Eli Jelly-Schapiro

The long history of colonial modernity

English professor's new book examines the role of security and terror in colonial and post-colonial history

From economic insecurity to the seemingly endless war on terror, we live in unsettling times. But the current crisis has a longer history, insists Eli Jelly-Schapiro, whose background in American studies and political sociology inform a cross-disciplinary scholarly approach.

Jelly-Schapiro’s forthcoming book “Security and Terror: American Culture and the Long History of Colonial Modernity” (University of California Press) is an examination of the contemporary political, economic and cultural landscape through the lens of contemporary literature — and vice versa.

“It’s always a dialogue,” says Jelly-Schapiro, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English Language and Literature. “I’m interested in what literary texts can teach us about how historical narratives are produced and about the material consequence of those narratives, but I also am interested in how literary texts are symptomatic of certain political, economic, cultural contexts.

“Literature reflects the world, but it’s not merely reflective. It affects the world. It plays, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, an active role in the constitution of social life.”

Of course, literature itself is very broadly defined by Jelly-Schapiro.

“I’m interested in how literary critical methodologies might be brought to bear on other cultural forms and even the social worlds that we inhabit,” he explains. “I try, for example, to approach theoretical works the same way I approach fiction, as texts that do not merely diagnose a particular political and economic reality but are also symptomatic of it.”

The lens he applies to the novels of Teju Cole, Junot Díaz and Roberto Bolaño is therefore similar to that which he uses to examine the work of critical theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Judith Butler.

And as Jelly-Schapiro explores tropes such as “security,” which, along with the concept of “terror,” is at the center of his forthcoming book, he casts an even wider wide net.

“One way to think about security is as a basic human want and need, something we desire, individually and as a society. But at the same time, security is a mode of power — one that’s always joined to, or productive of, insecurity and terror, or the specter of insecurity and terror,” he explains.

Literature reflects the world, but it’s not merely reflective. It affects the world. It plays, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, an active role in the constitution of social life.

Eli Jelly-Schapiro


He is keenly interested in the cultural role of homeland security, for example, but he also reaches back to the genesis of the social security movement that sprang from the New Deal and the preoccupation with national security that helped define the Cold War.

“My book works to resist the dominance of the post-9/11 narrative, the idea that that day constituted a historical rupture, which was initially propagated by neo-conservatives within the (second) Bush administration but then acquired a certain commonsense fixity across the culture. It even permeates leftist political theory,” he says.

“My intention is not to deny the profound newness of various aspects of the War on Terror, how it’s been conducted, aspects of our political life since Sept. 11, but I’m interested in how the newness of contemporary political forms can shed light upon deeper continuities — continuities in how race is thought about and acted upon, how wars are narrated and prosecuted, how capital is accumulated.”

And these continuities, he argues, span more than a couple of decades. Seen in the context of colonial history, they span something closer to five centuries.

“In the broadest sense, my work concerns the history of the present, the question of how we became who we are as a culture, a people, a world,” says Jelly-Schapiro. “More specifically, I’m interested in how contemporary cultural texts and contemporary social relations register what I call ‘the long history of colonial modernity,’ this 500-year history of European empire and its afterlives.”

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