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  • Sketches of Moral DuressOn the Analytics of White Liberal Ethicality—Mediating Crisis in the U.S. National (Racial) Form
  • Casey R. Goonan (bio)

It is relatively easy to anticipate a relationship between culture and conduct. This is, after all, the very stuff of our national identity.

—Karla F. C. Holloway, Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character

In what follows, I offer a history and radical political theorization of the analytics of white (liberal) ethicality in post-Reconstruction and mid-twentieth-century U.S. settler society.1 Building upon scholarship in black studies, critical race and ethnic studies, African American (women's) history, literary criticism, and cultural theory, this interdisciplinary project consists of two central components. In part I, I borrow from Denise Ferreira da Silva's "Transparency Thesis" to conceptualize the analytics of white ethicality as an apparatus of modern power/knowledge [End Page 241] manufactured at the intersection of the fields of Western Ethics and Metaphysics (2007). I argue both fields work through the medium of ethicality to define the dominant standards of rightness, goodness, and "just" moral behavior in the self-enclosed mindworld of (white/multicultural) American settler society.2 Moreover, I demonstrate how a stubbornly reformist, liberal-progressive iteration of this ethico-moral sensibility serves as a primary—though often tacit—foundation for cultural-juridical codes and material-symbolic structures that mystify and enable the violent reproduction of the white body politic during periods of acute crisis internal to the U.S. national (racial) form.

In part II, I interrogate the historical regimes of white liberal ethicality that form the conceptual grids against which the comportment, self-fashioning, and politico-moral enunciation of black flesh (Spillers 1987) was apprehended, judged, and measured in the moral imaginary of two different white supremacist panics unfolding between the 1870s and 1970s.3 I ground this conceptualization of the analytics of white (liberal) ethicality in a multitextual archival study of sources that range from books and popular print culture over this brief 100 years to the statements of government officials and canonical texts in Western ethical theory. This component of my project is written in the form of two conjunctural stories, or what I call sketches of moral duress. My first genealogical "sketch" fixes attention to the dialectics of terror and indifference that encircle the radical black women's antilynching crusades of the late nineteenth century and their convergence with the white supremacy of early twentieth-century American progressivism. In the second sketch, I offer a speculative reconstruction of the often-overlooked liberal moral panics of the late 1960s, as black populations of deindustrializing Northern cities began to experiment with the strategy of insurrection against the U.S. regimes of policing and de jure racial apartheid. I look at how white liberal ethicality's technologies of moral judgment have been deployed not primarily in an effort to purge, terrorize, or exterminate but to teach, instruct, correct, reform, school, proctor, uplift, humanize, civilize, professionalize, study, research, learn from, and/or "empower" black populations as a method for delimiting the potentiality of social revolution. [End Page 242]

I am also interested in generating a richer historical understanding of the semiotic and affective entanglements that form between reactionary (right-wing) and reformist (liberal-progressive) white nationalist ethical regimes as they are bound together in panic-driven orbit around the chaos-sign of racial blackness. Regarding the paper's first historical sketch, I consult the writing of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose late nineteenth-century A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 ([1895] 1991) suggests several key points of departure for conceptualizing how white liberal ethicality enables larger mechanisms and historical processes through which the organized ritualization of gratuitous violence is legally sanctioned and morally condoned in/by classical Northern and Southern spheres of white civil society.4 I specifically focus on the gendered and sexual dimensions of how black flesh is symbolically positioned (criminalized) by white ethico-moral regimes as either an incorrigible aberration from or a libidinal threat to the reproduction of the body politic and demonstrate how Wells-Barnett's work strongly resonates with the...


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