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  • Failed-State Fiction
  • John Marx (bio)

Fiction has a stake in the state's future, which it demonstrates by treating civil war as a setting for literary experimentation. Recent novelistic experiments largely complement political scientific research in defining the "failed state" as a more or less normative condition in much of the world. Writing in both disciplines subordinates the notion of the state as setting for national development to that of the state as context that shapes and is shaped by experts in their administration of populations. As a result, the ideal of citizenship cedes center stage, as scholarship and literary prose strive to present competent management as an aspiration every bit as compelling as the goal of national liberation it displaces. Fiction diverges from its interdisciplinary collaborator, however, on the matter of who qualifies as a manager. For example, novels including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) identify a problem for political science, as well as for conventional wisdom, when they consider child soldiers and refugees as participants in state organization rather than mere symptoms of state failure.

If national literature presupposed a world composed of nations, literary elaboration of the state has a more than local scope as well. When a fiction such as Half of a Yellow Sun portrays life during wartime as both intensely violent and remarkably ordinary, it suggests that what goes on in the most unstable of states is never so extreme that it cannot be normed. Here as elsewhere, the most conventional novelistic content of household intrigue and personal growth thrives amid coups and mass killings that would otherwise define a "state of exception." In Adichie's account of the Nigerian crisis that culminated in the Biafran War, couples fall in and out of [End Page 597] love, families mourn, and children grow up in communities displaced and devastated by conflict. People starve and die in the refugee camp where the novel's final chapters are set, but they also write poetry, have sex, and engage in intellectual debate about, for instance, "racism... as a basis of conquest" (Adichie 402).

Influential work in the social sciences shares the conviction that pragmatic questions of governmentality predominate precisely where one might anticipate crises of legitimacy and bare life. Where social science privileges quantitative data, however, literature counters with the quality of local color. Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun supplements think-tank statistics with a narrative of the Biafran War written from the standpoint of its survivors. In so doing, the novel operates as if it might contribute meaningfully to the body of knowledge concerned with how states work. Social scientists who acknowledge literary efforts tend to think of fiction as giving crisis a human face. "[D]evelopment studies generally conceives of the Third World as a problematic of progress that can be arrayed well in statistical terms," notes scholar of international relations Christine Sylvester, whereas "Everyday lives feature in. . . novels" (66).1 Literature reveals anomalies that do not register on statistical curves, "inconsistent objects," Sylvester calls them, "that beckon our attention" (70). With stories that "stick to the gut and the brain," postcolonial fiction makes it difficult for social scientists to turn away from "biopolitical horrors [that] stand side-by-side, incongruously, with clear markers of development" (75, 70). If fiction forces "the coolly distant development expert to the inside of a maelstrom" (75), political science entices fiction to perceive the state less as art's habitual antagonist—the sovereign power that censors and bans, imprisons and exiles—than as an object that art might help to reform. Political science imagines a collaborative model in which fiction brings anomalies to the attention of researchers, who then [End Page 598] tweak their statistical analyses and policy recommendations to account for this new data.

But fiction does not simply flesh out social-scientific practice. Instead, it shapes a counterdiscourse. While fiction does offer a humanizing counterpoint to the cold facts of statistical calculation, it also portrays life in the failed state as an education—the sort of education, in fact, that might make one more expert than the experts. Just so, Adichie delegates the authority to compose the definitive book on...


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pp. 597-633
Launched on MUSE
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