In Cast Down: Abjection in America, 1700-1850, Mark J. Miller argues that transatlantic Protestant discourses of abjection engaged with, and furthered the development of, concepts of race and sexuality in the creation of public subjects and public spheres.
2016 | 240 pages | Cloth $49.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. From Roses to Neuroses
Chapter 1. Conversion, Suffering, and Publicity
Chapter 2. Indian Abjection in the Public Sphere
Chapter 3. The Martyrology of White Abolitionists
Chapter 4. Masochism, Minstrelsy, and Liberal Revolution
Epilogue. Child Pets, Melville's Pip, and Oriental Blackness
From Roses to Neuroses
Early in the thirteenth century, a monk in Assisi, Italy, tried to quell his lust through a severe self-mortification of the flesh. Tormented by desire, he ran out into the snowy winter night and threw himself into a wild rose bush, whose thorns cured him of his passion. Then, miraculously, despite the cold, the roses began to bud and bloom. Their blossoms, which had been white, were now flecked with red. Seven centuries later, when psychologist Theodor Reik recounted this story of St. Francis in his 1940 treatise Masochism and Modern Man, he took care to distinguish religious martyrdom from sexual masochism. According to Reik, the sexual masochist uses pain to create sexual excitement while the martyr's pain atones for sexual excitement. Martyrdom, Reik concludes, is a form of what he calls "social masochism" governed by a "sublimated form of masochistic feeling." The martyr, inspired by accounts of religious suffering and guided by "bishops, churchwardens, and the community" at large, participates in a social ritual governed by what Reik calls the church's "increasing striving for 'publicity.'" Religious publicity—the circulation of ideas in print, speech, or manuscript form—generates the martyrological desire that then sustains the church. In the supposedly secular modern age, Reik drolly observes, it is not roses but neuroses that arise from the willed experience of redemptive suffering.
This study charts the conceptual continuity that lies between Reik's roses and neuroses. Following Reik's suggestion that church publicity played a key role in shaping the desire for suffering, Cast Down focuses on the uses of abjection—the desire for religious suffering—during two periods of rapid transformation: first, the 1730s and 1740s, when new models of publication and transportation enabled eighteenth-century transatlantic Protestant religious populism, and, second, the 1830s and 1840s, when liberal reform movements emerged from nonsectarian religious organizations. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, abjection helped organize a constellation of affective states, behaviors, and ideologies that contributed to the development of the modern notion of masochism but cannot be contained within the bounds of its current definition. Many twentieth-century psychoanalysts, including Reik, understood masochism as an outgrowth or point of origin for sexuality. Social theorists, psychologists and theologians (often the same people) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries laid the groundwork for this notion by mixing earlier, religious notions of suffering with emerging conceptions of gender and race. This period of mixing older and new ideas, from early modern to modern, is at the center of my study. The groundwork was laid by early modern Puritan and Quaker converts who developed practices of self-regulation and identification that contributed to modern notions of interiority and the liberal humanist subject. These converts also narrated the disappearance of a sinful "individual" self and appearance of a gracious self stripped of "personality" and inseparable from the divine. Following these developments within Protestant experience and theology, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed a broader cultural shift in social meaning of religion, rank, and visible markers of sex and cultural difference. These concepts were supplemented and, in some cases, supplanted by the development of gender and race as internal characteristics or aspects of personality.
The resonance of abjection in colonial American and U.S. culture is due, in part, to the concept's deep religious roots. Abjection has a long history in the spiritual traditions of the peoples of the book, for whom it takes shape through complaints of misery or vileness (e.g., "zalal" in Eikhah 1:11) used to cement oppositional identity, to console and discipline readers and listeners, and to otherwise structure rituals of purification or sanctification. Derived from the Latin abiectus, literally meaning "cast down" or "throw away," the term was first applied in classical antiquity to classes of people whose ongoing ceremonial and institutional marginalization allowed the imperium to function. The term accrued a positive connotation as performances of abjection, such as ancient Christian rituals of circumcision, were used to manage the threat of abject classes by celebrating, incorporating, and containing their practices. Moreover, behaviors or characteristics abjected by others were adopted for self-definition, as when terms of derision and ridicule ("methodist," "quaker," "black") were reclaimed for use as a means of self-identification. The ambivalence of abjection—its positive and negative connotations—appears in cognates such as the Greek kataballo, which, as an 1841 Boston lexicon has it, connotes both "to throw down" and "to lay, as foundations." Abjection is characterized by this twofold ability to suspend the marginal in the center of society and to transform the terms and processes of marginalization into means of public self-instantiation.
Cast Down is primarily concerned with religious discourse's historical and symbolic development of abjection in relation to race. Discourses of abjection paved the way for and sometimes complicated the development of race in both sectarian religious publics and the reformist publics that developed out of sectarian organizing. New notions of gender and race often supported social practices otherwise called into question by Enlightenment notions of universal rights and subjectivity. They did so by transforming the meaning of race, first through a scientific biologism and later with a Romantic emphasis on social difference, spiritual complexity, and psychological depth. One American exemplar of this process is Thomas Jefferson. His articulation of Enlightenment freedoms in his 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia coincided with both a scientific "suspicion" that African Americans' low social status was grounded in biological difference and a traditional religious admonition that the sin of slavery would result in divine judgment against the nation as a whole.
In my study, abjection is separable into at least three distinct elements: exclusion from civic or church recognition, psychological depression, and internalized low status. These elements can function separately but more often work together in unexpected ways. For example, writing in 1833, Pequot Methodist William Apess reminded his "brethren in the ministry" that his Indian "brethren," stranded on New England's reservations, are "the most mean, abject, miserable race of beings in the world." Here, Apess's pride in his marginalization from an evangelical mainstream takes shape through racial self-abnegation. His portrait of low racial status attempts to shame his more elite interlocutors by juxtaposing biblical and modern scientific notions of family, spiritual abjection, and racialized abjection.
Abjection's frequent connection to race in early nineteenth-century writing suggests the two terms' ideological mobility and interconnection. When abjection was explicitly conjoined with race, abjection's deep religious history helped structure a gradual movement from class- to race-based accounts and rankings of difference. For example, a series of late eighteenth-century English colonial letters, reprinted in Philadelphia in 1819, described servants in Calcutta as alternately an "abject class" and an "abject race." Religion also lent an air of continuity to what were actually new ideas about inherent racial difference percolating in popular discourse. When the term was used in a more modern, racial form, it was most often associated with Africans and enslavement. In 1812, the Rev. Thomas Scott, in an essay republished in several Anglican and other house organs, encouraged all Christians to pray for "the poor African slaves . . . that abject race." More taxonomic accounts employed the term "abject" as an ostensibly objective descriptor to help rank different racial subgroups. For example, an 1834 account of Oceania's "minor nations" in London's Foreign Quarterly Review opined that one "race will be found more abject, miserable, and mischievous, than the lowest of the yellow race." This merely descriptive use of abjection unmoors the concept from a religious basis and rejects possible social origins for racial difference in favor of attributing racial abjection to prior conditions, such as biology.
On the other hand, even when discussing "abject Africans," evangelical writers well into the nineteenth century resisted the taxonomic divisions instituted by scientific racism. For example, although early nineteenth-century white evangelical colonizationists agreed with the practical conclusions of Jefferson's scientific racism, they still described African American inferiority as contingent on social circumstance rather than inherent. As one 1828 Connecticut evangelical colonizationist tract has it, "The free coloured population . . . are, and, in this country, always must be a depressed and abject race." Evangelicals' insistence on social circumstance is creditable to their enduring belief in a monogenetic creation in the face of scientific evidence in favor of polygenetic human origins. One Presbyterian minister's 1847 tract promoting the colonization of Australia, for example, asserted that even the "abject race" of Paupauans were still of "one blood" with the Europeans. Some went further. Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, in a post-Revolutionary letter reprinted in an 1826 issue of the abolitionist African Repository, posed abjection as a condition separate from race. Benezet began by offering a monogenetic account of African Americans as "our fellow creatures of the African race" before noting that it was suffering alone that placed African Americans in an "abject situation." Rather than treating African Americans as social outcasts, Benezet suggests, their abject status actually "gives them an additional claim to pity." In sum, while abjection's connotation of absolute destitution made the term valuable as a descriptor in the construction of modern racial taxonomies, these uses could not escape the term's religious origin and ambivalence.
As the above examples indicate, large-scale ideological shifts in the meaning of religion and race were often made in incremental steps. This attenuated process allowed for tremendous amounts of what might appear to be, from our vantage point, contradiction or ideological confusion. Indeed, popular discussions of religion and race, rather than simply disseminating authoritative moral or scientific conclusions, were grounded in cultures of performance, citation and reprinting that offered multiple religious, political, scientific, rhetorical, and other appeals. In this context, the religious rhetoric of abjection participated in the creation of new and wide-ranging racial norms while also allowing and sometimes even encouraging participants in evangelical discourse to depart from those emerging norms. Put another way, the rhetoric of abjection in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped construct, consolidate, and reify racial difference. At the same time notions of abjection and eroticized accounts of differences in power demonstrated a competing tendency toward the dissolution or disordering of racial difference well into the nineteenth century. The tension between consolidation and dissolution is thrown into sharp relief in work that places disparate images, scenes, and narratives of suffering and abjection cheek by jowl, thereby highlighting contradictions in racial ideologies. This combination of censure and qualified permission was part of a larger process in which desire and identity were reproduced and contested through speech, writing, and embodied practice.
Jefferson, Apess, Lang, and others conjoin, to various degrees, Enlightenment scientific rationality and religious warning in ways that might seem, at first, unusual. In part, then, my work here is to identify and interpret the widespread combination of early modern and modern notions of the self, the divine, and community, especially the endurance of religion in modern developments of race. Religion remained central to notions of the self in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most important, religion participated in a larger shift in the power of suffering to license speech and writing within religious bodies and in more public evangelism. The mystical or supernatural charge that bodily suffering held in the early modern era was increasingly derided in the eighteenth century, and Enlightenment humanitarianism, premised on a notion of rational and free public discourse, similarly chipped away at martyrology by making expressions of desire for suffering morally suspect. Ascetic forms of suffering retained their capacity to license speech and leadership among Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and some smaller sects. More generally, though, authoritative religious speech, including speech that engaged sentimental appeal, was increasingly linked to rational, empiricist Enlightenment discourse grounded in ascetic self-control. Many religious communities harnessed the power of sentiment to institutionalize white male control. Leaders of established evangelical movements criticized the affective power of some forms of bodily suffering to sanction authoritative speech while increasing the affective power of other forms of suffering, especially long-distance travel, that were least hazardous for men who appeared white. As such, they resembled scientific communities that subjected sentiment to rationality while creating racially and sexually exclusive fora within which sentiment could flow freely.
My notion of abjection emphasizes historical forms of religious suffering grounded in earlier notions of body, mind, and desire. It also draws on more recent theories that emphasize discontinuity and unexpected recurrence. For example, my account of abjection's role in the construction of race complements a long line of feminist anthropological and psychoanalytic criticism that sees abjection as central to processes of group, individual, and psychic formation. It is also informed by subsequent women-of-color feminism and queer of color critique, which show how abjection can be used to create, sustain, and contest racial, sexual, and gendered identities. The spiritual, social, and political uses of abjection in religious discourse inform and complicate early psychoanalytic constructions of erotic suffering. For example, psychoanalytic treatments of "Christian masochism" tend to see early Christian and medieval martyrologies as loci classici of religious suffering, ignoring later religious forms. This approach becomes problematic when psychoanalytic approaches analyze early modern forms of suffering through modern models of body and mind in which sexual subjectivity is organized around libido, genitalia, and object-choice. Genre is also crucial to broadening our sense of religious abjection. Julia Kristeva's foundational account of abjection, for example, describes modern literature as a "substitute" for "the sacred," but reading literature in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conversion narratives, religious periodicals, and abolitionist newspapers reveals a far more dynamic relationship between the literary and the sacred. For example, these other genres often credit the sacred for effecting personal, social, and political change. While the rise of psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century helped reframe desirable suffering and abjection as sexual rather than spiritual, this transformation was part of a longer conversation about representations of suffering that continued to include religious voices and concerns.
Finding the balance between historicist practice and theoretical insight is vital to my project. When used in conjunction, historicism and theory are complementary. So, while most historical studies of eighteenth-century eroticism and pleasurable suffering rightly emphasize their incommensurability with later psychoanalytic concepts such as masochism, there are threads of connection between them; following those threads across the centuries allow us to ask new questions of early American writing and performance. How, we might ask, have eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts and writers helped create material, intellectual, and emotional conditions of possibility for sexological and psychoanalytic taxonomies? How were social, psychological, and public processes transformed in the process?
These broad investigatory questions were inspired by the specific historical problem raised by Reik's focus on publicity in his distinction between roses and neuroses. What exactly did happen when miracles of transformation—the winter bloom of the rose, the flight of a dove from a martyr's mouth—faded from Christian accounts of redemptive suffering? Many such instances of disappearance may be traced to sixteenth-century debates about the Eucharist, in which Protestant reformers disavowed God's direct contravention of natural law. Mainstream English Protestant exegesis maintained that miraculous transformation was only a symbol or representation of the true miracle, God's salvation of the soul from sin. In the English literary tradition, the most significant disappearance of miracles of transformation from scenes of suffering occurred in John Foxe's four editions of the Book of Martyrs (1563-83). Foxe's portraits of Protestant martyrs draw on a pagan tradition of noble death and a medieval Judeo-Christian tradition of joyful suffering. No roses bloom when Foxe's martyrs are tortured, but neither do they become neurotic. In an early modern Protestant ideological framework, physical transformations cannot signify martyrdom's miraculous power. Instead, martyrs are men and women whose faith allows them to experience feminizing, abjecting torture and yet produce bold, masculinized speech (or, less often, eloquent silence in the face of demands to speak). In the lavish illustrations from the Book of Martyrs, virtually every martyr has their palms pressed together or hands upraised and mouth open, as if in prayer. Many of the larger cuts illustrating specific accounts of martyrdom featured speech banners with pious messages emanating from the martyrs' mouths. The spectacular violations, tortures, and burnings for which the Book of Martyrs is justly famous worked hand in glove with more quotidian scenes of speech in suffering. In the episode that ended Foxe's 1563 edition, the "godly Matrone" Gertrude Crokehay, jailed in Amsterdam for allegedly being an Anabaptist, "declar[ed] . . . her faith boldly, without any feare" and found herself quickly freed. Foxe thereby connects these everyday declarations of faith to more spectacular public acts of dissenting speech. Whether at home, in court, or on the scaffold, dissenting speech reverses the disabling political and emotional intent of jailing, public burning, and other spectacular punishment. Dissenting speech moves an audience of observers, readers, and other witnesses to the Protestant cause.
Print accounts of torture, operating through serial acts of compilation, publication, circulation, discussion, revision, and republication, played an important role in Protestant self-definition by multiplying the power of witnessing. The Book of Martyrs itself thematized this value of print, describing oral and textual engagements with martyrdom as central to dissenting religious subjectivity. Foxe's famous 1570 account of Bishop Nicholas Ridley's botched burning helps illustrate the larger pattern. As Foxe writes, Queen Mary's executioners tied Ridley and his fellow "Oxford Martyr" Hugh Latimer to the stake and lit the kindling beneath their feet. Latimer, attempting to encourage Ridley, told him to "plaie the manne"; dying "manfully," Latimer prophesied, would transform their burning into a vehicle for Reformation by lighting "suche a candle [as] shall neuer be put out." Latimer burnt up quickly and died but Ridley, in ironic fulfillment of Latimer's prophecy, was tortured by a fire "of euill making." Gruesomely, Ridley "burned cleane all his neather partes, before [the fire] once touched the vpper," with Ridley praying piously all the while. Ridley's mutilated but speaking body came to embody martyrological abjection, becoming, as one critic has it, a site "of pity recuperated as . . . defiant strength." Indeed, Foxe insisted that emotional response could transform such suffering into a spiritually and socially redemptive experience. "[S]urely," Foxe wrote, "it moued hundredes to teares, in beholdyng the horrible sighte. For I thynke there was none that had not cleane exiled all humanitie and mercie, whiche would not haue lamented to beholde the furie of the fire so to rage vpon their bodies." Here as elsewhere, Foxean martyrology constructs Protestant subjectivity around the sympathetic public response ("teares, in beholdyng") to the martyr's manly will to suffer ("plaie the manne") a sensational, feminizing physical violation ("burned cleane all his neather partes") caused by an intemperate Catholic desire ("the euill makyng of the fire"). In elaborating and sometimes eroticizing a discourse of embodied agony as the basis for Protestant martyrological public subjectivity, Foxe hoped to vindicate Protestantism by presenting Marian martyrs as the true heirs to the Christian legacy of redemptive suffering. Public accounts of suffering, rendered in highly gendered, often sexual, and subtly imperial terms, take on the once-miraculous capacity to signify faith.
During both the execution and the public circulation of execution narratives, representation and mediation play a crucial role. Foxe and his book inherit the martyr's primary duty to help transform violence into a vehicle for sustaining communities of dissent. Indeed, the Book of Martyrs became so important to nonconformists that Bishop Laud refused to license a new edition in the early seventeenth century. Ridley's burning, in particular, became something of a touchstone for all sorts of dissent; it was excerpted and reprinted with surprising frequency in theological and popular magazines until the mid-nineteenth century, though its meaning shifted dramatically. In short, despite the royal imprimatur on Foxe's work and its orthodox support for church and king, the logic of Foxean martyrdom, in which suffering forms the basis for dissenting speech and publication, ensured that martyrology became central to new modes of dissent in England and its Atlantic colonies.
Atlantic martyrology was informed by many different colonial practices and dreams of empire. These, in turn, would be crucial to martyrology's contributions to the later development of race. As Protestant martyrological traditions crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, they were reflected and refracted through the practice and fantasy of colonial enterprise. Sensational representations of suffering in English, French, and Dutch translations of Bartolomé de Las Casas's Brevissima Relación (1552) were of special importance. One of Foxe's collaborators translated the first English edition of Las Casas, and the depictions of suffering in the Book of Martyrs share a common representational language with English and other Protestant translations of Las Casas's work. The dialogue between martyrology and English colonial strategy hinges on the translations' different treatment of English and Indian suffering. The parallels between Spanish Catholic torture of Indians and English Catholic torture of Protestants offered an irresistible point of connection for English Protestant partisans. However, English translators broke martyrology's link between suffering and speech by flattening Las Casas's careful use of Arawak, illustrating physical violations even more graphically, and presenting Indian suffering without accompanying Indian speech acts or spectatorial Indian communities of witness.
The political value of denying Indian martyrdom is clearest in The Teares of the Indians (1656), a propagandistic English translation by John Phillips for his uncle John Milton, Cromwell's erstwhile censor and then-Secretary of Foreign Tongues. Phillips's preface, addressed to Cromwell, describes the "cry of [Indian] blood ceasing at the noise of Your great transactions, while you arm for their revenge." In this miniature colonial drama of sound and force, English valor alone can mute Indian suffering. In contrast to Foxe's martyrs, whose sensational suffering formed the basis of dissenting subjectivity, Phillips's flayed, dismembered, and dead Indians cry out only for English vengeance before being quieted by English force. In separating English witnessing from Indian suffering, Teares hollows out the rhetoric of martyrdom to promote English imperial expansion unchecked by the Indian presence. Phillips's insistence on English witnessing and vengeance helped lay the groundwork for later racial distinctions between bold white sacrifice and the mere abjection of Indians and Africans.
Martyrology's power as a vehicle for religious and political dissent became more fractured in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Protestant martyrology began to compete with Counter-Reformation martyrological accounts of colonial suffering and Indian conversion. French representations of Indian suffering in New France were relatively generous, as they allowed Native converts' spiritual trials to confirm Native faith. Authorities in colonial New England were less generous, increasingly using martyrology as a bludgeon against dissenters, Indian tribes and competing colonial powers. Puritan leaders represented Quakers, Indians, and their mutual ally, witches, as effectively torturing the colony. The gendered and protoracial dimensions of Foxean martyrological rhetoric posed special challenge to the colony's self-fashioned patriarchs. On one hand, martyrology's link to dissent was so strong that we can detect both disgust and a hint of admiration, or possibly fear, in John Winthrop's 1646 account of Mary Oliver's punishment. Oliver, as though embracing Latimer's admonition to "plaie the manne," took her court-ordered whipping "without tying and . . . with a masculine spirit, glorying in her suffering." Martyrological rhetoric also helped Cotton Mather defend his colony's conduct to London and, he hoped, to heaven. Figuring the colony as peculiarly persecuted, Mather hoped to defray God's anger at the colony's failure to treat not only "wild" Indians but even "African slaves . . . as those that are of one Blood with us [and] have Immortal Souls in them." Martyrological discourse was also central to English colonizers' practical and spiritual understanding of dissent and colonial violence. The colony's Quakers and other organized dissenters also proliferated martyrological accounts of their treatment. Perhaps in response to the socially destabilizing effect of martyrological discourses, late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century editions of the Book of Martyrs actually moved closer to The Teares of the Indians by including only the most graphic scenes of torture. These streamlined editions, whose popularity may also speak to their growing consumption as pornography, minimized the capacity of martyrdom to justify dissent while allowing for new connections between dissent and other forms of suffering.
Foxe's proto-racial, gendered notions of the martyr's suffering would resound in accounts of religious suffering during the transatlantic revivals of the 1720s to 1730s, named, by a later generation of revivalists, the Great Awakening. These revivals were constituted by an incredibly diverse body of texts and practices, including some models of conversion that once again granted social or physical weakness the ability to license religious speech and writing. In New England, these models of conversion helped corrode Congregationalist hierarchies of speech and deference, eventually resulting in the broadening of New England's "speaking aristocracy," the class of men who spoke and published on social, political, and theological issues. During the revival itself, written and spoken accounts of affective conversion, including the affective experience of personal sin and abjection, allowed for even more disruptive forms of expression. In the manner of St. Francis, socially marginal converts described an intense internal sense of abjection to legitimate their public religious speech and writing. Revival conversion narratives recounted individuated, internal experience, but they did so largely through textual surfaces (including written, spoken, or otherwise embodied performances) that explicitly encouraged imitation. The predictable teleology and formulaic rhetoric of conversion narratives contained some of the resulting threat to social order. Nevertheless, variations within the genre allowed converts to test the limits of public speech.
Abjection was crucial to the development of revivalist affect out of, and sometimes in opposition to, martyrological suffering. The key difference between the speech of Foxean martyrs and that of revival converts lies in the shift from an external torturer to an internal or supernatural tormentor. Where Foxean martyrology emphasized a "manful" will to suffer, many revival converts described their intensely affective experience of abjection, permeability, and rupture, an experience that historians have identified as feminized in that culture. Moderate revival leaders such as Jonathan Edwards defended converts' extreme affective sense of abjection and grace as the products of an internal awareness of personal sin and God's sublime perfection. Revivalist expressions of intense affect are rooted in the Puritan use of textual methods of self-examination, including expressions of self-hatred and annihilation, designed to minimize a "personal" identity associated with sin. Revivalism integrated the public performance and expression of abjection into detailed life narratives that circulated more widely than the ritualized formulae that had been prerequisite to church membership. This integration and circulation allowed performances and expressions of abjection to take on new social and psychological importance.
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Nicholas Ridley's burning and Jonathan Edwards's affective conversion are two of six scenes of abjection that help sketch out this book's movement from Foxe to Freud. Each scene illustrates a discrete moment of public subject-creation. Chapter 1 considers the eighteenth-century management of abject affect through the limited circulation of the conversion narrative, epitomized by Edwards's account of weeping in a closet. The second chapter moves into the early nineteenth century and evaluates the creation of an Indian public subject through temperate ascetic self-control, focusing on Pequot William Apess's writing and preaching in New York's reformist Methodist churches. Chapter 3, illustrated by the branded hand of white abolitionist Jonathan Walker, considers the mid-nineteenth-century creation of visibly white public subjects through martyrological narrative. In Chapter 4, a German child's erotic reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin links the political-erotic negotiations of "perversions" of sympathy in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848. Finally, my epilogue, focused on the vulnerability of Moby-Dick's cabin boy Pip, considers the value of "child pets" and "tea boys" in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments of race and religion.
Collectively, these chapters describe religious abjection's direct and indirect contributions to race. Direct contributions include explicit textual linkages of abjection and race, while indirect contributions include racialized discussions of affect, interiority, publicity, and spectacle. Indirect contributions constitute the majority of the accounts of exclusion from civic or church recognition, psychological depression, and internalized low status on which my study is focused. Religious discourses of abjection participated in the racialization of the concept by using it to help construct race as a social reality ostensibly grounded in objective physical mental, emotional and other differences. Though these religious uses of abjection were more spiritually than sexually erotic, they offered a vast reservoir of material available to pornographic and other explicitly sexual readings because of their social prominence and powerful affective charge. Indeed, the line between religious and pornographic representations of abjection blurred whenever evangelical reformers began to operate in nonsectarian public spheres, especially as evangelical material was taken out of a sectarian interpretive community in attempts to "sacralize" the public sphere as a vehicle for reform. In these moments, reformers spoke and wrote to such a wide audience and incorporated such a range of material into their work that the abjection's affective charge bled into neighboring categories of desire and signification.
This brief outline suggests some of the ways in which literary-historical readings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious and reformist writing intersect with philosophical, theological, and theoretical discussions of abjection. Before turning to my first chapter, I want to lay out the larger discursive field in which these key debates play. As Reik's account of religious publicity recommends, attending to this larger discursive field will help ground an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary history of religious abjection, erotic suffering, and the place of suffering in a hitherto underrecognized part of the history and theory of the public sphere.
One of the most heralded eighteenth-century figures in debates about publicity, suffering, and politics is Edmund Burke. His account of sublimity in his Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) takes up the same connections between aesthetic and political problems of interpretation and consensus that would come to preoccupy his later work on social revolutions. Looking at Burke, we can address two familiar questions from the less familiar perspective of my book's premises and aims. First, how do Burke's aesthetic concerns relate to his description of "public spirit" as arising "from private reflection upon public affairs and from their public discussion" in salons and print? Second, how is this aesthetic dimension connected to Burke's treatment of race and gender in his Enquiry, as well as his subsequent writing on the American, French and Haitian revolutions?
Burke, in his famous distinction between two species of feeling, the sublime and the beautiful, proposes that the former is caused by sympathy for pain, the latter by sympathy for pleasure. Recent histories of pleasurable pain have focused on Burke's description of spectatorial delight as a source of erotic pleasure; as later chapters will elaborate, several early accounts of masochistic desire eroticize the sort of absolute, arbitrary power of the master that nineteenth-century abolitionists outlined in their reports on the Southern slave system. Seeing Burke's aesthetics as wedded to his politics sheds new light his contribution to the history of abjection and helps us examine existing critiques of publicity and the public sphere in the context of religious discourse.
In the Enquiry, Burke proposes that pleasure is derived from the presence of beauty, while "delight" is a sublime sensation that "accompanies the removal of pain and danger." Some degree of "removal," in other words, is a prerequisite to delight: spectators find pain or danger "delightful" only when it is kept "at certain distances, and with certain modifications." In structuring his account of spectatorial delight, Burke reverses gendered and racialized contexts of seeing. He places spectatorial delight in a political context by aligning sublimity with monarchial power while associating pity with the revolutionary spectator's terror at the power of weakness. Burke makes an implicit connection between the pleasure of beauty and terror in the French Revolution's reversal of hierarchies of rank, race, and gender. He begins by attempting to evoke a delightful sort of terror by recounting the "few hours" of "torments" suffered by Robert Damiens, "the late unfortunate regicide" whose protracted public torture, though "inflicted" by "justice," received extensive and sometimes critical coverage in English magazines earlier that year. Burke insists that the torture itself, as well as laudatory representations of torture such as his own, performs the moral work of the sublime by reinforcing hierarchy through a display of awesome force. In Burke's account, the witness's sympathetic experience of Damiens's pain is enjoyable not primarily because of pity for suffering but rather sympathy with his terror at the sublime power (the king) causing the pain. As in much Gothic and sensational fiction, the spectator's pleasure in sublime terror is meant to be antirevolutionary and antirepublican.
Finding beauty in the abject entails political risk. Pity is dangerous because it fails to guard against revolutionary, republican terror. The Haitian and French revolutions provoked Burke's bitterest denunciations when terror inverted hierarchies of rank, race, and gender. In aesthetic terms, this political reversal was possible because of the seeming weakness of the Haitian and French rabble deluded elite spectators and lulled them into submission. Burke describes this power of weakness as the terror of the beautiful, epitomized, in the Enquiry, by a woman's "neck and breasts," wherein a "deceitful maze" of swells and curves produces, in the spectator, an "unsteady eye." Beauty's apparent weakness is the source of its strength, for, as Frances Ferguson remarks, it "is always . . . robbing us of our vigilance and recreating us in its own image." Pity may therefore result in "death and defeat—loss of collective liberty" if not prevented by an invigorating experience of the sublime.
Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) guards against pity's threat by deploying a sublime image of Versailles as "polluted by massacre, and strewn with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses." Crucially for my study, Burke's condemnation of the Jacobinic mob works by developing eighteenth-century religious languages of public censure, including antirevivalist accounts of evangelical "enthusiasm." Burke represents the Jacobinic mob as a sensational catalogue of abjection, a montage of "horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women." Republican revolutions, like the Enquiry's beautiful woman, overcome monarchial power by a deceit that belies the reality of abject disorder. Burke's terms here closely resemble the much earlier denunciations of evangelical Protestant revivalism. Anglican missionary Charles Brockwell, writing in 1742, denounced a revival in Salem, Massachusetts, by claiming that it caused "Men, Women, Children, Servants, and Nigros" to utter "groans, cries, screams, and agonies" and perform "ridiculous and frantic gestures" until, at the height of frenzy, they become "Exhorters." Like Brockwell, Burke attempted to curb popular speech by associating it with bodily abjection, linking the publicity of the poor with variously illicit sensations to suggest that they ought to be excluded from recognition by church or state. Rather than demonstrating a historical arc from Enlightenment religious to secular dissent, Burke's and Brockwell's shared language of abjection speaks to the common origins and ongoing dialogues between them. This shared language of abjection also indicates how paradigms of race and gender that are now most often considered in exclusively secular terms had religious resonance and implication.
For all his conservatism, Brockwell's greater engagement with religious discourses of abjection lets him grant abject figures more room for public speech. Both Burke and Brockwell end their scenes with figures who publicly deceive (exhorters and prostitutes, respectively), but Burke reverses Brockwell's trajectory between publicity and sensation. While Brockwell traces the emergence of cacophonous public speech and hearing out of a dense panoply of abject sensation, Burke's portrait of cacophonous urban poverty ends in an infernal vision of sexual abjection. Historically, within religious communities that granted abjection a spiritual and moral value, people or groups associated with abjection were able to leverage that association to access the pulpit and other privileged sites of communication. This was especially true when communities associated with abjection were developing in opposition to political elites or other religious groups. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed a transformation of the relationship between dissenting religious speech and abjection that re-imagined these abject associations as interior characteristics. Such interior states remained linked to abjection even as attempts to disconnect suffering from dissent created different alignments between them.
Burke's treatments of revolutionary and enthusiastic public expression were central to Jürgen Habermas's account of plebian publicity. In Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1963), Habermas credited Burke for formulating and legitimating the concept of public opinion by grounding the concept in private reflection upon, and public discussion of, public affairs. However, Habermas's carving out of eighteenth-century European rational-deliberate political publics from other incarnations was trebly haunted. It was haunted in advance by Great War intellectuals who saw publics as phantoms dependent on sovereign authority to check internal violence. It was haunted from the left by theorists of hegemony, who, working in dialogue with Schmittean analysis, cast doubt on several of Habermas's key claims: the separation of rational discourse from ideology; the public's politically oppositional character; and the universal rational subject. And finally, Habermas's public sphere was haunted by the ephemeral, poetic quality of his own account of plebeian publicity.
This final haunting is the most fruitful to dwell upon, as it lets us consider Habermas's work in light of more recent critiques and, particularly, in light of this book's innovative historicization of abjection. In the preface he penned for Structural Transformation's first publication, Habermas echoes Brockwell and Burke in describing a short-lived plebeian public sphere as essentially an "illiterate" bourgeois public "stripped of its literary garb" ("die ihr literarisches Gewand abgestreift hat"). This phrase has served as a point of entry for working-class, feminist, and African American critiques of Structural Transformation's flawed premises upon a notion of universal subjectivity. Such critiques often highlight the public sphere's Janus face. One is productive, constituting and nurturing a public subject. The other is a negative space of abjection, silencing, and social death, conceptualized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as private and resulting in sub- or counter-public forms.
These and other critiques of Habermas tend to pose resistance or oppositionality as characteristic of such sub-, counter-, or otherwise alternative publics. More congenial to my notion of abjection is the concept of vestibulary publicity. This concept is derived from Hortense Spillers's account of vestibulary culture in her 1987 "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Spillers's essay, though essential to black feminist and queer of color critique, has not been adequately integrated into discussions of the public sphere. Published two years before the English translation of Structural Transformation that unleashed much U.S. critique of Habermas, "Mama's Baby" seems less defensive about the Marxist humanism that would be so roundly attacked in 1989 and is perhaps more fluid as a result. Spillers's essay uses abolitionist narrative as a way to recall histories of slave suffering that remained unrecognized in political, legal, deconstructive, feminist, and psychoanalytic criticism. Spillers describes the manner in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors created scientific, abolitionist, and simply public knowledge by "profitabl[y] 'anatomizing'" injured, ill, or disabled slaves. Such slaves bore "in person the marks of a cultural text" that was literally written on and by their body. The knowledge embodied in anatomized slaves, Spillers writes, irretrievably splits society into a mainstream "culture," including medical, scientific, and other rational-critical debate characteristic of the public sphere, and a "cultural vestibulary," including the slave and his or her knowledge and desires. Spillers's cultural vestibulary encompasses subaltern or "infamous" speech, access only via traces left on public speech, as well as conflicted or corrupted spheres of publicity that arise alongside those traces. The vestibule—architecturally, the room between the entry and living space; medically, a cavity before the entrance to another, often more important structure; poetically, a space of transition, at the threshold, in limine—is an abject space, between the inside and outside. The varieties of abjection are created and contested in material structures, including publics, that produce embodied differences in health, safety, labor, speech, writing, and so on.
Spillers's architectural referent clarifies the vestibulary public's interstitial but not necessarily resistant character. As an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architectural element, the vestibule managed different publics and the boundaries between public and private spaces. Describing Thomas Jefferson's eccentric vestibule at Monticello, for example, critic Duncan Faherty writes that the space's ostensible edificatory republicanism belies its function as a performative space that "ripples with a complex notion of public and private." The most notable feature of Jefferson's vestibule was its staircase. Modeled after new private staircases in France, the staircase's steep narrowness frustrated movement between floors, and its obtuse location hindered even the imagination of a host family's symbolic descent and circulation among guests. Of course, design is not the same as use, and Jefferson's daughters recorded their complaints as they struggled against his design. Struggle takes on another dimension for the enslaved, who had less access to writing and for whom the vestibule was a workplace. Some of those enslaved by Jefferson eventually established alternative religious spaces and publics. Peter Fossett, for example, founded a Baptist church that posthumously honored Fossett with a photograph in its own vestibule, and Fossett also leveraged his early association with Jefferson to tell his story in the public sphere. Most of the enslaved left only traces of their struggles. In some sense, these traces appear in Jefferson's other architectural innovations. The lack of easy circulation between floors, for example, was dependent on Jefferson's development of complementary systems—from dumbwaiters and revolving cupboards to subterranean slave quarters and tunnels—that minimized the visibility of the enslaved while still allowing for labor and surveillance. The innovations do not appear in the vestibule, but the vestibule's unique design depended on their presence.
Like Jefferson's vestibule, vestibulary publicity assumes a troubled, contested function within state, religious, or other power, as well as within itself. The vestibulary public joins, avant la letter, with critics of a rational-critical public sphere who help us understand how power adheres in bodies, texts, and publics. As such, the vestibulary public reveals the trace of those most marked by abjection, as well as the structuring principles of abjection—of inclusion and exclusion—that underlie all similar structures. Under some conditions, the vestibulary public may also work like a pressure valve, allowing or failing to allow for the ideal function of the public and private. Because the vestibulary public poses neither a necessarily oppositional (public/counterpublic) nor a hierarchical (super/subpublic) relationship, it avoids some of the pitfalls associated with narrow notions of hegemony and thereby anticipates more recent reconceptions of publics as "performative commons" or, alternately, disavowals.
We can further illuminate the discursive field surrounding Americanist debates about publicity by considering how vestibulary publicity reveals a gap between Habermasian pronouncements on rational-critical debate and the nuances of Habermas's work. These gaps begin with Habermas's early account of the nonrational communicative powers of language. Spillers's poetic incorporation of the metaphor of the vestibule into a dense but wide-ranging textual analysis resembles Structural Transformation's evocative description of the plebian public as "stripped of its literary garb." Habermas's most influential terms are rational social-scientific in tone, but the generally wry and lively quality of his prose lends an irony to his use of this phrase, which smacks of the cultural elitism that marked Habermas's Frankfurt school mentors. This redolence surely encouraged critics to pounce on the phrase as a solecism revealing the sexualized and gendered frameworks of Habermas's conception of public debate. We might peer, alongside those critics, beneath the bourgeois public to see the plebian public, with its penny press and theaters of sensation, as an obscene violation of bourgeois norms. But Habermas wrote the introduction just as he was distancing himself, geographically and intellectually, from Frankfurt and its notions of "the identity of domination and reason." We therefore have some reason to read the phrase as a catachrestic metacommentary on his Habilitationsschrift itself. In this alternate reading, Habermas's "stripping" of "literary garb" is, like Spillers's vestibule, a poetic, self-referential, and perhaps self-critical gesture at enduring connections between print, clothing/investment, erotic violence, and performance. Calling the plebian public "stripped" (abgestreift) connotes its undisguised, more essential character and also gestures at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious and revolutionary rhetorics of disclosure. This stripped public, as Habermas notes, achieved significant benchmarks in circulation and organizing. Rather than being excluded from political economy, the plebian public, as later literary historians would discover, flowed directly from the seventeenth-century publics that arose from within cultures of printing, petitioning, and other excitations of controversy in broadly circulating print and oratorical culture, satisfying print capitalism's profit motive without being markedly bourgeois. The plebian public flourished in eighteenth-century popular English colonial and U.S. evangelical print culture, much of it organized around public orations and the distribution of inexpensive or free print material. Habermas's own subsequent reappraisals of the dialogue between religion and rationality also address the importance of religious dissent in the long Enlightenment, confirming that "Enlightenment rationality" began as a style of religious debate. Ultimately, in the wake of two generations of revisionary scholarship on the mutual development of popular and "proper" literature, as well as Habermas's own movement away from a dialectic and unified notion of historical process, the "stripped" plebian public appears as an important part of the loosely jointed networks of print, oration, and organizing in which religious discourses of abjection flourished and were transformed.
Well before his recent encounters with religion, Habermas subtly reframed his analysis of religious publicity by crediting E. P. Thompson's 1963 Making of the English Working Class for his reconsideration of nonbourgeois publics. Thompson's influence on Habermas has implications for my work on religious abjection in two competing ways. Thompson's generous evaluation of working-class religious organizers has been inspirational to my work, but Thompson was also one of the first to employ psychoanalytic rhetoric to pathologize religious discourses of suffering. As part of his attempt to moderate celebratory accounts of Methodism's influence on labor organizers, Thompson proposed that, if English Methodism was a "nursing-ground" for labor, the nurse was a cruel one. Working-class Methodists gained experience in economic and political organizing by struggling against Methodist rules and leaders as much as by working with them. Methodist publicity, Thompson concluded, partook of "pathological aberrations of frustrated social and sexual impulses" driven by a "perverted eroticism . . . by turns maternal, Oedipal, sexual, and sadomasochistic"; its "authentic language" was one "of sexual sublimation streaked through with masochism." In short, for Thompson, sadomasochistic perversion was the internal psychic mechanism that stoked, and was reciprocally stoked by, the economic engine billowing out religion's ideological smokescreen.
Thompson's diagnosis of pathological religious masochism was for some time the abject within my own project. Its exemplification of a vexed scholarly engagement with religion made Thompson's work hard to embrace. Why would Thompson, whose measured evaluations of working-class organizing made him vital to Habermas's reevaluation of the plebian public sphere, criticize English Methodism in such violently normalizing psychosexual terms? Whatever their origin or intent, Thompson's language is deeply rooted in the history of public debates about religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More specifically, it is a specimen of critique (quite familiar to Thompson himself) casting religious emotion as a form of erotic perversion. Following the seventeenth-century imagination of "sodomite" Quakers, or Gangraena's delicious denunciations of schismatic "libertinism," eighteenth-century religious dissenters' secular competitors for public attention cast doubt on their piety by associating religious emotion with an uncontrollable, often feminized, sexual desire orchestrated by religious elites.
We can condemn the tenor of Thompson's critique, then, while finding in it a germ of insight. The vocabulary of submission in eighteenth-century evangelical texts helps frame erotic submission in broadly affective terms. This broader framework can help expand the horizons for contemporary queer readings of masochistic sexuality, as eighteenth-century evangelical negotiations of power, publicity, sex, and gender inform embodied and imagined pleasures in both the past and the present. Sexuality develops through a contradictory process of proscription and approbation, and the rhetoric of pleasurable suffering in eighteenth-century Protestant dissent could have simultaneously displayed an identification with Christ's suffering and at the same time contributed to the transformation of sexual perversions. The commonsense reading of Moravian and Methodist hymns as, in historian Phyllis Mack's words, "more plausibly . . . an identification with Christ's redemptive suffering than . . . an unconscious sublimation of genital sex" corrects Thompson's reductive psychoanalysis but should not exclude the possibility that the hymns might provide another sort of erotic charge for either Methodist adherents or their critics. Moravian and Methodist identifications with Christ's suffering were, indeed, labeled perverse by hostile popular, theological, and scholarly publications. Methodism's innovations in public evangelism also make Thompson's claims about Methodism's capacity to effect psychological change more plausible. In the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, Methodism's popularity was grounded in its unprecedented success in reaching and shaping a public. Like many Protestant evangelical sects, Methodism attracted adherents by cultivating a religious "sense" capable of hearing its messages "aright"; Methodism was particularly successful in its use of the sensual experience of the camp meeting, small group worship, hymn singing, exhorting, preaching, and many new forms of publishing and reading. Eighteenth-century Methodism thereby extended, in new public contexts, the seventeenth- and sixteenth-century rituals of abjection, including conversion processes of self-regulation and identification that grounded and attempted to transcend the (sinful) modern self. When heard "aright," these public practices claimed to ameliorate the effects of what Habermas terms "cultural differentiation," bridging the growing divides between sexual, spiritual, and economic rhetoric. Heard wrong or circulating in the wrong context, this rhetoric could also lead to new perversions. These two outcomes may not be as distinct as either Thompsonian skeptics or the faithful would prefer. As Chapter 1 will show, the work of Jonathan Edwards and other eighteenth-century revivalists offers an affective alternative to the spectatorial delight imagined by Methodism's critics, employing the racial and gendered tropes of suffering during conversion in different ways.