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  • Redeeming Rousseau, Reclaiming Tragedy
  • Steven Johnston (bio)
Lori Jo Marso, (Un)Manly Citizens: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and Germaine de Staël’s Subversive Women (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)

There is no doubt about it. Political theorists should read — and teach — more fiction. Lori Jo Marso offers proof, if such is needed. Thanks to a handful of subversive women in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Germaine de Staël, Marso’s (Un)Manly Citizens offers timely meditations on ideas of citizenship and democratic politics in the modern age. As if addressing those who wonder why theory takes seriously its predecessors, this is no mere exercise in the history of thought. Indeed Marso highlights and prizes the contributions of Rousseau and de Staël, but she is also prepared to use them for her own purposes, purposes which feature an “alternative vision of citizenship” (viii). What’s more, (Un)Manly Citizens constitutes an exemplary instance of political theorizing. Whether exploring the complexities of Rousseau and Staël or distinguishing her own readings from contemporaries, Marso’s engagements are nuanced, generous, forbearing. She engages thinkers at their best, their strongest, their richest. Heidegger once counseled that there is a great difference between encountering a thinker and running counter to a thinker. Only the former furthers thought. Marso has done exactly that.

Yet those who negotiate the mysteries of Rousseau subject themselves to great interpretive risks. Every effort to get a fix on Rousseau inevitably encounters frustration — including those, such as Marso’s, with a profound appreciation for his ambiguity. Ironically, then, Marso’s strengths may, in true Rousseauian fashion, produce their own liabilities. In an effort to save Rousseau — not only from superficial or partisan readers but himself as well — she may have inadvertently concocted a Rousseau denuded of his “tragic vision.” This will be of particular importance as Marso pursues a new model of citizenship that aspires to address and overcome Rousseauian blindness. The danger here is that to negotiate one of Rousseau’s paradoxical traps may be to find oneself ensnared in another — the contributions of Germaine de Staël notwithstanding. Nevertheless, this is a splendid work of political theory and the concern I just expressed relates more to the dynamic, open-ended character of the theoretical enterprise than to any serious failing on Marso’s part. Besides, Marso has written a work of theory that leaves the reader waiting anxiously for the next installment.

Marso’s project stems from a “fascination with Rousseau’s women.” For Rousseau, it is well known, men are citizens and women are not. Supposedly only men can be citizens. And yet, in his fictional works, Rousseau’s men are anything but good citizens. In fact, they are abject failures. Rousseau’s women, on the other hand, “consistently demonstrate the qualities a good citizen needs. They show uncanny ability to integrate conflicting loyalties in their lives, they comprehend and act on particular interests without neglecting universal duties, and they expressly demonstrate good judgment in making decisions that affect their loved ones as well as the whole community” (vii). What then, are we supposed to make of “Rousseau’s created ‘solutions’ that come easily only at the expense of women” (vii)? Here it would be easy to deliver a just comeuppance to Rousseau (as many have done), but Marso refuses whatever temptation there may be. For one thing, he is deeply attached to his women and writes so movingly about them that we, his readers, are to become attached as well. Thus: “Is there more to Rousseau’s women, and Staël’s attraction to these women, than meets the eye?” The answer is yes. Marso argues that lodged within Rousseau’s women characters is an alternative conception of his manly conception of citizenship and politics (as well as his entire political philosophy): “[W]hen we, as readers, identify and sympathize with the fate of these women, we are encouraged to recognize a radical feminine difference that opens up an alternative democratic future” (7). Rousseau’s work thus deconstructs itself — though, of course, in rather constructive fashion. That is, “It might even be the case that Rousseau’s heroines die precisely in order for us to...

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