- Obi, Assemblage, Enchantment
In one of the earliest texts of sociology, Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical (1854), the white supremacist Henry Hughes defines women, blacks, and insane persons as “subsovereign” individuals.1 It would be hard for any reader of this journal not to recognize such a claim as a form of racist and discriminatory thought; surely we know that women, blacks, and insane persons are people too. But in the subprime present of late, late capitalism, we are learning something else as well: sovereignty is just not so sovereign anymore, even for those persons previously known as autonomous liberal subjects. Even for those persons previously known as literary critics. The star-making machinery of the English departments of the 1980s has become clogged with and co-opted by the assistant deanery and assessment effluvia of the neoliberal, managerially minded university.2 The tide of the linguistic turn has long since ebbed, leaving English scholars beached on the shores of shrinking humanities divisions, searching for ways to increase traffic on their wordpress blogs and remain engaged in an educational endeavor with resonant communal dimensions beyond the accumulation of student loan debt.
At such a moment as this, “subsovereign” antebellum women, blacks, and insane persons may have something to teach us. As a number of well-circulated and highly debated essays on literary criticism today indicate, the figure of the heroic (sovereign) critic who excels at the revelatory, curtain-removing critical act seems to be under siege.3 The “paranoid reading” (Eve Sedgwick’s term) or “symptomatic reading” (Sharon Marcus’s and Stephen Best’s term) of the heroic critic is one that aims to expose hidden truths—to show the workings of power behind the cloak of culture. But exposure itself seems to have lost its cachet: [End Page 172] the ruses of power no longer seem to require veiling. If to expose is by no means to vanquish, then critique is increasingly shorn of political force and the heroic critic has lost his or her superpowers. Instead of revelation and exposure, then, a number of new terms have risen to the fore: affect theory, reparatory reading, surface reading. And in the case of this forum, “enchantment.” In what follows, I aim to relate new reading practices to historically informed literary analysis by way of considering the relation between “enchantment” and subsovereignty. Specifically, I am interested in what I have come to call “sub-agency” or the sub-agential subject who inhabits a world defined by dispersed, deindividuated subjectivity—a world in which sub-agential subjects cohabit with semi-agential objects, a world in which the assemblage of things and bodies is the locus of meaning, possibility, and poesis.
In his classic account of the Haitian Revolution, Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James relates a brief anecdote concerning a slave who is discovered to have stolen some potatoes and hidden them in his shirt. When confronted with the evidence of this theft, the slave replies, “Eh! Master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” James writes, regarding this event, that the “majority of the slaves accommodated themselves to [the] unceasing brutality [of slavery] by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their master . . . When caught in error they persisted in denial with the same fatalistic stupidity.”4 Yet the stupidity at stake in this anecdote seems more than wooden—that is, it seems to partake of a certain creative resistance: the claim that the stones one put in one’s shirt were transformed into potatoes by the devil supposes or asks one to entertain the transformative capacity of inanimate, inert objects. More radically, the slave’s words invoke an alternative regime of being or ontology—one in which there is a plasticity between and among objects, one in which the devil has as much power to order the relations among people and things as does the master.
The ontology evoked in James’s anecdote is given full expression in Obeah—the Jamaican religious/medical practice associated with colonial slave culture and the African diaspora.5 Obi is, literally, a practice of assemblage; the Obi priest assembles bits of...