Distributing the sensible, lines are both essential for conceptualization and implicated in the diktats of paradigmatic definitions. While they introduce the possibility of meaning by making it possible to order the world, they also jeopardize the freedom of what Barthes calls the neuter, summoning the compartmentalization of the common into sexes, races, species, and nations. Are lines, then, a necessary evil?
Taking the 1850s as its starting point, this article argues that the decade inaugurated by the compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law radically questioned the agency of the line, its legitimacy and efficiency in stabilizing categories. In law as in literature, in natural history as in political debates, lines were passionately defended and challenged. Each of the authors considered here (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan Cooper, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) bet on the line and speculated on its agency – displacing it and sometimes even flirting with the desire to do away with it. But dismissing the line altogether also resulted in the erasure of those to whom the line gave a paradoxical visibility “beyond the pale”. The line was not, then – and cannot be – the preserve of essentialism. This article offers a reconsideration of the line as the condition of the political. At the junction of poetics and politics, the line is the ever shifting place where categories rise and fall, where the partition between the visible and the invisible is ever challenged.