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  • Introduction: Security Studies and American Literary History
  • David Watson (bio)

Woke up this morningFB eye under my bedSaid I woke up this morningFB eye under my bedTold me all I dreamed last night, every word I said.

Richard Wright, “The FB Eye Blues”

In “Pure Language,” the last chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), a crowd gathers for an open-air concert in a futuristic Manhattan. With the rebuilt World Trade Center complex looming in the background, police and security personnel circulate through the concert space while “visual scanning devices affixed to cornices, lampposts, and trees” survey the concertgoers (368). Helicopters hover overhead, their “military cackle” reminding the crowd that they have lived through “two generations of war and surveillance” (368, 373). In this brief scene, Egan describes how public space is secured through electronic surveillance and security policing. Security—urban security, in particular—is depicted as a pervasive background condition to daily life, shadowing such events as going to a music concert. The normalization of security—“the price of safety” (368)—serves for Egan as one of the ways to tell the story of the first decades of the twenty-first century, and of the two generations gathered in the Lower Manhattan of 2020. More specifically, security provides the protocols whereby to represent and [End Page 663] make sense of the concert scene. The concert is located within a history that includes the attacks on the World Trade Center complex, the War on Terror, urban militarization, and the increasing ubiquity of surveillance. Low-level affects of unease and insecurity, “the vibration of an old disturbance” (368), permeate the crowd, seemingly motivating the presence of security personnel and surveillance technologies. But this presence does not inhibit the crowd; instead, it appears to create a secured space for the milling, disorderly movements of people. Thus, security produces and defines a space within which the crowd can move more or less freely. In this fashion, Egan invites us to read the concert scene as the product, or perhaps symptom, of the normalization of security, its history, and how it shapes the everyday.

Much like Egan, the following essays are concerned with reading US literature and other media, such as television, within a security framework. Surprisingly, there is a long history in the US of thinking of reading as a way of toggling between texts and security issues. Perhaps the readers most alert to the security concerns raised by literature and other media worked for the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. It has been well documented that the FBI read, surveilled, and, in some cases, harassed modernists like Ernest Hemingway (Culleton and Leick), with Afro-modernist authors and intellectuals singled out until the 1970s as persons of interest (Maxwell). Numerous authors were the subjects of classified files; some, like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, were included in Hoover’s “Security Index”—a list of people to be detained during a national emergency. As a result of the long history of racialized surveillance, the FBI emerged as “perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature” (Maxwell 18), with its readers especially attuned to the politics and security implications of black writing. But under the right conditions, texts of all kinds can appear as security concerns, a point made satirically in Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011), in which a 9/11 memorial proposal by an American Muslim is analyzed as “a national security issue ... without being a national security issue” (46). It seems that within a security framework, the various texts circulating through a culture emerge as potential threats to its way of life.

But there are other ways of reading with security in mind. For Kenneth Burke, all texts are at least potentially imbued with a security function for their readership. He argues during the early years of World War II that aesthetic works armor us “to confront ... risks,” and, for this reason, always take as their overt or covert referent “the idea of something to be protected against” (61). Writing against the backdrop of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Don DeLillo makes a similar point in Point...


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pp. 663-676
Launched on MUSE
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