Winking Back at Eastern State: “Temporal Drag” and the Hyper-Real

“A game in which the moves do not always stay the same; where the function of a piece changes after it has stood on the same square for a while: it should either become stronger or weaker. As it is the game doesn’t develop, it stays the same for too long… Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.”

Bertolt Brecht & Walter Benjamin [1]


“When the going gets tough, the tough reinvent.”

Ru Paul [2]

What We’re Really After

We have reached a respectable and somewhat uninspiring moment in queer representation. I myself am a post-Act Up!, post-marriage equality, post-Ellen queer. I have enjoyed access to queer villains, heroes, protagonists, Ursulas, Dumbledores, and Piper Chapmans alike, each with their own collection of paraphernalia. There is a sense that we are somehow past our activist heyday and approaching a more just future. I meditate often on this sense of what we are “after,” on the ways that we think about queer time. Very recently we’ve been forced to confront the collapse of progress narratives; how slickly something as “past” as federally funded conversion therapy has re-entered the present and re-entered the White House. Still, these feelings of “afterwardness” are palpable, and the position of queer struggle in history is reinforced as it is commodified. I have 3 rainbow TD Bank Frisbees and an Absolut Vodka tote bag in my basement from the last few corporate-sponsored Pride Parades I attended. Death and delight are distilled to tropes, regurgitated, multiplied, and disseminated. Queer feelings outline gay markets and suits at boardroom roundtables ask, “What will people pay for a pleasure this queer?” Years ago my friends entertained a debate, I think in response to a course reading: should we be concerned that our generation of lesbians “learned” sex from straight women simulating queerness on The L Word and Orange is the New Black? We had begun to engage our material connection to our representations. We were asking not just how we related to a representation, but how we related to each other through it.

When these discussions are had, they generally circulate around literature and film. We are after all, post-Celluloid Closet. With our focus elsewhere, we don’t often discuss the representativeness of museums. Perhaps this is due to their empirical texture; they are explicitly and self-reportedly representations.

There are upwards of 50 jail and prison museums in the US alone. These spaces juggle memorialization, trauma, and political agendas as they paint portraits of their past inmates (and this in a culture where both hauntings and identity politics can be spectacularized and sold). We have, therefore, an occasion for engaging, confronting, performing, and re-imagining queer representation. Bows and bends of pleasure and pain dominate mainstream representations of queerness. Our most famous tropes are sex and suicide, our leading ladies are lascivious and lonely. I am more fascinated by representations of queer pain than queer pleasure, their invisibility, their exaggerations, and their absences. And I found these things during my trip to the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Exit through the Panopticon

There are a hundred reproductions of the panopticon on my bookshelf: photocopied prints of the watchtower and the annular walls. That famous blueprint has been copied and re-copied millions of times, but there have been very few attempts at a structure true to Bentham’s radial design. The image influenced decades of prison architecture, including John Haviland’s wagon-spokes blueprint for the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. I have just one print of Haviland’s sketch, a black and white in aerial view, but I experienced the street view for the first time this year. From a downtown Philadelphia sidewalk, the structure is more dramatic, less omniscient, and acutely out of context. Federal Street has heavy traffic, is sprinkled with bars, and is equipped with two hour parking. There is an “industrial-chic” café where my partner and I order espresso from a young, tattooed woman. We acknowledged queer haircuts and exchanged asymmetrical smiles. I comment that it is a strange spot for a coffee shop (which she must have been told before) and her expression went unchanged. Behind us a wall of strategically placed floor-to-ceiling windows separates caffeinating millennials from their haunting, if not Instagram-ready backdrop: the Eastern State Penitentiary. We take our coffee to go.

Figure 1: Bentham’s Panopticon (reproduced in Foucault’s Discipline & Punish)

Figure 2: The street view of the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site from OCF Coffee House, Federal St. Philadelphia

Figure 3: Haviland’s Pinwheel Design, Archived Photo, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.


Through the front gate of the Penitentiary there’s a small room with a large desk where $15 buys you equipment for the audio-tour. This room is dark but starkly backlit; it opens up into the prison’s courtyard. I switch on my earpiece. Steve Buscemi’s voice is familiar but jarring; he broadcasts the history of the building as the watchtowers come fully into my view.

Figure 4: Exterior watchtower, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

An empty lot of dead grass.

A maze of tall stone structures.

Clusters of tourists looking and listening with their unsynchronized headgear.


Foucault’s Panopticon

The Eastern State Penitentiary was the most expensive public building constructed in the United States when it opened for “business” in 1829.[3] Four years after the Eastern State Penitentiary was shut down, Foucault described Bentham’s Panopticon thusly:

At the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.[4]

Eastern State made use of similar effects with a surveillance center and additional watchtowers at the end of each hallway; but a prison reform movement in the 1820s inspired other architectural features. The Enlightenment’s critical examinations of sin and deviance brought utilitarian perspectives on prison reform into the early 1800s. It was the first time that incarceration was imagined as a technique of punishment rather than a form of separation.[5] Tangible interventions were widespread in the United States, where penitentiary construction was well funded. The pinwheel structure of Eastern State, which was influenced by Bentham, was “best calculated for watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation” according to its architect.[6] But this “Pennsylvania Model” of incarceration was also tied to Quaker ideals. The prioritization of penitence, solitude, work, and prayer resulted in Eastern State’s solitary cell design. Surveillance was possible within the prison’s seven long hallways, but inmates experienced privacy (in fact, total isolation) in their cells.

Foucault was concerned that panoptic logics were touted as a humanitarian shift. While they eliminated crowded, chattel incarceration, more abstract, individuated forms of surveillance took their place. The panoptic structure, Foucault explained, eliminated two of the three functions of the dungeon (light deprivation and concealment) while preserving the third (enclosure), such that visibility becomes “a trap.”[7] In Foucault’s rendering, the panopticon’s subject “is seen, but he cannot see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[8] The presence or absence of the watchman, consequently, is relevant because of its irrelevance. As Foucault explained, “it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much because he has no need in fact of being so.”[9] While the pinwheel enabled solitude, it also relied on the constant visibility of backlit hallways.

In the nucleus of the building, a tour guide explained that we could stand at the center of the room and see clearly down all seven of the backlit spokes. Visitors were invited into the watchtower. The hundred eyes of Panoptes came full circle, as fifty tourists stared down seven hallways looking for ghosts. The myth was realized as it was mimicked and misremembered. These moments of commemorative excess are a byproduct of the simulation.

In the 1840s, rapid urbanization put incredible stress on the prison’s ideological principles. Crime rates intensified, the population of the poor increased dramatically, and the prison’s cells could not sustain the influx of inmates (most of whom were Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Black) without abandoning attempts at solitary quarters.[10] They began to adopt the principles associated with the Auburn Prison System in New York, which prioritized silent penitence, rather than penitence in solitude. By 1870, solitary confinement was almost entirely in Eastern State’s past. By the 1900s it was largely a punitive measure.

Eastern State’s final decades were disastrous. Guards had lost control of inmates. There were frequent riots, as well as prostitution, gambling, and an active heroin trade.[11] Eastern State’s architecture had, in a sense, turned on the watchmen, being “poorly designed for congregate activities” and ill-suited for anything other than solitary confinement. It fell short of its full panoptic potential, precisely because of its ideals. By 1930 it was used as a maximum-security jail for “hardcore repeat offenders.”over the large population of “insane… defective, and degenerate” inmates.[13]

Figure 5: Second floor hallway, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site 


Cherry Hill Hauntings

In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens painted a dark portrait of Eastern State:

Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired… He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.[14]

Eastern State (or “Cherry Hill,” as it was often called because of its position atop an old cherry orchard) was not imagined to be a humanitarian endeavor by all. The prison was admonished in the 1830s following the death of Matthew Macumsey, who died while bound in the infamous Iron Gag for attempting to speak to another inmate.

A rough iron instrument resembling the stiff bit of a blind bridle… placed in the prisoner’s mouth, the iron pallet over his tongue, the bit forced in as far as possible, the chains brought round the jaws to the back of the neck; the end of one chain was passed through the ring in the end of the other chain, drawn tight ‘to the fourth link,’ and fastened with a lock. His hands were then forced into leather gloves, in which were iron staples, and crossed behind his back. Leather straps were passed through the staples, and from thence round the chains of the gag, between his neck and the chains; the straps were drawn tight, the hands forced up toward the head, and the pressure consequently acting on the chains, which press on the jaw and jugular veins producing excruciating pain, and a hazardous suffusion of blood to the head.[15]

Today his death is one of Eastern State’s most notorious stories, but certainly not its only haunting. A report of a Joint Committee of the Legislature of Pennsylvania read in 1835 that it was not uncommon for inmates to receive “insanity producing” winter showers and to be held up in freezing rooms while icicles formed all over their bodies.[16] An interview with a worker who staffed the penitentiary between 1945 and 1952 recalled a riot in the early 1930s when a warden “stuffed” rioters into an old cell with welded-shut doors and broken pipes and “steamed them to death.”[17] Inmates routinely faced the threat of sexual violence, and there are accounts that several female inmates were assaulted or impregnated by guards during their incarceration.[18] It’s not a coincidence that there are now reports of echoing voices in cell block 12 and the sound of crying babies in cell block 7. A history like this yields many hauntings, some more famous than others.

Belief and non-belief in ghosts is mixed among museum staffers. One tour guide reported to NPR that “it’s a lot harder to find a believer than it is to find a skeptic… we run a haunted attraction.” He stated that guides don’t attempt to glorify or make fun of these histories.[20] However, it’s hard to deny that there is a lot to gain by glorifying ghosts. The museum tour attempts a snapshot of a complicated history, with a bias toward entertainment. It is at once a burlesque memorial, a prison-turned-text, and a haunted house. It offers a disturbing and delightful fantasy of incarceration, ruptured every hundred feet by fluorescent EXIT signs. Its architecture continues to condition its “visitors’” emotions, but the penitentiary is recast in fresh affective paint. Or perhaps it is maintained in order to provoke a penitence of a different kind, as it attempts a place of contact between a museum and a haunted house.

Figure 6: First floor hallway, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site 


The Penitentiary Tour

The hundred-yard hallways are decorated with ghost stories and critiques of mass incarceration, tour guides discuss ethics, and it is not clear as to whether Eastern State is a place of reconciliation, a place of remembering, or a place of exorcism. The hallways are freckled with open cells, each uniquely decorated. Some rooms appear intact, others house decomposing furniture, but all are deliberately staged: something for the art critic and something for the ghost hunter. “Decomposing” rooms have been updated with spotlights for tourists, but lighting fixtures have been painted so as not to interrupt the appearance of an original, untouched, disheveled space. There’s a peculiar contrast between the staged, antiquing custodial closets and the contemporary cleaning supplies, which are tucked away in an unlit loft.

Figure 7: Second Story Loft, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Figure 8: Staged cells, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

During the day rooms are available to tourists, and (seasonally) at night, the museum is converted into a haunted house. Private parties are invited to rent out the prison, and the rules are succinct: supernatural investigators must provide their own equipment, wedding ceremonies are allowed, wedding receptions are not, and pornographic videos are not to be filmed on the property. It could not be clearer that the penitentiary is a living site of ritual and affective negotiation. Baudrillard once wrote, “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”[21] He cheekily attributes the quote to Ecclesiastes. Both the quote and the mis-citation were on my mind as I navigated the many truths and simulations of Eastern State.

One of the open cells has a doorway covered with strips of heavy plastic like a carwash entry. Inside there are two small boxes and an off-kilter television. On the screen an archeological dig plays on repeat, following a team of historians as they attempt to find evidence of rumored escape tunnels underneath the prison grounds. The video is an emblem of the site’s authenticity and a breach of the cell’s landscape. As a doubly out of place installation, this cell is reminiscent of Kroker and Levin’s description:

McLuhan [formulated] the end of panoptic and perspectival space as the ‘alpha and omega of our modernity’; an ‘irreversible medium of communication without response’: such are the strategic consequences of the processing of (our) history and (our) autonomous subjectivity through the simulacra of the mass media, and explicitly, through television.[22]

Visitors are offered a looped, televised reproduction of the site’s exhumation, within a closed cell in the synthetic, spectacular ruins of the first American penitentiary.


Figure 9: Archeological Dig Video Installation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

The phenomenon has been described elsewhere as prison tourism, thanatourism or “dark tourism.”[23] It allows the public to engage dark histories in an interactive museum format. In this case, the exhibit addresses Eastern State’s complicated history—it upholds Eastern State as an early humanitarian effort to improve crowded prison conditions by “offering” inmates solitary confinement, while simultaneously confronting its many ghosts. There is a discussion to be had about how accurately the museum represents the realities of Eastern State, but there’s a much more interesting, more nuanced conversation here about performance, affect, negativity and the hyper-real. Eastern State is a site of postmodern reckoning, and I want to imagine a queer critique of Eastern State as an act of radical negativity. Eastern State enables a continuous, but unfocused negotiation of affect; an unremitting and imprecise reckoning with time.



In its current rendering, Eastern State is a bizarre fixture of postmodernism, not quite contemporary but lying at an intersection of history and futurity. It is akin to what Baudrillard described as: “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” the hyper-real. Eastern State relies on the maintenance of the prison’s “authentic” and “uninterrupted” existence, but more so on the break from this “authenticity.” The exit signs turn the prison into a playground. These breaks in the prison architecture enable a completely transparent and manufactured experience of hyper-reality that can deviate dramatically from the historical “real.” The space’s mythological realness becomes primary, and the copy of the copy of the copy is offered up as a commodity. As such, the sale of prison blueprint t-shirts (“2 for $30”), and the reproduction of prison bylaws on tote bags can be integrated into the aggressively real and irrational portrait of Eastern State.

Figure 10: Items from Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Gift Shop

Baudrillard once said:

Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral)… The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.[25]

The sale of Eastern State paraphernalia is nonsensical and in many ways emblematic of the anti-Disney. It is neither true nor false, but it creates the illusion of a carceral culture in history which reaches us only in ghosts and cliché.

Over two million people are currently in jails and prisons in the United States. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world, we house more in jails than we house on college campuses, and taxpayers contribute about $70 billion to incarceration expenses each year. But even with some discussion of contemporary incarceration, Eastern State makes it easy to imagine that solitary confinement is situated in the past, to imagine that this incarceration playground does not have brothers and sisters in operation today. The gift shop further complicates critiques by peddling prison critical theory and spectacularizing the celebrity of critics with cartooned Michel Foucault bookmarks.

Figure 11: Michel Foucault bookmark, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Gift Shop

For these reasons (and many more) it is significant that we read even the idea of an “historic penitentiary” as hyper-real.

One component of the hyper-real is the unbounded reproduction of spectacle. Baudrillard writes: “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control—and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.”[26] In the case of Eastern State these reproductions take the form of audiovisual installations, screen printed reproductions of texts, images and illustrations on t-shirts, tote bags, bookmarks and posters. Eastern State and its gift shop rely on misinterpretations of a manufactured origin. It is also reminiscent of Guy Debord’s statement that, “though separated from his product, man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail in his world. The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life.”[27] These commodities allow the museum to escape the walls of Eastern State, to inhabit industrial-chic cafés, bars, and living rooms. “The museum, instead of being circumscribed in a geometric site is everywhere now, like a dimension of life.”[28]

I was reminded during my visit of a story I heard when I was living as a student in Colonial Williamsburg. In the 1970s a community of Black families was relocated from the site so that a colonial tourist location could be “recreated” on its original plot, aligned with the still-standing 17th century churches and schoolhouses. In a neocolonial sweep, their houses were uprooted and moved across town atop fresh foundations in a different neighborhood, so that the public could be taught histories of colonial life and slavery. I mention this story because it highlights the paradoxes that emerge in the space between the two events. It becomes interesting to imagine what occurred between Eastern State’s time as a penitentiary and its time as a museum, when decisions were made about what would be preserved, what would be returned to its “original” state, and what would be theatrically distressed. There were years that Eastern State sat vacant because it was too expensive to take down and too expensive to maintain (an interesting snapshot of American incarceration).


Fighting Fire with Oranges

It is difficult to find an emotional center within the penitentiary, in part because every feature of the museum feels out of context. Michelle Brown argues that prison tourism invites us to imagine a framework “in which citizens and prisoners might encounter one another in a meaningful context … built neither purely upon history or spectacle.”[29] Eastern State’s incredible girth solidifies its position in space, but the building does not have a coherent position in time. It is as indecipherable as the museum’s mission statement:

While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.[30]

It interests me to imagine our new subjective roles at Eastern State, especially those of us whose identities mirror those incarcerated there: queers, folks of color, hysterical women, the poor, immigrants, and the mentally ill. I sent photographs of the gift shop to a group of my Foucault-loving friends, and I was met with both horror and t-shirt requests. As it has been transformed and preserved, the penitentiary maintains most of its architectural features, but evokes surveillance differently. We are called to confront our new roles at “The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site,” the almost-museum, the almost-haunted house, the almost-prison, the almost-panopticon.

These spaces function to disorient the logic of time and space; relevance is simultaneously maintained through authenticity and deviations from the authentic, through the uniqueness of the original and the unrestrained duplication of that origin. As Debord has pointed out, postmodern tourism leans into these incongruities.

A byproduct of the circulation of commodities, tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, is basically reduced to the leisure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of the frequentation of different spaces is already in itself the guarantor of their equivalence. The same modernization which has removed time from travel has also removed from it the reality of space.[31]

Both of these scenarios mimic Baudrillard’s description of the cloister of St. Michael de Cuxa:

Demuseumification is nothing but another spiral in artificiality. Witness the cloister of St. Michael de Cuxa, which one will repatriate at great cost from the Cloisters of New York to reinstall it in ‘its original site.’ And everyone is supposed to applaud this restitution… reimportation to the original site is even more artificial: it is a total simulacrum that links up with ‘reality’ through a complete circumvolution.[32]

Looking for meaning, closure, or reparation at Eastern State is plainly futile. One can engage with the space to be sure, but any modernist hope for intelligibility is in vain. We have to imagine a kind of post-modern contact less at odds with paradox, a way of problematizing places that disorient time and space, and a way of working with the indecipherable.


Queer Failure, Queer Memory

Queerness has a particularly interesting position in Eastern State’s history, one that is veiled in prison log euphemisms. It’s difficult, even impossible, to map contemporary identities back onto the past. It’s not quite right to say that queer people were incarcerated at Eastern State; the identity category and contemporary understanding of queer did not exist during the prison’s operation. What we do know is that “gays,” “clunks,” “sodomists,” “sodomites,” and “homos” are peppered throughout the prison’s archives.

Although solitary confinement was abandoned except in the case of special punitive measures by the 1870s, there continued to be accounts throughout the 20th century of homosexuals being held apart from other inmates. In the late 19th century, “sodomites” represented a sector of sexual contamination. The 57th Annual Inspector Report recorded 8 of the 500 admitted prisoners from that year (1887) to be “sodomites,” 38 to have paid for sex, and the rest to be “sexually pure.” Not only did Eastern State house individuals for homosexual behavior, inmates’ sexual behavior was monitored at the penitentiary. There were serious concerns about homosexual acts taking place, especially as overcrowding occurred and the Quaker “promises” of solitary confinement were compromised. The 1905 Annual Report remarked that there were 450 more prisoners than there were solitary cells, and recommended that in this context, two men should not be housed together in one cell: “Sodomy in all its various and disgusting forms… sees its full development among men in closest confinement.” The report recommended that three men per cell be always preferable to two.[33]

As late as the 1920s, “sodomists” were kept in quarantined quarters, in solitary confinement among “venereals, tuburculars and psychopaths.”[34] They were often “administratively” separated, and in the late 1960s they were in segregated quarters. One guard joked, “Why there was a segregated block? Are you kidding? [Laughter.] I mean, it was like, are you from Philadelphia? … You ever been down, it used to be 13th and Locust? … Yeah, they’d be swishing around and everything.”[35] The phrase, “homosexuals, who were fed in their cells” appears frequently throughout the structures report, standing in for a description of solitary confinement. An aggressive distaste for homosexual behavior contributes to some conflation in the museum’s records of “homosexuals,” “sodomists,” “sex criminals,” and sexual assaulters. For example, Bert Peabody served time in the 1890s and his warden wrote that he “was formerly convicted of sodomy… a very disgusting person during that term of three years.”[36]

By the mid-20th century, sex and sexuality were centerpieces of prison life. An Eastern State social worker recalled that in the late 1960s “most of [the inmates] were involved in some kind of sexual experience while they were here.” He reflected, “rape was pretty common… maybe not always forced rape, but you had to give it up, as they said, sooner or later… Sex was a big part of life here.”[37] A well-known “rule of thumb” was that inmates were allowed (even expected) to respond to the sexual advances and assaults of other inmates with physical violence. Joseph R. Brierly, a guard at Eastern State from 1940 to 1973 noted that inmates were not charged for stabbing “aggressive” homosexual advances “in resistance.” “Do what you need to but do not submit.”[38] Another interview suggested that during the late 1940s and early 1950s, “gays” (or “clunks”) were not segregated but at times “thrown in” with disobedient prisoners.[39] One guard referred to the morgue in the B1 tower, calling it the “chiller box” and noted that there were many deaths “due to homosexual approaches rebuffed.”[40] Another guard, Richard Parcell, who worked at the penitentiary from 1947 to 1969, reported that during this time “gays” who were found in the act of homosexuality were segregated “for their own good.”[41]

On my drive home I read about Eastern State on my phone. I learned very quickly that sitting less than a mile away from Philadelphia’s “gayborhood,” the penitentiary had been the site of yearly LGBT fright nights. Just this past Halloween, queer folks were invited to participate in the new Quarantine 4D exhibit. The website touts: “you learn of an infectious outbreak, whose symptoms include hallucinations, blurry vision, distorted depth perception, and other mind-altering effects. Flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from (seemingly) nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.”[42] Guests were reminded in the invitation that actors were allowed to touch them throughout the exhibit, and that “those who opt into true interactivity may be grabbed, held back, sent into hidden passageways, removed from their group, and even occasionally incorporated into the show.”[43] This particular exhibition included a “sterilization chamber” promised to disturb even the “sturdiest of stomachs.”

This language both forgets and calls upon the history of Eastern State’s operational years, when sodomy was punishable by solitary confinement in Pennsylvania and by sterilization in many parts of the U.S. It was also during these years that electric shock and synthetic hormones like Stilboestrol were experimentally administered to gay men in an attempt to “cure” their unhinged libidos. These too produced mind-altering effects.

Figure 12: “Sterilization Chamber,” Photographer: Jeff Fusco, accessed Sept 14, 2016, Archived by the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

There is a discussion to be had about the problematics of an unknowing community gathering together to fetishize spaces of queer violence and to play haunted house without fear of being “incorporated” into the show. We hear these discussions often, about political correctness and reverent tones in memorial spaces. But Eastern State’s incoherence invites alternatives, and any resistance to panoptic, solitary logic has resisted penitence. I want to argue that it is reductive to lament a lost “history” when we could instead critically and reparatively engage the palimpsest: queer folks flirting, fearing, playing, and building community in simulated sterilization chambers under the influence of synthetic mind alteration. At the same time, we ought to be attentive to queer reveling in racially inflected spaces. On both fronts, there are more complicated opportunities for critical contact. There is a sense in which Eastern State has experienced what Baudrillard called, ‘extermination by museumification.'” But I wonder how there might be opportunities to resist or reimagine this extermination. We have already entered into a conversation about postmodern meaning-making. We are performing new affective channels.

I have offered a reading of the hyper-real that is both problematic and problematizing. A queer hyper-real is tied deeply to the passage of time and the maintenance of memorials. Julian Pefanis describes the confrontation between postmodernity and history thusly: “The great historical machine lurches, groans, and grinds to a halt in the sands of time… unable to progress against the force of its own inertia … recommitting its subjects to the project of reproduction and system maintenance: damage control.”[45] Eastern State could not be more emblematic of this historical girth, this gridlock of progress, and this doomed project of “system maintenance.” It is offensive to take down but expensive to keep open. There is money in the spectacle, but there is dignity in the museum. I wonder how much money the museum would have to make to provoke the closures of other prisons and their transitions into memorials.

I am extremely concerned with the successes and failings of Eastern State, but I am equally concerned with the rising tide of political correctness. I worry that the trigger-sensitive culture, which my generation participated in creating, often protects vulnerable populations by foreclosing on many forms of critical contact with the past.

Although imperfect, Eastern State as a haunted house invites us to approach a traumatic site with a queer orientation. It may even offer a place of critical, radically negative confrontation in a context where attempts at progress, maintenance, and representation are in vain. Queer tourism at Eastern State involves the consummation of intimacy and violence. Signs, symbols, spaces, and rituals are repeated and crudely mis-remembered. Recall this footnote of Baudrillard’s: “Counterfeit and reproduction imply always an anguish, a disquieting foreignness: the uneasiness before the photograph, considered like a witch’s trick… There is already sorcery at work in the mirror.”[46] Queer orientations are often assumed before the mirror, where pain is negotiated through mourning, but also through camp, sex, play, and burlesque. The reproduction, as a fixture of queer performances like drag, can be anguishing and disquieting, but it can also be erotic and stupid. Queerness involves indiscretion with a wink; the queer experience of counterfeit might offer a place of contact with the sorcery of reproduction, rather than a fear of the witch’s trick. 


A Wink and a Whistle

Michelle Brown has suggested that penal museum night tours are “organized fundamentally around the idea of prisoners’ past violence, pain, and death—via their ghosts… In general, tours depend in their sociality upon moments in which strangers collectively bond around the replication of the infliction of pain and death.”[47] In many ways, her description shares characteristics with queer history. As such, it may offer opportunities for anti-subjugative practices in the postmodern. Baudrillard unveils the dangers of simulacra, but can the “vacillation of fundamentals” be a tool?[48]

This is not to say that separation from problematic spaces is unwarranted, only that there are other pathways for reparation that are sometimes eclipsed by the simplicity of trigger-warnings. Consider Elizabeth Freeman’s work. She conceptualizes queer time and erotic histories as she traces a new methodology of “temporal drag.”[49] In her discussion of sadomasochism, she suggests that this practice can function as a Mobïus Strip, offering healing and pain, remembrance and repression, by engaging progressive and regressive motions simultaneously.[50] Sadomasochism offers an alternative to abstinence, a place of reparative contact with sexual trauma. Glittering queers in bedazzled handcuffs are campy, but they are also something more.

Even Debord’s description of the spectacle leaves room for this kind of reorientation; he writes, “the spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images.”[51] The spectacle itself is not unmovable, though it is nearly so. It is living and sustained by social relations. As such, Debord explains, “the spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of a world of vision, as the product of the techniques of the mass dissemination of images. It is rather, a Weltanschauung, which has become actual, materially translated. It is a vision of the world which has become objectified.”[52] Abdication from the world of vision is impossible and anger toward this world of vision is misappropriated; critical engagement is complicated and crucial. We cannot renounce the “society of the spectacle” so how do we orient ourselves towards it? How do we act in it in ways that are healing and progressive? How do we bedazzle our handcuffs?

Jane Bennett directs us to Adorno. She writes, “‘Negative dialectics’ is a method Adorno designs to teach us how to accentuate this discomforting experience [where representations create a ‘wanting gap’]… a powerful reminder that ‘objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.”[53] Negative dialectics and radical negativity offer a compelling strategy for queer immersion in the hyper-real. Bennett suggests the development of a “capacity for naiveté” and this is at the very least an entry point for a more critical form of contact at Eastern State.[54]

Each queer tourist at the penitentiary may represent a separate experience of failure, of misremembering, of critical naiveté, of radical negativity, or of critical resistance. And all of these possibilities are compelling from the perspective of radical negativity. In one of Adorno’s lectures he wrote: “Philosophy has a raison d’être only where it exposes itself to total failure, as a response to the absolute certainty it had traditionally pursued.”[55] When we imagine the failures of conceptualization and the failures of representation as grounds for existence, we can engage a much more interesting conversation about queer memorialization. Debord once said “within a world really on its head, the true is a moment of the false.”[56] I believe that the false is a reparative opportunity. It’s important that as we begin to grapple with the paradoxes of postmodernity from a queer perspective, and that we not conflate “the false” with a dismissal of criticism. What is offered here is a collision of two elusive ideas: queerness and reality. Eastern State prompts questions about mastery as much as it prompts questions about memory.

As a flirty and grotesque display, a distorted memorial interrupts attempts to “manage” history, attempts to progress by correcting the past. The bizarreness of Eastern State invokes a myriad of affective states: fear, desire, pleasure, panic… flippancy and snark. They each help us to understand the capacity queer memory has to confront the postmodern. Jack Halberstam, an important theorist of queer failure, wrote: “Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style.”[57] What Halberstam’s reading suggests is that there is an alternative, a queer alternative, to trying again and again to reconcile still-standing violent spaces—an alternative to the memorial and to the haunted house. He believes in holding on to “childish” notions.[58] This, he suggests, is what José Esteban Muñoz meant when he offered that queer failure was about escape.[59] For both Muñoz and Halberstam, queer failure is tied to memory. Halberstam suggests “forgetfulness, as an interruption to… the continuity of ideas, family lines, and normativity itself.”[60] I offer to some extent a response to his question: “Are there other models of generation, temporality, and politics available to queer culture and feminism?”[61] What Halberstam calls an “ethos of resignation to failure” is also a commitment to, “a lack of progress and a particular form of darkness, a negativity really… which can be called a queer aesthetic.”[62]


Burlesquing Failures

If mastery involves the critical capture of a concept, its opposite is not apathy or incompetence, but burlesque. There were odd joys at Eastern State, and certainly dynamic characters that sneaked their way into the building’s records. An inmate named Isaac Hall was known in his neighborhood as “Lady Washington,” and served almost seven years for “sodomy & buggery.” Hall’s royal, gender-bending alter-ego makes even warden Cassidy’s 1887 journal entry read tongue-in-cheek: “Lady Washington… is no doubt one of the kind who are addicted to that crime.”[63] “Candy” was a 6’5” “out” homosexual, “she could play volleyball and spike you in a minute … she was what she was and when she did it nobody ever seemed to catch her.”[64] “Bouncing Betty” was another character who seemed preceded by her mythology.[65] While there was surely violence, there are also accounts of resistant play. Guards and social workers have recounted flirtatious inmates who teased guards with the occasional “hi sweetheart.” They recalled “feminine ones” who would “decorate their cells, so it was like a brothel.”[66] Psychologists recounted openly gay participants in therapy groups in the 1960s flippantly dismissing the treatment of homosexuality as a “problem,” saying “don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.”[67] There were odd, incoherent characters as well. One inmate from the 1960s was a homosexual, an “asshole bandit,” and perhaps a predator himself according to the penitentiary psychologist. But he was also remembered to be a skilled artist and painter, so much so that the psychologist himself bought several of his paintings.[68] And there were secretive, consensual pursuits of hidden pleasure. One criminologist stated that many inmates sought privacy in the showers, “by the time the steam got going, you couldn’t see a damn thing.”[69] Eastern State’s pipes were famous, the largest attempted plumbing infrastructure of their time. These pipes steamed rioters to death in the 1930s and provided hot cloud cover for covert shower encounters in the 1960s. I mention this because it is interesting that the architecture at Eastern State both killed and protected the inmates. Visibility at Eastern State was more complicated than the “trap” described by Foucault, distinctly because it was used for play.

A psychologist at Eastern State was taught by other employees in the 1960s to whistle when walking down the hallways at night. “Just, you know, make it known that you’re coming.” Whistling, he explained, eliminated surprises. “What they were looking for was privacy… I never confronted anybody because I whistled.” I suggest that we hold in mind the histories that are ours and the histories that are not, and imagine, in spite of our triggers, confronting Eastern State with a historical tilt, a wink, and a whistle.

A haphazard forfeiture of history is not the aim—this is the macabre charm of the coffee shop across the street. Instead, it is an orientation towards space and time that is antithetical to both remembering and forgetting: a performative mis-remembering and an exhumation of incoherent stories. Burlesque involves “a comic imitation of a serious… form that relies on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment.”[70] It is a way of confronting the past. The cells, the haunting, the mind-alterations, and the sterilization chamber demand a quixotic turn in the mind of the prankster (to use burlesque’s Italian root). Ultimately, both failure and flippancy carry the power of radical negativity in the gridlock of the hyper-real and the entrenchments of postmodern commemoration.

Figure 13: Second Story Hallway II, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Pain, pleasure, and memory are enabling, disabling, and dismantling features of queer feeling. Elizabeth Freeman says of her own “eroto-historiography” that she prefers Foucault’s treatment of pleasure over Freud’s treatment of pain.[71] She offers that “queer subjectivity and collectivity demand, and take as their reward, particularly inventive and time-traveling forms of grief and compensation that neither the normalizing work of the ego nor the statist logic of sequential generations can contain,”[72] but suggests also that this “turn toward loss” forecloses on politics of pleasure embedded in and reliant on “temporal difference.” Addressing these foreclosures, Freeman talks about “binds”:

‘Binds’ are predicaments… we cannot reproduce little queers with sperm and eggs… making other queers is a social matter… we are ‘bound’ to queer successors whom we might not recognize. ‘Binds’ also suggests the bonds of love, not only attachments in the here and now but also those forged across both spatial and temporal barriers: to be ‘bound’ is to be going somewhere. Yet even as it suggests connectivity, ‘binds’ also names a certain fixity in time, a state of being timebound, belated, incompletely developed, left behind or not there yet, going nowhere.[73]

Freeman’s queer episteme involves profound forms of attachment and reliance that are liberated from customs of genealogy, family, and what she calls “chrono-normativity.” A queer orientation towards history is, in many ways, incompatible with traditional understandings of memory and history. She goes on: “Yet there are pleasures here too, for ‘binding’ is, of course, one among many queer bodily practices, which include not only the painful enjoyment of bondage… Binding, we might say, makes predicament into pleasure, fixity into a mode of travel across time as well as space.”[75]

We have an opportunity to be bound in “painful enjoyment” to Eastern State, its visitors, its residents, and its ghosts. This framework opens up so many more possibilities than an orientation toward pain and penitence. As Freeman wrote, binding “foregrounds attachments rather than loss.”[76] It is relevant, and not coincidental that the term “religion” has its Latin root in the word “religare,” meaning, “to bind.” At a place where binding is more than metaphor, where Matthew Macumsey’s iron-bound ghost “haunts” willing and enthusiastic tourists, we are already aware of our bound relationship to ritualistic history. We have already consented to these constraints with our admissions fees and our audio tour rentals.

Camp performance, Freeman offers, is “a kind of historicist jouissance, a friction of dead bodies upon live ones, obsolete constructions upon emergent ones” which she calls “temporal drag.”[77] I would like to imagine “camp,” not just as an aesthetic style, but as a scopic mode, a way of looking, a way of making critical, chrono-non-normative contact with the past. Remember Sontag’s now famous description: “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”[78] Sontag outlines not just what camp’s aesthetic qualities are, but the scopic modes that camp provokes as well: “Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.”[79] Sontag’s point is that there are images and performances which evoke particular ways of seeing, and which appeal to queer standards. As we confront postmodern sites of hyper-real spectacle, like Eastern State, we have to become literate in these performances, these ways of seeing, that unhinge us from the chrono-normative, from the good-bad axis, from our imaginary relationships with the past.


Camp, Flippancy, and Fetishizing the Other

I am certain that my lean into flippancy is inflected by my whiteness, just as it is inflected by my queerness. I am sure that in their reach back for reparative queer epistemes of pleasure, whiteness inflected Foucault’s, Freeman’s, and Sontag’s ontologies as well. It may be that the “wink back” at Eastern State is an orientation particularly available to white queers. It may be that it is inappropriate for us. It may even be that it is more valuable to People of Color. I think that this is a worthy discussion. Re-immersion in violence, perversions of time, distortions of genealogy, and the consummation of pain and pleasure are at the crux of queer knowing, but these concepts are echoed in (and often “borrowed” from) critical race scholars, such as bell hooks’ work on desire, which questions the “current wave of ‘imperialist nostalgia,’”[80] and critiques the fetishizations and consumption of Otherness, propelled by Western modernity. She writes that this nostalgia “often obscures contemporary cultural strategies deployed not to mourn but to celebrate the sense of a continuum of ‘primitivism.’”[81] In this way, it is important that we not conflate fetish with pleasure, eroticism, or desire. White pleasure, hooks remind us, has historically been propelled by the “seduction of difference.”[82] Said’s work on orientalism offers similar admonitions about “the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture… their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers [are] productive, not unilaterally inhibiting.”[83]

Performances of history and reality have high stakes. As Edward Said wrote, “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world… the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks.”[84] The twisted, dark comedy of Eastern State occurs in a national context in which 60% of incarcerated people are People of Color, twice their percentage represented in the national population at large. It is also positioned in a cultural context where America’s ghosts are commodified and mass-produced in film and literature. Americans are offered many opportunities to revel in the fears and pleasures of ghost stories, many of which are racially inflected and fueled by white American guilt. Haunted houses, for example, help us enjoy and mediate our anxieties as we continue to defend our beloved, stolen private properties; we have learned to enjoy how much we are afraid of the people who inhabited the land we now “own.”

This place of flippant contact, then, has to resist fetishistic gazes, and we have to be specific about what (and whom) we are in contact with. The wink back at the incarcerated queers and hysterical women of Eastern State isn’t incompatible with reverence, or with political awareness, because it has to resist the fetish of the horror flick. The dangers of imperialist nostalgia are certainly at play. Eastern State does not promote a yearning for a primitivity that has been destroyed, but it enables distaste for history, and the fantasy that this history is past. My whiteness is conditioned to enjoy the temporal illusion that carceral society is over. At the same time, my queerness enjoys a spatial illusion with exit signs plainly in view. We must, therefore, move through these spaces with an understanding that we are not bound to everyone in the same way.

I suggest that Freeman’s “temporal drag,” and its attentive double meaning are a way to think about Eastern State. It strikes me, at least, as a starting point. It is an aesthetic mode and a scopic skillset that draws on critiques of post-modernity in queer criticism and critical race theory. Queer people and People of Color have been disenfranchised (in similar and divergent ways) from access to public community mourning. And these different (overlapping) groups benefit and struggle (differently and together) with postmodern reckoning and critical contact.

Drag’s naiveté hinges on its wit and its provocation of unintelligible pleasures. It unhinges our identities and our sexual orientations, by turning us on and eclipsing what we are turned on by. It offers a point of dismantling, critical contact with our repulsions and our desires. bell hooks has written that desire disrupts because it “refuses to be contained within boundaries.”[85] I have similarly suggested that repulsion and desire have a place at the penal museum; that there may be space for us, or for some of us, to lean into our desires; and that we may, if we unlearn our impulses to fetishize, harness healing by winking back at the past made present to us at the Eastern State Penitentiary.



[1] Fredric Jameson, Aesthetics and Politics: Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Bertolt BrechtWalter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, (London: Verso, 2002), 88.

[2] Ru Paul, Twitter, (accessed 14 September 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Random House, 1995), 200.

[5] Christine Bowditch, Eastern State Penitentiary, online documentary film (1998), (accessed on October 19, 2016).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Foucault, 200.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 201.

[10] Bowditch.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Philadelphia Historical Commission, “Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Structures Report: Volume 2” (21 July, 1994), (accessed Nov 10, 2016), 455.

[14] Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, (Chapman & Hall Ltd: 1913) ebook transcribed 18 February, 2013, (accessed 19 October 2016).

[15] “Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society: Volume 2” (Perkins and Marvin, 114 Washington St., Stereotyped at the Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry, Boston, MA, May 1836), 352.

[16] Philadelphia Historical Commission, 385.

[17] Ibid, p. 540.

[18] Bowditch.

[19] Laurel Dalrymple, “Is Eastern State Penitentiary Really Haunted? A Philadelphia Prison’s Grim Past,” NPR WGBH News, 24 October 2013,, (accessed 14 October 2016).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1.

[22] Arthur Kroker and Charles Levin, “Cynical Power: The Fetishism of the Sign,” in Ideology and Power in the Age of Lenin in Ruins, ed. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 131.

[23] John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster (New York: Routledge: 2011), 3; A.V. Seaton, “Guided by the Dark: From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 2, no. 4 (1996), 234–244.

[24] Baudrillard, 1.

[25] Ibid., 13.

[26] Ibid., 2.

[27] Guy Debord. The Society the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), paragraph 33.

[28] Baudrillard, 8.

[29] Michelle Brown. The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 87.

[30] “Mission Statement,” Eastern State Penitentiary Museum Board of Directors, (1999) (accessed 15 September 2016).

[31] Debord, paragraph 168.

[32] Baudrillard, 11.

[33] Philadelphia Historical Commission, 427.

[34] Bowditch.

[35] Raymond Grady. Guard. Interview by Lee Sullivan. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (26 August 26 2009).

[36] Michael Cassidy. (1887). Warden’s Daily Journal. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia.

[37] Barry Vernick. Social Worker. Interview by Lee Sullivan. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (17 May 2009).

[38] Philadelphia Historical Commission, 460.

[39] Ibid., 468.

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid., 513.

[42] “Special Events: Terror Behind Walls,” Eastern State Penitentiary Museum Website,, (accessed 15 September 2016).

[43] “The Six Attractions,” Eastern State Penitentiary Museum Website, (accessed 15 September 2016).

[44] Baudrillard, 10.

[45] Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the PostModern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 9.

[46] Baudrillard, Chapter 1: Footnote 1.

[47] Brown, 86.

[48] Baudrillard, Chapter 1: Footnote 1.

[49] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 62.

[50] Freeman.

[51] Debord, paragraph 4.

[52] Ibid., paragraph 5.

[53] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 14.

[54] Ibid., 18.

[55] Theodore Adorno, trans. Rodney Livingstone, , Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), Lecture 11: The Theory of Intellectual Experience (Extract).

[56] Debord, paragraph 9.

[57] Judith (Jack) Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.

[58] Ibid., 23.

[59] Ibid, 87.

[60] Ibid., 123.

[61] Ibid., 124.

[62] Ibid., 96.

[63] Cassidy.

[64] Richard Griffin, Guard and Neighbor. Interview by Hal Kirn. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia (6 May 1993).

[65] Philadelphia Historical Commission.

[66] Barry Vernick, Social Worker. Interview by Lee Sullivan. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (17 May 2009).

[67] Edward Reynolds, Psychologist. Interview by Lee Sullivan. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (29 July 2009).

[68] Joseph Maher, Psychologist. Interview by Hal Kirn. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (22 October 22 1993).

[69] Finn Hornum, Sociologist and Criminologist. Interview by Hal Kirn. Personal Interview. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia, (30 April 1993).

[70] “Burlesque,” Encyclopedia Britannica,., (accessed 15 September 2016).

[71] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 12.

[72] Ibid, 58.

[73] Ibid., 60.

[74] Ibid, xxii.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 66.

[78] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” in Against Interpretations and Other Essays, (London: Penguin, 2009), 276.

[79] Ibid., 283

[80] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 25

[81] Ibid., 25.

[82] Ibid., 23.

[83] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 14.

[84] Ibid., 40.

[85] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 167.

Jaclyn Carroll is a doctoral student in Sociology at Boston College.