Why we need a “sensory criminology”

Building on David Redmon’s brilliant teasing out and description of “documentary criminology” and its purpose and reason for existing, I would like to push the idea forwards.  

I wrote in a previous post that I preferred the concept of a “sensory criminology”, going further than Redmon’s position in order to be able to use language shared only by the creator/academic.

The idea that the observer cannot divide the language they use from the object observed – a constant of the latter part of 20th century thinking – can in part, in this way, at least for the audience examining, watching and pursuing the creations in question, be dismissed.  

At the very least, until and if they fathom the “language” thrust on them out of such a blue.  (In a sense, also nicely describing the relationship between avant-garde and society!)

At this point, of course, it begins to be shared between creator, created and audience: the freedom from the ties between what’s captured and related and what’s used to relate and capture is broken down again; the monster of shared tongue is re-enabled.

You may, fairly, ask why criminology needs to go beyond easily shared language.

I have continued my reading of “Composing Ethnography” today, edited by Ellis & Bochner, and in particular the first article included in this excellent book, which is titled “Autobiology”, and is written by David Payne.

I quote:

Elaine Scarry has observed that physical pain is simply not expressible in language.  We can sign pain, signal its presence in an environment, but we cannot really express it or represent it as experience.  “Physical pain does not simply resist language,” she writes, “but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language” (1985, 4).

As Payne [sic!] himself observes – and here I would argue lies our need for a “sensory criminology” – “[these representations] of pain then are all misrepresentations.”  

As he goes on to conclude:

Pain cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed, objectively; thus its objectification provides a peculiar distancing from any knowledge of its actual experience – a state of affairs crucial to the conduct of violence and war.


We can be in an environment where someone is in pain and not know it; further, the impenetrable linguistic space that separates us from others’ pain allows us to inflict it.

How is it possible that a field such as criminology, which deals so intimately with the application of all kinds of pain in its most profound processes and procedures, has resisted the temptation to communicate, both in its academia and its delivery of deep knowledge, what an essentially sensory – and senseridden! – sequence of experiences, relived day after day by all its participants, actually feels like?

When one’s emotions and one’s physical are the essence of the control systems used to control one, how can an academia which aims to understand these processes from the inside out possibly ever properly manage to understand the regular infliction of pain on its subjects – without communication of the experience itself?

If for no other reason than this, then, we need a “sensory criminology” to support and better comprehend the lived experiences of all its participants – both staff, prisoners and sentenced as well as innocent and collateral – if for no other reason than to begin to stop inflicting pain on those human beings whose pain we do not share …

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