Have a Good Time

July 17, 2010

…but enough on that subject?

The politics of truth pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, which order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and which we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth? Is this not precisely what is meant by “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of […] the politics of truth?”
—Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”

One day Emily was holding a very high and intellectual conversation with ———— where they were quite above the mundane plane. Mrs. Dickinson had fussed in and out many times to see if they needed anything, and at last she bustled in, just at some fine climax of the talk, and asked if ————’s feet were not cold, wouldn’t she like to come in the kitchen and warm them? Emily gave up in despair at that. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence read, or the Lord’s Prayer repeated,’ and she went on with a long list of unspeakably funny things to be done.

—Millicent Todd Bingham, quoted in Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson

Two recent news stories about the discovered textual practices of the framers of the U.S. Constitution seemed to assume an easy metonymical resonance. First, on the margins of the origins of American exceptionalism: three months ago we learned that George Washington stole the book on international law, and the debt has been accruing ever since. And late last month—certainly in time for July 4, but also broadly in time for Arizona’s escalation of the “debate” over “illegals,” and just about in time for the delivery of an involuntary-manslaughter verdict in the case of the unspeakable Oscar Grant—a U.S. citizen who was suddenly not a citizen, because he was lying face-down on the ground, a picture of guiltless subjection to the law, when the law, as represented by Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back—the Library of Congress announced that when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence he wrote “fellow-subjects,” blotted it out, and replaced “subjects” with “citizens.”

A computerized column showing five grayscale views of Jefferson's handwritten "fellow-citizens," with his original second word, "subjects," progressively emerging in yellow and, by the final image, replacing "citizens" completely

Above is a digital snapshot of the hyperspectral imaging process, from the AOLNews story. It embodies an archaeological reverse-teleology that I would hope to pause or to apprehend, at least for a moment.  Like Micki McGee, writing for the Social Text blog, I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe this correction the way the news stories do, as the heretofore-successful burial of the traces of a “Freudian slip”—although I’m unsure for different reasons. McGee says it is “not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept”: for one thing, I’d say (if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader), wouldn’t a century-old draft be almost the ideal site for the application of this parlance? (But if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader I would go on to say something really tedious about the distance between the parlance of strict psychoanalysis and the popular parlance of “Freudian slips”…) More to the point, though: noting that the import of the words “subject” and “citizen” is in so many ways still under contestation, McGee adds that the picture of those words here led her back to John Zerzan’s anti-anti-humanist “critique of the post-structuralist parlance of ‘subjects’ and ‘subjectivity'”—the implied move being, I think, an affirmation of Jefferson’s corrective intentions, a celebration of the autonomy that might result from thinking of ourselves as (global?) citizens over thinking of ourselves as subjects. I was actually led in what must be the opposite direction—back to Butler’s “What is Critique?”, with its reminder that Foucault’s project aims to involve not only the delineation of the constraints of subjectivity, but also the desubjugation of the subject. And I started to wonder if this account of Foucault and of critique (not to mention Butler’s more recent thinking on states and citizens) might enable, or even necessitate, a kind of Dickinsonian choosing-not-choosing among variants in the reading of Jefferson’s draft.  A kind of recognition that, however much we might debate the benefits of considering ourselves subjects over citizens or citizens over subjects, we remain something unspeakable (at least by a single voice): .

I’m talking about “us” partly because that’s how McGee frames her question.  (“On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?”)  But I also want to call “us” into question, because it’s worth saying something, though I’m not an especially well-equipped person to say it, about the context of Jefferson’s revision, and about the relation between his erasure and the further erasures that are enacted in all the popular news coverage of this story.  The sentences in which Jefferson replaced “subjects” with “citizens” run as follows:

he has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence;

he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property;

Those sentences don’t quite appear in the final draft of the Declaration:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us , and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

“Domestic insurrections” are slave revolts.  In Jefferson’s original draft the charge of “insurrections” is followed by the self-incriminating condemnation of the slave trade that was simply cut from the final document; Congress’s version also turns “incited” to “excited” (muddying the question of agency), “treasonable” to “domestic” (because slave revolts aren’t treasonable, because slaves are neither subjects nor citizens), and an ambiguous “in” to an all-too-comprehensible “among”; and collapses “Indian savages” and unspeakable slaves into one group, the Others at the frontiers of a frighteningly simple “us”—”we” who incorporate “all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence,” or in other words we white people who belong on this land—as if admitting that the choice between “citizens” and “subjects” was in the end both undecidable and irrelevant.

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