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  • Sovereignty against Autonomy
  • Jennifer Greiman (bio)
Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790–1861, Siân Silyn Roberts. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States, William Huntting Howell. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Hobbes, Sovereignty, and Early American Literature, Paul Downes. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Dreamy Platonists and pantheistic youths at the mastheads of nineteenth-century whalers might be surprised to find a description of their oceanic reveries in the pages of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). Yet in the second chapter, “Of Imagination,” Hobbes introduces a metaphor for the movements of a mind at sea very similar to one Herman Melville proposes in chapter 35 of Moby-Dick (1851): “And as wee see in the water, though the wind cease, the waves give not over rowling for a long time after; so also it happeneth in that motion, which is made in the internall parts of a man, then, when he Sees, Dreams, &c” (Hobbes 88). Before the appearance of the “great LEVIATHAN” or “SOVERAIGNE” in chapter 17, Hobbes develops an exhaustive account of human sensation, cognition, and action, describing a liquid mind that is activated and agitated by the material world. In this way, Hobbes suggests, thoughts are the waves the world makes as it rolls through the material mind. The Hobbesian imagination is no self-animating or autonomous faculty, and Hobbes claims no sovereignty for the singular mind or person. Instead, Hobbes theorizes an emphatically material, dependent, and secondary mind, along with a personhood that is artificial and a sovereignty that can only be generated collectively.

Like the infamous “Monster of Malmesbury,” Melville’s Ishmael thinks in waves of motion that are “imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.” Whereas Hobbes posits this rolling wavelike thought as the normal operation of imagination, Melville’s sailor experiences “the blending cadence of waves with thoughts” as a rare and ecstatic dream that comes to an abrupt end when his hand slips and his “identity comes back in horror” (136). If there is a sly citation of Leviathan here, then Melville seems to be looking beyond the more familiar reveries of Transcendentalism and Romanticism [End Page 129] back to a Hobbesian materialism, in which the mind is so dependent on the stimulating world that any hint of its self-identity would be absurd. Call it “identity,” “autonomy,” or the “individual,” a newly hegemonic form of human life emerged between 1651 and 1851, and Ishmael’s horror at its return marks this creature as both spectral and belated. Melville’s Ishmael is clearly haunted, but not by the ghost of some pre-Enlightenment monstrosity. Instead, it is the pained return of a more modern figure that startles him, one often attributed to Locke, presumed to be in sovereign possession of its thinking, and lodged at the center of the Anglo-American liberal tradition.

The central dilemma of “The Mast-Head”—that the demonstrated contingency of modern identity does nothing to reduce its forceful return—is a familiar one to literary critics. Like masthead pantheists, generations of critics have pursued identity-annihilating thoughts, only to have the fraught figure of the autonomous individual repeatedly “come back in horror.” If early critical challenges to individual autonomy built on the insights of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism, more recent work in American literary studies is being shaped by methodologies whose aims are both smaller than the individual subject (affect studies, the new materialism) and larger than it (the posthuman, the secular, deep time).1 Still the figure of the individual, with its purported autonomy, selfidentity, and sovereignty, returns to be annihilated all over again. The three books reviewed here all issue forceful new challenges to the autonomous individual and, with it, to the narrative of liberalism’s primacy in the US. Siân Silyn Roberts finds a critique of the individual at the beginnings of US literature and culture, identifying alternative models of human subjectivity as central to an American gothic tradition that rejected Locke’s one-mind-per-body model. If the individual has persisted as a...


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