Security and Terror: American Culture and the Long History of Colonial Modernity, by Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Stuart Schrader is reminded how likely we are to be led astray if we accept state discourse at face value

October 11, 2018
Barred window at Fort Nelson, Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth
Source: Alamy

I’ve seen a prison abolitionist use a powerful thought experiment. She asks an audience to envision a place of safety, serenity and security. You make a mental image of, say, your grandmother’s house. The speaker then asks: how many in the crowd pictured a prison guard or a barred window? Inevitably, the answer is zero. Who imagined a cop with a nightstick? A soldier with night-vision goggles? No one. Why, then, do we organise our societies to be secured by agencies designed to terrorise?

The wager of Eli Jelly-Schapiro’s Security and Terror is that to eliminate terror, we must eliminate security as well. Broader than institutions of security or terrorist acts, security and terror are organising technologies of modern politics. They have been conjoined since modernity’s birth. They share an aetiology: colonialism. Furthermore, Jelly-Schapiro argues that security bears an “elemental” relation to capital, race and emergency. And terror similarly bears an elemental relation to imperial power: as its pretext, method and often the mode of resistance to it. These two dialectical triplets frame his analysis.

Representative of the interdisciplinary field of American studies, Security and Terror demonstrates how tightly braided colony and metropole remain. Security techniques invented overseas frequently reverberate at home, diminishing political freedom. Security does not vanquish terror so much as “elide” it as the foundation and actual form of security’s enactment. If the omnipresent discourse of security offers each new variant (eg, national security, homeland security, information security, etc) as the antidote to each supposedly novel threat, the final perfection of the instruments of security is nowhere within reach. The cure is actually the disease.

Jelly-Schapiro avoids institutional history, although he gestures fruitfully towards the quick transformation of the American New Deal social security state into the national security state and then the homeland security state. With a lucid and accessible tour of political theory, informed by theorists of decolonisation and capitalism such as Walter Benjamin, Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James and Henri Lefebvre, he prepares his readers for astute interpretations of several recent fictional texts and films, by Roberto Bolaño, Teju Cole, Junot Díaz and others. The book is cultural studies at its best, highlighting how likely we are to be led astray if we accept state discourse at face value. Narrative fiction crafted in the post-9/11 moment of neoliberal capital accumulation illustrates that terror is no atavism. Security is not its overcoming. The twinning of security and terror is “the contemporary iteration of a colonial rationality” that conditions modern social life. It did not arise with the Twin Towers’ fall.

Security and Terror mobilises a genealogical method, drawing out preconditions for this two-faced phenomenon without positing specific anterior causes. But in explicitly abjuring causal arguments (although embedding some occasionally), the author sacrifices some explanatory power. He wants to avoid making security’s attachment to terror seem inevitable, or to craft history as a linear sequence of events. But the past cogenesis of technologies cannot be opposed tomorrow without identifying wilful actors today. Security and terror have always gone together, but concrete coordinates shift. Analysing why, and at whose behest, is imperative. Otherwise, I wonder how security’s terror could finally be eliminated for the first time since 1492.

Stuart Schrader is lecturer of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.


Security and Terror: American Culture and the Long History of Colonial Modernity
By Eli Jelly-Schapiro
University of California Press
232pp, £66.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780520295377 and 5384
Published 11 May 2018

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