Ben Robinson has a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University. His dissertation, ‘Bureaucratic Fanatics in the Work of Kleist, Melville, Conrad, and Kafka’, is a study of the literary presentation of the extremes of the bureaucratic transformation of political life in the long 19th century. He is broadly concerned with literary treatments and transformations of issues in political theory. Beyond the current project on poverty and need, his interests include literatures of revolution, colonial landscapes, aging, and the fin-de-siècle literary and philosophical preoccupation with vermin.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Ben received his BA in Social Studies and German from Harvard and completed an MPhil in Modern Languages at Oxford with a thesis on the significance of Wittgenstein and Benjamin in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Ben spent 2012-13 on the Northwestern Program in Critical Theory in Paris; 2013-14 as a visiting doctoral student at the University of Vienna; and 2014-15 at the Goethe University Frankfurt and the Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL, Berlin). His articles have appeared in The Germanic Review, Conradiana, and the Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung.
States of Need – States of Emergency:
The Politics of Poverty in European Literature and Thought, 1789-1933
ICI Project 2016-17
Engaging the work of Arendt, Foucault, and Agamben, I argue that the biopolitical turn in the history of European politics emerged out of the urgency of need. As opposed to the state of exception (Ausnahmezustand) Agamben discusses, in which ‘bare life’, embodied in the figure of homo sacer, is produced by sovereign decision, the ‘state of exception in which we live’ (Benjamin) is related to the historical proliferation of a Notstand – state of need or emergency – the exponent of which is neither the sovereign nor homo sacer but the altogether errant figure of the poor.
It was not the legal category ‘bare life’ but the complex socio-economic conditions concentrated in ‘the poor’ that occupied the constitutive inclusive exclusion of European politics. If we are to better understand the crisis converging in Europe today, it is the history of the errant politics of poverty, rather than of sovereignty and sacred life, that needs to be addressed.