Benito Cereno

The University of Chicago Press’s reissue of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology has a new Foreword by Tracy B. Strong. (I guess that’s really his name… [and see Jodi’s comment on this post]) It’s a thoughtful and smart take on Schmitt, aligning him ultimately with Weber as a thinker concerned above all about the bureaucratization and so elimination of politics effected by modern technological rationality. Strong stresses therefore Schmitt’s humanism, and suggests that this, however counter-intuitively, is what led him ultimately to Nazism:

Hitler appeared to him as something like the entity God had sent to perform a miracle [. . .] and the miracle was the recovery of a this-world transcendence to sovereignty and thus the human realm of the political. (xxx)

In this context, Strong also notes the connection, for Schmitt, between the exception and the miracle: “The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology” (Political Theology 36).

Strong’s engagement with Schmitt’s Nazism is well-handled: neither the occasion for simple denunciation, nor for any kind of exculpation. He frames his analysis with a discussion of Schmitt’s identification with the eponymous “hero” of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Indeed, Strong reports, “in a letter apparently written on his fiftieth birthday in 1938, Schmitt signed himself as ‘Benito Cereno'” (ix). He summarizes the novel’s plot as follows:

The title character in Benito Cereno is the captain of a slave ship that has been taken over by the African slaves. The owner of the slaves and most of the white crew have been killed, although Don Benito is left alive and forced by the slaves’ leader, Babo, to play the role of captain so as not to arouse suspicion from other ships. Eventually, after a prolonged encounter with the frigate of the American Captain Delano during which the American at first suspects Cereno of malfeasance–he cannot conceive of the possibility that slaves have taken over a ship–the truth comes out: the slaves are recaptured and imprisoned, some executed. (viii-ix)

There’s plenty of ambivalence in this story, not least when we try to map it on to Schmitt’s own circumstances. As Strong notes, after World War II Schmitt’s identification with Cereno could also serve as a metaphor for his relationship with the (now) occupying American powers. There are many ways in which one could read this story of a world turned (almost) upside-down.

Benito CerenoAlmost upside-down, that is, in that a white man continues to perform the role of slaveship captain. And the novel revolves around the question of that performance, of its credibility and its effects. In Strong’s words again:

Benito Cereno is about, among other things, what being a sovereign or captain is, how one is to recognize one, and the mistakes that can be made when one doesn’t. (x)

It’s also therefore about the performativity of power, and what happens when the power to decide is displaced from its ostensible location.

Once more, though, ships on the (colonial, Hispanic) high seas serve as the model of sovereignty. And mutiny, treason, on board ship as instances of the threats that sovereignty faces.

One thought on “Benito Cereno

  1. Always nice to get the gender right, even if nobody is perfect…To Juan Antonio's post:  indeed Melville changed the name of the Spanish ship from Tryal (there is a real life basis for the story in a book by Amasa Delano) to San Dominick; when the boat is first seen by the American ship the people on board appear to be (Dominican) Black Friars; Melville changed the date to 1799 (from 1805) in order to call to mind the Haiti rebellion (which renamed the half of island they liberated from San Dominigo).  And there is more.

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