1. “Moundsville Penitentiary Reconsidered: Second Thoughts on Hyperreality at a Small Town Prison Tour”


Abstract: In 2007, I toured Moundsville Penitentiary, a tourist spectacle that was once—and fairly recently—a working prison. I wrote about the experience as would a journalist, except that my working paradigm was the postmodern theory of hyperreality, which Jean Baudrillard used to describe the complex tensions between reality and illusion. A term of semiotics, hyperreality refers to the disappearance of the referent and its subsequent, oft-replicated simulation. It almost always involves strategically controlled images that distort and conceal true meaning. The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies published my essay in January 2009. Shortly thereafter, many of my libertarian friends and colleagues wrote to ask for clarification or to express their disagreements. In what follows, whether I’m describing hyperreality or speculating about the horror-themed attractions at Moundsville Penitentiary, my principal concern is laying the libertarian foundation for my argument. I do not mean to defend my theories so much as explain them; nor do I insist that my cultural criticism is somehow “the” right way. I simply hope to fill a critical vacuum and to generate conversation not only about the condition of the American prison system writ large, but also about state-run tourist attractions that glorify the history of the sovereign at the expense of real knowledge about human suffering.