democracy’s graveyard
How does death structure political life? Ever since Patrick Henry
issued his revolutionary ultimatum of ‘‘liberty or death,’’ death has
seemed pivotal to citizenship in the United States. While this choice
appears clear-cut and transparent, the implied equivalence of political
category to biological event constitutes a complex narrative of citizen-
ship. What are the historical conditions that give freedom a natural,
inescapable teleology? How does the ultimate privacy and incommu-
nicability of death spell out a pedagogy for the public sphere? Why
is the universal fact of mortality indispensable to specific construc-
tions of citizenship in the United States? And what exactly is killed off
by the experience of citizenship? In taking up such conflicting ques-
tions, Necro Citizenship examines the cultural force of death in order
to historicize and theorize the brief life of the U.S. citizen.
Rituals of mourning, occult séances to summon the dead, eroticized
memories of the deceased, the fetishization of suicide, and spiritualist
beliefs in the afterlife that appeared in the nineteenth century are more
than attempts to understand and accept the universal inevitability of
mortality. Such practices and performances also exert specific politi-
cal meanings by ambivalently marking the conditions of democratic
existence within the state. Especially in conjunction with metaphoric
yet no less real dimensions of slavery’s social death, citizenship in the
nineteenth-century United States at once stands in opposition to and
depends on death for definition and substance. As both corporeal fact
and political metaphor, death produces bodies whose materiality dis-
turbs the impersonality of citizenship, but whose remove from socio-
political life also idealizes the unhistorical and abstract nature of state
identity. Death, then, structures political life in terms of aversion as
well as desire.
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