My project comprises a theoretical and a literary component. Theoretically, my project investigates the relationship between duty, obligation, and contract, as theorized in particular by Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory. How does political obli ...
My project comprises a theoretical and a literary component. Theoretically, my project investigates the relationship between duty, obligation, and contract, as theorized in particular by Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory. How does political obligation relate to other kinds of obligation? What do any or all of these philosophical concepts have to do with gender? Are they gendered concepts? The literary component of my project comprises an analysis of texts written by women writers who articulated the limitations of social contract theory, especially for women. The major genre of fiction that women chose to write in this period was romance. My project examines the romances of Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn in light of the following questions: What kinds of contracts do women enter into? What kinds of obligations do they take on? Particularly in romance texts, how do women writers understand the obligations of love? How can mutual vows of love oblige the vowers to continue loving in time? These romances do not end in romance and marriage but deal with the consequences and the the aftermath of love. For this reason, I have named my project After Love—to underscore my interest in the relationship between temporal sequence and the bonds and obligations created, as well as challenged, by it.
My two-year project thus combines i) a philosophical and historical investigation into the relationship between contracts, rights, and obligations, and ii) a literary study of women writers who wrote about the rights and obligations that arise from love and romance. In the first part of the project, I sketch a philosophical genealogy of non-contractual ethics beginning with the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes; in the second part, I offer a corresponding literary genealogy of non-contractual thinking via the seventeenth-century romances of Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn.
My project proposes that new Hobbesian language of contract implicitly assumed a world view. It assumed that the subjects speaking this new language were male; it also assumed that the motivations for speaking this language were passionate. Hobbes’s theory suggested that self-love and fear of violent death were the passions that secured political obligation and social contract. On the other hand, female romance writers who wrote about questions of justice, gender, and love rewrite contract theory by complicate the motivations that move individuals. Whereas contract theory postulates an abstract and atomistic individual, moved by fear caused by the chaos and violence of the state of nature into making the best possible rational choice under the circumstances—namely, to enter into mutual contracts with other individuals to set up a common power—romance complicates the motives that cause individuals to enter into contracts by situating them in concrete social settings and by ascribing particular genders to these individuals. In romance, of course, the key motivation is not fear so much as love; in lieu of a political contract, romance centers on the marriage contract. Romance conceives of love’s obligations as also resulting in contract but it understands the motives for contract very differently; importantly, it embodies, sexualizes, and genders the individuals involved. The romance plot conceives of love’s obligations very differently, as caused by psychological motivations that are unclear and nontransparent to the contractors, as well as mutable in time. Thus, if we read romance plot as an interpretation of political obligation, we can see that it offers a sharp critique of the theory of the subject in social contract theory. To put it most bluntly, love’s obligations as emplotted in seventeenth-century women’s romance are conceived of fundamentally non-contractual obligations. This is why, even though romance conventionally ends in happy unions and marriage contracts, the internal logic of romance usually exposes romance closure as fiction. Romance declares that love is beyond contract at the same time that it leads the protagonists to seal the marriage contract. In this sense it is a genre that harbors an implicit critique of Hobbesian contract theory.