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  • Aestheticizing Insecurity: A Response to Security Studies and American Literary History
  • Johannes Voelz (bio)
Response to Security Studies and American Literary History, special issue of American Literary History, vol. 28, no. 4, 2016.

Much has changed since the Cold War, when security studies primarily designated a branch of international relations tasked with providing counsel to governments on issues relating to national defense. 1By now, security has branched out in multiple directions: it has crossed into a host of other disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, geography, and law, to name just a few; it has been recentered on a number of critical theories, ranging from the Foucauldian nexus of biopolitics and neoliberalism to Carl Schmitt's and Giorgio Agamben's elaborations on the state of exception. Security also extends to affect theory's conceptualizations of collective mental states such as fear and terror, as well as to the influential "securitization" theory of the so-called Copenhagen school of International Relations, which combines Schmitt, Pierre Bourdieu, and J. L. Austin in order to theorize the performative constitution of emergency states. Finally, in line with these theoretical reorientations, the referent addressed by the study of security has been altered: no longer primarily about international conflict, security now organizes the entire liberal world order, from the macrostructure of globalized flows of people all the way down to the ways people relate to themselves in need of self-surveillance, self-investment, and self-enhancement. 2Seen against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that literary scholars are taking up the question of security as well. [End Page 615]

This journal's recent special issue, entitled Security Studies and American Literary History, with an Introduction by David Watson, is not the first foray into literary security studies, but in its shared focus on securitization, neoliberalism, and biopolitics, it provides a welcome opportunity to chart where the humanities version of the field currently stands. 3At least as crucially, the essays assembled there invite us to reflect on the methodologies that scholars in literary security studies have favored so far.

Before discussing the arguments and strategies pursued in the ALHissue, it may be appropriate to begin on a note of hesitation: Why study security from the vantage of literary studies at all? A literary studies perspective on the subject ought to be able to demonstrate the payoffs of addressing security through literature. If it cannot show what it adds to existing security scholarship, literary security studies—which the special issue helps to institutionalize—must confront the charge of producing redundant knowledge.


I will begin by sketching the primary interests pursued by the ALHarticles. They do not first and foremost lie in the literary, but rather in a critique of the political logic and functions of security understood more broadly. In one way or another, all of the contributors conceive of security as a political modality of wielding power over the population by biopolitical means. Scenes of insecurity are staged, they argue, to legitimate emergency measures that allow for the violent ordering and reordering of the population. As Marc Botha, in his commentary, aptly summarizes, the result of this type of security-governmentality is the "normalization of insecurity" (781)—with the added irony that this normalization is carried out in the name of security.

The idea that security is a modality of liberal power is given historical weight by Russ Castronovo, whose contribution forcefully insists on the conceptual and historical linkage of property, liberalism, and security. For Castronovo, liberalism employs the device of the social contract to tell a story of lethal chaos in the state of nature and the prospect of survival in a civil society made possible by the social contract. But liberal security, Castronovo contends by focusing on John Locke's Second Treatise, isn't just about survival; it is also about the guarantees of property. For in the liberal imagination, property is never secure. By staging a duet starring Locke and James Fenimore Cooper, Castronovo argues that in the liberal conception, property is by definition fugitive property ("even after property is pursued, surveilled, surveyed, and marked with legal title, it remains [End Page 616]hard to pin down" [689...


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