This special issue of American Quarterly seeks to mark the emergence of a robust conversation about biopolitics in the Americas before 1900, although the contributions that appear in what follows focus primarily on what is now North America. Focusing on life within slavery, racial capitalism, and settler colonialism, it critically engages the history of the biopolitical in the period before 1900 and reframes early American studies toward a new appreciation of the history of tactics of governance in this region.
Greta LaFleur and Kyla Schuller
Across the width of Kent Monkman’s almost 24-foot-wide canvas, we see staged a vision—perhaps a dream—of encounter.
On the left, whitecaps top angry-looking swells that threaten a raft occupied by an eclectic, even mismatched collection of Europeans. They clearly come from different eras-- a cowboy kneels next to what appears to be a woman dressed in seventeenth-century, perhaps French fashions— and hail from different imperial backgrounds, as we observe what appears to be a Pilgrim, clad in the characteristic hat, kneeling to the side of a Roman warrior who appears to be holding, or crucifying, Jesus Christ. The Europeans are accompanied by a number of nonhuman animals, including a horse, a poodle, a centaur, and a rat, and all aboard the makeshift raft appear to be in the throes of some kind of desperation. Indeed, the deteriorating raft itself—especially as it is pulling up alongside what appears to be a beautifully-made and structurally-sound birchbark canoe— seems thrown together, haphazard, perhaps the vestige of an actual boat that had sunk or been shipwrecked. The right side of the painting explicitly references Jean Louis Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), a portrait of suffering at sea.
Monkman revises Géricault’s epic painting here by the addition of an entirely different additional half of the canvas, turning the story of the Raft of the Medusa from one of a sea expedition gone wrong to an expedition that may be saved, or at least ended differently, by contact. On the right, a group of what appears to be Native people from the Americas stare at the Europeans out of a canoe, the emotional energy of which is every bit as cacophonous as that of the sinking raft they have encountered at sea. Like the raft of Europeans, the Native peoples collected in the canoe appear to hail from different era, and different cultures and nations up and down the Americas. Whether the viewer perceives the canoe’s occupants as rowing, fighting, attempting to help, or attempting to escape depends on which figure one scrutinizes. The man holding the oar above his head may be using it to try to hit one of the Europeans on the raft, but he may be trying to toss it to them. At the very front of the canoe, a man holds the corner of a net—he is perhaps fishing, but perhaps fishing for the reclining European man who sits naked on the edge of his raft, both feet in the water and one caught in the net. A man leans almost entirely out of the canoe, appearing to offer the cowboy what Europeans imagined to be a peace pipe, while another, behind him, holds his shirt, perhaps ensuring that he doesn’t fall, or maybe trying to pull him back. In the middle of a scene marked by a total heterogeneity, even confusion, of affect, intent, and emotion, Miss Chief—also known as Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, one of Monkman’s performance alter egos and a persistent figure in his paintings— reclines, clad in a tiny bikini-like assemblage, her large erection standing in vibrant, sanguine contrast to the sickly grey palate of the other naked bodies and limp genitals visible on the European raft. Indeed, she appears to be sleeping, and in her recumbent figure we find the tongue-in-cheek meaning of the title of Monkman’s painting: Miss Chief’s wet dream.
We chose this image for the cover of this special issue because we believe that it offers a different narrative of the early Americas, and furthermore, points to the possibility of the multiplicity of stories that are, have been, and still could be told about contact, encounter, colonialism, and history. Unlike the narratives that elementary school children are often told about the founding of the Americas, the scene, in Monkman’s telling, does not occur on land—it occurs at sea. And instead of a narrative that imagines Europeans as either good-willed arrivals or diabolical, calculating villains, Monkman’s raft exposes settlers to be many different things, cruel, lost, desperate, inept—but, fundamentally, bad narrators of our own histories. The dream-like overlap and concatenation of histories, figures, mythos, and lies collapse into one another in this image, becoming the terrifying, if perhaps also exciting, occasion for Miss Chief’s dream. That her own canoe seems to be paddling away, eluding the greedy desperation of the doomed Europeans, may also be what makes this a wet dream, rather than a nightmare.
While it is up to readers to determine whether the histories we offer with this special issue are any more compelling than those that Monkman corrects in Géricault’s painting, we are thrilled to release this attempt at a revised or retold framework or method for scholarly approaches to early America. This special issue, “Origins of Biopolitics in the Americas,” leans away from hagiographies of nation or statehood in order to consider extra-national forms of governance and infrastructure. Building on expansive and ever-increasingly robust scholarly conversations in Black studies, Asian American Studies, and postcolonial studies that have relied on biopolitical frameworks in order to offer new analyses of the workings of governance, this special issue trains its gaze on the United States before 1900 to explore how thinking with biopolitical frameworks allows us to see different features of these variegated, complex histories.
At the same time, however, there is still a great need for further scholarship on these questions. Early American studies—and especially studies of the period before 1800—still exhibits reluctance surrounding the importation of what some scholars perceive to be presentist frameworks for analysis. Directions for possible future work in this vein are many, and we are excited for even more scholars to join the conversation. In particular, one of the obstacles we encountered in this special issue was the lack of engagement with Spanish-language scholarship in particular, and with studies of Iberian empire in the Americas in general. Overall, attention to the specificities of different imperial approaches to colonialism and governance has a lot to teach us about the relationship of the British Americas to, for example, the Spanish, French, or Dutch Americas, but furthermore, greater engagement with early Native studies scholarship may also allow us to forge better accounts of the particularities of settler colonial violence, especially in the period before 1800. The differential management and distribution of life and death transpired differently in not only different imperial contexts, but even in the same imperial context in different regions and in different periods. Late eighteenth-century Spanish California was not governed in the same way as seventeenth-century Spanish Peru, even as they putatively shared a government.
Similarly, there is a great need for more theoretically engaged work on the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries more broadly. Any attention to the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries, especially in what is now South America, will also require a concomitant amount of attention to the variety of industries that European settlers were chasing, when they sent ships to the Americas in the first place. How did the reliance on enslaved labor shape communities where the primary industry was mining, versus communities where the primary industry was agriculture? What might we learn about the community organization, and forms of affiliation or even resistance of enslaved peoples across these kinds of difference? Ultimately, early American studies needs the kinds of thinking currently happening in some of the best and most exciting ethnic studies scholarship, and we believe that fields represented by the departments that each of us are in—Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and American Studies, both of which lean toward the twentieth century, in terms of the kinds of scholarship they prize— would be enriched and thickened by a greater degree of engagement with early American scholarship, archives, and histories as well.
On the Inertia of Appetite: Transient Relations from the Chinatown Opium Scene
My essay begins with a profile of appetitive inertia and works backward to reassemble the scenes of transient relation that formed in late nineteenth-century opium joints. By now the “fiends” seen in such pictures may look like prototypical figures of addiction. Yet the aesthetic protocols that subtend colonial drug control regimes did not initially center on the disciplinary person of “the addict.” Rather, these protocols derive from attempts to regulate the contagious spread of appetites through Chinatown opium scenes. Around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, I argue, white Americans came to treat opium joints as test sites for the selective criminalization of drug habits and the aesthetic regulation of migrant living conditions. Neither of these biopolitical processes took the individual user as its primary target; instead they aimed to delimit and regulate zones of habit-forming contact between racialized types of life. (See, for example, this map, with “Chinese Opium Resorts” labeled in yellow.) More than simply demonizing figures of disordered appetite, various investigative agencies sought to expose, and rechannel the atmospheric effects of opium scences that seemed to transfigure the sensoria of anyone who joined in an opium scene. At issue, here, was how the transsensory drift of the joints not only loosened the hold of capitalist work-discipline but also allowed sexed bodies – women’s especially – to float out of sync with routine inducements to care for the future. I use the concept of inertia throughout the essay to map the lines of energetic transfer whereby opium scenes looped the appetites of visitors and regulars alike into a conditionally shared indifference to the social reproduction of settler-national time.
Other concepts could have organized this essay. Maybe the most obvious alternative is the concept of transient relations. In this space I want to bring together some resources that speak to how those relations may have shaped the “unsexing influence” of the opium joint. After briefly opening this phrase up for historical research, I’d like to pose some more speculative questions about the kinds of social and somatic mutability that altered states may elicit.
Not many printed texts used the phrase “unsexing influence” before it appeared in an exposé titled The Demon of the Orient in 1883, and none used it to describe the effect of opium joints. According to Greta LaFleur, the verb unsex came into widespread circulation between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century. LaFleur argues that it tended to mark a reflexive action – think Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here.” Unsexed could apply to those who had averted or given up the categorical relation of their somatic features to masculinity and/or femininity. Adriana Craciun suggests that Gothic figurations of the unsexed body disclose an anomalous gap in the “two-sex” schema established, if never stabilized, by Enlightenment sciences. Later in the nineteenth century new formations of biological, physiological, and embryological knowledge coalesced in an evolutionary account of sexual difference and sexual reproduction that put the rigid dichotomization of the sexes in question. Jules Gill-Peterson calls this “the thesis of natural bisexuality.” Its basic premise was that all human bodies have the latent potential to develop male or female characteristics as they pass through temporary stages of morphological plasticity. Neurological, hygienic, and temperance discourses turned to similar paradigms to support their condemnations of the unsexing and race-degenerating effects of overindulgence in idle pleasures (e.g. sex or drinking) and overwork for women involved in the public sphere (e.g. via political activism or wage labor). Where the two-sex schema had posited the unsexed as an exception to the natural order, the plasticity model would seek to chart the normative ranges within and beyond which sexed morphologies might deviate. More than that, by the turn of the century it would seek to remold processes of sexual differentiation and control sources of reproductive abnormality at the biochemical level.
By what means, then, were opium scenes supposed to lure their inhabitants away from the normative courses of reprosexual development? What made it possible to imagine that the appetitive and sensory alterations of functional inertia produced by opium could put the timeframes of morphological plasticity in flux? And how could the atmospheric effect of opium scenes combine with the psychotropic action of the substance itself to engender neutralized, indeterminate, disjunctive, or metamorphic relations to sexed embodiment / between sexed bodies?
Unsexing is a transient process. Kath Weston’s theory of unsexing stresses how a visceral “hiatus” – the instant “just before an acceleration into meaning gives way to what is commonly called ‘gender’” – may interrupt the visual assignment of sex to bodies as they move through everyday life. Not every kind of transience is so short-lived, though. I would argue that the atmosphere of opium scenes not only clouded the assignment of sexual difference in the moment but could also estrange the developmental and reproductive timeframes in which sexed bodies habitually related to one another. This dilated sense of transience was part of what defined the opium joint as an illicit space. Architectural modernism, Lucas Crawford argues, founded its masculinist aesthetic of timeless structural coherence on the abjection of the transient, the superficial, and the decorative. Not unlike the free-floating, multisensory haze that animates Crawford’s analysis of the Blur Building, the shifting atmospheric effects of opium joints could lead sexed bodies to lose or fade their tactile, kinetic, proprioceptive, and temporal coordination with normative modes of public visibility. Yet if these alterations work on consciousness, they are not reducible to subjective response. Atmosphere and the built structures from which it emerges are, as Tim Flohr Sørenson asserts, constitutive of the ecstatic states we tend to ascribe to human subjects. Most of the archives documenting Chinatown opium scenes represent attempts to freeze and collapse these ecstasies into static images of sociospatial disorder. Attending to the archival traces of transient relations cannot undo the ruination of those scenes or redress their enforced precariousness, but it can relay a sense of how the protocols of sexed embodiment might slip out of alignment, however temporarily.
Witch Hunts and Census Conflicts: Becoming a Population in Colonial Massachusetts
When Donald Trump was elected president, I was serving on the board of Women Have Options: Ohio’s statewide abortion fund and a founding member of the National Network of Abortion Funds. By that time, funds like ours all across the U.S. already had plans in place for how we might continue our work if states passed laws making what we do harder or illegal. Since then, Ohio’s governor signed a law effectively banning all abortions, which is as of this writing still blocked from taking effect in court.
The federal courts at this same time were wrangling over whether or not to allow a citizenship question on the constitutionally mandated 2020 U.S. census, a move for which the Republican administration advocated until finally conceding defeat this July. Given the terror campaign currently being waged by the administration against immigrants—even including a U.S. Congresswoman who is a naturalized citizen—introducing a citizenship question would almost certainly intimidate respondents from participating in the census and thus skew the counts in a way favorable to those supportive of its inclusion.
For me, news of the proposed census citizenship question simmered in the memory of the worst-case scenario discussions among fellow abortion funders, and, as an early Americanist by training, I wondered about how these particular expressions of biopolitical power had developed into such a complementary alignment. The state expresses its power and its ability to terrorize by deciding who may or may not be let in to society: pregnant people are barred from making this choice of when to let a new life in; and migrating people or people connected to migrants may not safely admit themselves to be counted in the censuses that organize the political landscape. As I routinely tell my students, settler colonialism is an ongoing system; and I recognized in this erecting of fearsome walls within processes of data collection and abortion access another iteration of settler colonialism’s insatiable fort-building. It was this coincidental pairing of census-wrangling and abortion-banning, and not Trump’s repetitive accusations about his critics’ “witch-hunting” that led me to reconsider how we tell the story of the Salem witch trials. I already knew that one of the first political theorists to advocate that states take regular peacetime censuses was Jean Bodin, and that he was probably best known in his lifetime for writing a how-to manual stoking witch-hunting terror campaigns. Among plague-decimated European populations, witch hunts could target midwives who had traditionally assisted with contraception and abortion and thereby fulfill a mercantilist appetite for increasing population numbers. Yet how might the link between censuses concerned with tracking populations and incursions into women’s knowledge about reproduction have played out in the settler colonial context of New England? Rather than looking for “origins,” precisely, of these twinned biopolitical aims, what could I learn about our own historical moment by comparing it with a particular and even idiosyncratic time and place in the past?
What I found surprised me. By the time of the Salem trials’ distinctively deadly outcome, New Englanders were widely known for their fixation with vital statistics, simultaneously innovating recording procedures and zealously guarding the interpretation of those records. In fact, the same year that the trials exploded, Massachusetts was hammering out its vital statistics codes, codes that would be in place for over a century afterward. And in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the major chroniclers cited Bodin when they wanted to talk about sympathy, trust, and betrayal. Why and how were feelings, censuses, and trials about targeted children and devilish bodies aligned in this moment? How did the emotional tumult wrought by a deeply gendered terror campaign transform colonists’ sense of themselves into members of a countable population, and a distinctively godly one?
Nobel laureate, champion of Black women’s writing, and fellow Ohioan Toni Morrison, who died this year, best captured the connection between a statistician’s calculated line-drawing, the witch hunt’s terrorizing scrutiny, and capitalism’s slavery-driven emergence in her 2008 novel A Mercy. Set in the 1690s, the protagonist Florens, herself an enslaved woman transported from the Caribbean like Tituba from the Salem trials, endures an investigation for signs of demonic possession: “Naked under their examination,” Florens writes, “I watch for what is in their eyes. No hate is there or scare or disgust but they are looking at my body across distances without recognition. Swine look at me with more connection when they raise their heads from the trough” (133). Later, Florens’ mother describes a similar “examination” that enslavers subject her to after surviving the Middle Passage. What unites all these forms of “looking” are eyes that see a “body across distances without recognition,” a scrutiny that renders its object “naked” and vulnerable without any hope of “connection.” A census taken without human connection to the counted is a violent act; as are legal intrusions into a real doctor-patient relationship on behalf of a spectral fetus. As Morrison continues to teach us, all of these forms of systemic violence were first forged in slavery-fueled capitalism’s murderous “trough.”