At a public gathering of townspeople near the end of The Scarlet Letter,
Hester Prynne watches aloof, her face ‘‘like a mask; or rather, like the
frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features.’’ Her imitation of death,
the reader is told, stems from ‘‘the fact that Hester was actually dead.’’
On this day when the populace assembles to consecrate its governors,
Hester appears as a walking corpse. Although Hester is not a zom-
bie, for a moment, literal and figurative meanings of death blur so
that her severe estrangement from the community tracks across both
simile and statement of fact. This shadowy space of a public sphere
where people’s bodies and identities are transmogrified is the terrain
that this book calls necro citizenship.
Hester is ‘‘actually dead,’’ not because of some Poe-like erotic mes-
merism that has slowed decomposition (though there will be plenty
of that in later chapters) or because Nathaniel Hawthorne loses his
precise grip on language, confusing actual and metaphoric sense. In-
stead, she is dead because of a political process, one that transpires
in public and changes bodies at the level of their constitution. U.S.
versions of democracy guide and oversee this process, binding per-
sons to the state and nation on the condition that they first identify
as citizens—or noncitizens—and become as placid and resigned as
the ‘‘frozen calmness’’ of Hester’s face. More often than not, rather
than a relation of force, this binding is one of desire and eroticism.
The United States, after all, loves its citizens much as the rituals of
patriotism verify that these citizens love their country in return. This
binding is also irresistible: citizens long for Hester’s frozen calmness;
their morbid affection for nation and state orchestrated in the public
sphere connects to a fantasy of democracy that seems beyond the dis-
ruption, contestation, and unresolved agitation of politics. The prom-
ise of this sort of necro citizenship lies outside the scope of politics.
The public sphere—and the forms of personhood that it creates—
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