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Part of the book series: American Literature Readings in the 21st Century ((ALTC))

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This is an interdisciplinary study of antebellum American literature, applying some central aspects of Walter Benjamin’s literary and cultural criticism to the problem of political emergency. In Exceptional Violence and the Crisis of Classic American Literature I argue that, in the unsettled era from the Founding to the Civil War, the United States endured sustained conflicts over the nature and operation of sovereignty arising from the dispositions of federalism. These states of exception involved more than the sectional differences emerging over slavery; rather, they originated in two different versions of governance, one often denominated the “internal police,” characterized by settled patterns of local and regional control, the other evident in a more diffuse and tactical approach to national governance relying on the elements of a “strong state” that was slow to develop. The period’s states of exception arose from these clashing imperatives—contests over land, finance, and, above all, slavery that drove national politics. The writers I survey—Edgar Allan Poe, ex-slave narrators like Moses Roper and Henry Bibb, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson—situated themselves and their work in relation to these episodes, using them as a critical window on experience. Violence absorbed and compelled that work. The key to antebellum politics and culture, I contend, is its deep investment in pain.

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    For appraisals of Benjamin’s Marxism, see Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (London: Pluto Press, 2000); and Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005). On Marxist influence, see also Michael Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 71–74; and Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 11–12.

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    Schmitt’s work on states of exception has attracted new attention in the Age of Terror. See especially Michael Dillon, “Network Society, Network-Centric Warfare and the State of Emergency,” Theory, Culture and Society 19 (2002): 71–79; Nomi Lazar, States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008). Clinton Rossiter’s Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948) was the first serious post-World War II survey of the field. For legal and constitutional discussions, see Oren Gross and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Law in Times of Crisis: Emergency Powers in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Gross, “Chaos and Rules: Should Responses to Violent Crises Always be Constitutional?” Yale Law Journal 112 (2003): 1011–1134; John Ferejohn and Paquino Pasquale, “The Law of Exception: A Typology of Emergency Powers,” International Journal of Constitutional Law 2 (2004): 210–39; Bruce Ackerman, “The Emergency Constitution,” Yale Law Journal 113 (2004): 1029–1091; and Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, “Constitutional Dictatorship: Its Dangers and its Design,” Minnesota Law Review 94 (2010): 1789–1866. For recent literary and cinematic readings of exception, see Emilie Morin, “Beckett, War Memory, and the State of Exception,” Journal of Modern Literature 42 (2019): 129–45; Ziad Adwan, “The Opera House in Damascus and the ‘State of Exception’ in Syria,” New Theatre Quarterly 32 (2016): 231–43; Steven Peacock, “The Collaborative Film Work of Greengrass and Damon: A Stylistic State of Exception,” New Cinemas 9 (2011): 147–60; Jonathan Elmer, “Impersonating the State of Exception,” Unsettled States: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies, ed. Dana Luciano and Ivy Wilson (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 232–42; Arne De Boever, States of Exception in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Continuum, 2012); and William Spanos, The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Schmitt’s most important philosophical heir is Giorgio Agamben; see the so-called Homo Sacer trilogy: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, 4th printing (1999; New York: Zone Books, 2008). A recent overview of emergency powers world-wide may be found in Bryan Rooney, “Emergency Powers in Democratic States: Introducing the Democratic Emergency Powers Dataset,” Research and Politics October–December (2019): 1–7,, accessed April 23, 2020.

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Correspondence to Joseph Fichtelberg .

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Fichtelberg, J. (2022). Introduction. In: Exceptional Violence and the Crisis of Classic American Literature. American Literature Readings in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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