- Literary Agents
In Edward Zwick’s 1998 film The Siege, a Middle Eastern terrorist group stages a series of attacks in New York, leading the US government to declare martial law. General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) brings troops into the city, interns Arab Americans, and tortures a suspect for information. FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), himself attempting to track down the terrorists, objects—torture and interment are wrong, in his view, and if we abandon the Constitution the terrorists have won—and, in the movie’s climax, arrests the general. If, like me, you missed the movie in the theater and saw it shortly after September 2001, it was easy to view it retrospectively as a poignant testimony to what shortly thereafter became an outmoded faith in the rule of law. This feeling is redoubled if one goes back and looks at reviews of the film. David Denby, for instance, suggested the movie offered “a far-fetched set of circumstances and then gets all hot under the collar as it criticizes the improbable situation that the movie itself has set up.” “Righteous stuff,” he noted, “but does the movie point to a real danger? As far as I know, no one in the government has proposed doing away with habeas corpus or using the Army to occupy an American city” (115). [End Page 870] From the perspective of 2008, one wonders if the genie can be put back in the bottle or if Zwick’s movie and Denby’s review mark the last gasp of a hard-won culture of civil liberties that first stirred in response to McCarthyism, entered the American mainstream in the wake of Watergate, and then lasted for a mere quarter of a century.
In this uncertain context, Allan Hepburn’s Intrigue: Espionage and Culture makes two major contributions: it rethinks spy fiction not as paraliterature or genre fiction but as a major strain of twentieth-century Anglo-American literature, and it begins to map out the long-term reordering of the political imagination to which this literature contributes. This new political imagination is usefully captured by the resonant and now often cited opening phrase of Carl Schmitt’s 1922 Political Theology: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (5). If the German jurist and later Nazi party member Schmitt has recently returned to the forefront of political theory, it is because his account of the state of exception—the circumstances under which the state arrogates the right to break the law for the good of the polity—so accurately and ominously describes the emergence of a new political order, which is neither the brute authoritarianism of feudalism nor the legalism of classic liberalism but rather a mixed form in which the law is continually honored, as it were, in the breach.1
Although Hepburn does not cite Schmitt, his readings nonetheless demonstrate that this new order was already immanent in spy fiction before its formulation in Schmitt’s work. Describing the World War I era adventures of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay (most famously the 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps), for instance, Hepburn notes that “Hannay ventures outside the law in order to affirm the legitimacy of empire and its power structures.” Whereas in the detective genre, from which spy fiction emerges, the detective restores social order by identifying the guilty individual, “In espionage fiction, the individual repairs the social organism by taking the law into his own hands” (52). With fine insight into the dynamics of reading, Hepburn makes clear that spy fiction does its ideological work not didactically but by mobilizing the affect of the thrill. The particular thrill of the spy genre, he convincingly argues, “speaks to moments of conscious or unconscious discrepancy between individual and state” (25). Identifying “with the fugitive or the agent who hovers on the borders of legality and who, therefore, best expresses the reader’s uncertainty about living inside and outside the law at the same...