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Monday, August 07, 2006

Early modern liberalism

I have to admit, first, that I haven't actually read Annabel Patterson's book of that title. But our now long-ago reading group about Shuger's Political Theologies, along with a more recent book that I've just finished reading on my own, made me think about this whole "early modern liberalism" thing as a suddenly widespread phenomenon. Our loyal readers may perhaps (or perhaps not) recall that the burden of my comments about Shuger's book concerned her effort to rehabilitate left-wing Christianity, maybe even a lefty evangelism -- a project that, I think it's fair to say, she sees as striking both against opiate-of-the-masses-style academic Leftism and, of course, against Bush-y right-wing puritanism.

The book I've just finished reading is Victoria Kahn's Wayward Contracts. (Which, I just noticed from that link, inserts its title onto a complete replica of the title-page to Leviathan, which seems pretty odd, given what I take to be the political gesture at stake in the book). This is -- like all of Kahn's books -- a deeply learned book. But while the details of the narrative constructed here are very absorbing, something about the larger argument struck me as quite elusive. As someone not especially well-versed in the material under discussion, I found it a little hard to see, from the opening pages, just what was at stake in Kahn's narrative.

What seems to be at stake, in part, is an effort to reconnect literary with political fictions, to argue that literary categories crucially inform the development of contract theory, and that this development in turn can tell us something about the emergence, in the eighteenth century, of the category of "the aesthetic." This idea of the aesthetic in turn brings Kahn to a claim that is clearly very important to her, but which I found difficult to think about: she writes that what she's going to do is to point out a way beyond the "limits and deficiencies of modern liberal thought" (p. 22), and this has something to do with getting back to a moment just before the emergence of "the aesthetic" as a category, and also has something to do with getting a clearer picture of the early modern contracting subject as in some sense more interesting than, more complicated than, the "thin," minimalist subject of modern liberalism. It took me a while to get my head around this at all.

The place it began to make some sense to me was at the very end of Kahn's discussion of Samson Agonistes. Now, in an earlier article published in the South Atlantic Quarterly 95 (1996), Kahn had extensively linked Milton's poem to the political theories of Carl Schmitt. A similar argument (I haven't compared the two in detail) appears in the book, but with Schmitt virtually excised: he's quoted on the very last page of the chapter (p. 278), but his name is displaced into a footnote (n. 67), even though, throughout, the chapter uses visibly Schmitt-ian terminology. Viz, p. 270: "Samson Agonistes is a tragedy precisely because the exception and the will as the locus of decision are deeply implicated: the exception is the condition of any meaningful decision, at the same time that its incoherence ... dramatizes the violence, including self-violence, involved in any decisive imposition of sense." That sentence chosen virtually at random: the exception and the decision are crucial categories throughout. Clearly, Schmitt has now become an embarrassment, hidden away; instead, at a key moment at the end of the chapter, Milton's text is suddenly compared to Walter Benjamin and to "the alienation effect" -- ie, to Brecht, though he's not named either. Good left-wing credentials, in other words, emerge instead of the much more problematic Schmitt, in what looks a bit like sleight of hand: that is, while it seems to me perfectly plausible to argue that there's a radical decisionism, and that its representative would be Benjamin, and even that Benjamin is in some way a useful figure to think about in order to think about Milton (because of the whole conjunction of Marxism and Messianism), it's clearly Schmitt, not Benjamin, who underwrites Kahn's analysis.

So, something is up. Or, something is suddenly under the rug. I think what's going on is that Kahn is working very hard to reclaim territory, and not just from Schmitt -- in fact, not even primarily from Schmitt. Very early on in the book -- on p. 2 -- there's an odd reference to Nietzsche, which at first looks as though this is a book that's undertaking a somehow Nietzschean analysis. I think, in fact, it's seeking to revoke a Nietzschean analysis. On that page, Kahn cites Nietzsche's argument that "the emergence of the contracting subject coincided with the development of Judeo-Christian notions of conscience, subjectivity, and ethical responsibility." Now, conscience is a crucial term in Kahn's genalogy of contract theory: product of the Reformation and especially of covenant theology, it is a vital part of the prehistory of contract and of the "contracting subject," as she reconstructs it. Conscience is also a central term in Kahn's reading of Samson Agonistes. But Kahn seeks to reaffirm the conscience as the locus of a stronger version of the aesthetics and politics of liberalism. To this end, she has to rescue conscience from Nietzsche, and also from Foucault. A few pages later, Kahn writes that "The late sixteenth century saw an explosion of the twin discourses of casuistry and reason of state, that is, the art of resolving individual cases of conscience and an art of reasoning specific to politics" (8). The footnote to this sentence offers a long quotation from Foucault's essay "Governmentality," talking about the Reformation and the simultaneous movement of state centralization; in that footnote Kahn seeks to reclaim early modern conscience from a Foucauldian analysis that would see it as an effect and vehicle of power.

So, conscience is being reclaimed from both Nietzsche and Foucault, who both (in their very different ways) read its history as the history of new forms of domination, new forms of subjection. Kahn wants to reclaim it for a revitalized liberalism, one saved from its radical critics. At the same time, "the aesthetic" is being rescued from the analysis offered by Terry Eagleton in Ideology of the Aesthetic. All of this is why Schmitt becomes such an embarrassment. And yet, it seems to me that it's precisely through the radicalness of Schmitt's decisionism that Kahn can get a radicalized version of contract theory, one that looks less like the "enervated" language of liberalism (282). Kahn wants to draw energy from Schmitt and his critique of liberalism, but also to distance herself from him -- she wants to use the critique of liberalism in order to move beyond that critique. In this, she looks back explicitly to this Schmitt-ized version of Milton: "We have lost our ability to see this aspect of seventeenth-century debates because historically Hobbes won out over Milton" (282). We have to look back before Hobbes to a Milton, oddly, constructed with the (quiet) help of the very same political theorist who used Hobbes as an ally in mounting his critique of liberalism.

  • At 8/09/2006 01:06:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I'll have something more substantive to say/ask later, but for now I just wanted to comment on who's no longer a part of the politics of liberalism, whether early modern or modern, at least in Connecticut. Joe Lieberman, that's who.

    And good riddance too. Well, at least until the November elections.


  • At 8/09/2006 01:17:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Yeah, that's awesome. But he's determined to cling onto power by any means necessary. Creating his own political party. Is there anything more craven? "Connecticut for Lieberman" my ass.


  • At 8/10/2006 12:14:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Not having read Kahn's book, and not planning to anytime soon (although after typing this comment, I now feel obligated to), I'm going to ask you to elaborate and/or speculate about a couple of things in this post, that is, if you're so inclined (feel free to ignore this entire comment). And these are real questions; I'm genuinely curious.

    1) Does she identify what exactly she means by the "limits and deficiencies of modern liberal thought"? Because when I think about what these might be, aesthetics is not the first (or hundredth) thing that comes to my mind.

    2) What exactly is this "'thin,' minimalist subject of modern liberalism"? It's ideas like this that make me wonder if she's not starting with a different definition of liberalism than I typically use and hear used.

    3) Care to elaborate on the theories of Schmitt that she once invoked? (The overflowing nominalizations in the sentence on Samson leave me unmoored and unsure of what precisely the sentence is trying to say.)

    4) What is "radical decisionism," and why does it matter?

    5) What would the concept of conscience bring to modern liberalism? What value would it add (in VK's analysis)?

    6) Same thing with "the aesthetic."

    7) And what would it mean for Milton to win out over Hobbes?

    8) A bit of speculation: what ultimately do you think this book is trying to do to/with modern liberalism? In other words, what do you think is really going on?

    Gah, you've piqued my curiosity, and all I'm doing is creating more work for you instead of doing it myself. But, you know, I've got big things to get done in the next week before I head out of town and into the city and then into the country and then back again.


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