Human Rites: Deciphering Fictions of Legal and Literary Personhood, 1830-1860
Barter, Faith Elizabeth
Human Rites examines the long history of legalized racial violence in the United States and turns to the antebellum period as a critical moment in the national history of racism. It is during this period, I argue, that law and literature fomented a set of peculiar, often vexing methods for reckoning with the specter of legalized slavery. The dissertation unfolds in two parts. Part I, “Death, Silence, and Disruptive Personae,” considers the complicity of legal and literary institutions, tracing their shared projects in limiting or obscuring the nuances of Black personhood in service of institutional (white) supremacy. In Part I, I analyze the disruptive potential of Black protest and rebellion from within the legal and cultural constraints of legalized slavery and white supremacy. This section of the dissertation examines how legal institutions and abolitionist networks, despite often claiming deeply divergent political and ethical imperatives, nevertheless participate in a shared project of reducing enslaved persons to blunt binaries or erasing their identities from textual histories. This cooperation, I argue, is at once chillingly efficient and also deeply unsuccessful. In Part II, “Borrowings and Takings: Fictionality in Law and the Legality of Fiction,” I explore the specific technologies by which both legal and literary texts move outside their own apparent borders and the extent to which these extra-disciplinary gestures actually animate the rhetorical and cultural power of the resulting narratives. The result is a reading of fictionality as a powerful political and rhetorical strategy, as a practice that extends well beyond creative or artistic labor and structures the undeniably “real” conditions of expression and oppression. Moreover, fictionality emerges as a source of complicated citations, encryptions, and allusions that exceed what we might otherwise call intertextuality; not only are legal and literary texts mutually constitutive, I argue, but they are extensions of one another.