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Security and the Uncertain Worlds of Fiction

Johannes Voelz, Goethe University Frankfurt

Part of a monograph project provisionally entitled “Fictions of Security: American Literature and the Uses of Uncertainty,” this paper aims to shed light on the cultural imagination of security through the lens of American literature. Throughout various periods and genres, ranging from the gothic novel of the early republic to contemporary forms of post-postmodern fiction, American literature has been centrally involved with what I call the “logic of security.” This logic foregrounds the future as a matter of concern by framing it as at once open to rational planning and intractably contingent. Understood in this sense, “security” does not refer to a subjective or objective state in which all worries or dangers have been removed, but rather to ways of processing uncertainty and threat. In this framework “security” remains an endlessly receding horizon. While emerging out of specific historical conflicts and transformations and employing various sets of genre conventions, the texts I analyze all articulate modes of action which are enabled by insecurity and threat, and whose outcomes remain fundamentally uncertain. Narrative fiction thus performs a reversal of the valuation of security and insecurity. While in common parlance, security gains its positive value by being opposed to its negative counterpart, my textual examples spell out some of the ways in which American literature has used insecurity and uncertainty to narratively mobilize, transgress, and reconfigure the self and the social.

I argue that this analysis has radical implications beyond literature, for it calls into question the dominant interpretations of the pervasive spread of the “logic of security” into ever more realms of life. Rather than following prevailing critical approaches which regard security as a justification and technology of (bio-political) power, I argue that political and cultural security discourses have become so successful and appealing because in highlighting insecurity and uncertainty they create, quite like literature, the opportunity for imaginary acts of mobilization, transgression, and the extension of the self. While in real life, the concern with practical outcomes tends to overshadow the pleasures held in store by the processing of uncertainty, the analysis of literature provides an optic for isolating and illuminating those elements of the logic of security that generate its cultural power.

John F. Kennedy Institute