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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002) 253-272
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One 2 Many Communities 1
Timothy J. Deines
Michigan State University
Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere. By Russ Castronovo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001
The task of the Left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology, but on the contrary, to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical plural democracy.
—Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy2
Repairing fractures or describing structures will never be able to take the place of a thinking of Being itself as being-together.
—Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural3
LAST YEAR, IN THE PAGES OF CR, RUSS CASTRONOVO WROTE THAT "[W]HAT CITizenship dehistoricizes are the historical conditions of its own articulations...." 4 This was to become the central thesis of his then-forthcoming book, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States.Necro Citizenship is out, and true to form, it takes its ideological stand resolutely within the borders of this thought, with citizenship at the helm as universal political subject. For 350 pages, [End Page 253] including notes and index, Castronovo demonstrates the 'deathly' process by which this nineteenth-century subject, citizenship, strips itself of all historicity, leaving history a 'messy' matter of private affairs (the 'civic sphere'), and consolidates the 'public sphere' for the use of another subjectivity, the middle-to-upper class (white male, more or less). While citizenship appears to represent a universal political subjectivity in its own right, with no historical debts, in truth it is always only the abstract result of the forgetting of historical relation and its struggle, favoring certain groups of people over others. This is an old problem of liberal thought and institution, and it is still relevant to today's U.S., where the state's dispensation of citizenship is, ideally, presumed to provide equal treatment under the law (which itself is not true), but in reality leaves people subject to a whole range of discrimination in the 'private sphere.' The author's primary task is to recover the stuff of historicity that liberalism conveniently forgets—its peculiarities and its secrets, its repressed political potentialities—and then reintroduce this stuff's energies into contemporary public political life. Something is wrong with liberal citizenship, and Necro Citizenship is searching for a way to fix it, employing a kind of dialectical model for its method. 5 And while Necro Citizenship represents its research with dazzling speed and virtuosity, sublating all sorts of historical curiosities into the national history, its desire to discover today's political cure in yesterday's news is troubling. Castronovo deploys his research in the service of a "radical politics" that he hopes will look decidedly different from liberal citizenship, but which will function within liberal ideology in general, reforming it but not transforming it.
This decision to placate liberalism and limit itself to a revitalization of liberal democratic politics leaves Necro Citizenship facing a familiar dilemma: How to imagine a politics that can overcome politics, that is, the domination and hierarchy that infuses group identification and relation? Actually, Castronovo never asks this question, because he doesn't think it is the appropriate question to ask. Instead, his question is: How to imagine a democracy in which every citizen will feel empowered to engage in politics rather than avoid it? In answering this question, Necro Citizenship ends up imagining what Jean-Luc Nancy has called the 'exemplary life' in mythic cosmology and literatures, in which nothing, in general, is left uncovered, un-recovered, and [End Page 254] everything is a potential candidate for identification, place, and presence within the mythic system, including persons and groups. 6
Early on, Castronovo develops a concept he calls necro ideology, which names the liberal process whereby political concepts—citizenship and freedom, for example—through the repression of their constitutive content, become reified, humanist universals. Necro ideology is a ghostly process, Castronovo tells us: a deathly logic that renders the public sphere devoid of agonistic energies, and the private...