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  • Dark Matters:Race and the Antebellum Logic of Decorporation
  • Ashley Byock (bio)

The biopolitical republic of the United States has long been constituted in both material and discursive terms through and upon unnamed and unnameable black bodies. And yet this presence has acted as a kind of dark matter, which has exerted a persistent gravitational presence in all socio-legal aspects of personhood and citizenship in the United States from the early American period to our present moment. Legal interpretations of black personhood between the Revolutionary and Reconstruction periods laid foundations for long-lasting definitions of U.S. constitutional personhood around Enlightenment principles of willful agency, corporeal selfhood, and political personhood. Black bodies thus make up a kind of dark matter that has shaped formulations of American identity from the beginning by and through biopolitical negation and negative identification.

This presence, unlike the dark matter of physics, is neither neutral nor unmotivated; rather, its immaterial quality derives from the systemic repression of histories, presences, and vigorous human activity. But how can we account for the materiality of disappeared, exiled, or non-citizen bodies, and can we trace their recombinant waves of dark matter influence down through the ages? To the extent that these bodies and their concomitant realms of experience and interaction with the material world may be suppressed, their gravitational pulls persist in constitutional definitions of citizenship, in public and private edifices, in nests of privilege, and in economic networks of power.

The present analysis argues that these suppressed histories are an effect of decorporation, a specific corporeal schema of biopolitical exile and decapitation in the early republic for black persons in particular. In the same way that the biopolitical schema invests certain bodies and persons with rights through what we might call one form of incorporation, others are neither fully incorporated nor fully exiled. These decorporated persons are figuratively decapitated so that the laboring body remains part of the incorporated imagined state while something else that we might identify as personhood (or will, intention, identity) is exiled. Constitutional personhood is thus [End Page 47] constituted significantly by way of decorporation alongside the incorporation of proper citizens into an idealized populace (Foucault 2004).

This project refers to some portion of this lost corpus as “dark matter” in order to conjure affective and other kinds of material that were exiled from common language in 1831 and thereabouts. This matter remains outside our shared historiographies as well so our problem is doubled as we reproduce the limitations of our analytical tools. Like the Enlightenment scientist seated before a new optical instrument, the fineness of our tools often obscures our view of what is missing from the visible range. Even with the best intentions, our ways of re-historicizing tend to figuratively re-incorporate lost histories into familiar narratives instead of uprooting our shared notions of agency and individualism and their dynamic enmeshment with socio-political constructions. If agentic individualism and the founding of the United States as a modern nation-state are mutually constitutive, and if this process requires a biopolitical decorporation of black persons, then we must locate black personhood outside this biopolitical logic and without recourse to its historiographies.

New materialist thinkers have sought to reformulate how we think about agency and will. In their most recent works, Sara Ahmed and Karen Barad in particular seek modes of thinking about volitional action that subvert hierarchized forms of rationality that not only support but are made necessary by normalizing exceptionalist discourses. This project proposes to examine one set of historical contexts that exposes the alliance of governing biopolitical requirements and assumptions about agentic capacity in the context of new modes of citizenship. Without advocating one specific model of agency, this study asks whether materialist analyses can recuperate a real of some sort that shared discourses generally omit. If so, might we then have some way of grasping those expressions, gestures, utterances, affects, bodies, and domains that don’t have common names in a shared language?

Both Ahmed and Barad demonstrate ways of rethinking agency that resist its enmeshment with superstructures of power. The present analysis of Locke and early republican constitutional interpretations of personhood demonstrates how white personhood and agency...


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pp. 47-63
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