Interlude: the “criminal mind”

Your colleague tells this story at a conference. It is quickly queried by a co-presenter who was incarcerated for thirty years, now out and in school. She asks instead, what crime might we be forced to commit, unable not to commit, given our circumstances? The problem isn’t internal, is not about “criminal mind.”

This idea of “criminal mind” is a persistent fascination among some students who hear about our classes at the jail. Calling up individual pathology rather than systemic scrutiny, it invites delectation and a respite from responsibility. You question a psych major, pushing back on her desire to learn more about the criminal mind, and she doesn’t join the project after all; a missed opportunity for contact?

In gestalt, contact is desirable, a better state than alienation. Through a continual shifting of the “contact boundary” between self and other, environments, feelings and ideas, we can come to “experience in awareness,” and from this develop a capacity for change.1 Like Fanon’s epidermalization, contact can become a metabolic process that travels beneath the skin, making possible an encounter that reformulates. Contact is also neutral, since anything can happen here, and there is no recognition of power differentials.

In classrooms as “contact zones,”2 power relations become part of the equation. People are “transformed in and through the encounter as subjects” in a pedagogy of “unpredictability.”3 What can be frightening and also beautiful here is this element of surprise in discovery– not just of the other, but also of a self you haven’t known or been: the econ major whose hungry inquisitiveness resurfaces as a gentler desire for connection.

This process of re-encountering one another and our selves astonishes: we all have one more crime in us, and likewise one more possibility, and another; in this process we mean and matter, and without guarantees of any kind.  Maybe this is its own redemption.

  1. lechatdargent (Simon Stafford-Townsend), “Gestalt Essentials: Contact, the Contact Boundary, and Awareness,” Le Chat D’Argent, December 27, 2011, accessed May 20, 2016.
  2. Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession(1991): 34.
  3. Gaztambide-Fernandez, “Decolonization,” 51