Sonja Schillings, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.

SONJA SCHILLINGS, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.

Amerikastudien/American Studies, 63.1

 

 

Can acts of violence ever be legitimate, and how have claims of legitimate violence been theorized and represented in legal theory and philosophy on the one hand, and in (Anglo-)American narrative on the other? And how are legal-theoretical and literary discourses related? These are the guiding questions Sonja Schillings asks in her monograph Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, which is based on her dissertation at the John F. Kennedy Institute (FU Berlin) and published in the Remapping the Transnational series of Dartmouth College Press, a prime location for transnational American Studies. The issue of legitimate violence has vexed political theorists and philosophers, historians and legal scholars in the West ever since classical antiquity. Taking heed of the many discursive sites in which it has been debated, this interdisciplinary study traces answers that have been presented from antiquity to the present day through examining the “hostis humani generis constellation,” as Schillings calls it, the idea that there are “enemies of all humankind” against whom any form of violence—thus cast as universally defensive—is sanctioned. Its scope is impressive not only with regard to breadth (the texts discussed go far beyond the Anglophone world and reach back ad fontes) but also to theoretical depth, which makes it all the more remarkable that it never loses sight of the fundamental, even foundational question of legitimate violence in its political, social, and cultural dimensions, especially also with regard to its (post-) colonial entanglement in imperial contexts.
In the course of her study, the author demonstrates how ideologically and theoretically flexible and adaptable the “hostis humani generis” constellation has proven through the centuries—more specifically, the pirata-praedo-innocent triangle in which praedo represents the possibly legitimate, pirata the illegitimate pole and innocents are needed as the to-be-legitimately-defended. The three most important focal points that Schillings explores in four parts are the age of early modern colonial expansion, the nineteenth-century frontier, and contemporary scenarios of international terrorism. In its urform, the pirate was the figure that came to be constructed as (almost) congruent with the enemy of all humankind, but Schillings convincingly argues that the flexibility of the constellation has not been limited to any specific historical agent.
After a concise introduction, in which the author defines central terms of her study and situates its design by comparing early modern and contemporary piracy and civilization debates, the first part, “The Emperor and the Pirate: Legitimate Violence as a Modern Dilemma,” highlights the centrality of legitimacy in modern constructions of piracy by offering three (re-)readings of the famous anecdote in St. Augustine’s City of God, in which a Mediterranean pirate is reported to have questioned Alexander the Great’s categorization of piracy as one in which power relations are decisive. Despite a narrowing-down of her focus to really only three passages in City of God—the context of the anecdote in the book itself is left uncommented—the author shows how writers like Charles Johnson and Charles Ellms have appropriated the tale in the context of Atlantic piracy and the slave trade, respectively.
In the next part, “Race, Space, and the Formation of the Hostis Humani Generis Constellation,” Schillings explores the racialization of the constellation on the ‘Barbary’ coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries before turning to John Locke’s and William Blackstone’s theories of a racialized “Invader in the State of Nature” (67). Behind this background, she reads James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer with a focus on its conception of legitimate violence through the lens of the pirata-praedo-innocent triangle and the “two-civilization model” of white-European vs. “red”; Schillings concludes that in the nineteenth century, “the increasing proximity of the two models of civilization would culminate in the creation of a third, specifically American” which “take[s] up the central premise of narratives from the early nineteenth century—namely, that the United States constituted a national state of civilization that had risen beyond piratical European imperialism […] a specifically American state of nature […]” (122).
This diagnosis is expanded in part three, “The American Civilization Thesis: Internalizing the Other,” debating Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis as a model of civilization. As a consequence and in the Cold War context of Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest, the democratic frontiersman represents the praedo, while the totalitarian Leviathan is a Communist pirata. The chapter continues with a lucid discussion of the genderedness of the constellation, in which the “pure woman” is needed as an “innocent” to justify her violent defense against any pirate, and it is this insight that informs her re-reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son as a protest novel (the final subchapter in this part) through this “Pure Woman Paradox” (a terminological coinage to remember, with potential to add to current feminist discussions of violent abuse).
In the fourth and final part, titled “‘It Is Underneath US’: The Planetary Zone in Between as an American Dilemma,” Schillings turns to two very different war novels: Kurt Vonnegut’s metafictional Mother Night (1962) in the context of both WWII and the Vietnam War and Mohsin Hamid’s much-discussed The Reluctant Fundamentalist of 2007 as a response to George W. Bush’s War on Terror and the subsequent return, in “sweeping triumph,” of the essentialist perspective on legitimate violence” (220) in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, cast as “crimes against humanity.” Mohsin, in Schillings’s reading, “deliberately uses the hostis humani generis constellation to expose essentialist US reactions to 9/11 as unsustainable and immature” (223). At the end of her study, Schillings summarizes the “interpretive breaks” (238) of the constellation and takes her explorations to eventually conclude that “any contemporary text that raises questions of legitimate violence is contextualized by a discursive history of the answers that hostis humani generis has helped formulate as persuasive” (244), emphasizing how important the constellation is and has been “as a central cultural resource for meaning making.”
A minor weakness in terms of readability is perhaps the book’s tendency to meander back and forth through space and time; in addition, its theoretical rigor and density make it sometimes difficult to follow the argument, especially at points where it remains unclear which historical interpretation (e.g. of the early modern pirates, which are hugely diverse but are not debated here) it is based on, or when it switches back and forth between different levels of analysis (literary, historical, theoretical). Third, the selection of her primary texts is not always conclusive (why The Deerslayer rather than one of Cooper’s nautical romances, in which piracy plays a decisive role?). In sum, however, there is no doubt, at least for this reader, that Sonja Schillings’s impressive study will be fundamental for studying Western conceptions of and relations with violence, in American Studies and beyond.

Alexandra Ganser (Wien)

Author: American Studies

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