Sovereignty and Post-Coloniality: The Reproduction of Hegemonic Discourse and Legitimization of Sovereign Violence Against the American Slave
I aim to explore the question of American slavery in the mid 19th century by looking through literary, legal, and post-colonial lenses in effort to show how abolition-era literary narratives utilize stereotype to reproduce a racist discourse and, further, how legal documents and actions reduce the slave to homo sacer through a state of exception, ultimately making the slave the subject of legitimized sovereign violence.
Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin, published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is an anti-slavery, abolition-era narrative detailing the lives of a black slave family in the south. Though written with good intentions and anti-slavery sentiments, Stowe deploys a hegemonic ideology by confining slaves to their stereotypic bounds—lamenting slavery while utilizing a typical, Africanist-African-American depiction of slaves. Stowe reproduces a racist discourse by constructing stereotypical characterizations of black slaves; specifically their appearance and how they behave in comparison to their white counterparts. According to Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture:
An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependency on the concept of “fixity” in the ideological construction of otherness. Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it denotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy, and daemonic representation. Likewise the stereotype, which is a major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is “in place” already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated” (Bhabha 94-95).
Stereotype, then, must be the subject of an incessant repetition, as it is a claim which cannot be evidenced. The stereotype becomes static and unyielding— it is a fixity which does not allow for differentiation. Bhabha proclaims the fixity of the stereotype while also theorizing how the stereotype is formed:
…it is the force of ambivalence that gives the colonial stereotype its currency: ensures its repeatability in changing historical and discursive conjunctures; informs its strategy of individuation and marginalization; produces that effect of probabilistic truth and predictability which, for the stereotype, must always be in excess of what can be empirically proved or logically constructed. Yet, the function of ambivalence as one of the most significant discursive and psychical strategies of discrimination power— whether racist or sexist, peripheral or metropolitan— remain to be charted” (Bhabha 95).
Stereotype is paradoxical— when stereotype is given agency, it holds conflicting notions about the person or group of people being stereotyped. The reality of sameness is veiled by an imaginary of difference which produces stereotype both as an anxiety and a response to that very anxiety. Ambivalence becomes the vehicle for stereotypical ideology— it hinges on an axiom of the identification and rejection of racial, ethnic, or cultural difference. The dynamic of the colonized and the colonizer becomes a duality— the colonized are constructed as an “Other,” while being simultaneously manufactured through the discourse of the colonizer. Bhabha also expounds the stereotype as a sort of fetishization.
…the myth of historical origination— racial purity, cultural priority— produced in relation to the colonial stereotype functions to ‘normalize’ the multiple beliefs and split subjects that constitute colonial discourse as a consequence of its process of disavowal.
The scene of fetishism functions… as a normalization of that difference” (Bhabha 106). To Bhabha, blackness is inscribed as grossly animalistic but also desired— both phobia and fetish. Under a colonial power, race and sexuality become similar specimens in that they do not allow for differentiation— which allows the colonial power to conflate them. Race and sexuality then become an imaginary of homogeneity. Bhabha states:
In Freud’s terms: ‘All men have penises’; in ours ‘All men have the same skin/race/ culture’— and the anxiety associated with the lack and difference— again, for Freud ‘Some do not have penises’; for us ‘Some do not have the same skin/race/culture…” (Bhabha 106-107).
Black skin is fetishized— it manifests an observational difference between whites and blacks, yet it still invokes ideas of homogeneity, integration, and commonality. Blackness then becomes a subject of both desire and derision. The disjunction between the imaginary of difference and reality of sameness allows the stereotype to propagate itself. Stereotypes operate as validation for colonial powers by asserting, in an almost social-Darwinian manner, that the colonizer dominates the colonized due to intrinsic primacy. “The construction of the colonial subject in discourse, and colonial power through discourse, demands an articulation of forms of difference— racial and sexual” (Bhabha 110). To Bhabha, colonial culture is one of “in-betweenness.” It dichotomizes identity— civilized vs. savage, black vs. white, peripheral vs. metropolitan. For the inter-being and coexistence of cultures, there must be a subversion of these binary oppositions and the stereotypes they produce. However, once a stereotype has been constructed, it is difficult to subvert it as the stereotype is a subject of both systemic and unconscious reinforcement. In short, stereotypes are tools utilized by the state and those in power to not only propagate hegemonic discourse, but to also reproduce an oppressive ideology.
Having established the ramifications of stereotype, I return to Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin to observe them within their context. Stowe begins Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin with a brief passage establishing African American slaves as “an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt” (Stowe v). Here, Stowe sets the tone of the novel by creating a disjunction between blackness and whiteness. Stowe leans on the tired stereotype of intrinsic differences between blackness and whiteness— they are separate entities with separate and defined qualities. She does not envision racial parity, but rather a racial hierarchy. Stowe characterizes Africans as neither hard nor dominant, thus inscribing whiteness with primacy. Perhaps the most infamous stereotype of the black slave is the mammy. According to Lynette Myles’ Beyond Borders: Female Subjectivity in African American Women's Narratives of Enslavement, the mammy is typically evoked as a satisfied and pleased slave. Mammies are characterized as heavyset, uncultured, unattractive, and devoid of sexuality (Myles). In Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin, Aunt Chloe, Tom’s wife, is portrayed as a mammy. Stowe describes Aunt Chloe: “A round, black, shining face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with white of eggs, like one of her own tea risks. Her whole plump countenance beams of satisfaction and contentment…” (Stowe 39). Stowe conveys Aunt Chloe in opposition to white beauty standards (her face is “round,” “black,” and “shining”) which implies Stowe’s view of Aunt Chloe’s unattractiveness.
- Quote paper
- Lena Dassonville (Author), 2016, Sovereignty and Post-Coloniality. The Reproduction of Hegemonic Discourse and Legitimization of Sovereign Violence Against the American Slave, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/346600