Rousseau: Conceiving the Inconceivable

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


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).


Social Contract Political Theory Programmatic Mode Political Community Human Animal 
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    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
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© Susan McManus 2005

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  • Susan McManus

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