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Opening Up: Collective Joy in Prison and Beyond

We have missed collective joy more than ever in these grim times of social distancing. For everyone – but especially prisoners – it’s a way of combatting psychic isolation, alienation and disconnection. Communal music-making is one way of opening the gates. 

HMP Peterborough gamelan workshop

A Good Vibrations music workshop.

Good Vibrations

My first visit to a prison was not a typical one. As I approached the grey, fort-like building, went through security, and was led through a maze of corridors, locked doors and barbed wire fencing, I felt my body tense up with claustrophobia and anxiety. I felt the guilty relief that I was a visitor - not a resident - of this place.

Not long after I was surrounded by ornate Indonesian ‘gamelan’ instruments resonating in harmony, improvising and composing a unique and beautiful piece of music with a group of smiling strangers as a trainee Good Vibrations music facilitator. My nervous system was confused, to say the least. · HMP Stoke Heath - This is the Day the Music Made

I don’t recall exactly when I heard the expression ‘collective joy’, but I remember the satisfaction of something being named which needed naming. In a basic sense the term refers to that transcendent feeling of connection and creative communion we can only experience with others.

We need collective joy. We have missed it more than ever in these grim times of social distancing. As such we are in a better position than usual to imagine, in some miniscule way, what life might be like for the 80,000 odd people in the UK - and some ten million worldwide - who were isolated in prisons before the pandemic, and have suffered even harsher conditions since, confined for an average of 22 hours a day during lockdown.

Is there any joy which isn’t collective? According to cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert, who I interviewed for a Good Vibrations podcast, joy is “always sort of collective… you can experience collective joy sitting quietly in a library, relating to people through reading their books.” Even on your own at the top of a mountain, joy tends to stem from a feeling of connection with the more-than-human world.

Mansfield My Place Aug 2019 13 Good Vibrations
Good Vibrations

There is something particularly important about the ability to experience connection with other humans in the flesh, but of course collective joy is in no way a given in the presence of other humans - in a traffic jam or packed train say, or anywhere you feel disconnected from or even fearful of the people around you. Safety (both real and perceived) and trust in the people around you is a necessary condition for collective joy, and it’s inevitably hard to access in an oppressive institutional setting like a prison.

This is the central absurdity at the heart of the existing criminal justice system. Almost everyone involved in the system seems to agree that people tend to come out of it even more alienated, traumatised and angry than when they went in, and thus are likely to re-offend (47% of adults are re-convicted within a year, according to Ministry of Justice figures).

Yet in the face of such isolation, even small, genuine experiences of collective joy can cultivate the ability to trust in others and understand collectivity as a source of potential joy, empowerment and liberation, as former prisoner and past participant Russ Haynes described, recalling his first experience of a Good Vibrations gamelan workshop:

There was something about it that was so… and this sounds really cringey, but it’s the only word I can use to describe it… so spiritual… There was a sense of freedom… It opened me up to experience emotions that I was suppressing because of my anger, because I didn’t want to be perceived as as weak as I felt.

The whole thing gave me an experience I needed at the time, which was to be able to relax and feel something… For me it was my first step to communicating with the outside world, which before I was refusing to let in.

Jeremy Gilbert’s understanding of the phenomenon of collective joy is influenced by the 17th Century German philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza saw collective joy is a form of freedom; not the kind of freedom associated with the rugged individual (usually male) hero, enforcing his will on the world, but the empowered freedom you feel when you transcend your limited capacity as an individual by acting together, consensually and creatively with others. In this sense, prison restricts not just your literal freedom to move, but your natural human instinct to access forms of collectivity that are liberating.

This concept means so much to me because, as someone with a long history of depression, genuine collective joy feels like its opposite. Depression is the ultimate feeling of psychic isolation, alienation and disconnection; a prison of the soul. At its worst it’s not a feeling of sadness, or even despair, but of nothingness. Recovery and staying well for me has always been associated with an ability to reach out and connect with the people and the world around me, yet experiencing this kind of collectivity was for many of us all-too-rare even before the pandemic.

Fantazia Summertime Rave

Collective joy at Fantazia, Bournemouth, 1992.

Altjunglist (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Though we might appreciate ‘alone time’, we are social mammals. Forced isolation, and its associated affective state of loneliness, is not just an unpleasant emotional reality impacting our mental health, but increasingly recognised as a devastating threat to physical health, with a mortality risk impact on a par with smoking. That’s why it’s such an effective torture instrument and continues to be used as a punishment in British prisons.

Before socially isolation became a public health instruction, it was mostly known as a public health problem, with increasing attempts to address it and identify its deep root causes. This line of inquiry has, or should have, political implications. Gilbert puts at least some of the blame on the dominant political and economic ideology forced on the world over the last 50 years:

Under advanced capitalist culture, neoliberal culture, we are discouraged from experiencing collectivity as joyful, we’re encouraged to think of any meaningful or satisfying experience as being by its nature private… that the only truly satisfying and meaningful agency in the world is to buy something and to consume it.

This loss also has far deeper roots and it’s no accident that Good Vibrations employs a non-Western musical form to facilitate experiences of collective joy. In Dancing in the Streets - A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich details the fascination and horror of early European colonialists when they witnessed the “almost ubiquitous practice of ecstatic ritual, in which the natives would gather to dance, sing or chant to a state of exhaustion and, beyond that, sometimes trance.”

Such examples of collective joy and ritual ecstasy are well known to anthropologists as universal human impulses which have been heavily repressed to facilitate the strange, lonely and disconnected individual selfhood prized and developed in the West, then exported forcibly upon the rest of world over the last few hundred years. Even now, the forms of music and dance we associate with contemporary Western cultures of collective joy, from jazz to techno, largely have their roots in the African diaspora.

Experiences of collective joy, particularly through music, can facilitate deep healing in the most inhospitable of conditions, supporting people locked up, whether in literal or psychological cells, to encounter for a moment the possibility of a world beyond. And this has lessons for our wider culture too, about what we’ve lost and what we need to heal collectively. Going further, it may even have implications for our relationship to not just ourselves and each other, but the natural world.

Can opening up to the world beyond our individual selfhood begin to undo the dangerous disconnection from the ecological foundations of life which has in no small part facilitated the devastation we continue to wreck on our planet? As ecological activist and philosopher Joanna Macy argues, to truly transform our relationship to the natural world, instead of ‘caring’ for nature as an abstract other, we must extend our notions of self-interest:

It would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t saw off your leg. That would be an act of violence.” It wouldn’t occur to me because your leg is part of your body. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin. They are our external lungs. We are beginning to realize that the world is our body.

This may sound like a hippie appeal for oneness. But the more we learn about ecology, biology and physics, the more it turns out the hippies were right. Everything is connected, and like love, this reality only feels like a cliche when it’s abstract and disembodied. When you truly experience it, you know it.

Sometimes it feels great. You smile at the people and the world around you and you feel part of it again. But you also open up yourself to deep grief at the violence we inflict on each other, the planet and ourselves. In this sense maybe collective joy can only truly be accessed if we are prepared to open ourselves up to collective grief. Maybe this is the deepest reason so many of us are resistant to it.

Maybe it’s time to open the gates and let it all in.

Learn more

Sam is running the London Marathon in October with the aim of raising £2,000 to support the work of Good Vibrations. Click here if you’d like to support.

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