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Plantation State: Uncle Remus and the Reconstruction of American Sovereignty

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Abstract:

Where does one begin to look for the United States plantation following formal abolition and the end of the Civil War? Without too much effort, one can track its dispersal and entrenchment in sites crucial to American empire: sugar plantations in the Philippines, coffee plantations in Mexico, banana plantations in the Caribbean, rubber plantations in Brazil. Yet, within the territorial entity of the United States, the visibility of the plantation—that exemplary world circuit of capitalism and colonialism—seems almost entirely eclipsed. Why? As W. E. B. Du Bois affirmed in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the plantation and its violence never disappeared: black workers “on the plantations in the back-country districts are still held at forced labor practically without wages,” he writes. Little scholarship contests the myth of the plantation’s ruin in the United States after 1865, though in fact, it did not reach its apex until the early twentieth century. Given the lie, what cultural and political work does this invisibility perform?

This paper relocates the post-bellum plantation, resilient even if transformed, within the context of the nation-state and the languages of statecraft. In doing so, it engages questions about U.S. imperialism that have directed American Studies over the past decade. Not a strict historical account, this paper argues instead for reading the plantation literature of the late nineteenth century—in this instance, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), which operates less as pastoral nostalgia than as a scene of state power and as a racial discourse on liberalism, sacrifice, and citizenship. This literature partakes in a contemporary conversation with a blossoming discourse on sovereignty, one rooted in an emerging science of the state and its meditations on the U.S. South. There, a new fiction of sovereignty dictates the individual’s relation to the nation-state through a paradigm of liberalism, which is founded in an erotics of sacrifice. An analogous logic structures much plantation literature, not least Harris’ “A Story of the War.” Through a parallel anti-slavery archive, which reveals the unbroken structures of the plantation, this paper begins to theorize how it continues to function, materially and violently, both as an economic and as a cultural entity. Along the way, a scandalous collusion between the plantation’s political anatomy and the articulation of new state powers in the decades following Reconstruction is uncovered.

This is a work concerned, first and foremost, with how political power, racial violence, and capital intersect in the form of a particular institution. In charting that intersection, this project necessarily blurs the bright line between slavery and freedom that is supposed to inhere in formal abolition. It also calls into explicit question a hidden disciplinary division between supra-national and intra-national modes of subjection. This paper locates the plantation at the still vital crossroads within American Studies of transnationalism and U.S. imperial cultures and reveals at that site a map of the new directions those valuable lines of inquiry might now take.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245198_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Carico, Aaron. "Plantation State: Uncle Remus and the Reconstruction of American Sovereignty" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 16, 2008 <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245198_index.html>

APA Citation:

Carico, A. , 2008-10-16 "Plantation State: Uncle Remus and the Reconstruction of American Sovereignty" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245198_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Where does one begin to look for the United States plantation following formal abolition and the end of the Civil War? Without too much effort, one can track its dispersal and entrenchment in sites crucial to American empire: sugar plantations in the Philippines, coffee plantations in Mexico, banana plantations in the Caribbean, rubber plantations in Brazil. Yet, within the territorial entity of the United States, the visibility of the plantation—that exemplary world circuit of capitalism and colonialism—seems almost entirely eclipsed. Why? As W. E. B. Du Bois affirmed in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the plantation and its violence never disappeared: black workers “on the plantations in the back-country districts are still held at forced labor practically without wages,” he writes. Little scholarship contests the myth of the plantation’s ruin in the United States after 1865, though in fact, it did not reach its apex until the early twentieth century. Given the lie, what cultural and political work does this invisibility perform?

This paper relocates the post-bellum plantation, resilient even if transformed, within the context of the nation-state and the languages of statecraft. In doing so, it engages questions about U.S. imperialism that have directed American Studies over the past decade. Not a strict historical account, this paper argues instead for reading the plantation literature of the late nineteenth century—in this instance, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), which operates less as pastoral nostalgia than as a scene of state power and as a racial discourse on liberalism, sacrifice, and citizenship. This literature partakes in a contemporary conversation with a blossoming discourse on sovereignty, one rooted in an emerging science of the state and its meditations on the U.S. South. There, a new fiction of sovereignty dictates the individual’s relation to the nation-state through a paradigm of liberalism, which is founded in an erotics of sacrifice. An analogous logic structures much plantation literature, not least Harris’ “A Story of the War.” Through a parallel anti-slavery archive, which reveals the unbroken structures of the plantation, this paper begins to theorize how it continues to function, materially and violently, both as an economic and as a cultural entity. Along the way, a scandalous collusion between the plantation’s political anatomy and the articulation of new state powers in the decades following Reconstruction is uncovered.

This is a work concerned, first and foremost, with how political power, racial violence, and capital intersect in the form of a particular institution. In charting that intersection, this project necessarily blurs the bright line between slavery and freedom that is supposed to inhere in formal abolition. It also calls into explicit question a hidden disciplinary division between supra-national and intra-national modes of subjection. This paper locates the plantation at the still vital crossroads within American Studies of transnationalism and U.S. imperial cultures and reveals at that site a map of the new directions those valuable lines of inquiry might now take.


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Rebuilding the American State: The Political Theory of Institutional Reconstruction in the Progressive Era


 
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