On the Subject of Citizenship

Just in time for the Independence Day weekend, the Library of Congress has released new research on the Declaration of Independence.  Apparently when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the document he initially used the word “subjects,” then blotted it out and replaced it with the word “citizens.”

citizen-subjects.jpgLibrary of Congress preservation researcher Dr. Fenella France has used spectral photographic imagery to uncover the original markings.  In the popular press, Jefferson’s writing is described as a “Freudian slip,” though it’s not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept. Instead, it seems that Jefferson was seriously wrangling with the implications of considering everyone a citizen, and struggling with the language of his time. 

It seems to me that we’re still struggling with these terms. The delicious image of the term “subject” overlaid with the word “citizen” brought to mind American anarchist John Zerzan’s critique of the post-structuralist parlance of “subjects” and “subjectivity.” In his 1994 essay “The Catastrophe of Postmodernism,” Zerzan lambastes the use of these terms as an abnegation of power, as a bowing of head and heart to a notion of governance (“governmentality”) that refuses the radical possibilities of autonomy.  On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?


Micki McGee