Abstract

Jacques Rancière defines literarity as texts' propensity to be used in unexpected ways by unforeseen readers. Unlike scholars who view literarity as having intrinsically democratic implications, I contend that Rancière offers a more ambivalent account of its significance. I illustrate my argument by analyzing the aftermath of suffragists' appeal to the U.S. Constitution in the 1870s. I show that public agitation over textual meaning can shore up the perception that a text is indeterminate and allows debate, but it can be cited as well as a symptom of incompetence and duplicity, as evidence that texts should be reserved for those with mastery. Using a text democratically, then, involves more than advocating for innovative interpretations. It also involves struggling for the propriety of treating the meaning of a text as a matter of democratic interaction, against those who treat it as not subject to public debate.

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