Sovereign Authority and the Democratic Subject in Poe


Edgar Allan Poe's work records in mock horror what he perceives as the passing of old-style Republicanism and the emergence of popular democracy in Jacksonian America. The fear that the federal state would be “a government of people, not states,” loomed in the imagination of an elite to which Poe aspired, as the buffer zones the wealthy and powerful had erected to distance themselves from the encroaching masses seemed to be eroding.1 For instance, “Four Beasts in One—The Homo-Cameleopard,” his satire of Jacksonian democracy set in “the flourishing times of the Roman Empire” (PT, 181),2 depicts a decadent society addicted to bread and circus. The emperor, a parody of Jackson, turns into a sideshow monstrosity, the titular four beasts in one, fleeing a screeching mob and taking refuge in the Coliseum, where a spectacle is staged in his honor.3 For Poe, popular democracy is the constitutive obverse of absolute power, a perverted form of sovereignty made possible by the constitution of the masses through the leveling of social hierarchies and the fusing of disparate affects in spectacles and other forms of mass communication, the product of which he reflects back to his audience in the satirical figure of the bestial Jackson.4

The image of the sovereign taking refuge from the mob that authorizes its power by entering a spectacle of mass entertainment fuses sovereign authority and the people in a loop of enjoyment, like a dog—or better yet, a homo-cameleopard—chasing its own tail. Poe's point is clear: so long as the State and the source of its authority are indistinguishable, there is no way to check the excesses of sovereign power, or what amounts to the same thing, the tyranny of the One (democracy's numerical majority consolidated in the State) over the few. Inverting the traditional criticism of abusive state power, Poe depicts the sovereign as devoid of authority, subject to the whims of a multitude hungry for the next spectacle. That is why there is nowhere for Jackson to run but into the precarious safety of the Coliseum, where the wild adulation of the masses just as easily can turn against him.5 We might dismiss Poe's satire of populist democracy as the fantasy of an aspiring elite bemoaning the breakdown of social hierarchies and traditional values, but in doing so we overlook a serious opposition to the inclusion of life in democratic order. Dependent on the consent of the governed, democratic governments seek the regulation of citizens through their own participation in civic life. The more passionate citizens become about the sociopolitical issues of the day, the stronger their attachment to sovereignty will be. Sovereignty is cold and abstract; it requires the heat of the citizenry to animate it, and this is the process that Poe sets out to dramatize in his work.6

“Four Beasts in One” is not an anomaly in Poe's canon but rather a representation of a consistent preoccupation with the processes by which life is made subject to politics. Not simply reflecting disgust with the mob, the story's carnivalesque excess shows democracy as a hypertrophied politics saturated with bodies and passion. The monstrosity resulting from the amalgamation of the sovereign and the people is Poe's comment on democracy's constitutive tendency to concentrate sovereign power through a process that promises to enfranchise those “left out of doors” in the wake of the Federalist post-revolutionary settlement. While some argued that the enlargement of the democratic franchise would preclude dangerous concentrations of power, others worried that broader inclusion would not translate into competing democratic pluralities but lead to concentrations of sovereign authority.7 Concern over the centralization of sovereign authority intensified in the works of John C. Calhoun, Thomas Dew, and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose views converged on the potential marginalization of minority positions in an expanding democracy. These thinkers identified in the expansion of the franchise a limited horizon of possibility for politics, one where inclusion via representation and a passionate attachment to the existing franchise were all the democratic subject could aspire to. Poe strikes me as a thinker in the tradition of those listed above, who, instead of rushing to democracy's all-embracing gesture, pauses to consider the possibility of saying no to that embrace.

Poe is obviously not a political thinker along the lines of Calhoun and Tocqueville, but his work obliquely comments on the political thought of his day. I am concerned with identifying the implicit political radicality of what today anachronistically reads as the anti-liberal strain in his work. What his stories keep thinking and unthinking, in often too easy to dismiss lurid and hyperbolic detail, is the dialectical relation between sovereignty and the people. His dramatization of this dynamic pays off in the startling insight that it tries to occupy the “place of the negative” at the center of democracy.8

Power, as the saying goes, hates a vacuum, and Poe's work anatomizes the process by which the people ideologically come to occupy the empty space at the center of politics. That is, the space the monarch vacates, as democracies replace monarchies, and democracies become more inclusive, is occupied by “the people” as an abstraction in cultural texts and political discourse that seek to legitimate sovereign authority. This abstraction is nearly palpable in Emerson, Whitman, and Tocqueville, whose work is replete with images of face-to-face social interaction and the heat of shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie. To take the last as an example, Tocqueville envisions “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Caught in that loop of enjoyment, the democratic subject is individuated in his person and imaged as part of a collective. In Tocqueville's language, the subject/citizen, despite being immersed in the multitude, is “withdrawn and apart … a stranger to the destiny of all the others … [and] as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them.”9 While the citizen sees himself as part of a mass, his relation to others is abstract, specular, sealed as he is in his own skin. Poe's work articulates with Tocqueville's in that they both identify in democracy a tendency toward not plurality but homogenization. In Poe, physical proximity is suffocating; sensation threatens to overwhelm individuality and reason.

For all the fascination with physicality, embodiment, sensations, and affects that Poe's work demonstrates, his is a critique of a culture that places the human sensorium at the center of politics in an attempt to give form to the otherwise vacant repository of political potentiality.10 The founding language of common sense has no place in his notion of politics. For Poe, Alexander Hamilton's insistence that “the authority of the union” is dependent on “the affections of the citizens towards it” produces the monstrous figure of the homo-cameleopard.11 If for Hamilton a strong centralized state requires that citizens’ affection for the authority of the union bypass local attachments to state and region, Poe's work investigates how this affective process might be short-circuited. In fact, this fashioning of the people as a national collective made up of individuals capable of feeling is precisely what Poe's work sets out to eviscerate. Against what Poe perceives as an excess of sensation in American politics, his narratives return to the ground zero of political potentiality.

Until recently Poe was dismissed as a social and political conservative, whose views aligned with those invested in protecting and maintaining a slave economy. In his rejection of vast multitudes and broad democracy, Poe's work seems at times consistent with the feudal aristocracy that states’ rights advocates wanted to preserve.12 But even where his thought seems so at odds with mainstream politics, we don't have to throw out the conceptual baby with the proverbial dirty bath water. His critique of majority rule should be important not because of the economic interests and social privileges it aimed to maintain (unjust and reprehensible as they were) but for its conceptual and political intervention in a political system that left little room for contestation. For politically expedient reasons, Dew and Calhoun shifted the focus away from affective politics that left the South at a disadvantage and instead foregrounded a different kind of numbers game, one where the minority has the power to check the arrogation of power by a strong executive. For Dew, “if ever our state institutions shall be overthrown, and the concentration of all the powers into one great central government shall mould this system of republics into one grand consolidated empire, then will the last and greatest evil which can befal [sic] our country have arrived.” In gothic language that resonates with Poe’s, Dew feared that with consolidation “all eyes would be turned to that great and fearful engine at the centre, whose oppressive action would paralyze all the parts, whilst it would bind them together in indissoluble union—in the numbness and torpor of death itself.”13 In agreement with Dew, Calhoun found political paralysis in democracy's potentially inclusive logic and little room for contestation:

It is, indeed, the single, or one power, which excludes the negative, and constitutes absolute government; and not the number in whom the power is vested. The numerical majority is as truly a single power, and excludes the negative as completely as the absolute government of one, or of the few. The former is as much the absolute government of the democratic, or popular form, as the latter of the monarchical or aristocratical. It has, accordingly, in common with them, the same tendency to oppression and abuse of power.14

If Poe's position, as I will show in this essay, reminds us of Dew's and Calhoun’s, its significance ought not to be reduced to an apology for the South's states’ rights position. Neither should his implicit critique of consolidated authority and its attendant biopolitical dimension cast him as a precursor of modern-day tea partiers. That kind of narrow historicism fails to account for the significance of Poe's political and conceptual intervention. By setting his stories in far off places and times, he strips them of surface reference and isolates the kernel of what is politically pertinent to his moment. What interests him, in the stories I will analyze here, is the moment when the people are called upon to pledge their allegiance to sovereign authority, and at which moment the freedom to consent or contest this allegiance opens up like an abyss under their feet. That is, the power of the No in Poe eclipses that of Southern nullifiers, like Dew and Calhoun, whose goal was to veto tariffs that affected the South negatively while choosing to remain within the Union and adhering to the constitutional contract. The No in Poe has more radical consequences for democratic politics.

Ushered in by the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, the democratization of politics in the first half of the nineteenth century brought about a populist reconstitution of sovereign power. The fact that expanding the political franchise was/is predicated on gate-keeping prejudices does not negate the universalist promise of inclusion that informs democracy. Precisely because of this inherent promise, inclusion brought with it discourses and functions designed to make and regulate those who were allowed to participate. But before the subject is recognized as a member of the public, its status is that of the raw substance that has to be fashioned into political subjectivity. The transformation in power ushered in by the age of revolution and democracy would not be possible if the transformation of the people into the public, as the source of sovereign authority, were not subject to disciplinary regulation. It is as if the invention of democracy came with a supplemental, disciplinary order very much invested in the production of public life.

As Michel Foucault demonstrates, what characterizes democracy is the inclusion of life in the processes and calculations of State power. “Biopower,” as Foucault dubbed the new order, “endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply [life], subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.”15 In keeping with Foucault's line of thought, Giorgio Agamben has sought to articulate how disciplinary and State power converge. Agamben starts by differentiating between the Greek concepts of bios (civic life) and zoē (bare life), then argues that the introduction of life (zoē) into the polis is the decisive event of modernity.16 His study of biopower aims to reveal the processes of inclusion of bare life, humanity's animal dimension, into sovereign order. The crucial distinction between modern and classical democracy is that modern democracy presents itself “as a vindication and liberation of zoē, and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē.17 If Poe's homo-cameleopard is any indication, the inclusion of life in the form of mass politics was seen by some as far from liberating, and an aberration of the political order.

Hence, majority rule is more than just a numbers game. It involves fashioning political subjects out of bare life, that irreducible ideological substance denoting a “pre-political” nonexistence waiting to be brought into the polis through democratic process. Poe identifies that process as a perversion of politics, since it foregrounds people's animal dimension, the passions, not the intellect; thus, his work makes up an incisive anatomy of a politics that critics of early U.S. government identified as governing people, not states.18 As Poe's work makes clear, before Agamben and Foucault, the subject sees himself as such only after being properly inserted into the political order.

In what follows, I read a number of Poe's stories that dramatize the subject's passionate relation to sovereign authority. In order to understand the historical specificity of the dynamic the stories address, it is important that we not confuse Poe's historical masquerade with the real thing. That is, “Four Beasts in One” is not about Roman politics, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is not about the Inquisition, and “Masque of the Red Death” is not a comment on European monarchies. By abstracting the specificity of time and place, these stories examine continuity in political thought and practice in antebellum America. The implication here is that modern democracy does not usher an absolute break with the past. Rather, these stories reveal that the modern subject's symbiotic relation with sovereign power is not a recent phenomenon and is more than just skin deep.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” pretends to look back to consider sovereignty's temporal overlap with an eye on the antebellum present. Past and present are yoked together in the story not in order to make a neat historical analogy between the Inquisition and American (or French) democracy but to explore the persistence of belief and fantasy in the making of the modern political subject. The story opens with the inquisitorial judgment: “The sentence—the dread sentence of death—was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears” (PT, 491). Unlike the stories of crime and confession, this one does not dwell on the premeditation of the crime, actual murder, cover-up, and inevitable confession, often read in Poe as a perverse desire to be found out, to be acknowledged by the law. This story has an originary quality, the birth of something being announced. We know next to nothing about the narrator and learn very little about him or his situation throughout the story. We are at ontological ground zero. Subject and context have been stripped to barely recognizable traces: a voice in the dark painstakingly recording every detail of a horrific incarceration. In contrast to those stories set in the present, guilt is here assumed from the beginning, coincident with the law's barely audible articulation of ultimate punishment. Guilt here does not imply transgression (we do not know the nature of the crime); rather what the condemned is confronted with is the pure force of law. However, here the authority of the law seems to fade in and out, like the flickering candles in the room, which threaten to go out at any moment. Significantly, the condemned does not actually hear the sentence but is only made aware of its tonality. The meaningful content of the death sentence is evacuated, and what is left is a meaningless audible trace, a “dreamy indeterminate hum.” This meaningless sound grows increasingly unbearable as it ceases to be heard, and the condemned then becomes desperately dependent on sight to make sense of his fate. He says that he sees the judges’ thin white lips “writhe with a deadly locution.” But since meaning has all but disappeared with the extinction of sound—”for presently I heard no more”—the significance of the qualifier “deadly” is derived from the sight of the judges’ muted bloodless lips, signifying the absence of voluptuous enjoyment in the law, an inhuman quality that the subject in an emerging biopolitical universe will have to flesh out by its own somatic investment (PT, 491).

Sight supplements sound in what becomes a desperate attempt to fix a rapidly disintegrating situation. The phrase “I saw” anxiously multiplies on the page, creating a visible graphic chain analogous to the previous meaningless drone in the condemned man's ears:

I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white—whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words—and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness—of immovable resolution—of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate, were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. (PT, 491; italics added)

In what reads like an allegory of the scene of writing—“whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words”—the emphasis on sight, as much as the repetition of the phrase “I saw,” reveals a protracted struggle to give meaning to things and expressions whose significance, in relation to the condemned man's existence, seems to fade into meaningless obscurity: “the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened” (PT, 492). It is as if with the disintegration of sound and sight, of the scene and figures in relation to which the condemned defines himself, the recreation of this near-life experience in writing is a necessary correlative to the mere fact of having survived it. The repetition of “I saw,” while designed to reassure the condemned of his existence, in effect, betrays doubt about the substantiality of his being. Writing then starts to act as a supplement to his failing sensory faculties. Through writing, what the condemned hopes to accomplish in the face of the disintegration of empirical reality is the preservation, if not of his person, of the symbolic record of the legal sentence that guarantees his existence. The subject's response to the disappearance of the framework that defines him as a guilty person is fear that “there should be nothing to see” (PT, 493). Not surprisingly, as the specters of authority vanish, the condemned loses consciousness, as if one were dependent on the other: “all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe” (PT, 492). The freefall into darkness is exhilarating and terrifying, the temptation of giving in to a negative power that produces nothing. What such a terrifying proposition does produce is a narrative that oscillates between seemingly unsustainable positions, terrifying consciousness and the darkness of nonbeing.

As the condemned regains consciousness, the materiality of the instruments of torture becomes palpable, so that the intangibility of the law's authority is supplemented by its enactment in the form of punishment on the subject's body.19 It is important to note that this is not a case of the authority of the law losing its transcendent quality and the immanence of punishment, then acting as its material/physical supplement. The law does not fade before him, but rather the condemned's belief in the authority of the law, through which his identity as a recusant, a dissenter, is defined. The story keeps in play a dialectical relation between the mystery of the law as a transcendent abstraction and the sentient dimension of punishment that seems oddly designed not to end his life at once in a swift act but rather to elicit something from him.20 From the standpoint of the Inquisition, what is seen lacking in the condemned is belief in the authority of the Church. But from the condemned's perspective, what he wants to sustain is something that escapes subjectivation, something not institutionally mediated, “else there is no immortality for man” (PT, 492). Immortality is here associated with faith or belief, but the uncertainty that accompanies faith in such things takes a horrific form, that of an impossible choice. We sense that the Inquisition wants him to choose “freely.” Does not the title of the story seem to suggest an option between the pit or the pendulum, between a life spent counting the “rushing oscillations of the steel,” that is, a miserable, meaningless existence defined by thrills informed by the certainty of death, or the sudden end of it all that the plunge into the pit represents (PT, 499-50)? It is as if the Inquisition's trial and punishments are designed to elicit a choice from the condemned, the forced choice of believing in the authority of the Church. The Inquisition is banking on the possibility that even if the condemned jumps to his death, his belief in authority will live on in the Church. In contrast, the condemned wants to believe in the immortality of the soul without institutional mediation.21

The meaning of the phrase “even in the grave all is not lost” is precisely the kernel of the mortal struggle between the condemned and the Inquisition (PT, 492). What is being injected here in the notion of immortality is that indefinable object of belief, that which brings imagination into being, making the condemned ask in the utter darkness of the cell, “where and what could I be?” (PT, 493). This is subjectivity at zero degree. If all we are is a bundle of organs and nerves encased in an epidermal membrane, then the Inquisition would not bother with this elaborate scheme; the condemned would simply be put to death and the authority of the Inquisition would be reaffirmed through punishment. But that is not what is at stake here. What Poe's story charts is the dissolution of belief in the sovereign's mandate, and the subject's uncertainty as to how to proceed in the face of a crisis of legitimation. Perhaps Agamben's discussion of the split between bare and civic life as the constitutive moment in politics can be of some help here. “The Pit and the Pendulum” dramatizes the linkage between sovereign power and bare life, illustrating in the figure of the condemned the way the subject is split between a lump of flesh that can be tortured or killed but not sacrificed—the figure Agamben calls homo sacer—and the civic dimension of the subject's life, that quality worthy of inclusion in the life of the polis. If the modern subject, as Agamben argues, is constituted as “a living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion,” sovereign power defines itself as also being outside and inside the juridical order.22 Defined by the power to suspend the law, sovereign power shares with bare life a zone of irreducible indistinction, a state of exception. While this might suggest a relation of utter passivity and powerlessness, that is, a lawless law vis à vis humanity stripped to its animal dimension, this founding political act of exclusionary inclusion is incredibly productive, as Poe's story demonstrates.

The condemned in Poe does not resign himself to his fate but becomes highly animated, trying to make sense of his situation, first by feeling his way around the dark cell, then, once bound to the slab beneath the pendulum, by rubbing food on his ligatures so that the rats in his cell might eat through the rope and set him free. Imprisonment becomes a way for the condemned to tap into his animal instinct to preserve his life at all cost. Poe underscores this point of bestial identification when he describes the condemned waving away the rats from his food by swinging his arm in a seesaw motion, not unlike the swing of the deadly pendulum. After a while “the unconscious uniformity of the movement deprived it of its effect.” That is, the rats soon figure out a way of getting the food despite his attempts to drive them away. Drawing a stark parallel between the rats and the condemned, Poe suggests that a life ruled solely by appetite reconciles man to his basic nature and the finality of the grave. He pushes the analogy with the rats further. After the condemned rubs food on his ropes, he lies still and waits for the rats: “At first, the ravenous animals were startled and terrified at the change—at the cessation of the movement [the swinging of his arm]. They shrank alarmedly back; many sought the well” (PT, 502). The parallel here echoes the moment when the man first finds himself in the dark cell, not opening his eyes for fear that there will be nothing to see. Similarly, the rats react to his stillness by jumping into the pit. Poe's message is clear. Unable to face the fact that the big Other does not exist—that is, that the Inquisition lacks legitimate authority—the condemned comes to think of himself as a sentient thing, but this is a source of aural, visual, and tactile terror. It is as if the condemned cannot imagine living without the scaffolding of sovereign authority, without the symbolic edifice that confers personhood, however minimal, on him. Pushed to the edge of subjective destitution, the condemned then vacillates between ending his life by jumping in the pit, like the rats, or clinging to every scrap of hope that will save him.

By tracing the dialectical relation between sovereign power and bare life, the story highlights the condemned's ongoing investment in an anchoring point, no matter how tenuous, in relation to which his existence might be sustained. That is not to say that Poe is interested in the preservation of the self at all cost. In fact, I think the opposite of self-preservation is at the center of his work. What is being sustained here is something in the self more than the self, that which is not lost in the grave.

The story's premodern setting allows Poe to get around the biometrical language of modern sovereignty. Immortality in the democratic age takes pragmatic form in the continuation of species-being through family lineage, a dead-end theme in Poe if there ever was one, or in the perpetuation of the life of the nation, another dead-end theme in his work. Early on, “The Pit and the Pendulum” even suggests that the condemned might be speaking from beyond the grave:

These shadows of memory tell, indistinctly, of tall figures that lifted me and bore me in silence down—down—still down—till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart, on account of that heart's unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness—the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things. (PT, 493)

“Forbidden” in the sense that, in a disenchanted modern world, talk about the immortality of the soul lacks the relevance it had when the Inquisition executed autos-da-fé against recusants like the condemned. Forbidden also in the sense that, in an increasingly reified world, where the production and reproduction of life becomes the chief sociopolitical object, talk about the soul has an odd ring to it, a metaphysical quality with little biopolitical purchase.

In what could be read as an allegory of the birth of the modern subject, a passage from the premodern to the modern world, the story ponders, in horror, a simple question: is this all there is to me—sight, hearing, touch, appetite? What happens when everything about the self is reduced to the physical, when belief in something beyond what can be measured and quantified disappears? Like all Poe stories, this one is absorbed in and by sensation. Human life seems no more than the sum total of experiences that can be registered and recorded through the senses. And yet, at the same time, the condemned finds himself constantly looking up, far above him, at the aperture that regularly opens and closes, letting in a bit of light, reminding him that “every motion” of his is “undoubtedly watched” by figures that act as substitutes for the divine presence and whose function is to re-instill belief in a world where transcendent authority has to be supplemented with the subject's biopolitical investment, by a new mode of belief that binds the subject to sovereign order (PT, 503).

Harold Bloom notes a telling contrast between Emerson and Poe: “Emerson, in Americanizing the European sense of the abyss, kept the self and the abyss separate as facts. … Poe, seeking to avoid Emersonianism, ends with only one fact, and it is more a wish than a fact: ‘I will to be the Abyss.’”23 For Bloom, Poe's wish is a bad faith resolution. Does not the condemned survive the horror of the pit after all? Is not the self rescued in the end? Poe's characters are never more alive than when they confront an experience for which words fail and the body's nervous system is called upon to make sense of that which eludes language. In some way Poe's characters are antebellum America's precursors of our extreme sports adrenaline junkies: “I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery” (PT, 491). His characters know no modulation but seem constantly jolted by extreme experiences so intense that they end up frying the body's nervous system. I am thinking, for example, of the sensitive artist Roderick Usher, to whom the slightest noise causes excruciating pain. No wonder Allen Tate detected no sensibility in Poe but instead an excess of sensation.24 Poe does strike, some might say obsessively so, against the self in favor of the abyss, but the self he annihilates again and again in his work is one nourished by a sensational culture of which he was one of the main purveyors. Yet even as he helps define America's taste for sensation, his narratives always circle around a gaping hole—the circular pit in the condemned's cell, the dizzying maelstrom, the black tarn in Usher—in relation to which the social is organized. Is not the terror in the story born out of the gap marked by the passage from a disintegrating sociopolitical order (figured by the Inquisition) to one in which the subject must assume the sovereign's mandate onto himself? Are not the evanescent figures of the judges as well as the condemned's half-conscious self really props against the vertiginous power of the negative, symbolized by the pit, to swallow everything out of existence? Out of the uncertainty born of the meaninglessness that the void represents emerges a subject that trembles at the sound of his own voice, one who “in every respect [has become] a fitting subject” for the political order that will supersede the Church (PT, 496). But it is precisely Poe's effort to unthink the conditions that construct the modern subject as a bundle of sensations that causes his narratives to revisit themes relating the consubstantial formation of subject and sovereign.

In the end, we can say that the Inquisition wins a pyrrhic victory over the condemned, in that the subject's belief in sovereign authority finally comes at the expense of the dissolution of the Church's power. The condemned is saved by the supervening authority of the revolutionary French army: “An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss” (PT, 505). Held, literally, in democracy's grasp, the condemned is spared the terrifying freefall, the freedom of existing without the big Other. Yet as the story's epigraph foreshadows, this is not a story about superseding sovereignty but rather one about continuity: “Here the wicked mob, unappeased, long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is saved, and the cave of death demolished, where grim death has been, life and health appear” (PT, 1394).

As the motto indicates, with the advent of enlightened democratic order and its twin goals of “life and health” comes the end of superstition and arbitrary rule. With the founding of the democratic nation-state (“fatherland”), the pit is destroyed, but with it the negative potential it represents: the possibility of taking a stand against the politics of life, health, fatherland, and sovereign power. The new State order landfills the pit to erect institutions designed to block its negative potential, not the arbitrary negation of possibility but infinite potentiality figured by the power of the negative. The founding of democracy is also made possible by the acts of a “wicked mob” (the phrase splitting its reference between the Spanish Inquisitors and their modern incarnation). We should remember that the motto is composed, as the note tells us, not for the Jacobin Club House but for a market to be erected upon its site. Poe's irony cuts to the bone. Now safe, the fatherland, having survived a second wave of terror under the Jacobins, can enjoy the security offered by the sovereignty of the free market, where the health of public life will be measured in profits.

Poe revisits the theme of the biopolitical dimension of modern sovereignty throughout his work. But what is often read as a personal obsession with the transgression of the law is actually an investigation of a constitutive sociopolitical matrix that reproduces itself throughout the nineteenth century, as American democracy becomes more invested in the lives of citizens and noncitizens. Poe's story “The Masque of the Red Death” dramatizes the logic of the included exclusion that, as Agamben writes, defines sovereignty's founding biopolitical act as well as the perpetuation of its authority. “Masque” opens with the constitutive sovereign ban: “The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (PT, 485). Poe's language shifts the agency of the sovereign act from the prince to the afflicted body and naturalizes the shift by making the ban a matter of sympathy. Marks on the body, particularly the face, the locus of what defines a person's humanity, assume (“were the ban”) the sovereign's act of exclusion. In its opening lines, then, the story already sets up the dynamic of the impossible sublimation of sovereign power that informs the narrative.

Rather than concern himself with the welfare of his plague-besieged kingdom, Prince Prospero retires with his court to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys” (PT, 485). He proceeds to deepen the distance between sovereign power and that which lies beyond its purview by reinforcing the walls of the castle. But as Agamben argues, sovereign power rests precisely on the right to decree the state of exception, to suspend the law, and thus create a threshold of law and nonlaw. In an act designed to autoimmunize sovereignty from contagion, the prince defines a zone of extralegal authority within the law, that is, a mode of being outside and yet belonging. This is where sovereign authority and bare life meet, in this zone of irreducible indistinction, where the realm of rule and the realm of life coincide.

Poe sets the stage for this meeting at the masque in the prince's lavish castle: “This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.” While the plague rages outside the palace's walls, Prospero “abdicates” sovereign responsibility for his subjects, abandoning them to nonlaw, by indulging in bizarre pleasures that culminate in the famous masque. To the decadent revelers, “the external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think” (PT, 485). Even the architecture of the palace, with its “sharp turn[s] at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect,” suggests a clear avoidance of seeing things straight away, of looking them in the face, as it were (PT, 486). But as the story announces in the beginning, looking at things in the face, coming to terms with the human consequences of sovereign authority, is precisely what the sovereign ban on the plague is designed to protect the revelers from doing.

Prince Prospero, on the other hand, desires impediments and novel distractions: “The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death’” (PT, 485). Despite sovereign power's attempt to sublimate the crisis with art and pleasure, it is precisely through the indulgence in bizarre and grotesque excesses at the “great fete” that the red death materializes, taking the shape of a mummer and laying waste to the prince and his court of revellers. The sovereign's desire for social prophylaxis, with the preservation of life, health, and security as its goal, ends up creating its own biopolitical excess, whose effects, as the story bears out, produce a redefinition of sovereignty.

Like “The Pit and the Pendulum,”“Masque” is a story about continuity, about what persists in the passage from one form of rule to another, as the story's closing line indicates: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (PT, 490). Prince Prospero's limited sovereignty over a thousand revellers/subjects is superseded by a sovereign order that knows no bounds, that renders indistinct the difference between inside and outside, exclusion and inclusion. It is important to note that the passage from one sovereign order to the other is made possible by the subjects’ intervention: “all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around.” Masked as one of the revellers, Death goes unnoticed for much of the evening, until a collective sense of dread that has been growing throughout the night gives body to what is otherwise an empty shroud. As the narrator points out, “In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation” (PT, 489).

Poe likes his doubles to embody metaphysical antinomies, and in “The Masque of the Red Death” the fantasmic nature of the revellers is offset by the tall and gaunt presence of Death, which in turn acts as a foil to the corpulent figure of the prince, who is described as “bold and robust” (PT, 489). His body offers a point of identification for those who have come to the party at Prospero's request to enjoy themselves. The embodiment of pleasure and sensation, the prince models for the revellers a way of being in the world where appetite literally rules. But Prospero is not the only model of sovereignty that governs through imaginary identification. Death enters the party as a collective anxiety brought on mostly by the heavy monotonous clang of the ebony clock, which with each swing of its pendulum reminds the revellers that the masque must inevitably come to an end: “while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.” With each hour, the sound of the clock becomes more unbearable: “the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause … to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions” (PT, 487). Life literally comes to a halt with the sound of the clock. And while in the densely crowded apartments of the palace “beat[s] feverishly the heart of life,” with each hour the specter of death becomes more and more real to those who have sought refuge in fun and forgetting (PT, 488).

In contrast to Prospero's massive raiment, death has no substance. Instead of finding the “grave-cerements and corpse-like mask,” when the revellers finally rush the figure “in the wild courage of despair,” what they do find is a mummer's cape “untenanted by any tangible form” (PT, 490). This is not a case of the emperor having no clothes, but the exact opposite. Sovereign power is revealed as all form and no substance. Prospero rules by bread and circus. Operating under the logic of managing limited resources, he invites a select few to revel in an orgy of food, wine, and sensation designed to simulate life. But the spectacle and hyperactivity convince no one of the legitimacy of the sovereign's authority or the reality of his person, a condition that begins to take on a madness of its own: “There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not” (PT, 487).

Why is it so important (“necessary”) that reason be dependent on empirical knowledge, on what one can see, hear, and touch? What is it about sensation that gives the illusion of grounding both sovereignty and sovereign subject? What Poe allegorizes here, as he does in “The Pit and the Pendulum” and a number of other stories, is the crisis that follows when sovereign authority crumbles and subjects, out of duty or necessity, assume the role of the sovereign. That is why, packed as they are in those “densely crowded” rooms, bound by pleasure and a sense of belonging, the revellers in their suffocating proximity begin to see signs of their own, and their ruler’s, decay imaged in the spectral figure of the Red Death, whose power, Poe reminds us, is activated—that is, “approved”—with the consent of the revelers (PT, 488, 489). As Agamben writes: “Law is made of nothing but what it manages to capture inside itself through the inclusive exclusion of the exceptio: it nourishes itself on this exception and is a dead letter without it. In this sense, the law truly ‘has no existence in itself, but rather has its being in the very life of men.’”25 The darkness that follows the crumbling of sovereign authority, rather than signal a nihilistic vision, represents the potential of the negative, imaged also in the terrifying pit, as the site for the new organization of the social.

Poe knows that Jacksonian sovereignty depends, in part, on the channeling of fraternal association and the intensity of self-possessed individualism into sovereign order. As theorized by Tocqueville and feared by Dew and Calhoun, the results of this new order seem to him monstrous, as evidenced in the figure of the homo-cameleopard. As Poe saw it, subject and multitude become indistinguishable as sense and sensibility are called upon to organize and maintain the bond to sovereign authority. His work not only anatomizes this process but reveals instances where it can be short-circuited and sovereignty can be reimagined or undone. Not quite an engineer of sensation, Poe is a minus man, peeling the layers of sensorial activity and emotional density that fashion the fantasy of the social bond and the latter's dependency on transcendent authority. What he leaves us with, in story after story, is the sobering image of a thinking singularity, a bare cogito, stripped of the alibi our passionate attachments provide when we are faced with hard decisions.


  • 1

    The phrase dates back to the debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the late eighteenth century and continues through the nineteenth century in the works of such state rights advocates as Thomas Dew and John C. Calhoun. Opponents of centralized sovereignty took issue with Alexander Hamilton's insistence that the new national government would require the citizen's somatic investment. As Hamilton saw it, “the further it [sovereign authority] enters into those objects which touch the most sensible chords and put in motion the most active springs of the human heart, the greater will be the probability that it will conciliate the respect and attachment of the community” (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Isaac Kramnick [New York: Penguin, 1987], 203).

  • 2

    It is important to note that the term empire was used synonymously with sovereignty in the first half of the nineteenth century. On this point, see J. G. A. Pocock, “States, Republics, and Empires: The American Founding in Early Modern Perspective,” in Conceptual Change and the Constitution, ed. Terence Ball and J. G. A. Pocock (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1988), 68; Richard W. Van Alstyne's The Rising American Empire (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), 78; William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America's Present Predicament along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), 37; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000), 161–82.

  • 3

    William Whipple reads the story as a satire of Andrew Jackson. See his Poe's Political Satire, Univ. of Texas Studies in English Series 35 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1956), 81–95.

  • 4

    As Duncan Faherty observes, Poe's investigation of Jacksonian misrule “allows him to depict how the usurpation of authority disrupts the entire social fabric” (“‘A Certain Unity of Design’: Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and the Terrors of Jacksonian Democracy,”Edgar Allan Poe Review 6, no. 2 [2005]: 8).

  • 5

    Paul Downes asserts: “Poe's protagonists end their searches with horrific revelations. … Democracy depends upon a sovereign vulnerability—the vulnerability of the individual deprived of all necessary relation to others in the moment of his or her absolute autonomy—and upon a notion of human belonging that threatens every individual with the possibility of falling outside the limit of the ‘truly’ human.” See “Democratic Terror in ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’ and ‘The Man of the Crowd,’”Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism: History, Theory, Interpretation 37 (2004): 33–34.

  • 6

    See Jennifer Greiman, Democracy's Spectacle: Sovereignty and Public Life in Antebellum American Writing (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2010). I agree with much of what Greiman has to say about “the paradoxes of a democratic public sphere whose ambivalent gestures of inclusion and exclusion create startling forms of association in the United States of the nineteenth century” (3), particularly her assertion that embodiment and not abstraction is essential to the citizen's self-conception and regulation.

  • 7

    For James Madison's position in favor of the enlargement of the franchise, see “The Federalist No. X,” in Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Federalist Papers, 122–28.

  • 8

    For a discussion of the place of the negative in democracy, see the exchange between Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York: Verso, 2000).

  • 9

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 663.

  • 10

    According to Joan Dayan, “all of Poe's fiction … moves rhetorically back and forth between the extremes of affect (heartfelt devotion or undying love) and dispassion (cold mutilation or self-absorbed insensitivity).” See “Poe, Persons, and Property,”American Literary History 11 (1999): 410. While Dayan finds in the back and forth shuttling of passion and dispassion the affective supplement of the law's authority, I find not an enabling ongoing relay but a short-circuiting of what binds the subject to the law.

  • 11

    Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Federalist Papers, 203.

  • 12

    For excellent work reversing the critical trend that saw Poe as an aesthete with aristocratic pretensions who wanted nothing to do with the masses, see Terence Whalen, Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).

  • 13

    Thomas Dew, An Address, On the Influence of the Federative Republican System of Government Upon Literature and the Development of Character (Richmond: Printed at the office of Southern Literary Messenger, 1836), 280.

  • 14

    John Caldwell Calhoun, The Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters, ed. Clyde N. Wilson (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992), 22–23.

  • 15

    Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), 137.

  • 16

    Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, ed. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998), 4.

  • 17

    Agamben, Homo Sacer, 9. Agamben is concerned with the “zone of irreducible indistinction,” where sovereign power and bare life converge, becoming each other's alibis. In this between/betwixt zone, this “state of exception,” sovereign power establishes its authority by “excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order” (9).

  • 18

    See Christopher Castiglia, Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the Antebellum United States (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2008), 17.

  • 19

    For a discussion of the story as a critique of the penal system, see Jason Haslam's “Pits, Pendulums, and Penitentiaries: Reframing the Detained Subject,”Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50, no. 3 (2008): 268–84.

  • 20

    As Dayan notes, for Poe “the law operates both forward and backward along a temporal continuum to exclude, subordinate, and annihilate” (“Poe, Persons, and Property,” 407). Dayan downplays the affective and imaginative dimension the law inspires in the subject in favor of its exclusionary and annihilating force. In contrast, I am interested in its disabling “animating” potential and Poe's response to such potential.

  • 21

    David Hirsch argues that “out of the transcendence downward there emerges, paradoxically, a transcendence upward.” I agree, but Hirsch contextualizes transcendence in the biblical language of salvation. See “The Pit and the Apocalypse,”Sewanee Review 76 (Autumn 1968): 468.

  • 22

    Agamben, Homo Sacer, 8.

  • 23

    Harold Bloom, introduction to The Tales of Poe, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 12.

  • 24

    Allen Tate, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,”Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Assessments, ed. Graham Clarke, vol. 4 of Poe in the Twentieth Century (East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd, 1991).

  • 25

    Agamben, Homo Sacer, 27.