Final Public Oral Exam: Spencer Weinreich

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
September 9, 2022 - 3:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Slow Tampering: A History of Solitary Confinement


Anthony Grafton, co-adviser
Regina Kunzel, co-adviser, Yale University
Wendy Warren
Erika Milam
James Delbourgo, Rutgers University


''Slow Tampering'' chronicles the history o solitary confinement from the medieval inquisitor who first experimented with its potential to the collapse of the nineteenth-century penitentiary movement, which had vested such hopes in solitude as an instrument of reformation. It is the history of a perverse optimism — the conviction, inherited from Christian theology, that souls can change and be changed, by force if necessary — and of a faith in solitude as the catalyst of coerced redemption. The prison cell is the weaponization of the monastic cell, the space of penitential rebirth, whose ambitions have colored the subsequent history of punishment. ''Slow Tampering" asks how violence can be an expression of religious conviction and a tool of knowledge-making, and how pious intentions inspire unspeakable cruelty. The dissertation analyzes solitary confinement as a kind of experiment, existing in the tension between projects of reform and the work of punishment. Precisely because the practice is forever reinventing itself, solitary confinement has survived and thrived across millennia, a staying power that can be investigated only with an equally broad historical perspective. The dissertation finds solitary confinement in medieval dungeons and Baroque reformatories, in penitentiaries and plantations, across four continents, a ubiquitous form of violence within carcerality. ''Slow Tampering," in offering such a panorama, argues for attending to continuity rather than rupture in the history of the prison, as well as countering the modernist, secular slants of carceral studies. The project establishes the sophistication and power of premodern carceral regimes, whose ideologies and practices decisively shaped modern penal structures. The dissertation is itself a kind of experiment, grappling with the historiographical challenge of historicizing human experience, particularly so extreme an experience as solitary confinement. The project rests on the epistemic authority of survivors, who possess insights into the nature of solitary confinement unattainable by the historian.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.