Instituting Violence: Spaces of Exception in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century American Fiction
Slaughter, Nicholas Allen
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Since the War on Terror’s onset, American studies have popularized philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s argument in the treatises Homo Sacer (1995) and State of Exception (2003) that modern governments have come to operate in a permanent state of emergency. Agamben terms this phenomenon a “state of exception” in which law may be set aside at any time. Critics have productively applied this theory to post-9/11 U.S. government actions like surveillance programs, torture, and military interventions. Scholarship treats the Guantanamo detention center as the epitome of a localized, perpetual suspension of legal and ethical norms. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to other spaces of a similarly exceptional nature throughout American history. In “Instituting Violence,” I examine twentieth- and twenty-first century fictional representations of institutionalized sites home to unregulated violence while also engaging in current critical conversations about political and economic violence. Preceding Agamben’s political theory, much American literature depicts this exceptionalism across a wide array of sites. I explore four categories of spaces of exception represented across a range of genres, considering their interconnections and histories. In each text, a space that appears to operate as an exception to American legal and moral norms proves to reveal the normal but obscured relationships of power between the privileged and exploited. In addition to how these texts explore longer histories of such violent spaces, I consider how American writers self-reflexively examine the efficacy of their art for meaningfully engaging audiences in ethical discourses about history and justice.