English | Major American Writers
L751 | 24791 | Elmer

1:25p - 4:25a T


We’ll begin from the hypothesis that sovereignty, legitimacy, and
relations between individual bodies and bodies politic underwent
crucial transformations specific to the New World scene.  To some
extent, this had to do with the New World’s status as an “extra-
legal” zone when viewed from the vantage of relations between
sovereigns in Europe; the relative dominance of economic
requirements over and against state security, which shows up in new
ideas about individual property rights, theories of natural law and
the law of nations, and treaty protocols; and, not least important,
the development of racial identities as a prism through which to
understand, and legitimize, asymmetrical sovereignties.

It’s a pretty huge topic, which is good and bad:  good, because it
will hopefully leave plenty of room for individuals to “colonize”
his or her own area of research and interest.  (Call the seminar a
settler society, if you like); bad, because I have to try to plan an
itinerary through it.  My thinking right now is that we’ll divide
our time between 1) political theory, both past (Hobbes, Grotius,
Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Vattel, Ferguson, e.g.) and present,
emphasizing particularly the resurgence of interest in theories of
sovereignty and empire (Schmitt, Agamben, Žižek, Derrida, Hardt and
Negri, Rancičre, Deleuze and Guattari, Balibar, Keene, e.g.);  and
2)  literary works and traditions that bring to visibility, in
figuratively dense ways, the contradictions of this race and
sovereignty in the Atlantic world:  I anticipate reading works by
Behn, Addison, writers of the eighteenth century black Atlantic
(Gronniosaw, Cugoano, Equiano), Jefferson, Godwin, Brockden Brown.
I would like to spend some time in the 1820’s looking at the topos
of the “last man”—Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, James Fenimore Cooper,
John Neal—as well as the uptick of interest in “King Philip” in
America, visible in sketches, plays, and histories.  Finally, I
would like to conclude by looking at the ways in which Melville
transforms this tradition in his focus on sovereign authority on
shipboard, with special attention to “Benito Cereno” and _Billy
Budd_.  Clearly, we will not read all of these authors or works, but
only a selection.

I am happy to speak with prospective students this fall, to answer
questions or receive suggestions.  I want the class both to have a
real center of gravity in our shared reading and thinking, but also
allow for individuals to do individual research and report back.
Tricky, yes; demanding, no doubt; but not impossible.

Class responsibility will consist of the aforesaid reading and
research, participation (occasionally formalized as presentations on
secondary materials), and a seminar paper of 25 pages or so.  I
would very much like students to read Edward Keene’s _Beyond the
Anarchical Society_ in advance of our first meeting.