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The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception

Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor

William V. Spanos

Publication Year: 2011

Critics predominantly view Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor as a “testament of acceptance,” the work of a man who had become politically conservative in his last years. William V. Spanos disagrees, arguing that the novella was not only a politically radical critique of American exceptionalism but also an eerie preview of the state of exception employed, most recently, by the George W. Bush administration in the post–9/11 War on Terror. While Billy Budd, Sailor is ostensibly about the Napoleonic Wars, Spanos contends that it is at heart a cautionary tale addressed to the American public as the country prepared to extend its westward expansion into the Pacific Ocean by way of establishing a global imperial navy. Through a close, symptomatic reading of Melville’s text, Spanos rescues from critical oblivion the pervasive, dense, and decisive details that disclose the consequences of normalizing the state of exception—namely, the transformation of the criminal into the policeman (Claggart) and of the political human being into the disposable reserve that can be killed with impunity (Billy Budd). What this shows, Spanos demonstrates, is that Melville's uncanny attunement to the dark side of the American exceptionalism myth enabled him to foresee its threat to the very core of democracy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This view, Spanos believes, anticipates the state of exception theory that has emerged in the recent work of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, and Jacques Ranciere, among other critical theorists. The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception illustrates that Melville, in his own time, was aware of the negative consequences of the deeply inscribed exceptionalist American identity and recognized the essential domestic and foreign policy issues that inform the country’s national security program today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. xii-xiv


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pp. xv-xvi

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1 Late Melville and His Historical Occasion: Prolegomenon to a Rereading of Billy Budd, Sailor

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pp. 1-35

As I have observed in my books The Errant Art of Moby-Dick (1996) and Herman Melville and the American Calling (2008), Melville, more than any other American writer, constellated the local (America) into the global context, a fictional strategy epitomized by rendering the site of the immediate event into a ship of state, literally in Moby-Dick, ‘‘Benito Cereno,’’ and The Confidence-Man, and symbolically in ‘‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’’

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2 Criticism of Billy Budd, Sailor: A Counterhistory

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pp. 36-74

The criticism and commentary on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor since its publication in 1924 in England have been massive. As much, if not more, has been published on this short novel written at the end of Melville’s life as on Moby-Dick. Like Moby-Dick, furthermore, it has achieved global visibility. It is not my intention in this chapter to undertake a systematic history of this criticism and commentary.

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3 Billy Budd: A Symptomatic Reading

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pp. 75-140

Who is the narrator of Billy Budd? Given the astonishing indifference to or the willful marginalization of this question in most previous criticism of the novella, asking this admittedly difficult question should not be taken as an impertinence. Indeed, one of the fundamental and, ...

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4 American Exceptionalism and the State of Exception after 9/11: Melville’s Proleptic Witness

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pp. 141-164

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist bombing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush, in his capacity as ‘‘commander in chief’’ of U.S. armed forces (not as president), declared his ‘‘war on terror,’’ thus inaugurating a political momentum that, in the following years of his administration, bore witness to the virtual usurpation of political power by the U.S. government’s ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899348
E-ISBN-10: 0801899346
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898495
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898498

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700414
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception

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Subject Headings

  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891. Billy Budd.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Political and social views.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Knowledge -- History.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Knowledge -- United States.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • Exceptionalism -- United States.
  • Literature and history -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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