“Private Bodies/Public Texts: Literature, Science, and States of Surveillance”


Another article I found thought-provoking: Karla FC Holloway discusses how Mark Twain’s 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson addressed concerns about racial identity (and the possibility of fraud), connecting these concerns to the scientific technologies only then developing (fingerprinting) within a legal framework. She writes:

“Mark Twain’s 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson harbingers our nation’s inexorable move towards science to resolve identitarian cultural panics and directs us towards our preoccupations with surveillance as scientific protectionism.” (p.269)

“The operative panic that shapes and circulates in this novel is that racial fraud risks community security. Detecting the presence of an “other” who may have secreted themselves within a presumptively unadulterated whiteness, and who illegally benefit from its propertied associations, becomes the fictive realm and passion of Pudd’nhead’s material use of scientific technologies of discernment. Even though voting rights and social justice as constrained in the south emerged as the national and global versions of race and rights, their reliable subtext was national discernment. Were the “others” residing in the midst of our communities reliably visible? And how could we tell? Fraud, as a component of identity, is the cultural and paralegal space of this story. Who might make a pretense to whiteness or make a claim to its properties, and how best to resolve this potential deception?

In the twenty-first century, we have witnessed the racialized terrain of the most recent immigration insecurities of the US homeland as the state declares its intent to fingerprint and otherwise document all entering foreign nationals as but one indication of our cultural panic. And here as well, the language of fraudulence—identity theft, in common parlance—perseveres. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) explains our national urgency as our need to know that the person who applied for the visa is the person who enters the country. Protecting US citizens against fraudulent entry has become a national debate about who might make a reasonable claim to national identity.” (p.270)

“When biopolitics is the practice of the state and biolegalism its methodology, the production of knowledge and its conservation, indeed, the very making of meaning is at stake. Our critical, biocultural readings indicate the ways in which the tropes and processes, theories and methodologies resident in the labor of our academic enterprise tell us surely and with certainty that the conduct of the state risks a familiar terror. The methodologies of discernment in science, now linked to the most minute particles of a human’s being through DNA, have become persistently juridical. The reason that identity is so precious as it takes its turn in the public arena is its complex vulnerability. Our penumbral constitutional urge for a right to privacy has met a declared state interest in a public’s (a national) right to know. These are determinedly contradictory. But the state has salvaged its interest and claim by narrowly locating these matters in particular forms of identity, anticipating that this narrow reach will survive judicial scrutiny. Literary and cultural scholars will find that our fictions have already rehearsed these matters. Today we learn our persistent vulnerabilities to the facts of fictive representation.” (p.275)

Ref: Karla FC Holloway (2007) Private Bodies/Public Texts: Literature, Science, and States of Surveillance Literature and Medicine 26(1)Spring: 269-276


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