Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America
Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America

Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America

by Joseph Fichtelberg


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"As a number of recent studies have shown, the north European commercial world made the precise calculation of risk a central concern of the intellectual project of exploration, trade, and colonization. The great merit of Fichtelberg's book is systematizing the imaged world of dangers, and charting the various kinds of ritual and discursive performances marshaled to deal with the pressure of the unspeakable in early America from the 17th into the early 19th century. The readings of texts are invariably careful, and the points made, persuasive."
---David Shields, University of South Carolina
Risk Culture is the first scholarly book to explore how strategies of performance shaped American responses to modernity. By examining a variety of early American authors and cultural figures, from John Smith and the Salem witches to Phillis Wheatley, Susanna Rowson, and Aaron Burr, Joseph Fichtelberg shows how early Americans created and resisted a dangerously liberating new world. The texts surveyed confront change through a variety of performances designed both to imagine and deter menaces ranging from Smith's hostile Indians, to Wheatley's experience of slavery, to Rowson's fear of exposure in the public sphere. Fichtelberg combines a variety of scholarly approaches, including anthropology, history, cultural studies, and literary criticism, to offer a unique synthesis of literary close reading and sociological theory in the service of cultural analysis.
Joseph Fichtelberg is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Hofstra University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472070947
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 06/28/2010
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Risk Culture


The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07094-7

Chapter One

Nightmares of History

Late in the spring of 1608, after losing nearly half his men to "extreamity" during the winter, John Smith heard a curious story. Hard pressed to establish cordial relations with the Powhatans, on whom Jamestown depended for food, he sojourned with the "king" of Acawmacke, "the comliest proper civill Salvage" in the region. The chief related a strange "accident."

Two dead children by the extreame passions of their parents, or some dreaming visions, phantasie, or affection moved them againe to revisit their dead carkases, whose benummed bodies reflected to the eies of the beholders such pleasant delightfull countenances, as though they had regained their vital spirits. This as a miracle drew many to behold them, all which, (being a great part of his people) not long after died, and not any one escaped.

Smith records the tale as an example of native vanity, a ghost story heralding the decline of even his most cordial adversaries. If there were risk in a colonial endeavor that had already cost so many English lives, Smith implies, that risk was hedged by the providential evacuation of Virginia. The dreamlike deaths of these civil savages had prepared the way for civilization.

The chief 's story is all the more poignant for its prophetic accuracy. Thomas Harriot's remark that the Algonquians were stricken by disease as if by "invisible bullets" seems painfully evident in the vision, as if the Powhatans were groping for a metaphor to explain the risks of contact. The incident, if it really occurred, amounted to a ritual performance, as the mourners attempted to "revisit their dead" and, animating them, discovered the corruption in themselves. But despite the providential design at Acawmacke, the story could not but point to Jamestown's own "extreamity," the fruits of a hazardous adventure for which the English were not sufficiently prepared. The English, too, died in droves from mysterious illnesses conveyed, as if magically, through contact and neglect. Even if Smith had wanted to foreclose this cruel irony, the very force of the metaphor must have made it all too evident to his many English enemies. In short, a performance designed to celebrate the colony's triumph also underscored its jeopardy. In relating a narrative of contagion, Smith had signified his own risks as well.

The story of Acawmacke, however, is more than a metaphor for the dangers of contact. One of the earliest stories of its kind betraying English fears of contagion, it announces a pattern that I will explore in this book. At a moment of crisis, when the fledgling colony was near collapse, Smith seeks comfort in an account that confronts trauma through a double displacement: Indians, not colonists, suffered, and the dead returned to life. Yet the threat is apprehended not through a scene of apocalyptic dread but through a social ritual suggesting regeneration. It was as if the community had tried to weave new garments from its wounds, even if the garments were death shrouds. The dream thus served as a complex token in a cultural exchange in which both peoples enlisted ritual, rupture, and narrative to reflect on the hazards they endured.

The title of this book, Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America, represents my attempt to think through the literary and historical implications of this encounter. How did early American writers weave their narratives around the traumatic displacements that all too often distinguished colonial and early national experience? Conversely, how was that experience domesticated, its dread diminished through communal rituals, exchanges, and stories? The phrase risk culture, which I borrow from the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, is intended to embrace these concerns. As Giddens argues, the story of modernity-that engine of social change driving the Western world since the seventeenth century-is one of the continuous and creative engagement of rupture, the productive destruction of the past. Modernity, Giddens writes in Modernity and Self-Identity, is a "risk culture"-not in the sense that "social life is inherently more risky than it used to be" but that "the concept of risk becomes fundamental to the way [we] ... organise the social world." Risk, as Giddens argues and as I shall try to demonstrate, is not merely a term for the accelerated production of hazards, since these are endemic to human and social life. Nor is risk necessarily baneful, as generals, thrill-seekers, and entrepreneurs have long understood. My title, then, seeks to capture the thoroughly mediatory role of risk in the texts and lives I will examine-lives that both apprehend risk through cultural performances and also nurture, as in a plasma culture, the risky social engagements their texts and actions bring about. These texts, in short, are the medium of cultural exchange that allowed early Americans to tell the story of modernity to themselves.

That last phrase is itself a risky one, suggesting the grand sweep of a history difficult to document. In our postmodern era, the very status of modernity has been called into question, as if the processes and assumptions that shaped Western experience for centuries are no longer valid. One sign of that rupture is the discussion of risk stimulated by Giddens and German sociologist Ulrich Beck. It was Beck's contention, in Risk Society, that the world has entered a new and dangerous phase in which nature and culture, tainted by industry, have turned on themselves. Whereas hitherto the rationalized world has been driven by the circulation of goods, now, Beck argues, we are overwhelmed by an effusion of ills that know no boundary or control. The tipping point, in Beck's apocalyptic scenario, was the 1970s, when the mounting toll of overproduction and overconsumption made industrial menace the new norm from which no one, rich or poor, could escape. Modernity had destroyed itself through its astounding yet cancerous success.

Giddens's discussion of risk culture, though influenced by Beck's approach, is more balanced and expansive, tied as it is to a comprehensive view of social change. Over his fifty-year career, his thought has addressed three major concerns-a critique of sociological tradition, in such works as A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism and The Class Structure of Advanced Societies; an elaboration of a new theory relating social structure and action (New Rules of Sociological Method, The Constitution of Society); and, most recently, an account of modern political and social conditions (The Consequences of Modernity, Modernity and Self-Identity, Runaway World-among many others). For Giddens, the impetus of modern history is not the Marxian contradiction of productive forces but what he calls "time-space distanciation"-the pursuit of social relations over ever greater removes. In traditional societies, village life is local life, universally conducted in the continuous presence of others. In such circumstances, social relations, the strategies through which individuals determine how to "go on," are rooted in old patterns modified to meet present needs. The rise of cities acted as "storage containers" disturbing this steady state and generating further stresses that would transform local life through economies of scale. A decisive shift emerged in the seventeenth century, as Europeans dramatically expanded beyond national and continental boundaries. "The advent of modernity," Giddens writes, "increasingly tears space away from place by fostering relations between 'absent' others, locationally distant from any given situation of face-to-face interaction." From this perspective, modernity is not merely the effect of displacement or extensive travel; rather, it is the psychological and social expectation that the local is penetrated by the foreign. Space and time are emptied out, Giddens argues, increasingly standardized in a gradual but radical process he calls "disembedding." Disembedded relations "lift out" social activities, both extending the range of individual influence and unsettling local habits; even as they heighten the need for trust among strangers, the dialectics of locality and distance, security and danger, mark the rhythms of the modern world. Under such conditions, even the simplest conduct may become revolutionary.

By grounding his account of modernity in time-space distanciation, Giddens has sought an alternative to the Parsonian functionalism that still dominated sociology when he began his career. To the Parsonian emphasis on steady states and systemic imperatives, Giddens has opposed inherent principles of change. Although his weave of evidence is intricate, ranging through philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and anthropology, two strands may be isolated. Giddens argues that social structures are constantly revised through individual action. Structure, in his analysis, is not sovereign and remote but virtual and intimate; it is a fund of rules, resources, and practices "recursively organiz[ing]" social relations. Everyday action involves the continuous mediation between experience and innovation, the knowledge of how things are done and the freedom to improvise-each free act adding to the fund of expectation and desire in a process that Giddens calls "structuration." This stress on continuous reinvention is counterbalanced by the need for "reflexivity," the rational self-scrutiny imperative in the modern world. The activities of instrumental reason demand constant monitoring and reappraisal, a process that comes to dominate not only technical production but all human affairs. In this fashion, human behavior increasingly reflects the risky natural environment that moderns have brought into existence: all actions are conditional; all stances are exploratory; no domain is secure. Both nature and culture have become sensitive to the continuous inventions and displacements that mark what Jürgen Habermas calls the modern "lifeworld."

How are these concerns useful for a discussion of the early American figures I will examine? One more feature of Giddens's modern world picture might indicate their relevance. Among the prime disembedding agents, Giddens argues, are what he calls "tokens"-those symbols, like money, that can be readily exchanged over space and time and thus build the web of trust. Money-to which one might add credit relations-compresses time and entangles local affairs in complex networks, the full force of which is felt in the price runs and market shocks that have become all too common. Tokens, it should be noted, may be productive as well as menacing and are not confined to economic relations. Indeed, as I shall argue, one of the chief tokens in the process of modernity to be discussed in this book are the texts and textual relations that John Smith and his successors wrote and undertook. Not only did their texts-circulated, marketed, and pirated-promote the extension of space and time by reaching far-flung readers, but they also contributed to the unsettling, critical scrutiny of the social relations they described. Like Smith's account of Acawmacke, the texts and contexts I will survey-from trial transcripts to newspaper reports; from novels and poetry to journals, sermons, and promotions- formed a pattern of continuous reflection and displacement that I have organized under the rubric risk. Risk-a word that acquired its current sense of "jeopardy" around the time that Giddens situates the rise of modernity-is my term for what Raymond Williams calls a "structure of feeling," that web of anxieties and expectations that has come to shape modern cultures, texts, and lives. Risk is the crisis of tradition and innovation played out through the disruption of space, time, and agency. Risk is the sensation of the normal under conditions of emergency.

In making this claim, I recognize that I am running several additional risks of my own. First, the cultural relations I am seeking to describe may well be too elusive to be easily summarized with a word so capacious as risk. That modern people have become more mobile, that they write, trade, build, and battle at ever greater removes, is a commonplace, one that does not necessarily imply a grand theory or equally grand literary claims. Second, Giddens's approach to modernity is only one in a very crowded field and can lay no more claim to accuracy than any of the analyses he has himself criticized. Indeed, Giddens's theories have excited considerable resistance from sociologists who claim that his work is too abstract, a congeries of intellectual influences that make it difficult to test or evaluate. Third, my approach will not be rigorously sociological. I do not seek to write a study in the sociology of literature, in which texts are extensions of social processes, the evaluation of everyday conduct by other means. I am using risk more as a topos than as a sociological category, as a means to situate writers and readers in a complex change that the works I examine both shape and memorialize. Insofar as Giddens's claims are accurate, this topos should be visible in early American texts marked by the disruption of traditional practices. Yet, as Giddens observes, those very disruptions become part of the cultural formula for "going on," so that the interferences continuously alter attitudes and actions. It is this process of adjustment, rather than its theoretical entanglements, that I intend to explore in this book.

One aspect of my project might serve to distinguish it from Giddens's approach, as well as to respond to some of the objections of his critics. Giddens's discussion of time-space distanciation has been singled out by such geographers as Derek Gregory and John Urry for being insensitive to the local textures of movement. The habits and diversions of daily life cannot be captured, they claim, through a theory that imagines time as uniform and space as invariant; each dimension is sensitive to the pressures of accident, imagination, and desire. One could make a similar point regarding Giddens's view of historical change. The inexorable conduct of rational agents pursuing calculated advantage across an ever-expanding field does not quite capture the experience of dread and longing conveyed in the story of Acawmacke. Missing, I shall argue, is one final, crucial dimension, that of the performative. Smith's relation of the chief 's tale not only recounts a performance but is performative in the linguistic sense of using words to effect actions. The account of the disastrous ritual inverts the colonists' jeopardy and enacts a double vow: the failed promise of resurrection entailed in the dream, and the extended promise of Smith's text that Jamestown would avoid the Powhatans' fate. That so many Virginians died testifies to the instability of such performative engagements.

The encounters I shall explore in Risk Culture are mediated and made possible by these performative relations. I will use the term performative in a variety of ways. In the sense first announced by J. L. Austin, the performative is an expression that does work or accomplishes an end, such as the pronouncement of wedding vows. This revolutionary insight into language use has been complicated by several recent thinkers, including Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler, who point to an opposing effect of the performative-not to secure but to unsettle social order through the appropriation of everyday language. If words can do work, they argue, then words can be made to do subversive work through their citation in radically new or threatening contexts. These observations, in turn, have led to a host of studies exploring how words, gestures, and performances have made subjects of servants and have given subalterns a measure of authority. The performative, that is to say, has become a trope for the mutually challenging effects of language and power. In this expanded sense, the performative dissolves, in some measure, the difference between texts and actions, or rather, incorporates text and action in a wider field in which words and deeds are aspects of the same cultural expression.


Excerpted from Risk Culture by JOSEPH FICHTELBERG Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 Nightmares of History....................1
CHAPTER 2 The Colonial Stage PROMISE AND SAVAGERY IN JOHN SMITH'S VIRGINIA....................14
CHAPTER 3 Suspect Grace The Trials of Puritan Faith Echoes and Infamies: The Languages of Salem....................50
CHAPTER 4 Alien Terrors Phillis Wheatley's Feminine Sublime The Silence of John Marrant....................94
CHAPTER 5 Infidelities Disavowing Charlotte Temple Slander and Honor in Trials of the Human Heart....................145
CHAPTER 6 The Devil Designs a Career....................186

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