Conducted via email from August to October of this year, this interview with William V. Spanos discusses the long political and personal histories of the academic journal boundary 2, of which Spanos is a founding editor. It pays particular attention to the editorial shifts leading to Spanos’s ultimate dissociation from the journal as well as the evolving function of radical literary criticism within a contemporary political landscape.
Caleb Beckwith: For readers who may not be fully familiar with boundary 2, would you mind speaking to its founding and early years to start? And also, how would you say this focus has shifted in recent years?
William V. Spanos: I founded boundary 2 with the support of The Canadian novelist Robert Kroetsch, who was then teaching at SUNY Binghamton, in 1970, immediately on returning to the U.S. from a harrowing Fulbright Professorship at the University of Athens in Greece, where the military regime established by the coup of 1964 and supported by the Nixon administration was at the height of its brutal power. It was also at the time when the exceptionalist logic of the American government’s war in Vietnam was reaching its self-de-structive liminal point—a point epitomized by the assertion of one U.S. army official who said about the indiscriminate violence of the American response to the insurgent Vietnamese Tet Offensive that “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” It was that sense of the liminal point—when the benign exceptionalist logic determining the past bore irreparable witness to the massive indiscriminate violence intrinsic to it but could hitherto be disavowed as collateral damage—that it dawned on me that the prevailing Modernist mode of literary studies, the New Criticism—its fundamental insistence on the autotelic nature of poesis—had come to its breaking point, and disclosed the urgent need for an radically alternative understanding of literature that attended to it worldly imperatives, a “post-modern” understanding, whatever that meant.
This leads me to the interesting origins of our new journal’s title. In the historical context I have described Bob Kroetsch and I felt strongly that the autotelic logic of Modernism and its New Critical allotrope had run its course and, in so doing, revealed its complicity with the political world it eschewed in the name of its unworldly formalism. We felt in this fraught historical context that contemporary humanity had crossed over a boundary that separated a dying, if not dead, old world from an uncertain new post-modern world struggling to be born. And on the basis of this strong sense of having crossed such a boundary, we decided, following the example of Transition, the British journal that had inaugurated and sponsored the Modernist literary/ critical initiative, to call the journal “Transition 2.” On checking out a library copy of this journal, however—it’s luxurious professional format—we felt that it would be presumptuous on our part to identify our amateur and manually produced project with it. But a solution came accidental to hand. At that time I was reading the great German existentialist philosopher Karl Jasper’s Way to Wisdom, where he introduced the existentialist concept of the “ultimate situation”, which, in German was rendered Grenzsituation: boundary situation. That sense of crossing a boundary, of a liminal point of the preceding culture, immediately solved our problem: we decided to call our journal boundary 2: a journal of postmodern literature. (It was, not incidentally the first literary journal to use the word postmodern in its title.)
The inaugural issue and the third (1972 and, 1973) were devoted to the question of the meaning of the postmodern in literature. The results were mixed but a few of those essays, such as Edward Said’s “Michel Foucault as an Intellectual Imagination,” Joseph Riddel’s “Interpreting Stevens: An Essay on Poetry and Thinking,” Charle Altieri’s “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics, and my ” The Detective and Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination”) eventually achieved classic status in this endeavor. In addressing the question the postmodern in literature, I and Kroetsch, like the French existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, overdetermined the subjective implications of Martin Heidegger’s de-struction of the onto-theological tradition, his retrieval of temporal existence from the the metaphysical thinking—thinking meta- ta-physika: from after or above things-as-they-are—privileged by this Western philosophical tradition. Following this existentialist reversal of the Western principle of knowledge production, that essence precedes existence, our primary purpose, more specifically, was to wrest Anglo-American literature from the prevailing Modernist or New Critical center, a center that rendered literary representation autotelic, a formal—unworldly—inclusive construct, and to return it to the realm of radical temporality: the world.
Under the influence of the French existentialist interpretation of Heidegger’s “existential analytic” in Being and Time, we initially overdetermined the ontological and subjective implications for literature of the de-struction of the Western ontotheological tradition by way of privileging novels such as Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger; absurdist plays like Ionesco’s Victims of Duty, and Harold Pinter’s ( ); and anti-Modernist poetry like Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Robert Creeley’s Pieces, in which the writers, in opposition to the Modernists’ willful effacement of history and human agency, were attempting to retrieve the existential self from the oblivion to which it had relegated it. Eventually, however, we began to realize that the “existentialist” solution, however, promising, was inadequate. The determining insight into this inadequacy was our realization that the be-ing of being disclosed by the de-structuration of the Western metaphysical tradition was, in fact, an indissoluble continuum ranging from the ontological and subjective sites, through culture, gender, race, and ethnicity, to the more worldly economic, social, and political sites, that wherever a writer situated his/ her representation, he/she was also implicating all the other sites on this continuum.
This realization came to us initially by way of Michel Foucault’s appropriation of Heidegger’s de-struction of the ontotheological tradition into the realm of politics—his diagnosis of the panoptic disciplinary society—and, especially, Edward Said’s devastating critique of the panopticism of Western Orientalism. Directed by this insight, we invited a number of young scholars, deeply influenced by Foucault and Said—my former student Paul Bové, Dan O’Hara, Michael Hays, Jonathan Arac, Donald Pease, and Cornel West—to join our editorial board. The result of these additions—and Kroetsch’s departure from Binghamton to return to his Canadian roots (Alberta)—was a decisive visible shift of the journal’s emphasis on the onto-subjective (existential) site to the more obvious political or, in Said’s language, “worldly” sites on the continuum of being. Under the aegis of this worldly orientation, boundary 2 inaugurated two related projects that went against the grain of the “disinterested” editorial policies of American academic literary journals: the publication of critical essays 1) on American, European, and postcolonial literature that were overtly critical of the Western exceptionalist imperial tradition, and 2) of essays, attuned to the American allotrope of this exceptionalism, that called its nationalist perspective into question. Following the directives of Foucault’s critique of the Western panoptic disciplinary society, and especially Said’s extension of Foucault’s revolutionary insights into the domain of the global, the journal began pursuing an editorial policy that was intended to transnationalize exceptionalist American nationalism. For me, at least, this important second editorial initiative was instigated primarily by Edward Said’s diagnosis of the post-imperial era, which, in pointing to the figure of the refugee or migrant as the paradigmatic figure of this post-imperial world, he referred to as an in-between time—what I interpreted as an interregnum between a world, the nation-state, that was dying (though by no means dead, as the example of the United States testified) and a new, alternative world struggling to be born. Following Said’s directives, the editorial board of boundary 2 inaugurated a post-national initiative that would globalize the traditional nationalist and exceptionalist perspective of virtually all the American literary critical journals. The epitome of this initiative was the two ground-breaking boundary 2 volumes edited by Donald Pease, New Americanists: Revisioinst Interventions in the Canon (1990).
Caleb, this is where your second question comes in.
In 1987, after seventeen years, I gave up the editorship of b2 to my brilliant and deeply engaged former student Paul Bové, who had previously been my assistant editor. My stepping down was not an easy decision. It was he result of having become tired of dealing with a university administration that, despite the journal’s achievement of national and international visibility, was reluctant to provide the minimal financial support the publication of the journal required. So when the director of Duke University Press offered to take over its publication to Paul Bové, I not only authorized Paul to negotiate the transfer, but transferred the editorship to him, though I would continue as a member of the editorial collective that was to replace the previous single editorship.
From the time, when the journal came to combine the ontological and political perspectives under the influence of Edward Said’s call for a more “worldly” criticism to several years after Bové assumed the managing editorship of an editorial collective, the editorial policy of the journal continued to publish literary criticism and theory that reflected its foundational commitment 1) to the indissoluble relationality of the ontological and political sites on the continuum of being, and 2) to the idea that it was an oppositional American journal dedicated to transnationalizing the long-standing nationalist perspective of American literary studies—the exceptionalist perspective epitomized by the so called Myth and Symbol school identifiable with such figure as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and R. W. B. Lewis. In pursuit of this post-nationalist editorial policy, we added both young and established prestigious scholars to the editorial collective and the advisory board whose critical perspective was global in the hope that this dialogue between the local and the global would contribute to the transnationalization of American literature, culture, and politics. To register this editorial initiate we replaced the original subtitle of te journal, “a journal of postmodern literature” by “an international journal of literature and culture.”
The immediate result, I, for one, thought, was a recharging of the journal’s editorial blurring sense of identity. It was at this stage, I think, that, under the influence of the new postcolonial scholars, that boundary 2 began to establish an international reputation for publishing literary and theoretical critical essays that were at the forefront of the nascent interrogation of the Western nation-state system and the global colonialism it fostered.
In the process, however, two indissolubly related controversial issues, both having to do with Edward Said’s influence on the editorial policy of the journal, came to the fore that split the editorial collective. One was the issue of Said’s critique of the alleged “anti-humanism’ of the poststructuralists, a critique epitomized by his ground-breaking essay “Reflections on American ‘Left’ Criticism,” (1983), originally delivered at a b2 conference on “The Problems of Readng in Contemporary American Criticism” at Binghamton in 1978. The other was the issue of what Said meant by his espousal of Goethe’s concept of world literature (Weltliteratur). The newer members of the editorial collective interpreted Said’s criticism of the anti-humanism of the poststructuralists, particularly the deconstructionists, as a tacit rejection of Said’s Vichian humanist notion that humans make their own history in the name of an unworldly textuality. And they interpreted Said’s espousal of Weltliteratur as an outright call for the abandonment of Western literary criticism’s focus on nationalist literature. The minority of the editorial collective, of which I was one, read the Saidian critique of poststructuralist anti-humanism, not as a rejection of poststructuralism as such, but as a call for its focalization of the worldly implications of its deconstruction of the Western humanist tradition. Analogously, this minority read Said’s call Goethean call for world literature, not as the abandonment of concern for national literatures, but as one, attuned to the in-between time—the interregnum, precipitated by the implosion of the Western imperial project—that perceived the nation-state system (the local) and global as belonging together. Those of us in this minority recalled the concluding chapter of Culture and Imperialism where Said pointedly wrote:
It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialist, has now shifted from thee settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the poltical figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages.
In the end, the first group, which included Paul Bové, carried the day. They put their “worldly” orientation in a binary opposition to the “unworldliness” of poststructuralism and, in the process, marginalized the previous focus of the journal on the dialectical tension between the national and the global in favor of the global as such. One of the most significant symptoms of this total globalizing initiative was the inordinately disproportionate space the journal came to devote to China.
As the spokesperson of the minority, I was not indifferent to the position of the majority. I, too, of course, was committed to delegitimizing the hegemony of the exceptionalist nationalism of American literary studies. But I also, felt strongly that the overdermination of world literature was a misreading of Said and disablingly premature. And this feeling was exacerbated in the wake of the United States’ declaration of its unilateral global war on terror in the wake of 9/11/01. I mean the “redemptive” exceptionalist initiative of the George W. Bush administration that justified the concept of preemptive war, regime change (the imposition of ventriloquized governments on “rogue states” like Afghanistan and Iraq), and the indiscriminate killing and/or deracination of civilian populations; in short, the rendering of the state of exception the global rule in the name national or homeland security. As a consequence, I resigned from the editorial collective and severed my decades-long relation to the journal I help to found. Needless to say, it was not an easy decision, given the fundamental role the journal had played in sustaining my intellectual life. But the fact is that I had come to feel that, in the eyes the editorial collective, I had become an anachronism, or, even worse, an anachronistic monument.
CB: In response to these first two questions, Bill, I hear you weaving several interrelated narratives. The first of which is the political motivations behind b2’s founding, which seems to have been felt so acutely by the journal’s now long line of editorial staff that it—over several phases—ultimately dissolved the original group altogether. For me at least, the second phase of b2’s history seems to evoke a very familiar academic narrative—the move away from theory associated with continental philosophy and towards transnational/world literature as the primary site of radical thought.
More specifically, You mention that b2 was founded a) as an antidote to the “autotelic logic of Modernism and it New Critical allotrope” and b) upon an “existentialist reversal of the Western principle of knowledge production, that essence precedes existence,” an attitude growing out of Heidegger and several notable interlocutors (Sartre, Camus, de Beauvois, Merleau-Ponty). With this in mind, I’m wondering if you could speak a bit to the tools with which you (very successfully, it seems) resisted the New Criticism’s hegemonic presence. In other words, what was it about philosophy/theory that made these tools seem most useful in realizing your editorial agenda? Was it simply a dialectical turn away from the New Criticism’s insistence upon the so-called text itself that drew you to these “external” discourses, or something more? I’m particularly interested in knowing if these fields’ philosophical modes of ratiocination seemed particularly apt/useful within that particular time and culture, and, if so, whether they (philosophy and critical theory) still strike you as the most useful tools of analysis.
WVS: My and Bob Kroetsch’s initial revisionary attitude toward literature and American literary criticism was not restricted to the autotelic formalism of the New Criticism. It was also directed toward the older historical criticism that the New Criticism claimed it was surpassing. In the ominous context of the rapidly imploding Western global hegemony, particularly as borne witness to by the U.S’s brutal conduct of the Vietnam War, we saw the New Criticism, not as the New Critics did as a radical break with the former, but, in fact, as the ultimate fulfillment of its commitment to the traditional “realist” literature of closure. The traditional historicists privileged the Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end structure to give temporality its due. But in so doing it only obscured the fact that, in privileging the resolving End—an end that is there, present, from the beginning—it subordinated transient time to static structure. Thus, the modernist—and New Critical commitment—to autotelic structure or, in Joseph Frank’s phrase, “spatial form”—a form that transforms time into spatial structure—was not the epistemic break it was represented to be, but the fulfillment of the spatializing or structuralizing logic of the Western literary tradition, a liminal point that disclosed the hitherto disavowed violent that this Western literary tradition has done to the differences that temporality always already disseminates. It was this disclosure at the liminal point of the imperial spatializing logic of Western narrative that enabled us to perceive this liminal moment as a boundary line that brought the end-oriented logic of Western literature to its self- destructive end and the urgency of retrieving the positive possibilities of temporality for literary production. Or, more specifically, a literary “form” that served to compel the reader into engagement with the world of time, rather than, as in the case of the Western literary tradition, enabling the reader to escape “it’s” decision-demanding complexities: the Aristotealian concept of catharsis.
What came immediately to hand for this truly revolutionary project was not only, as I said previously, the emergent de-structive philosophical discourse of Nietzsche and Heidegger that had as its purpose the retrieval of time—historicity—from the oblivion to which it had been relegated by Western metaphysical thinking . (I remember to this day a prestigious English Department colleague of mine saying to me one day in a reprehensible tone, “Bill, what has philosophy got to do with literature?”) What was also immediately at hand to provide directives for our project was the then emergent literature of engagement of the French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Natalie Sarraute, and the absurdist dramatists such Eugène Ionesco and Harold Pinter. As Ionesco said, somewhere—I think it was at the beginning of Rhinoceros—”Every play in the Western tradition since Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos has been detective story. . .”
I mean, to put this complex literary initiative all too simply, a literature that was deliberately intended to draw out the reader/spectator’s deeply inscribed desire for closure only to frustrate it in the “end” and thus to compel the reluctant reader out of his/her safe distant panoptic location and into the destructive element, or, in Kierkegaard’s then resonant terms, in order to assign the reader to him or her existential self. In short, a “post-modern” literature.
CB: I’m also wondering, especially in your telling of b2’s second phase, if you see the journal as a metonymy for a larger academic shift away from theory and towards what you describe as “national literatures,” rather than the seemingly generative spaces located between them? The second phase of your narrative cannot help but assume this structure for me as an individual whose university education began six years after 9/11—when as you describe it, the “new” disposition was firmly in place. Regardless, how do you situate the editorial shakeups at b2 within a larger academic narrative? This question pertains to both phases of its history, though I ask it primarily of the second.
It also seems to me that whatever the immediate cause of the break around your disparate readings of Said, the division at b2 proved much more practical than ideological. In other words, clearly you all shared a critique of American exceptionalism in all its manifestations, but you seem to disagree on the preferred means of resisting this force in text. I wonder, then, if you could speak a bit more to these two approaches in radical thought? For instance, behind your description of “national literatures” I hear a lingering anxiety over the cultivation of any nationalism, even if it might ultimately undermine the American empire—specifically considering your earlier mention of China here. Is this a fair assessment?
WVS: Yes, it’s fair to say that the split between me and the majority of the b2 editorial collective in the post-9/11 age was a matter of degree. But this matter of degree should not be seen as a minor matter. Both sides were committed to making boundary 2, an American literary journal, into an engaged post-national or transnational agency of information dissemination. But, as I said, earlier, I, following Said’s insistence that the post-imperial age was an in-between time, what I call an interregnum, a time between the waning but not yet the demise of the nation-state system and its identitarian logic of belonging and a new alternative world struggling to be born. And the US’s unending exceptionalist (nationalist) war on terror in the wake of 9/11 made it patently clear to me that nothing had changed since Said’s diagnosis in the early 1990s.
The dominant contingency of the b2 editorial collective, on the other hand, came, in my mind, eventually to believe the American Century had run it course and was over. So it shifted the journal’s editorial focus almost entirely away from the critique of nationalism to explore the political potential of the global. And this despite the US’s ongoing and seemingly unending exceptionalist war on “Islamic terror.” It was that virtually absolute separation that I found, as I have said, troublingly premature. This, I want to make clearer than I have, was not only because the American Century was far from over, as the American exceptionalist errand in the global “wilderness,” particularly the Middle East, continues to bear witness. It was also because, in abandoning the local or national concept of identity, this global orientation, like its counterpart, the World Literature initiative—I’m thinking of American critics like Wai Che Dimock, Laurence Buell, David Damrosch, and Bryant Edwards among many others, who have followed the lead of Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova—abandoned the unfinished theoretical project of diagnosing the contemporary global occasion. I not only mean the limitations of the logic of belonging of the nation-state, particularly of its American exceptionalist avatar, but also, and, in a way more important, the related positive possibilities vis a vis the coming community inhering precisely in those marginalized others that the logic of belonging of the nation-state has perennially rendered “migrants (Said) ” superfluous,” “stateless,” (Arendt) “ungrievable”(Butler). “the part of no part,” (Rancière), “bare life,” and so on.
This leads to the second part of your question: my alleged resistance to all nationalisms. boundary2’s globalization of its editorial project under the editorship of Paul Bové, as I said earlier, insofar as it has allied itself to the World Literature movement, would seem to opt for a vision of the coming polis that erases specific identities—national, racial, gender, ethnic, and so—in favor, apparently, of one common human identical whole. In this purely global perspective, I saw, therefore, the danger of inadvertently backing into a version of the very identitarian image of the human that their worldliness would escape, a transcendent—and unworldly—identical whole that erases the very real particular identities—male, female, black, white, English, French, American, Chinese, Arab, and so on produced in and by history. On the other hand, my vision of the coming community as the editor of boundary 2 was, following the implicit directives of Edward Said’s vision of the post-nation-state as ‘ the complete concert dancing together’ contrapuntally,” a community of identityless identities. I mean a commons in which the historically constructed identities remain but, in which, as in Giorgio Agamben’s remarkably similar vision of the coming community as Said’s, the deadly friend/foe binary—the violence endemic to this identitarian nation-state logic of belonging—is rendered inoperative. Indeed, these historical identities, these identityless identities—non-Jewish Jew, non-Palestinian Palestinian, for example—enter into a loving strife, an Auseinandersetzung, that always already deepens and expands each pole’s identityless identity’s perspective. When the global perspective become total, as seems the case of the World Literature movement, it becomes paradoxically unworldly an d untimely. We humans are denied our radical humanity: that finite condition, that interesse, that always being-in-the- midst of the difference—the time of the now—that makes a difference in the world.
CB: Could you say more about what I read as your primary concern, then, the current focus on national literatures? Is your difference from boundary 2 here political (i.e. differing forms of radicalism)? Or simply aesthetic—that you simply find the said work less moving or affectively compelling in the immediate ways we all understand?
WVS: By my concern with national literatures, I take you to mean my criticism of a critical perspective that, in its exclusively nationalist focus, is more or less indifferent to how that national focus—American exceptionalism, for example—impacts on the world beyond. At any rate, it’s precisely that anti-aesthetic “political” orientation, one inaugurally compelled, as I said earlier, by the unworldly aestheticism of Modernism which was replacing the previous nationalist historicism at the catastrophic time we founded the journal, that Kroetsch and I opted for. Eventually, as I’ve also said, our worldly editorial perspective became increasingly political. Our purpose was not, as you seem to imply, to return to the old literary nationalism of the “Myth and Symbol” school, but, on the contrary, to think the national site from a global perspective, from the perspective of the victims of American exceptionalism. Our editorial purpose, to put it in terms of your question was not only to show that both the realism of the historicism of the Myth and Symbol school and the New Criticism that was replacing it were both not only political but politically conservative .
As far as my conflict with the b2 editorial collective in the late 1990s and particularly after 9/11/01 is concerned, it had little to do with the issue of the conflict between the aesthetic and the political. Both my perspective and that of the b2 collective was/is political. Mine, however, as I have insistently said, was committed to the political imperatives of the interregnum. My opponents’ was, and continues to be, committed to the political imperatives of the global. It was, however, my view, right or wrong, that, in the name of worldliness, this latter global perspective, independent of the national, like the “World Literature” movement, rendered literature unworldly, if not exactly aesthetic. And in so doing it betrays Edward Said’s diagnosis of the contemporary occasion as an in-between time and the indirect form of resistance that constitutes its imperative in the name of Said.
CB: I follow your final point about Said here, and find in it an occasion to look outside b2 for different sorts of literary politics. I wonder, since the above described turn towards “the political imperatives of the global,” do you still find work dealing with the “political imperatives of the interregnum” to which you remain committed? In other words, have any additional journals taken up this cause in b2’s absence from the field? Or, by your estimation, has that critical modality become collateral damage in the conflict you describe?
WVS: No, I know of no journal in the Anglo-American world that addresses the question of the interregnun and the implications for resistance and the coming community that it entails. One possible exception is Symplokē under editorship of Jeffrey Di Leo. Most literary and theoretical journals in the United States do not have a political agenda. Their editorial orientation, even those committed to theory, in keeping with the “disinterestedness “of the liberal democratic tradition, is not seen to be ideological; it remains informational. I don’t think the editors of contemporary American literary journals have learned much from the revolution in thinking and political theory enacted by the poststructuralists in the1970s and 1980s, which disclosed disinterested inquiry to be ideological. They still perceive their mission as informing their humanist readers about what is current—and thus maintain the status quo—not changing minds in a benighted world in which, as the policies of the Obama administration in the Middle East bears sad witness, mind-changing is an urgent task.
The very few journals, like boundary 2, that do have a political agenda, as I have said, are overdetermining the Weltliteratur initiative. Taking their editorial directives, no doubt, from such prestigious recent literary/critical theorists as Franco Morretti and Pascale Casanova—I am specifically referring to what Moretti revealingly calls “distant reading” (in opposition the “close reading” he opposes)—they spatialize the historicity of the texts they examine, read the local from the distanced global perspective, and, In my view, from that immense distance greatly minimize if not entirely efface, the immediate and local. This, it should be made clear in a way your question does not quite, is a political agenda undertaken from a left-oriented position, but, as I have said, it is one that from its panoptic perspective seems to inadvertently re-impose the very onto-political totalitarianism, both right and left, it was the purpose of the poststructuralist revolution at its most perceptive, as in the case of Edward Said, to delegitimize. I mean the “evental” revolution in thinking that, as I have recently observed , is now being revived by post-poststructuralist theorists such a Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, Slavoj Žižek, among others, who are attempting to think the political (the worldly) imperatives for resistance and the coming community of the poststructuralist destruction of the Truth of the Western onto-theo-logical tradition, the urgent task that, for whatever reasons, the latter left unfinished. What, I think, is fundamental to this promising post-postructuralist theoretical initiative is that, like the Said I have invoked, it perceives the contemporary occasion—I use this word in its resonant etymological sense: immediately from the Latina occidere: “to go down, to set” (as in the setting of the sun) from which the word “Occident” derives, and ultimately from cadere” to die, to perish—as an in-between time. I mean, to repeat, an interregnum, in which the waning of the nation-state system in the form of an exceptionalist America that is attempting a last ditch reclamation of its determinative hegemonic status in a destabilized global world in which the victims of the nation-state system—the “uncounted” in a system where what counts is determined by capital (Badiou), the “part of no part” (Rancière), those who have been reduced to “bare life” (Agamben), the “ungrievable “(Butler)—are seeking an alternative polity from that produced by the identitarian logic of belonging that victimized them. This is the contemporary theoretical initiative I would have pursued were I the editor of boundary 2. It is, not incidentally, this initiative that, above all, the present b2 editorial collective is most consistently critical of by way of interpreting—erroneously, in my mind—its emphasis on what Badiou calls the “eventality of the event” as “apocalyptic” or messianic,” a negation of history. One of the great personal ironies concerning my alienation from boundary 2 when it abandoned the national for the global, or, rather, their relationality, is that it was none other than Paul Bové who introduced me to the word “interregnum” when I was seeking for a name adequate to Edward Said’s diagnosis of the post-imperial occasion as an in-between time.
CB: Before we conclude, would you care to further contextualize these approaches (what you term the “interregnum” and “relationality”) within the current political sphere? Of course, the present wars in Iraq and Syria grow out of the post 9/11 climate you describe earlier, but I wonder how, if at all, the latest rhetoric surrounding ISIS and the United States’ most current international invasion add to this long and developed narrative?
WVS: Caleb, I’m glad you asked me this last question, since the very raison d’être of this interview has to do with the illumination of the volatile global muddle that has been precipitated by the American Exceptionalist ethos at the liminal point of the development of its logic of belonging. What is especially striking about the United States’ most recent policy in the Middle East—it’s war on ISIS (Islamic State in Syria) terror—and the American media’s ventriloquized representation of this initiative is its continuing blindness to the catastrophic global consequences of its redemptive errand. Given the massive and decisive counter-historical witness to this perennial American redemptive mission disclosed by the New Americanist scholarship, it seems inconceivable that the American political class (both Republicans and Democrats), can continue to represent its policy in the Middle East as an errand of redemption in the world’s wilderness. Yet it is in the name of this American Exceptionalist ethos that the war against ISIS terror continues to be waged by the US.
The consequence of the blindness of the American exceptionalist insight—and this is the second point I want to make about your question—is that the US is, in fact, producing the very monster it, in its Exceptionalist paranoia, is imagining. The ultimate result: the whipping up of a spectacular hysteria about “Homeland Security” that renders the state of exception the rule, a condition in which, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has chillingly put it, human life, becomes bare life, life, both beyond American borders and within them, that can be killed without this killing be called murder. This bereavement of our speech and, therefore, a polity, finally, is why, for me, thinking the interregnum is an urgent historical necessity that has yet to be adequately undertaken. However weakened by its practical consequences, the “American Century,” as the intellectual deputies of the George W. Bush Administration put the US’s errand to point to its end in the Pax Americana, is by no means over. Nor has its precipitation to center stage of “the part of no part,” “the ungrievable,” the “uncountable in a world where what counts is determined by capital” been adequately thought in the name of the coming community.
William V. Spanos is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative literature at SUNY-Binghamton and a founding editor of boundary 2: a journal of postmodern literature and culture, which he edited from 1970 to 1987. He is the author of over a hundred essays and many books on subjects ranging from modernist and postmodernist literature, poststructuralist theory, and New Americanist Studies. The books he has published in that area most pertinent to this interview are: Heidegger and Criticism: Retrieving the Cultural Politics of Destruction (Minnesota University Press, 1993); The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism (Minnesota University Press, 1993); The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies(Duke University Press. 1995); America’s Shadow: An Anatomy of Empire(Minnesota University Press, 2000): American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam (SUNY Press, 2008); Herman Melville and the American Calling: The Fiction after Moby-Dick, 1851-1857 (SUNY Press, 2008); In the Neighborhood of Zero: A World War II Memoir (Nebraska University Press , 2010); The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011);Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court(Dartmouth College Press, 2013. Forthcoming books include Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative: A William V. Spanos Reader, edited by Daniel O’Hara and Donald E. Pease (Northwestern University Press, 2015) and Redeemer Nation: An Untimely Meditation on the American Vocation(Fordham University Press, 2015).