Valerie Karno

University of Rhode Island


"The Space of the Autonomous American: Privacy, Territory, and Legal Identity"


As 4th Amendment protections of privacy have been steadily eroding, and commensurate physical zones of private spaces have been increasingly held exempt from protections against searches, it is an especially poignant time to consider how the notion of wanting to "be American", "being American", or resisting the tenets of "American influence" has been shaped by a spatial understanding of our relationships to other citizens, the state, and the global community.To be an American has meant to be involved with a system of rights which has been territorially construed. As they have been constructed in legal doctrine, rights are absolute spaces that ought not to be invaded. They are, as Wendy Brown has echoed, involved in the motion of pushing others away to resist encroachment upon individual autonomy. Because of their spatial and geographical configuration, the ideology of rights has been one inherently linked to the ideology of borders, and so the discourse of individual autonomy has been connected to the discourse of national identity. Contemporary scholarship from authors like Mary Ann Glendon and Wai Chee Dimock has begun a dialogue to think about re-envisioning a more "flexible" system of rights--one which sees the borders of rights, and individual notions of autonomy, as territorially overlapping. This theoretical re-orientation towards rights refocuses the notion of "American" as it undermines the drive towards autonomy which has shaped so much of our national development; yet it also potentially perpetuates a residue of displacement and disregard which the very notion of territorially constructed American-ness creates. My presentation, in order to explore the ways in which autonomous identities and territories have been linked in thinking about national orientation, will look at the way literary narratives comment on the intersection of rights and spatial displacement. Highlighting Tomas Rivera's "And the Earth Did Not Devour Him," I will show how the discourse of rights works to create geographical confusion, and national and cultural disorientation. I will argue that the discourse of rights, an American export and import, functions self-referentially to maintain the simultaneous conditions of autonomy and disorganization within geographic and psychic territories. This dual dynamic has been, and continues to be critical in the formulation of the notion "American" nationally and globally.