The Flights (and Fights) of Virtual Motion: Professor John Guillory gives a talk on Thomas Hobbes (by Peter Tasca)

On the crisp fall evening of October 13th, students and faculty crowded into the English department’s Event Space to hear Professor John Guillory’s lecture entitled “Hobbesian Rhetoric and the Poetics of Virtual Motion.” Guillory–the author of Poetic Authority (1983), Cultural Capital (1993), and What’s Left of Theory? (2000)– was warmly introduced by his colleague and friend Professor Susanne Wofford, the Dean of the Gallatin School. Professor Wofford emphasized in her introduction the distinctiveness of Guillory’s work by highlighting what she identified as its three modes: figural, historicist, and literary historical readings. In a typical essay by Guillory, we find ourselves deeply immersed in a historicist account of, say, how the institutional development of Standard English affected the reception and canonization of Thomas Gray’s Elegy in A Country Churchyard when, all of a sudden, the text switches gears, treating us to a close examination of the poem’s tropes and figures. As we are whisked amongst these three different frameworks, Wofford says, we start to rethink the last one we were in and to observe the conversation that occurs between them.

After Wofford concluded, Guillory took the lectern to argue for the place of poetry in the philosophical system Thomas Hobbes outlined in his 1651 political classic the Leviathan. While scholars of Hobbes have had much to say about his ambivalent views on rhetoric, they have too often neglected the role that poetry plays in his work, specifically in his Answer to Sir William Davenant’s Preface before Gondibert. But it’s precisely his complex relationship to rhetoric, Guillory argued, that gives poetry a vital function within the philosopher’s project.
Hobbes, Guillory explained, is the philosopher of motion and his dour universe consists of bodies, or matter in motion, pushing toward or away from each other in endless strife. For Hobbes, the laws of motion extend to the way the mind interacts with the world, where the objects of the senses are not seen in themselves, but are interpreted through impressions or phantasms which press in upon the organs of taste, touch, sight, and sound. The emotions, as their name suggests, are moving bodies embodied, colliding with one another and derailing the orderly progress of right reason. It is rhetoric that produces this “commotion of the passions,” these “perturbations of the mind” and it is against rhetoric that Hobbes directs his ire in the Leviathan, claiming that its direct political consequence is rebellion against the sovereign and, consequently, the unraveling of the social fabric.

In this way, the natural science and political philosophy of Hobbes inhabit a single continuum, for the friction between bodies of matter is used as a proto-scientific explanation for the origins of social conflict. Hobbes bridges the gap between the body politic and bodies of matter through the body of man, particularly the embodied mental processes of psychology in the passions and the emotions. Yet, according to Guillory, this complex system of internal and external bodies operating upon one another is troubled by the notion of rhetoric. It is rhetoric that raises the problem of agency at a distance, whether words, images, and metaphors can be just as powerful in their internal effects as the actual objects of sense. If the more controversial claims of Hobbesian politics find their justification in this psychology of corporeal bodies, then it is rhetoric that exposes the weakness of this hinge by producing instances where social antagonism fails to be explained by their interaction.

Just one such instance is the power of words in metaphor in which like to unlike sense impressions are joined together, producing phantasms that trigger the emotions and exceed the bounds of signs of semantic content. Hobbes trains his sights on metaphor, in particular, saying that they are “like ignes fatui, and reasoning upon them, is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities.” And yet, as Guillory pointed out, Hobbes cannot base his attack against metaphor without marshaling all the other devices of rhetoric, with the simile on the will o’ the wisps in the previous sentence doing just fine to underwrite that very real absurdity. In metaphor, words rebel against their intended meanings just as the dissenters of the state rebel against the sovereign. And, again and again, in his battle with metaphor, Hobbes makes performative contradictions that threaten the autonomy of his system and its orderly procession of logic.

But just as in the political realm where the terms of transcending the violent antagonisms of men are provided by the fiction of the social contract, so the disruptions and scattered motions of rhetoric are resolved by Hobbes into the virtual motion and unity of poetry. And it is in this way that the Answer to Sir William Davenant is like a dreamy footnote to the Leviathan. Whereas, in the latter work, “the workmanship of fancy” must “be guided by the Precepts of true Philosophy,” the former’s excursus into poetry shows that when “these precepts fail…there the Architect [of Fancy] must take the philosopher’s part upon herself.” For it is in the metaphor of the sovereign that Hobbes finds the ultimate embodiment of his own imagination. His excursus into poetry, Guillory concluded, offers a brief respite from the ravages of civil war, a benighted kingdom where all antagonisms and conflict are converted into the fights and flights of virtual motion.

After Guillory finished, he took several questions from the audience members, including Professors Richard Halpern and Wendy Lee, on topics related to the status of Wisdom in the philosophy as well as the lack of mimesis or imitation in the conception of rhetoric Hobbes offers. As these questions proved, Guillory’s project will doubtless jump-start its own train of commotion amongst the critical spheres of Hobbesian scholarship.