Rousseau: Conceiving the Inconceivable

  • Susan McManus
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)

Abstract

What lessons have I derived from reading Hobbes, the theorist of referential fixity, as a cautionary tale, delineating the logic and the dangers of anti-utopianism? First, that such fixity is always feigned, always-already artificed; second, that alterity, potentiality, and temporal complexity should and must be theorized as “matter”; third, that some forms of conceptual creation efface the movement of différance (the difference that fissures self-identity and its temporal processes that preclude the closure of identities) even as they reveal its (complicated) presence; most importantly, then: “there are many things we haven’t yet learned to read.”1 Hobbes (and Kant, as we shall see) are—radically different—examples of didactic and disciplinary fictive theorizing. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who I take, albeit warily for he is problematical and twisty, as an ally in my endeavor, sits between them in many ways. What does Rousseau add to my tale? Time and again, Rousseau complicates both the status and the effects secured by the work of fictions in theories—his own, as well as those of others. Through and with Rousseau, and sometimes just using his ideas as a spur for further musing, I find that I can trace the dual work of fictions: after Rousseau, it will be impossible to unthinkingly invoke nature as a substantive and evaluative category of being. And yet, via his critique or critical excavation of natural law, Rousseau proposes new ways of knowing, making humanity intelligible, via that very natural condition (as utopian anticipation).

Keywords

Corn Dust Coherence Assure Posit 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Phillip Pullman, Lyra’s Oxford (Oxford and New York: David Fickling, 2003) (preface, NP).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jane Bennett, in The Enchantment of Modern Life, suggests an apt word of caution regarding “those ways of marking nature’s internal relation to artifice” that “overstate the earth’s pliability,” such as accounts that stress the “social production” or “linguistic production” of nature. Bennett is rightly concerned that such accounts “tend to write nature as inert matter without a will of its own,” p.191n9. In this book, with Rousseau as well as drawing on Nietzsche’s wonderful rendition of nature as wild, alive, bound by no laws, I suggest the possibility of a rendition of nature that “treads lightly,” attentive to the effects secured in its name, and is thus political in the broadest sense. For more on this, in relation to Ernst Bloch (who, incidentally, was also drawn to Paracelsus), see Vincent Geoghegan on Bloch’s “spectacular cosmological speculations”: “Bloch’s philosophical starting point is the dynamic creativity of the material. It was his conviction that the adventure of the material universe had only just begun” Ernst Bloch (London: Routledge, 1996), p.133).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    My utopian reading of Rousseau nevertheless differs from the utopian interpretative framework of, e.g., Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969) andGoogle Scholar
  4. Jean Starobinski, Jean Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) whose emphasis on Rousseau’s fictions I nevertheless find helpful.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Brown, “At The Edge,” in Political Theory 30/4 (August 2002), p.574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    On Rousseau’s catastrophic or discontinuous theory of history see, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology and James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000). As I explore, this is a crucial notion both in distancing himself from a Hobbesian conception of humans as naturally aggressive, and also in freeing the fictive moment of grounding from closure to plurality and potentiality.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, p.181. On the issues of translation and tense, it has been suggested by Cole in the introduction to this edition that “man was born free” is “arguably more accurate. Either translation fits Rousseau’s general meaning, which is both historical and moral” (p.349n2). Both should then be kept in mind, but both the historical and the moral are of dubious status in Rousseau’s narrative. On the issue of the legitimacy of the chains of enslavement and dependency, I read Rousseau’s aims here, not in the sense of making the chains legitimate (which, after all, was the task of the fraudulent liberal or Lockean contract), but in a Marxian sense: “criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower,” “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), p.54. My Rousseau is close to Tracy Strong’s, who finds in Rousseau the capacity to articulate “that idea that one knew what it would be like to live a life that was not exploitative […] the dream that a life would be possible in which one did not have to say no to the human in another human,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Politics of the Ordinary (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Inc., 1994), p.xxii.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), pp.139–140;Google Scholar
  9. Eli Friedlander, “Rousseau’s Writings on Inequality,” Political Theory 28/2 (2000), pp.254–272, 254. Friedlander relates this directly to Rousseau’s desire to avoid the confusion of nature and history: a lesson still learned only with difficulty, since, as Roland Barthes would much later put it, “in short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there,” Mythologies, selected and translated by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), p.11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 62.
    Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx: Politics and History, trans. by Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1982). See also, e.g., K. Ansell-Pearson, who suggests that Rousseau “loses faith in history,” and thus the social contract is an “attempt to transcend history altogether,” Nietzsche Contra Rousseau, p.77.Google Scholar
  11. 63.
    Judith Still, Feminine Economies: Thinking Against the Market in the Enlightenment and the Late Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), p.3.Google Scholar
  12. 64.
    The classic statement of this reading can be found in J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Secker and Warburg, 1952). For an excellent critique of this position that generalizes a “natural seeming interpretation” drawing on, e.g.,Google Scholar
  13. Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) andGoogle Scholar
  14. James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), seeGoogle Scholar
  15. Steven G. Affeldt, “The Force of Freedom: Rousseau on Forcing to Be Free,” Political Theory 27/3 (2000), pp.299–333. The basic gist of such interpretations is that individuals owe obedience to the laws of the just political state, which would be that governed by the social contract; and that disobedience to these laws invokes the notorious “forcing” of freedom, hence the paradoxical combination of democracy and totalitarianism. Affeldt contests this reading from a different perspective from the one presented here, but with similar implications for reading and understanding Rousseau. On a similar note, Ansell-Pearson suggests that Rousseau was among the first to articulate “antinomies of modern political life,” such as individual versus society, man versus citizen, autonomy versus authority, freedom versus necessity, Nietzsche Contra Rousseau, p.22. Put simply, if this is indeed the case, then Rousseau cannot be read as if he presupposes these antinomies that have now become entrenched in our political vocabulary. The reading I suggest of the social contract, then, negotiates the tensions between these terms, but suggests possible ways of understanding them precisely not as antinomies.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 65.
    Roemer, cited in Angelika Bammer Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s (New York: Routledge, 1991), p.15.Google Scholar
  17. 66.
    Irene Harvey, “Exemplarity and the Origins of Legislation,” in, Unruly Examples: On the Rhetoric of Exemplarity, edited and introduced by Alexander Gelley (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995), p.213.Google Scholar
  18. 71.
    Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp.4–5.Google Scholar
  19. 73.
    J. Swenson, On Jean Jacques Rousseau, p.114. On the paradoxes of the legislator, see, e.g., L. Althusser, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx; de Man, Allegories of Reading; Geoffrey Bennington, Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction (London: Verso, 1994); and K. Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche Contra Rousseau. Althusser invokes the difference between the “real” and the fictional to close the text, whereas I see possibilities for opening; and Bennington, following de Man and Derrida, focuses on the impossibility of the social compact. I am concerned to further this enterprise, and see how the new concepts generated are themselves politically enabling.Google Scholar
  20. 74.
    Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters: Modernity, Post-modernity and Intellectuals (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), p.12.Google Scholar
  21. 93.
    Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition trans. Paul Patton (Columbia University Press, 1994), p.147.Google Scholar

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© Susan McManus 2005

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  • Susan McManus

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