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Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States

by Russ Castronovo

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In Necro Citizenship Russ Castronovo argues that the meaning of citizenship in the United States during the nineteenth century was bound to—and even dependent on—death. Deploying an impressive range of literary and cultural texts, Castronovo interrogates an American public sphere that fetishized death as a crucial point of political identification.


In Necro Citizenship Russ Castronovo argues that the meaning of citizenship in the United States during the nineteenth century was bound to—and even dependent on—death. Deploying an impressive range of literary and cultural texts, Castronovo interrogates an American public sphere that fetishized death as a crucial point of political identification. This morbid politics idealized disembodiment over embodiment, spiritual conditions over material ones, amnesia over history, and passivity over engagement.
Moving from medical engravings, séances, and clairvoyant communication to Supreme Court decisions, popular literature, and physiological tracts, Necro Citizenship explores how rituals of inclusion and belonging have generated alienation and dispossession. Castronovo contends that citizenship does violence to bodies, especially those of blacks, women, and workers. “Necro ideology,” he argues, supplied citizens with the means to think about slavery, economic powerlessness, or social injustice as eternal questions, beyond the scope of politics or critique. By obsessing on sleepwalkers, drowned women, and other corpses, necro ideology fostered a collective demand for an abstract even antidemocratic sense of freedom. Examining issues involving the occult, white sexuality, ghosts, and suicide in conjunction with readings of Harriet Jacobs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Frances Harper, Necro Citizenship successfully demonstrates why Patrick Henry's “give me liberty or give me death” has resonated so strongly in the American imagination.

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From the Publisher
“Liberty and death? Citizenship and necrophilia? The conjunction ‘and’ is shocking and is meant to shock. Russ Castronovo sees American political life as the burial ground of many corpses, literal as well as metaphoric. With ruthless determination he digs these up, examines their tell-tale remains, and, in the process, offers a trenchant critique of some consequences of American democracy.”—Wai Chee Dimock, author of Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy

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Duke University Press
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New Americanists
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Necro citizenship

Death, eroticism, and the public sphere in the nineteenth-century United States
By Russ Castronovo

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2772-4

Chapter One

Political Necrophilia


FREE' DOM, n. A state of exemption from the power or control of another ... exemption from slavery. -Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language

Setting his sights on an intellectual position that would announce U.S. cultural independence from European traditions, Emerson prescribed a revolutionary, if not iconoclastic, nominalism: "Free should the scholar be, free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom." This desire for a citizen whose speech is unpolluted by historical precedent and whose thoughts are unfettered from tacit ideological assumptions, led the author of "The American Scholar" (1837) on a well-worn search for a linguistic utopia where freedom could be mined-theoretically but not experientially-in a pure state. Almost a decade earlier, Noah Webster embarked on a similar journey to claim a pristine political vocabulary. The project of his famous 1828 lexicon was, as his title suggests, the creation of An American Dictionary of the English Language that would cleanse the citizen's tongue of foreign inflection. Despite such intentions to liberate "freedom," the American Dictionary fails to achieve a historicity, its entriesburdened with connotations peculiar to U.S. institutions and racial history. This paradox that seeks to define freedom freely, without regard to prior context, does more than enjoin Emerson's scholar to articulate politics as a tautology: such constraint at the level of the word reveals the material conditions of a freedom that is supposed to have neither history nor context.

The abiding negativity that permeates Emerson and Webster's statements -each searches for a "freedom from"-echoes with the struggle of liberalism to divest political vocabulary of history. While "negative liberty," for commentators like Isaiah Berlin, has typically meant freedom from state interference, in U.S. contexts, claims of an untrammeled freedom depend on the purview of the nation-state. Rather than fall back on English authors, Webster trusts in his countryman John Adams to provide an American definition: "There can be no free government without a democratical branch in the constitution." For the moment, linguistic and political usage were one. The American Dictionary spells out a federal pedagogy, establishing freedom as isomorphic to the juridical origins of the state. Free becomes demonstrable by a state memory that does not bear the weight of antecedence simply because it is believed that history has not yet debauched the United States, that political decay has not outmoded Adams's meaning. A subsequent example garnered from Geoffrey Chaucer is thus reported as "Not in use," while appearances of the word free in John Dryden are made cumbersome by associations with crime and "slavish conditions." Although Adams provides a virtuous context for freedom, other illustrations from U.S. situations are invoked only to be rejected, to say what freedom is not: "Not enslaved; not in a state of vassalage or dependence" defines the adjective free; as a verb, free means "to manumit; to release from bondage; as, to free a slave." Even though Webster collects thirty-five definitions of free and freedom to give his citizen-reader plenty of linguistic liberty, his list nonetheless freights this ideal with overdetermined referents, including "fetters," "restraint," "servitude," and "bondage." The U.S. tongue-despite Emerson's injunction-was hardly at liberty to propose its own definition of freedom. Harmony between lexical and political sense breaks down, signaling that the messy materiality of history has intruded after all. Citizen, scholar, and lexicographer all find that freedom is an unfree concept, alternately elaborated and confined by the untranscended particularities of national culture.

Thinking against Freedom

To think against freedom-the project of this chapter-is to counter a lingua franca that simultaneously empties freedom of cultural specificity and ensconces it in a nationalist framework. This negative genealogy works against prescription even as it privileges a material register too often ignored or derided by definitions of freedom-the terror of the particular. Excavation of material histories buried by modern democratic citizenship, as Marx implies, uncovers the repressed concreteness of political systems: "In democracy the formal principle is at the same time the material principle. Only democracy, therefore, is the true unity of the general and the particular." Under this dictum, however, aesthetics intrude on politics, committing Marx to an ultimate ideal of "true unity" that harmonizes democracy at the risk of overlooking its excluded or forgotten discordances. Yes, formalist construals of citizenship cannot proceed without an equal regard for the context of everyday practices, but nationalist imperatives in U.S. contexts moved away from this "material principle" by limiting political subjectivity to state forms. To the extent that this true unity depends on the state's organizing framework, it precludes the scraps of memory and remainders of experience-the messy materials left over from articulations of freedom and democracy-that do not adhere to the crisp, well-ordered lines of an official, aesthetic history. And for so much of U.S. history, race has been at the center of this mess.

Slavery muddles freedom, yoking it to meanings that interfere with the tautological simplicity of Emerson's definition or self-evident character of Adams's example. Desires for an unencumbered vocabulary endure both in contemporary and nineteenth-century cultural criticism, fueling narratives that theorize a noncultural language of freedom. Efforts to liberate freedom from context encourage abstracted definitions, which eviscerate the possible plenitude of citizenship by making freedom the property of a disembodied and historically impoverished subject. The United States puts an exceptionalist spin on Edward Said's argument that "we need to acknowledge frankly that individual freedoms and rights are set irrevocably in a national context." For once installed in a "national context," U.S. freedom pretends that is has no context: no race, gender, or memory.

This aspiration toward a noncontingent or "free" definition of citizen rights, this longing for a journey back to a virginal liberty, enforces an "ontological cleansing" of the democratic subject. Purged of content, the self seems pristine, verging on recovery of unconditional personhood. For Wai Chee Dimock, this encounter with the "absolute" impoverishes subjectivity, alienating all that is not universal "so that the category of the person can finally be categoric." Not only Emerson and Webster but, as we shall see, a wide range of citizens and noncitizens including white antislavery activists, proslavery apologists, and black abolitionists defined freedom with a nationalized vocabulary devoid of any accretions of memory or context. As set out by "The American Scholar," freedom would then be truly free.

Theoretically unfettered yet conceptually bound, freedom answers to questions of syntax, discarding the texture of semantics as a hindrance. As Dimock explains, liberalism sustains a syntactic subject, one whose being is "generalizable," recognizable to the social order only to the extent of that individual's ability to exist abstractly. Structured by this political syntax, citizens adhere to a lexicon that governs without regard to such "irregular" conditions as institutional location or racial ancestry that particularize subjects. U.S. democracy deploys a freedom that operates above culture, or better yet, makes culture a hindrance to citizenship. Such ecumenical thinking precludes the possibility that the subject instead might be semantic, understood only by urges, remainders, details that diverge from the universal. Clogged with connotations of the past, a semantic subject is made unwieldy by the weight of memory, antecedence, and context. But once ensconced in a language of syntax, as opposed to a language of semantics, freedom has no earthly awkwardness, flitting about effortlessly as both premise and promise.

Reading the Social Contract


Despite Emerson's intention, freedom cannot be forged independent of context. Political subjectivity in the United States bumps up against constraints, made clumsy by its own historical project to narrow freedom to an experience that is at its core vague and unspecific. As theoretical premise, though, freedom displaces politics by relying on a language whose broad tones mute local or particular connotations disruptive of a national definition. The displacement of politics and political subjectivity by freedom becomes evident at historical moments designed to fuse freedom to the nation-state. One particular instance I have in mind is the Fourth of July, 1855, when the antislavery activist Alonzo Miner celebrated his own inability to follow Emerson's dictum and define freedom freely. In a speech before Boston's city officials, Miner basked in a lack of discursive freedom: "We are assembled, fellow citizens, on one of those occasions when an orator is not permitted to select his theme. The occasion itself presents it." Miner is not lodging a complaint; he well understands that freedom demands the policing of discourse. To describe freedom is to ascribe to a language regulated by national imperatives. But as with Webster's performance in the American Dictionary, this Fourth of July address seems awkward in the context of slavery.

Slavery forces embodiment and compulsion on freedom: "Liberty, in the glory of its conception, the partiality of its embodiment, and the imperativeness of its demands, directs our thoughts to-day," states Miner. In the reproving style of a patriotic boast become jeremiad, the peculiar nature of U.S. slavery ravishes freedom, stripping away the innocence of prehistory and subjecting politics to intercourse with institutions. Gone is any hope of Marx's aesthetic unity between formal democracy and the material needs of its citizens. Contact with the brutal affairs of the social world explains freedom's ungainly embodiment. In Miner's words:

Thus far the new-born babe was full of promise. But, alas! its quiet slumbers were soon disturbed by the mutterings of distant thunder. The dark cloud which skirts our southern horizon to-day-nay, by which the whole heavens is being rapidly overcast-was then, as now, charged with forked lightnings.... The door left open, slavery has entered, a harlot, into the temple of liberty, and flaunts her shame in the glare of the noonday sun! Ah! and she is not without progeny! As Abraham of old wickedly welcomed his two sons, "the one by a bond-maid, the other by a free woman," so has our Federal Union welcomed its children, two and two, a slave state hand in hand with a free state.... But let us remember that "he who was of the bond-woman, was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was by promise."

Freedom is a woman with a history, and as Victorian moral codes dictated, no honorable woman wanted a history for her body. Once embodied, freedom acquires sexual identity, the mere having of which opens democracy up to defilement. The charge of harlotry assigns freedom an (im)moral condition, its status no longer unconditional, but mediated by sentimental dictates of purity. Personified after this fashion and intimately located in the citizen's body, politics never outstrips its semantic genealogy to mature as a purely syntactical and generic relation. No longer a social or institutional virgin, freedom associates all too freely with the history of slavery. Even in a masculine guise, liberty is victimized by its own genealogy: the fault of the bondwoman's son is that he is the bondwoman's son. A free progeny, in contrast, has no past, only the as-yet-still-prehistorical sense of "promise." The unfree body sags under the weight of antecedence, while the free citizen knows only the idealization of a future that is still not fleshed out. The bleaker passages in Miner's speech fear that the death of liberty looms on the political horizon. Yet the implication also exists that death is not to be dreaded but welcomed. This macabre urge-much like the conviction that death redeems a sexually dishonored woman-inheres in the particular conjunctions that locate political subjectivity amid sexual and racial exchanges. The longing for the discarnate does more than lodge a bloodless abstraction at the heart of freedom. As CharlesMills contends in The Racial Contract, the problem with "mainstream political theory is not with abstraction itself ... but with an idealizing abstraction that abstracts away from the crucial realities of the racial polity." Building on Carole Pateman's assertion that (men's) civic individuality stems not from a social contract but a "sexual contract" that enforces women's subjection, Mills maintains that white males establish lives of freedom through the civil, social, and biological deaths of nonwhites. Along with recent critiques of citizenship and rights, Mills's argument reveals that airy abstractions legitimate practices that exclude and oppress women, enslave and colonize nonwhites, and dispossess and exterminate indigenous peoples. Thus, for Lauren Berlant, "the rhetoric of the bodiless political citizen, the generic 'person' whose political identity is a priori precisely because it is, in theory, non-corporeal," warrants obsessive embodiments of "American women and African-Americans." This targeting of bodily difference, as Dana Nelson's discussions of craniology and gynecology show, effects equality for those white men accorded full membership in the state. But the freedom shared among the generic subjects of U.S. democracy does not record how its construction depends on the morbid workings of sexual and racial contracts; it is this forgetting that allows for citizenship's naturalization. Disavowal of the repressed matter of the social contract has an insidious double effect: not only does it identify the corporeality of women and minorities as signs of political illegitimacy and civic disqualification but these embodied signs also work inversely to secure, in Robyn Wiegman's words, "the corporeal abstraction accorded white masculinity that underwrites a host of civic entitlements."

Liberal reform projects to redistribute formal equality under the law and other entitlements are flawed because they pivot on appeals to extend abstract freedom to particular bodies denied the privilege of disembodiment rather than on tactics to concretize freedom by making its usage specific, historical, and material. The example of Emerson reveals the failure of remaining within a national idiom that thinks for and not against freedom. As abolitionism roused his reluctant sympathies, Emerson modified his earlier commitment to a wholly syntactic freedom by imagining a definition that could be put into practice. To the 1854 antislavery compendium, Autographs for Freedom, he contributed a poem called "On Freedom," which offers a self-critical meditation on attempts to write poetry in support of black emancipation. The Concord sage recalls a former undertaking to "rehearse / Freedom's paean in my verse," an effort that failed because, as he understands it, abstract political qualities refuse translation to the slave's specific institutional condition. The sticking point is not that slaves may be unfit for freedom; rather, the uncertainty is whether freedom, absolute and unconditional, can be negotiated so that its promise will touch the highly mediated body and being of the slave. Can freedom endure the historical accents of African Americans who give voice to experiences so discordant to white Americans that freedom no longer seems "self-evident" (Continues...)

Excerpted from Necro citizenship by Russ Castronovo Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Wai Chee Dimock
Liberty and death? Citizenship and necrophilia? The conjunction 'and' is shocking and is meant to shock. Russ Castronovo sees American political life as the burial ground of many corpses, literal as well as metaphoric. With ruthless determination he digs these up, examines their tell-tale remains, and, in the process, offers a trenchant critique of some consequences of American democracy.
author of Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy

Meet the Author

Russ Castronovo is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Miami. He is the author of Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom.

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