Political Magic: British Fictions of Savagery and Sovereignty, 1650-1750 by Christopher F. Loar (review)
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Loar, Christopher F. Political Magic: British Fictions of Savagery and Sovereignty, 1650-1750. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. 344 pp. $65.00 hardcover.

Christopher Loar’s Political Magic is a clearly written and rigorously argued account of how the literature of the period spanning 1650 to 1750 engages in debates about political theory and practice. Loar chooses literary works that span, roughly, the century after the beheading of Charles I and the publication of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. The works he considers are post–Civil War and post-Hobbes, however, in more than a merely chronological sense. Loar argues that it is in the literary writings of Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Eliza Haywood that practical problems of governance in the modern political milieu are worked out. These authors, Loar argues, consider how it is possible to organize peacefully the English (and British) masses without having recourse to the kind of violence that, in Hobbes’s theoretical account, underlies all sovereignty. Loar’s novel argument is that the fictions of colonial contact and domination produced by these authors were as much thought experiments concerning how to control and discipline the “mobile” (a contemporary term for a mob) at home as they were ideological justifications of colonial exploitation abroad. For Loar, the “others” of colonialist discourse also represent the “others” of domestic English politics, the masses who must be organized for the modern state to emerge.

Political Magic treats a diverse range of literary genres, including theater, poetry, and journalism. It is prose fiction, however, that is the most prominent genre examined in the book. Some of the texts that Loar analyzes, like Oronooko, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels, have long been staples in accounts of the rise of the novel. Others, like Cavendish’s The Blazing World and Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaii, have not. One of the most significant achievements of Loar’s book is to transform our conception of the early novel by showing how Defoe’s vaunted realism can be convincingly located in a fantastic and nonrealist tradition that runs from Cavendish through Haywood. The primary means by which Loar links these texts is by tracing [End Page 127] throughout all of them what he calls “the first gunshot topos.” Loar writes that in nonfictional accounts of the first contact between “savages” (the early modern name for peoples from Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and “civilised” Europeans, “savages” are always represented as “astonished and amazed, often paralysed or almost swooning” upon first hearing gunfire (4). Loar argues that fictional narratives of the first gunshot topos “heighten and emphasise” the role of this trope “to highlight their interest in sovereignty and violence” (5). Loar thus demonstrates the way in which Defoe’s use of this topos in his realist works Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Captain Singleton (1720), for instance, develops a fictional trope present since Cavendish’s fantastical 1666 work The Blazing World.

In the first three chapters, on Cavendish, Behn, and Defoe, Loar shows that spectacular displays of firepower are used not merely to kill a savage enemy, but to cow him or her into submission. Gunpowder thus becomes an “unstable signifier” that can represent the potential for sovereign violence both to establish a political community, and to annihilate without limit (5). It is “law forging and law-destroying, divine and satanic all at once” (5). Importantly, for Loar, even if the first gunshot topos is consistently represented by these authors in a colonial context, it is precisely the application of this form of sovereignty to the British polity that is at stake in these fictions that, “seeking something like a universal politics, collapse distinctions between the colonial periphery and home” (3-4). Thus Cavendish’s Blazing World is positioned as a contribution to the discussions of sovereignty between Hobbes, her husband the Duke of Newcastle, and William Davenant; Behn’s Oroonoko is treated as much as presenting a “microcosm of modernity” as an account of colonial politics (88); and Friday, in Robinson Crusoe, “figures not only the racial other but also the political subject more generally” (120).

In Loar’s account...