THE KILLING OF Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, was not, and could not have been, another occasion to declare: “Mission accomplished.” If an accomplishment occurred, it could not be framed as the termination of a mission. It could not, for instance, announce the end of the War on Terror. As President Obama put it in his address announcing bin Laden’s death:
The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.
It is not so much that President Obama learned the material lessons of post–Vietnam warfare — that the distinctions among friend, enemy, and noncombatant have become irreversibly troubled, that antagonism proliferates in forms too amorphous to confine within the boundaries of nationalist thought, that war has become an interminable police operation. Rather, the lesson was more general, one might even say more philosophical, though no less practical and no less political. It was that of vigilance, or the disposition of being always on the lookout for terror. “If you see something, say something,” as Homeland Security encourages us. Vigilance does not simply designate a practical measure responding to a set of historically delimited conditions. Instead, it names an existential register defining what it means to be American. As Obama would close his address to the nation:
The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.
Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In this speech, the history of the War on Terror unfolds from the very identity of the United States. America’s perseverance depends on vigilance, which, Obama makes clear, is more than mere survival, for it is also a calling: an ontological task, a vocation, a mission. If the United States is to be not only another nation but also “America,” if it is to live up to “the story of our history,” if it is to exceed attributes such as “wealth or power,” it cannot content itself with the safety that comes from killing off its enemies. For America to be America, according to the logic of American exceptionalism espoused by Obama, the nation must exercise vigilance in a manner that welds together “who we are” with the elimination of perceived and anticipated threats and a constant striving after progress.
If Osama bin Laden had not existed, the United States would have had to invent him. Although William V. Spanos never quite puts it that way, this claim nevertheless encapsulates one of the fundamental insights of Redeemer Nation in the Interregnum: An Untimely Meditation on the American Vocation — namely, that American exceptionalism entails a dense knotting together of the vitality of the nation and targeted killing. The very being of America as a more-than-merely-national nation hinges on its capacity to obliterate its enemies in the most spectacular fashion, while simultaneously arrogating the life-force or resources of its enemies for itself. Spanos articulates this knot of life and death in terms of a calling:
To put it provisionally and all too summarily, the dominant — the “chosen” — culture in the United States — from the inaugural “errand in the [New World] wilderness” of the founding Puritans (God’s “chosen people”); through the era of westward expansion, which secularized the Puritans’ Word and its providential history as “Manifest Destiny”; to the Vietnam War and post–9/11 age, which has borne witness to America’s extension of its divine- or History-ordained “errand in the wilderness” to include the wilderness of the world at large — has re-presented the awesome immensity, the vastness, the majesty, the mystery of the world’s wilderness in terms of a twofold ideological strategy directed inwardly toward the covenantal community and outwardly toward its threatening enemy.
Spanos hovers between the secular and the theological, indicating that the phenomenon of American exceptionalism implies a zone of indistinguishability between religion and politics — or, more precisely, a zone that draws on these two domains, plays them off of one another, complicating them in the process. The sense of America as the home of a chosen people cannot be extricated from a mission of expansion guided by a belief in providence. The world in its entirety becomes a wilderness, a shadowy realm of lurking threats and hidden terrors that makes demands but that also promises to be settled, tamed, civilized. This is the promissory demand of the frontier in the American imaginary, which, as Spanos reminds us, binds together the accomplishment of the mission with the most violent means. The frontier always already implies:
an Other — an alien/inferior entity on the other side of the always moving dividing line between good and evil, settlement and wilderness, civilization and savagery, that threatens the divinely ordained errant and must, therefore, according to the imperatives of this exceptionalist logic, be eradicated by violence in behalf of the errand.
Through readings of literary works (by, e.g., Herman Melville and Mark Twain), analyses of political rhetoric, and philosophical investigation, Spanos demonstrates the double valence of American exceptionalism, which can only conquer and police the world insofar as it also redeems (or at least claims to redeem) the citizens on which it calls. Spanos draws on Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation, or the process by which one is “hailed” as a subject, both called upon and called into being within the framework of a specific social and political order. The “American vocation” is a “calling” precisely in the sense that it incorporates individuals and groups into the American body politic by promising redemption — that is, by holding out the hope of autonomy, upward mobility, a sense of superiority, and a general feeling of well-being. In contemporary critical terms, we might say that the violent, imperial endeavors of the United States depend on biopolitical operations — on a politics of life itself, a management of bodies and populations (for instance, in racial profiling) through which ideology takes hold of the flesh. The spectacular destruction of enemies and the binding together of a people constitute the twin poles of one and the same apparatus of governance.
For Spanos, what is at stake is how we relate to American exceptionalism. Do we uncritically rely on and reproduce its ethos, or do we critically examine, dismantle, and seek out alternatives to exceptionalism? Spanos, for example, reads Twain as an unabashed “spokesperson” for American exceptionalism, analyzing his fiction as a staging of American power in the most spectacular form. Satirical jabs may issue from Twain’s pen, but in novels such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), the ultimate effect of Twain’s irony is not to demystify but rather to strike dumb, to rob people of their capacity for speech and action. Spanos reads Twain almost as if he were one of the hucksters that populate his own fictions, offering up the semblance of critique (the ironic wink at American idiocy) only to reinforce the appearance of American might.
In contrast, Melville’s fiction dissects American exceptionalism, revealing not only its anatomy and functioning but also:
the deep onto-psychological structure that justifies this contradictory worldly violence: the will to power, authorized, indeed, commanded, as a calling by a transcendental signified (or logos) that ruthlessly reduces the “threatening” differential many to a spectacular objectified (or personified) One [in order] to render “it,” in the uncannily proleptic terms Melville uses to epitomize the culmination of Ahab’s monomaniacal “fiery pursuit” of the ultimately unpredictable White Whale, “practically assailable.”
To elevate the United States to the status of “America,” to make America not only a nation but also a calling — a mission to accomplish, an existential disposition — requires the petrification of otherness, the reduction of difference (cultural, political, social) to a graspable and therefore vulnerable object. In novels such as Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), Melville breaks free from the spectacular power of American exceptionalism by diving into it so deeply that it collapses in on itself. The experimental procedures of Melville’s fiction — its detours into taxonomy, encyclopedic description, and philosophical speculation; its refusal to offer satisfying plots; its idiosyncratic characters who defy the readerly desire to identify or relate — disclose the sheer contingency of American exceptionalism, the fact that at the heart of its promise of redemption there is only a concealed nothingness, a void parading as a gift.
The paradox at the heart of Spanos’s account is that this void is powerful, that the sham of American exceptionalism, for all the substance it lacks, does generate destructive — indeed, shattering — consequences for the world. It solicits belief, provides a sense of security, promises greatness, and, in doing so, leaves us paralyzed, incapable of breaking with the sacred mission of conquering the wilderness. One need only consider the ways in which, after each terrorist act, Americans are called upon not only to remain brave defenders of freedom but also to condone, without critical interrogation, the proliferation of new security measures and new ventures in global policing. In this political-ontological-theological framework, drones are the angels that destroy the demons plaguing the city on a hill, and these deadly angels not only protect and secure, they also sing the praises of imperialism.
What distinguishes Spanos from many critics of American exceptionalism is that he spends a great deal of effort articulating a positive potential for social and political change in the concept of America as a “calling.” He combines the most severe criticism with an intense effort to elaborate a new kind of ethics and politics. In Melville’s fiction, for example, Spanos discovers not only the basis for a critique of exceptionalism but also the seeds of a “radical democratic dialogue about the unnamable sublimity of finite being.” Spanos draws a distinction between, on the one hand, the desire for an infinite expansion of American might, a sublime spectacle of terror deployed to combat terror, and, on the other hand, a democratic engagement with cultural, political, and social differences, a recognition of the fragility of life, an acknowledgment that pathos need not arise from the denial of vulnerability. Bartleby from Melville’s story of the same name and Slothrop from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) become emblematic figures of this alternative ethics and politics. Both figures enact a “revocation of every vocation,” or a refusal of those demands that guarantee life, well-being, and liberty only by incorporating individuals into an oppressive and exploitative political system.
When Bartleby insists, “I would prefer not to,” mildly refusing to obey his boss’s wishes, he suspends not a specific command but the very basis of command — the grammar, we might say, of that liberal-capitalist order in which freedom depends on submission to an often unexamined set of constraints, including the primacy of private property over public forms of governance, the discipline entailed by wage labor, and the conflation of representative politics such as voting with democracy as such. This “counter-mnemonic American tradition” (as Spanos describes it) not only renders inoperative the machinery of a dominant political order, it also cultivates a potentiality irreducible to the status quo; it institutes a welling up of possibility whose ultimate end might just be the coming of another world, the emergence of another social and political system.
We see this possibility in Pynchon’s great novel, in which the Zone — a strange, nation-less non-place in post–World War II Europe — gathers an assortment of social misfits (from oddballs dressed up as superheroes to anarchist revolutionaries) in order to demonstrate the feasibility and the vibrancy of a society without hierarchy, without institutionalized inequality, and without government. Notably, in none of these cases do we find a normative model. Neither Melville nor Pynchon articulates the positive potential of social and political alternatives as a set of prescriptions or dicta. Spanos puts the accent not on the form of this coming world but on the simple possibility of it — which is to say, on potentiality as such.
Spanos’s writing style — consistent across his many critical works — almost seems to imitate the bombast of American exceptionalism, with its long, ornate sentences that double-back on themselves, multiply parenthetical asides, and twist and turn toward new analytical expanses. This resemblance should be understood as homeopathic, however, a dose of poison that functions as a cure. Or perhaps it should be understood in terms of guerilla warfare: Spanos lurks in the shadows of his enemies, blending in, only to surprise them, exploding imperial logic from within its own structures. Although, in this latter formulation, we would want to note that, if Spanos wages war, he wages it against war itself. Spanos’s method is both immanent and critical. It unpacks the logic of the enemy only to dismantle the very premises that set friend and enemy in opposition to one another or that erect an imperial worldview by divvying up the globe into civilization and barbarism. In this way, Spanos’s writing takes after Bartleby, mimicking the propriety of dominant traditions (“I would prefer …”) only to overturn them (“… not to”).
This almost paradoxical method becomes quite evident in what might otherwise seem an odd inclusion within the book, an interview conducted by Christopher Spurlock regarding “the debate world and the making of the American political class.” In this appendix, Spanos criticizes forensics (specifically, the high school and college debate world) for its quality of detachment, its treatment of ideas and positions as if they were no more than pieces in a game of chess. Disinterested inquiry cannot help but assume an imperialist posture, for in its desire to overlook the world, to survey the realm of ideas from a sovereign vantage point, it overlooks the real difference that differences make, or the ways in which different points of view, different ideologies, constitute practical orientations, ways of relating to material conditions, as well as to other people. To be interested, Spanos reminds us, means to be “in the midst” (interest = inter esse, “in-the-midst-of-being”), which, conversely, means that to be disinterested implies a false transcendence, a pretend loftiness. Rather than occupying a position of pure reason, Spanos demonstrates a writing style no less engaged, no less critical, for its humility, its commitment to the world at hand. Within and against — such is Spanos’s intellectual disposition.
This uncanny, or “untimely,” inhabitation of a dominant social, political, and philosophical order also defines Spanos’s relationship to the scholarly field of American Studies. It is difficult to imagine Spanos as president of the American Studies Association or general editor of the journal American Quarterly. I do not mean this as a point of criticism. The stringency of Spanos’s thought seems to require the disposition of a misfit, a certain obliqueness in respect to academic discipline. This oblique relationship finds explicit expression in Chapter Three of Redeemer Nation, “‘The Center Will Not Hold’: The Widening Gyre of the New, New Americanist Studies,” which offers a sympathetic critique of recent trends in the field. Spanos contends that the investment in the transnational and the postnational evident in much recent scholarship results in an “overdetermination of the global over the local.” Current scholarship in American Studies devotes itself to recovering cultural artifacts, social movements, and political practices neglected by a critical gaze that anchors itself in the nation-state. However, in its desire to recuperate that which is beyond the nation, Spanos suggests, this “paradigm shift” overlooks the persistence of American exceptionalism, the still great force of its hold. In contrast, Spanos proposes that we live in “the occasion of the interregnum,” or the time “between a centered world (the nation-state and its intrinsic exceptionalism) that is dying, but, in the form of the United States, is willfully, desperately, and dangerously trying to remain alive, and a decentered world struggling to be born.” It is not that transnational, postnational, and even subnational are not significant. The problem is that the framing of critique in these terms can blind one to the continuing prominence of exceptionalism in organizing culture, society, and politics, for if “it is, of course, true that American exceptionalism is a myth,” “it is also true that this myth has produced reality, as the history of Indian removal in the nineteenth century, the Vietnam War, and, most recently, the unending War on Terror bear stark witness.” Spanos argues that we should take advantage of this interregnum between exceptionalism and that which is beyond, that we should seize onto this disorienting in-between time, this state of suspension between two orders of governance, to “envision a coming polis of the commons untethered to the sovereign and totalitarian center elsewhere.”
Spanos follows his method to its logical conclusion. Rather than advocate for an intellectual mode defined by opposition, by being against, Spanos (drawing on Edward Said) writes on behalf of an exilic consciousness that is simultaneously within and against, that derives its power not from transcending its critical object but from sapping it of its strength, from turning it over and overturning it, from chewing away at it like so many termites. That there are limitations to this method is without doubt: Spanos concerns himself almost exclusively with canonical or classical writers; he spends little time excavating social and political movements below the radar of the state; and his detailed attention to the violences of American exceptionalism does not seem to entail a recovery of the voices, memories, or histories of the peoples against whom these injustices have been perpetrated. To put it bluntly, Spanos risks constructing a countertradition that is no more than an echo of exceptionalism, the shadow that is not exceptionalism yet still belongs to it. That being said, Spanos’s relentless dedication to undermining exceptionalism demonstrates the power, if not the perfection, of a method that predicates critique not on opposition but on immanence, that discovers emancipatory potential in the belly of the proverbial beast.
For all of the critical and conceptual wealth on offer in Redeemer Nation, the book does suffer from a prominent absence. Although it manages with striking acuity to identify the potential for another world in the wreckage left by American exceptionalism, that potential remains largely negative, in the sense that it articulates itself as refusal, suspension, rendering inoperative, negation. For all of Spanos’s discussion of an interregnum, he does not elaborate the social forms or forms of life that would exist between domination and emancipation, between the contemporary liberal-capitalist-imperialist order and the world to come. In other words, he does not track the emergence of social movements, political organizations, or styles of subjectivity that would themselves be transitional. This is largely a consequence of the intellectual tradition on which Spanos draws — namely, an existentialist and deconstructive lineage running from Kierkegaard through Heidegger to Derrida and Agamben. This tradition valorizes that which is to come (or, in the case of Heidegger, that which once was). It takes to task the calculations of instrumental reason or the violence of logocentrism by calling on the impossible possibility of a justice to come, a democracy to come, a classless society to come, a community to come, and so on. It is as if the deconstructed binary oppositions of the world give way to an ultimate dichotomy, that between the worldly and the otherworldly, the “as is” and the “to come.”
Of course, each of these thinkers has each devised ways of circumventing this aporia, of bridging the gap between what is and what should be. Agamben — to touch on a crucial source for Spanos — conceptualizes this emancipatory third term as a “use” that suspends the distinctions between being and doing, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence. Use describes a potential that does not exhaust itself in the doing and that does not allow itself to be captured by either a determinate end (a teleology or entelechy) or a determinate subjectivity (an interpellation or calling). The political activity of recuperating use does not destroy or negate existence but rather turns existence toward a new use; it deactivates the reduction of potential to determinate ends and, in doing so, makes room for the coming of a new world. In this way of thinking, the abolition of private property, to take a paradigmatic example, should not be understood as the destruction of capitalist infrastructure. It should, instead, be understood as the latter’s deactivation and as the process of putting that infrastructure to a new use. This new use would not abide by the strictures of socialist planning. Five-year plans and productivity goals would give way to a proliferation of democratic communes in which the society to come takes shape in (rather than after or as a consequence of) anticapitalist practices.
There is a way in which Spanos recapitulates precisely this logic of immanence (what Agamben has called a “means without ends”) and, in doing so, overcomes the problem of the missing transition. The beyond of American exceptionalism approaches not as an afterward but as a potential in the midst of things, a detour that would bring imperialism tumbling down. At the same time, this overcoming is perhaps more of a sidestepping insofar as there remains an imbalance between the concrete detail in the critical examination of American exceptionalism (Spanos’s brilliant dissection of the War on Terror, for instance) and the much more rarefied and sparse accounts of emergent forms of life, resistant subjectivities, and revolts in the making. One could perhaps argue that this imbalance is a necessary consequence of any approach that refuses a normative or prescriptive model of ethics and politics. To grapple with these matters immanently means repudiating the desire to make an image of the society to come. It entails a certain humility on the part of the intellectual, a humility that affirms that another world is possible without trying to measure or circumscribe the shape of that world.
However, this justification stumbles against social movements such as Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter that already embody this potential for another world. These movements are distinct sets of social practices, subjectivities, and political strategies for simultaneously suspending the imperial and settler-colonial operations of American exceptionalism and crafting new ways of being in the new world — or, simply, new worlds. Spanos addresses these movements insofar as he opens a conceptual space for thinking their possibility, but he does not address them in the sense of working out the theoretical implications of their practices. It is as if there is a missing link in the circuit of Spanos’s thought between the sheer potentiality of the world to come and the actually existing practices bringing that world about.
Spanos’s Redeemer Nation in the Interregnum remains a brilliant speculation on the fate of American exceptionalism and a powerful call for insurrection and revolt. Its missed connection between potentiality and actuality, or theory and practice, should be understood as an invitation in at least two senses. First, it invites readers to expand on Spanos’s thought so that it includes contemporary social movements not merely as examples but as vital figures of the interregnum. These figures mediate between the ongoing disaster of exceptionalism and the possibilities harbored by its ruins. They enact the potentiality of another world without exhausting that potential. Second, Redeemer Nation transmits a desire for revolt. It does not succumb to what Walter Benjamin and, more recently, Wendy Brown have termed left-wing melancholy, or a too strong attachment to failure, missed opportunity, and a punishing sense of having fallen short of the revolutionary mark. Nor does Spanos satisfy himself with a pure leap into the unknown or the messianic irruption of the good. Instead, “antiexceptionalist witness” that he is, Spanos issues a call, not to redeem a nation, not even to redeem a people, but rather to recognize, cultivate, love, and revolt with a “profane humanity,” a “radically finite humanity.” To accept this call would be to depart from the shadow cast by angelic drones. It would be to construct another world from the burning ruins of this one.
Christian P. Haines is assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of articles in journals including Criticism, Genre, and Cultural Critique and contributing editor to Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities.