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  • Beautiful Walls:A Response to Johannes Voelz
  • David Watson (bio)

On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.

Donald J. Trump, "Speech on Immigration"

What's beauty got to do with it? How do we wrap our minds around this dream of a beautiful wall that secures, divides, and renders lives more insecure? What kind of beauty is optatively promised—that of the glory of sovereignty recovered, of sublime elevation, literally, in the face of imagined terror?

Johannes Voelz's call for an engagement with the aesthetics of security—expanded to include insecurity and the forms of life engendered by exposure to contingency—cannot be more opportune. At a time when border walls are beautiful while data collection and analysis practices appear to have produced a new "aesthetic infrastructure" (Halpern 15), at a time when some advocate a turn toward the imagination in the security sector to expand its imaginative reach, and when we seem to live in the era of the "security-entertainment complex" (Thrift 7)—a time of pervasive endangerment, entertainment, and surveillance—it might be uncomfortable to ask how security and aesthetics mediate each other. Yet the aesthetic has been presented as a resource for thinking beyond the security state and a global security society. How do we learn, for instance, to live dangerously or to imagine modes of life irreducible to data profiles? For theorists of security such as Louise Amoore, Brad Evans, and Julian Reid, the answer to such questions is: the aesthetic.

Voelz proposes that "literary security studies" (if we can speak confidently of such a field) focus on the cultural uses of security and [End Page 625] insecurity, an idea that is in line with this mode of thinking, yet in tension with it. It appears he wants to think beyond the politics of securitization, but to do so in a manner unforeseen by security studies. It may be that in distinguishing between security in theory and political life, and the affordances it has for literature, Voelz is replicating a move internal to international relations, in particular a turn against the realist imperative that the field should "mimic reality" (Der Derian 2). This partition enables Voelz's claim that US literary history is chock-full of narratives in which experiences of insecurity result unpredictably in sublime reversals of weakness into strength. Perhaps surprisingly, the story Voelz wants to tell seems unconcerned with, for instance, the uses of anarchic circumstances for the making of empire, or how a culture of financialization invites us to embrace risks. Rather, he suggests that exposure to contingency may result in the recovery of a mode of collective or individual agency irreducible to that imagined by (neo)liberalism. In this account, literary narrative emerges as a potential site for imagining a kind of political freedom, but also the transcendence of the quotidian (security) politics of the security state.

While this line of investigation seems to end up in some familiar places, its ingenuity may very well reside in the central place Voelz gives to insecurity or contingency. After all, liberalism arguably takes the contingent as its central problematic and strategy, identifying it with freedom, and sorting between contingencies that are productive of life or inimical to it. Liberal governance is, one may say, the "government of the contingent, by the contingent, for the contingent" (Dillon 46). Insisting rightly that security has to be an incomplete mediation of insecurity, Voelz seems to restore contingency to its crucial place in discussions of security and make it available for literary analysis. What, for example, do we then make of Fredric Jameson's identification of realism with an aesthetic ideology in which "social and historical material rise to the surface in the form of the singular or the contingent" (143)? Perhaps Voelz has an answer forthcoming. More immediately, I wonder whether turning to insecurity truly resolves questions about the borderlines between security politics and its aesthetic variant. Instead, and this is no minor feat, I suspect it may end up giving us a better idea of the imbricated nature of this terrain.

Still, I take Voelz's point. If literary studies has anything to...


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pp. 625-628
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