Sovereign Power and the Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Problem of the Political by Peter DeGabriele (review)
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Sovereign Power and the Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Problem of the Political by Peter DeGabriele
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
xxxiv+182pp. US$70. ISBN 978-1-61148-696-4.

Many prominent critics and historians describe eighteenth-century Britain as having escaped or transcended sovereignty. These scholars argue that politics in this period was being subsumed into more openended, loosely controlled social formations: public spheres, biopolitical regimes, or disciplinary societies. Peter DeGabriele suggests that these readings are not so much mistaken as incomplete; their insights fail to account for the persistence of sovereignty in the social and parapolitical regimes that allegedly replaced it. DeGabriele associates the problem of sovereignty not only with monarchy and narratives of political origin, but also with more ostensibly “private” phenomena, such as domesticity, politeness, intimacy, touch, and sensibility. Sovereign Power insists on the ongoing relevance of sovereignty to eighteenth-century writing: rather than working to replace the sovereign with polite citizens or networks of domestic spheres, the writers whom DeGabriele studies indicate that no realm of the social is completely sundered from the political.

Fluently wielding critical approaches drawn from Robert Esposito, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, and Hannah Arendt (among others), [End Page 500] DeGabriele engages closely with the novel as well as historical narratives (Hume and Gibbon), eighteenth-century political theory (from Hobbes to Burke), and theories of materiality and agency (Locke, Hume, and others). Throughout, he notes the sometimes surprising role that problems associated with sovereignty—indivisibility, arbitrariness, decisions without foundation—play in narratives of intimacy, touch, tactful silence, domestic pleasure, and moments of witnessing. Chapters focused on Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, for example, explore the different sorts of intimacy that subvert the idea of unitary sovereignty, whether that sovereignty is considered as a property of a sovereign king or as a self-sovereignty of the human individual. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), DeGabriele argues, rejects Hobbesian sovereignty in favour of risky moments of direct subject-to-subject intimacy. While Hobbes argues that, in a civil state, all relationships must be routed through the sovereign to ensure the security of the population, Defoe’s beplagued characters instead must risk direct contact with others—an intimacy that exceeds and exposes the limits of Hobbes’s originary contract. In his reading of Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–48), on the other hand, DeGabriele focuses not on intimacy and risk as such but on touch, or, more precisely, on “what would grant one body the right to touch another with propriety” (25). Using compelling readings of Locke and Hume, DeGabriele demonstrates that Clarissa’s survival of her rape relies on the preservation of an interior space that cannot be touched—not by Lovelace, and, paradoxically, not by Clarissa herself. Clarissa survives her rape in part by being exactly what Locke and Hume argue that bodies cannot be: insensible and divisible.

DeGabriele then turns his attention to historical narratives by Hume and Gibbon. What is surprising in their historical writings, he argues, are the ways in which they understand kingly and imperial authority in terms of politeness and privacy. Hume’s history of England relies on politeness—or, more precisely, on “tact”—as a sovereign tactic for preserving the unsteady and paradox-riddled constitution. A wise sovereign for Hume is a tactful sovereign—one who touches only delicately, if at all, on the aporiae of politics. Rather than the unregulated violence we might look for in Agamben’s discussion of sovereignty, Hume posits an “unregulated politeness” that preserves political stability. If, for Richardson, touch is something that cannot be regulated by law, so is the tactful “touch” of the sovereign the invisible grout that holds together the unsteady British constitution. Gibbon’s Roman emperors, on the other hand, possessed a distinct realm of privacy neither included in nor analogous to that of the rest of his subjects; sovereigns are not disembodied hands or tactfully silent figures, but embodied persons whose domestic concerns taint the political and render impossible any clear distinction between public and [End Page 501] private spaces. For DeGabriele, Gibbon complicates Schmittian accounts of sovereignty that rely on a more detached...