Stigma Machines

I have been asked a few times recently to reflect on the concept of stigma machines which is central to my new book, this extract from the concluding chapter (‘Rage against the Stigma Machines”) of Stigma: the Machinery of Inequality offers a little context about the genealogy of this concept in my work.

‘Rage against the Stigma Machines”

An inter-disciplinary consensus is emerging on the ways in which ‘stigma feeds upon, strengthens and reproduces existing inequalities’.[i] What my book Stigma has sought to contribute to this research, is a much more historical and political understanding of stigma as a form of classificatory power, and in particular to supplement the focus on individual experience with a consideration of stigma from the point of view of its production. 

In Stigma, this shift in perspective has been vertical (looking upwards to sites of stigma production) and temporal (taking long views on histories of stigma practices), while focusing throughout on developing a new understanding of stigma as a violent practice of exploitation and social control. In order to track the history of stigma as a history of practices, I researched the etymology of stigma, read classics scholarship, histories of slavery, Imperialism, and colonialism, and the history of capitalist enclosures. Then I read Frank Kafka’s short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1919) and I began to think about stigma as a machine. [See also this earlier blog on the etymology of stigma, and stigma as penal tattoo]

Penal Stigma in the Colony 

 ‘In the Penal Colony’ recounts the visit of a European gentleman scholar-explorer to a French colony in the tropics. The commandant of the colony has invited the explorer to witness the execution of a native soldier. The story is set at the scene of the execution in a desolate sandy valley on the outskirts of the colonial settlement, where the condemned man has been led shackled in thick chains which bind him from collared neck, to wrists and ankles. The narrative centres on the demonstration of a gruesome machine, used to torture residents of the colony to death by repetitively tattooing a sentence into their flesh: ‘whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon the body’.[ii]

The sentence to be inscribed on the bodies of the condemned is programmed into the machine by the officer, the penal colony’s sole judge and executioner. As this particular prisoner has been condemned to death for disobedience and insulting behaviour to a superior, the officer is calibrating the machine to kill him with the words ‘honour thy superiors’. As the officer readies the machine, he explains to the explorer that this ‘ingenious device’ was invented by the deceased former Commandant of the penal colony, and that this ‘procedure and method of execution’ has since fallen out of favour. Indeed, the officer is the only person left in the colony who can operate the machine. The officer describes to the explorer how these macabre public executions used to attract ‘hundreds of spectators’, but neither the new Commandant of the colony nor any of the residents of the colony now feel compelled to attend. Indeed, the officer suspects that the Commandant is deliberately withholding the resources required to repair the increasingly dilapidated machine in order that he might introduce a more enlightened penal system to the colony. Hoping to convince the explorer of the value of this barbaric method of execution, so he might later testify to the Commandant on its behalf, the officer details the workings of the machine in elaborate detail and ‘with great zeal’.[iii]

The machine is made up of three parts: the Bed, a coffin-like wooden cot in which the naked prisoner is strapped, with a felt gag in his mouth ‘to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces’; the Designer, which hangs above the bed and contains the cogs and mechanisms that drive the machine; and the Harrow, a glass armature studded with needles which shuttles between the Bed and the Designer on a steel ribbon tattooing the body of the condemned man. As the body is tattooed by the Harrow it is slowly turned over in the Bed ‘to make ‘fresh space for writing’.[iv] The officer explains that those gathered at the execution are able to ‘watch the inscription taking form’, the needles ‘writing deeper and deeper’ into the flesh until ‘the Harrow has pierced him quite through’.[v]

illustration by Robert Crumb

We discover that within the judicial system of this colony, those condemned to die in the machine are not informed in advance of their pending execution or even of what crime they are alleged to have committed; there is no hearing, and no opportunity to mount a defence. Rather, the officer explains that the ‘guiding principle’ of justice in the colony is ‘Guilt is never to be doubted’.[vi] As he describes, the prisoner only becomes ‘enlightened’ to the nature of their infraction as the sentence is slowly etched into their flesh over a period of twelve hours. As they bleed to death the condemned begin ‘to understand the inscription’, deciphering it through their ‘wounds’. The execution ends when the corpse is ejected from the machine into a pit in the ground.[vii]

‘In the Penal Colony’ has inspired many artists and thinkers, and has been widely deployed as a metaphor for the ‘machinery’ and ‘mechanics of power’.[viii] It condenses several of the themes central to the reconceptualisation of stigma developed over the course of this book: stigma as penal tattoo, stigma as a technology of discipline and punishment, stigma as the machinery of racism, and  stigma as a mechanism for the operations of colonial capitalism. Indeed, from the ‘colony’ of the title onwards, this is a story ‘marked and saturated’ with ‘colonial motifs’.[ix]

This work of civilisation is an enormous and continual butchery

Franz Kafka, a Czech-born German speaking Jew, grew up in a social and cultural context structured by European colonial domination of the globe. Indeed, ‘In the Penal Colony’ was drafted in 1914, at the apex of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ (1881–1914), three decades during which European states (initially through subsidiary companies and third-party franchises) colonialized 90 per cent of the African continent (10 millions square miles or territory, and 110 million subjects), a theft of land, and resources which saw mass indentured labour, enslavement, torture and killings.[x]Atrocities committed by German colonists, who lynched and enslaved people, raped women and girls, and starved entire peoples to death in concentration camps, was widely documented, publicised and debated in German-speaking public life while Kafka was writing. 

When Kafka penned ‘In the Penal Colony’, a debate was raging in the European press about different colonial methods, which ranged between criticism of civilizing approaches ‘which treated the natives with too much leniency’ and criticism of policies which centred on repression, forced labour, torture and ‘extermination’.[xi] Indeed, Kafka would have been familiar with figures such as the celebrity explorer and colonialist Carl Peters, an apostle of Rücklosigkeit (ruthless imperialism) and advocate of ‘machine-gun diplomacy’ who bragged to readers of journals such as The Society for German Colonisation about the barbaric methods employed to subjugate colonised peoples.[xii] Radical German nationalists (the precursors of Nazi fascism) and bellicose racist colonialists like Peters argued that ‘the colonies were fundamentally different moral realms’ where it would be disastrous to apply ‘European’ standards of morality and justice.[xiii]

We know from the detailed research of Kafka scholars that Kafka was intimately familiar with these debates. Indeed, one of Kafka’s favourite Uncles, Joseph Löwy worked from 1891–1902 in the Congo as chief of commercial sections on a railway built by forced labour.[xiv] The colonisation of the Congo, initially an entirely corporate affair led by Belgian King Leopold has been described as ‘perhaps the most convulsive episode ever to take place in African colonial history, and certainly one of the most devastating interventions against a human population on the historic record’.[xv]

There was a highly organised international campaign against Belgian King Leopold’s genocidal activities in ‘the Congo Free State’ (1885–1908) in the first years of the twentieth century, leading eventually to a change of government, with the Belgian State eventually taking formal control from Leopold (as ‘the Belgian Congo’). This scenario of regime change echoes that which frames Kafka’s story, namely from a colonial administration unrestrained in its barbaric use of punishments, to a regime which promises to be more ‘enlightened’. Contemporary reports about Leopold’s Congo, compiled by missionaries and activists, describe it as ‘a state of terrorism’, a ‘death-trap’, a place of ‘bloody barbarities’, killings and mutilations.[xvi] Congo, wrote Mark Twain, is a ‘land of graves, the Congo free graveyard’.[xvii] A speaker in a debate on Congo in the Belgian Parliament in July 1903 concluded that ‘this work of civilisation is an enormous and continual butchery’, involving ‘vampire groups of financial associations’ who wring their profits ‘from the blood and misery of natives’.[xviii]

It was in the midst of colonial propaganda, native uprisings and growing political unease within Europe about bloody methods of torture and oppression in Africa, that Kafka condensed colonial violence into the metaphor of his tortuous stigma machine, yet he was not the first to do so. Machine technology was, as Edward Baptist notes, a popular metaphor for colonial capitalism, which depicted ‘changes as unending progress, change in which machines extracted power from nature and yielded it to human beings’.[xix]   

In his letters, Kafka describes being enthralled by two fictionalised memoirs written by former German Army Officer and colonial explorer Oskar Weber, Letters of a Coffee Planter: Two Decades of German Labour in Central America (1913) and The Sugar Baron: South American Adventures of a Former German Officer (1914). In these colonial adventure stories, Weber describes the ingenious inventions that lubricated colonial extraction in South America, including the mechanical workings of sugar presses designed to twist and turn pieces of sugar cane until they expelled their syrup, and a machine that shelled coffee beans by vibrating them inside a metal drum lined with cotton wool. [xx]  

Alongside these new machines devised to process cash crops from colonial plantation, Weber also details some of the penal machines innovated to press labour from enslaved and/or indentured workers, including stockades and whipping machines.[xxi] Notably, ‘In the Penal Colony’, the officer explains that the native man condemned to die in the machine, was initially punished by being whipped across the face by his captain for sleeping on duty. The officer explains that it was the man’s insolent response to being lashed — ‘Throw that whip away or I’ll eat you alive’ – which has led to his execution. 

In the Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist examines the myth that innovations in machine-technology (such as the cotton gin) increased productivity in Southern US cotton plantations in the nineteenth-century. (Between 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent). Through a detailed examination of the changing management techniques employed on cotton plantations, Baptist evidences that this increase in cotton production was in fact an outcome of more efficient systems for the exploitation and torture of enslaved pickers. In short, it wasn’t ingenious new machines that were responsible for the spectacular increase in cotton production, rather a dramatic increase in physical violence, combined with meticulous systems of record-keeping, transformed cotton pickers into machines. As Baptist notes, ‘For many southwestern whites, whipping was a gateway form of violence … in the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you will find .. every instrument of torture used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,”, burning, even waterboarding.’[xxii]As Baptist concludes, we don’t ordinarily see torture ‘as a factor of production’, but ‘systematised torture was central to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world’.[xxiii] In the early twentieth century, the tortuous management techniques developed to monetize plantation labour in the American South were imported into African by European colonialists as they attempted to turn colonised people into profit-making machines. 

In his research on contemporary sources of ‘In the Penal Colony’, Paul Peters draws our attention to a series of cartoons drawn by Thomas Heine in a 1904 edition of the popular German satirical magazine Simplicissimus.[xxiv] Titled ‘Colonial Powers’, these four illustrations depict the differing techniques employed by European powers in the scramble for Africa. The second illustration in this series, titled ‘That’s how the Englishman colonizes’ depicts an English colonialist, dressed in tweed, force-feeding an African man whisky. The man is held in a giant vice, operated by a soldier, which squeezes gold out of him, while a missionary enlightens him by reading from a Bible. This was Heine’s take on the English colonial mantra of ‘Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation’.

‘That’s how the Englishman colonises’ (So kolonisiert der Engländer). Cartoon from a series  of four on ‘Colonial Power’ by Thomas Theodor Heine published in the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus, 3 May 1904.

If, like the contraption in this cartoon, Kafka’s stigma machine can read as a metaphor for how power is inscribed in bodies, the power in question is colonial power, and the body is the condemned body of the colonised subject. Indeed, Kafka’s machine might be read as a condensed metaphor for the entire machinery of colonialization. A terrifying, extraneous mechanical force that throttles and strangles those caught in its grasp.[xxv] As Silvia Federici notes, it was ‘the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, [that] was the first machine developed by capitalism’.[xxvi] It is stigma machines which are set to work to accomplish to transformation of people into non-human work machines, wringing profits from blood and misery. 

Stigma machines

Stigma examines some of the orchestrated alliances of social forces, mediums and technologies through which stigma power is crafted and activated to govern populations. It has sought to illustrate some of the ways in which stigma power exerts itself, what forms it takes, and how it seeds itself across different scales of social life. In recalibrating our understanding of stigma as a form of power that is entangled with long histories of colonial capitalism, this book seeks to make stigma a more useful analytic tool, a device for thinking more deeply about how power etches itself people as a means of dehumanising and devaluing them. 

The concept of ‘stigma machines’ is intended to open up new ways of thinking about stigma as a punitive apparatus, to allow for richer historical understandings of the meaning of stigma as marks of disgrace or infamy, signs of severe censure or condemnation, which are impressed upon a person. As I imagine them, stigma machines are the mechanisms through which power penetrates bodies; machines of inscription set in motion through concerted efforts in order to immobilise, wound, humiliate, and/or dehumanise those caught within their grasp. The stigma machine is a conceptual device which seeks to directs attention ‘upwards’ and onto processes of stigma production. That is, thinking about stigma as a machine, or rather as a series of machines, forces us to focus on the mechanisms of stigma production, and the instruments through which stigma is impressed upon bodies in order to subjugate them, as stigma is cranked into operation in support of extractive capitalist political economies.

In thinking about stigma as a machinery of inequality, Stigma has sought to trouble individualistic understandings of stigma by developing a more structural understanding of stigma as a classificatory form of power.  Of course, stigma machines take different forms, depending on the governmental and media systems through which they are composed and the specific political and economic requirements of those who assemble and operate them. Sites of stigma production that coalesce in the formation of these machines today include: the institutional forms of stigma politics exercised by states, particularly by politicians, spin-doctors and think-tanks; the stigmacraft engaged by media and cultural industries, including public relations, journalism, news media, advertising, film, television and digital corporations, digital technologies and platforms; as well as everyday stigma interactions, including racist, disablist and misogynistic hate speech in face-to-face and online settings.

 In 2018, the graphic artist Tom Morris and I collaborated to visualise the concept of the stigma machine. Drawing on Kafka and Thomas Heine’s colonial machines, we designed a stigma machine in the form of an animated Gif (see Figure below). Our stigma machine invokes histories of colonial capitalism, but connects these histories to the current global authoritarian (re)turn by highlighting the pivotal role played by digital technologies in the contemporary production of stigma in service of extractive systems of capitalism.  

‘Stigma Machine’, still from an animated Gif made by Tom Morris, 2018.


As the explorer in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ watches the condemned man being strapped into the stigma machine, he admits he is perturbed by ‘the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution’, but he is reluctant to intervene in the abject spectacle unfolding before him. He explains that he ‘travelled only as an observer, with no intention at all of altering other people’s methods of administering justice’.[xxvii] He reminds the reader that this is after all a colony ‘where extraordinary measures’ were undoubtedly needed to keep discipline.[xxviii] Further, he sees the condemned man, ‘a complete stranger, not a fellow countryman’ as a not-fully human, but as ‘a stupid-looking wide-mouthed creature with bewildered hair and face’, ‘a submissive dog’ with ‘blubber lips’.[xxix] However, when pushed by the officer for his views on this barbaric system of justice, the explorer states that he cannot support it. In resignation that this marks the end of the road for his stigma machine, the officer frees the condemned man, strips naked and climbs inside it himself.  However, rather than gradually tattoo its final judgement (‘Be Just’) into the officer’s body, the machine breaks down and jolts out of control, unceremoniously stabbing the officer to death, leaving his head gouged by a spike hanging over the pit.

The gruesome end of Kafka’s story, this image of the machine breaking down and ‘vomiting up its own mechanical innards’, reminded me of the long history of machine breaking in England (and wider Europe).[xxx] A history that Karl Marx described as ‘the strife between workman and machine’ which from the seventeenth-century onwards saw people rise up to destroy shearing machines, threshing machines, power looms and more, as they sought to resist the pauperism effected by land enclosures and the factory system.[xxxi] What people were protesting in breaking machines was the destruction of their lives, livelihoods, and health by machine work. The inhuman effects of which in England were recorded by men like Fredrick Eden in The State of the Poor (1797), and Fredrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), who both detail the crippling disabilities caused by factory work in Lancashire mills. Machine-breaking revolts protested the conversion of humans into work-machines or what Silvia Federici describes as ‘the mechanization of the proletarian body’ itself.[xxxii] People broke machines in protest at their pauperisation and dehumanisation by the capitalist machine.

As historian Peter Linebaugh reminds us, all instances of capitalist enclosure – from ‘the open fields of England enclosed by Acts of Parliament’ to ‘the customs of the sikep villagers of Java’ – have been ‘accomplished by terrifying machines’:  the man-of-war, the steam engine, the cotton gin, threshing machines, plantation whipping machines, and machine guns. [xxxiii] For those caught in the maul of these machines, they are experienced not as technologies of improvement or progress ‘but as hell itself’. [xxxiv]  

The emergence of capitalism as a world system has seen hundreds of years of revolts by people against the machine systems which have sought to dehumanise and enclose their lives. From the seizing and scuttling of slave ships, to continual acts of resistance to the dehumanisation and tortures of plantation labour, enslaved people led machine-breaking struggles for freedom and equality. Most pivotal amongst these freedom struggles, but often still untaught in European history lessons, was the Haitian Revolution (1791- 1804). This two decade revolt saw the enslaved rise up and destroy hundreds of sugar, coffee and indigo plantations, declare freedom from colonial rule, and create a free black state. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot has argued, the Haitian revolution was ‘unthinkable’ because it so decisively broke with the renaissance world-view upon which the stratified hierarchies of human life which underpin the global capitalist world order were built. As Trouillot puts it, it was a revolution by those who had been designated positions at ‘the bottom of the human world’ against ‘Man (with a capital M)’.[xxxv]  This revolution overthrew European colonial capitalism, and the stigma machines assembled to reproduce it. In doing, it fundamentally and irrevocably challenged ‘the ontological order of the West and the global order of colonialism’.[xxxvi] This revolution indelibly shaped the freedom movements of the twentieth century.[xxxvii]

To read on see the rest of this chapter in Stigma


[i] Parker and Aggleton, “HIV and AIDS-Related Stigma and Discrimination: A Conceptual Framework and Implications for Action,” 14.

[ii] Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa Muir (London: Vintage, 2005), 144.

[iii] Kafka, 140.

[iv] Kafka, 140.

[v] Kafka, 150.

[vi] Kafka, 145.

[vii] Kafka, 150.

[viii] Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 138. To give just a few examples of art inspired by ‘In the Penal Colony’; the track ‘Colony’ by post-punk band Joy Division (1980); an Opera written by acclaimed US composer Philip Glass (2000); and` Iranian film-maker Narges Kalhor’s short film Darkhish (2009), in which Kafka’s machine is reimagined as representing the barbarism of contemporary Iranian prison regimes.

[ix] Paul Peters, “Witness to the Execution: Kafka and Colonialism,” Monatshefte 93, no. 4 (2001): 403.

[x] Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa: 1876 – 1912 (London: Abacus, 1995). 

[xi] Anon, “The Rising In German South-West Africa,” The Times, November 14, 1904.

[xii] See Lora Wildenthal, “’When Men Are Weak‘: The Imperial Feminism of Frieda von Bülow,” Gender & History 10, no. 1 (April 1998): 53–77. Peters founded the Gesellschaft für deutsche Kolonisation (Society for German Colonisation) in 1884. 

[xiii] Lora Wildenthal, German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Politics, History, and Culture (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2001), 73.

[xiv] Löwy worked in colonial Panama before being employed in the Congo for decade. He later worked in the German colony of Tsingtau (now Qingdao) in China. For more on Löwy and his influence on Kafka see Anthony Northey, Kafka’s Relatives: Their Lives and His Writing (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1991); John Zilcosky, Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

[xv] Peters, “Witness to the Execution: Kafka and Colonialism,” 403.

[xvi] Quoted in Mark Twain, King Leopld’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (Boston, MA: The P.R Warren Co., 1905), 17. King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905) is a political satire written in the form of a fictional monologue in which Leopold speaks in defence of his actions, it quotes extensively from reports compiled by the Congo Reform Association.  European and American activists exposed atrocities in the Congo Free State to the public through the Congo Reform Association, and the work of writers and artists.

[xvii] In Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (Boston, MA: The P.R Warren Co., 1905), 38.

[xviii] In Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (Boston, MA: The P.R Warren Co., 1905), 41.

[xix] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 81.

[xx] See Zilcosky, Kafka’s Travels; Peter Neumeyer, “Franz Kafka, Sugar Baron,” Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971): 5–16.

[xxi] See Zilcosky, Kafka’s Travels; Neumeyer, “Franz Kafka, Sugar Baron.”

[xxii] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 142.

[xxiii] Baptist, 141.

[xxiv] Heine was the most important satirical German artist of the period, and co-editor of Simplicissius. The archive of this magazine is online here:

[xxv] I am drawing here on Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (London: Earthscan, 2003).

[xxvi] Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, 146.

[xxvii] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 151.

[xxviii] Kafka, 146.

[xxix] Kafka, 140.

[xxx] Connor, The Book of Skin, 39.

[xxxi] Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 287. On machine-breaking see also Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All.

[xxxii] Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, 12.

[xxxiii] Linebaugh p.106

[xxxiv] Linebaugh p.106

[xxxv] Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 77,76.

[xxxvi] Trouillot, 89.

[xxxvii] Trouillot, 81.

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