Censorship, foreclosure, and the three deaths of Fengzhen

Robert P. Weller


This article draws on Judith Butler’s distinction between censorship and foreclosure, and on Saidiya Hartman’s work about how to narrate the silences of the slave trade, to explore two photographs. The first is a dismembered and reassembled family photograph that suggests a distinction between present absences and totally absent ones. The second opens up the case of the three deaths of the goddess Fengzhen caused by China’s very rapid urbanization: first as a woman, then as a deity’s statue-body, and finally as the photographic center of a ritual. In both photographs the silences of censorship and foreclosure create forms of haunting that help reveal their different structures of power. The focus on the haunting power of the silenced also shows the importance of adding the nondiscursive world to the more discourse-centered analysis of Butler and Hartman. The discussion emphasizes the difficulties of writing about the silences of censorship and foreclosure without breaking them, and suggests some possibilities through invocation, evocation, and a bypassing of the “archive” through the continuing presence of the absent.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/715018