Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674

Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674

Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674

Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674


Why did the language of contract become the dominant metaphor for the relationship between subject and sovereign in mid-seventeenth-century England? In Wayward Contracts, Victoria Kahn takes issue with the usual explanation for the emergence of contract theory in terms of the origins of liberalism, with its notions of autonomy, liberty, and equality before the law.

Drawing on literature as well as political theory, state trials as well as religious debates, Kahn argues that the sudden prominence of contract theory was part of the linguistic turn of early modern culture, when government was imagined in terms of the poetic power to bring new artifacts into existence. But this new power also brought in its wake a tremendous anxiety about the contingency of obligation and the instability of the passions that induce individuals to consent to a sovereign power. In this wide-ranging analysis of the cultural significance of contract theory, the lover and the slave, the tyrant and the regicide, the fool and the liar emerge as some of the central, if wayward, protagonists of the new theory of political obligation. The result is must reading for students and scholars of early modern literature and early modern political theory, as well as historians of political thought and of liberalism.


To breed an animal with the right to make promises—is not this
the paradoxical problem nature has set itself with regard to
man? and is it not the real problem of man?

—Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

A worthy person of our age was accustomed to say, that con
tracts in writing were invented only to bind villains, who
having no law, justice, or truth, within themselves, would not
keep their words, unless such testimonies were given as
might compell them.

—Algernon Sidney, Discourses concerning Government

The seventeenth century is the period in which scholars have located the emergence of a distinctively modern conception of political obligation. From Maine and Weber through Macpherson and Walzer, they have recorded the shift from a world of status to one of contract—from a world, that is, of hierarchical feudal relations to one made up of autonomous individuals who rationally consent to their self-imposed government. in contrast to the medieval pact of subjection, in which a corporate body of the people subjects itself to the sovereign, the new discourse of obligation yielded a protoliberal subject who freely enters into a social and political contract. It is the aim of this book to reconstruct the discourse of contract in the making and, in doing so, to revise this story of political obligation. Specifically I show that seventeenth-century contract theory was defined by a struggle over the role of language and representation, and of the passions and interests, in binding and releasing the political subject. Instead of presupposing a rational and autonomous individual who consents to the political contract, seventeenth-century contract theorists were compelled to create a new political subject ex nihilo. Rather than assuming that government was natural and only needed to be legitimated by consent, early modern writers argued that the state was an artifact that was brought into being by a powerful, if sometimes fictional, speech act. For these reasons, I argue, early modern contract theory is best thought of as a radically new poetics of the subject and the state . . .

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