- How to Say Things with Guns:Military Technology and the Politics of Robinson Crusoe
As for the gun it self, he would not so much as touch it for several days after; but would speak to it, and talk to it, as if it had answer'd him, when he was by himself; which, as I afterwards learn'd of him, was to desire it not to kill him.1
Friday may understand Robinson Crusoe's gun better than Crusoe does. In the scene noted in the epigraph above, although Friday is innocent of the gun's inner workings, he sees something that Crusoe has missed: Crusoe's power to dispense violence, rather than cultural authority or friendship, has started Friday down the path towards civility and virtue. Conversely, Crusoe's disavowal of his own violence reverberates throughout the novel, from his escape from the Barbary captivity to his trip across the Pyrenees at the novel's end. But his disavowal is particularly pronounced in the novel's precolonial settings: Africa and Crusoe's Caribbean island. In the scenes of colonial encounter and technological power, Daniel Defoe uses Crusoe and his gun to explore the operations of violence in politics, as well as the ways in which the ideology of British liberty veils that violence. Crusoe's weapons serve as a figure for the violence and warfare that lurk at the foundational moment of sovereignty as well as of the ideology of liberty that makes sovereignty's violence tolerable. [End Page 1]
Though many scholars have noted the prominence of violence in Defoe's Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), identifying the particular significance of that violence has proved elusive. Once considered an exemplification of Lockean theory, the novel has more recently been understood in relation to postcolonial theory or critical race studies.2 This shift in focus is propelled in part by the increasingly visible connections between seventeenth-century political theory and imperial practices. John Locke's Second Treatise, with its defence of labour and enclosure as that which confers ownership of land and property, is highlighted in Britain's defence of its management of colonies and plantations. The connection between contemporary political theory and imperial practice is nowhere clearer than in the novel's setting—the late seventeenth-century Caribbean, where French and British settlers sought to cultivate land that appeared, to their eyes, essentially unused by the inhabitants, the Caribs.3 Thus previous criticism that sought to locate Robinson Crusoe in the tradition of Locke and Hobbes has been confronted by a newer criticism that locates the novel's central problems in the birth of a violent British empire.
But few scholars have pointed out the specific ways in which Defoe's first novel connects the violence of its colonial setting with the political controversies in the imperial centre. Among those who have examined the novel's connection of colonial violence and [End Page 2] British politics, Manuel Schonhorn and Carol Kay offer the most provocative accounts. Schonhorn links the novel to a shift in Defoe's political orientation towards sympathy with royalism and sovereignty, seeing the island as an experimental setting for those ideas.4 Kay, on the other hand, sees Defoe's novel as an engagement with the fraught nature of contractual relationships, and downplays the importance of absolute sovereignty on Crusoe's island as simply a brief and transitional phase of political development.5 These approaches both have merit, but neither entirely accounts for the novel's unexpected linkage of violence and technology with scenes of contract and consent in a text that strongly emphasizes the island as a space of cultural and political contact.
I will argue that Robinson Crusoe offers a meditation on the scene of colonial encounter and its disturbance of British political thought, and that Crusoe's colonialism stands in a synecdochal relationship to politics more generally. I will examine Defoe's first novel in light of a question posed by Michel Foucault: Are "military institutions, and the practices that surround them—and in more general terms all the techniques that are used to fight a war— ... the nucleus of political institutions?"6...