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Realist EcstasyReligion, Race, and Performance in American Literature$
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Lindsay V. Reckson

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781479803323

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479803323.001.0001

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Touching a Button

Touching a Button

(p.157) 4 Touching a Button
Realist Ecstasy

Lindsay V. Reckson

NYU Press

This chapter examines turn-of-the-century electrification as a site of ecstatic possibility and violent materialization, analyzing little-known photographs by William Van der Weyde of the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison to describe how the electric chair mobilized electricity’s spiritual potential for the mass reproduction of death. Exploring how William Dean Howells and other opponents of the chair linked its technological effects to the mass popularity of the push-button photograph, the chapter examines photography’s collusion with the electric chair’s production of stillness as a form of racial terror, while analyzing Van der Weyde’s photographs as realist reenactments of an electrified touch. The chapter reads these photographs alongside James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a text that mobilizes “electric affects” to theorize the circulations of religious feeling and racial terror at the nadir of American race relations, even as the novel itself becomes an electrifying performance circulating in and through the shock of spectacular violence. Yoking the “electrifying climax” of the camp meeting to the “electric current” of the lynch mob, Johnson channels the language of circuitry to suggest the centrality of both practices in defining and disfiguring the “real” of secular modernity.

Keywords:   James Weldon Johnson, William Van der Weyde, photography, electricity, electric affects, electric chair, reenactments, racial terror

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