Fall 2017 Talk: Matthew Hart – “City-State: Setting and Sovereignty in China Miéville’s The City & the City”

Fall 2017 English Program Friday Forum talk:

The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue (between 34th and 35th St.), room 4406

Friday March 24th, 4pm, open to all

Matthew Hart (Assistant Professor, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University): 

“City-State: Setting and Sovereignty in China Miéville’s The City & the City”

The most influential recent theory of extraterritoriality can be found in the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose contentions about the spatial logic of the “inclusive exclusion” show up in artistic and scholarly works across many media and disciplines. This paper stages a strong critique of Agamben’s political theory, except that the medium for that critique is novelistic, not philosophical. Its argument centers on the metropolitan narrative settings of British speculative fiction writer China Miéville — who also happens to be a socialist activist with a PhD in International Relations. Miéville’s settings, Hart argues, reduce what Aristotle called political partnership to its Western ideal type—the city-state or urban polis. Miéville’s novels take place in many zones: floating pirate utopias, perpetual runaway trains, present-day London — and in cities that are not in one country or another, but in both. Those settings have many implications, most of them literary; but they are also legible as allegorical critiques of decisionist theories of sovereignty, like Agamben’s, that identify extraterritorial spaces with coercive states of emergency and see such states of emergency as telling the truth of sovereignty in general. The chapter features an interpretation of Miéville’s hybrid noir novel, The City & the City (2009), embedding that reading in a discussion of the techniques of secondary world developed in his trilogy of “New Weird” novels (2000-2004) set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag. Miéville’s novels certainly take extraterritorial shape but, in them, political power is divisible, distributed across physical and administrative space, and far from the only game in town.

Matthew Hart is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century literature. His publications include Nations of Nothing But Poetry (Oxford U. P., 2010/2013) and, with Jim Hansen, Contemporary Literature and the State, a Special Issue of Contemporary Literature (2008). His new projects include a book, Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction, and, with David Alworth, a special issue of ASAP/Journal, “Site Specificity Without Borders.” Recent essays on contemporary literature and art are out or forthcoming in NOVELCriticismModern Fiction StudiesPublic BooksThe Oxford History of the Novel, and elsewhere. Matt is also Founding Co-Editor (with David James and Rebecca L. Walkowitz) of the Columbia University Press book series, Literature Now, and former President of A.S.A.P.: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present.

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