Are we witnessing in the twenty-first century Occupation of Space a sixteenth-century counter conduct palimpsest?

The opening line in Jean Bodin’s “On Sovereignty,” in his Six books of the Commonwealth, describes sovereignty as “that absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth” (25). Bodin’s book was published in 1576, and similar to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), his tract was in response to the outbreak of civil war that plagued his country. Hobbes and Bodin, though their respective experiences occurred less than a century apart, had a distinct fear of anarchy and social division, both were resolute in their call for an absolute sovereign who under which all subjects would be controlled by the state through their complete submission to the sovereign’s authority. Bodin’s tract is comparable to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince published in 1532 as a how-to manual, or a political pedagogy of sorts, for sovereign figures to effectively control the state. In circulation during Bodin’s writing, The Prince is considered to have had an influence in Bodin’s political notions of sovereignty.  Bodin, however, differs from Machiavelli’s manifesto in his insistence that even though the commonwealth must follow the sovereign’s ordering of natural and divine law, the sovereign’s power was not arbitrary and the sovereign should strive for amenity; in contrast, Machiavelli’s project was in the art of war and tailored for a more autonomous sovereign body. As Foucault points out, during “the sixteenth century we enter the age of forms of conducting, directing and government” (231).  This is reflected in the penchant of philosophers to write strategic tracts on how to conduct a subject: “the sovereign who rules and exercises his sovereignty now finds himself responsible for, entrusted with, and assigned new tasks of conducting [men]” (Foucault “Security,” 231). Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is a beast, a mythical figure originating in the Hebrew Bible and with a lengthy description in the King James version, Job 41: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? (Norton).

Shakespeare also utilized the figure of the Leviathan in A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, yet in a benevolent context reflecting upon its monstrosity, its remarkable speed and suggests that a subject might overtake it:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes (2.1.174).

“The Leviathan” is captured in a particular performativity, a fable, and in a contained literary and visual state marks a division of bodies in the manufacturing of the sovereign while simultaneously making known the singularity of the beast – a prototype that continues to have significant impact.

The Hobbesian model is based on the urgency to avoid civil war and chaos within the state.  Hobbes believed, as Ian Shapiro points out in his Introduction to the Leviathan “Reading Hobbes Today,” that the state of nature “is terrible – depicted in perhaps the most frequently quoted of his memorable lines as a world in which life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’” (xix).  Hobbes believes that all subjects in the commonwealth must cede their judgment and submit to the prescribed conduct of the sovereign who is infused with divine law and judgment. If this conduct is countered, the Leviathan will return to the state of nature leaving individuals as singular subjects with no protection and security.  The images are significant here because in the seventeenth century frontispiece, for example (Plate 1), the body of the monster Leviathan, an automat, is constructed with the docile bodies, as a unity, creating a commonwealth.  Faces turned inward – individuality subsumed, and subjectified, in order to maintain the polis, and the good life.  As Derrida remarks when considering Hobbes:  “Sovereignty causes fear, and fear makes the sovereign” (40).  Something, however, is absent in this image; or, rather veiled: la bête (148). The beast, as Derrida argues, is impossible to translate but the wolf, a beast, in French is loup which also means a black velvet mask worn by women during masked balls (Derrida, “Beast,” 6).  It could also be a visor, similar to that worn by Hamlet’s ghost, or the veil that possibly cloaks the truth. Wolf as loup. The image of the beast. The beast for Hobbes is internalized in the sovereign, a unifying sensibility that requires all the power forces of the commonwealth to sustain it.  Significant, is what this fable is teaching.  The Leviathan, as beast, is unregistered.  Erased. The sovereign is coded divine; the state of nature is subtracted from the new ideology. What becomes apparent in the Hobbesian discourse is the need for an enemy in order for the sovereign body to be sustained, not unlike an Aristotelian tragedy, or a fable. For the sovereign every subject is a potential enemy and the potential enemy is the beast.

The biblical reference would be understood by the seventeenth century audience, this is crucial in order for the state to ensure obedience and instill the elements of fear of the beast that haunts the sovereign’s body: “the element of fabulation, in which the analogies between the beast and the sovereign, find their resources and their schema” (Derrida, “Beast,” 80).  A change takes place in the nineteenth-century in the image of the Leviathan created by Gustave Doré. In Plate 2, the Leviathan returns to its biblical origins seemingly drowning in the chaotic state of nature. Gustave Doré was a prolific nineteenth-century illustrator who produced among his many works Milton’s Paradise LostThe Bible (1866), as well the figure of the Leviathan, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales that include “Little Red Riding Hood.[1]

Here, Derrida’s comment on fables is apt:  “The fables themselves show that the essence of political force and power where that power makes the law” (“Beast,” 217).  Derrida delineates the lengthy lineage of the beast who is often portrayed as the “wolf” and how it walks across the stage for Hobbes, Rousseau as a self-proclaimed werewolf, Plato’s wolf-tyrant, as well, among others, La Fountaine’s Fables, fables illustrated, incidentally, by Gustave Doré (another wolf crosses the stage).

The sovereign in this space is represented explicitly as the enlightened divine law in the act of disciplining the beast that has turned rogue (a word created by Shakespeare).  The moral of the fable, recounted in wolves and sea monsters, is that obedience is a necessity;  the United States military and global sovereign forces in 2011 calls any counter conduct by alternative sovereign states, specifically the civil occupation of space as rogue, or perhaps Hobbes might have call it the contemporary Leviathan, unleashed.

Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty.  Ed. Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. Society must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003.

…, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1977-78. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

–, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1990.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Shapiro, Ian. “Reading Hobbes Today.” Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill by Thomas Hobbes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

 [1] It is noted that Dore also illustrated The Tempest by William Shakespeare in 1860.

  1. Number Six says:

    Neat post. Can one have a “virtual” Leviathan? Because much of the revolutionary ardor in this current context is hauntingly ephemeral…Not to say that it isn’t effective, in some sense. Sadly, however, I think it’s mostly affective

    • Sorouja Moll says:

      well, when considering the definition of “virtual,” the Leviathan is indeed just that: a hypothetical particle (albeit large) whose existence is inferred from indirect evidence, here the bible. what the fabled leviathan does affect effectively is fear, a rising up and a paradoxical turning away or mass mutiny (in the hobbesian sense) from the sovereign and the myth of unification that so cleverly shields our conflicted abjected desiring for capitalism. i could be cynical and bring in ardorno (which cynics do) and suggest that the uprisings are a permitted rebellion or a getting it out of our system, or even foucault who reminds us that revolutions are simply that — a revolution that returns us to where we began, or i could simply point out that the people who complained about the attention steve jobs’ death received was from their macs. the post, however, is more to consider statecraft as an apparatus that manages power; how it continues to operate in varying formations through history and how it would seem that the shape shifting figure of the sovereign/ beast remains and i think perhaps we just have to be clever enough to sort out its dynamic and the circulating power to make it more effective in our lives.

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