Sovereignty and Metaphor: A Graduate Student Conference Explores Power and Representation (by Cynthia De Luna)

Photo credit: Kimberly Adams

About a year ago, two of our English graduate students, Gina Dominick and Ruby Lowe, were sitting in a course taught by Jacques Lezra when they began to wonder: how do metaphors shape our political and social realities? How does sovereignty factor into that? And what kind of discussion could take place on the subject if graduate students, post-doctorates, professors, and anyone else interested in the topic joined in? These questions were what set the Sovereignty and Metaphor conference in motion. It took a year of work, countless emails, and over thirty submissions of papers, but when September 24th and 25th arrived, professors and students from within NYU and beyond gathered in the English Department Event Space to explore the the numerous relationships between sovereignty and metaphor. Together, they asked how one influences the other, how one supports or impedes the other… even how one might be the other.

The conference explored these questions through four frameworks: opacity, centers, bodies, and violence. The first panel, on opacity, focused especially on the role of metaphor in Piers Plowman, Milton’s Areopagitica, and Barclay’s Argenis. Jacque Lezra, a professor of Spanish, English, and Comparative Literature here at NYU, brought our attention to manners of speech in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and how those manners of speech form identities and ultimately political units. The factor of speech also plays a role in Areopagitica, as Ruby Lowe, one of the organizers of the event, discussed. She argued that for Milton, speech is a metaphor for an individual’s ability to take part in conversations about political matters.

The second panel, focusing on “centers,” moved more directly into the realm of sovereignty by looking into representations of power in Milton’s Eikonoklastes, Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, and Marvell’s Upon Appleton House. Orlando S. Reade, from Princeton University, opened with Milton’s representation of sovereignty in Eikonoklastes as a geocentric universe in which the king stood at the center. Reade pointed out the comedy in this representation, for Charles I viewed himself as the earth in a geocentric universe when the world had moved on to the heliocentric model of the solar system. Like the earth, so too did Charles I, along with his sovereign power, become decentralized.

So sovereignty can be a solar system, or perhaps it can simply be a knight, an “organ of divine might” as described in The Faerie Queen. Ross Lerner, an assistant professor at Occidental College, focused on this metaphorical organ that the Redcrosse knight uses to describe himself. More specifically, Lerner focused on the challenges that this metaphor presents, as it treads the line between political sovereignty and religious fanaticism, raising the question of theology’s role in sovereignty.

John Rogers Photo credit: Cynthia De Luna
John Rogers
Photo credit: Cynthia De Luna

John Rogers, a professor of English at Yale University, addressed this question to open the conference’s third panel, concerning bodies. Rogers explored the metaphysics of Mormonism and its relationship with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The panel’s focus on physicality extended into talks of the Alliterative Morte, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, and Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther. Beatrice Bradley, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, most directly addressed this physicality by speaking of the body as a metaphor for sovereignty. She argued that in Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra physically presents herself in a way that depicts her reign as beyond mortal. However, Stephanie Ranks, a graduate student at Yale University, saw physicality as something potentially threatening to sovereignty over a whole. In The Blazing World, Ranks spoke of how vision can create numerous perspectives and interpretations and divide a people, leaving them in need of a sovereign who would have to unite them under one point of view.

The question of unity also ran through the conference’s final panel, concerning violence. With all the different interpretations that metaphors can

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table illustrating wholeness and "holeness"
King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table illustrating wholeness and “holeness”

imply, how are sovereigns to maintain unity over their people? How do bodies within a political context remain as one cohesive being? This was explored in Donne’s Satyres, Havelok the Dane, Athelston, and Le Morte D’Arthur. This final work especially addresses the question of unity and wholeness, or “holeness,” as co-organizer Gina Dominick presented it to us. The text concerns a desire for wholeness in Arthur’s fellowship, but this can only come about at the expense of Arthur’s knights. The wholeness of his realm depends on disharmony.

The multiplicitous nature of this disharmony speaks to all the substitutions that occur within a metaphor, as Paul Strohm suggested in his paper on Chaucer. These metaphors are open to interpretation, and while that may lead to differing views, much like in The Blazing World, this leaves room for, as Strohm said, “commentary and critique.”

And of course, that’s exactly the kind of polyvocal experience the conference as a whole provided. Like all the most interesting discussions, “Sovereignty and Metaphor” found ways to complicate the matter at hand, helping us towards a richer understanding of its terms.

Check out the PDF here