From Handsome Sailor to Cute Youth: the material force of innocence in Herman Melville’s "Billy Budd, Sailor"

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Herman Melville's "Billy Budd, Sailor" is a novel about war and erotic exploitation in which Billy Budd becomes the centre of the affective management aboard the war ship. Against the reading of his allegorical status as something that pertains to his pre-sociality, this essay reads the allegorical personification of goodness as a work of 'practical abstraction' in a Marxist sense. It argues that Billy’s 'fall into story' takes place at the moment when he, like a cute commodity, is exchanged between the representatives of the merchant ship and the war ship, and, using Sianne Ngai's work on aesthetic categories, investigates how he, as a cute soldier body evokes ambiguous feelings of empathy and aggression. Comparing Billy’s abstract work to Rob Halpern's contemporary war poetry it discusses how queer affect is curbed to nation binding purposes. Billy's tragic flaw – his stutter – does not confirm an 'absolute innocence,' but provokes a discussion of how abstractions of good and evil are put to practical use in contemporary war efforts and how the young, American teenager is at the centre of such imagery.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTextual Practice
ISSN0950-236X
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020

ID: 241901533