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SHAKE IT OFF
The Physiopolitics of Shaker Dance, 1774–1856
A New Yorker cartoon from 1999 shows a little boy in contemporary clothes staring up at a tall man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and an apron. The man stands before a large table, building a smaller table with old-fashioned tools, including a mallet, an awl, a hand-held planer, and a small handsaw. Behind him on pegs are two ladder-backed chairs. The man says to the boy, "No, lad, we aren't movers. We're just Shakers" (figure 1.1).
Playing on the phrase "movers and shakers," the joke is simple enough: Shakers, caught hopelessly behind in their artisanal ways, are not at the forefront of modern business or culture. There's also a gentle pun on "movers" as in "carriers"; Shakers may make furniture, but someone else transports it out into the world. And finally, the cartoon clinches the image of Shakers as apolitical. Not being "movers," they can hardly be thought of in terms of movement politics, and their "shaking" is merely quaint, with no critical thrust whatsoever. This cartoon is a good take on how the Shakers are remembered by contemporary Americans, if at all: as a gentle people uninterested in social change though vaguely pacifist; notable only for their old-fashioned clothes and lovely handmade objects; fossilized in a style of furniture that remains popular; but otherwise, immobile — not least because most of the Shakers are now dead (Blakemore 2017).
Yet the Shakers were originally a radical sect, akin to the American Mormons and upstate New York's Oneida Community in their experimental kinship system, and descended from the British Methodists in the way that they put the feeling body at the center of their religious ceremonies. Indeed, the Shakers had a kind of moving, kinesthetic politics — or politics of movement — in which their liturgical dance performed and embodied a radically gender-egalitarian, asexually generative, and eventually communitarian society. For the Shakers, dance was a method through which to arrive not only at spiritual enlightenment but also at a way of living that contested the hegemony of domestic-marital couplehood under industrial capitalism. I begin this book with them because their history, particularly as it is reflected in the anti-Shaker and apostate literature that emerged almost immediately on their arrival in the United States, offers an archive of coordinated physical activity, however mediated, of reactions to that activity, and of changes to it over time. In the early Shaker and especially the anti-Shaker archive, we can see a late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century embodied sense-method in the flesh, through descriptions of their dances and their eventual adjustment of these dances to what they understood as Anglo-European norms.
Breaking away from the Quakers in England in the late eighteenth century as the Quakers subdued their ecstatic forms of worship, the "Shaking Quakers," or the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as they called themselves, arrived in the United States from Liverpool, England, in early August 1774 with their future leader, Ann Lee (S. J. Stein 1992, 7). Theologically, the Shakers parted ways with other English Protestants by — among other things — insisting on the equality of the female principle in the godhead (they understood Ann Lee as a female Christ), requiring that their members be celibate as a means of controlling worldly temptations and the flesh, and, paradoxically, claiming that worship ought to include the body because God would not disallow, as a means of professing faith, any facility given to man ("W." 1873).
While their theology was radical, it is the Shakers' literal, bodily actions that I wish to focus on in this chapter — locomotions that were neither reproductive nor forward-moving. The celibate Shakers used song and dance as a way of "shaking off" carnal temptations and as an expression of being filled with the Holy Spirit. In a sense, they danced their way out of genital sex and into embodied, holy communion with one another and with God. Originally, this involved erratic and spontaneous movements and dissonant singing: the earliest Shakers danced, sang, and chanted in groups, but each dancer moved according to individual whim, creating what looked to outsiders like chaos. Within roughly a decade of their arrival in the American colonies and after much approbation, the Shakers formalized their songs and dances, about which more below — but this did not garner approval from the rest of the Anglo-American population either.
The history of the early American Shakers, then, is a story of how between their arrival to the North American colonies in 1774 and their reforms in 1787, a small group of people used agitated, discontinuous bodily tempos to mark out their difference from the rest of the world, with the predictable result of being stigmatized. Yet it also eventually becomes a story of how, even though in 1787 and beyond the Shakers imposed on themselves a more orderly rhythm, the terms rather than the degree of their stigmatization changed. My central claims for this chapter are as follows: first, the Shakers make vivid how a particular sense-method, rhythmic dance, "timed" bodies into structures of belonging that both reflected and contested the dominant ones of the era, casting light on the role of timing in the political management of both extant eighteenth-century groups (religions and "civilizations") and emerging nineteenth-century populations (nations, races, genders, and sexualities). Second, when the Shakers responded to racializing and sexualizing stigmas against them by tightly regulating their liturgical movements, they were not accorded the status of whiteness after all; the metaphors by which they were stigmatized and the racial group with which they were affiliated simply shifted. All this ultimately suggests that long-nineteenth-century whiteness itself was a sense-method, one intimately bound up with time.
The Racial and Sexual Politics of Tempo: The "Back" Style
The history of sensibility and sentiment offers the clearest account of how denizens of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were accorded differential abilities to sense, or physically apprehend, their environment and the objects and people in it according to the principle of empiricism, and then to take the time to order those senses into proper emotions, modes of understanding, and forms of affiliation (Schuller 2017). This process was, profoundly, a matter of proper timing. Seventeenth-century debates among Protestant theologians, for example, sought to distinguish the subjects of true Christian feeling and experience from "formalists" who mimicked the outward trappings of religion, and — more importantly for our purposes here — from "enthusiasts" who were dupes of their own response systems, variously troped as imagination, animal spirits, or nerves (Taves 1999, 16). The problem with religious enthusiasm, in a nutshell, was that it failed to subordinate the passions to reason, a process that took time. As Jordy Rosenberg points out, John Locke's critique of religious enthusiasm centered on its claims to immediate knowledge based on sensory input: in Locke's view, according to Rosenberg, enthusiasm "lacks the necessary reflexivity and commitment to duration that is integral to the empirical process" (Rosenberg 2011, 37). Here, the problem with enthusiasm is less the lack of authorized religious interlocutors — mediators — in the transaction between God and believers, and more the alacrity — immediacy — with which input makes claims on the understanding. Rosenberg goes on to claim that Hegel too dismissed enthusiasm as incompatible with the slower tempo of true scientific knowledge, and cites enthusiasm as the eighteenth-century sense that foregrounded "the intersection of knowledge with time" (38). Shakers, along with other ecstatic worshippers, were dismissed by many of their detractors as "enthusiasts" insofar as they represented the danger not only of overly embodied responses to stimuli but also of overly quick ones, of pure reaction-formation and impulse. The stigmatization of enthusiasts clarifies the way that secularism emerged, in part, as a particular temporal regime that demanded pause and deliberation.
The capacity to respond in an ordered and timely way to sensory input distinguished not only proper religious experience and scientific knowledge from enthusiasm but also, by the mid-nineteenth century, "civilized" from "uncivilized" populations. Kyla Schuller's The Biopolitics of Feeling (2017) makes a compelling case that the nineteenth century's ideas about inheritance, evolution, and civilization centered on the body's capacity to receive impressions and to respond to them methodically. First, properly "civilized" subjects would coordinate impressions into considered and meaningful patterns of adhesion with other bodies under the sign of a sympathy coterminous with white subjectivity. Second, according to the Lamarckian theory prevalent at the time, impressions would accumulate over timescales that exceeded the human lifespan under the sign of a development coterminous with white racial health. The proper response to impression, the one that produced sympathy and human evolution, was, like Locke's and Hegel's scientific knowledge, a matter of timing: lesser races were cast as, on the one hand, impulsive, grasping, and overly reactive to impression, and on the other, torpid, sluggish, and impervious to it. Schuller's (2017, 58) trenchant formulation that "biopolitics entails the racialization of temporality" reflects not only the familiar notion that some races are cast as the past of humankind and others the future but also the idea that some bodies emerge as improperly calibrated, temporally speaking, to what touches them, responding too soon or not soon enough. Biopolitics, then, is not only a matter of binding individual bodies into populations with a state-sanctioned past and destiny — thefamous Foucauldian formulation that biopolitics involves the state letting some populations flourish at the expense of others, and that "race" is the mechanism for doing so. It is also a matter of binding bodies to their immediate milieux, to one another, and to the future in ways neither too immediate nor too delayed, and of anathemizing those who are out of step. The early Shakers made this binding process literal in their dances but, try as they might, remained at odds with the normative biopolitical timing of individual and collective bodies.
In fact, the earliest Shakers in the United States were immediately identified as metrically awry. The first anti-Shaker pamphlet published in the United States, the Shaker apostate Valentine Rathbun's An Account of the Matter, Form, and Manner of a Strange New Religion (1781), emphasizes the rhythmic aspect of Shaker worship in ways that became typical in the literature denouncing Shakers, much of which drew directly from Rathbun's account:
They begin by sitting down, and shaking their heads, in a violent manner, turning their heads half round, so that their face looks over each shoulder, their eyes being shut; while they are thus shaking, one will begin to sing some odd tune, without words or rule; after a while another will strike in; then another; and after a while they all fall in, and make a strange charm: — some singing without words, and some with an unknown tongue or mutter; some in a mixture of English: the mother, so called, minds to strike such notes as make a concord, and so form the charm. When they leave off singing, they drop off, one by one, as oddly as they come on; in the best part of their worship, everyone acts for himself, and almost everyone different from the other. (V. Rathbun 1781, 7)
What seems to have disturbed Rathbun so thoroughly was the lack of harmonic or rhythmic convergence, of "rule," in much of the ritual. He recoiled from the Shakers' reliance on an improvised but incomplete "concord" with "everyone act[ing] for himself." Here we see a process of (mis)timing that fails to produce proper adhesion between people, multiplying difference rather than consolidating sameness as proper sympathy would.
Rathbun's grandson Caleb, who remained a Shaker for some time, along with his father, Valentine Rathbun, Jr., would expand on the senior Rathbun's account in 1796, describing the Shakers abusing their young male charges: "They were jirked [sic] each by one leg and one arm, from side to side, across the floor, and violently jammed against the wal [sic], they were next stripped quite naked, and tied with their hands above their heads, and there slapped with a stick, like a pudding stick, for near half an hour; and finally they were loosened in this naked situation, and set to jumping about, the Elders in the mean time running round among them and pushing them over" (C. Rathbun  2013, 4). Here, the punishment echoes Rathbun Sr.'s descriptions of Shaker dance as a matter of jumping, stripping, and nudity. This correlation between Shaker worship and physical cruelty is especially ironic given that a major point of contention between Shakers and the world's people was their pacifism, especially their refusal to fight in the American Revolution (S. J. Stein 1992, 13–14). But it separates them definitively from the civilized, for whom the sympathetic mutual attunement of bodies was understood to mitigate against violence, marking Shakers' physical responses to one another as destructive to rather than constructive of sociability. And rather than an inheritance consisting of impressions passed from body to body across generations, this remark depicts a scene of intergenerational jerking, jamming, slapping, jumping, running around, and pushing that fails to bind the elders to the future of the young, and, by extension, to the destiny of even their own people. It is a literalization of the damage that Shaker celibacy was understood to inflict on the nation.
The Shakers' violence, then, is also an aspect of their lack of a specifically national belonging. Rathbun Sr. writes, "It is impossible to point out any exact form, for they vary and differ and seldom act the same form exactly over again. They chuse to do so, to be singular, lest, as they say, they should be connected with Babylon" (V. Rathbun 1781, 8). At first glance, this "singularity" reiterates Rathbun Sr.'s claim that every Shaker dancer acted for himself, and references the Shaker prohibition of marriage. But it also indexes the early Shaker distrust of rhythmic and harmonic simultaneity. The negative invocation of "Babylon," where humans originally spoke one language, suggests that the early Shakers linked synchrony to evil. A combination of mimesis and repetition, synchrony depends on sameness of sound and regularity of the gaps between sounds, a resolution of acoustic dissonance and temporal disorder into unisonance — a euphony of voices speaking simultaneously. Unisonance, in turn, underlies the fantasy of the nation itself as a bounded and bound population of fellow readers, prayers, and chanters. Indeed, for Benedict Anderson (1982), the nation-form is distinguished precisely by synchrony, by the "meanwhile" time of print culture, specifically newspapers and novels, which are not only read in tandem by citizens but also exhibit multiple storylines taking place simultaneously.
Early Shaker distrust of synchrony is also connected to their refusal of the print culture that, Anderson argues, bound national subjects to one another by fostering a sense of mutual activity across distant spaces. Shakers declined to reproduce their theology and services into materials that could be apprehended by readers who could keep a safe distance from Shaker meetings, which were originally open to the public and understood as recruiting events. Indeed, Shakers mistrusted literacy in general, preferring a pedagogy of musical and rhythmic entrainment. As Etta Madden (1998, 33) has argued, since Ann Lee was not conventionally literate, her predominant mode of "reading" was her interpretation of visions, "people's minds, hearts, and bodies," and the Scripture delivered orally. An apostate writing in 1795 described how Ann Lee "would walk around [worshippers], smile upon them, lay her hand upon their heart, then take their hand and press it upon her own bosom. She would stroke their arms, lay her hand on their heads, and many other things ... all the while she would be singing and chanting forth a strange bewitching kind of incantation, until the person was wrought into a perfect maze" (Anonymous 1795, quoted in Wergland 2011, 18).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beside You in Time"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
1. Shake it Off: The Physiopolitics of Shaker Dance, 1774–1856 27
2. The Gift of Constant Escape: Playing Dead in African American Literature, 1849–1900 52
3. Feeling Historicisms: Libidinal History in Twain and Hopkins 87
4. The Sense of Unending: Defective Chronicity in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Melanctha" 124
5. Sacra/Mentality in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood 158
Coda. Rhythm Travel 187
What People are Saying About This
“Elizabeth Freeman's fierce femme provocation expands contemporary critical thinking about biopower, leading queer Americanist scholarship toward an exploration of the rich potentialities buried within the history of sexuality.”
“Beside You in Time is a singularly powerful meditation on the biopoliticized timing of bodies but also upon the carnal body as an instrument of sociability, a tool for fugitive world-making. Elizabeth Freeman takes discourses and scenes we thought we knew and, by locating them in a context so fresh in conception, brings them to a new dynamic life. Americanists, queer theorists, anybody interested in the state of critical theory after New Historicism: all will be eager to get hold of this field-shifting and necessary book.”