Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

Author: Brian Connolly
Publisher: Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 304p.
Reviewer: Gillian Harkins | May 2015
Domestic Intimacies closes with a succinct summation of its argument: “incest is never simply incest” (230). This declaration synthesizes in brief the book’s archival findings about nineteenth century incest in the United States: in its paradox lies its power. Incest’s fundamental instability as a concept has been consistently tethered to its fundamental authority as a prohibition. This paradox of incest – referentially unclear, prohibitively absolute — was teased out and trafficked across multiple domains of nineteenth century U.S. knowledge and power, leading to a proliferation of incest discourses across domains of “theology, law, physiology and phrenology, ethnography, novels, and slavery” (14). Within and amongst these domains, the threat of incest was used to justify literary, religious, legal, scientific, and racial authority over the rationale for and reach of its prohibition. As Connolly points out, “the incest prohibition had no foundation and, having none, is spread across the archive of antebellum America” (7). Incest can therefore be found at the heart of literary debates about seduction, theological debates about marriage, legal debates about sex, scientific debates about reproduction, and pro- and anti-slavery debates about race. Drawing from this archive, Domestic Intimacies argues that incest was central to the emergence of liberalism as a mode of subject-formation and imminent regulation in the Antebellum United States. The threat of incest enabled its prohibition to move across the boundaries of literature, religion, law and science, culling from sentimental, theological, moral, physiological, and racial claims about right living a new vehicle for its execution: the liberal subject. Connolly argues that “the liberal subject was both the pivot on which liberalism turned and its potential undoing”; “incest haunted the liberal subject, a danger to be avoided but also, simultaneously, a danger cultivated” (14). Incest became a discursive resource for liberalism because it had no clear foundation; incest’s ever-changing threat created a prohibition capable of chasing the liberal subject across any and all domains. Thus incest became a kind of fungible a priori of liberal regulation: “the rearticulation of the incest prohibition in antebellum America, in its moral, sexual, reproductive, racial, and imperial configurations, was not simply a part of regulation, it was regulation itself”(21).
Each of Connolly’s five chapters traces incest-as-regulation within a key archive of the early republic and Antebellum U.S. Chapter one, “Literature,” locates in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century fiction key sources of liberalism’s incest prohibition. Reading “The Life of Sawney Beane” (1760), Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Spectacles” (1844), and The Life of Dr. Richard Jennings, the Great Victimizer (1848), Connolly reveals the way emerging liberal notions of privacy and publicity were haunted by the threat of incest. These texts dramatized the dangers posed by unregulated public liberty as well as too-strict domestic privacy, making incest into a threat posed by too much individual autonomy from social regulation. The subject emerging from these texts – what would become the “liberal sexual subject” (48) – has threatening incestuous desires that must be regulated to protect against possible excesses of either liberty or privacy. Regulation of such a subject required an incest prohibition with referents capacious enough for liberalism’s expanding geography and flexible enough for its shifting internal limits. Chapter two, “Theology,” picks up the regulatory demand for incest prohibition in the “deceased wife’s sister” (50) debate unfolding in pamphlets and sermons of the 1780s -1840s. This debate responded to changes in the U.S. regulation of marriage by arguing over the “theological or legal” (51) basis for incest prohibition. Theological justifications for an ecclesiastical incest prohibition were previously drawn from Leviticus, which had been translated in England into prohibitions of degree (rather than persons) in the 1563 Table of Kindred and Affinity. In the early republic and Antebellum United States, the “ambiguities of ecclesiastical history” (54) lead to theological arguments over whether marriage with a dead wife’s sister constitutes incest. These arguments ultimately absorbed emergent liberal rationales for marital choice and consent while recoding Leviticus as a patriarchal law in and of the family. The result was “a highly eroticized sentimental family” (53) in which male patriarchs embody the law against “disruptive tendencies of liberty and consent”(67).

By the start of the nineteenth century, Connolly argues that prohibiting incest was “increasingly linked to the secular production of a subject of liberalism” (78). In place of teleological arguments about liberalism as secularization, however, Connolly describes “secularism” as one option or “way of ordering knowledge”(84) among discursive sources of authority. Chapter three, “Law,” explores how claims made on behalf of “natural law” (83) justified the state’s increasingly secular justification for regulating incest. By the 1820s, natural law was established as universal although little agreement existed about how it should manifest in state law. As state law, incest fell into two distinct domains: marital prohibitions under domestic relations law and sexual prohibitions under criminal law. In the Antebellum period, legal discourses from “statutes, legal writings, appellate case reports, newspaper reports, and pamphlets” that “trafficked more in the domain of legality than law” (83) were able to transcend jurisdictional distinctions and develop a unifying incest prohibition grounded in natural law. Increasing reference to “anthropocentric natural law, oriented to society and dependency rather than the sovereignty of God” (83) made incest into a threat amenable to state regulation. If incest was a subjective threat posed by sexual desire, rather than merely a criminal action or wrongful marriage, then natural law could be used to rationalize a liberal framework for the joint regulation of marriage and sexuality. The incestuous sexual subject was the place where these two state concerns meet. By translating incest’s force as “one of the great crimes of humanity, a transgression of a fundamental law, however inchoate” into “sexuality” as a target for state law (94), modes of state regulation could separate sexuality and marriage law while combining them discursively in the national interest.

Chapter four’s focus on “Reproduction” clarifies the centrality of incest to discourses of national interest. Emerging nineteenth century scientific discourses of phrenology and physiology linked the reproductive threat of incest to heredity and degeneration as imminent problems of population. Here we dovetail with the quasi-historical arguments of Michel Foucault, whose pithy formulation of “the entry of life into history” is echoed in Connolly’s examination of physiological discourse: “figuring incest as a reproductive transgression allowed for the regulation of the sexual subject at the level of life itself. As domestic relations law seemed increasingly to seclude the private life of the family, the regulation of incestuous reproduction created the means by which the sexual life of the body politic could be governed by other means” (123). Thus we see in these scientific discourses of the body an emergent “political project” (123) that would enable discourses crossing literature, theology, and law to emerge as political liberalism proper. Natural law could be newly measured by the “racial science of the day” (148), where incest normalized sexual “amativeness” (123) on the one hand and “universal but deracinated kinship”(139) on the other. What resulted was a “racial logic of incest” (150) in which “the true society was one governed by the incest prohibition of natural law, thus gesturing toward the sociality derived from the incest prohibition and secured through the language of hereditary degeneration” (157). Chapter five, “Slavery,” resituates this “emergence of a reproductive incest prohibition” (165) amongst Antebellum discourses of literature, theology, and law that together naturalized incest as a principle of liberal freedom. If earlier chapters teased out the role of incest in creating sexual subjects of liberalism whose public liberty depended upon domestic discipline, chapter five demonstrates how liberal incest became “a central part of racial formation in the United States”(168). The liberal subject’s delicate balance of public liberty and domestic discipline foundered on the “processes of commodification and natal alienation” (208) inflicted through U.S. systems of enslavement. As a result, in many pro- and anti-slavery print discourses incest came to signify kinship as “race” (and vice versa): the “legal definition of paternity in slave states and the rhetoric surrounding the domestic slave trade” (174) resulted in discourses of “incestuous amalgamation” (203) in which “gradations of color slipped into gradations of incest” (198). Without liberal regulation, these discourses concur, “incestuous desire was acted out across the color line” (172) while simultaneously “incest was aligned with blackness, and the incest prohibition was alighted with whiteness” (168).

The final chapter’s study of incest deserves more explication than can be offered here; slavery in many ways strains the study of discourse and demands alternative methods (as scholars of slavery and colonial archives demonstrate). Connolly notes this limit and points out that “we might think of both anti- and proslavery discourses of incest and kinship as differentially articulated fantasies” (171); he also draws attention to “vernacular epistemologies of kinship” (169) that resist integration into liberalism’s small freedoms. He is careful to limit his findings to the ways in which pro- and antislavery print discourses engaged incest as a principle of liberalism, deepening the reach of liberal incest into racial formations seeming antithetical to its premise or promise without totalizing possible modes of resistance. Connolly’s Epilogue on “The Geopolitics of Incest” briefly pursues this argument into domains of imperial discourse: “the racialization of incest would be turned into a geopolitical distribution of incest around the globe as Lewis Henry Morgan crafted his ethnographies of global kinship” (209). But if Connolly suggests that “the imperial road was seemingly paved with incest” (217), his method insistently reminds readers that incest does not actually operate according to the liberal teleologies it helped set in motion. Liberalism is, like secularism, only one option or “way of ordering knowledge” (84) rather than the culmination of a teleological sequence. One of Connolly’s central achievements is his demonstration that liberalism naturalized its teleological ambitions through its discourses of incest: liberalism uses incest as both premise for its civilizing mission and measuring stick for its achievements. “Incest is never simply incest” (230), indeed; by the end of Connolly’s book incest is theological mandate, natural law, sexual desire, state rule, and racial formation without being exclusively or invariably any one of those things.

Domestic Intimacies clarifies in closing how its historical arguments might revise both theoretical and teleological approaches to incest and its prohibition. Theoretical studies of incest have often focused on historical assumptions of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, the era of its famous “taboo.” This later periodization presumes the liberal origins that Connolly argues were at least partially an effect of incest discourses. By setting his genealogical sights in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Connolly is able to demonstrate not only the historical emergence of incest as liberal regulation (combining prohibition and incitement in one cloying breath) but also the discursive formations through which liberalism took shape. Thus Connolly gives us a persuasive historicization of incest in one specific context — the Antebellum United States –while also challenging historical arguments about the shift from liberalism to neoliberalism in recent accounts of biopower. If as Connolly argues “the incest prohibition as Law—theological, psychoanalytic, anthropological—has tended to resist historicization,” then he correctly asserts that “paradoxically, a turn to nineteenth-century law as legality contributes to the historicization of incest in terms of both law and Law”(83). Connolly’s scholarship allows us to see how incest shapes the terms of both law and Law in the theories and teleologies inaugurated by liberalism and neoliberalism alike. While I might quibble with some of its details, Domestic Intimacies graciously welcomes such quibbling by remarking that its own study of incest “opens up the possibility of history and the acknowledgement that perhaps something continues to resist historicization”(230). Connolly’s book offers diverse scholars an opportunity to think about how incest organizes domains of knowledge and invites us to extend and challenge its findings in relation to wide-ranging fields of study. It is a tremendous book, and an enjoyable read, something that recommends it for use in scholarly citation as well as undergraduate classrooms.

Gillian Harkins is Associate Professor of English and Adjunct Associate Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle

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