Victoria Kahn. Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xiii + 370 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-11773-7.
Reviewed by John Spurr (Department of History, University of Swansea)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2006)
A Poetics of Political Obligation
This exhilarating book challenges us to think about Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, and the seventeenth-century understanding of political obligation in new ways. Focusing on the crucial metaphor of contract, Victoria Kahn attempts to overturn some of our basic assumptions and to re-connect practices and discourses that have been sundered since the seventeenth century. Both familiar and less well-known texts are brought into fruitful juxtaposition and discussed in fresh and exciting ways.
In outline, Kahn argues that modern conceptions of liberalism have overlooked the richness of the seventeenth-century debates about political obligation and contract theory. The desiccated tradition of political science, perhaps too much in thrall to John Locke, has based contractarian thinking on the figure of the autonomous subject who, shorn of all constraints of status, hierarchy, and previous obligation, rationally calculates that self-interest (above all, the right of self-preservation) is best served by entering the political contract, that is, by consenting to the establishment of a sovereign. For Kahn, however, the seventeenth century saw an active rhetorical fashioning of the discourse of contract in which language shaped political opportunities, subjects, and styles. Contrary to modern misconceptions, the contracting subject was no isolated and exclusively rational individual, but a more fully imagined subject moved to action by the passions. This was an "embodied" subject in the sense both of being rooted in a context and, more importantly, of possessing a physical body and thus motivations derived from the senses, imagination, and passions. The crucial issue here is to explain why the subject should willingly consent to his or her own subordination in entering the political contract. A theory may explain why it is rational to consent, but that is not the same, argues Kahn, as explaining why a subject might be moved to consent. Motivation is a matter of the passions and what Kahn calls "aesthetic interest" (as opposed to the rational and calculable "self-interest"). What seems to be at stake here is to understand why one would want to consent to one's own subservience. How do affective dispositions, such as love for a monarch or a country, play a part in political obligation? How can some forms of political spectacle, for instance, afford us pleasures that can bind us to political institutions? In effect Kahn discerns the formation of a new psychology in the cultural debates around contract. She contends that the contracting subject was as much an effect of the political contract as its cause. So, rather than assuming the contracting subject existed prior to the political contract, we must recognize that contract theory necessarily creates its own contracting subject.
This heady claim is born out of Kahn's analysis of contract theory as part of a seventeenth-century poetics of the subject and the state. Contemporary writers recognized that political obligation was an artifact, a necessary fiction, and Kahn argues that both political theorists and poets were self-consciously pursuing the creative work of fashioning a suitable subject for obligation, an "aesthetic subject." Language, of course, was their medium because it has the power "to solicit the passions and transform the will" (p. 25). This was mimesis, not just in the sense of verisimilitude or imitation, but as "the productive capacity of the human imagination to create new artefacts" (p. 15). Given this perspective, Milton's Samson Agonistes can be read as part of the contractarian debate just as Hobbes's Leviathan can be appreciated as a work of art. One of the central arguments of the book is that aesthetics was at the heart of seventeenth-century accounts of political obligation. The difficulty was that while the imagination was a defining part of the fictions by which people were obliged, it was also a deeply unsettling quality. It could be used to generate the dispositions that underpinned obedience and loyalty, but it could also activate radical critiques of the prevailing political and social powers. For Kahn, Hobbes and Milton represent these two different attempts to aestheticize power and their antithetical genealogies of the contracting subject are the two poles around which much of her discussion moves. She detects in seventeenth-century texts the disquiet about the role of the imagination and the "aesthetic interest" which will impel the creation of an autonomous and presumably less disruptive realm of "aesthetics" in the eighteenth century. It is to overcoming that separation of the political and the aesthetic that much of her book is devoted.
The book falls into two unequal parts, preceded by a substantial introduction that sets out the author's terms and agenda. From the outset, contract is identified as a metaphor and one that is, like all political metaphors, to be regarded as inherently unstable and open to diverse readings. Thus the reader is alerted to the fact that paradox will be an important analytical tool in this account. It soon becomes apparent that the linguistic contract--the conventions that create the possibilities of communication and define the limits of individual interpretation--is also a preoccupation of this study. The first part of the book traces the themes of political obligation as artefact, the interpretative freedom of individuals, the calculation of self-interest, and the paradox of voluntary subjection, through a series of early-seventeenth-century discourses, including natural rights theory as exemplified by Grotius, puritan theology, the Common Law, and debates on marriage and taxation. The voluntarism of developing contract theory emerges as a source of contemporary anxiety. Contract theory handed responsibility to the individual whose will and passions were unpredictable or incalculable. So it was conceivable that an individual might freely consent to place himself in servitude (i.e., slavery), or the occasion of contracting might become an opportunity to dispute subjection to a legitimate ruler, or the freely entered contract of marriage might embolden women to question whether subjection to a husband was natural or merely voluntary.
The second part of the book is devoted to "the poetics of contract." Chapters entitled "Imagination" and "Violence" discuss some of the legal and constitutional debates of the 1620s and 1630s, the pamphleteering of the 1640s, the fast sermons, and Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, to reveal how many different parties laid claim to the language of contract and to what diverse ends. In the mouths of Milton and the radicals, it legitimized the "revolutionary subject," the ethical and autonomous individual who was created by the very act of claiming and exercising the right to interpret the contract or covenant of political obligation. The next chapter on "Metalanguage" can be seen as the pivot of the book. It catches up the themes of the political episodes and texts in the preceding chapters and looks forward to the more literary texts discussed in subsequent chapters. Its focus is Hobbes. This is a spirited presentation of Hobbes the rhetorician, the analyst of prevailing ways of speaking, the opponent of the discourses of vainglory and conscience, and the proponent of obligation as arising from a linguistic agreement, albeit an agreement that the sovereign will determine the use of words and enforce his definitions. Kahn makes little reference to Quentin Skinner's analysis of Hobbes's rhetoric, but then she is pursuing a rather different set of concerns. She sets Hobbes against the "romance"--discussed here in the shape of 1650s prose romances by Margaret Cavendish, Percy Herbert, Richard Brathwaite, and William Sales--so as to bring out the role of imagination and mimesis in his own theory and to point up the royalist resources of love, pity, and sympathy, all of which were, she claims, affective dispositions that could be marshaled to sustain a sense of political obligation to the Stuarts. Paradoxically, romances also represented the unsettling side of contractarian discourse as their plots were often littered with broken promises and unfulfilled engagements. Royalist romance is a genre that historians may find unfamiliar and alien. Although these texts allow Kahn to mount interesting discussions of marriage and gender relations as well as heroism, sentiment, and governance, the historical significance and theoretical weight of these writings is not evident in every case. Their inclusion is justified, however, by the contrast they allow between their emphasis on the passion of love and what Kahn calls Hobbes's politics of fear. Love naturally also figures in Kahn's discussion of the Edenic marriage of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost which offers intriguing speculations about self-love, self-assertion, sympathetic identification with others, and the limits of volition. The reading of Samson Agonistes is inevitably more comprehensive than that of Paradise Lost and provides a satisfying rounding out of the earlier discussion of the role of the aesthetic response in shaping and limiting political obligation.
Such a bare sketch of Kahn's project does neither her argument nor her exposition full justice. A review can only indicate the architecture of her book, while much of its power lies in its nuances, its sophisticated weaving of themes and discussions from one chapter to the next, its detailed reading of particular texts or historical episodes, and above all its unforced and genuine interdisciplinarity. This is an earnest and yet exuberant book, formidably learned, but always generous in spirit and breadth of conceptualization. Attentive to the needs of readers in stating and re-stating her themes, Kahn's prose reads easily and if her book can be described as demanding that is only a reflection of its ambitious intellectual scope. It is a tribute to Kahn's bracing arguments that readers will want to have their copies of Hobbes and Milton open besides them. Some of the readings of Hobbes, for example, bring together phrases from different works and offer a kind of meta-narrative of his intentions. True there are throwaway lines and sweeping claims, and some foreshortening of the perspective (the "sentimental culture of the Restoration" was one assumption that seemed to me to do more work in the argument than was warranted), but for the most part we are in the hands of an accomplished guide who can point out to us features in the seventeenth-century landscape that we had taken for granted or not even noticed before. Kahn's marvelous book deserves a wide readership among historians and literary scholars. It is an important addition to the small but growing body of scholarly writing that takes account of the place of the imagination in the political thought and life of early modern England.
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John Spurr. Review of Kahn, Victoria, Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674.
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