Statue Politics

When I walk from my parking space to my office in the morning, I pass by a large statue of Thomas Jefferson, whose visage looks down over those working and studying at the University of Virginia, which he founded 1819. On the night of September 12, a group of students shrouded the statue of Jefferson. They did so in memoriam of Heather Hayer, who was killed a month before when she was protesting the fascist rally in downtown Charlottesville on August 12. But they also did so in protest of the University’s paltry response to the violent fascists on its lawn — and at this same statue — on the night of August 11. Given this context, the shrouding of the Jefferson statue was meant to protest the University’s ongoing complicity with everyday white supremacy in the USA. Jefferson was labelled a “racist and a rapist” by these students, and the message “Black Lives Matter” was combined with “Fuck White Supremacy.” It is perhaps worth noting that this action of September 12 took place one day after, on September 11, a different set of students — generally, more conservative — draped the statue of Homer that sits at the center of the UVA lawn in the American flag to memorialize those who died on September 11, 2001. This is simply to say that there is a lot of speech on campus, and a lot of statue politics, even if not all of it is necessarily “high profile” in a certain sense.

The students who shrouded Jefferson pulled the memory of the author of the Declaration of Independence — that document so useful to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others — into a larger series of conflicts over memorialization. These conflicts have tended focus on monuments to the leaders and generals of the Confederacy. Monuments honoring the Confederacy exist throughout the US south; they were mostly built in the early part of the 20th century to put on a pedestal those who, in defense of slavery, fought on the losing side of the American Civil War, and their erection was intended to legitimate the racial hierarchy and violence of the Jim Crow era. By shrouding Jefferson, the students expanded the debate previously reserved for Confederate warriors like Robert E. Lee to encompass the memory of one of the founders of the republic that Abraham Lincoln defended. Indeed, they did what the City of Charlottesville has officially done with the statues of its Confederate generals.

The President of my university, however, reacted very differently to the shrouding of Jefferson than she has to the shrouding of Confederate generals. In an email sent to alumni, she expressed her disgust and disdain for the action, insisting that in shrouding the statue the students were “desecrating ground that many of us consider sacred.” This email was significantly different than the email the President sent to the current professoriate, employees, and students on campus — perhaps revealing some of the cleavages in American politics more generally. What is at stake here, in the shrouding of Jefferson?

The President’s Two Bodies and American Political Theology

We might begin by asking what is involved in the veneration of Presidents — university Presidents and founders, but also U.S. Presidents. The American executive branch has a special history, owing to the way it emerged as part of the answer, within a republic, to the idea of sovereignty in a monarchy. “Sovereignty” in this latter sense is grounded in the legal fiction and representational system known as the King’s Two Bodies — namely that the King’s “second body” was unchanging (unlike a given King’s mortal “first body”), and eternally contained within it the body politic. The American republic and the revolution that led to it disrupted and replaced this foundational legal fiction. Indeed, all three of the 18th-century Atlantic revolutions contributed to the destruction of the idea that “the King is dead, long live the King” can serve as the ongoing basis for peace and prosperity in the world.

As an element of culture, however, the notion of the King’s Two Bodies did not disappear, and it made its way into post-monarchic politics. Sociologically speaking, the King’s Two Bodies lived on not only in the Constitution’s official granting of rather extensive powers to the Presidency but also in the social interpretation of Presidents themselves, who became, in their lives, fortunes, and loves, a central location of American political theology. It is only by admitting this continuation and transformation of the King’s Two Bodies in American public life that we can understand the obsession, throughout the long history of the republic, with the bodies of presidents and their relationship to the social or political “body” of the country. If there is one location where the symbols of American democracy are the most charged, the most overwrought, the most wildly undisciplined, the most intense, it is in the signification of the chief executive. The President’s mind, house, family, accoutrements, ideas, writings, jokes, preferences in sexual activities, preferences in cigars, and exercise habits are subjected, via writing and art, to a kind of perpetual motion machine, a seemingly infinite source of semiotic energy. In the Presidency, the King’s Two Bodies meet their replacement in the form of the idea of the people as sovereign, and at this particular location in public culture, other meetings between the pre- and post-revolutionary worlds take place: where the yearning for sovereignty meets the sacred nature of “the people,” so also does charismatic and authoritarian leadership meet the idea of a public servant, and the very possibility of government by the many meets the inspiring twice-told tale of the individual leader who founds, saves, or remakes the republic. That the Presidency — and the bodies of Presidents themselves — are such a zone of symbolic energy and contestation is not an original idea, nor is it a matter confined to the reverence directed at the founders of the republic. The political scientist Michael Rogin showed quite clearly the importance of understanding “the President’s two bodies” for comprehending the rhetoric emanating from, and swirling around, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon; sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander used the concept to analyze the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain.

The recurrence of contests of interpretation about the President’s two bodies can also provide insight to the current moment. It helps us comprehend that a large percentage of the American population could not accept, at a “gut” level, that Barack Obama was not only an elected leader but a culturally legitimate sovereign. Indeed, some such persons sit in Congress. We all know the basic explanation for this: racism, fear of the other, the scare politics that politicians used to connect American blacks to “foreign” Muslims, etc. But the basic explanation is not enough; there is more.

The disgust that Obama generated as an executive extended beyond the ongoing life of everyday American racism and xenophobia. Something else was afoot, as evidenced by the tremendous popularity of the controversy — stoked by Donald Trump — over Mr. Obama’s birth certificate. We must see, then, that on some level the rejection of Obama was an interpretation not simply about Mr. Obama’s body, and not only about his “identity,” but about his ability to grow a second body, and thus contain within himself the body politic. Certain skin colors, in American politics, have long signified certain meanings, but beyond this, Obama’s skin color, as the first non-white President, uniquely signified for some parts of the electorate an unallowable profanation of the sacred second body of the President, which, in a republic, is taken to represent “the people.”

If we understand American politics as, in part, constituted via the public semiotics that relates the second body of the President to the first, then we can, from the perspective of American political theology, understand the current memorial conflict in terms of the bodies — flesh and blood and depicted in photos, art, and statues — of Presidents as somehow imagined as the location of the body politic. This follows from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s argument that Mr. Trump is the USA’s “first white President.” We can add to this an analysis of the semiotic workings of Trump’s campaign magic. For Trump appeared, to his base, not as a buffoon, but as the kind of person who could make the profane sacred again. Trump broke every rule for access to the presidency that Mr. Obama, in his personal conservatism and careful rhetoric, followed closely. Most importantly, Trump’s spiral of charismatic success appeared to depend on what would have been, for a “normal” candidate, a series of campaign-ending scandals — the naked pictures of his foreign wife on the front page of the newspaper, his recorded discussions of sexual assault, his literal profanity, his buffoonery, his comic delivery, etc. Beneath all of this was a proposition: everything is fallen in this corrupt world of a black presidency, so why not make the profane the new sovereign? We know from Georges Bataille (and, unfortunately, from Joseph Goebbels) that that which is profane can be made, via the mobius strip of desire, into the sacred. It is a dark picture indeed, and these are dark days.

What does Jefferson’s second body stand for today?

It is in this context, then, that we can understand the difficulty with the representation of Jefferson’s body via the statue on the campus of the University of Virginia. I wish, very much, to continue to use the Declaration of Independence and, more broadly, the multiple legacies of the American Revolution, as symbolic resources for progressive politics. And it is undeniably the case that we have, at the University of Virginia, an unparalleled scholarly tradition for thinking about Jefferson and the early American republic, for investigating the contradictions in his writings and his life, and for considering his contributions to political philosophy. I suspect many of those who share this wish and appreciate this scholarly tradition, such as my co-editor Michael Weinman, may have experienced hesitation and apprehension when confronted with the rather harsh-sounding speech acts that accompanied the shrouding of Jefferson. But I do not share this reaction to the shrouding of the statue.

The act was unpragmatic in the sense of its reading of the symbolic terrain of American politics (and perhaps also, more specifically, of the University of Virginia). I do not think it made life easier for the coalitional left, on campus or in the USA. But it was not a “desecration,” and in so far as it felt like one, or made us uncomfortable, we need think through carefully what, exactly, made us uncomfortable. “Rapist” is a charged word, but there is no living person who, on the basis of the students’ actions, is actually being charged with this crime in our legal system. As for “racist,” well, what other term would we prefer for white persons who owned property in black persons?

The students did not vandalize the statue; the shroud was cut down; the statue stands exactly as it was before. Claims — by the University President and others — that this was a desecration are a dissimulation loaded down with ideology. What, really, is this “ground that many of us consider sacred?” I suspect that there is more than one sacred thing about Jefferson, and I also suspect that what I find profane about Jefferson, others (such as Richard Spencer) find attractive, even sacred. So, to call this a desecration is to fall into the allure of the of the “President’s two bodies” at exactly the wrong moment, and thus to reinforce a way of judging that looks backward rather than forward. It is to pretend that we cannot move forward as a republic without embracing the glory of Jefferson’s second body. I do not think this is correct; and I think what the students did, or were trying to do, was to debunk the myth of Jefferson’s second body as the pristine and sacred inhabitant of the bricks and mortar of the University. What they attacked, then, was the norm that something about Jefferson’s life and times can and should choreograph our actions and interactions on a daily basis at the University of Virginia.

© Isaac Reed
© Isaac Reed

To understand why this debunking felt, to a number of our students, absolutely necessary, one must understand the way that the University of Virginia is, in its daily displays and everyday metaphorsidentified with Jefferson the man rather than Jefferson the author. Ernst Kantorowicz, in The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theologydiscussed the representation of Kings that appeared on various objects, including those used in everyday life, like coins. In the public, everyday life of the University of Virginia, something similar happens. It is not our careful scholarship on Jefferson that choreographs campus. Rather, on “Grounds” (the name itself is a kind of sacralization), we experience and reproduce the banal sacralization of Jefferson’s second body. We find, in myriad little signifiers, a public interpretation of Jefferson as a wise and pure saint. This interpretation seems to inhabit our classrooms, our coffee shops on campus (the photo that accompanies this story was taken by me), and every nook and cranny of our buildings. The references to his having “built” the university (when in fact it was built by enslaved persons); the habitual reaching for his wisdom, insight, sayings, and words on seemingly every occasion of professional significance; the ongoing connection to his literal home at Monticello, presented repeatedly as glorious; all of these serve to instantiate a certain fantasy that has little to do with the subtlety and contradictions of Thomas Jefferson’s life and thought, or the difficult and contentious history of the American republic. Rather, the day-to-day fantasy presented at the University is something like this: ‘Jefferson’s sacred genius legitimated his power, and that genius was the genius of the father of a household, who built the future so his young charges could live and work freely on their studies.’ But if the University is, metaphorically, Jefferson’s household, then one cannot deny or hide a clear implication of this metaphor: that the sovereignty of the house accrues to the father, and that in Jefferson’s life, that was a violent sovereignty of white over black.

We have, of course, long known and long discussed the contradiction between Jefferson’s life and his writings — the verticality and violence of his home life, contrasting so acutely with the idea of a horizontal social contract between equals that appears in his writings. But in the lifeworld of the University today, we may have a taller order than that of simply recognizing and mentioning the contradiction. Because of the manifest authoritarianism on the rise in the democracies of the west, because of the violence perpetrated in Charlottesville and directed at our students, and because the United States of America must recognize its multiethnic composition and abandon the dominance of any racial group if it is to survive as a democracy in the 21st century, we must grasp how the banal veneration of Jefferson’s sacred second body invites the performance and experience of whiteness as power.

I do not think that resisting the banal sacralization of Jefferson requires taking down the statue. But it does require us to change our own attitudes and behaviors towards the memory of the man. I do not want to efface Jefferson’s home life — far from it — but we cannot continue to venerate it in an easygoing way as the substrate of our noble purpose here at the University. We cannot both (1) revere our University’s founder in the particular role of patron and a patriarch, and (2) move forward together as a group in equal dialogue across difference. If we are committed to open and free inquiry, argument and disagreement without violence, and the building of a society in which all have access to the sacred rights of individuals that Jefferson himself wrote about so eloquently — rights that are so unequally distributed in the USA today — we must be willing to let go of Jefferson’s sacred second body. We must, instead, understand the founder of the University of Virginia as an author and politician to confront and discuss. (This is, in fact, how historians have understood him.) And this means less deference, more activity, and, in particular, the discovery of new models of democratic action.

Charlottesville finds itself in the middle of a conflict over the very republic whose workings that Jefferson helped to design, and within which he stood as executive — the possessor of the President’s Two Bodies. But in the pursuit of a more perfect union, we will have to be flexible: the American republic of the future cannot be structured as it once was, and not as it currently is; it must be, as Danielle Allen has argued “a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality,” with “economies that empower all,” are the order of the day. As Allen points out, this would be something new in world history.

As for models of democratic behavior, they are not hard to find, even among the venerated scholars of a previous age. In my own discipline, sociologists Karida Brown, Jose ItzingsohnChristopher Muller and Aldon Morris have argued cogently that W.E.B. Du Bois is a pretty good model for the combination of scholarly rigor and democratic action. But when it comes to democratic thought and practice, the potential for the re-creation of the republic may be especially close to home for us here at the University of Virginia. Indeed, in their clear arguments and reasonable demands, embrace of the American tradition of civil disobedience, careful study of democratic theory, and willingness to change their minds, we can find such models among our own students. Will we have the courage to engage with them?

An earlier version of this essay was published prematurely; this is the correct, and original, version.