Sunday, December 05, 2004

"Stimulated by some irregular passion"

Ezra's post on Pandagon (via Corrente) about the need to consider a theistic viewpoint in constructing a progressive argument has me thinking once again (or still) about the "founders" and the Enlightenment. The post is titled "To Save The Enlightenment, We Must Destroy It," but you know, I'm not sure we really represent the Enlightenment fairly all the time. Because this post will be very long (god help me, I am quoting from my dissertation below), I will cut to the chase and explain, in a nutshell, what I mean. I don't want to sound like I've been reading too much Derrida, but what I've been thinking about are these binaries that structure our political debates. Currently, the binary seems to be reason/religion. In the Debates on the Constitution, perhaps an even more (or at least as) frequently employed binary was reason/passion or enlightenment/embodiment.

I'm unconvinced that in the "real world" these binaries are as instructive as the rhetoric, now or then, would lead us to believe. That is to say, the progressive agenda is no less driven by moral concerns than the conservative one. We may prefer to call them "ethics," but the ideals of tolerance, justice, and equality are indeed, moral values. In turn, the conservative platform is no less dominated by policy and legalistic concerns than the progressive one. I don't think these motivations are so easily parsed as we might like to believe. And it's been my observation that when we on the left feel threatened by an increasingly powerful fundamentalist Christian faction, we tend to underscore this binary rather than break it down.

And so, in blog after blog (including my own), you can read posts dedicated to a misty-eyed remembrance of the Enlightenment, a time when, we would all have you believe, "founding fathers" such as Jefferson and Madison clearly understood the absolute distinction between reason and religion. Now don't get me wrong, it would make me happier than I can describe if we could just dispense with Jesus talk now and forever in the political public sphere and never have to think again about how to talk with and persuade religious conservatives that ours is a "moral" platform. It's not how my mind works in its resting state. But that's not the world we live in and I guess what I'm trying to argue here is I'm not sure that's ever been the world we've lived in.

Okay, here comes the long dissertation part. Following are some quotes from my chapter on the Debates. Were I less Sunday-lazy, I would rewrite them so that they didn't look plucked from an academic document and better fit the paragraphs above, but oh well.

Despite its British authorship, Clarissa proved to be a potent cautionary tale for American citizens. The immoral seducer à la Richardson’s Lovelace became an omnipresent cultural figure in the early American republic, cropping up, not only in the novels of the eighteenth century, but in the political writings as well. To some, the citizens of the republic were in danger of being seduced by America’s privileged elite who were attempting to create a strong government that served their own interests above those of the nation as a whole. To others, the source of citizens’ seduction was the allure of too much freedom and not enough governmental control; the siren song of excessive liberty could lead Americans away from decisions that would protect them and ensure their safety. In either case, seduction was a pitfall to be wary of in a system of representation, where misrepresentation is always a possibility.

. . .

In a typical articulation of these fears, John Adams writes to his friend William Cunningham, “The people are Clarissa and democracy is Lovelace” (19; 15 March 1804). Adams expresses the common warning that the people’s virtue may not save them in the face of political players, or a political system, stronger than themselves.

. . .

Adams is obviously worried that the credulity and inexperience of the American people will make them too sympathetic an audience to seductive rhetoricians and thus lead them to support political players who do not have their best interests at heart. In his letter, Adams draws a parallel between the “inevitable” demise of Clarissa at the hands of Lovelace and the fate of the American people and the republican political sphere. And here, it is worth quoting the whole of the passage from which the above sentence is extracted to underscore the deliberate nature of the comparison and the way in which Adams saw the story of the fallen woman as such an apt metaphor for his more pessimistic speculations about the potential future of the United States:

You say the awful spirit of democracy is in great progress. I believe it and I know something of the nature of it. It is a young rake who thinks himself handsome and well made, and who has little faith in virtue—When the people once admit his courtship, and permit him the least familiarity, they soon find themselves in the condition of the poor girl, who told her own story in this affecting style.

. . .

The next day he grew a little bolder—but promised me marriage. The next day—he began to be enterprising: But the next day—O Sir! the next day he got me with child.

Democracy is Lovelace, and the people are Clarissa. The artful villain will pursue the innocent lovely girl to her ruin and her death—We know that some gentleman will arise at last, who will put the guilty wretch to death in duel. But this will be no friend of the lady. Perhaps a son, a pupil or a bosom friend of Lovelace, himself. The time would fail me to enumerate all the Lovelaces in the United States. It would be an amusing romance to compare their actions and characters with his. The Federalists appear to me to be very inattentive to public events as well as characters. (19–20)

The rhetoric and tropes that animate Adams’ letter recur obsessively throughout all forms of the period’s writing. To understand the struggles over establishing a body politic in the early republic, it is important to appreciate not only the fears that Adams expresses but also the implications of the language he uses to express those fears. Seduction novels provide tropes and language to describe who is fit, and who is not, to participate in the United States’ self-governance. Both the Federalists and Antifederalists discuss the dilemmas of constituting the early republic—the state and the body politic—in terms imported from the popular fiction of the time. The language that describes the heroines of these novels and the dangers they face animates the debates over the Constitution. The use of the rhetoric of seduction novels had very real political effects. The novels from which these figures are drawn focus on men who are not what they seem and who act according to self-interest rather than public principle. Many, perhaps most, novels of the period feature young innocents who are wooed, seduced, and then abandoned by profligate men. This figure of the seducer lurks, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background, in book after book. Indeed, with his deceitfulness, dishonesty, and selfishness he embodies many citizens’ anxieties about the threat that people’s baser impulses pose to democracy.

It is not difficult to see the seduction plot as an argument against women’s suffrage and for a male-dominated representative democracy, whereby men are chosen to represent women’s interests and to decide for them. According to the ur-plot of the seduction novel, innocent women need protection from potentially lethal men; they need someone older, wiser, and more rational to “read” the intentions of others and to intervene to make reasoned decisions in their best interests. Gender, of course, was a primary filter through which citizens were included or excluded from the political public sphere. But using the seduction novel as a lens through which to read early national political arguments reveals a more complicated relationship between gender and political participation. Gender becomes not just a biological but a rhetorical category and further, a rhetorical dialectic. Not only do women need protecting, but those who need protecting are like women. That is, the Clarissas of America—be they male or female—need the shelter of a strong state and a system of representation, and further, those who need this kind of protection are Clarissas. In the debates over the Constitution, the Federalists borrow the elements of seduction novels such as Clarissa to figure working men as impressionable, and thus seducable, in short, to feminize working men and thus rhetorically figure them as unfit to participate in government. In this way, in the debates over the Constitution, gender becomes a way of figuring economic class.
That's the substance of the argument. The chapter discusses it at great length (yes, I know, so does this post). I will not bore with an entire rehearsal of the argument, but here are a few more extracts:

The majority of people, however, need protecting from the more sinister passions of political con men. Vividly conflating sexual and political violation, Madison explains:
. . . there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? (“Fed. LXIII” 2:318)
Employing the literary figure of the rake and his victim enables “Publius” to characterize the strong political opinions of the interested political player as fueled by sexual appetite. Subject to “irregular passions,” the people are “stimulated” and thus easy prey for “artful” men. The “temperate and respectable” have to intercede when the people are presented with such an “illicit advantage” or alluring politician, because at such times, the people are not governed by reason. They make decisions based on sensation or impulse, not thoughtful judgment. Madison, thus grounds the cause of political manipulation or faction in the body.
Continuing the same reason/embodiment binary, the Federalists argue for the proposed Constitution as a kind of medication, a salve for the ailments of the public body:

A patient who finds his disorder daily growing worse; and that an efficacious remedy can no longer be delayed without extreme danger; after coolly revolving his situation, and the characters of different physicians, selects and calls in such of them as he judges most capable of administering relief, and best entitled to his confidence. The physicians attend . . . They are unanimously agreed that the symptoms are critical, but that the case, with proper and timely relief . . . it may be made to issue in an improvement of his constitution. (Madison, “Fed. XXXVIII” 1:776)
If the people are prone to being led by their passions, vulnerable to violation by scoundrels, the framers will supply the cure for this disorder. The physician/Federalist positions himself in relation to, but removed from the body of the public. The principle of representation allows him this salutary removal or distance. Standing above the body, he can diagnose and treat it, pronouncing the Constitution healthy for the constitution.
The Antifederalists often used the same rhetoric to structure their arguments, smearing the Federalists as an elite minority who wish to take advantage of the working class.
In contrast with this elite corruption, the Antifederalists often positioned themselves as “simple” or “common” men. “John Humble,” for example, calls his essay a “humble address of the low born of the United States of America, to their fellow slaves” (emphasis in original, 1:224). Taking up “Publius’” metaphor of the sick body of the nation, “Humble” revalues physicality as a positive attribute, distancing himself from the corruption of the leisure class:

Whereas it hath been represented unto us that a most dreadful disease hath for these five years last past infected, preyed upon, and almost ruined the government and people of this our country; and of this malady we ourselves have had perfect demonstration, not mentally, but bodily, through every one of the five senses: For although our sensations in regard to the mind be not just so nice as those of the well born; yet our feeling, through the medium of the plow, the hoe, and the grubbing axe, is as accute [sic] as any nobleman’s in the world. (1:224)
Although “Humble” clearly satirizes the view that the “commoners” are incapable of rational reason, he does so by reclaiming embodiment as a badge of distinction, not dishonor. In invoking “the plow, the hoe, and the grubbing axe,” “Humble” underscores the value of physical work as the bedrock of virtue and gestures toward a distrust of book learning as a reliable method of character building. The “medium” here is not the mental labor of “a chosen body of citizen,” but rather the manual labor upon which the leisure of those chosen few rests. Working the land ought to be as important as owning it according to “Humble.”

“Humble” continues the conceit, explaining that, far from evincing a cure, the framers are perpetuating a hoax:

And whereas a number of skilful physicians having met together at Philadelphia last summer, for the purpose of exploring, and if possible removing the cause of this direful desease [sic], have . . . found out and discovered, that nothing but a new government consisting of three different branches, namely, king, lords, and commons . . . can save our country from inevitable destruction.—And whereas it hath been reported that several of our low born brethern [sic] have had the horrid audacity to think for themselves . . . and, dreadful thought! have wickedly began to doubt concerning the perfection of this evangelical constitution, which our political doctors have declared to be a panacea, which . . . will infallibly heal every distemper in the confederation . . . (emphasis in original, 1:224)
The “panacea” offered by the doctors of the Constitution is nothing more than a cure that would effect their own aggrandizement and the further oppression of the citizens who wield a plow rather than a pen. The honest sincerity of the working man serves to underscore the corruption of the advice offered by politicians such as “John Adams, Esquire, in the profundity of their great political knowledge” (1:224).
And part of the chapter's conclusion:
Herein lies the major downfall of the Antifederalist position: by insisting upon their own embodiment, their physicality, Antifederalists unwittingly positioned themselves outside of the realm of the political public sphere. The desire for full presence, an embodied incarnation of power is to deny the nature of democracy and, of course, the nature of any system of representation, be it political, literary, or economic. As Derrida has taught us, representation always involves slippage, a concept which Antifederalists failed to understand. Although the Antifederalists sensed the opacity in the quasi-metaphoric relationship of representation put forth, they were unable to offer a workable solution to the dilemma.
I've been thinking about all of this for weeks now, and I guess the substance of what I'm trying to say here is that, to at least some degree, these distinctions are a rhetorical slight of hand. Maybe I am just reiterating Ezra's point in an overly ponderous way--I don't know--but it seems to me that the Debates bear on so much of what we are all writing about and thinking about. Don't we want to revise the "Enlightenment"? Don't we want to work for a more populist politics that didn't depend on a marginalization of the "embodied" or "unreasonable," but instead worked diligently to enfranchise them? I think that we on the left can sometimes be guilty of the Federalists' worst excesses of elitism, and at the same time, at this point in history, we may be making strategic errors similar to those the Antifederalists made. That is, by insisting on a Manichean distinction between reason and spirituality or religion we may be dooming our principles because of our rhetoric.

Okay, anyone who actually read this whole post absolutely deserves a gold star. Thank you for bearing with me.

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