The Gossip of Flames: Becoming Opposite Equals in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . always a breed of life.

In today’s lecture, I am going to address two seemingly simple questions:

1. How does Whitman’s poetry work in “Song of Myself”?

2. What does Whitman’s poetry mean in “Song of Myself”?

I believe that the answer to the first question, how does it work, is crucial to understanding the answer to the second question, what does it mean, perhaps as much as for any poet before or after Whitman. As we have progressed more than halfway through “Song of Myself”, we have all noticed that Whitman does not shy away from incorporating big questions, about good and evil, life and death, sexual ecstasy and brutal violence.

My more specific interpretive question revolves around the lines in my epigraph above, namely, the theme of “opposite equals,” the way they are “knit” together into a singular “identity.” The theme is a challenging one in Whitman, although one that his reader’s often avoid without knowing. It is challenging not simply because it is an abstract philosophical paradox, like those found in the Tao Te Ching that many of you read last semester; it is challenging because it is a very concrete problem in a country riven by strife, strife that will soon erupt into the bloodiest war in American history. Whitman is aware of this challenge, and his Leaves of Grass is a response to it, not just in its content, but in the very form of the poem itself.

To give a précis of the argument: the form of Whitman’s poetry is metonymic, building disparate connections into a grander whole, and this metonymic form reflects and performs a knitting together of opposites in a manner that avoids an attitude of resentment toward life and argues for embracing flux and change—becoming—over static forms of identity—being. In the next section, we’ll deal with the metonymic nature of Whitman’s poem.

Ansel Adams, Grass Meadow, Late Evening, Yosemite Valley (1944)

I. And, And, And, And; or, How Whitman’s Poetry Works

Flip to section [31]. Don’t focus too closely yet, but simply look at the form the poem takes here. Zooming out, the pattern is easy to see, and with just a little more work we can quantify it: starting in section [30], Whitman starts 14 out of 16 verses with the word “And.” Immediately thereafter, he starts another 9 lines with the phrase “In vain.” What is going on here? To answer this question, we need to first think a little more deeply about how language itself works to see how Whitman’s language here is working on us.

In his famous 1956 essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson identified two poles of language: the metaphoric and the metonymic.

“The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The METAPHORIC way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the METONYMIC way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively.” (Fundamentals of Language, 90)

Jakobson identifies these two poles that govern the movement of language by looking at a medical disorder, aphasia. Or rather, two medical disorders, each caused by organic trauma to different areas of the brain (think: a railroad spike through the head, like the famous Phineas Gage), and which prevented people from using either metaphor or metonymy when they spoke. It’s quite fascinating, and Jakobson discusses how it relates to art and poetry as well; you can find the essay and read more about it online just by googling it.

In any case, metaphor equates things together, building an identity or equivalence between different things; metonymy links different things that are close together. Metaphor stacks meaning vertically; metonymy moves sideways. The example Jakobson gives is a word-association test: you say the word “hut.” A metaphorical response, which builds an identity: “is a poor little house”; a metonymic response, which brings in contiguous associations: “burnt out” (91).

But let’s take an example from Whitman, the end of [26]. Here, in about half a page or so, we go from “the echo of sunset” to the “orbic flex of [a tenor’s] mouth” to whirling “wider than Uranus flies” to “bare feet … licked by the indolent waves” to “the puzzle of puzzles/And that we call being.” That is an amazingly long journey, and I skipped several steps. This ever expanding movement outward is characteristic of Whitman’s poetry. The poet chains together long, seemingly divergent descriptions, such as the long section [33], which starts a line with “Where” 35 times and “I” 22 times. As if free associating, Whitman moves from place to place, person to person, idea to idea, ever onward.

It is characteristic, and it is appropriate. This aspect of the form of Whitman’s poetry is part and parcel of its content. It embodies his broader democratic project: “I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy” [24]. In essence, Whitman is arguing that to be the poet of America, as Professor Vollrath’s lecture showed he most certainly aspires to be, is to engage in a project of radical, ever-expanding inclusion. This is where the central image of leaves of grass comes in; the leaves of the book are also leaves of grass. Grass is an organism with no true center, a single entity yet infinitely complex and connected with the world around it. Grass grows through the middle. Every blade of grass is similar, yet slightly different; out of all those little differences emerges one greater whole, but a whole that, despite being made of similar but different parts, presents an aspect of diversity, of non-uniformity. As Whitman famously says in section [6]:

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Yet it is also precisely in this moment that the problem, the difficulty in what Whitman is attempting emerges. How can you reconcile black and white in a nation that will, in less than a decade, fit a war over slavery? Is such a reconciliation even desirable?

Paul Klee, In the Grass (1930)

II. The Plenum of Proof; or, What Whitman’s Poetry Means

I hear the bravura of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . . gossip of flames . . . . clack of sticks cooking my meals. [26]

Let us put this problem as sharply as possible: if the master and the slave are opposites equals, is Whitman’s attempt to knit the two together into a single identity not an\ violence to the latter and an apology for the former? Should we, in fact, choose not to knit the slaveholder into the poem of America?

Receiving black folk and white alike sounds good in the abstract, but Whitman characteristically does not allow it to remain abstract. He is talking about real people, with real problems, who he wants to find the best in, each and every one. From section [16]:

One of the great nations, the nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth.

A Southerner as soon as a Northerner, and a planter at that. Whitman constantly does this, balancing one perspective with another, opposing perspectives, not letting one predominate; this includes his references to slavery. Take the following lines from section [8] of “The Sleepers,” another poem in Leaves of Grass: “The call of the slave is one with the master’s call . . . . and the master salutes the slave.” Now, I’m not going to answer the question of whether or not Whitman is successful in what he attempts here, but I would like to come back to something I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, about how readers of “Song of Myself” have a tendency to internalize the things they like and ignore or avoid the things they don’t. Whitman is aware of this desire to avoid the unpleasant, to exclude it from the realm of life, to cut it out of his song. Death, shit, the stench of unwashed bodies, semen, blood, gore, venereal disease, pain, smallpox scars, suicide, what Whitman calls in a later poem in Leaves of Grass, “The Body Electric” is also at the same time for the poet the body electric broken. Maimed. Diseased. Murdered. Enslaved.

Whitman refuses to avoid this truth, and he is not ignorant of its consequences. The streets of New York City that he roams as a “rough” are the streets of Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), the streets that will explode into the racial violence and lynching of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. This is the America in which Senator Charles Sumner will be brutally beaten on the Senate floor by a southern Representative offended by his abolitionist politics and where Bleeding Kansas has already begun. Whitman’s expansive vision of American inclusion is not in spite of this violence, it is because of it. Whitman knows the world he lives in, and he makes sure to punctuate his song of himself with it so that the reader cannot forget it. “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” [6]. Perhaps this is why he warns us early on about becoming intoxicated in the sensuous world he confronts us with as well [2].

In short, Whitman’s inclusion of the Southern planter is a conscious choice, a choice that is not secondary to his project, but central to it. Why? I think there are two answers to this question, two philosophical objections that Whitman has to such an exclusion. The first is general: rejecting any part of life builds in a resentment toward the present, a hatred of the world as it is that Whitman believes is the root of violence in the first place. The second is both general and specific: Whitman’s ultimate ethical principle is that the world is not static, but changing. To exclude any one thing does so on the basis that it could not become otherwise; it locks identity in place, and presupposes that meaning, and the world of meanings, cannot change. That is precisely what the poet does not want to happen; indeed, poetry itself is for Whitman the making-happen of that change. Whitman is a visionary of America, of America as a series of potentials, not free of violence, but open to change.

Ansel Adams, Grass and Pool, Sierra Nevada (n.d.)

i. Resentment

One of the constant imperatives of “Song of Myself” is that the “least” will not be excluded, and in the imperative to include the “least” is the argument that they are not the “least” at all. Thus, the negative eulogy (“Nor”, “Nor”, “Nor,” &c) at the end of section [43] begins with “I cannot fail …” and concludes with “Nor the present, nor the least.” I cannot fail the present, nor the least. This is the necessary conclusion of the shocking statement at the beginning of the poem, that there “will never be any more perfection than there is now” [3]. We could multiply examples of this gesture in Whitman, that of the perfection of the present moment, ad infinitum. But before we get to the why of this perfection, let’s think about the what of it, What are it’s implications?

It seems that what Whitman is arguing against here is a certain attitude toward life, one that sees the world as it is and can only see its flaws and failures. This attitude is what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would later call ressentiment in his work On the Genealogy of Morality, which we often read in The Human Situation. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by authors such as Emerson, and we can see a strong affinity between Whitman’s argument for the perfection of the world and Nietzsche’s critique of an attitude of resentment toward life, of a way of perceiving the world as imperfect, fallen, broken, flawed, disgusting and only redeemable if fundamentally changed. Far from such an attitude being an accommodation to the status quo, with all its flaws, Nietzsche saw as the root of those flaws this resentful attitude toward life, a hatred of the world. The following lines from [22] would fit just as well in Nietsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:

What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Ultimately, the question is, how do we understand what Whitman means by perfection? In the logic of section [3], is it that the slavery is also a form of perfection, or is that the slave is as perfect of a being as everyone else? The former is an apology for domination, while the latter is a radical vision of equality, a revolutionary vision. I think it is almost certainly the latter, and to offer some proof we will turn to another philosophical concept that comes after and is inspired by Whitman’s poetry, that of the precedence of becoming over being, of flux and change over static identity.

ii. Becoming

Let’s finish these musings up with a return to the question of metaphor and metonymy and the extended section of the poem on a runaway slave. Of course, even poetry which is predominantly metonymic still involves metaphors; the two poles of language are ultimately inseparable, so our analysis is interested in which one predominates and what effects that predomination has. Take the following passage from section [33].

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me . . . . crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence . . . . my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses and haul close,
They taunt my dizzy ears . . . . beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

One objection to my insistence on metonymy, of building linkages between disparate elements, of slippage, connection, and cataloguing (Professor Vollrath again), is that there is one statement that reigns over the poem, and that statement is the ultimate metaphoric statement: “I am ….” Indeed, we see it in the above passage, whose very premise we might question: what is the ethical right of Whitman, a white man, to pretend to understand, much less inhabit, the suffering of a runaway slave? Is this not an unconscionable appropriation of that experience?

Perhaps. But I think that Whitman’s use of “I am” is much less metaphoric than it seems at first. Even in the passage above, look how it changes from beginning to end:

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person.

The twentieth-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued that Western thought has been obsessed with the question of pinpointing the nature of things-in-themselves (being), and that this has obscured the fundamentally fluctuating, changing nature of those things (becoming). In short, when we focus on the nature of what things are, we necessarily foreclose the basic fact that they can become different. We focus on objects, and not the relations these objects have to everything else around them. Whitman, despite his focus on the “I am,” seems much more interested in the question of flux, change, and becoming, of the relations between different parts of the world rather than their identity. In fact, the sheer profusion of “I am” proves this: no one person can be all these things, but one person can become connected to them, can write them into their poem. In the passage on the runaway slave, we see this philosophical transmutation happen in the words themselves, from being to becoming. I think this is the wager that Whitman is making, that a poetics of radical inclusion is ultimately one that does not colonize the world with the ego of the poet and lock it in place, but one that allows the poet, the reader, and thus the world to become something other than it is, something perfect in the same manner as before, but with a difference. As Whitman says later in the poem:

These become mine and me every one, and they are but little,
I become as much more as I like
. [36]

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Wild Geese and Autumn Grass (detail, 1845)

Belonging in Locke: The Other Side of the Compact


I. A merchant in Venice, but not of it, in which it is argued that to understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions, by way of the social exclusions in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

II. The Other Side of Reason, in which a list of Locke’s exclusions is presented with reference to the text, then reduced to an argument apropos which exclusion is more fundamental, that of the slave or that of the madman

Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500)
Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500) (#)

I. A merchant in Venice, but not of it

But even during the kingdom of Christ those people who do not belong to the community of believers, who do not love him, and whom he does not love, stand outside this tie.

—Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (#)

What does it mean to belong to a community? Our theme for the semester seems to naturally invite a sort of utopian thinking about the question, a subtle rephrasing of the question in our head from What is belonging? to What would belonging look like in an ideal society? Luckily, we began our semester with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Why luckily? Because for all of its flaws, The Merchant of Venice will not let us come to any easy conclusions about what is at stake in the question of belonging. We have to remember, that for all its darkness, that the play is a comedy. As our introduction notes, many of the things we find deeply uncomfortable about the play would have been the crowd-pleasing punchlines for its original audience—and for centuries after is debut on the Elizabethan stage.

Even with critics’ most generous reading and even with great actors’ most sympathetic performances, that the play’s representations of Jewish people and Jewish life are antisemitic is difficult to argue, and very few scholars even try. Yet it is hard to imagine that even in Shakespeare’s day it was anything but a very dark comedy, unless the actor played Shylock as a complete and total buffoon. Even then, the comedy already has a clown, and the pathos in many of his lines is undeniable.

In the end, there is always a dark monster stalking this play, one crying out for a grizzly pound of flesh amidst the marriage plots, cross-dressing, role inversion, and daughters being stolen from under their fathers’ noses, living or dead. That the play still has much to teach a modern audience, at least if we are sufficiently inoculated against its racist tropes beforehand, is evinced by its continuing life on the modern stage. Indeed, many famous Jewish actors have played the role on the contemporary stage, and there is even a very interesting academic work on this topic, Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice.

I think that this is because Shakespeare’s play not only deals with the world as it was, it still continues to reflect the world as it is today. For us, it can no longer be a dark comedy; after the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, the only way we can read The Merchant of Venice today is as a tragedy, with Shylock as it’s hidden protagonist and the minefield of its social divisions a challenge to our own society today.

Ultimately, Shylock simply does not belong. Shylock is a merchant in Venice, but he is not not a merchant of Venice. Indeed, we somewhat shockingly learn that he is literally an “alien” (IV.1.347), an outsider who is tolerated but not included. And it is this status as an alien that is the key to Portia’s counter-charge of murder against him: “It is enacted in the laws of Venice/If it be proved against an alien/That by direct or indirect attempts/He seek the life of any citizen,” etc, etc. (IV.1.346-349, emphasis added). In Shylock’s dispossession at the end of the play and his quiet, unceremonious exit, all of the exclusions of Shakespeare’s world are on display: men vs. women, Christians vs. heathens, citizens vs. foreigners, rich vs. poor, old vs. young, and so on all down the line. The play of these divisions defines who belongs in this society, and while some exclusions are renegotiated in the play (men/women and old/young, most notably), others are reinforced and define what makes the happy ending at the end of this comedy happy indeed, a vision of the (new) good life. Shylock, in the end, does not belong.

One thing that the Merchant of Venice can show us, at least obliquely, is how exclusions can nevertheless serve an important social function. In short, the rise of capitalism in the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance would not have been possible without Shylock, or at least the service he provides. Over the next few centuries, the class represented by Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia would change the entire political and economic structure of the continent, and ultimately the world. The rise of the capitalist class would go on to overthrow the aristocratic political structures of Europe, and the lending of money at interest that is so repugnant to Antonio—and the economy of debt, risk, and reward that it enables—is indeed a necessary prerequisite. Since Roman antiquity, this kind of market activity was looked on with aversion by aristocrats—Senators were notably prohibited from engaging in the merchant trade, but did so by proxy and with gusto in any case—much as Antonio does. While members of the diasporic Jewish communities scattered across Europe often concentrated in banking, trade, and portable luxury goods (diamonds, etc) out of necessity, i.e., because they were often prohibited from owning property/land outright, denied citizenship (Shylock’s status as an alien), and were subjected to periodic pogroms and expulsions (during which it helps if you can pack up all your valuables in a relatively small space, something you cannot do with a landed estate but you can do with money, diamonds, etc). In other words, Shylock is excluded at least partially for his role in the community (lending money at interest), even though that very activity is the driver of the wealth that citizens such as Antonio are thriving upon.

So, then, if we are going to take the lesson of The Merchant of Venice, we must ask ourselves: where can we see these exclusions in Locke’s Second Treatise, and what do they tell us about the type of society he is trying to form. There are two points we need to keep in mind while doing so: First, is this exclusion necessary or contingent? If we removed it, would Locke’s argument still follow? Second, that the primary movement of Locke is a movement of radical inclusion; what does this mean for the very question of the social compact? Do all groups depend on some exclusion, as Freud, a Jew already concerned about the stirrings of proto-fascism in Germany at the end of The Great War, would have it in our epigraph above?

Let’s treat the second of these first. Locke’s call for equality is radical. Full stop. Locke was writing in, about, and for a society so structured by aristocratic rule that even after cutting off the head of their king, they ended up inviting another king to return because they they couldn’t figure out what to do with themselves (a gross oversimplification, but with a grain of real truth).

The execution of King Charles I, contemporary German print from the National Portrait Gallery (London), “The most abhorrent outrageous execution, performed on the most serene and most grandly powerful Carl Stuart, king in Great Britain, France and Ireland etc. in London before Whitehall Palace, Tuesday 30 January [Julian] / 9 February [Gregorian] in the year 1649, between 2 and 3 pm,”

With regard to arguing for the political empowerment of all men, he professed not just a radical equality, but a right to seize that equality via revolution if it was denied. While we will not be reading the final chapter of the treatise, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” it is perhaps the most important political writing of the modern world, after which revolution after revolution will follow its blueprint, more often than not explicitly invoking it; Locke’s words echo, literally, throughout the writings of the American Revolution, as just the one instance most pertinent to us.

His critique of paternal power (chapter six), is another example of this. His insistence on the separation of powers is not just for branches of government; it is more fundamental, and extends to the most intimate social relations: “these two Powers, Political and Paternal, are so perfectly distinct and separate” (§71). While probably women and definitely children are excluded from full political equality, Locke’s rationalization of the bases of paternal power and separation of it from a vision of nested political power are, relative to Locke’s time, a massive increase in the power of both. For Locke, the father is not the king of his own castle; there are no tyrants in the home (but cf. Shylock and Jessica). Rights, grounded in natural law, extend to women and children. A notion that seems obvious to us now, but only because theorists such as Locke made it so. Even his theory of punishment, seemingly brutal to us insofar as he argues that it is justified to kill a mere thief, is enlightened for the time and holds the seed for the penal reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, Locke lays the groundwork for the Enlightenment, universal human rights, and the democratic revolutions of the centuries to come. A heady achievement in the realm of political theory.

Which leads us back to our first point to keep in mind: whether the exclusions that Locke does deploy are necessary or contingent. This brings us to the heart of our argument in this essay, but we needed to emphasize Locke’s radically equalizing philosophy first, lest we be lead astray. It is necessary to recognize what and how Locke includes to see what is at stake in what he excludes. As a consequence, if his exclusion is contingent (the byproduct of someone writing 350 years ago), we could revise Locke and simply extend natural law to that excluded group. But if it is necessary, we would need to abandon Locke’s system and begin to think of new and more appropriate foundations for our social compact. Even then, though, Locke at least gives us the right to revolution, to choose our own path, unbeholden to a time immemorial.

II. The Other Side of Reason

Which brings us to our argument: what is the fundamental exclusion for Locke? Here are our candidates: animals, criminals, foreigners, native peoples, slaves, the earth, children, madmen, women, servants. Here is their order of appearance:

Madmen60“Tutor,” “Parents”
Wife (woman)82Husband

Now, let us go ahead and reduce this list from those who are partially excluded to those who are totally excluded from the social compact. Aliens (foreigners) and native peoples (Indians) can both enter into compacts, or have their own compacts; criminals can reenter the compact, children can age into the compact, the compact applies to women (even if their status is unclear at this point), and servants are definitely governed by it. “The Earth” is a strange edge case that we’re going to put aside along with animals, whose exclusion is important but whose inclusion is impossible, according to Locke’s standards. (Feel free to argue about any of these choices in your discussion section!) That leaves us with two categories of individuals structurally excluded from the social compact, the slave and the madman.

At first glance, it seems that the slave is the most fully excluded from the social compact. Indeed, the exclusion of the slave is explicitly framed in this fashion, not only in the chapter on slavery, but in chapter VII on Political Society: “These Men [slaves] having, as I say, forfeited their Lives, and with it their Liberties, and lost their Estates; and being in the State of Slavery, not capable of any Property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of Civil Society” (§85). The whole logic of the social compact is structured by slavery: the slave is the one who violates the law of nature, by planning to murder or enslave someone, and is the reason that men (yes, just men for now) join together and enter a compact in the first place. No need for slavery = no need to enter the social compact. It’s not that you cannot have one without the other, it’s that you do not need one without the other. And in fact, if we recognize that property, and the regulation thereof, is the fundamental tenet of Locke’s system, then it makes sense that slavery, an extreme from of property in humans, is the ultimately exclusion from a system based on property. This is the reason that a person “cannot, by Compact, or his own Consent, enslave himself to any one” (§23). Locke’s system seems to break without slavery.

Or so it seems. My more general argument is that to understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions. But my more specific argument here is that ultimately, it is the figure of Unreason that defines the outside of Locke’s social. It is the figure of the madman, and not the slave, that is more fundamental.

To understand Locke’s system, or indeed any society, we must understand (i) what it excludes, and (ii) how that exclusion functions.

The central reason is that the border between slave and citizen is permeable, but the one between madness and citizenship is not. Locke explicitly tells us that “Slavery ceases, as long as the Compact endures” (§24), and the introduction of any compact ends slavery. While slavery might be structurally necessary, it is not permanently excluded. A slave may become a member of the community once again. This is not possible for anyone lacking reason: “And so Lunaticks and Ideots are never set free from from the Government of their Parents … Madmen, which for the present cannot possible have the use of right Reason to guide themselves, have for their Gude, the Reason that guideth other Men which are Tutors over them” (§60). Locke makes this equation between reason and freedom quite explicit: “But if through defects … any one comes not to such a degree of Reason … he is never capable of being a Free Man” (§60) and “Thus we are born Free, as we are born Rational” (§61). My emphasis here is, of course, on the word “never.”

Moreover, the logic of this exclusion runs throughout all the other exclusions. Children are only born “to” equality, not “in” it because their reason only develops as they age (§55). Animals are excluded because they have no capacity for it, servant’s contracts are limited (and they lose no rights therein) because they enter into them because of it. And if we look closely, we can see that slaves only become so because they are, in effect, momentarily without reason when they violate the natural law, which is structured by reason, and either violate the social compact if it already exists or cause it to be entered into if it does not yet exist. Choosing to make war is, structurally, a moment of madness for Locke, ephemeral like the moment of force in which a person may defend themselves from a criminal.

Thus, unreason is a necessary structuring principle for Locke’s society, whereas slavery is a contingent one. And if we excluded slavery from Locke’s social compact and replaced it with, say, the same punishment that a criminal receives, it would seem to work just as well (a close reading of the 13th Amendment to our constitution is instructive here). Indeed, even criminal punishment per se might be unnecessary, as long as we could achieve reparations and deterrence in some other way; in other words, if we could find another rational basis for the purpose of criminality.

But there is no alternative rationale for rationality. Now, none of this is to apologize for Locke’s inclusion of slavery in his system; he bears real responsibility for that atrocity, not just as a government minister, but as the person who wrote the first constitution for the Carolinas based on slavery (see the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina). Nevertheless, the question of rationality—what reason means, how it functions, who has it, who doesn’t, when someone has it or doesn’t—is ultimately what seems to structure who belongs, and who can never belong to Locke’s social compact. Those who are excluded from reason, and the history of that exclusion, is still central to our political life today.

Recap: MLA 2012

This year’s MLA saw me organizing a panel, instead of presenting on one like last year. The panel was entitled, “Nineteenth-Century American Sentiment, Radical or Otherwise,” and was dedicated to featuring current scholarly work in the field of nineteenth-century sentimental American literature. Of course, this panel reflected many of my own interests, particularly the last section of my dissertation which deals with sentimental fiction and its relation to the culture that surrounded it (a post on finishing my dissertation is part of the backlog I mentioned before, though I did manage to get up a table of contents).

My goal for the panel was two-fold. First, I wanted to feature papers that dealt with the political nature of sentimental literature in the period, with a particular eye toward its use in the radicalization—or otherwise—of its readers. Second, I am interested more broadly in accounts of sentimental culture which are at once more complex and more specific. I believe that scholars all too often judge the political implications of sentiment from the perspective of the present, using criteria unavailable to most individuals of the era being judged. Along these lines, each of the papers articulated areas in which a nuanced vision of sentiment illuminates the complex cultural situation of the nineteenth century.

The first paper was given by Kevin Pelletier of the University of Richmond, and was entitled “‘Can Fear of Fire Make Me Love?’: Nineteenth-Century Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” He argued Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous injunction to “feel right” is often read too narrowly, focusing on a single class of sentiments defined by love, compassion, and sympathy at the expense of a whole other class defined by fear. However, as is obvious in Stowe’s texts themselves, nineteenth-century sentimentalism had profound misgivings about the ability of love alone to do the work that many scholars claim for it, i.e., the forging of social bonds, often outside the confines of received class, gender, and racial roles. Thus, visions of an apocalyptic God, with all their attendant sentiments of fear and terror, were regularly employed to buttress love and transform those recalcitrant to its righteous powers. In this regard, he juxtaposed David Walker’s Appeal and its invocation of apocalyptic sentimentalism to Stowe’s use of a similar discourse in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Between the two, we not only see an important expansion of which forms of affect are included in ‘the sentiments,’ but an important connection to a theological discourse which viewed fear and love not as antagonists, but as necessarily complementary forces. It also demonstrates how and why Walker’s situation lead him to form “[h]is own theory of sentiments” as a necessary political tool with regard to often less-than-sympathetic white audiences.

Second was Leslie Petty’s “‘Every woman … should raise her voice’: Rethinking White Women’s Activism in William Wells Browns Clotel.“ While following upon similar themes, it shifted them into the register of early African-American fiction. Using as her touchstone William Wells Brown’s 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, she argued that Clotel undertakes a conscious recasting of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The text’s heroine, Georgiana Peck Carlton, constructs a less passive role for white women’s activism in antebellum America. Going beyond the politics of ‘indirect influence,’ she not only presents an alternate model of feeling for contemporary readers, she also demonstrates how sentimental tropes and characters could and were taken up and redeployed beyond the confines of what was deemed socially acceptable. In Clotel’s rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see divergent discourses—slave narrative and sentimental novel—stitched together to form something new, which nonetheless relied upon the power of both its original genres. As Petty notes, “it is in his depiction of this white activist heroine that Brown most consciously critiques white female abolitionists … even while he acknowledges their importance and imagines ways that their activist impulses can be translated into immediate, fundamental reform … by imagining a white woman who both ‘feels right’ and does something about it.”

Finally, April Davidauskis’s  presented a paper which attempted to call into question the very terms of the debate over sentiment’s radical or conservative penchant. Her “Deemphasizing Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century American Culture” used E.D.E.N. Southworth’s popular, roguish heroine Capitola Black to analyze “how the gendering process works for women beyond sentimentality, yet within normativity” in the nineteenth century. With a wink at Sarah Palin, she invoked such roguish figures as Gothic heroines, protagonists in romances of the U.S.-Mexico war, cross-dressing women, actresses, activists, and performers to demonstrate how, in her view, “scholars have overemphasized sentimental culture in order to understand not only what ‘women’s culture’ is, but also to limn out the terms of normative feminine identity.” Focusing the terms of the debate on sentiment not only obscures these other possibilities, Davidauskis argued, but may make identities that were normative at the time look more radical than they actually were.

In addition to posing questions for each of the panelists, I also attempted to distill some commonalities in my response to these three papers. Though divergent in many respects, I found that each of the texts manifested the increasing complexity of the concepts which govern our discussion of the sentimental and the sentiments. Indeed, each paper could be seen as bringing to light a contemporary critique of what it means to “feel right” as a political act. They echoed Cindy Weinstein’s warning against “monolithic and consistently pernicious account[s] of sympathy” which “[fail] to take into account the extraordinarily rich and ideologically diverse debate about sympathy that was taking place in the antebellum period” (link). Just as David Walker formulated ‘his own theory of sentiments’ with particular political goals in mind, different discourses of sentiment abounded at the time. From mesmerism and animal magnetism, to the medical discourse of the nerves, to handbooks on female conduct, multiple cultural discourses competed to inculcate the proper ways of knowing, acting, and feeling about the world. Indeed, it may be that what all these discourses show is how the sentimental itself is probably neither radical nor conservative in and of itself, but a battleground upon which various tactics and strategies play themselves out. Returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s injunction to “feel right,”  I concluded by arguing that, in the debate over sentimental culture, we have placed too much emphasis on the feel and not enough on the right.

Recap: MLA 2011

The panel I was on at the MLA, “The Global American South in the Nineteenth Century,” turned out to be quite interesting, as I expected it to be. The four presentations (three papers and Caroline Levander’s response) all focused on the antebellum South, yet they all diverged in interesting ways. (Thanks especially to Lloyd Pratt for putting it all together.) I’ll treat each in the order they were presented.

My paper, “An Archaeology of Slave Management: From ‘The State of War Continued’ to ‘No More Beautiful Picture of Human Society,’” was comprised of three components. The first was a juxtaposition between the colonial regime of slavery and the humanist one which emerges in the mid-eighteenth century and continues up until (and probably extends across) the Civil War. The second was a distillation of slave management discourse from the humanist regime, whose three principles are the moderation of the body, the cultivation of sentiment, and the inculcation of habits. The final section was an argument to the effect that we need to read slave narratives in the context of these, quite literal, master narratives, using Frederick Douglass’s Narrative as an example, and arguing that Douglass takes great pains to refute these specific principles of humanist slavery.

Sarah Lahey’s paper, “An Englishwoman in the South: The Global Politics of Race in Fanny Kemble’s American Journals,” examined a divergent example of what I referred to above as master narratives. Kemble, an Englishwoman who was critical of slavery in fraught and varying degrees, wrote the journals in question from 1838 to 1839, but was forbidden by her husband, whom she later spectacularly divorced, and only published them later in 1863 as an intervention into the Civil War against slavery. Lahey argues that Kemble’s journals serve to deconstruct the black/white binary that was, and to a great extent still is, the dominant paradigm of interpretation for race in America. Particularly in her triangulation of the relation between white elites, black slaves, and Irish immigrants and poor whites, she teases out the way Kemble’s global perspective cannot be contained within the dominant racial ideology, whether the ideology of the past or the present.  As she concludes, “Kemble might not offer as much insight into the diverse contours of the black community, but her transatlantic vision does provide one of the earliest deconstructions of the white race as a racial entity in antebellum America.”

Matthew Sandler’s paper, “‘Too-Wit’: Poe’s Southern Political Aesthetic in Latin America,” returned us to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, building a series of proliferating connections between his work and that of the Comte de Lautréamont. Lautréamont exemplifies, as Sandler argues, the way “Poe’s dark romanticism came to have tremendous appeal among writers of the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America.” The Poe-Lautréamont connection represents, then, a whole a series of transnational literary connections that exceed traditional boundaries. In the work of both, Sandler traces a set of common themes, in particular that of the sea voyage. For these authors, the sea voyage does not open onto “the joy of the universe” or “interminable oceans,” as it does for Emerson (#). Instead, they open onto disaster and terror, a reflection of the brutal violence of their times and places, almost as if these two authors are haunted by the restrictions national borders, spatial and cultural, impose upon them. Paradoxically, these intimations of frustration and constraint produce texts which transcend those very limitations, as the history of their receptions attest.

Caroline Levander concluded the panel with a response which centered on the intersection of two terms which governed the panel, the Global and the South. She pointed out that, both in the nineteenth century and today, the intersection of these two terms destabilize the static interpretations that each alone can tend to generate. Whether it be the shift from the conceptual category “Third World” to that of “Global South” that is reorienting today’s geopolitics, or the way that in a global context the American South was only something like the Northern tip of an Americas-wide slave system, adding the Global to the South forces us to recognize and rethink the arbitrary limits that are often placed on either. (For more on her work on The Global South, see here.)

Lives of Infamous Men: old Harry, a slave preacher

From  the Southern Cultivator of June, 1851, an article signed “A Minister of the Gospel” relates the following tale of a slave he refers to as “old Harry,” who presumed to speak against his master, if ever so slightly, in the name of a higher Master:

Another fact, equally notorious, is, that on almost every large plantation of Negroes, there is one among them who holds a kind of magical sway over the minds and opinions of the rest; to him they look as their oracle,—and this same oracle, though most generally a preacher is, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the most consummate villain and hypocrite on the premises. It is more than likely that he has seen sundry miraculous visions, equal to those of John on the isle of Patmos; angels have talked with him, &c &c. The influence of such a Negro on a quarter is incalculable. He steals his master’s pigs, and is still an object commanding the peculiar regard of Heaven, and why many not his disciplines? It may be, and in most cases this influence is, such an obstacle in the way of the missionary, that he can accomplish but little unless his preaching is in unison with the theology of this sage old Doctor of Divinity.

Rev. W. W., an aged and talented Minister of the Gospel had charge of a colored mission some years ago. One Sabbath morning, on going to his appointment at the plantation of Mr ——, he was met by old Harry who had news to tell of a most important character. Said he: “Brudder W., de Lod came down las night ‘pon de top of de house and he call—‘Harry, Harry;’ I say ‘Here me Lod.’ He say—‘Harry, Mista W. and Mista S nebber preach de gospel yet – Hurry, you mus go and preach my gospel.’”

These things show the importance of using every effort within our reach to counteract these influences and to have them properly instructed in the true doctrine and precepts of Chirstianity; and though but little may be done for the adults, much may be done and is doing for the young ones by use of Dr. CAPERS’ catechisms, orally taught.

Lives of Infamous Men

In his essay, “Lives of Infamous Men,” Foucault states a list of rules he has chosen for the selection of material for a broader project.

• The persons included must have actually existed.

• These existences must have been both obscure and ill-fated.

• They must have been recounted in a few pages or, better, a few sentences, as brief as possible.

• These tales must not just constitute strange or pathetic anecdotes; but, in one way or another (because they were complaints, denunciations, orders, or reports), they must have truly formed part of the minuscule history of these existences, of their misfortune, their wildness, or their dubious madness.

• And for us still, the shock of these words must give rise to a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread. (#, 159)

Foucault tells us that the purpose of these seemingly arbitrary criteria was to unearth “the existence of these men and women” of whom “nothing subsists of what they were or what they did, other than what is found in a few sentences” and present these scraps of official discourse, because what was written “really crossed lives; existences were actually risked and lost in these words”  (162, 160). Foucault gives an example of one such scrap, whose kindred surprised and enraptured him with their intensity:

Mathurin Milan, placed in the hospital of Charenton, 31 August 170 7: “His madness was always to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have actions at law, to lend usuriously and without security, to lead his feeble mind down unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the greatest employments.” (158)

In my own research, I come across such lives from time to time, which effloresce briefly in the account books of a plantation, an ancient diary, or some long forgotten agricultural journals. So when there is occasion, I will try to re-present the lives of these infamous men and women I stumble across, with as little adornment as possible. Such representations have a politics, to be sure, yet these documents endure in any case, and we tend to believe that knowledge is made for cutting.