The Post-Sovereign Novel: Biopolitical Immunities in Manfred Jurgensen’s The American Brother


The Australian government’s responses to the September 11 attacks introduced a new theme into Australian literature. Novels such as Andrew McGahan’s Underground and Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist sought to address, in narrative form, threats to the rule of law that arose from a rapidly emerging Western security state. Drawing on the political and juridical framework of liberalism, these novels attacked an Australian political and social milieu that justified the expansion of sovereign power. This essay argues that the liberal framework informing these novels misrecognises the structure of power post-9/11: insofar as it posits an absolute dichotomy between law and sovereignty, the language of liberalism prevents us from thinking right and power concomitantly. This essay reads Manfred Jurgensen’s novel The American Brother through the political philosophy of Roberto Esposito. In doing so, it suggests that a biopolitical account of the post-9/11 security state, in the form of Esposito’s paradigm of immunisation, enables not only a coherent epistemology of contemporary sovereign power, but also opens up a critical approach to literature that thinks outside the limitations of liberal discourse.

From the perspective of biopolitical theory the now-exonerated David Hicks must exist in the Australian liberal political imagination as a kind of wolf-man: a creature positioned somewhere between the human and the animal (Agamben, Homo Sacer 104–05).1 During Hicks’s time at Guantanamo Bay he effectively became a former citizen, an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’, a subject stripped of his legal rights and reduced to a biological existence: a being disqualified from a ‘form of life’, excluded from the international protections of the Geneva convention, and degraded to a conditio inhumana – a kind of jumpsuit-wearing animal.2 For liberal thought and human rights discourse, Hicks’s condition demonstrates, in its most visceral form, the potential violence that lives at the heart of sovereignty. Indeed, with the establishment of Bush’s extra-constitutional military tribunals in 2003, unsanctionable capital punishment became a very real and terrifying possibility for Hicks. Initially, in the event that the military…

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Published 10 August 2016 in Volume 31 No. 4. Subjects: Biopolitics, Contemporary literature, Political fiction, Terrorism.

Cite as: Austin, Michael. ‘The Post-Sovereign Novel: Biopolitical Immunities in Manfred Jurgensen’s The American Brother.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 4, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.e0c7c83a44.