Jefferson’s Two Bodies: Interpretations of a Statue at the University of Virginia

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the University of Virginia.


Statue Politics

Visitors to the University of Virginia (UVA), and those of us who work there, cannot miss the large statue of Thomas Jefferson at the forefront of the campus, just north of the Rotunda. This representation of Jefferson appears to look down over those working and studying at the university, which opened in 1819 under his direction.

On the night of September 12, 2017, a group of students shrouded the statue of Jefferson. They did so in memoriam of Heather Heyer, who was killed a month before by a white supremacist when she was protesting the fascist rally in downtown Charlottesville on August 12. They did so in protest of the university’s paltry response to the violent fascists on its lawn — and at this same statue — on the night of August 11. The shrouding of the Jefferson statue was also meant to protest the university’s ongoing complicity with everyday white supremacy in the United States. Jefferson was labelled a “racist and a rapist” by these students, and the message “Black Lives Matter” was combined with “Fuck White Supremacy.”

It is perhaps worth noting that this action of September 12 took place one day after the local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom draped the statue of Homer that sits at the center of the University of Virginia lawn in the American flag, as part of a memorial event (also sponsored by the Burke Society) in honor of those who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is simply to say that statue politics, and the engagement with the built environment by students, is an ongoing, complex, and multi-vocal process in the locale of the university, though the trajectories of these re-presentations of statues through the (fragmented) media system varies significantly.

The students who shrouded Jefferson inserted themselves and their message into a series of events that had been unified by their focus on statues that value and exalt the Confederacy. In particular, their actions referenced the conflict over the statues of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville; more broadly they referenced statues in Richmond, Virginia, and statue removal in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thus, by shrouding the statue of Thomas Jefferson, these students pulled the memory of the author of the Declaration of Independence — that document so useful to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others — into a conversation that has most often focused on the traitors to, rather than the architects of, the American republic.

Monuments honoring the Confederacy exist throughout the United States, mostly, but not exclusively, in the south; many were built in the early part of the twentieth century to put on a pedestal those who fought in defense of slavery, and their erection was intended to legitimate the project of racial hierarchy in the Jim Crow era. This was a hierarchy enforced by repeated violence and institutionalized racial terror, and the statues of Lee and Jackson — imposing, militaristic — certainly represent both the violence of the Civil War and the violence of the Jim Crow era. The city of Charlottesville has officially and semi-permanently done to the representations of Lee and Jackson what the students did unofficially and ephemerally to the representation of Jefferson on campus — it has shrouded them.

The president of the University of Virginia reacted very differently to the shrouding of Jefferson by her students than she did to the shrouding of Confederate generals. In an email sent to alumni, she expressed her disdain for the students’ action, insisting that in shrouding the statue the students were “desecrating ground that many of us consider sacred.” She also hailed her alumni (and, presumably, her donors), generationally:

In your own college days, many of you experienced protests and activism at UVA. The war in Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, and many other issues have been discussed, debated and protested at UVA. We are at another such point. I prefer the process of discussion and debate, and the debate is happening here with a wide variety of guest speakers, panels, and other opportunities to look at underlying issues. That there is also activism should not be a surprise to any of us.

This email did not mention slavery; and it drew a bright line between “debate and discussion” and “activism,” with the clear implication that activists were not debaters.

The email she sent to the current university community was different. To the professoriate, employees, and students, she expressed “strong disagreement” with the “protesters’ decision” (thus suggesting that these students were part of “debate”), and dedicated a paragraph to Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, the enslaved labor that built the first buildings of the university and served its students, and the nearly century-long period between emancipation and the integration of the University of Virginia, during which black Americans worked for, but could not enroll at, UVA.

The two emails sent — it must be said, it was a rather unstrategic move, given that both quickly appeared online at The Washington Post — reveal much about the cleavages in American politics. They also articulate a fundamental theoretical difficulty concerning the relationship of speech to conduct. They leave us wondering: in the eyes of the university, are the “activists” saying something, something that can be responded to, and if so, what are they saying? Or are they merely bodies in space, relatively mute? Of course, bodies in space also articulate meaning. One possibility for pursuing an answer to these questions is to theorize legally about protected speech. Herein, I pursue a strictly semiotic analysis instead. What is at stake, in the shrouding of Jefferson and the university president’s reaction to it? What are the meanings, depth and surface, present/past/future, fractured and whole, that are evoked by the statue and its shrouding? While I cannot, in this short essay, adequately analyze this multiplicity, I do think we can begin to see what is at stake by articulating a theoretical language for analysis, and using that language to venture some interpretations.


The President’s Two Bodies and American Political Theology

We might begin by asking what is involved in the veneration of presidents — university presidents (such as Sullivan, and Jefferson) and founders (such as Jefferson), but also American presidents (including, but not limited to, those who are revered as “founders” of the United States). The American executive branch has a special history, owing to the way it emerged as part of the answer, within a republic, to the idea of sovereignty in a monarchy. Sovereignty, in this latter sense, was grounded in the legal fiction and cultural schema known as the king’s two bodies. In this schema, a series of representations and legal arguments indicated that the king’s “second body” was unchanging (unlike a given King’s mortal “first body”), and, as such, contained within it the body politic, whose existence could continue indefinitely into the future. As Ernst Kantorowicz showed in great detail, this cultural and legal schema was immensely productive as a framework for imagining power. For the king’s two bodies allowed one to imagine and justify the conduct of state actions in perpetuity and with regularity. For example, under the auspices of the king’s second body, one could tax yearly in the name of “King and Crown.” (It also, Kantorowicz shows, structures Shakespeare’s Richard II). And so, the king’s two bodies is the cultural-and-legal dimension of the absolutist origins of the modern state.

The American republic and the revolution that led to it disrupted and replaced this foundational legal fiction. Indeed, all three of the eighteenth-century Atlantic revolutions contributed to the destruction of the idea that “the king is dead, long live the king” can serve as the ongoing legal and cultural basis for peace, prosperity, and political and social order. However, as an element of culture, the king’s two bodies did not disappear. Rather, it made its way into post-monarchic politics in complicated and sometimes counterintuitive ways. The king’s two bodies lived on not only in the Constitution’s official granting of rather extensive powers to the presidency (which scholars have long noted, pace Hamilton’s “protesting too much” to the contrary in Federalist 67 and 69-70, as a kind of British-facing replacement of King-in-Parliament with President-and-Congress — for the latest version of this argument see Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution), but also in the social interpretation of presidents themselves.

Indeed, starting with George Washington, many of the presidents of the republic became, even while alive, mythical. Whoever occupies the office is, in the interpretation of their lives, fortunes, and loves, a central location of American political theology. That presidents have two bodies — in cultural life if not in the law — is what explains the obsession, throughout the long history of the republic, with the bodies of presidents and their relationship to the social or political “body” of the country. (For instance, it suggests a ground for the otherwise incomprehensible fascination and ongoing discussion of the size of the hands of the current office holder.) For, if there is one location where the symbols of American democracy are the most charged, the most overwrought, the most wildly undisciplined, the most intense, it is in the semiosis that flows through the flesh and blood of the chief executive (the first body as representation of the second), and thus through the iconic representations of that first body as well. Via this schema, the president’s mind, house, family, accoutrements, ideas, writings, jokes, preferences in sexual activities, preferences in cigars, and exercise habits are given a double significance. They are subjected, via writing and art, to a kind of perpetual motion machine, a seemingly infinite source of semiotic energy. In the presidency, the framework of the king’s two bodies meets its replacement in the form of the idea of the people as sovereign, and at this particular location in public culture, other meetings between the pre- and post-revolutionary worlds also take place: charismatic and authoritarian leadership meet the idea of a public servant, and the very possibility of government by the many meets the inspiring twice-told tale of the individual leader who founds, saves, or remakes the republic.

Certainly, the representation of Jefferson was, and continues to this day to be, one such generator of semiotic energy. But the president’s two bodies is not a matter confined to the reverence directed at the founders of the republic. The political scientist Michael Rogin showed quite clearly the importance of this scheme for comprehending the rhetoric emanating from, and swirling around, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan; sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander used the concept to analyze the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain. Rogin explains the utility of using the King’s Two Bodies to analyze the two bodies of various presidents this way:

The doctrine of the king’s two bodies offers us a language in which confusions between person, power, office and state become accessible. It alerts us to how certain chief executives found problematic their bodies mortal and the human families and dwelling places that housed them; how they sought transcendent authority and immortal identity in the White House, absorbing the body politic in themselves; how they committed massive violence against the political institutions of the fathers and the lives of the republic’s sons; and how their own presidential death consummated or shattered their project. (From Ronald Reagan: The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, p. 82).

The recurrence of contests of interpretation about the president’s two bodies can also provide insight into the current moment. It helps us comprehend how a large percentage of the American population could not accept, at a “gut” level, that Obama was not only an elected leader but a culturally legitimate sovereign, as Eric Michael Dyson has studied. Indeed, some such persons sit in Congress. The basic explanation for this is racism, fear of the other, the scare politics that politicians used to connect American blacks to “foreign” Muslims, etc. But the basic explanation is not enough; there is more.

The disgust that Obama generated as an executive extended beyond the ongoing life of everyday American racism and xenophobia. Something further was afoot, as evidenced by the tremendous popularity of the controversy — stoked by Donald Trump — over Obama’s birth certificate. I would hypothesize that the rejection of Obama was an interpretation not simply about his actual body, and not only about his “identity,” but about his ability to grow a second body, and thus contain within himself the body politic. Certain skin colors, in American politics, have long signified certain meanings and invited certain contestations, and nothing is perhaps more contested, and more likely to produce violent reaction, than an enhancement — or perceived enhancement — of black power. But even beyond this, Obama’s skin color signified for some parts of the electorate an unallowable profanation of the sacred second body of the president, which, in a republic, is taken to represent “the people.”

If we understand American politics as, in part, constituted via the political semiosis that relates the second body of the president to the first, we can begin to see what is at stake here. If American politics is, in part, political theology, the president’s second body works as follows: the signifier of the president (his actual body, or iconic representations of that body) somewhat mystically represents the people, the state, and the “idea of America” all at once. And these are all extraordinarily contested notions. Beyond and behind such contestation, however, lies violence. In particular, many of the interpretations made in reaction to the “occupation” of the White House by a black man have advocated violence. “Charlottesville,” was, in part, the result of this cultural maelstrom.

Ta-Nahesi Coates’s argument that Trump is the “first white president” of the United States illuminates this point. Trump’s whiteness is not merely everyday whiteness, but rather that of a recovery of a white political body that excludes the non-white as profane. We can add to Coates’s analysis an understanding of Trump’s campaign magic in the mystical terms of the king’s two bodies. Trump appeared, to his base, not as a buffoon, but as the kind of person who could make the profane sacred again. It was a strange loop: Trump broke every rule for access to the presidency that Obama, in his personal conservatism and careful rhetoric, followed closely. Most importantly, Trump’s spiral of charismatic success appeared to depend on what would have been, for a “normal” candidate, a series of campaign-ending scandals: the naked pictures of his foreign-born wife on the front page of the newspaper, his recorded discussions of sexual assault, and his spoken profanity. Beneath all of this was a proposition that Trump offered his audiences, which Coates has grasped and analyzed with great clarity. Trump’s message was: everything is fallen in this corrupt world of a black presidency, so why not make the profane the new sovereign? We know from Georges Bataille (and, unfortunately, from Joseph Goebbels) that that which is profane can be made, via the mobius strip of desire, into the sacred.


Jefferson’s second body and everyday life at the University of Virginia

Jefferson’s second body is, in American national culture, a location for plenty of debate. Some of this debate touches on the founders generally — given that the wealth and power of Virginia was central to the creation of the republic, Jefferson is but one of several mythologized figures who not only owned slaves, but wrote the Constitution and defended it in such a way that they could continue the practice. Jefferson’s legacy is profoundly paradoxical; if negotiated carefully, this paradox could serve an explicitly progressive and even civic purpose. For, at the national level, the meeting point of memory and historical scholarship is a space where critique can enter public life. Citizens can be asked — as they are often asked, on the slavery tour at Monticello — to think about the contradictions between Jefferson’s ideals and his daily life, and in particular about how such memories could be used to build a more perfect union.

And then there is the Declaration. The radicalism of the Declaration of Independence is undeniable — for its own time, the twentieth century, and the twenty-first. The continued, contested interpretation of this text, whose primary author was also the master of Monticello, seems worthwhile indeed. It is, furthermore, the University of Virginia itself that has an unparalleled scholarly tradition for thinking about Jefferson and the early American republic, for investigating the contradictions in his writings and his life, and for considering his contributions to political philosophy. I suspect many of those who share the progressive ambitions of Danielle Allen’s book Our Declaration, and appreciate this scholarly tradition, were likely to cringe at the students’ shrouding of Jefferson, for the simple reason that it would appear that the left may be giving up one of its most important symbolic resources.

Eager to own up to the sins of the man, many progressives nonetheless wish to embrace the meanings of the text of the Declaration; from afar, it may have appeared that the students were, in a sense, buying in to what one might speculate would be Richard Spencer’s own interpretation of Jefferson (i.e., that he is “of a piece” with Jackson and Lee) — but inverting its moral evaluation (i.e., both Jefferson and the Confederate generals deserve shrouding and removal, not public commemoration and valorization). But matters—especially in the iconic world where aesthetics meets morality and politics—are not so straightforward. For one must recognize, perhaps, that the very eagerness of the progressive left to own up to the sins of the man is, in a sense, captured by a politics of splitting and disavowal; by manifesting the kind of depths of darkness implied by the shroud, there is something in this act that calls for further reflection.

Furthermore, meanings are also local. The national and international debates about Jefferson and the importance of his memory to the continuation of the republic and the creation of a “more perfect union” intersect and shape, but do not exhaust or entirely determine the meanings of Jefferson that are made and remade at the University of Virginia every day. And it was, in part, that everyday context that helps us interpret the shrouding of Jefferson. Locally, there is in everyday life here a banal sacralization of Jefferson’s second body that is unthinking and personalistic. It glorifies, implicitly and explicitly, Jefferson the man qua patriarch and head of household. Here again, we find Kantorowicz calling us back to the king’s two bodies. For Kantorowicz, the representation of kings that appeared on various objects, including those used daily, like coins, inscribed into everyday life a kind of identification of king and public — in an absolutist state centered on a monarch, the king is the only truly public person. In the public, everyday life of the University of Virginia and its environs, something similar happens with Jefferson’s second body; this meaning circulates to the point of saturation, but it is quite distinct from the national memory contests over founding fathers with which we are all, in the United States, familiar. In this strictly local banal sacralization, it is not our historians’ careful scholarship on Jefferson that choreographs campus. Rather, on “grounds” (the name itself is a kind of sacralization), the student, the employee, and the administrator are invited to experience Jefferson as a saintly presence. We find, in myriad little signifiers, a public interpretation of Jefferson’s fatherly wisdom.

This interpretation — of Jefferson as saintly and wise father — inhabits our classrooms, our coffee shops on campus (see the photo of the chalk portrait of Jefferson, taken by me in the Starbucks in Nau Hall), and every nook and cranny of our buildings. The casual references to his having “built” the university (when in fact it was built by enslaved persons); the habitual reaching for his wisdom, insight, sayings, and words on seemingly every occasion of professional significance; the ongoing connection to his literal home at Monticello, presented repeatedly as glorious; all of these serve to instantiate a certain fantasy that has little to do with the subtlety and contradictions of Jefferson’s life and thought, or the difficult and contentious history of the American republic. Rather, the day-to-day fantasy presented at the university goes something like this: “Jefferson’s sacred genius legitimated his power, and that genius was the genius of the father of a household, who built the future so his young charges could live and work freely on their studies.”

This is an emotionally appealing idea, but it is precisely the problem. For what, exactly, is the household we are imagining here? If all of these icons of the first body of Jefferson produce, in this locale, a kind of look-and-feel through which a sacred second body of Jefferson is instantiated, we perhaps should ask directly, “What does the University of Virginia look and feel like?” One answer to this question is quite well known: it refers to Jefferson’s own distinctly classical preferences in architecture. But the problem with this interpretation is that there is a chain of signification that begins in the experience of “grounds,” but does not end in Athens. For, the one place in the world that looks the most like the University of Virginia is…Monticello. Monticello was and is a lot of things; but more than anything else, it was a plantation. The banal reverence invited by the statue of Jefferson, and by the representation of him that inhabits the campus, encodes this meaning.

To be clear, this is not the only meaning to be made out of Jefferson’s statue. However, there are limits to interpretation, and certain interpretations have an inner logic that it is radically disingenuous to deny. (This, after all, is the point of semiotics as an analytical standpoint: culture does not come in small pieces, it comes in complexes of signs and meanings.) If the university is repeatedly interpreted via the metaphor of the household, and if Jefferson’s statue is interpreted as referring the to the sacred Jefferson as the head of household, then an unavoidable conclusion of this interpretation is that the sovereignty of the house accrues to the father, and that in Jefferson’s life and times, that was a violent sovereignty of white over black. I believe that many progressives, liberals and conservatives in the United States would agree that this specific meaning of “Jefferson” is one that should be directly negated. So why do we tolerate it and promulgate it, instead? This, at least, was the uncomfortable question that the shrouding caused me to ask myself.

The shrouding of Jefferson by the students may have been unstrategic vis-à-vis the pursuit of concrete progressive goals. I do not think it made life easier for the coalitional left, on campus or, in so far as pictures of the shrouding were taken up nationally, in the United States. But politics is not reducible to concrete goals; it is not only a means-ends game. It is also a struggle over worldview and ethos. This was made clear by the defensive and rearguard reaction of the president of the University of Virginia — and others around campus — to her students. The students’ brief and ephemeral negating of the representation of Jefferson elicited moral condemnation.  This condemnation revealed the persistence of meanings-as-everyday-feelings that many of us would rather ignore. Note: the students did not vandalize the statue; the shroud was cut down; the statue stands exactly as it was before. What they conducted, then, was not a desecration. In so far as it felt like one, we need think through carefully what, exactly, is so discomfiting about this. After all, “rapist” is a charged word, but there is no living person who, on the basis of the students’ actions, is actually being charged with this crime in our legal system. As for “racist,” well, what other term is more appropriate for white persons who owned black slaves? Surely the slogans attached to Jefferson’s statue had more historical accuracy as signs-pointing-to-referents than did the draping of the statue of Homer in the American flag? So, what, then, is the problem with this “activism?” Why is it so “radical”?


 Critique of the Defense of Jefferson

The continued presence of the specific statue of Jefferson referenced in this article is not, in and of itself, inherently ideological; many reconfigurations of both the built environment around the statue, and of our own behaviors vis-à-vis the representations of Jefferson on campus, are possible. For example, shortly after the shrouding, an artist’s reinterpretation of the very idea of “putting someone on a pedestal” was installed in front of the statue — to quite interesting effect. So, variability in interpretation obtains.

However, claims — by the university president and others — that this act by students was a desecration are dissimulation loaded down with ideology. What, really, is this “ground that many of us consider sacred?” I suspect that there is more than one sacred thing about Jefferson, and I also suspect that what I find profane about Jefferson, others (such as Richard Spencer) find attractive, even sacred. This is to say that interpretations of Jefferson are not sealed off from conduct; they carry with them suggestions and imperatives, tendencies to bend action in one direction rather than another, and articulations of the present with the future and the past.

To call what the students did a desecration, as the president did in her email, lacked normative validity, but sociologically it was rather predictable. The president of the University of Virginia, whose very office “descends” from Jefferson, fell into the allure of the of the “president’s two bodies” — in both senses, local and national — at exactly the wrong moment. Her words coded her own students as profane and uncivil, as engaged in activism without speech, despite their peaceful conduct, their clearly articulated demands, and their specifically non-permanent resignification of the statue. Most importantly, the president coded the students as uncivil, despite the recent storming of campus by white supremacists whose advocacy of, and practice of, violence against non-whites is on display for all to see. This was, then, the specifically cultural failure of the administration, and it is one that continues on campus.

While President Sullivan attempted, again, to elevate Jefferson himself as the paragon of civil disagreement — implying, as her emails so often do, that he is the signified to which all good signifiers in the USA can eventually be traced — the students who shrouded the statue performed precisely the inverse of this politically naïve, if sociologically predictable, “defense” of “sacred ground.” By compelling those who saw pictures of the shrouding to confront Jefferson’s biography, they sought, not to erase the history of Jefferson as “founder” of the United States and the university, but rather to debunk the myth of Jefferson’s second body as the pristine, sacred, and mystical inhabitant of the bricks and mortar of the university. What they attacked, then, was the norm that something about Jefferson’s life and times can and should choreograph our actions and interactions on a daily basis at the University of Virginia. And in doing so, they participated in a long tradition of debunking-as-democratic-action. They engaged in conduct that demanded reinterpretation and the reflexive examination of one’s everyday feel for the life of the university, and they demanded a reconfiguration of conduct by the administration, given the exigencies of the political moment. It remains to be seen whether the university community, and the administration in particular, will meet this challenge.

In solidarity with the students, then, I can say the following: in the lifeworld of the University of Virginia today, we have a taller order than that of simply recognizing and mentioning the contradictions of Jefferson’s life and times. Because of the manifest authoritarianism on the rise in the democracies of the West, because of the violence perpetrated in Charlottesville and directed at our students, and because the United States must recognize its multiethnic composition and abandon the dominance of any racial group if it is to survive as a democracy in the 21stt century, we must grasp how the banal veneration of Jefferson’s sacred second body invites the performance and experience of whiteness as power.

This recognition will not, in my view, require us to take down the statue. But it does require us to give up on the easy veneration of Jefferson as the daily substrate of our noble purpose as scholars and researchers. We cannot both (1) revere our university’s founder in the particular role of patriarch, and (2) move forward together as a group in equal dialogue across difference. If we are committed to open and free inquiry, argument and disagreement without violence, and the building of a society in which all have access to the sacred rights of individuals that Jefferson himself wrote about so eloquently — rights that are so unequally distributed in the United States today — we must be willing to let go of Jefferson’s sacred second body as the animating ghost of our classrooms. We must, instead, understand the founder of the University of Virginia as an author and politician to confront and discuss. And this means less deference, more activity, and, in particular, the discovery of new models of democratic action. On this front, our students have themselves provided a model. Perhaps we should consider their “activism,” then, indeed, democratic communication. 


Of icons and golems

I have, at certain moments in this semiotic analysis, referred to both the statue of Jefferson, and other representations of his visage on campus, as iconic. This is useful for understanding the link between signs and experience, because the phenomenon of iconicity suggests a link between semiotics and hermeneutics. In an essay on icons and power, Jeffrey C. Alexander writes that “everyday experience is iconic, which means that self, reason, morality and society are continually defined in aesthetic, deeply experiential ways.” In reviewing Immanuel Kant’s notorious racism as part of his essay, Alexander notes the “normative risk” in analyzing “aesthetic surface and moral depth.” He is referring to the way in which, in providing an interpretation of others’ interpretations of experience, one is entering into the fray of ought with one’s analysis of is.

The students who shrouded Jefferson put the iconic experience of “grounds” up for analysis. Their actions demanded a reflexive consideration of the aesthetic-moral-political experience of the built environment at the University of Virginia. And indeed, many elite universities have found themselves in the middle of similar protests about their buildings. We should not, as intellectuals, dismiss this — as so many cynical critics would — as “merely symbolic” politics. Rather, these protests should be seen as interrogations of the invited experience and interpretation encoded into the material environment of some of the most iconic places of the United States. Especially when, as is the University of Virginia, a university is public — a place where state meets society — this experience takes on special meanings. The experience of these built environments is held out to the entire American population as an ideal to be striven for. Advertisements during the broadcast of college football games, seen by millions, ask plaintively: what could be more wonderful than to be a student in the great halls of an elite American university? The students who shrouded Jefferson have put those of us who were once students at these places on notice. We must carefully interpret and explain what makes certain signs overflow with meaning, generate passionate emotion, and occupy an outsized place in the consciousness of persons. For, when signs do this, they evoke by their very presence a choreography of conduct.

To ask about sticky signs at the university is to ask openly the taboo question forced upon us by the moment, one which can no longer be held at arm’s length: why is the architecture of the University of Virginia so attractive to fascists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis in the first place? One of the students who shrouded the statue of Jefferson held up a sign that itself performed a mimesis: “Hate has had a place here for 200 years,” the sign read, with the numerals “200” written in direct imitation of the logo the university chose to brand is bicentennial. This is what we might call iconic politics.

But again, meanings are local, and they are always, perhaps, even stranger than they first appear. At its bicentennial celebrations, the University of Virginia hired a professional Jefferson impersonator. The website for said professional describes him as the exact height, weight, and “general appearance” of Thomas Jefferson. A surface interpretation would explain this is relatively inconsequential, if perhaps misguided, fun. After all, it is not as if the returning alumni and big donors were actually going to be convinced that Jefferson himself was walking the campus (“grounds”). But a more speculative interpretation of this publicity stunt would wonder if it means that the statue on a pedestal in front of the University of Virginia is not only an icon, but also a golem. This is a disturbing possibility. In the classic narratives, golems often escape the control of those who raise them, wreaking havoc on the very communities they are supposed to protect. (We might say: liberals who wish to raise the “liberal Jefferson,” beware of what you are raising — that Virginia clay has more than the liberal Jefferson within it.) But we must also ask: is it possible that the psychic need for a living Jefferson on campus might reflect a mystic interpretation of the American past, which manifests in consciousness as a certain attraction to nation, race, and order? The golem of Prague was raised to protect a minority community from the violent pogroms of a wicked and prejudiced majority. When I lie awake at night, I fear that the golem of Charlottesville might be the symbolic entryway for the precise opposite in American society today. Let us stop raising him from the earth before it is too late.


Isaac Ariail Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the use of theory in the human sciences and the editor, with Monika Krause and Claudio Benzecry, of Social Theory Now, both published by University of Chicago Press. In 2015, he received the Lewis A. Coser Award for Theoretical Agenda-Setting from the American Sociological Association. This article was written as an engagement with student politics on campus in the fall of 2017, and it combines an analysis of the long arc of American political theology with an interpretation of the local meanings in the public life of the University of Virginia concerning Thomas Jefferson, slavery, and white supremacy. This article will also appear in #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond, edited by Colin Laidley, Chris Howard-Woods, and Maryam Omidi and published by

An earlier, different and significantly shorter version of this piece was posted to on October 19, 2017. The full version appears in #Charlottesville: Before and Beyond, edited by Colin Laidley, Chris Howard-Woods, and Maryam Omidi and published by

Published on February 1, 2018.




Photo: Statue of a seated Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia by Timothy Harding | Shutterstock


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