Democracy's Spectacle: Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing

Democracy's Spectacle: Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing

Democracy's Spectacle: Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing

Democracy's Spectacle: Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing

Synopsis

"What is the hangman but a servant of law? And what is that law but an expression of public opinion? And if public opinion be brutal and thou a component part thereof, art thou not the hangman's accomplice?" Writing in 1842, Lydia Maria Child articulates a crisis in the relationship of democracy to sovereign power that continues to occupy political theory today. Is sovereignty, with its reliance on singular and exceptional power, fundamentally inimical to democracy? Or might a more fully realized democracy distribute, share, and popularize sovereignty, thus blunting its exceptional character and its basic violence?

In Democracy's Spectacle, Jennifer Greiman looks to an earlier moment in the history of American democracy's vexed interpretation of sovereignty to argue that such questions about the popularization of sovereign power shaped debates about political belonging and public life in the antebellum United States. In an emergent democracy that was also an expansionist slave society, Greiman argues, the problems that sovereignty posed were less concerned with a singular and exceptional power lodged in the state than with a power over life and death that involved all Americans intimately.

Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of the sovereignty of the people in Democracy in America, along with work by Gustave de Beaumont, Lydia Maria Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, Greiman tracks the crises of sovereign power as it migrates out of the state to become a constitutive feature of the public sphere. Greiman brings together literature and political theory, as well as materials on antebellum performance culture, antislavery activism, and penitentiary reform, to argue that the antebellum public sphere, transformed by its empowerment, emerges as a spectacle with investments in both punishment and entertainment.

Excerpt

“Could the kind reader have been quietly riding along the main road to or from Easton, that morning, his eyes would have met a painful sight.” Midway through My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass longs for an impossible spectator: a witness to the daily abominations of slavery who is in no way implicated by them. a writer more keenly attuned than almost any of his contemporaries to the ethical complexities that such “painful sights” entail, Douglass pauses to imagine such a spectator more than once—one who is both present and not present, capable of standing witness to atrocities but hovering almost spectrally outside of them. Such viewpoints are emphatically hypothetical in Douglass’s writing, emerging through the fiction of counterfactual clauses—“if any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing power of slavery …, ” “could the kind reader have been quietly riding by … ”—and standing in marked contrast to the “painful sights” that serve instead as repeated moments of “initiation” into slavery’s regime. Indeed, on the morning in question, scores of people did stand along the Easton road to watch as Douglass and four other men were arrested and dragged to prison on charges of plotting escape; but none of them could fill the role of the quiet rider Douglass envisions, because everyone whom he sees watching him is either a fellow slave or one of his persecutors. On that morning, Douglass and his friends become the occasion for a peculiar, impromptu public spectacle that marks yet another moment in his perpetual initiation, another passage through what he calls in 1845 the “bloodstained gate.” Douglass’s language of initiations and gates, as well as his longing . . .

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