Printer Friendly

Loar, Christopher F. Political Magic: British Fictions of Savagery and Sovereignty, 1650-1750.

Loar, Christopher F. Political Magic: British Fictions of Savagery and Sovereignty, 1650-1750. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. 344 pp. $65.00 hardcover.

Christopher Loar's Political Magic is a clearly written and rigorously argued account of how the literature of the period spanning 1650 to 1750 engages in debates about political theory and practice. Loar chooses literary works that span, roughly, the century after the beheading of Charles I and the publication of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. The works he considers are post-Civil War and post-Hobbes, however, in more than a merely chronological sense. Loar argues that it is in the literary writings of Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Eliza Haywood that practical problems of governance in the modern political milieu are worked out. These authors, Loar argues, consider how it is possible to organize peacefully the English (and British) masses without having recourse to the kind of violence that, in Hobbes's theoretical account, underlies all sovereignty. Loar's novel argument is that the fictions of colonial contact and domination produced by these authors were as much thought experiments concerning how to control and discipline the "mobile" (a contemporary term for a mob) at home as they were ideological justifications of colonial exploitation abroad. For Loar, the "others" of colonialist discourse also represent the "others" of domestic English politics, the masses who must be organized for the modern state to emerge.

Political Magic treats a diverse range of literary genres, including theater, poetry, and journalism. It is prose fiction, however, that is the most prominent genre examined in the book. Some of the texts that Loar analyzes, like Oronooko, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver's Travels, have long been staples in accounts of the rise of the novel. Others, like Cavendish's The Blazing World and Haywood's The Adventures of Eovaii, have not. One of the most significant achievements of Loar's book is to transform our conception of the early novel by showing how Defoe's vaunted realism can be convincingly located in a fantastic and nonrealist tradition that runs from Cavendish through Haywood. The primary means by which Loar links these texts is by tracing throughout all of them what he calls "the first gunshot topos." Loar writes that in nonfictional accounts of the first contact between "savages" (the early modern name for peoples from Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and "civilised" Europeans, "savages" are always represented as "astonished and amazed, often paralysed or almost swooning" upon first hearing gunfire (4). Loar argues that fictional narratives of the first gunshot topos "heighten and emphasise" the role of this trope "to highlight their interest in sovereignty and violence" (5). Loar thus demonstrates the way in which Defoe's use of this topos in his realist works Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Captain Singleton (1720), for instance, develops a fictional trope present since Cavendish's fantastical 1666 work The Blazing World.

In the first three chapters, on Cavendish, Behn, and Defoe, Loar shows that spectacular displays of firepower are used not merely to kill a savage enemy, but to cow him or her into submission. Gunpowder thus becomes an "unstable signifier" that can represent the potential for sovereign violence both to establish a political community, and to annihilate without limit (5). It is "law forging and law-destroying, divine and satanic all at once" (5). Importantly, for Loar, even if the first gunshot topos is consistently represented by these authors in a colonial context, it is precisely the application of this form of sovereignty to the British polity that is at stake in these fictions that, "seeking something like a universal politics, collapse distinctions between the colonial periphery and home" (3-4). Thus Cavendish's Blazing World is positioned as a contribution to the discussions of sovereignty between Hobbes, her husband the Duke of Newcastle, and William Davenant; Behn's Oroonoko is treated as much as presenting a "microcosm of modernity" as an account of colonial politics (88); and Friday, in Robinson Crusoe, "figures not only the racial other but also the political subject more generally" (120).

In Loar's account the fraught consequences of applying the politics of gunpowder in a domestic as well as a colonial context are most evident in the writings of Jonathan Swift (the subject of the book's fourth chapter), whose meditations on colonialism and imperialism investigate "the place of violence in political modernity more generally" (143). Swift's texts "both hold out hope for a kind of virtue remaining in civilisation and...long for a civilisation that could bring absolutism to the savage in order to bring the whole world to civility. Yet they also withdraw from this resolution" (144). Loar thus finds in Swift a writer whose hatred of tyranny is combined with a fear that, "though abhorrent, [it is] nevertheless inevitable as a civilising influence" (145). This chapter is key to the book as, primarily through a reading of Swift's literary work, it radically reorients the way critics have generally thought about Swift's politics. Rather than looking at this topic through the lens of Swift's historical political commitments, Loar explores the way in which his complex use of the first gunshot topos outlines an ambiguous and uneasy political philosophy in which the law-making effects of gunpowder are inevitably accompanied by the possibility that this violence creates "an open field for the operation of absolute power and extreme violence" (169). Whereas, to some extent, in Cavendish, Defoe, and Behn, the spectacular display of power can mediate this violence and make subjects out of the mob, Swift, Loar argues, draws attention to the capacity of civilizing violence to make corpses out of subjects. This chapter of the book is sure to be the most divisive and controversial, and its account of eighteenth-century literature's relation to our own political modernity is the most far-reaching and persuasive. In a final chapter, on Eliza Haywood, Loar continues this theme and shows how the spectre of annihilating violence persists even in attempts to imagine a "world after which subjects are to internalise rational moral and ethical precepts, without a heteronomous fear driving them" (183). Haywood's fiction shows that even when sovereignty tries to leave its violence behind "it ultimately cannot" (183).

Political Magic is an original and thorough study that should greatly influence our thinking about the history of the novel and the origins of political modernity. Scholars will undoubtedly find it useful and enlightening. Importantly, the clarity with which Loar discusses complex critical debates and theoretical concepts will also make it an invaluable classroom resource for those who teach canonical texts such as Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver's Travels to graduate and undergraduate students.

PETER DEGABRIELE, Mississippi State University
COPYRIGHT 2015 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Degabriele, Peter
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Previous Article:Gilmore, Dehn. The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional form on display.
Next Article:Nussbaum, Martha C., and Alison L. Lacroix, eds. Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law and the British Novel.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters