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The Kingdom of Matthias, Book Review Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1103

Book Review

The account of a minor American religious cult In Johnson and Wilentz’s The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America can be read as a greater social thesis concerning the form, function, content and criticism of ideology. In other words, the story of the cult, from its origin to its practice, indices a certain failing of the greater American social construct, insofar as those alienated by the dominant social discourse find themselves an identity and subjectivity within the parameters of the particular discourse of the social cult. In the book, historical events become symptoms of the hegemonic ideology’s conception of phenomena such as religion, race, the status of women, and the economic system of capitalism. Concomitantly, the existence of the cult itself demarcates the ideology’s failure to include room for all, such that the cult functions as an apparatus of ideological critique: occupying a point outside of this ideology, it is possible to reveal the flaws of the particular social construct. The following essay shall interpret The Kingdom of Matthias as a form of ideology critique, with a special focus on the cult member Isabelle Van Wagenen, to the extent that, as woman and as ex-slave, she represents a clear example of the internal contradictions of the dominant American ideology.

Johnson and Wilnetz describe the emergence of the Matthias cult according to the latter’s identification of the failure of American political discourse to realize its purported content in practice. Summarizing the world-view of the cult leader Matthias, the authors write: “As Matthias explained, the last kingdom…was the American republic. The United States, he said, had promised union, freedom, and equal rights but in fact produced political and religious confusion.” (5) Two points are crucial in this passage. Firstly, the United States is viewed as the “last kingdom” precisely because it differed from previous state systems, insofar as it explicitly declared that it was founded on notions like individual liberty without exception and various other democratic tropes; yet nevertheless such apparent foundations of American political system had not come into effect. Obvious characteristics of the American society of the time, such as slavery and the absence of universal suffrage, provided a clear indication of contradictions in the American idea. The eschatological aspect that Matthias derives from this account – that is, America as last kingdom – follows from the notion that if America would in fact commit itself to total individual liberty as it proclaimed, the political system would essentially become a non-ideological form of government, since the subject would no longer be determined by the dominant social construct: the violation of this commitment meant that it was impossible for politics, and thus human social organization, to escape ideology. Accordingly, the American state can be viewed as the end of politics proper, thus evoking a certain “doomsday” reaction, to the extent that the supposedly non-ideological essence of the American system realizes itself as fully ideological. In this interpretation, we can understand the cult’s message as a clear attempt at ideology critique, as internal contradictions within the dominant social discourse and construct are to be revealed, a function that the cult of Matthias in one way can be said to have achieved through its very identification of ideological paradox.

Such a form of ideology critique can be especially detected in the role the ex-slave Isabella Van Wagenen plays in the account. Van Wagenen’s attachment to the cult can be seen as her gravitation towards a space within the greater ideology, in which her talents could be realized, irrespective of her race or gender. In other words, the openness of the cult’s ideology as a prophetic and eschatological cult engendered a platform from which those alienated from the dominant ideology could subsequently affirm their own subjective identity. After the collapse of the Matthias cult, Van Wagenen maintained a role as a similar prophetic figure, defending both her actions and that of the prophetic community of Matthias. Van Wagenen’s actions can thus be viewed as not only a defense of this particular group, but moreover as a form of ideological critique, in which she points out the apparent ideological tensions within the dominant American discourse. In the cult, Van Wagenen essentially realizes the freedom that she could not obviously realize in the illusory freedom of American political system and ideology, clearly being both a woman and a person of color. Paradoxically, Van Wagenen is allowed to assert herself as an autonomous subject within the context of a cult. Thus, whereas a cult in traditional theoretical terms could be viewed as a local paradigm of indoctrination within an equally local ideology, in Johnson and Wilentz’s account, the cult becomes something to the effect of a meta-ideological apparatus, which identifies the internal contradictions to the dominant system. As Johnson and Wilnetz write, “Isabella Van Wagenen…had learned how to crush her enemies with truth.” (179) Here truth should not be understood in any absolute sense, but rather is to grasped in the sense of the revealing of false truth, for example, the aporetic proclamations of a dominant ideology. Van Wagenen’s clear status as a woman and ex-slave within an America that claimed to be founded on equal rights was the embodiment of a contradiction. In this regard, it is thus significant that after the Cult of Matthias ended, Van Wagenen did not abjure from the prophetic cause. “The world would come to know her as the ex-slave Sojourner Truth”, (Johnson and Wilnetz, 179) a name Van Wagenen takes on as a sign of a certain “traveling” form of critique, in which the sojourner recapitulates a subject that is not attached to a system, while simultaneously engendering truth through the exposure of the latter’s contradictions.

Hence, whereas prima facie Johnson and Wilentz’s book is an exercise in historiography, on a more significant theoretical level it is a recapitulation of both the function of a particular ideology and the critique of the ideology. The cult becomes something to the effect of a blind spot in the dominant ideology, in which its internal paradoxes can be clearly delineated. That Van Wagenen, as ex-slave and woman, finds her subjectivity in this very blind spot is indicative of the illusory nature of the ideology of equal rights for all. Her continual commitment to the prophetic path, even after the demise of the Cult of Mathias, may thus be viewed as a continual commitment to the gesture of ideological critique: the prophet becomes a metonymic term for the theoretician.

Works Cited

Johnson, Paul E. and Wilentz, Sean. The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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