The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

January 30, 2014

Roger Williams and Originary Mythos

For the first time in my life, I was able to see, and
photograph, the founding document of a city I've lived in. The
images here are of original manuscripts at the Rhode Island
State Archives, and the archivist was kind enough to open up the
acid-free boxes with some of Roger Williams' papers, including
one of the founding charters of Providence. I'm fascinated by
Williams' life, theories - and here, his hand- writing, which is
very different from anyone else's in the documents; it's jagged,
hurried, stuttering, and beautiful - all this from the early-mid
17th century. His life was astonishing, and his writings are a
mixture of theology and what today would be called an open-
source commons; in the beginning there wasn't even a church in
Providence Plantations, which was open to people of any belief,
including atheists. Below are some of the images I was able to
take, quickly and without flash; the reflections are from the
fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. Note the Native American
settlements on the map (which is currently on display); Williams
had good relations with them, and, at one point after fleeing
Massachusetts, stayed in them for three and a half months. In
any case, these documents are the legal pivot of religious and
secular separation in the United States; this is still under

When I think of the virtual worlds of the spirit, and perform-
ative language in programming and Second Life, these documents
seem uncanny, as if the words were written with the flesh of
Williams, the concrete symbol always a surplus designation,
opening up the terrain of the body, the physicality of the
chartered space. Everything becomes punctum, neither here nor
there, the dual of the (logical) Sheffer stroke, revealing
territories of flesh and communality. What he achieved through
writing, and what was taken away, through war, is incredible -
in a sense a forgotten page within the history of empire, but
one which at least keeps gnawing at some of us.

(the other signature is that of the king)

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