9. Terror and American Exceptionalism
In these inaugural marks, I want to make two crucial contextual points about the history of Billy Budd criticism that will help to clarify my focus in the following essay on Herman Melville’s elusive—indeed, spectral—novella on the drumhead court proceedings that bring it to its culmination in Captain Vere’s sovereign decision to execute the innocent Billy Budd. The first has to do with this criticism’s marginalization of the historical matrix in which the events on board the H.M.S. Bellipotent are embedded. The second has to do with the question of the identity of Melville’s narrator and his audience.
As for the first, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, written in the last years of his life after his withdrawal from the public sphere with the “failure” of The Confidence-Man in 1857, has been read by the great majority of the huge number of critics who have attempted to unravel its ambiguities since its posthumous publication in 1924 as his “testament of acceptance” in old age.  A smaller group has interpreted it as his “testament of resistance.”  And a third, more recent group, following the anti-binarist directives of deconstructive theory, has concluded that it is undecidable,  thus, in refusing to judge a worldly situation in which power and its deadly effects are patent and fundamental, inadvertently siding with the first, politically conservative group. Despite the determinative prominence of the global historical occasion in Melville’s text—the political struggle between England and Napoleonic France for dominance over the seaways in the name of empire—all three groups have tended to confine the meaning of the novella to one form of allegory or another. This allegorical initiative, which was inaugurated at the time of the Melville Revival in England in the 1920s with the emergence of the opposition between the adherents of the acceptance school and the resistance school, was exacerbated with the publication in 1962 of Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts’ “definitive edition,” which categorically deleted the “Preface” of Raymond Weaver’s original edition on the basis of their conclusion that Melville had discarded it some time along the line (Hayford and Sealtrs qtd. in Melville, Billy Budd 1–12). In that “discarded” preface, Melville, uncannily like Alain Badiou, represents the French Revolution as an “event,” the radically inaugural “eventality” of which the following Napoleonic Wars betrayed in the name of the old dispensation.  More specifically, he represents this epochal event (and the Great Mutiny of British seamen at Spithead and the Nore it precipitated) as the mise-en-scène of the events on board the H.M.S. Bellipotent, that, in producing a state of emergency, a climate of insecurity, and a political situation in which the criminal become the policeman, culminate in the summary execution of the innocent “handsome sailor,” Billy Budd. Despite the fact that this historical context pervades the body of the story right down to its capillaries, the “official” deletion seems, since then, to have been taken for granted. As a consequence, most readers of Melville’s text have been blinded to the epochal war that has rendered the state of exception the rule on board the Bellipotent. My purpose in this essay is to put this global historical context back into play. For such a reconstellation brings the patently unequal power relations and the sociopolitical conditions incumbent on the establishment of the state of exception as the norm back from the margins where they have been relegated by the effacement of the “evental” global matter of the “Preface” to center stage.
As for the second aspect of this history of Billy Budd criticism that needs attention—the question of the identity of the narrator—I find myself in some degree of solidarity with those—mostly of the resistance school—who distinguish his attitude toward the events he narrates from Melville’s. But there are two crucial differences between their and my interpretation of the narrator. 1) For them, he is entirely the object of Melville’s irony, whereas I read him as one who, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, tells the “story,” not, as in the case of the official narrative of the events published in their aftermath, to verify a preconceived conclusion, but to pursue its “jagged edges” to wherever they take him. Equally, if not more important, 2) for them, the narrator is ethnically identityless, whereas I read him as an end-of-the-century “American” writing about an epochal European event that occurred a century earlier uncannily reminiscent of his own contemporary American occasion. More specifically, he is a contemporary, Gilded Age American, attuned to the myth of American exceptionalism and the strategic importance of the American jeremiad, who is acutely conscious of the waning of the frontier, the consequent need of the dominant American consciousness for a rejuvenating enemy, and the imperial momentum to expand the frontier into the Pacific Ocean, epitomized by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner  and, above all, by the naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, the late Melville’s contemporary, who was proselytizing on behalf of the expansion of the America navy into an imperial fleet 
In short, this inaugural clarification of these two crucial aspects of the history of Billy Budd criticism enables us not only to perceive that the state of exception, despite its effacement by the history of Billy Budd criticism and commentary in the name of a worldless allegory—an effacement, not incidentally, that mirrors the obliteration of the actual events on board the Bellipotent enacted by the official narrative that the narrator appends to his story—is really at the heart of Melville’s novella. It thus also allows us to see that this ostensibly Old World story is in fact a cautionary tale addressed to a late nineteenth century American audience that is being maneuvered by the dominant culture into embarking on a global policy that would tacitly normalize the state of exception—and the lying discourse of its “truth”-producing institutions. In so doing—and this, finally, is more important—the reconstellation I am undertaking will also enable us to perceive that Billy Budd constitutes Melville’s uncannily proleptic witness to our own contemporary occasion. I mean, of course, the occasion that, in the name of America’s exceptionalist “war on terror,” has gone perilously far to render ”the state of exception” and the “truth” discourse of its ideological apparatuses—not only political parties and religious organizations, but also information media and educational institutions, i.e., cultural production in general—the norm and thus a matter of urgent critical concern.
Under the State of Exception, the Criminal Becomes the Policeman
Following Claggart’s insidious accusation to Captain Vere that Billy Budd was fomenting mutiny, the narrator, commenting on Captain Vere’s earlier fatherly awareness of the young sailor, concludes, “In sum, Captain Vere had from the beginning deemed Billy Budd to be what in the naval parlance of the time was called a ‘King’s bargain,’ that is to say, for His Britannic Majesty’s navy a capital investment at small outlay or none at all” (Melville, Billy Budd 95). Bracketing for the time being the troubling reductive rhetoric Vere’ uses to assess Billy’s worth, it will suffice to say that, despite Captain Vere’s sympathy for Billy and his visceral dislike for Claggart and deep suspicion of his witness, he was visibly incapable, try as he might, of breaking the uncanny hold his wily subordinate’s gaze has on him:
Vere brings the confrontation to an “end” by deciding to put the accuser to the test of being confronted by the accused, but, disablingly, in a closed setting. In so doing, he succumbs to, in the very act of resisting, Claggart’s policing strategy—the insidious strategy based on his knowledge of Vere’s deeply inscribed commitment to the “truth” of the (lawless) law of the security state and its extreme disciplinary imperatives. One of the essential realities of the state of exception is that it enables the criminal, by way of its imperatives of secrecy, to all too easily become the policeman, the unruly the ruler.
Since this paradox is at the heart of my reading of Billy Budd, it is worth pursuing at greater length. The only critic to have read Billy Budd as a story about the state of exception is the French critic Alain Brossat in an essay, tellingly entitled “L’inarticulable” [The Inarticulate], written in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, this essay reads Melville’s novella as proleptic of the state of exception established by the George W. Bush administration’s declaration of its “war on terror.” Whereas my emphasis in treating the state of exception falls on the masters’ reduction of human (political) life to bare life, Brossat focuses on the necessarily spontaneous violent response of the inarticulate—those who have been dispossessed of a political voice by the masters of the earth (Billy Budd’s fist/Al Quaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center). Though I find Brossat’s easy identification of Billy and the inarticulate of the world with al-Qaeda somewhat problematic, I am in absolute agreement with his identification of the master-at-arms, Claggart, as the real power on board the Bellipotent—the “master of masters”—and analogously, if only by implication, the “criminal” element as the real power in the post-9/11 US.
This identification has been severely contested by the American political theorist John Brenkman in a recent substantial essay on Billy Budd entitled “The Melvillean Moment.” Sympathetic with Brossat’s association of Billy with the plebs, who “are caught in two wars at once, the war between nations and the ‘immemorial’ one between ‘patricians and plebeians,’” Brenkman goes on to say that Brossat
Brenkman goes on to refute this claim by underscoring the difference between Claggart’s monomaniacal tyranny and Captain Vere’s humane sympathy with Billy just before the moment that, according to Brossat, the alleged difference between the masters and the servants—the powerful and articulate and the weak and inarticulate—irrupts in what, following Walter Benjamin, he calls “mythic violence.” Vere’s fatherly council to Billy—“‘There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time’”—Brenkman affirms, “implies no such simple alignment of repressive power and speech on the one side and silence, powerlessness, and hyperviolence on the other.” “The captain,” he goes on,
What Brenkman’s vestigial American exceptionalist problematic, like that of most critics of Billy Budd, blinds him to, I suggest on the basis of a retrieval of the minute particulars of the policing environment necessarily produced by the state of exception, is precisely the stranglehold that Claggart, the master-at-arms, has on Vere’s, the captain’s, mind: his insidious insight into the higher or “sacred” cause that unerringly determines the latter’s vision and action. In so doing, he also, and more importantly, misses Melville’s profound—and proleptic—recognition that, as I have shown, under the conditions of the state of exception, the criminal or, more accurately, as the narrator puts it earlier, the “promiscuous lameduck…of morality” (Melville, Billy Budd 65) easily becomes the policemen. 
Seen in the dislocating light of the larger global historical context I have retrieved from the margins, the narrator’s chapters of Billy Budd that have traditionally been invoked to justify the allegorical or universalist reading of Melville’s story undergo, in Louis Althusser’s phrase, a remarkable “change of terrain” very much like that undergone by the early chapters of “Benito Cereno” at the moment when Captain Amasa Delano’s American exceptionalist frame of reference (his “problematic”) is shattered by the revelation that the slaves have been in command of Don Benito’s ship from the time he had boarded it.  These chapters come to be seen, that is, not as a prefiguration of the narrator’s final encomium to Captain Vere’s affirmation of law and order against revolutionary chaos (nor to Melville’s testament of acceptance), but as his representation of events that, saturated with the ominous aura of the state of exception, lead inexorably to the preordained—“fated”—reduction of Billy’s body to “inarticulate” naked life and its execution in the sacred name of the security of the ship of state.
The Drumhead Court and the Unerring Logic of the State of Exception
This fated, unjustifiable, and violent “end” is inexorably enacted in the final chapters that recount Vere’s reaction to Billy’s unintended killing of Claggart, his precipitous decision to hold a drumhead court immediately and behind closed doors (in secret), his imposition of his judgment on the recalcitrant court, and his execution of the innocent sailor. From the beginning to the end of this process, Vere is convinced of Billy’s innocence and manifests deep, indeed fatherly, sympathy for the young man. But from the beginning to the end, too, Billy’s innocence is ruthlessly secondary in the captain’s mind to the security of the ship he commands in the name of the King and imperial Britain’s war against Napoleonic France. What is ontologically prior to Billy’s living being, that is, is Captain Vere’s deeply inscribed and unerring loyalty to the (lawless) law of the state of exception. This inexorably predetermined momentum should be rather obvious to an “informed gaze” (Althusser 24),  but because it has been rendered invisible by the supervisory gaze of those critics who have subscribed to one version or other of the testament of acceptance thesis, it will be necessary to spell it out systematically in what follows.
When, for example, the narrator recounts Billy’s deadly reaction to Claggart’s accusation during their encounter in the captain’s quarters, the first words Vere is given to utter in the aftermath of the death blow—they are spoken in a whisper, which is to say, to himself—are, “‘Fated boy…what have you done?’”, thus going far to verify his criminal policeman’s mesmerizing/paralyzing power over his superior: Claggart’s commanding knowledge of Vere’s essential identity and, therefore, his foreknowledge of the latter’s response to his allegation of the threat of mutiny. And then, after Vere ascertains that Claggart is dead, the narrator, in a transformative moment of understanding that manifests itself as a dislocating question, goes on:
This decisive transformation of Captain Vere from caring father to undeviating military disciplinarian is underscored when, after having called the surgeon in to verify Claggart’s death, he suddenly and “vehemently exclaim[s]…. Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (101; my emphasis). And it culminates after Vere, having removed the dead body to a compartment opposite to that in which Billy had been immured and categorically dismissing the surgeon, now deeply troubled by his superior’s “desire for secrecy” but compliant as a subordinate in the context of martial law, Vere announces his abnormal decision to “call a drumhead court” in secret instead of referring the case to the Admiralty, a higher and more public authority (101).
Immediately following this marked double “eclipse”—the transformation of Captain Vere and, in some significant degree, of the narrator—the narrator focuses his narrative on that aspect of the captain’s authoritarian decision, above all, his arbitrary insistence on a trial of an obviously innocent sailor to be held in secrecy, that seems not only irrational (as most commentary represents this moment), but morally and, above all, politically troubling to those who have become privy to the events ending in the death of Claggart:
Tellingly, the narrator goes on to characterize the surgeon’s (and the other officers’) hesitant response to the Captain’s dislocating fiat by invoking the reductive and corrupting imperatives of the state of exception—and, by ironic implication, the democratic (public) openness that is annulled by the security promised by the abrogation of common law (“usage”), including that which guarantees human rights: “No more trying situation is conceivable than that of an officer subordinate under a captain whom he suspects to be not mad, indeed, but yet not quite unaffected in his intellect. To argue his order to him would be insolence. To resist him would be mutiny” (102).
In commenting on the surgeon’s tentative attribution of mental unhinging as the cause of the Captain’s arbitrary decision, the narrator, it is true, rightly interrogates a binarist interpretation of sanity and madness (and, for that matter, any form of the dyad, identity/difference, that is reduced to the hierarchic binary that privileges order over chaos): “Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity” (102). But this crucial qualification should not be read, as it has been by Barbara Johnson, Eve Sedgwick, Nancy Ruttenburg, and Sharon Cameron, as evidence of Melville’s final refusal to judge Vere in the name of undecidable ambiguity, a refusal that, as Brook Thomas in his critique of Johnson’s reading of Billy Budd, has decisively shown, could easily be interpreted as a license for political paralysis (Thomas 51–78).  In the next paragraph, the narrator writes, “Whether Captain Vere, as the surgeon professionally and privately surmised, was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, every one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford” (102; my emphasis). Taking our directive from this suggestion that we read this complex social text symptomatically, we see the metaphor of the colors of the rainbow used by the narrator undergo a metamorphosis. As I have been suggesting by way of bringing the hitherto marginalized martial law of the state of exception to center stage, we are enabled to tentatively conclude that the narrator is, in fact, referring to the dedifferentiating arbitrariness—the allegorization—of Vere’s judgment after his eclyptic transformation. I mean, specifically, his arbitrary substitution (similar, not incidentally, to that of the imperialist British historians of the Great Mutiny and, as we shall see, of the official naval chroniclers of the “inside narrative” of the Bellipotent) of an unworldly worldly absolute, not for ambiguity as such, but for the (unjust) imbalance of power relations that always pertains in the world. And he does this, I suggest, in the name of pointing both to the injustice incumbent on reducing the complex socio-political occasion to decidable allegorical abstractions and to the political paralysis incumbent on reducing the actually existing imbalance of power to utterly undecidable ambiguity, that is, to the state of equivalence.
Be that as it may, it is no accident that, after underscoring Captain Vere’s transformation, the narrator returns to the larger historical occasion that, in the eyes of the dominant British culture (the “naval authority,” for whom the aftermath of the “suppressed insurrections” was “very critical”), justified the establishment of the state of exception:
That the unhappy event [the death of Claggart] which has been narrated could not have happened at a worse juncture was but too true. For it was close on the heel of the suppressed insurrections [the “Great Mutiny”], an aftertime very critical to naval authority, demanding from every English sea commander two qualities not readily interfusable—prudence and rigor. Moreover, there was something crucial in the case.
In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the event on board the Bellipotent, and in the light of that martial code whereby it was formally to be judged, innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places. In a legal view the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of military crimes. Yet more. The essential right and wrong involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea commander, inasmuch as he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis. (103; my emphasis)
In depicting the difficult conditions in which Captain Vere finds himself—the tremendous determining force of the “outside” world on the “inside” world of the Bellipotent—the narrator, it is true, expresses a certain sympathy for his terrible dilemma, even as he emphasizes the exacerbation of the imbalance of power—the chilling chiasma—that the martial law (the “legal view,” the situation “navally regarded”) has produced. But as he proceeds to reflect on Vere’s transformation, he increasingly underscores the dehumanizing consequences of the state of exception—consequences that seep into every aspect of life in the public realm (the body politic of the Bellipotent). I quote the narrator at length to underscore the transformation that he has undergone in the process of relating the events that begin with Captain Vere’s response to Claggart’s accusation:
In highlighting the narrator’s repeated returns to the negative aspects in his meditation on Vere’s decision, against “usage,” to convene the drumhead court immediately and to carry out the proceedings in secret—which is to say, in a space which is closed off from public scrutiny and provides immunity to judges that preside over it—I do not want to suggest that he is anticipating an indictment of Captain Vere’s person as such, as many critics have concluded in restricting the “case of Captain Vere” to the issue of universal morality versus expedience (“chronometricals” versus “horologicals”). Rather, I am suggesting that the target of his concern is wider than Vere or the individual, and more “political” in scope. Given the inexorable conditions produced by the insistent impingement of the macrocosmic world on the microcosmic world of the Bellipotent (which are further emphasized by the narrator’s return to them—“the slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew” that “overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration” —immediately after this paragraph), Vere remains a sympathetic figure. Melville’s target, rather, as the resonant reference to Peter the Great as “Peter the Barbarian” suggests, is a “civilization” of the “austere” sort—the rule of (public) law of the “Power then [at the time of the Napoleonic Wars] all but the sole free conservative one of the Old World” (54)—that has been transformed into barbarism by the imposition of secrecy, the sine qua non of the state of exception: ultimately, a reign of terror that has legally reduced the multitude—its lowly and powerless human victims—to bare life. It is a barbarism all the more barbarous in that the inhumane logic of its permanent lawless law is capable of harnessing a basically good and thoughtful man like Captain Vere as an unwitting agent of its totalizing dehumanizing cause: the reduction of bios to zoe, man as political animal to bare life.
That such a “civilizational” reading of this climactic passage of Billy Budd is a viable one is strongly enforced, I suggest, by recalling a strikingly similar passage in Melville’s White Jacket, here, however, focusing on an American naval vessel, unequivocally indicting the dehumanizing secrecy that is intrinsic to martial law. It is a passage that, not incidentally, culminates in an overt reference to the Somers Affair, which, it will be recalled some critics have said, instigated Melville’s Billy Budd, and which, not least, the narrator will invoke later in the chapter when he recounts the drumhead court proceedings that terminate in the decision to execute Billy:
What can be expected from a court whose deeds are done in the darkness of the recluse courts of the Spanish Inquisition? When that darkness is solemnized by an oath on the Bible? When an oligarchy of epaulets sits upon the bench, and a plebian top-man, without a jury, stands judicially naked at the bar?
Some may urge that the severest operations of the code are tacitly made null in time of peace. But with respect to several of the Articles [of War] this holds true, yet at any time any and all of them may be legally enforced. Nor have there been wanting recent instances, illustrating the spirit of this code, even in cases where the letter of the code was not altogether observed. The well-known case of a United States brig furnished a memorable example, which at any moment may be repeated. Three men, in a time of peace, were then hung at the yard-arm, merely because, in the captain’s judgment, it became necessary to hang them. To this day the question of their complete guilt is socially discussed. (Melville, White Jacket 177; my emphasis) 
But we need not appeal to a text published many years before to argue that what is fundamentally at stake in the narrator’s identification of Vere’s insistence on secrecy in the conduct of the “trial” with the terrorism of the Spanish inquisition and Peter the Barbarian is the corruption of civilization from top to bottom under the aegis of the state of exception. For this thesis is decisively enacted immediately after this reference by the drumhead court, a court—the first lieutenant, the captain of the marines, and the sailing master—strategically chosen, secretly convened, and single-mindedly determined by Captain Vere. From the beginning (as the only eye witness) and throughout the proceedings (as the presiding judge), Captain Vere affirms the essential innocence of Billy Budd and expresses his deep, indeed fatherly, sympathy for him. That is to say, he acknowledges that, from the moral point of view, Billy is innocent and should be exonerated. But at no point in the process does Captain Vere deviate from the “law” of the state of exception—and the living dictates of the dead policeman. As the narrator says (in a reference to the religious fanatics of the Inquisition serving God?) in inaugurating his account of the drama: “But a true military officer is in one particular like a true monk. Not with more of self-abnegation will the latter keep his vows of monastic obedience than the former his vows of allegiance to martial law” (Billy Budd 243).
This monkish comportment begins to assert itself openly when Billy, having been asked by the troubled captain of the marines why Claggart should have “so maliciously lied, since you declare there was no malice between you?” is unable to answer him and turns to Captain Vere for help. At this point, Vere, despite his natural sympathy for Billy and the compelling power of Billy’s helpless appeal, intervenes in his capacity as judge of the court by deflecting the captain of the marine’s focus on the (natural) moral register to the political. Driven by the inexorable logic of martial law, he says:
Billy’s response to this (to him) unexpected and enigmatic utterance, the narrator tells us in a metaphor that resonates with his reduction to bare life by Vere’s disciplinary logic, is “an interrogative look toward the speaker…not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master, seeking in his face, some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to the canine intelligence.” The court’s response is equally telling: they read in it “a meaning unanticipated, involving a prejudgment of the speaker’s part,” which “served to augment a mental disturbance previously evident enough” (108; my emphasis). This last is, of course, a reference to the disturbed surgeon’s earlier question following Vere’s precipitous decision to convene a drumhead court: “Was he [Captain Vere] unhinged?” But here, in the context of Vere’s relentlessly single-minded logic, it assumes a more definite meaning, one that recalls the narrator’s identification of Claggart’s as monomaniac (90)—and Melville’s devastating criticism of Captain Ahab’s and the Indian-hater’s metaphysically ordained single-mindededness in Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man, respectively. 
Seeing that the members of the court are deeply troubled by his undeviating logic—a disquiet, the narrator says, exacerbated by “his phraseology, now and then…suggestive of the grounds whereon rested that imputation of a certain pedantry socially alleged against him” (109)—Vere repeats his monolithic argument, now, however, from his privileged position as the captain of the “threatened” ship, and thus in terms that explicitly relate it to the historical/political events—the “crisis” of the Bellipotent’s “security”—that has justified the overt declaration of the state of exception as the permanent law. I quote this climactic passage at length not only to underscore the lawlessness of the “law” of the state of exception—the unmovable “center elsewhere” that is “out of reach of freeplay,” as it were,  that inexorably determines Vere’s political “argument,” including, not incidentally, the authoritative words concerning the moral issue he puts into the mouths of his subordinates (and later into Billy’s). I quote it as well to demonstrate the subtle (casuist) way, epitomized by his reduction of those who would protect an innocent Billy’s life from a degrading death on moral grounds to “casuists,” his apparent argument becomes in the end an arbitrary final judgment: one that suppresses the aporias (doubts) which, opened to public scrutiny (the “political”), might undermine its higher—“paramount”—authority, or, as one of the officers puts it in response, the “lateral light” on “what remains a mystery in the matter” that might be shed by the depositions of the members of “the ship’s company”:
“Hitherto I have been but the witness, little more; and I should hardly think now to take another tone, that of your coadjutor for the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—a scruple vitalized by compassion. For the compassion, how can I otherwise than share it? But, mindful of paramount obligations, I strive against scruples that may end to enervate decision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself that the case is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, it well might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for us here, acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practicality to be dealt with.
“But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves. Come now; do they import something like this: If, mindless of palliating circumstance, we are bound to regard the death of the master-at-arms as the prisoner’s deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one. But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom he we feel to be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King’s officers lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards ceased to be natural free agents. When war is declared are we the commissioned fighters previously consulted? We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. So in other particulars. So now. For suppose condemnation to follow these present proceedings. Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate in any instance, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it. (Billy Budd 110–11; my emphasis)
When Captain Vere realizes that his appeal to duty to the King over natural inclination, responsibility to the dictates of the monarch over free will, does not appease the uneasiness of the court’s members, he modifies his argument against the (female) heart to include “private conscience.” In the process, he also modifies his particular appeal to duty to the King to include overtly the larger and finally more substantial obedience to the “imperial” imperatives of the martial law (the state of exception) and the security state precipitated by Britain’s global war against Napoleon:
“But something in your aspects seems to urge that it is not solely the heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private conscience. But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in the code under which alone we officially proceed?...
“To steady us a bit let us recur to the facts—In wartime at sea a man-of-war’s man strikes his superior in grade, and the blow kills. Apart from its effect, the blow itself is, according to the Articles of War, a capital crime. (101)
At this point the officer of the marines emotionally interrupts the captain’s unerring line of thought to remind him that “Billy proposed neither mutiny nor homicide.” In response, Vere underscores his invocation of martial law against conscience, including its justification of impressment, an allusion that cannot help but evoke the memory of Billy’s arbitrary enlistment into the ranks of the Bellipotent from “The Rights-of-Man,” not to say, the anti-Burkean author of the pamphlet from which it drew its name:
Following this reduction of depth to surface, life to bare life, the faltering junior lieutenant, in a last desperate effort to save Billy from hanging, asks Captain Vere whether or not the court could “convict and yet mitigate the penalty.” Vere, now decisively and with absolute finality, returns to the political context: to what I have been asserting from the beginning as the indissoluble relationship between the “outside” story (the insurrections at Spithead and the Nore instigated by the “Revolutionary Spirit”) and the “inside” story (the events on board the Bellipotent), that is, to the hierarchical relation between “Them” and “Us,” the erratic “multitude” under aristocratic/imperial disciplinary rule:
In the eyes of Captain Vere, in sum, as these speeches insistently and chillingly testify in both what they say and leave unsaid, Billy (and the common sailors), despite his innocence in the face of a life and death charge, is as nothing or a nobody in comparison to the safety of his ship and the security of his nation, irregardless of the morality or immorality of the latter’s motives and practice. Nowhere in his eloquent and masterfully strategic address to the officers of the drumhead court does he invoke the question of the reality of the threat, to say nothing about the exceptionalist motives of the King (the dominant imperial culture) he (and his officers) so dutifully would obey. Despite Vere’s sympathy, Billy is finally only an afterthought to Vere’s monolithic commitment to the unerring disciplinary (biopolitical) imperatives of the state of exception, and his shipmates, the anonymous erratic vehicle of threat. They literally do not count in an accounting (value) system that privileges the security of the abstract national whole. This is what I meant when, earlier, I said that Billy did not stand a chance. He and his fellow sailors (the multitude) are, in Alain Brossat’s apt term, “L’inarticulable” (the “inarticulate”), in a world in which language—and the institutions of it dissemination—is utterly controlled by the masters.
Despite their abiding doubts, the members of the drumhead court capitulate in the end to the Vere’s inclusive judgment, partly because of his earnestness, partly in deference to his superior intelligence, but also, as the narrator tellingly puts it, partly because of his “closing appeal to their [collective] instinct as sea officers: in the forethought he threw out as to the practical consequences to discipline, considering the unconfirmed tone of the fleet at the time, should a man-of-war’s man’s violent killing at sea of a superior in grade be allowed to pass for aught else than a capital crime demanding prompt infliction of the penalty” (113). This egregious reduction of historical reality in the name of vocation—a higher calling—that is, is further testimony to the insidious moral and sociopolitical effects of the normalization of the state of exception.
If, then, we are attuned by what precedes Captain Vere’s justificatory discourse—his commitment to the security state in the name of the state of exception—to the narrator’s overdetermination of those corrosive aspects of knowledge production and sociopolitical life on board the Bellipotent that render it a police state, it is difficult not to read that discourse as a reactionary political argument. However benign his motives may be, Vere not only legitimizes those corrosive sociopolitical conditions but also contributes to the establishment of a corrupt moral environment that enables less-righteous leaders to take advantage of them with impunity. Read in terms of the preceding context established by the narrator, in other words, Vere’s “steadfast” commitment to his calling provides license to the executive agency (as opposed to the “people” and/or the representatives of the people) to abuse its monolithic power in behalf of disciplining—of biopoliticizing—the volatile” multitude. In a way that is remarkably proleptic of the entire Cold War and post-9/11 American occasion, the ruthless biopolitical imperatives of martial law Vere privileges over the life of the innocent and utterly helpless Billy Budd or, more to his point (if we take his remarkably low opinion of the ordinary seamen that man the man-of-war he commands, seriously), over the “the people,” authorizes the sovereign executive to deliberately annul communication in the social space, institute a climate of fear in the body politic, establish the practice of secret policing, produce the informant mentality, deny human rights to the accused, inflict torture to elicit “confession,” and abrogate free speech and public trial by a jury of peers. Read attentively, in short, the narrator’s juxtaposition of Vere’s “argument” with the “inside story” enables us to see that the latter’s decisionist justificatory vocational discourse authorizes the sovereign executive to produce the truth it wants. This is epitomized by the “authorized” account of the events on board the Bellipotent, “doubtless for the most part written in good faith,” which represents the criminal as the victim and the victim as the criminal and ends decisively with an encomium to the peace the execution produced: “‘The criminal paid the penalty of his crime. The promptitude of the punishment has proved salutary. Nothing amiss is now apprehended aboard H.M.S. Bellipotent’” (130–31). In thus pointing to the indissoluble relationship between the state of the exception and the fabrication of the truth, the narrator’s juxtaposition of the Captain’s argument with the actual events on the man-of-war, it also enables us to see that Melville’s Billy Budd speaks truth to the power of own contemporary occasion. The investigative reporter Ron Suskind bears telling, if unwitting, witness to this at the height of the George W. Bush administration’s power:
All of which is to say that Vere’s domesticated Ahabian affirmation of the illicit law of the state of exception, despite his unquestionable probity and his fatherly sympathy for Billy, opens the door to the formation of a polity in which politics is reduced to biopower and the “people” of the body politic to “bare life”: to what, a hundred years later, Giorgio Agamben, following Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, has called, in its limit situation, the polity of “the [concentration] camp” in his meditations on the state of exception in the wake of its increasing presence in modern democratic societies:
- Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is a Camp?” Means without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
- Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
- Althusser, Louis. “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy.” Reading Capital. London: Verso, 1997.
- Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Vol I. New York: Harvest Books, 1976.
- Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London: Verso, 2001.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
- Brenkman, John. “The Melvillian Moment.” Forthcoming.
- Cameron, Sharon. “‘Lines of Stone’: The Unpersonified Impersonal in Melville’s Billy Budd.” Impersonality: Seven Essays. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 2007. 180–204.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
- Freeman, John. Herman Melville. London: Macmillan,1926.
- Gellman, Barton. Angler, The Cheney Vice Presidency. New York: Penguin, 2009.
- Johnson, Barbara. “Melville’s Fist: The Execution of Billy Budd.” Studies in Romanticism 18 (1979): 567–99.
- Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
- Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. Gloucester, UK: Dodo Press, n.d.
- Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Eds. Harrison Hayford and Merotn M. Sealtrs, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
- Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1988.
- Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man; His Masquerades. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1984.
- Melville, Herman. White Jacket. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
- Murray, John Middleton. “Herman Melville’s Silence.” Times Literary Supplement 1173 (10 July 1924): 433.
- Ruttenburg, Nancy. “Melville’s Anxiety of Innocence: The Handsome Sailor.” Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. 344–78.
- Schiffman, Joseph. “Melville’s Final Stage, Irony: A Reexamination of Billy Budd Criticism.” American Literature 32 (May 1950): 128–36.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Some Binarisms (I): Billy Budd: After the Homosexual.” Epistemology of the Closet. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 91–130.
- Spanos, William V. “American Exceptionalism, the Jeremiad, and the Frontier, Before and After 9/11: From the Puritans to the Neo-Con Men.” American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam. Albany: SUNY Press, 2008. 187–241.
- Spanos, William V. Herman Melville and the American Calling: The Fiction after Moby-Dick 1851–1857. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008. 105–22.
- Spanos, William V. The Exceptional State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
- Suskind, Ron. “Without a Doubt.” New York Times. 17 Oct. 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=without+a+doubt+suskind&st=nyt. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Thomas, Brook. “Bill Budd and the Judgment of Silence.” Bucknell Review 27 (1983): 51–78.
- Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The Frontier in America History. New York: Henry Holt, 1953. 1–38.
- Watson, E.L. Grant. “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance.” New England Quarterly 6 (June 1933): 227–319.
- Withim, Phil. “Billy Budd: Testament of Resistance.” Modern Language Quarterly 20 (June 1959): 115–27.
- This school of Billy Budd criticism was inaugurated after the publication of the novella in England in 1924 by such British critics as John Middleton Murray (433) and John Freeman (131–36). It received its name with the publication of E. L. Grant Watson’s “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance” (227–319).
- This school was inaugurated in the 1950s by “ironist” readings such as those of Joseph Schiffman (128–36) and Phil Withim (115–27).
- See for instance Barbara Johnson “Melville’s Fist” 567–99 and The Critical Difference (79–109); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (91–130); Nancy Ruttenburg (344–78); and Sharon Cameron (180–204).
- “[W]hatever convokes someone to the composition of a subject is something extra, something that happens in situations as something that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for. Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (although the animal remains the sole foundation [support]) needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’. Let us call this supplement an event, and let us distinguish multiple-being, where it is not a matter of truth (but only opinions), from the event, which compels us to decide a new way of being. Such events are well and truly attested: the French Revolution of 1792, the meeting of Heloise and Abelard, Galileo’s creation and physics, Hayden’s invention of the classical musical style…but also: the Cultural Revolution in China (1965–67) [i.e., in politics, love, science, and art]…” (Baidou 42; my emphasis, except for “subject”).
- “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in The Frontier in America History (1–38). This culminating nation-defining essay was first delivered on July 12, 1893 at the World Fair in Chicago, which featured “The White City,” the Gilded Age’s version of the Puritans’ “city on the hill.” For a revisionary account of the American jeremiad as represented by Sacvan Bercovitch in The American Jeremiad (1978) that points to the indissoluble relationship between American exceptionalism, the expanding frontier (i.e., the need for a perpetual enemy), and the state of exception and takes its point of departure from Melville’s reading of the origins of the American national identity, see Spanos (“American Exceptionalism” 187–241).
- In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783.
- Hannah Arendt makes precisely this still to be fully thought point about the politics endemic to the state of exception in her powerful critique of the French Third Republic’s handling of the Dreyfuss Affair by way of her synecdochical account of the radical anti-Semite, Jules Guerin: “The most modern figure on the side of the Anti-Dreyfusards was probably Jules Guerin. Ruined in business, he had begun his political career as a police stool pigeon, and acquired that flair for discipline and organization which invariably marks the underworld. This he was later to divert into political channels, becoming the founder and head of the Ligue Antisemite [sic]. In him high society found its first criminal hero. In its adulation of Guerin bourgeois society showed clearly that in its code of morals and ethics it had broken for good with it own standard” (111). More immediately, chronologically and geographically, I think, for example, of the relationship between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the US government under President Dwight Eisenhower, and, even most recently and tellingly, between Dick Cheney and the US government under President George W. Bush. See Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.
- See my “Althusserian” reading of “Benito Cereno” in Herman Melville and the American Calling (105–22).
- Althusser is here distinguishing between the “oversight” of capitalist vision (its “problematic”) and Marx’s “informed gaze,” which, precisely because it is aware of the blindness of super-vision, can see what the latter unwittingly is blind to.
- See Spanos’ The Exceptional State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, 68–70 for further commentary on this issue.
- In their “Notes and Commentaries,” the editors of the definitive edition of Billy Budd note this striking parallel, even say that the sentence referring to Peter the Barbarian “is nearer than any other in Billy Budd to indicating disapproval of Vere’s course of action” (177). Indeed, they go on to point to other similar passages in Melville’s writing, most notably in Redburn, Moby-Dick, and “I am a Chimney.” But they do not pursue its implications.
- “The white whale swam before him as the monomaniacal incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men felt eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning: to which dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the world; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil:—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain, all subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (Melville, Moby-Dick 184). See also The Confidence-Man; His Masquerades: “The Indian-hater par excellence the judge defined to be one ‘who, having with his mother’s milk drank in small love for red men, in his youth or early manhood, ere the sensibilities becomes osseous, received at their hands some signal outrage, or, which in effect is the same some of his kin have, or some friend. Now, nature all around him by her solitudes wooing or bidding him muse on the matter, he accordingly does so, till the thought develops such attraction, that much as straggling vapors troop from all sides to a storm-cloud, so straggling thoughts of other outrages troop to the nucleus thought, assimilate with it, and swell it. At last, taking council with the elements, he comes to his resolution. An intenser Hannibal, he makes a vow, the hate of which is a vortex from whose suction scarce the remotest chip of the guilty race may reasonably feel secure. With the solemnity of a Spaniard turned monk, he takes leave of his kin; or rather, these leave-takings have something of the still more impressive finality of death-bed adieus. Last, he commits himself to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be his, to act upon a calm cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance. Ever on the noiseless trail; cool, collected, patient; less seen than felt; snuffing, smelling—a Leatherstocking Nemesis’” (149–50).
- “[T]he center…closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible. As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or transformation of elements…is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted…. Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say the center is paradoxically within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not a part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself…is contradictorily coherent” (Derrida 279).