In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Secularism and Viable Life
  • Peter Coviello (bio)

Or think of it like this.

In 1883 a man named Henry M. Teller, acting in his role of secretary of the interior—a position that gave him jurisdiction over the Bureau of Indian Affairs—authorized the implementation of a "Religious Crimes Code." The document drawn up by his commissioner of Indian affairs, Hiram Price, is, in both its compression and its strange itemized multiplicity, altogether remarkable. Here, for instance, are just a few infractions mapped out in what would come to be known as a "Code of Indian Offenses":

4th. The "sun-dance," the "scalp-dance," the "war-dance," and all other so-called feasts assimilating thereto, shall be considered "Indian offenses," and any Indian found guilty of being a participant in any one or more of these "offenses" shall, for the first offense committed, be punished by withholding from the person or persons so found guilty by the court his or their rations for a period not exceeding ten days …

5th. Any plural marriage hereafter contracted or entered into by any member of an Indian tribe under the supervision of a United States Indian agent shall be considered an "Indian offense," cognizable by the Court of Indian Offenses …

6th. The usual practices of so-called "medicine-men" shall be considered "Indian offenses" cognizable by the Court of Indian Offenses, and whenever it shall be proven to the satisfaction of the court that the influence or practice of a so-called "medicine-man" operates as a hindrance to the civilization of a tribe, or that said "medicine-man" resorts to any artifice or device to keep the Indians under his influence, or shall adopt any means to prevent the attendance of children at the agency schools, or shall use any of the arts of a conjurer to prevent the Indians from abandoning their heathenish rites and customs, he shall be adjudged guilty of an Indian offense.1

Sun-dances, plural marriage, indigenous medicine, "heathenish rites": here, I want to suggest, in compressed miniature, is an arresting portrait of the mechanics of early American biopower. More precisely, the code delineates just what happens to a population whose structures and practices of belief fall hard askance those of an expanding empire that has, with magisterial completeness, folded a liberalized Christianity into the very core of its self-conception, [End Page 889] and has made out of that conjuncture an encompassing, and fully racialized, metaphysics. That entangled in-folding can be usefully designated, I think, by the term secularism. The Religious Crimes Code is a map of its biopolitics.

If you've read this far, you likely do not need an exhaustive restatement of the principles of biopower. You will be familiar, I mean, with the conceptual vocabulary that aims to describe the rationalized distribution of capacities across populations in a slatted, hierarchized economy of life, ranging from the healthy to the expendable. The biopolitical names an order of power that operates through a disciplinary investment in the biological life of mass social phenomena, as these are disaggregated into racialized micro-populations, and rationalized in an optimizing calculus designed to foster some forms of life, inhibit or disallow others, and to regulate them collectively in a flexible economy of interaction. Kyla Schuller, in her indispensable The Biopolitics of Feeling, offers a deft and compact definition: "Biopower functions as an umbrella term combining two different yet overlapping instruments of postsovereign power deployed within the regime of civilization: the discipline of the individual body, which worked to 'integrate the body into a system of economic productivity'; and the 'regulatory controls' of biopolitics, which 'aim to adjust population to economic processes.'"2 Let's take this all as given.

There are, then, two points I'd like to emphasize in respect to the "Code of Indian Offenses." First, we might observe that the 1883 document offers us a clarifying purchase on the workings of racialization—its cross-wired articulations—through which a subpopulation is made over into a species of misfiring life. For here, racial redemption, erotic propriety, and religious correction take shape as part of a single, fused strategy of disciplinary intervention—an intervention that maps out...


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