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Unlimited Questioning: The Literary Anarchism of William Godwin
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Unlimited Questioning:
The Literary Anarchism of William Godwin

In his classic 1962 study, George Woodcock writes that anarchism “is a creed inspired and ridden by paradox, and thus, while its advocates theoretically reject tradition, they are nevertheless very much concerned with the ancestry of their doctrine” (35). Although Woodcock is here referring to earlier anarchist historians like Peter Kropotkin, his remark discloses broader anxieties about historical and conceptual ancestry that can be directly related to what is now called “post-anarchist” theory. Such anxieties inevitably haunt any form of thought that calls itself post-, which at once designates something after that is not yet the end of what it supersedes, a beyond that remains uneasily tied to the archive of “classical” nineteenth-century anarchism. Thus, Saul Newman argues that “the prefix ‘post’” in post-anarchism should not so much designate an “‘after’ or ‘beyond’” of anarchism, “but rather a working at the conceptual limits of anarchism with the aim of revising, renewing, and even radicalizing its implications” (“Post-anarchism” 62). Post-anarchism is therefore “not so much a distinct model of … politics, but rather a certain field of inquiry and ongoing problematization in which the conceptual categories of anarchism are rethought” (“Post-anarchism” 62-63).

This essay seeks to expand post-anarchism’s “field of enquiry” by reconsidering its origins in the philosophical and literary texts of William Godwin. Despite Newman’s desire to see post-anarchism as a discourse capable of revising and renewing its own historical concepts, much post-anarchist theory remains curiously silent about Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which was published in 1793 and revised in 1796 and 1798, is nevertheless often cited as a founding philosophical text for modern anarchism.1 Where discussion of Godwin does appear in contemporary anarchist theory, as in Andrew W. Koch’s “Poststructuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” his views are largely dismissed as “essentialist” (24–25).2 At the same time, if anarchist theory today pays little heed to Godwin’s political philosophy, there has also been a near-total forgetting of his literary texts, to say nothing of his work beyond the 1790s: between 1784 and 1833 Godwin published eight [End Page 1] novels, along with collections of essays, histories, and biographies.3 The diversity of Godwin’s corpus attests to the fact that his writing is at once deeply entrenched within the political and steps outside of the political. This relationship to the political in turn provides an essential commentary upon the potentials for anarchist theory in our own time, in which a too-narrow definition of the political often ties us to the fantasy of politics as the sole engine of social change, thus blinding us to the possibilities of thinking of the political otherwise.

Given this almost complete forgetting of Godwin, what conceptual displacements of anarchism emerge within Godwin’s texts? How might these displacements call for their own interpretation at an “archaeological” or unconscious level?4 What developments in anarchist theory have made it possible to read Godwin now, and how might these developments provide the means to read Godwin otherwise within the history of anarchism itself? This essay moves toward answering such questions by addressing the largely unexplored relationship between Godwin’s anarchism and his literary texts. Specifically, my argument proceeds from a sense that the post-anarchist critique of the “essentialism” often imputed to earlier, “classical” anarchist theory can already be found in Godwin himself. Moreover, it is Godwin’s distinctive use of literature that allows him to revise and question the utopian rhetoric of his anarchism. The latter claim is not especially groundbreaking, as literary critics have increasingly emphasized the ways in which Godwin’s novels expose gaps within his political theory.5 The following discussion nonetheless aims to bring together aspects of these more nuanced interpretations of Godwin’s literary texts with his canonical role as one of the founding thinkers of modern anarchism. In doing so, this essay begins to bridge the gap between the literary and political histories of ideas in which Godwin participates but is often marginalized.

Godwin’s novels potentiate complexities that already begin to surface within the more utopian claims...