, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 199-220

How the Sublime Comes to Matter in Eighteenth Century Legal Discourse – an Irigarayan Critique of Hobbes, Locke and Burke

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Abstract

This article examines the way in which the sublime comes to matter within various eighteenth century legal discourses, particularly in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Edmund Burke. The essay seeks also to relate the theoretical works of these philosophers and lawyers to practical legislative developments of the period, in particular, the passage of the Black Act in1726 and the Marriage Act in 1753. The sublime comes to matter to the law in this period in the sense that philosophical conceptualizations of the sublime in terms of power and transcendence become increasingly significant to representations of the nature and function of English law. Such theoretical accounts of the law as are found in the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Burke, moreover, translate into juridical practices designed to affirm the status of the law as a transcendentally sublime source of political authority in the eighteenth century. This article subjects that understanding of the law to a feminist critique that draws upon the work of the French philosopher, Luce Irigaray. It will be shown that the sublime within Western thought is generally associated with a sense of dread as to the possibility of the annihilation of consciousness. This ontological dread entails, in Jean Francois Lyotard’s terms, a recognition of the possibility of “nothing further happening” to the subject. Within Western discourse, this dread is projected onto, or made material in the form of, some ‘other’ that is, in Irigaray’s estimation, most usually feminine. Thus, the sublime comes to matter in this second, ontological sense and it is within this context that the transcendental sublime emerges as a response to a sense of dread that is projected on to some material, feminine, or feminised, ‘other’. In eighteenth century legal discourse, this ‘other’ take the form of the ‘state of nature’, or the revolutionary mob, or the revolutionary female who signifies more than anything a return to animality and chaos –an ontological and political fall from grace. The Black Act and the Marriage Act, with their shared emphasis upon the preservation of political stability and patriarchal property rights, may in this context be regarded as manifestations in the legal domain of the metaphysical principles of the transcendental sublime – with its emphasis upon an escape from, and a control of, the dreadful, feminine ‘other’.

This revised version was published online in July 2006 with corrections to the Cover Date.