Define Individual freedom
Arts Policy/Law Romanticizing the violence of the 19th-century American frontiersman as a route to individual freedom is dangerous, USC Dornsife doctoral student Alex Young warns in a prize-winning paper.
Fascinated by the political and cultural implications of how Quentin Tarantino’s blood-spattered film Django Unchained presents frontier-style violence as a route to individual freedom, USC doctoral student Alex Young has written an award-winning paper exploring how the Oscar-winning filmmaker and two other wildly different figures — conservative television and radio host Glenn Beck and Italian Marxist political philosopher Antonio Negri — imagine the relationship among freedom, violence and the state.
Examining Beck’s keynote address at this year’s National Rifle Association convention, Negri’s writing on America in his influential 1992 book Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State and Tarantino’s 2012 film, Young suggests that this unlikely trio, despite their vast political differences, define freedom in a similar fashion.
“These texts portray freedom as an individual’s ability to command a sovereign violence that is not limited by the state, ” Young said.
“This shared vision of what Negri calls ‘constituent power, ’ emerges, I argue, from Beck, Negri and Tarantino’s romanticization of the mythical ‘American frontiersman.’ ”
Historically, however, Young reminds us, the violent ‘frontier’ mode of freedom that Beck, Negri and Tarantino celebrate was not just a means of protecting individuals from oppressive governments.
“Constituent power was celebrated in settler colonial societies like the United States primarily because it enabled settlers to carry out the genocidal violence toward indigenous peoples that occurred on the historical settler frontier, ” Young said.
“This romanticization of the figure of the 19th-century frontiersman is dangerous because it neglects the very people for whom the frontier was anything but romantic.”
Thinkers who wish to reject the violent and racist politics of a figure like Beck, Young warned, must envision an alternative to the violent and individualist modes of freedom that inevitably emerge when indigenous people are erased and the frontiersman is romanticized.
Young was presented with the American Studies Association’s (ASA) 2013 Comparative Ethnic Studies Prize for his paper, “The Settler Unchained: Constituent Power and Settler Violence, ” at ASA’s annual meeting in Washington D.C., on Nov. 23. That morning, he presented his winning paper to ASA members at an interdisicplinary panel discussion titled “Accumulation: Settler Colonialism and Military Occupation as Paradigms for Neoliberal State Formation.”
“A lot of scholars whom I respect have been given this honor in the past, so it’s very exciting that the ASA’s Ethnic Studies Committee found my work compelling enough to add me to that list, ” Young said. “It’s a great honor.”
Young is grateful for support from the newly formed Indigenous and Decolonial Research Cluster in the Department of American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which he said was essential to his development of the paper.
“I couldn’t have done it without the feedback I received from my grad-student colleagues, as well as my faculty mentors Macarena Gomez-Barris and John Carlos Rowe, in a workshop hosted by the cluster last spring, ” he said.
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