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Interviewee(s): John O’Brien, Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia; Brad Pasanek, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2018-05-15
Interview Summary: Interview with John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek, professors of English at UVA. The interview took place at the Carter G. Woodson Institute. In it, Professors O’Brien and Pasanek discuss Jefferson’s book Notes on the State of Virginia, its structure, style, content, and bibliographic history as well as its importance today.
Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, bibliography, 18th Century
Transcription: Gabrielle Oliver
James Perla: We could just really begin in talking about Notes on the State. Why that’s a… still an important text. I know, John, you mention that this is still a very relevant text for us at the present moment. So, why Notes?
John O’Brien: I don’t think I have a… [1:00]
Deborah McDowell: You’re probably inhibited by…
JOB:Yeah, I don’t have a good good good introductory answer. The book covers so many different things, you know, it is Jefferson’s only book, you know, and we think of Jefferson as a writer, but we think of him as writer of basic or a drafter of things like the Declaration of Independence or letters and fragments. This is the only thing that is a book that Jefferson did but it’s a very peculiar book because it doesn’t have a narrative. It’s assembled under categories that it calls queries, which is coming from its occasion as responding to an actual questionnaire that he then expands into something bizarre and marvelous. In its own way, it’s not a friendly or readable book, you know, it has accounts of the flora, the [2:00] fauna, the native tribes, the chief exports of various regions of Virginia. It’s kind of like a narrativized gazetteer of the state of Virginia.
JP: What’s that? What’s a gazetteer?
JOB: Kind of giving you a full account of… it’s almost like a statistical summary turned into prose of the state of Virginia. It also is a was a book that I think quite deliberately puns “the state of Virginia,” the state, the entity of Virginia. But also trying to use the pages of a book to capture the state of Virginia at a particular moment. And that moment is the moment, right? I think at the cusp of nationhood. Because one of the things I think about the timing of the book is that Jefferson published the London Edition in 1787 aware that he couldn’t be at what became the Constitutional Convention. And this is in effect an attempt to respond. First of all, to something that was several years older by that point, but also to intervene in a way to kind of assert the significance of centrality of Virginia to the project. So, there are all sorts of ways in which the threads that this book and it’s a messy book with threads all over the place continue to leave traces in our world.JP: And that’s the… that’s sort of the, you know, our project is sort of punning on the same things about thinking about what the state of our nation is, the state of the Commonwealth is, how those things interact and intersect and so I wonder if you have sort of specific examples of how Jefferson, you know, applies this in Notes. Specific examples of how he refers to Virginia as sort of emblematic or symbolic of the nation at large or, you know, what’s [4:00] happening in this text if you have.
How does Jefferson use Virginia to represent the state of the new nation?
Brad Pasanek: I got, I got one. This is this is from Jennifer Greeson now, so I’m just duly footnoted but yeah that he starts with Virginia is part of the game here. So, in the beginning there is Virginia. So, one of the commentators on the text notes that he’s the son of a mapmaker. So, the geography is important to him but the idea of locating this if it is a narrative in some way in setting the scene in Virginia is important and sort of noting that Virginia is the original colony and that as sort of the unfolding of that settler colonial history sort of proceeds, what happens is Virginia says, you know, “Oh, neighboring colony, you can have some of our land,” right? On with the notion that, right, this is the first planting. And yeah, you can go from there.
JP: And doesn’t he make Virginia when he’s… I wonder if you can talk about I read a little tidbit about how he actually maps Virginia in [5:00] the beginning of Notes on the State. The sort of geographical footprint of it. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about that anecdote, but essentially he starts and says, you know, Virginia goes from the Blue Ridge to the Appalachia and then it extends beyond, you know, these rivers and he ends up getting to New Mexico. And so very literally, you know, Virginia is the nation. Virginia becomes the sort of like the geographical scope in his mapping and I wonder if that’s intentional or if he’s just sort of, you know, waxing poetic about the beauty of the U.S.’s sort of natural resources and ends up, you know, extending Virginia’s footprint essentially the whole United States at that point.
BP: I mean I took him to be… to have a kind of creepy intelligence at all times whether it… whether it’s intentional or not. That that notion of some kind of power of liberty. [6:00] That’s his phrase, right? Yeah. It’s it’s there and he’s fixated geometrically on lines and if you look at our lawn. There’s this notion that you just keep running and you would also wind up in New Mexico. I think if you just headed down the lawn indefinitely, yeah. But that’s I mean that’s those are imperial shapes and he’s got them, yeah, they’re patterned in, coded in at the very beginning.JOB: I’m not coming up with another anecdote that does the same kind of thing…
the different 'states' of Notes on the State of Virginia
BP: I’ve got another pun for you. He does say, it’s like in the early 19th centuries talking to a publisher about issuing yet another edition, and he uses the word stationary to talk about the text. That it’s not stationary like our country I think is what he says. So, that that he’s aware of the joke. It’s not just our joke or no joke, right. It’s yeah, you know, he knows that “state” is a kind of, [7:00] right, that it covers semantically statistics, as John said, “the state,” and this is a moment, right, when people are sort of first thinking through what “a state” is in this kind of national way and in the context of nations and nation-states. But yeah, so and it’s for us and I think John said this but maybe I’ll make it more explicit. It’s a text that exists in several “states” in the bibliographic sense. Yeah. So it’s, you know, first drafted in 1781 and then it’s touched up over the next year over the winter, right? The British army is marching through Virginia and he’s measuring groundhogs in the woods, right, because he wants… he’s still working on this thing. And then it is published but in this strangely private way. So, he doesn’t think of it as being published but it’s privately printed for friends and he gives away copies, two of which are here at the University of Virginia. The copy he gave to Lafayette and to Joseph Rittenhouse [8:00]. And so, that’s a state of the text and the 1787 addition that John talked about, the Stockdale addition, is another state of the text. But it was being pirated and coming out in newspapers at this time which also prompted his publication of it and it’s not I mean, it’s sort of not complete it… with world enough at time and funds, I guess. The thing doesn’t sort of come to rest until he’s done writing in his copy, his personal copy, which he’s doing all the way up until, I don’t know, very late. I don’t know. It’s hard to date his final, his final markings but…
JOB: There are some things that clearly must be past a certain point because he’s referring to books that were published as late as say 1813 to ‘14 or something like that.
BP: So, I was trying to look it up this morning but one of the details is he’s… like William Bartram’s travels is cited and he doesn’t know the name of some plant and then Bartram sort gets him some linnaean clarity he goes back to his copy and he marks, he marks that [9:00] page and puts in a citation to Bartram. But so his notes and annotations and cancellations aren’t collected until 1853 when a new edition was published in Richmond and they take his copy and they print… they print that copy… they print from that copy. And then it’s finally… it kind of comes to rest. So, I mean, insofar as it’s an historically important text or a text that’s important, that helps us think about America… Yet… So, it starts as a colonial text that passes through the federal moment and brings us right up to the kind of the doorstep of the Civil War. And so, that like the way that it’s smeared across the early history of America I think is really important. And so, that all the many threads that John referred to the sort of the early threads of America. So, they’re like political, racial, imperial, colonial like his sort of thinking about Federalism is all kind of bound up in that in that process of [10:00] revision, of this kind of restless revision of this text. I mean it’s in one sense a text of natural philosophy. But it’s also it’s a very political text, a strongly political text. The state looms large even when he’s talking about trees, plants and moose. I don’t know. The different… the different animals he’s interested in.
Notes on the State Digital Edition
DMcD: Go ahead, James. I was going to say, if you would permit, all of this is quite wonderful.
JP: Yeah, and I think, yeah, and I think there’s that sense that, you know, the incompleteness but like you’re referring to the multiple states that the text actually developed through. Temporal states and actual textual, you know, sort of modification over time, over this historical time period and so I wonder thinking [11:00] about your own project, I mean is yours the most complete version of Notes on the State? You know, your digital edition with the all the work that you’ve done on the annotations and things? Is that the sort of true state of Notes on the State that the authoritative state?
JOB: I think at the moment. It’s a digital edition that aims to have as much bibliographical completeness as we can give it. The… A truly full compilation of everything, a digital edition that includes everything would also include the manuscript and the manuscript is at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has been digitized separately and that’s quite a wonderful object in its own right. And the way that they have digitized it is a quite a wonderful thing in its own right. They’ve digitized in a way that is not… It doesn’t speak to ours. These two projects do not speak to each other in the in [12:00] a way that would allow you to navigate and see the full range of the text. I think that’s what you’re referring to is that ultimately that would be lovely to see to see that. What our addition really aimed to do was to give a reading text so that someone coming in could just simply read it. They could also see the changes that Jefferson made, the things that he… Or the additions that he made to his own copy that’s at the University of Virginia Library in Special Collections that were ultimately not part of a printed edition until 1853. We’ve also given some the digital equivalent of footnotes, explaining the things that he refers to. It’s a book that’s rich in textual reference. Jefferson drawing on his own library and a part of the goal I think is not only to assert the American nation of Virginia, but also to put it in dialogue with European writers [13:00]. You know, he’s writing partly because he wants to assert his own position as a writer in the community of letters. And so, he refers to… and so, we had notes that explain that and also have page images of the two copies the copy that’s of the 1784 Paris edition, which is this privately published edition that Brad [Pasanek] was mentioning and the copy that is in our Special Collections is the copy that he inscribed to Lafayette. And then his own his own copy of the 1787 London printing. And to include the page images including his own handwritten marginal notations and the little tips of slips of paper that he wrote longer additions to go in that we’ve included so that you can get it you can see the digital facsimile of that. And so, that’s what our package includes all of those things are included. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly. This [14:00], edit this out. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly.
JP: As with digital projects often.
JOB: As with digital projects in general is that they break and need to be we reworked and there’s some reworking that needs to be done to make it all work again.
JP: And so, just a bit of housekeeping I wonder if you can just describe sort of elevator pitch of what your digital edition is in a few words.
BP: It’s a reading copy for students that includes sort of variorum-like these two editions that as you’re reading down the right-hand margin you can see thumbnail page images. So, if there’s something there’s something that you want to investigate further, you can click on the image and bring the page up and then compare the two pages. That was that was our at least our original pitch.
JOB: Yeah, and our original pitch was I think of it as a bibliographical [15:00] text, you know, you could think about it enables students to work with digital surrogates in a bibliographical context. And it kind of grew or it had to be changed as it became this kind of web artifact rather than the initial idea was actually an iPad Edition, but long story. So…
JP: And what was some of the most surprising things that you learned in doing this project about the text or kind of a surprising anecdote or finding?
Jefferson's Library and his Aspirations to Measure up to Europe
JOB: I was surprised going through and annotating and doing notes at the very very large range of books that Jefferson is referring to. It’s as if he’s went out of his way to use as much of his library as possible as reference sources, so he’s got, you know, things that… He’s [16:00] referring to text printed in Russia. German, French, Spanish authors and so I think a lot of the work that he’s doing is to kind of put American and Virginian things and to kind of measure them against the scale of other authors who have studied different phenomenon be they environmental phenomenon in a place or a cultural phenomenon in the place and to use the kind of international scale of different kinds of measurement really to rid. So, that was a kind of surprise is the breadth of things that he was trying to bring to bear in answering the questions that he’s trying to answer here.
JP: It’s a very… Well, Jefferson as a person and maybe the text as well as very aspirational, right? Is that fair to say?
JOB: Aspiration what to what you thinking about?
JP: Yeah, I mean aspirational in terms of [17:00] performing this type of internationalism and intellect and sort of responding to queries from a French diplomat… Aspirational for a nation that is just forming to develop a sense of identity. There’s this sort of like myth-making project in it. I mean is that fair to say and sort of like in the context of Jefferson as a persona?
BP: I mean some of this is… Our groundhogs are just as big as their groundhogs. [laughter] But I mean there’s another way in which, right? So, he gets a questionnaire from this diplomat [François Barbé] Marbois. But in fact, he’s answering questions that he’s imagining [Comte de] Buffon is asking him about what happens when you take a European and you transplant him into the new world? So, but I think there’s an effort on almost every page to sort of say “we’re not degenerating.” Where I’m using the white “we” [18:00], yeah, the European “we” that we’re not going to become corrupted by the airs of the new world or the soil of the new world and so in that sense, I don’t know if that’s aspirational but there’s a kind of talking back to Europe.
JP: I’m thinking as, you know, we’re sitting here talking in comparison to say something like [Hector St. John de] Crevecoeur’s “Letters from American Farmer,” which seems to me to be very much involved in a project of myth-making, you know, I mean if you read that it’s “What is an American?” and he comes up with the…. and Crevecoeur gets into a kind of fantasy of myth-making that is I think quite different from Jefferson. Crevecoeur, for example famously, he sends his narrator to Nantucket and he sees the people of Nantucket who are farming the Atlantic Ocean by hunting for whales. [19:00] But when he gives the map coordinates for Nantucket, he’s wrong. It’s the… they’re non-existent map coordinates, you know, the latitude and longitude… Jefferson would never make that mistake, if it were a mistake. I think it’s been plausibly argued that Crevecoeur is not making a mistake either that what he’s doing is he’s kind of signaling this as a kind of utopia that, you know, it is this is in effect his way of signaling this is a, a no place. The Nantucket that he’s inventing. Whether whichever one you buy, Jefferson would neither mislead the reader or come up with a joke like that for the reader to play with, nor would he allow himself to make such a mistake. He would correct any such mistake. So, I think Crevecoeur, is if you’re thinking of someone who is involved in like a task of very obvious myth-making and fiction making, that’s what Crevecoeur is doing. Jefferson is not like that. Jefferson is… his [20:00] imagination doesn’t work that way. I think he is a very literal person in a lot of ways and he wants to ground things in extremely literal categories.
DMcD: As it’s been frequently noted, kind of scientific or pseudoscientific to give to these descriptions that kind of pseudo-scientific aura, so as to ensure their verifiability, their objectivity, their factuality. Yes.
BP: I would say the closest, this is to add on to what John saying but maybe give it a twist, the closest he comes to something like a mythic imaginative moment would be when he’s thinking about some of the indigenous people and the Native Americans. So, when when he treats like Logan’s speech or something like that, he has a fantasy about the people of America that is involved in his natural [21:00] philosophical project, but that’s when he I think he becomes most romantic. I don’t know. Where I’m using “romantic” here just over and against sort of the Enlightenment project of the text, but that’s when he seems to have some sort of phantasmagoric attachment to like the Americas and what they what they were I guess before the Europeans arrived and what they might become so that, yeah, he’s at his most, I mean he’s at his most irrational although it’s usually the motive scientific when he’s thinking about the races, the three races that he’s got triangulated in the text. I think he’s using I think the indigenous people in this way that’s, myth-making it’s involved in some kind of myth. Yeah, the people who will be replaced. So, this is why he’s digging [21:00] in mounds and this is why he’s trying to capture Logan’s speech as a kind of rhetorical set-piece that school children will have to learn, right? For generations in America.
Jefferson's thoughts on Racial Difference
DMcD: Well, this project is very much in formation and it’s going to be a series of podcasts and we’ve kind of for the purposes of the proposal divided the podcast into topical areas. But ultimately the goal of the project is just to find out from people from all walks of life what Jefferson still has to teach us? And not only that, how do we take the conversation about Jefferson from this very reflexive place which looks something like this, “Well, Jefferson is the architect of the Declaration of Independence, a Founding Father, a proponent of the egalitarianism, etc. and yet he owned slaves.” And so, that it seems to be that most conversations about Jefferson at least in not just in formal, in scholarly ways tend in some way to veer between these two positions are variations on them. So, that’s a long-winded kind of description of what we were doing, but to ask you to find a point of access into what he has to teach us now and how can that teaching take us beyond these reflexive polarities?
BP: We both teach this text. So, I teach a class on the late 18th century. That’s a transatlantic course about abolition and revolution. He’s in that course alongside Samuel Johnson and Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke and a number of other kind of late 18th century thinkers. So, I teach when I teach the text [24:00], I don’t teach us so much as a American text, I teach it as a transatlantic text, and I’m particularly interested in it’s kind of this the beginnings of scientific racism. I guess that’s the way I end up teaching it. And I guess teaching here at UVA is always interesting because the students come in with ideas about Jefferson often inchoate ideas about Jefferson. And if they do have an idea, I like this “he is and yet.” I think usually the way I use this in the classroom is people say that Jefferson’s a kind of paradox and I think what I want the students to, where I want them to end up as sort of this is not a paradox this way these things go together in very obvious and frightening ways.
JP: Can you say more about that?
BP: Well, so that I think that the, I don’t know. You’re not going to want to see your podcast and I shouldn’t be I should be saying this anyway, but like so I was reading [Vladimir] Lenin last week and so like his definition of “the state” is that which [25:00] comes out of and is put above a society and so that what states are for is producing a particular class which must be oppressed. That’s what I mean. One of the projects of this Notes on the State would be this kind of project or project of oppression.
DMcD: It should go in the podcast!
BP: Yeah. I don’t know if you want a Lenin quote but yeah, its fine. We’ve all internalized Lenin at this point, I guess, right? Yeah, so I think… like one of the things that I find interesting about Jefferson is his this is a particular kind of game that he’s playing always that he wants to not say what he means or he wants to not be held accountable. He’s kind of a moving target. This is the way the Notes on the State of Virginia works…. his discourse as written against Buffon in a kind of, I don’t know, I want to say like [26:00] seemingly anti-racist mode, but what he does is produce a new kind of racism. And so, that’s like that’s for me quintessentially Jeffersonian or as one of my mentors pointed out, this is a guy who sleeps in the wall, like who when you go to his house. He’s neither in his office nor in the next room. He’s always finding some liminal space and he’s going to inhabit it. And that’s…
JP: That’s not a serpentine wall.
BP: Right, right he’s just… he will not commit. And so, yet the…like I did bring a quote just because I don’t know this is an example of it. Yeah, so he’s writing to Buffon that he’s unwilling or no no wait…where is this sorry. Yeah, “I do not mean to deny that there are varieties in the race of man distinguished by their powers both of body and mind” — and this is in the middle of an attempt to deny that there that there are kind of “races” or like in an attempt to complicate what we might mean by “races” [27:00] whether they are or not geographical, whether or not they’re speciated in some way or they belong to environment or like…. Yes, a state here would be like whether they’re product of an environment or they’re somehow in process. That you move someone from one part of the world to the other and they’ll darken like their skin will darken… the skin…. the sun will change them.
JOB: This kind of environmentalism always come from environment because you know one other term people use to race up in the point had to do with, you know, like I am of the race of the O’Briens. You know, it’s a… you’re a group ethnicity or a clan or something like that race often gets used in those ways up until this point and he’s imagining trying to fuse it with a kind of environmentalism that, you know, it is linked in some essential ways to the environment that people develop in and it’s one of the ways in which the [28:00] environmental parts of the book when he’s trying to describe the natural environment relate very much to the human parts of the book to the social environment. These very real connections to him. I teach him much the same way, you know, thinking about and it’s real revelation to, you know, one thing for the paradox is that someone said I can’t remember who it is paradoxes are just a fancy way of saying something that we’d rather not explain, you know.
DMcD: I like that.
JOB: And that, you know, you know, Jefferson really is ahead of most writers of this period in trying to come up with a way to make racial difference… have a scientific, [29:00] scientific basis for what he wants to think of as racial difference. No one… there’s really no text before Notes of the State of Virginia that I believe actually does this. It’s the beginning.
DMcD: It’s like the prototype for what will come.
JOB: There’s actually a significant time lag between that and the next articulation.
DMcD: Right, and it seems to take the discourse before anthropology, which is escaping me right now. No, no, no starts with a P though [phrenology]. It’ll come to me in a minute. Yeah, it’ll come to me but yes, you’re right. There is a tremendous gap. I want to pick… Were you finished John? To pick up on something you said because this is completely in my mind and when I have done this book in classes and students just kind of look at me. I mean like unabashedly like “really, lady?” because I have attempted to suggest in parts of the text [30:00] the ways in which when Jefferson is talking about say hybridity in the natural world, in the botanical sense that the text really takes on… that the passions of the text rise to the surface. It seems to me the language, the tempo. I mean, it’s all kind of crazy. But they and they kind of laugh at me that something happens to Jefferson when he’s talking about hybridity, when he’s talking about crossbreeding and, you know, I don’t manage to convince them of that. But in my own head, something happens involuntarily in the text when he’s talking about and that we can actually see the way the rhythms the movement of sentence. It’s like very minor, very subtle. But in my head, that [31:00] that is something that reinforces your point that in talking about the environment, he’s ever seek seeking to link it to the human and to the social.
BP: There is a strange displacement so that you have discussions of slavery go under the heading “Manners.”
BP: Yeah, and so you expect to find all these kind of category mistakes as you read the text anyway that you get involved in these kinds of category mistakes, because those… they’re his category mistakes and I think because of his, I don’t want to call it his kind of flat, opaque sort of way of managing his public presence. You have to read him this way. So, I’m with you. He often expresses… Yeah, what feels like something erotic in a strange moment so that under the case that I teach and think about again, as a kind of like [32:00] this would be brought before the jury, I guess, is that he’s in Europe and he sees painting a Dutch painting of “Sarah and Hagar,” the sort of giving permission to sleep with the slave, right? A representation of a biblical story and he writes to Maria Cosway and he says, “this painting is delicious.” That’s his word and he’s in theory having a conversation with someone about, you know, the tradition of art history. But he actually seems to be giving himself sort of permission to sleep with his wife’s half-sister, right? Yeah. That’s, I mean, it’s like he seems to be processing these things in all the places you wouldn’t expect him to.
DMcD: Yeah. I’m glad to… is really laugh when I try to make these suggestions, but, you know, they can seem kind of flat-footed I can see when I’m talking about them. But I say, you know, well, let’s just think about it. I mean, this is a matter of [33:00] speculation. Speculation has its place. We’re not saying this is. But what if we thought about the ways in which this man of the Enlightenment, this man of “reason,” how we might think of that… those truths about Jefferson in more holistic senses, or in fuller dimension. That’s also it’s not a statement about… Because I also find him… I shared with James one of my very favorite Jefferson letters that he’s writing to Adams when Adams’s wife dies. I think it’s just one of the most amazing. It’s a letter, it’s a condolence letter but it’s the most amazing eulogy and the kind of straightforward sensitivity [34:00] to this man’s loss. I find in that letter, I don’t see that way of thinking and processing in Notes. You know, it’s almost like it’s a completely different Jefferson there. So, I…
JP: So, I was going to say I wonder, you know, just because the topic of teaching courses came up and that’s convenient sort of model. But I wonder if you if you could leave your students with sort of one thing about Jefferson that coming out of your course that they might take to think about and take with them into the world what it might be? If that’s a tough, I don’t know if that’s a stumper, but if you could only teach sort of one sort of big takeaway about Jefferson what might that might that be. And maybe there’s that conversation about what paradox means, I think that’s a really important.
BP: I’m going to quote a historian whose name I’m forgetting, but he says if the British had shot Jefferson in 1782, we would [35:00] remember him as one of the great sort of opponents of slavery, as a powerful American voice against racism but, right? That he continued to work on the Notes of the State of Virginia and sort of work out in letters his sort of perverse way of thinking about the different “peoples of the world,” hybridized in the American space. We see something else yeah. We see this legacy of slavery sort of worked out politically, ideologically, instead and, you know, detail by detail, I guess one of the things that that I like to show my students in the Notes is a page where he’s listing slaves from the classical world who contributed importantly to sort of “thought,” Western thought, and he goes back to that page at some point and he keeps adding new Greek and Roman names because he’s working, he’s trying to tip the balance against [36:00] the African-Americans that he’s surrounded by so you can so you can watch you can watch him sort of work, you know, to a darker like a like to you can watch him work his way to a stranger and stranger more pathologically racist place as if you follow him, you know, through the states of the Notes on the State of Virginia.
DMcD: Right, and seeking to justify it, you know. So, that it will not appear to be racist at all. We know that he’s working himself into that, but he’s trying, you know, indefatigably to work himself out of that, right?
JOB: He’s really giving intellectual and ultimately institutional support to an apparatus of white supremacy, you know, and I think it deserves to be said in pretty much those terms, you know.
DMcD: Yes, I think so. Absolutely. Unabashed. Unapologetic.
the University of Virginia's role in institutionalizing white supremacy
JOB: [34:00] And that and it’s not only in this text which is an institution of its own. It’s in the University of Virginia, which is designed and, you know, Garry Wills, made this point. I’m not inventing this, Garry Wills made this point that it’s designed to provide a training ground for the white aristocracy of the South, who will know how to operate in the system of slavery and be fully adequate to meet the challenge of the Harvard boys, who they will have to oppose in Congress and future. And also in his political economy because that’s what I ended up writing about elsewhere is that, Jefferson famously… Jefferson and Hamilton found each other on either sides of a way of thinking about a national economy. And Hamilton is thinking about it in terms of a kind of federalism where you use the institutions of banks to federalize the finances and federalize the debt. [38:00] Jefferson is thinking much more in terms of local. What would become known as “states rights” that the economies have to be built from local entities up rather than from the national entity down and very much opposing the concentration of wealth and power in corporations and banks. And that the tension between the sense of individual rights and rights based in local communities and a national power that would be institutionalized in things like banks and corporations and a federal government is one that we continue to live with and Jefferson is on… Jefferson is definitely on the side of the local and the state, rather than the national and the corporate. And, you know, I have sympathy actually for being against the corporate but it’s not [39:00] he’s not thinking of the future. But I think that the tension between these two things is… it continues to be part of the way that the political economy gets fought in this country.
DMcD: That’s really a wonderful observation. You know, Notes because it is a kind of gazette or I often think of it as a miscellany, you know that as a miscellany it really invites a lot or encourages a lot of conversation about isolated phenomena that we can’t necessarily link to whatever development there is in the book. It isn’t a narrative. It holds together in weird ways, but not in the ways we typically think of a book’s coherence. I have over the years, as one of these kind of one-off things, always been fascinated [40:00] by Jefferson’s architectural drawings and particularly his prison drawings and which are also in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, when we organized the conference a few years back on mass incarceration here at Woodson, I used in the brochure those drawings. They were never executed. But Jefferson was himself very closely involved with all the leading prison architects of the day in creating what was, what would become the first ever penitentiary in Virginia, but he had submitted these drawings to the Commonwealth from France. He was in France and asked to imagine a prison. And so, when we think about Jefferson, we think about someone also being at [41:00] the birth of a whole lot of things that we are now contending with. Not just this tension, you’ve observed between him and Hamilton but I remember during that conference, Angela Davis was here and I was walking her down the Lawn or where the student rooms are. And it was the spring. This time it was in April and she says, “Oh, the rooms look like little cells” and so any kind of random thoughts. I don’t know why I can’t get out a question without spending the page to introduce it.
BP: His architecture always reads for me as having lots of import. So, yeah, so just walk. I mean you’re walking these, I’m going to use the Jeffersonian word they finally got to me after all these years the grounds, right? Yeah, but walking this walking this campus. [42:00] I mean you can’t help but respond to the way in which it disciplines your body and makes you walk around and that you have access to certain things and not other things. I mean the… it’s the house… I guess so, it’s Monticello that first made me kind of like I had a meltdown of a kind when I was walking underneath the house and realized that underneath the house are what are called “the dependencies,” right? Is that right?
DMcD: Yes, that’s what they’re called.
BP: Yeah, and I thought the author of the Declaration of Independence like has structured his home like into a space that’s for the independent and another space that’s for the “dependents.” Yeah. That yes so that written into that home as it would be in any home is a very obvious distinction, right? And again, yeah, it’s race, class, space; that certain people go below [43:00] and some people belong above and yeah, and you can see that you can see that here on this campus. Maybe, maybe it’s less obvious or I don’t know. There’s something about the naming of the dependencies that just made it scream out at me.
DMcD: Yeah. I was looking for the conference brochure, I’m sure you’ve seen these drawings.
BP: No, I haven’t seen these drawings. Are they Benthemite? Do they have the 18th century structure with the surveying eye in the middle?
DMcD: No, no they don’t have that but they’re really… they’re divided racially. They are divided according to gender and he has long pages or on the back of a long section describing the materials, how many materials would be needed. I’m sure I have a copy somewhere. I thought I had one here in my office because we printed the [44:00] images in the program. In fact, when we did the conference proceedings, I know a miniature version is in the in the book, so let me get the book because you’ll see. Yeah, they’re in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, I remember in my opening remarks for the symposium, I said, “Jefferson was present at the birth of the prison…” And I think we do have… It’s so expensive to print things but… one small version of, yeah we have them…
[shows prison drawing in 2009 Woodson Institute Symposium on mass incarceration]
Jefferson's Prison Drawings
JOB: It does look a lot like the Lawn. Is that right? The central path and [45:00] then also cells on your side and then something at the top. That is really interesting…
JP: So, maybe just describe what we’re looking at here…
DMcD: We’re looking at Jefferson’s…. one of two drawings… that are housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society that were a prison plan submitted by Jefferson for a cell for solitary confinement. And it’s in the manuscript collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. What we don’t have here is the page on the back of this page where he’s actually describing what it would cost provisionally to build and what materials would be used, but it’s right here. And that he is as I said a few minutes ago in close touch with the leading prison architects of the day and [46:00] this is not… these drawings are not executed. But here he is thinking… “white females” on one side, “black females” on the other, “white males, black males.” I don’t have my glasses.
BP: Each to their own cell. And then there’s a there’s a separate category. So, “white male debtors,” “white female debtors,” right? There’s no of course, right? I guess this tells you a lot about what America looks like. No “black debtors,” right?
DMcD: Yes exactly, no black debtors.
JP: And why would that be?
BP: Because there’s the ability to own any kind of property. Yeah. Yeah, it’s blocked illegally. I mean, this is a fascinating thing. I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I don’t know and it like my like structuralist instincts are working overtime just looking at [47:00] it…. I mean only because what so it’s got this “e pluribus unum” effect where there’s like a solitary cell which is not gendered, or raced, or classed. So, that if you if you won’t sort of do what you’re supposed to do. If you’re, right, the white female debtor, right? You can be promoted to the solitaries to solitary confinement. That’s the Benthamite space. So, it’s, I’m thinking of the panoptic sort of the famous image of a panoptic prison is one. It’s a kind of 18th century idea that also was sort of imagined and not executed until much later, but this idea that you create a space for people to be alone with their crimes with the memory of their crimes.
DMcD: And there’s the imagination that this is a benevolent act because, you know, people are not out in visible spaces, you know, they’re alone to contemplate their yeah.
JOB: It’s penance.
DMcD: It’s yeah to do but that’s penitent [48:00]. Penitentiary, from the word penance, from doing penance and that this is in the prison philosophy of the day assumed to be a benevolent progressive idea about prisons and criminals.
BP: So, Jefferson’s already dividing debtors from other prisoners, which is… so that’s again a kind of modern at modernizing, Enlightenment, progressive move. But then he’s further dividing people right by race and gender but holding them all in the same place. Yeah. It’s very Jeffersonian.
DMcD: Yeah. I was just so taken by and we then ended up, we also have in the brochure the prison that was actually built. It doesn’t exist any longer but here he is involved in so many manythings. [49:00] He’s at the birth of so much that has come to define this nation for good and for ill.
Inequalities in the Landscape
JOB: So, I’m thinking about the… you mention about the house and about this and thinking about issues of like sight and what you see and surveillance in the way that, you know, as you say the Lawn. The Lawn was designed so that you could look out, but that also I think Jefferson’s imagination was that as the university grew, they just simply continued the lawn out down the hill as long as long as it needed to be. Isn’t it true that at Monticello when you stand, you know, when you’re in the house and you look out, you don’t see the slave quarters because they’re below the hill, right? And again the sense of your… that the landscape itself and the architecture very much built into the landscape is designed to promote, you know, visual patterns of even your… the eyesight encodes which is what you’re saying, it encodes [50:00] relationships of independence and dependency of power and designed from designed from the very start to do that.
DMcD: And I think lots of people have written about that idea and the way in which the architecture supports invisibilizing labor. Yeah.
BP: So, that yeah the invention of the dumbwaiter, there are ways in which the servant will not enter the dining room. Their turning shelves and dumbwaiters. Yeah, to make the food appear without a person to bring it.
DMcD: Yeah, we don’t see who’s producing the food. Things underground, all with… all of that suggests, you know the underground architecture, the nomenclature of dependency. Yes, all of this is highly racialized in ways that people have talked about it.
JP: One thing I was thinking as you were describing the Lawn perpetually extending [51:00] out for research. We just started reading this book about progress, about Jefferson and progress and the author’s discussing the way in which the conception of time around I guess the eighteenth century would or the 19th century as railroads were beginning to be developed, that time became linear sort of displayed onto the actual construction of the railroad tracks as going sort of forward in space, you know, to arrive at a station at certain point in time. And so, I mean just thinking about this as the lawn is actually a linear would be a linear continuation that this idea of progress as sort of a straight line that is going out. That as time progresses, the actual physical space is going linearly forward to… Yeah, and I don’t know I just that thought came up as you’re discussing sort of that comparison [52:00] between a circular space or like the Rotunda is like a kind of continual circle versus like the straight line going directly forward in time. And so, I just wanted to throw that out there. But yeah, I know but I’m also being… speaking of time and being mindful of time and all of your time and one thing I did again sort of a crazy thought that came to me as I was talking to a friend who does work in data science and with databases. Is Notes on the State a database?
The form of Notes on the State
BP: An analogy that works.
JP: And this is sort of it without, you know, preference but, you know, thinking about the idea of a “query” that you know x equals y that I’m going to ask a query about this and get a certain return, results and sort of the statistical and sort of tallying nature of the text.
DMcD: Sort of the database of its day.
BP: [53:00] When I got here at UVA it was 2008 and I think it was shortly after that John, I may be started talking about this project, but the PMLA [the journal of the Modern Language Association] had just done an issue or a sort of discussion section on narrative and database as kind of opposites. So, in so far as the text resists narrative, right? You would assign it to the “other” category, that’s how binaries work but in that discussion, in that PMLA discussion there was this there was an effort made by several of the contributors to think about 18th century forums, dictionaries and encyclopedias as being in one way or another databases. I mean what makes it especially nice is the language of “query” but that’s we have to we have to play some sort of anachronistic game with a kind of back formation. But certainly I don’t… I usually don’t read the Notes through when I reread it these days. [54:00] I just opened it up and I look things up and to… I don’t make my students in this course read through. I assign them queries to read.
DMcD: Yeah, I think we all do. It would be a hard book to teach, to read through. Students would, you know, get horrible evaluations.
JP: You know we, I think Brad’s pointed out when like the 18th century came up with a whole lot of different ways of organizing knowledge. You know, the dictionary, the encyclopedia and these continue to… We continue to use those forms… the thesaurus. There are various kinds of statistical inventions that came out of the 18th century. The… organizing something according to “query” is a whole different way of thinking about how you would organize knowledge. That is an 18th century thing that actually hasn’t lasted that, you know, we don’t do that anymore. But you know, you know, in a “Borgesean” and universe one could imagine, you know, an alternate version where that became a way of [55:00] organizing knowledge that we continue to do. The database metaphor I guess works to a certain extent but also doesn’t work to a certain extent.
DMcD: You see echoes of this say in a text like Keywords. Raymond Williams’ Keywords.There are other, you know, with people who write in these… What am I thinking I never know how to pronounce his name when you see somebody you read his books. I’ve read several books of his C-i-o-r-a-n… but I don’t I’ve never known how to pronounce his name because I’ve never heard it pronounced. Yeah. Yeah, but anyway, but that’s I think of him organizing knowledge in some of these ways but yeah Keywords being a kind of not an analogy but kind of reminiscent of organizing knowledge in those ways.
JOB: We asked question sections of any website that [56:00] the FAQ section of websites is another that’s part of the model.
DMcD: Yeah, because while Jefferson is organizing these sections according to queries in that we know that they originate in questions. That’s where I think we leave it, right? Because it’s also a text that raises questions.
BP: It doesn’t answer the questions, at least not in the mode that Marbois would expect. He gets a questionnaire and he returns a book, that’s not, right? Yeah, that’s…
DMcD: Exactly, exactly yeah.
JOB: So, it gets associative. Like he starts off on one topic and that leads him to something else.
DMcD: It’s a very associative book.
JOB: Yeah, it leads him to something else. The logic is only clear as association rather than causality or narrativation. [57:00] And that’s where we kind of see, I guess, what we’ve been talking about a lot is the “Jeffersonian unconscious,” you know. And the books sort of has these moments I was you’re talking about the way that he gets the language gets a kind of energy when he talks about the issues of hybridity. That’s an unconsciousness coming forth. Right? But the logics are of that species rather than the logic of narrative, the logic of plot, the logic of a dictionary, the logic of cause and effect. It’s a… the vehicle enables those kinds of things to happen.
DMcD: Yes, and I think, in a way, back to one of the observations, I forget which one of you made, about the incompleteness of the book, the indefiniteness, that there’s a way in which this [58:00] block of knowledge in response to a literal or figurative query is itself something that doesn’t necessarily have to stand, it can always be amended, that the query in essence can exist in perpetuity, right? So, you know, I haven’t I’ve committed myself to this in this moment in time, but this is subject to change at any time. You know, which is a tremendous alibi, you know? I would, yeah. I love those sections too where you see him actually stepping out from behind all of this pseudo-scientific detached commentary on whatever to actually exercise a moral sensibility. We… Discussions don’t often point to that. I mean, I’m really quite taken when he says, you know, “I shudder that God does not sleep.” You know, that these things we are doing here, that “the boisterous passions” that are developing between these two groups of people one held in subjugation by the other, you know, “I shudder at” because he’s really imagining a kind of justice, really, that will await people enslaving other people. And you don’t see that very much in the work, but it’s very firm and thus stands out for that reason, you know. I shudder… a person who has an ambivalent relationship at best for religion. “I shudder that God is not asleep.” You know, that there is this force that will bring down the kind of judgment. Again, it’s an odd moment like those moments of when I imagine that the text gets very hot and bothered.
BP: Do you want the quotation? Yeah, I’ll read it out. Yeah, cause it’s powerful. Yeah? “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. That his justice cannot sleep forever. That considering numbers nature and natural means only a revolution of the wheel of fortune in exchange of situation is among possible events. That it may become probable by supernatural interference.” Exclamation point. yeah, but that he sees the wheel will turn. Yeah. He’s a “revolutionary.”
DMcD: Yeah. Indeed. And that’s Jefferson’s long-winded way, and talk about people being long-winded, but Jefferson’s long-winded way of saying, you know, the Martin Luther King famous quote “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, right? And that is what he’s saying there. That the arc of the moral universe turns towards justice and then there can be a reversal of positions. Yeah, these rare moments that I think speak so much more powerfully because in tone they depart so demonstrably from what we are reading. We’re reading along and there is a kind of studious or attempt at a studious neutrality that then in a passage like that, is totally gone.
JOB: Thinking of that… it’s rare among his contemporaries, you know, that kind of language and that outburst is rare among his contemporaries, you know? Yeah, which what makes him so incredibly fascinating and vexing.
DMcD: That this kind of control, this kind of really rhetorical tightness. Well, it’s not even tightness, but the efforts at control, the efforts at containment, and that there are these moments in the text where it says if the text just breaks the bounds or he basically loses it and delivers a passage like that. Yeah. Now, you have… I had no idea you were planning to take this, but you both have given so…
JP: A lot for us is to think about a lot of topics that come up.
Importance of Notes on the State podcast project for the University at large
BP: Well, I… thinking… I really like this project and I was thinking about it. I had a conversation completely what was really to see some ways, you know, Louis Nelson who’s in the Vice Provost’s Office now to do outreach in the community. And we were talking about the way that, you know, this place needs to completely reimagine the way it talks about itself in its history, you know, and we talked about like we have a new president coming in who I think will be charged with some of that. But this kind of project is the kind of thing we need to do all over the place to start coming up with the new ways in which we can think about and both to ourselves but publicly about the university and its history and Jefferson and really I think we’re still struggling with the ways in which those stories that we have to tell about ourselves.
DMcD: I think so. That this project has its own autonomy. We applied for some of the Bicentennial money, but we see it very much as a part of a larger project we’ve been doing for about a year now called the Citizen Justice Project: Engaging Race in Digital Spaces, and I don’t know if you’ve seen James’ “Illusion of Progress,” it’s the first installment. I will send it to you. It’s a story map. And we worked with high school students and UVA students last summer and what’s so amazing about it is that it was virtually done before August 11th and 12th, and it was it was really confronting these deep roots of racism and white supremacy at UVA and Charlottesville. And again, before those events unfolded but part of the Citizen Justice Project is just this, we have to find new ways of talking about the issues that continue to control us, that continue to contain or inhibit progress and development in meaningful ways. And I’m not a proponent of, you know, the kind of ideology of progress, but there’s a way in which we all inherited a script about Jefferson particularly that is that operates here on grounds and what we are, what we really love about this project is that so much of it comes from the… not so much the dictates about the wishes of ordinary citizens in Charlottesville, because when we began the project, we just interviewed people not randomly, but people that we kind of thought we needed to talk to. What would you like to see? What would you like to see the University be doing especially… This emerged in the context of the monuments controversy. And so, we took our instructions as it were from the Blue Ribbon Commission, right? You know, that we want a fuller, more complex, more complete, more comprehensive history. And so, that’s where we started. So, although this is a different project, we constantly have to try to raise money because we have no money, but it’s very much in the spirit of the Citizen Justice Project. Making Jefferson available. We are really going to do person on the street interviews. You know, because we have a captive audience any parents bringing their children to tour here, right? You know, you wanted this afternoon. Yeah, so tell us, yeah, so we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we want to be open to what we learn and to be guided and in Jefferson’s words, “let knowledge take us where [it leads]… you know, I don’t have that quoted embedded either, but you know the one I mean around Cabell Hall. We’re going to follow knowledge where it leads us in and we hope it leads us to a reconsideration of Jefferson that neither continues to glorify and reify him, iconicize him. Nor does it seek to destroy him as an icon but really to make him touchable for our times.
JP: Yeah, so definitely keep in touch. If you have ideas of ideas pop up about topics that you suggest we should pursue and if anything comes out of this conversation that you want to follow up on just feel free to reach out. Yeah, and last bit of housekeeping. Can I just ask you to say your name and your sort of title at the university?
JOB: John O’Brien. Professor of English.
BP: Brad Pasanek. Professor of English or Associate Professor of English… I guess I messed it up saying my title correctly. Brad Pasanek. Associate Professor of English.
DMcD: Thank you. Yeah, this is so very helpful. I’d like to see all of us do much more collaborative work. You know, I really, we do things kind of in pairs typically and I’ve done some of that work, but I think this is so so wonderful to me that we three colleagues who never talk to each other.
BP: Yeah, and we all teach this. We all teach this book.
DMcD: Yeah. We do. We all teach this book. And so…
JP: There were some definite gems that came out of that conversation. So, I’ll just, I mean…