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Johannes Voelz, The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017), 256 pp.:

Johannes Voelz, The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017), 256 pp.

In Johannes Voelz’s The Poetics of Insecurity, “security” is a bad word, but not for the usual reasons. In what has become something of a critical orthodoxy, security usually registers as a devious ideology, a strategy of state-sponsored fear-mongering, a vector of antidemocratic politics, and a justification for preemptive violence. It is not so much that Voelz thinks security is entirely something else, but he certainly thinks that view has become, well, too secure. Too secure, that is, in the conventional sense of stable and safe, permanent and reliable, certain and predictable. The main contribution of this wide-ranging and thought-provoking book is to challenge that orthodoxy, to make security insecure, and in doing so, to show that security may have a different kind of hold on people than they probably like to think.

Focusing on United States fiction from the late eighteenth century to the early 2000s, The Poetics of Insecurity traces what Voelz calls the “uses of uncertainty” in literary narratives from Charles Brockden Brown to Don DeLillo, with Harriet Jacobs, Willa Cather, and Flannery O’Connor arrayed between (28). Security, Voelz argues, is not only a disciplinary apparatus of the state, and not only the internalized imperative of homo economicus, but also a dialectical relationship between fear and freedom from fear. In his view, the desire for security stems from more than just a craving for safety, for it is always bound up with the eerie allure of threat. Security is hard to separate from insecurity, according to Voelz, which turns out to be part of its appeal. This line of thinking has something in common with recent critical interventions that have, in various ways, found something salutary in some forms of insecurity, such as Judith Butler’s account of precariousness, with its egalitarian and communitarian potential.1 In its strongest statements on the topic, The Poetics of Insecurity goes even further, and even suggests that insecurity facilitates a “conversion from weakness to power” that proves “enormously gratifying” and genuinely enabling, though more for individuals than for collectives (31).

The Poetics of Insecurity observes this logic of insecurity in a wide range of literary narratives, mostly novels, that span two centuries but are limited to American authors. Brown marks the very end of the eighteenth century, Jacobs alone speaks from the nineteenth, and Cather, O’Connor and DeLillo round out the long twentieth. This is a refreshing departure from narrow period specialization, and the source of significant critical insight. It also raises difficult questions. Authors this widely and unevenly distributed should not be seen as representative of any historical period, and the book in no way purports to be a history in the conventional sense. As a result, The Poetics of Insecurity often reads more like a theoretical account of post-Enlightenment security, one generalizable well beyond its national scope. Security may look different in the contexts of Brown’s republican virtue and O’Connor’s Cold War liberalism, but it seems to function roughly the same in both. As a result, security for Voelz often seems to be an enduring and largely inescapable cultural formation, like capitalism or colonialism, rather than a discrete and highly changeable product of particular historical moments.

And yet, there is also a compelling historical argument holding these exhibits together. According to Voelz, these American sources appreciate the insecurity of security because they live in an especially non-hierarchical “post-rank” society characterized by a remarkable amount of instability and mobility (17). At the extreme, such conditions lead “to a general loss of the reality principle and the self-destabilization of the system,” as everyone gambles on an uncertain future (18). By this line of argument, American writers understood insecurity better than most because, from a very early date, they could not achieve security by any other means. That may be, but it pays to remember that even though U.S. society did forego most forms of hereditary rank, it also developed African slavery into the strictest and most vicious hereditary rank of all. Similarly, the national mythology of meritocratic class mobility is not easy to square with dramatic and persistent class inequalities, which have long exceeded those in many western European countries. American social mobility has often been exaggerated, especially by Americans. Voelz’s line of argument is most persuasive when it takes an economic turn, as it sometimes does. Even though Brown and Jacobs live in political conditions very different from those of Cather, O’Connor, and DeLillo, they all might be said to respond not just to democratic instability but also to the capitalist abstraction and volatility that flourished alongside it.

Voelz is clear that he wants to “move beyond the binary of resistance and co-optation,” but some readers may find themselves wondering whether these works’ enthusiasm for insecurity might not be symptoms of capitalism too (183). For instance, Voelz’s excellent chapter on O’Connor and Cold War rationalism insightfully positions her as a religiously inflected ally of anticommunist intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling. Their suspicion of the “radical rationality” associated with both communist states and progressive welfare policies entailed a preference for more unsettled ways of living (131). For them, security-as-rationality was the greatest danger of all, and alternatives often registered as versions of freedom. Fair enough as intellectual history. That line of thinking might even be traced back through John Dewey to an earlier generation of American pragmatists, who would generally agree.

The question, as other critics of security have wondered, is whether institutions and even states might propagate that kind of thinking for their own ends, and in contexts far more mundane than national defense.2 The insurance industry sponsors a view of the world as radically uncertain, but it does so mainly to sustain its own profitable administration of loss. Government warnings about food safety purport to make people more secure, but largely by making them aware of how unable they are to protect themselves. This results in a dubious kind of empowerment, at best. The Poetics of Insecurity teases a great deal of nuance from its literary sources, but one sometimes wishes for slightly more attention to the ways in which the kinds of insecurity it deems empowering relate to state and institutional sources. Voelz is committed to moving beyond the “culture of fear” thesis found in much recent work in security studies, which proves to be a productive turn. However, it might be even more productive if his dialectical understanding of security and insecurity extended beyond individuals and back to institutions and even states. That could unsettle the monolithic view of security as a top-down discipline, not by focusing on individual experience instead of institutional context, but by attending to the ways in which even the most settled centers of power might also be prone to the destabilizing dialectics of security.

The Poetics of Insecurity is perhaps most impressive as a diagnosis of a long-standing literature of insecurity that nobody has defined until now. With beautiful writing and subtle, discerning close reading, it identifies a kind of narrative devoted to the experiences of people living under conditions of social and economic upheaval, but who remain decidedly ambivalent about it. Most of the characters end up like Eric Packer in DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, whose hostility to security amounts neither to an easy affirmation nor rejection of capitalism. Like the other works studied in this insightful book, Cosmopolis perverts security, and thereby fosters philosophical and ethical reflection on a term too easily taken for granted. Voelz’s book suggests that everyone is caught in a world in which the apparent good of security is infected by its threatening opposite, which is the same as a world in which the rebellious thrill of insecurity might have been compulsory from the start. By taking seriously the experience of people who live in the jaws of that predicament, The Poetics of Insecurity makes it plain that even the most knowing critics—like so many of these chastened characters—might not be able to tell security and insecurity apart.

Jason R. Puskar (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)


[1]  Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004). See also Bryan Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2006). On American literary versions, see Jason Puskar, Accident Society: Fiction, Collectivity and the Production of Chance (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012)

[2]  See Giorgio Agamben, “On Security and Terror,” Creating Insecurity: Art and Culture in the Age of Security, ed. Wolfgang Sutzl and Geoff Cox (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2009) 23-25. Agamben notes that security “is the basic principle of state politics” (23), but also that state politics “secretly works towards the production of emergencies” (25). For sociological accounts of voluntary risk-taking as an expression of liberal capitalist values, see the essays in Stephen Lyng, ed., Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking (London: Routledge, 2004) and in Tom Baker and Jonathan Simon, eds., Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002).

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