n Chapter Four of Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable, which is titled “Death Drop: Becoming the Universe at the End of the World,” Eric A. Stanley offers readers a study of two related yet radically asymmetrical sites at the end of the colonial-patriarchal world. The first of a white trans youth, Seth Walsh, who was pushed to the brink of life, leaving this world through suicide; and the other of Ashley Diamond, a Black trans incarcerated femme, whose suicide attempts forced her into further isolation within the Georgia Department of Corrections. In close dialogue with Fanon’s articulation of “collective autodestruction,” or the contemporary youth slang of being “unalived,” Stanley describes “this ableist non-choice” of total nonconsent in which affirmational (gender or otherwise) care practices take place within the veritable hell that is prison. In other words, to be forced to live a kind of death-wading aliveness that bestrides un-aliveness means metabolizing garden-variety methods of subjugation within the penal colony, where the most redeeming reformist scenario results in nothing more than an “inclusive exclusion” (109). The management of aspirational rehabilitation as  assimilatory mimesis of colonial “man” offers the only ascent out of the prison hell; and only then into an unevenly dealt deathworld in which, perhaps, one might vie for a position of “deservingness” via state protection from those who are nothing more than fodder (as crucibles for humanity) within the colonizer’s insatiable appetite for dominance and control.

In the introduction to the book, Stanley addresses their use of atmospheric violence à la Fanon, describing the envelopment of atmospheres of violence as that which constitutes “conditions of breathing life but also the possibility of that life’s rendition” (16). For Stanley, both the breathing (internal forces) and rendition (external forces) of life are already immersed in the grammar and gestures of colonial-carceral regimes, a “plastic totality of colonization” (ibid). They continue, in reference to Fanon:

As a methodology of molecular relationality, violence holds us to the world, an atmospheric constant whose consistency must be fundamentally disturbed if we are to survive. Thinking atmospherically, then, reminds us that there is no escape, no outside or place to hide, yet through techniques of struggle collective life might still come to be (ibid).

To upend the static hold considered “zones of nonbeing,” in Fanon’s terms, requires a resistance both between and beyond the colonial prison walls. Violence as an all surrounding everywhere means then that the prison, as both site and logic, materializes such violence to structure antagonistic relations built through abuse of power; the warden and their ward, the sheriff and their inmate, the colonist and the colonized. Legality of state violence is thus  codified and naturalized as necessary for staving off ‘criminal’ and or anti-state violence outside of prison worlds. The prison is the crucible and also the “thin veil” between which law and order remain venerated as the manager of a society that is just one riotous act away from falling prey to anarchy and disorder. However, the disordering of the prison from within is already always here. Stanley’s study of ungovernability in the form of dissent to the impossible regulatory form and authoritarian function of the prison – the smuggling in and out of contraband to aid in unabated testimonials– requires organizing wildly across relational differences in an atmosphere where such differences are only weaponized to assert dominance and order.  

For Ashley Diamond, the plea to relay communication through the contraband of a cellular phone is in many ways a form of “sociopoetic resistance” (Harney and Moten, 2013: 19). The “minor archives” found in video recordings of these smuggled out smart phones  offer us impossible testimonials of a life deemed not worth living, one’s last love letter to an abusive world. Stanley’s focus on the testimonies at “the end of the world” mandates readers to not turn away from the terror and beauty that is the breaking away and breaking free from the slow infliction of a deathworld characterized by fear and the abuse of power. Diamond narrates over ‘Part 6 of Memoirs of a Chain Gang Sissy’:

I would like to dedicate this episode of “Memoirs'' to the people who were brave enough to participate in my project. It is my hope that we shake you, and stir you, and get you to do something. Sexual violence has become a way of life in the Georgia Department of Corrections. Many of our stories go unheard, or even never even reach the right ears. It's time to stop this. Now.” (2014: 0:00-0:24).

To be shaken or stirred to do something is a plea to stop this, the state’s passive consent of sexual violence to become one and the same as prison life itself. What does it mean to live in constant fear of total annihilation by way of sexual violence operationalized by state actors?

In both the cases of Diamond and Walsh, Stanley relays how “structuring antagonisms” shape the impossibility of a queer/trans life worth living in this here and now when wholly negotiated through the liminal space of a colonial-carceral universe. Stanley describes “the mechanical proliferation of the universal” as that which is constituted through the naturalization of the state as the naturalization of state violence (101). As an outgrowth of colonialism for Fanon, “violence in its natural state” is the all-inclusive and far-reaching structuring force of state power to reduce subjectivity and subject-making as one and the same with the proliferation of the state’s capacity to overwrite subjecthood as subjugation. Carceral subjugation thus mandates punishment, control, and assimilation of no-bodies to exceed the paradigmatic tropes of the individuated self.

Stanley’s phrasing of “the crucible of humanism” to describe the colonial outgrowth and outpost of “the prison” is acutely revealing in several ways (107).[1] Perhaps running the risk of overextending this metaphor, the crucible, in its simplest material interpretation, is literally a melting-pot. Invoking the specious yet favored colloquialism of neoliberal multiculturalists to describe the amalgamation of difference of the U.S. nation as “melting-pot” (also known as smelting pot or melting pot theory), the crucible has long been invoked in settler colonial nationalist discourse of the frontier.[2] That is, the border is itself a carceral apparatus, both ideologically and materially in forms such as detention centers, U.S. border patrol, Klan and vigilante border watch to “humanitarian aid” of asylum processes. Further, it is porcelain crucibles that have a melting capacity made possible through hygroscopy; that is, the ability to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment via absorption of moisture from the air– the atmosphere. The metaphor of the prison as the crucible of humanism hits hard in several ways. If both capable of indexing the will to consolidate and make compulsory monocultural heterogeneity and fidelity to the state, then the prison relies on (both from inside and outside) the acceptance that such zones of exclusion in turn manufacture surplus nonbeingness. That is, the total submission, devotion, and dependence on those who wield the power of the baton and the law is an integral part of the due process of democracy. Stanley opens this chapter stating, “whirling through identity and identity’s limit, atmospheres yoke the external force of the world and its internalization” (92). Identifications such as “criminal”, “inmate”, “felon”, and “offender” yoke the material condition and reality that the prison as crucible of humanism functions to internalize the ideology of anti-relationalism through engendering carceral identificatory practices as a kind of static identificatory permanence– anti-relational as found in the anti-being. In other words, prison as crucible signifies also the ability for those who descend into such legal hell to leave the indelible branding (eternal damnation) pre-figured by the label “criminal,” not as status, not as time served, but as an external regulatory force that authorizes and narrows legal and material conceptions of agency and the self.

Not unlike the life and story of Tituba (also Titiba, Tittubee, Tattuba, and Tittabe in 1692), the enslaved Black and/or Arawak witch (as this is debated avidly by historians), most recently popularized in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), it is the faint whisper of suspected witchcraft that serves to snuff out any potential threat to the puritanical ideals of settler-colonial governance, white supremacist citizenship, and patriarchal belonging. The torrid violence that ensues under the legal cover of “trial and prosecution'' legitimizes imprisonment and its harsh conditions which drive Tibuta into madness (described throughout history as the feminized and gendered madness of “hysterics”). Only now, in the hindsight of centuries past, are the Salem witch trials themselves labeled as one of the most infamous cases of “mass hysteria.” In the forward to Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem or Moi, Tituba, Sorcière... Noire de Salem (1986), Angela Y. Davis writes: “This transcendent revenge-- the retelling of a history that is as much mine as it is her[’s]--- allows her to save herself without taking on the historical characteristics of the colonizers and the slaveholders she detested” (ix). Much like Ashley Diamond’s suicidal ideations and attempts to end a non-life defined by sexual violence, what Stanley describes as “a life more unlivable than death” (109), they write: “it is not surprising, then, that within the prison, a space of gender’s binary production, the dynamic force of Diamond's self-determination was rendered an act of sedition” (103-4). Both Diamond and Tibuta’s refusal to become consumed by their jailers, colonizers, and enslavers remains a kind of sociopoetic resistance that inverses the hysterics of the individual back onto a  “civil society” content with the act of disappearing bodies as an institutional practice worth reforming and perfecting. To protect “a life worth living” through ableist and sanist notions of the hu-MAN – whether that be sanism underpinning spiritual, sociological, and or scientific reasoning, means the enforcement of non-consensual acts, spanning from forced feeding tubes during hunger strikes to the “turtle suit” or straitjacket forced on Diamond for her own “safety” (see Harney and Moten, 2013: 19).

Disappearance by way of and within prisons is readily demonstrated in the use of Secure Housing Units or SHU, as  Stanley states, “a housing category for inmates the state has deemed either too “violent” and/or too “vulnerable” to be placed in the general population” (105).  Turning to the administrative logic of SHU, Stanley writes:

[...] SHU collapses those who it designates as under threat and those it deems dangerous through a general equivalence of violence. This administrative logic conflates care with durational misery. Protections for trans/queer prisoners (and many others) returns in the form of synchronized assault. This recursive structure, which Fanon also described as the logic of colonial psychiatry, names the limit of the human. This is to say that the conflation of care with harm, or protection and description, is the internal logic of incarnation and not its tragic by-product. (106-7).

Whether labeled as administrative segregation (AdSeg) or SHU, those held within its captivity, or threatened by its present absence, have disaffectionately labeled SHUs: “the hole” or “the box.” The US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2011) euphemistically spin “the hole” as “Special housing units [that] help ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities, and protect the public, by providing alternative housing assignments for inmates removed from the general population.” Whether rationalized as a practice of safekeeping on behalf of the individual or for operational expedience, the practice of heightened isolation within carceral facilities is particularly eerie when considering the weight of the metaphor of “the hole.” SHU advances the most extreme restrictions, both in the form of bodily and psychic straitjacketing within a cage, within a remote unit, within an institution founded on the principle of segregation and the removal of “criminals’’ from the general public. That is to say “the hole” is a hole within a hole within a hole– ripe with the contradictions of hollowing out a place of additional absence within a place in which persons are already put away to be concealed, out of sight.  Stanley reminds us, like Seth Walsh’s apt description of unbearable weight of the “shithole” of the world they inherited, “the SHU is where the metaphoric referent intended to give form to the trans-substitution of flesh as commodity slides into the biopolitical apparatus designed to manage the slow death of carceral life. Here, the architecture of cruelty returns as penance in what is among the most exacting spaces of the management of the human”(106). For Stanley, the way out is perhaps through the way inward, away from the external force of the penal colony. They conclude:

These scenes slide into a messy assemblage of choice as non-choice, where the energies of life and its sudden withdrawal ask what kind of death is self-negation for those at the limit of the human. While the deadly bind they confront does not dissipate under the will of their aesthetic practices alone, their longing for the time after life begins must not be lost. It is their plea for another place where we, with them, might become the universe, at the end of the world (113).

From the barracks of Salem, secure housing units, straitjackets, to neoliberal multiculturalist “inclusive exclusion”, the “end of the world”, hu-MAN and humanity as we know it requires that we not only question but refuse diverse scales and forms of confinement. Atmospheres demands we recognize that a way out of shitholes of the here, now and forever require attention to the breaks and clefts where collective possibility of being together, unconfined, rageful, might give us a kind of shape of impossibility-- one where we might better carve out a life-giving world in the cinders of a colonial humanity.

[1] The full quote from Stanley: “This ableist non- choice between the further constriction of those most forcibly seized in the crucible of humanism — the prison — to either assume their genders are suspect and in need, without consent, of medical intervention, or a kind of gender self- determination that, through the betrayal that is the state, further diminishes their access to affirming practices” (107).
[2] Turner (1894) writes: “In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”


Harney S and Moten F (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.
Turner FJ (1894) “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.


Ren-yo Hwang (they/them) is an assistant professor in the Departments of Gender Studies and Critcal Race and Political Economy at Mount Holyoke College. Their scholarship examines late twentieth-century carceral technologies, abolition, transformative justice, and QTBIPoC antiviolence activism and visual cultures of resistance. Their scholarship can be found in Abolition Feminisms Vol. 2 (Haymarket Books), Women's Studies Quarterly, QED: Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking, Foucault Studies,Transgender Studies Quarterly, and Critical Ethnic Studies Journal. They currently serve on the board of Dignity Power Now and are a member of the anticarceral support network Trans Advocacy Group (TAG).