Master’s Thesis




The recordings, writings, and public figure of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Pennsylvania Death Row prisoner since 1982, represent synecdochic manifestations of his body in space, his oeuvre in time, and his figure in code. This thesis traces both the cultural artifacts that he produces, and how he and Daniel Faulkner, whom he is convicted of killing, have been discursively produced as cultural figures. It suggests that Abu-Jamal represents more than a polarizing history, instead complicating the interconnectedness of audio, textual, and digital media. The thesis uses interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological interventions to examine media, prisons, and profanity in culture.


I. Introduction

The review of related literature includes: a history of Abu-Jamal; an overview of his prolific media production; the Faulkner murder and Abu-Jamal’s incarceration, trial, and subsequent appeals; and major issues from scholarly works including history, critical theory, communication, new media studies, semiotics, linguistics, visual culture studies, and critical race studies.

II. National/Public Regulation

The first section focuses on audio recordings of Abu-Jamal’s voice, especially those produced by Noelle Hanrahan in April 1994 on behalf of National Public Radio. In May, NPR decided not to air the commentaries, at least in part because of pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police. Taking institutional, organizational, and interpersonal relationships into account, this chapter questions what affects the production of such recordings, and what effects they might have. Material, embodied relations between bodies in carefully controlled spaces most closely inform the sense of cultural production here.

III. Print, Prison, Ipseity

The second part of the study examines Abu-Jamal’s prolific writings (and, to a lesser extent, the recent book published by Officer Faulkner’s widow, Maureen). Abu-Jamal’s body of work, which includes six books and scores of essays published to date, joins others in literary traditions that include prison literature, journalism, memoir, political philosophy, and cultural and religious history. He writes more, and faster, the closer he comes to a potential death sentence. Faulkner’s book details the murder of her husband, and argues for Abu-Jamal’s guilt, while she endures an interminable wait for closure. The chapter considers an oeuvre as a temporal praxis, rather than an economic process or aesthetic experience.

IV. Genealogy of Hagiographies

This chapter looks online to study how Abu-Jamal and Daniel Faulkner have been produced as cultural figures. In so doing, the study crosses a digital divide that its subjects cannot, since one is dead, and the other imprisoned. Both narratives and conversations about these men take place online, in and around virtual interactions such as searches and remixes, without their access or contribution. by examining digital reproductions and remixes of his image, and of his analog works, the chapter traces conditions of possible relation between Abu-Jamal’s body, body politic, and body digital.

V. Conclusion

This study of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s cultural production cannot comment on his legal status. However, that status makes it possible. Archaeology of the audio and textual artifacts that he produces from prison shows his development of an oeuvre that operates as a temporal praxis, restructuring the systems within which it is generated. Genealogy of his cultural figure online shows how digital media subsume the others, and reveals the interconnectedness of all three media systems. The study contributes to research on prison media production, through a qualitative, microscopic approach. It helps us understand how discourse and poiesis combine with politics to push the limits of communication.



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