States of exception on American frontiers: Biopolitics, violence, and nation in Blood Meridian, Martín Fierro, and Os Sertões



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The primary focus of my research is in Comparative Literature. Through an analysis of landmark literary and journalistic works from an English, Spanish, and Portuguese context, my dissertation focuses on frontier studies, biopolitics, state racism, and human rights. This project is concerned with nation-building in the Americas and the processes by which the bodies of a population are sifted out, some integrated into the nation-state while others are made the exception, disposed of their rights and often violently excluded. The geographical scope of my dissertation project is inter-American, and concerned with nineteenth century state violence on American frontier spaces as represented in national literatures from Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. To give context to my comparative reading of Martín Fierro (1872, José Hernández), Os Sertões (1902, Euclides da Cunha), and Blood Meridian (1984, Cormac McCarthy), I interpret the nineteenth century frontier spaces in these works as border regions not just between civilization and so called “barbarism” (or between sovereign law and natural law), but also as thresholds that mark the transition from colonial methods of violence to those of the new and emerging American nation-states of modernity. During their period of expansion, these three nation-states rationalized the extirpation of certain ethnic and social groups through discourses based on exceptionalist and positivist ideologies: in the United States, “Manifest Destiny” argued democracy’s divine purpose to “civilize the savage,” whereas in South America, “civilization and barbarism” was the political discourse that endorsed civilization's “rightful” dominion over barbarism. Relying on what has been observed by scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Achille Mbembe, Roberto Esposito, and Judith Butler, I acknowledge that colonial practices of violence would, at the cusp of modernity, be integrated into the process of nation-building on the basis of anthropological and biological discourses of exclusion, often determined by race. In the Americas, nowhere was this more evident than on nineteenth century frontiers, where new nation-states endeavored to complete the colonial project of the European empires from which they had become independent. In search of national identity, such efforts of conquest would mean certain bodies would be included in the nation-building project, while others would be excluded from citizenry. Whether the government orchestrated gaucho and Indian conflicts portrayed in Martín Fierro, the military massacre of the Canudos village in Os Sertões, or the legalized scalp-hunting of Apaches in Blood Meridian, my comparative reading of these works highlights the couplet between the life of marginalized frontier subjects and sovereign violence. Ultimately, I conclude that this relationship is one of exception, where excluded political life is caught up in a space of suspended law imposed by the sovereign. Frontiers in these three works are thus portrayed as spaces of legalized lawlessness, or states of exception, where their narratives and the very life therein are brought about, moved even, by the sovereign exception.

This dissertation won 2nd Place in the Texas Tech University Outstanding Thesis and Dissertation Award, Humanities/Fine Arts, 2015.



Comparative Literature, Inter-American Studies, Frontier Studies, Biopolitics, State of Exception, Latin American Literature, Blood Meridian, Martín Fierro, Os Sertões