Friday, November 9, 2012

Electoral Maps, Antebellum Maps: Or, How Liberal Self-Satisfaction Dissolves History into a Racist Mess




You’ve probably seen this image. Juxtaposing “Free States and Slave States, before the Civil War” alongside a red/blue breakdown of voting in the 2012 election, the image asserts a kind of continuity—if not a direct causality—between contemporary geographies of party affiliation and antebellum geographies of slavery. You might have smirked. You might have found it revealing. Maybe—as it did me—the image left you with an uneasy feeling, the felt beginnings of a refusal of the claim that the image would like to make.

A full disclaimer: I’m an anarcho-Marxist; I don’t vote; I’m not invested in blue-state- versus-red-state nonsense; my political position does not register on this map. I do, however, study nineteenth-century cultures of slavery and freedom in the Americas. I write about the strange cartographies generated by ordinary black subjects who sought to live free lives—however they defined that freedom—in a hemisphere structured to deny them personal and collective autonomy. I find myself responding to this image not just as a scholar, but as someone with some kind of a felt relationship to the stories I read and recover, someone constantly awed by the resilience and creativity of these people, someone who thinks there’s a future to-come for these myriad freedoms that survive, obscured and only partially legible to us today, in the archive.

This image pulverizes history, transforming histories of slavery into the stuff of cheap political potshots. It shouldn’t need saying, but alas: Voting for Mitt Romney is NOT akin to maintaining juridical support for slavery—an analogy or commensurability that the synchronic axis of the image suggests. This mobilization of an affectively saturated history is repulsive not only for its cheapening of the deep violence of slavery, but also for the way in which it dissolves the instabilities of historical time into a simple one-two diachrony. If we actually look into these instabilities—that is, if we fucking take the politics of slavery seriously—these maps, and the historical narrative that their juxtaposition implies, comes apart.

This image attempts to draw on a historical juridical distinction between slave and free state in order to offer a snarky commentary on the contemporary distinction between red and blue state. This distinction no doubt flatters liberals, ever on the side of progress. But what if we chose another cartographic heuristic? What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein free blacks could vote in the antebellum U.S.? Antebellum “blue states” would shrink to a handful. What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein African Americans faced some form of legal disability? And what if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to, not slave states, but states wherein blacks were enslaveable—that is, states wherein New World blacks, provided a however tenuous legal title could be shown, were susceptible to being seized and carried to a slave state? The map would bleed a bright red, the whole of it.

In 1850, there were no “free states” in the U.S., if by “free” we mean a state wherein an ordinary black subject could live free from the threat of unfreedom, from civil and legal disability. And more: this realm of unfreedom, even when dragging as freedom, was only expanding in the nineteenth century. Indeed, our good liberal mapmaker’s decision to show us a map from a decade or so prior to the outbreak of the Civil War allows him or her to get around the disconcerting fact that the map of the United States would have had far fewer states only a handful of years prior to 1850. (It's unclear to me why the map is dated to 1846.) The map thus elides histories of imperial expansion—into Indian territory, into Mexico, and earlier into Florida and into the Louisiana territory—and thus elides “blue state” connivance in the extension and maintenance of slavery, the North’s compromises and its cowardice. It elides how our proto-Obama-voting “blue states” actively profited from slavery both within the U.S. and throughout the hemisphere, by financing plantations and engaging in the (illegal) slave trade. It ignores how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation—which, in the nineteenth century, ALWAYS implied some form of bonded labor, some form of slavery—cut across sectional lines.  

This image posits that the juridical distinction between slave and free is isomorphic with today’s cartographies of parliamentary politics; it implies that today’s Northern liberals have inherited, and protect, the precious freedom(s) denied to so many in the antebellum world. It implies that the rupture of the Civil War was not much of a rupture—continuity is the name of the game here. It thus elides the discontinuous rupture of black political subjectivity: the image would have us believe that today’s political cartography retains the form adjudicated 162 years ago by the desires and compromises of (mostly) white men, all of whom in some fashion profited from the political and juridical de-subjectification of blacks throughout the Americas.

Perhaps most insidiously, by posing electoral politics as the inheritor of antebellum politics of freedom and slavery, this map implies that the political unconscious of freedom and antislavery was always already preformed by the parliamentary cartography of the nation-state.  In other words, the image not only disavows imperial histories of expansion, the ways in which the U.S. electoral map was always on the move; it also elides alternative cartographies and trajectories of freedom, however fragile and ephemeral, established by blacks who recognized the difficulties of achieving autonomy in any state, North or South. The nation comes to appear as the natural container of relations of freedom and servitude, of progress and regress. The image doesn’t care about the alternative modalities of being-free that were sought outside of the institutional parameters and geographic boundaries of the parliamentary state; it doesn’t care about modalities of human freedom that cannot be contained or enumerated by ballots. It simply doesn’t matter to this image that blacks in those anachronistically blue states formed political subjectivities around August First or celebrations of the Haitian Revolution, not some act on a Tuesday in November most couldn’t participate in, anyhow.

The radical promise of antislavery—substantive antislavery, the material practices of freedom undertaken by New World blacks—has as little in common with the reduced notions of formal freedom available in the antebellum North as it does with the reduced notion of political freedom enshrined in parliamentary politics. Celebrating liberalism’s present, lambasting remnants of the South’s (but only the South's?) past, this racist image transforms the awesome, terrible, unfinished history of freedom into a persistent structure—one assembled by white men, for white men. But this is what the image, fixated on juridical and electoral geographies, cannot reveal. Even as it tries mobilizing the affectivity of the term, the discontinuous, unemplottable subjectivity of freedom remains elsewhere. 

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you are right to question some easy translation of pro-Slavery beliefs. But that doesn't mean there is no continuity of racism. It seems like the maps speak to a continued, popular, racialized division in American politics.

Anonymous said...

Is the map overly simplistic? Yes, of course it is. All representations, visual or textual, are forced compromises. But this reading of the map does the same thing it accuses the map of doing, which is to present a certain position at the expense of others.

For instance, we might consider whether the "blue states were complicit, too" argument allows the perfect to become the enemy of the, if not good, at least better. Was New York profiting from slavery? Yes. But were the white males of New York more progressive in their thinking, more historically aware, than the white males of Mississippi? Maybe we should shift over to the 20th century and ask James Meredith.

Maybe the map isn't purposely trying to erase northern complicity in order to pander to liberal sensibilities. Maybe it's just pointing out that, while some recognize their imperfect nature and strive, imperfectly, to achieve better, others wallow in the imperfect nature of the world as a whole, and use it as an excuse to remain anachronistic.

Anonymous said...

What is the point? That there was widespread racism in the antebellum North? Sure, we get that. It doesn't change the fact that the Republican Party survives on deliberately racist campaign tactics that are specifically targeted at white racists in the old Confederacy. Are you suggesting straight-faced that this group of people has not harbored a more robust and virulent racism than most of the rest of the country since the Civil War?

Anonymous said...

I strongly agree with the bulk of Prof. James' critique of the way the image is commonly read. However, I don't think that it's the only way that it can be read. I appreciate the image as one that can be the starting point (rather than smug endpoint) of thoughtful reflection. To pick just one possible avenue: Why might some people from some parts of the country feel more comfortable with government intervention in some areas, and others not? Via this avenue, I can imagine this image being a starting point for greater mutual understanding.

Joel said...

These are much more informative maps:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2012/

Lindsey said...

hey, i'm really glad to see this because i've also been feeling pretty uncomfortable with the images. unfortunately, on my facebook feed they seem to be being used by (yes) self-congratulatory liberals to perpetuate classist notions of the south as dumb and racist, with little regard for a larger history. while i agree with everything you've said above, i think a crucial, crucial aspect of explaining those maps has to do with reconstruction, its failures and legacies. post-civil war, as the plantation economy was basically abolished, the union government did little to help the south transition into a new economy that could support both its white citizens and newly freed blacks. instead, under strict martial law, both blacks and whites in the south were punished, and the south became much more economically disadvantaged than the north... in some ways, then, the fucked up aspects of reconstruction, and its failures to support economic change in the south, help to perpetuate these legacies. so, no one's really free from blame, here, and continuing to scapegoat the south as dumb, backwards, and racist does little to help eliminate either racism or the continued and fucked-up economic circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I see the American divide as largely urban versus rural, which is the same divide that separated sides during the Civil War. That's the reason for the similarities in maps.

Anonymous said...

"It shouldn’t need saying, but alas: Voting for Mitt Romney is NOT akin to maintaining juridical support for slavery..."

But this does need asking: is there any support for this straw-man argument? Has someone actually said that voting for Romney is the same as "maintaining juridical support for slavery"?

There are, of course, a number of things one might say about these maps, but I don't think any coherent account can succeed without mentioning the Southern Strategy. Talk about pulverizing history!

Oh, and the Republicans who are trying to deny equal citizenship for the many gay people I love/admire/respect thank you for your principled refusal to sully you soul by voting. Jeesh.

Pierce said...

In regards to the above comment—

Anonymous said...
"'It shouldn’t need saying, but alas: Voting for Mitt Romney is NOT akin to maintaining juridical support for slavery...'

But this does need asking: is there any support for this straw-man argument? Has someone actually said that voting for Romney is the same as 'maintaining juridical support for slavery'?"

This is precisely the danger of these maps—they don't say anything at all. Indeed, they are presented without commentary to invite comparisons between red states and slave states to imply a cartographical homology that reads as a historical chronology. Arguing, as Taylor does, against this type of misrepresentation does not elide the role of racism in contemporary American politics, rather I think it challenges us to think about it in a smarter, better, and less reductive way.

Anonymous said...

Although it's true that racism and conservatism prevail in the Bible Belt, these in no way resembles a meaningful or causal data set. Racial relationships and their articulation according to power - both social and political - are far more complicated than such maps would have us believe, in the ways that Prof. James so aptly lists, and more that could be explored ad infinitum. But the visual shock of the image is meant to somehow provoke a feeling of causality that is at best simple and at worst coddles liberals.

On one hand, the idea that (a) the only reason people voted against Obama is because of his race is grossly oversimplified, and presents a vision of Obama's presidency that is otherwise flawless (hell, I voted for him, but that doesn't mean that there are facets of his presidency that I find beyond reproach). On the other, I'm quite troubled by (b) the attempt to ghettoize modern-day racism to the South and Midwest. It's a very comfortable falsehood that those in the North and Pacific North/West might embrace, right? But the idea that somehow the North was exempt from racism during slavery, during the civil rights era, and that it remains so now is, let's be honest, some kind of recidivist, ephemeral wet dream.

Anonymous said...

If someone presents this map as an indication that the blue areas of the map are places that are free of racism, well, that would be outright bull pucky.

However, I think it does strongly suggest that the so-called "Southern Strategy" was almost perfectly effective for Mitt Romney. And that is something very concerning that needs to be addressed.

Synthetic Zero said...

I didn't read this image in the way Professor James implies everyone is reading it; for me, it is simply a strange and interesting coincidence that the slave states and the red states so closely overlap. The map invites the question: why? It's not making an assertion in itself, even if many liberals might read it in the way Professor James suggests, it's certainly not the way I at least read it.

Whether the Northern states were blameless is hardly at issue; there have been many injustices perpetrated by people in every state and every country for that matter. The question remains: why such a strong overlap? This alignment has emerged recently; party affiliation has shifted over the decades. But it has settled into a pattern and it is an interesting question to ask: why?

Is it that the existence of slavery itself embedded certain attitudes towards the social contract that persist even today, over a century and a half since the Civil War? What are those attitudes? It almost seems as though slavery itself not only was a crime against African descendants but it also left an enduring mark, damage, to the societies which harbored the practice. This isn't a judgement: it's a speculation. The harm of such a crime can go both ways. But there may be a different explanation: not a casual one but perhaps slavery and these attitudes had a shared common cause of some kind.

Albizia said...

Please note that a "red" state can be one with a 51% support of Romney and 49% level of support for Obama, and vice versa. A more interesting visual is the red-purple-blue mapping that shows results by individual county.
If one is trying to academically complicate an issue, this latter type of mapping is more appropriate to use.

Josh Steichmann said...

This commentary is good at one important aim: Reminding everyone of the complexities of history and challenging the narrative power that subsumes them. However, what it misses and that I think the map highlights, isn't so much slavery as the necessity of the modern Republican party to pander to ex-slave and ex-segregationalist states. The modern GOP cannot win without holding on to constituencies that left the Democrats over the Civil Rights act, and that still influences their policies. That's the fatal flaw of the GOP and the wound that I can't see being closed any time soon. It makes the GOP unhealthy, which ultimately disadvantages all Americans who would benefit from a true competition between solutions to problems facing the polity.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask why you title your blog C.L.R. James, clearly (by looking at the comments) leading some to think you ARE C.L.R. James, and why you use an avatar that suggest YOU speak for slavery? I know, not the point of your blog, but it is really bothering me, this taking up the subject position of James or an enslaved person and speaking *for* them.

Chris Taylor said...

Hi Anonymous--Yeah, that's been puzzling me, too, that confusion. I started this blog years ago to write about CLR (whom I adore), as a way of forcing myself to give form to some inchoate assumptions and intuitions I had about James' work. Grad school took over. Then, with Occupy, I wanted to start blogging again, and used this site again for two simple reasons. 1) I already had it. 2) Occupy was an extraordinarily Jamesian event. The confusion saddens me to the extent that it's a symptom of the fact that James' important work remains popularly unknown. (Presumably, if my blog were called "Karl Marx," people wouldn't think that I was that lovely bearded chap.) There's no attempt to speak for James, there was only an attempt to speak about him. But this is all certainly a good object lesson in what not to name a blog.

Anonymous said...

It was originally meant to compare the civil rights issue of 1846 to the civil rights issue now, (homosexuality). It was just stupidly presented/labeled. It wasn't meant to say that anyone who supports Romney supports racism but it was meant to show that anyone who supports Romney supports his homophobia. We all know that certain states have been more in support of equal rights than others, but this map is a terrible argument and example of that. The comparisons between slavery then and homophobia now is an attempt to show people that denying someone their rights (or treat them with violence) because of who they love is just as wrong and disgusting as racism, and it IS. This map however, is a frustrating loss of credibility for that.

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