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MLN 117.4 (2002) 808-835

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Political Force and the Grounds of Identity from Rousseau to Flaubert

Jonathan Strauss

In 1988, D.A. Miller used the example of nineteenth-century novels to argue that the subversive power of literary texts was greatly exaggerated, and that the novel tended instead merely to reproduce the ruses of existing social power structures. 1 More recently, however, a group of jurists and literary scholars met at Yale University to discuss the relations between legal and literary discourses. Focusing more on the rhetorical nature of legal discourse than on its representation in literary works, those assembled came to very different conclusions than Miller. Reva B. Siegel, a professor of law, argued, for instance, that "while it is conventionally assumed that the category of legal fictions is sparsely populated by a few quaint counterfactuals, it seems instead that the category of legal fictions is quite large—the figural terrain on which we fight some of the major social conflicts of our day" (228). Some of those "major conflicts" can best be understood by tracing them back to the period between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, when the legal grounds of modern Europe and the U.S. were being laid. In particular, it is by returning to this period that one can begin deciphering the relation between that "figural terrain" and a conflict so pervasive and so fundamental [End Page 808] to our social functioning that it does not even seem to be perceivable as a conflict: the determination of what constitutes an individual person. Even in a volume as sophisticated and as cagey as Law's Stories—the proceedings from the conference at which Siegel spoke—the individual is largely taken as a natural entity who pre-exists the law. A return to some of the seminal social texts of the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries indicates, however, that the individual is instead a figural construction of the law, indeed of the police. And yet, paradoxically, this politico-rhetorical facticity confers on that same individual unique possibilities of agency within and upon the figural terrain of legal discourse. Those possibilities were worked out in literary language, especially during the mid-nineteenth century, when rhetorical style became a model for effective resistance to what is perhaps the most pervasive form of social control: individuality.

One can pick up the thread of this story around 1748, when Montesquieu published De l'esprit des lois. In a theoretical move that would have long echoes throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the tract conceived of human character as largely a function of its physical environment. A wealthy landowner who had often confessed that he liked to feel his money under his feet, Montesquieu argued for the inalienability of a people from its geographical location, contending that terrain and climate both express themselves in the characteristics of the human cultures that develop in them. Even after abstracting away such topographical particularities, the sheer fact of being situated, of remaining in a place, had, according to him, a profound, foundational effect on human societies. In Book 18, for instance, he traced the historical origins of marriage to the decision to settle down and tend crops. With the adoption of a sedentary agrarian existence, according to Montesquieu, socially recognizable individuality shifted its basis from the internal powers of memory to an external field and the crops growing in it. The need to linger by a piece of land and care for it gave an identifiable duration or permanence to a person, and this permanence was in turn reflected in the institution of marriage, which at once helped guarantee the guardianship of a field and also translated the time and immobility of crops into a social institution. From the "assiette" of the field, to which the farmer was attached through the roots of plants, a person took shape and found him- or herself mirrored in the eyes of that single other person who was his or her spouse (538-39).

Within this agrarian model, then, the notion of a person...


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