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Suffering Agency: Imagining Neoliberal Personhood in North America and Britain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-101
Number of pages19
JournalSocial Text
Issue number2 (115)
Publication statusPublished - 2013

King's Authors


Jane Elliott examines the way in which twenty-first-century fiction imagines what she terms suffering agency, or the experience of agency as an omnipresent and overriding burden for the neoliberal subject. By focusing on the high-profile and acclaimed novels Life of Pi (2001), Never Let Me Go (2005), and The Road (2006), Elliott explores the contemporary fixation on the subject’s interest in life, a trend that she locates across a range of prominent subgenres, from survival tales to literary sci-fi. The poetics of what is commonly called the self-preservation instinct has become a matter of widespread cultural concern, she argues, because it has both a historical and an analogical resonance with neoliberal forms of governance: as various political theories beginning with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan have made clear, feats of self-preservation intertwine highly significant action in one’s own best interest with a sense of intense, even desperate compulsion. Through a complex combination of threats to life and abstract modeling, these texts portray both the logical propositions that structure neoliberal personhood and the experience of suffering agency that accompanies life lived inside this model. Elliott argues that these novels are particularly visible proponents of a widespread struggle across the field of popular genres to offer an imaginative lexicon capable of engaging the problem of suffering agency.

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