Thursday, April 2, 2020

Isaac Ariail Reed's "Power in Modernity"

Isaac Ariail Reed is associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King's Two Bodies, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies is the first page of the Introduction to Part II of the book. It launches a shift in the text, from the theorizations of power that made up part I to the problem of grasping something new about transitions to modernity in the Atlantic World in the 17th and 18th centuries. It reads, in part:
If I am allowed what has been said so far, in the speech genre of social theory, caught up as it is between the abstract and the general, certain aspects of the historical formation of the present come into sharper view… When power formations falter or run up against other ways of organizing high politics; when violence breaks out, and state violence is mobilized to quell violence with more violence; when rebel leaders must find ways to send and bind those under them, despite the uncertainty of troubled times; then we see the articulation of the underlying cognitive, moral, and aesthetic orders that render politics possible; we see the performing-into-being of new power configurations as contested solutions to problems of rule bequeathed by older configurations, which themselves some choose to defend in new terms.
And then later: “Liminality reveals regime.”

Does the test work? In part. The writing—declarative but overwrought, intense but also a bit precious—is probably good preparation for the rest of the work. If you like it, you’ll like the book. If you hate it… well, good luck if it is assigned to you in your graduate seminar. Of course, I just think it is true.

Page 99 also expresses the book’s preference for conceptual method over certain kinds of methodological fetishism, and it certainly represents well the historicizing ambitions that Power in Modernity harbors for the social sciences. It also reveals a certain old-fashioned affinity I have for Michel Foucault that is perhaps counterintuitive, given my findings about, and interpretations of, early modern English/British North America, the early American republic, and the French Revolution. I disagree, fiercely, with certain Foucauldian hypotheses about power in modernity, but adore, deeply to the point of failed imitation, Dr. Foucault’s ambition to combine high theory and historical detail.

What appears as a minor phrase on this page—“rebel leaders must find ways to send and bind those under them”—in fact encompasses and references a central obsession of the book: the delegation of tasks to agents, and the power relations that are forged thereby. One might then say that the reader of page 99 is not well prepared by that page in particular to understand what I mean by “regime”: long, overlapping chains of delegation, exclusion from these chains, and the representation of both of these in culture.

Furthermore, page 99—which is not a full page, given the heading—does not do much to introduce a central theme of Part II, namely that the “King’s Two Bodies,” understood as a cultural trope rather than a legal doctrine, constituted a remarkably practical way to tie together hierarchies built in the pursuit of various projects-in-the-world. Nor does this page use the vocabulary introduced in part one as part of a new theory of power—rector, actor, other.

Despite these misses, however, the page does give the impression of an author who seeks to inherit a variety of classic works in the human sciences on power, and yet also needs to reach for (though perhaps fail to find) something “reconfigured”—that is, something new. In this way, page 99 genuinely represents my inner life when I began to write up the historical studies that make up the core of the book. I felt then that the concepts that I had used so far in my research were not going to be quite enough, and that I needed—of all people!—Ernst Kantorowicz on my side. My book owes immensely large debts to certain great thinkers on power, whose names will not surprise: Hegel, Weber, Du Bois, Arendt, Butler. But somehow the King’s Two Bodies kept coming through as I worked on the history. So, I adopted Dr. Kantorowicz…
Visit Isaac Ariail Reed's website.

--Marshal Zeringue