This guest post is published as part of our blog series related to the American Studies Association conference in Atlanta, from Nov. 8-11. #2018ASA

By Eli Jelly-Schapiro, author of Security and Terror: American Culture and the Long History of Colonial Modernity


That we are living in a time of crisis is everywhere and everyday apparent—from the acute and slow violence of climate change, to the degradation of fragile democratic spaces and procedures, to the resurgence of fascism, to the cataclysms of financial speculation.

As Walter Benjamin argued in “On the Concept of History” (1940), though, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Writing in the dark heart of the twentieth-century, with an intimate understanding of its horrors, Benjamin’s invocation of a “state of emergency” referred at once to the specific juridical concept of “exception”—the suspension of the law by the law—and to the broader time-space of social and political crisis. The juridical exception is a basic technology of the modern state, and the crises of Benjamin’s present and our own—in particular the contradictions of capitalism and the rise of fascism—are continuous with deeper histories of dispossession and racial domination.

This longer history is illuminated, Benjamin insisted, by the “tradition of the oppressed.” In the context of Benjamin’s essay, the latter phrase most immediately evokes the historical experience of the working class. But it permits a more expansive interpretation, one that would revise the implicit Eurocentrism of Benjamin’s framework to incorporate the history of colonialism, and the “tradition” of the colonized. The colony, Achille Mbembe contends, is the “zone of exception par excellence,” a space wherein extra-juridical violence is “deemed to operate in the service of civilization.” The extra-legal violence honed in the colony was later institutionalized in the legal apparatuses of the imperial state; and it is today enacted in the theatres of the War on Terror, from Guantanamo Bay to the drone fields of Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.

My book, Security and Terror: American Culture and the Long History of Colonial Modernity, traces these and cognate routes of continuity between the colonial past and colonial present. The architects of colonial power, I observe, imagined the “state of nature” as a space of intrinsic emergency and terror, which invited the ameliorative influence of enlightenment rationality and the security state. And this “outside” to civilization must be continually reproduced, even as it is subsumed by the colonization it demands and legitimates. The War on Terror, for example, generates the very thing it purports to be fighting—creating the outside it promises to destroy—which ensures the enduring repetition of the terror – counter-terror cycle and its attendant state of emergency.

The perpetual emergency of the War on Terror, meanwhile, dovetails with the perpetual economic emergencies of the neoliberal moment. Capitalism’s contemporary crises both derive from and unleash processes of accumulation by dispossession—methods of depredation that are genealogically connected to original modes of primitive accumulation. When the bubbles created by liberated financial capital burst, the resultant “emergency” justifies the privatization of public assets and devaluation of labor—the fabrication, and subsequent seizure, of an outside to capital. The resultant expansion and deepening of precarity requires the intensification of the state’s repressive apparatuses—the militarized policing of insecure spaces and populations.

Just as the War on Terror produces more terror, which compels more war, the neoliberal response to economic crisis produces more crises, which compel more rounds of plunder and heightened cultures of policing. In either case, the effect of this deliberate production of an “outside” is the further normalization of the emergency that is essential to the modern security project.

But as Benjamin was keen to stress, the history of emergency is also a history of emergence. This insight, and this faith, guide the theme of this week’s meeting of the American Studies Association, “States of Emergence.” The “tradition of the oppressed,” this theme reminds us, is not only defined by oppression itself; it is also a story of survival, and of resistance. When we recognize that the emergency is the rule, when we “attain to a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight,” Benjamin avowed, “we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency”—a state of radical possibility. Constructing the latter will require that we bear witness to the constancy of crisis over time, as well as its evolving substance and intensity; but it will demand too that we summon the diverse traditions of emancipatory thought and struggle that have long sought to translate emergency into emergence.

Browse Security and Terror in the UC Press Booth at ASA.

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