- The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War by Caleb Smith
Caleb Smith charts an ambitious path in The Oracle and the Curse. Exploring divergent conceptions of law operative before the Civil War—one [End Page 161] rooted in a legible secular world, the other in a mystified divine one—Smith demonstrates how their contradictory definitions of authority’s origin shaped, and reshaped, American legal culture. Rather than focusing narrowly on legal procedures or institutions, Smith points to what he calls the juridical public sphere, which includes legal practices and treatises, scenes of judgment, works of literature, and their reception (or resistance) by both participants and general audience. Given the argument and historical period, it is no surprise to find slavery a key topic, but Smith’s capacious study surveys other subjects as well, including execution, blasphemy, and women’s public speech.
Early in the book, Smith notes that the legal practices and principles he studies have “a history, but … [also] a poetics” (16). This is a crucial point. Where literary scholars have often sought to parse the rhetoric of legal argument or consider how legal practices are represented in fiction, Smith instead outlines the poetics, or system, that underwrites American legal culture. A poetics of justice differs from a legal history, he explains, by its interest in “a fictive, sometimes spectral body, conceived and governed in acts of performative invocation” (66). The “afterlives of enchantment” attendant upon these acts are as crucial to understanding the juridical public sphere in the years before the Civil War as the more familiar account of “the secularization of crime genres and the rationalization of power” (66).
Several key contributions emerge from Smith’s approach. First, the argument diverts attention away from persons toward the culture their actions helped to form. This is not to suggest that the book ignores specific jurists or authors—there are fine discussions of fiction and law—but rather to stress that it seeks the “poetics that precedes the assertion of any particular proposition” (131). It is not sufficient to turn to “official legal procedures” to understand the deliberative and dynamic legal public sphere, Smith notes, although jurisdiction is important to his argument (159). Moving from these premises, Smith asks a series of questions that expand our engagement with legal culture: What kinds of works contribute to the juridical public sphere? How did readers understand their relationship to the law? In what ways might texts locate readers in, or alienate readers from, a community shaped or distorted by the law? Smith’s reading of Thomas Gray’s pamphlet The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) offers an example of the kind of argument a poetics makes possible. Where previous scholars have stressed how Gray erases Turner’s revolutionary appeal, Smith argues that the pamphlet, an example of “reactionary legal literature,” “calls on its public to imagine itself as the moral community in whose name the death sentence is spoken” and “recogniz[e] the voice of the law as the medium of its own collective identity” (162). [End Page 162]
Equally important is the argument about specific speech acts—the oracle and the curse—both integral in diverting attention away from individuals. Although they index divergent relationships, Smith explains that the oracle and the curse both suppress the speaker in order to convey an authority in excess of any one person. This is the root of their “performative magic,” the reason for their importance to a poetics of justice (163). Smith unfolds the overlapping trajectories of oracle and curse, although the latter’s disruptive energy is dominant. The story of the oracle, sketched across the opening chapters, begins at the moment when a vanishing theocratic past intersects with an increasingly rational legal future; here the reader meets the secular jurist eager to perform his “reasonableness” (11).
Where the legal oracle turns away from higher law, the curse embraces its exceptional authority as a way to protest injustice, dissent...