Deliverance: Views from the Captive South

From the Series: Captivity

Photo by neONBRAND.

I was bound not with the iron of another’s chains, but by my own iron will. . . Because my will was perverse it changed to lust, and lust yielded to become habit, and habit not resisted became necessity. . . . And You set me there before my own face that I might see how vile I was. . . . A mighty storm arose in me, bringing a mighty rain of tears. . . . O Lord, I am Thy servant. . . . Thou hast broken my bonds. I will sacrifice to Thee the sacrifice of praise.

–Augustine of Hippo
“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. . . . “Because,” said the hunger artist . . . “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.

–Franz Kafka
I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved. . . . This was the first time Earth’s insanity had affected her.

–Yuri Herrera

With the escalation of carceral states and border regimes, we may be witnessing a proliferation of what Maurizio Albahari calls an “intermodal and transnational network” of infrastructures of captivity. In this piece, I would like to call our attention to a less apparent infrastructural form of captivity: unregulated, often clandestine and coercive residential Christian ministries for addiction treatment that are widespread throughout Latin America (Hansen 2012; Wilkinson 2013; O’Neill 2014; Garcia 2015). Parts monastery, clinic, and prison, these institutions complicate categories of control and care and are, in that way, useful to think captivity with, including how (and if) to escape it.

Angela Davis (2003, 41–43) argues that, in the eighteenth century, prisons went from being a means to an end of punishment. A Christian logic of penitence, by which incarceration came to be thought of as “provid[ing] convicts with the conditions for reflecting . . . and for reshaping their habits and even their souls,” undergirded this epistemic shift in the rationality of punishment. We see this logic of penitence in the first epigraph above by Augustine, in which the self-control of a willful subject leads to the care of the subject in the form of grace. In a pre-dissertation pilot study, I found that pastors who run Christian ministries for coca paste addiction treatment in Peru invoke a similar logic of penitence when explaining their therapeutics. Ministries subject residents to coercive one- to two-year programs, where they are taught (forced?) to overcome addiction through prayer, fasting, preaching, praising, and other spiritual practices that are believed to soften residents’ hearts.

Within the Western canon, arguably it was Augustine who gave rise to the reflexive, willful subject that would, during the Enlightenment, attempt to unshackle himself from the body and join the Godly world of universal truths (Taylor 1989, 131, 137–39, 159–76). In the second epigraph above, the hunger artist—a Christ-like figure who, out of a strange vocation, dedicates his life to fasting in a cage in a menagerie—steadfastly denies the needs of the body only to find that what he truly needs is the recognition of the profane Other, the masses who consume his fetishized image. The subject becomes captive of his own desire to overcome himself, a dynamic Lauren Berlant (2011) describes as “cruel optimism,” and eventually dies unrecognized. Davis (2003, 50–58) shows that the original penitentiary logic of the prison is, today, no longer even publicly endorsed. “Incapacitation,” instead, has become the “major objective of imprisonment” (Davis 2003, 73). Prisons today, in a way, are like the hunger artist’s cage. Here, the dyad of control and care breaks down and the subject becomes controlled without being cared for.

One could argue that although Christian ministries for addiction treatment endorse a penitentiary logic, what they actually perform is punishment as incapacitation. Residents frequently told me that they believed their families had paid for their abduction and subsequent internment because, as drug users, they are considered lacras, scourges, ex-humans who no longer have a place in society (Biehl 2013). This is the kind of argument that a humanitarian critique would take for granted.

After all, however, spiritual practices in ministries are meant to emplace drug users in a new Christian community, where people with a shared condition together reflect on themselves and reshape their habits and souls. In urban spaces where gangs and corrupt policemen are the norm, mothers I talked to insist that locking their children up is a way of saving them.

The above may sound too much like Augustine all over again. If we want to subvert “the Western philosophical antinomies that would pit freedom as the stark opposite of captivity,” as Chris Garces challenges us to do, we need to find a mode of deliverance from captivity that is immanent, rather than transcendental, to captivity itself. Perhaps in its own reproduction captivity will fail to continue reproducing itself, like the fetus whose very birth breaks her away from the captivity of the womb, to take Carolyn Sufrin’s evocative example. Enslaving oneself to God’s will may not free one’s own will. But, on the other hand, fasting for fasting’s sake will only lead us astray.

In the third epigraph, the captive subject is neither the Christian saint nor the ascetic artist, but Makina, an equally mythological figure and yet no longer the unmarked, absolute “I” or “artist,” but instead the singular Other. Makina is the protagonist in Mexican author Yuri Herrera’s (2015) recent novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World. A Mexican working-class woman, Makina launches into a mission across the U.S.-Mexico border to rescue her brother, who has become a captive of the American dream. By means of frequent allusions, Herrera figures the mission as the ancient Mexica’s descent into the mythological underworld of Mictlán. The unsuspecting unauthorized migrant, usually a man, becomes “lost” on the other side of the border, like Benjamin’s angel, “in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces” (Herrera 2015, 25). Committed to a vision of time as progress, they lose their moorings, become “homegrown,” forget what they went there for, and believe, like lost souls, they are just “passing through” when in fact they have been on the other side “for fifty years” (57, 60, 93). Throughout her journey, Makina frequently reminds herself of the need to come “right back” from her adventure. She is conscious of what happened to a “friend” who stayed “maybe a day too long or an hour too long” (20, 52). It turns out that Makina, finally, does not come back. She ends up being “skinned” and given a new identity—“another name, another birthplace . . . new numbers, new trade, new home” (106).

And yet, at the end of the novel, after undergoing a death-like experience, Makina “[sees] that what was happening was not a cataclysm.” The last words of the novel are, “I’m ready” (Herrera 2015, 107). But, ready for what? As Herrera explains in an interview with the Nation, like the last underworld of Mictlán and unlike hell, after the postmortem subject has been stripped naked of subjectivity, what you find is not nothingness, but a “place of re-creation.” Makina is a new Christ figure, who, in her capacity to cross thresholds without fully becoming other, to join worlds, promises the new: an orientation to time that belongs to the vanquished and yet one that proposes a positive politics. Makina, who at one point writes a poem from the perspective of a racist cop and then makes him read it out loud to his own astonishment, is that hybrid, antimodern subject who can reflect the modern subject back to himself, like the shackled pregnant woman whose image exposes the “complexities and contradictions of what captivity can mean and how people react to it.” Makina’s name rings with both “Mexica” and with máquina, or “machine”—both the epitome and the antithesis of modernity, the realization and denial of free will. Makina, in short, is the antiheroine who becomes the contemporary image of Christ as redeemer, at least for those refugees and economic migrants whom decolonial thinker Sylvia Wynter (2003, 261) terms the “postcolonial variant of Fanon’s category of les damnés.”


Berlant, Laurent. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Biehl, João. 2013. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Garcia, Angela. 2015. “Serenity: Violence, Inequality, and Recovery on the Edge of Mexico City. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 4: 455–72.

Hansen, Helena. 2012. “The ‘New Masculinity’: Addiction Treatment as a Reconstruction of Gender in Puerto Rican Evangelist Street Ministries.” Social Science and Medicine 74, no. 11, 1721–28.

Herrera, Yuri. 2015. Signs Preceding the End of the World. Translated by Lisa Dillman. New York: And Other Stories. Originally published in 2009.

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2014. “On Liberation: Crack, Christianity, and Captivity in Postwar Guatemala City.” Social Text 32, no. 3: 11–28.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, Ann Kathryn. 2013. “‘Sin sanidad, no hay santidad’: Las prácticas reparativas en Ecuador.” Master’s thesis, FLACSO.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3: 257–337.