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  • E Pluribus Unum
  • Ashley Hetrick (bio)
On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World, by Jonathan Elmer. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008. Pp. 256. $75.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.

Violence, Slavoj Žižek contended in 2008, is a tricky thing indeed. It assumes multiple forms but can be grasped only through a singular motion: lingering. Ours, he argues, is a time of urgency wherein Western media disseminate select images of select atrocities to the point where their ubiquity threatens to forestall critical thought. The rhythm of broadcast pressures viewers to respond to these happenings as breaks in the placid surface of everyday life, to be solved singularly and quickly so that normalcy can return. But violence is not just an event; it is also a structure that holds both remarkable and unmarked, the few and the many, in a firm embrace. Scholars thus need to pause over the torsions of the present, to “‘wait and see’ by means of a patient, critical analysis” why some acts and their actors become icons while others fade away or are never documented.1 Jonathan Elmer’s On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World does just this, joining political scientists, religious scholars, and historians in lingering over an old riddle: sovereignty. What he finds through unfolding the history of sovereignty from antiquity to a bizarre incident in 1997 involving a man, an old tree, and a chainsaw is that much like Žižek’s sense of violence, sovereignty pivots between the one and the many. “How does the single case, the unique text or figure, ever attain through the [End Page 175] pressure of interpretation the status of the exemplary?” (192), Elmer asks at the end of the book. It is a question unasked and unanswerable by Giorgio Agamben’s theory of sovereignty, which accounts only for the intense singularity of its twinned figures, the exceptional sovereign and the lonely homo sacer. Elmer’s answer—violence in the New World—is of interest to all with a stake in sovereignty (which, as he shows, is everyone), but scholars working in American Studies, American Indian Studies, Colonial/Postcolonial Studies, Literary Studies, and Trauma Studies will take particular note. Throughout an introduction and six chapters Elmer patiently details to dazzling effect how violence works in a combination of Anglophone literature, race, and space to give e pluribus unum its jagged shape.

On Lingering and Being Last is important not just because it moves Agamben to the Americas, though it does that. Elmer harnesses Agamben’s insight into sovereign singularity to make a case for approaching politics through literary critical methods and, in emphasizing literature, brings a history of writers and readers into a showdown that, according to Agamben, involves only two: the sovereign and the sacred man. The foundational intervention of Elmer’s book is that the “trope” (6)—that singular image of a captive king or of a losing and lost Indian—points to and passes on to others that which constitutes “the deepest strata of the political imagination of Atlantic modernity” (3), a fascination with sovereignty. Endurance, not erasure, pattern, not break—these are the temporal postures of sovereignty that Elmer traces from the Greek-derived word “autonomy,” a word that bridges political and individual sovereignty. What he finds is an original use that reverses the direction of personification that Hobbes gave us. The horror of Leviathan is its memorable frontispiece wherein a state is transmogrified into an individual, but “[t]he idea of personal autonomy, it turns out, is derived from the political community; the individual is personified, we might say, as a state” (9). Etymology was easily forgotten, however. What stayed with people instead was a notion of autonomy personified by the solitary living death of Sophocles’s Antigone, who becomes autonomous by assuming the inhuman characteristics of the state: “radical exceptionality” and “a kind of deathlessness” (10). What came after Antigone did not leave her behind even if it did not recognize that it took her across centuries and oceans into a new time of longing for what was never really gone but could not ever fully manifest itself outside...


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pp. 175-180
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