Plato’s Cage (Preview)

An Ontology of Policing in Three Acts

Power is the ability to define reality and have others respond to it as if it is their own. – Dr. Wade Nobles

Illustration by Blacksneakers

By Ajay Revels and Jennifer Rittner

Everything made articulates a view of the world. Everything made shapes the realities experienced by others. Art, design, language, and action—these are all the ways we make sense of and share our realities with one another. They reflect the present conditions of our lives, but are often formed in the distant past, then passed from one generation to the next, where they continue to weave the invisible threads of common beliefs and values.

At their best, our ancestors designed tools that nurtured, connected, and protected. But throughout history they also built foundations of unjust power and the inhumane treatment of others. In doing so, they shaped conceptions of who should be seen, honored, and obeyed, as well as visions of the barbaric or undeserving. Constructing tools and environments of evil often served to validate the means of violence. Then, when they no longer served popular conceptions of “civil society,” the tools of violence didn’t simply disappear. Instead, they were redesigned, made palatable, and rendered invisible by complex systems, all the while continuing to provide the justification for historic injustices manifested in new forms. Conceptions of past morality, social status, and belief form the bars of cages that frame and constrain our current injustices.

Such are the historical origins of policing and incarceration. Indeed, modern practices derive from the earliest definitions of humanhood posed by Greco-Roman ancestors who queried, “What is a person? Who has the right to self-determination? Who deserves to be free?” As we question current paradigms and practices, we would do well to unpack these origins, embracing our most radical imaginations to build futures that profoundly eschew and dismantle both the tools, and the judgments, of the past. Here are three historical designs that reflect the fundamental assumptions we hold about personhood, autonomy, freedom, punishment, and the right to self-determination. The objects presented below speak to the very core of how we define criminality and punishment. They reveal how processes of redesign have made tools of inequity more ergonomic and more socially palatable, even as they perpetuate ancient or medieval concepts that align criminality with states of oppression, and reactions to criminality as the rightful domain of the most free….

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From Design Museum Magazine Issue 018