The article Practicing Restraint written by Will Wiles for the last issue of Cabinet about punishment is a very interesting article introducing the cruel piece of design embodied by the straightjacket (camisole de force). I am used to write about architectures or instruments that are not necessarily assimilated to objects of restraints but which are ultimately achieving this effect on the body. The straightjacket, on the contrary, “wears” the violence it inflicts to the body in a demonstrative manner. The similitude to a traditional jacket reinforce this violent appearance; as if the game we played as children to cross our sleeves was transformed into a nightmare when we realized that the sleeves could not go back to normal.
Nevertheless,as W.Wiles points out in the very beginning of this article, this invention, along with the guillotine (another famous piece of French design!), constitutes the product of a technocratic will of reducing cruelty in comparison of previous objects in charge of the same functions. The guillotine’s operation used to be performed by an executioner with an axe with all the painful imprecision that it implies. The guillotine, invented during the terror, right after the French Revolution, constituted a more efficient mean of executing someone to the point that it remained the official instrument of French death penalty until its abolition in 1981. Similarly, the straightjacket’s function used to be insured by chains and was therefore considered as a form of progress when it was introduced as a new object of restraint at the Hopital Bicêtre in 1790 (two years only before the invention of the guillotine!). In his article, W.Wiles quotes Scottish physician William Cullen in 1784:
Restraining the anger and violence of madmen is always necessary for preventing their hurting themselves or others: But this restraint is also to be considered as a remedy. […] Restraint, therefore, is useful, and ought to be complete; but it should be execued in the easiest manner possible for the patient, and the strait waistcoat answers every purpose better than any other that has yet been thought of.
William Cullen, First Lines of the Practice of Physics as quoted by Will Wiles in Practicing Restraint, Cabinet 46, New York, 2012.
It is accurate to say that both the guillotine and the straightjacket provide less pain to the body subjected to it than their objectified ancestors. However, it is important to consider the problem through another approach. The “lesser evil” is the recurrent idea upon which all bureaucratic historical tragedies have been based on. Between the choice of “evil” and a “lesser evil”, the choice seems easy, but any courageous and imaginative effort for a third non-evil proposition is forgotten. To a certain extent, the notion of “lesser evil” could arguably be said to be more damageable than the “evil” one as it is reinforced by an illusory legitimacy given by the choice against “pure evil” (again I feel strange to use the moralistic terminology).
I always think that if my writings were to ask only one question, it would be the following: As designers, should we work on architectures, objects, clothes, books, films, posters, which we know participate to a system that is in opposition to the system of values that represents our ethics? If so, we might be able to ameliorate things “from the inside,” but we would then be accomplice of such a system. Should we build prisons or the infants of the straightjacket and the guillotine? And if we answer no to that previous question, what about open-offices, retail stores, banks, advertising posters, anti-homeless benches etc. (I am putting my own problematic programs here, but each of us varies on that)? Of course, no-one truly operates outside of the system (s)he resists against. However, if we never think about our role within this system we will never be able to draw a line that we cannot be crossing without finding ourselves in serious contradiction with our ethical articulation.