, which will automagically find posts that contain similar content to the currently viewed post. I use it on my blog, and it’s really quite intelligent.

  4. Martha says:

    I think you’re on to something. Even though approaches like tagging lend themselves to spontaneous, organic use, there’s no reason why we can’t lay a layer of expectation and structure over them. What happens when we choose to use these approaches to a specific end?

  5. Shannon says:

    Wow, neat stuff and it only took me two or three read throughs to catch it all : )
    I’m kind of jealous of all the lucky students who get to be in your class and I see on you’ve already got some good ratings.

  6. Matt says:

    Fascinating post, Jim. I’m swamped right now, but I can’t wait to come back later in the week to comment.

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  8. Gardner says:

    OK, I need to say a few things here. Bear in mind my intense admiration for this post and for you generally and specifically. Now make sure your seat back and tray table are up. 🙂

    “However, it might also be important to keep in mind that they are systems and that perhaps they offer up a series of pre-fabricated approaches to a series of questions that might be more generatively approached from a perspective that doesn’t assume the preconditions of historical/literary generalizations.”

    And where does that perspective come from? I have an answer, but it’s not Foucault’s. In fact, in my reading of Foucault, the man explicitly denies there is any such perspective available to the thinkers in their historical contexts, while implicitly granting himself a magic license as a “discourse initiator” to have such a perspective himself. That’s just a con, a way of making his argumentative platform unassailable. Doesn’t mean his points along the way are wrong, or uninsightful; not at all. It just means that his larger and typically implicit (and unargued) epistemological claims won’t wash–for me, anyway.

    Every concept (another word for generalization) reveals and conceals, but if we deny a metaconceptual ability, the revealing part is just an illusion.

    Also, it’s funny to think that a metahistorical awareness emerged only in 20th century France and was somehow unavailable to any thinker before Foucault. I’m not saying you think that, but I do believe Foucault thought it. Or at least that’s where his larger argument tends. Such arrogance on Foucault’s part. It’s ludicrous. And unethical, in my view. Now let’s read Foucault’s arguments in terms of the moment in which he wrote, a moment that’s a quarter of a century past now. If we read them as Foucault would have us read others, they become another flat indication of someone trapped inside his own context. In other words, to get anything out of Foucault, we have to read him in defiance of his own principles!

    That irony would not be lost on Derrida or Nietzsche, but I don’t think Michel would acknowledge it. Just another Fish in the sea.

    Looks like I’m missing our conversations, Jim. 🙂

  9. Gardner says:

    This, however, is genius:

    “I don’t know, it’s kind of a wild way to think about category tagging not so much as an after-thought or general repository for ideas, but as a specific act of declaratively defining the way in which they closely read the works and write about them.”

    I love this bit.

  10. jimgroom says:


    A brief missive about things to come…

    “Arrogance… Unethical.” So Gardner, let me guess, you don’t care for Foucault? Am I right in assuming this? 🙂

    Aren’t you a Milton scholar, the same epic poet who single-handedly re-wrote the Old Testament (the cultural/historical accretions of centuries and centuries of thought) in one fell swoop of the epic pen? Arrogant? Unethical? I’m not sure -for such broad and subjective terms are these. Yet, certainly interesting in relationship to the notions of a metahistorical (or even metacultural) vision of 17th century England as you discuss in relationship to Foucault’s own arrogance as a thinker and his fashioning his approach to history and culture as a God-like scholar, or a “Discourse Initiator.” I really don’t think that is the case, rather I believe Foucault is making a critical intervention in regards to historical thinking not necessarily unique to him, yet important given his conceptualization of the archive in his earlier work and his very specific articulation of a methodology for conducting a rigorous and quite attentive close reading of texts in relationship to historical categories in his later work. I believe that Foucault’s critical methodologies dealing with archaeology & genealogy work together in some interesting and important ways. But, as you might be able to see in this comment, these ideas are going to take bit more time, space, and energy to flesh out in order to even begin the process of convincing you of some possible uses for Foucault -which is, in many ways, my job as a teacher and ITS!

    You are making me work very hard during this long, hot weekend! As always, you are quite generous and generative in your challenging responses (which I absolutely love, by the way!), so bear with me while I frame a unwieldy post as I argue against what I see as an untenable discounting of Foucault, who may very well be one of the most useful theorists/thinkers for tracing the questions we are currently discussing in higher ed & instructional (namely, teaching, learning and technology in relationship to Knowledge, the archive and Web 2.0). I am always learning from you, Gardner, and one thing I know all too well is that if I want to dance with Dr. Glu I’m gonna have to spend some time polishing my steps. So stay tuned!

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  13. Matt says:

    Just a quick note, Jim, to say that this post remains fertile and generative to me two years after you posted it. In fact, I continue to send grad students to this post to get them to think about the ways in which they might use categories and creative folksonomies to formulate recursive encounters with key course concepts throughout a semester. The idea of using tags creatively and critically in classroom settings is something we need to continue to think about and expand. Thanks for getting the conversation started with such a provocative post.

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