Review of Moira Fradinger, Binding Violence: Literary Visions of Political Origins, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 2010
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If comparative literature is supposedly a “dying discipline”, this has certainly been a slow death punctuated by auspicious revivals; and none more promising than Moira Fradinger’s recent Binding Violence: Literary Visions of Political Origins. In fact, such an inspired reflection on literature and politics points toward a stimulating and highly relevant model of inquiry for a field famously described as “anxiogenic”. Fradinger’s book is a tour de force that will certainly generate passionate debate and further scholarship.
Through meticulous literary analysis and building on a solid theoretical basis, this book successfully engages with an important paradox of political philosophy: the seeming impossibility of democratic polities to decide (democratically) on their membership. These results in what Michael Mann has called the “dark side of democracy”. At the core of Fradinger’s reflection is the idea that universal equality has been accompanied by the construction of carefully defined democratic communities that in order to establish their borders rely on mechanisms of exclusion and extermination of its own members. The paradox derives from the dialectic of “identity” and “difference”, which determines who belongs to the community, and who doesn’t. Who is part of the demos therefore becomes a pressing question, answered not through political reason, but through a foundational or “binding violence” which establishes membership to a particular collective (whether this be the ancient city or the nation).
The book is structured around analyses of Sophocles’ Antigone, Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat. What unites such diverse works is the fact that they were written in a time dominated by different versions of “the democratic imagination”, and thus claim a special place in the history of discourses on political autonomy. Two interludes and one epilogue offer a sophisticated theoretical reflection on the nature of the modern democratic imagination, sovereignty, and states of exception. This precise combination of textual analysis and theoretical elaboration, anchored by a fine-tuned attention to historical context, makes this volume a superb contribution to the field of literary and cultural studies, as well as political science and political philosophy. Readers will not only benefit from a thorough revision of the scholarly bibliography, but they will be rewarded with exciting new conceptual tools with which to embark on their own explorations.
Fradinger begins her argument at the “birth of democracy” by exploring Sophocles’ Antigone. In her reading, democracy and tragedy are contemporaneous Greek inventions that speak to the inherent violence of the construction of the body politic. Indeed, she carefully shows how the clash between Creon and Antigone concerns the limits of the polis at a moment of reconstruction, right after the war with Argos. Anxiety about the fragmentation of the body politic triggers a “mechanism of enmity” targeting not foreign enemies, but those who had belonged to the community and are now constructed as outsiders. She concludes that: “Antigone exposes a constitutive question for the ancient revolutionary invention of democracy […]: who constituted the body politic, and by which rituals was this determination made?”
The second part of the book explores Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom as an expression of anxieties aroused by the “second birth of democracy” during the French Revolution. After giving a precise account of the eighteenth-century political imagination, Fradinger explores the rites of “libertine” communion as sustaining a society of equals. She concludes, contrary to the now-canonical readings, that Sade’s text is not structured around transgression: order is strictly preserved and rather than sexual, the “perversions” are “perversions of power” that function to determine membership, belonging and exclusion.
The third section of the book addresses a long tradition in Latin American literature: the dictator novel. Interestingly, the author suggests that this tradition speaks not only to Latin America, but to the modern world at large, engaging the paradoxes raised during the French revolution and the universalization of equality. In this way, Fradinger opens a field of research inviting a re-examination of this genre across continents, and outside of Latin America. Studying the case of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, the author argues that this novel is not so much about the power of the authoritarian “caudillo”, as critics have affirmed, but about how executive power rests on the structure of an exception within the modern state, what Susan Buck-Morss calls its “wild zone of power”. Borrowing from Achille Mbembe, Fradinger then proceeds to identify the “necropolitical logic” that structures the narrative. Two key elements enact this rationale, in which life exists “to be killed”: the genocidal practices of the dictator against the neighboring Haitians, and the despot’s own death.
As Fradinger closes the book, she makes the theoretical insights that her textual close analysis yields speak to an ethico-political imperative for our times. The modern reappearance of the tragic dilemma that the author identifies in the ancient Antigone pertains not to some kind of archetypical structure, but to a persistent (and historically determined) political imagination that articulates political equality in terms of the homogeneity, adhesion and sameness. It is a “reason of war” introduced into political reason –or as the author suggests, playing with a Kantian phrase, “the limits within political reason alone”. This limit in our political imagination, expressed historically with the aid of social categories (class determinations for instance), instead of articulating equality and difference within a polity, transforms equality into identity in order to close its borders. This is the origin of “binding” violence. The book can in fact be read as a timely meditation on political violence, as it contains an implicit subtext, in every chapter, on the puzzling political phenomena of modern genocide. Fradinger’s study helps us to conceptualize genocidal waves as episodes involving “binding violence”: that is, episodes in which a polity in crisis over its unstable borders redefines its membership by turning inside and against itself, attacking its own. As universal equality has become an ever more urgent political aspiration, the author suggests we need a politically radical imaginative effort to articulate equality and difference while avoiding violence as a solution. The call is to use our political will to find ways around the paradox that democratic theory seems not to have solved yet: how to decide democratically on the constituency of a democratic polity.
I would like to turn now briefly to the importance of this book for the field of comparative literary studies. In René Wellek’s famous (and early) lament about the state of the discipline, he warned of three sources of concern: the “artificial demarcation of subject matter and method, [a] mechanistic concept of sources and influences, [and] motivation by cultural nationalism”. I would argue that Fradinger’s achievement rests precisely in the intelligence and incisiveness with which she deals with those challenges. Her tracing of continuities of a political imagination within the Western tradition is in no way essentialist or ahistoric; on the contrary, she continually anchors her analysis on the specificity of each literary (and critical) tradition. In this manner, she not only distances herself from the traditional comparatist discourse of “influences”, but also from any narrow nationalistic focus.
Binding Violence: Literary Visions of Political Origins is also remarkable for its ethical intelligence and passion. Its writing is clear, unpretentious, transparent; it is informed by a deep erudition free of cant and jargon. It offers consistently lucid and intensely argued reasoning about a substantive problem that concerns us all. Such a mode of comparative study moves away from erudite play of references drawn from the “great” literary traditions to a committed exploration of culture and power as they matter to us today. In so doing, it brings new vitality to the discipline of comparative literature. Fradinger’s grand project has real consequences for those debates about authoritarianism and exclusion so pressing in our own time.
I would like to conclude by noting that the deconstructive gesture of Fradinger in no way leads to the proverbial postmodern void. Instead, Binding Violence constitutes an invitation to embrace the “contingency of political life” (Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe). This book aims at opening dialogues between the literary and the political imagination, as well as conversations across disciplines, and at prompting thought about how we organize our political life. The literary imagination, in Fradinger’s treatment, may give us new languages for old questions, such as the paradoxes haunting democratic theory, that remain unsolved in other fields of social inquiry. Fradinger’s comparative analysis invites us to challenge our models for conceiving of political spaces of inclusion not only through the literary imagination, but also by means of other social practices, while always considering the multiplicity of social subjects that constitute the real body politic. Not an easy task, but well worth the attempt.
The grim prognoses stretch from René Wellek’s 1958 observation about the field showing “symptoms of long-drawn-out crisis” all the way to Gayatri Spivak’s diagnosis of comparative literature as a “dying discipline”. In René Wellek, Concepts of Criticism, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1963, p. 290, and in Gayatri C. Spivak, Death of a Discipline, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003, p. xii.
- Bernheimer, Charles, Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
- Mann, Michael, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Wellek, René, Concepts of Criticism, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1963.
- Spivak, Gayatri C., Death of a Discipline, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.