Symposium and Workshop on States of Early Modernity

Christopher Saxton, Atlas of England and Wales, Case G 1045 .78
Christopher Saxton, Atlas of England and Wales, Case G 1045 .78
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Other Renaissance Programs
Friday, October 14, 2011

9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

With the resurgence of interest in the history of sovereignty, the study of the early modern period has gained a new resonance in contemporary critical and political debates. The history of the present is often constituted through early modern precedents, and the origins of the modern state are conventionally traced to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly as an effect of the innovative theoretical models outlined by Machiavelli, Bodin, Gentili, Grotius, Hobbes, and Spinoza.

This one-day symposium and workshop offers a reexamination of the dominant narratives of early modern state formation and sovereignty. Part of our critique will reflect on the ways that the study of early modern sovereignty has developed a troubling homogeneity in recent years: a model initially formulated by Bodin and Hobbes to legitimate a distinctive politics of absolutism has become an orthodox critical paradigm through the influential theoretical work of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. However, exclusive attention to this particular tradition has served to elide a variety of political forms that circulated in the early modern period. Critical discussions have consequently lost sight of the contested status of early modern political theory, and the extent to which rival models competed for authority and influenced political practice.

Speakers     |     About the Symposium

Introductory remarks
Mark Netzloff, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“This Island’s Mine”? Sovereignty, the Common, and the Limits of Liberalism
Crystal Bartolovich, Syracuse University

Maritime Modernity and the Early Modern State
Ania Loomba, University of Pennsylvania
             
Rethinking Sovereignty: Machiavelli and Spinoza
Victoria Kahn, University of California, Berkeley
             
Roundtable discussion and workshop: The Legacies of the Early Modern State (based on precirculated readings)
Led by Mark Netzloff

About the Symposium
One of the goals of this symposium is to explore alternative forms of early modern political life. As reflected in our title–which emphasizes states of early modernity rather than a monolithic early modern state–we will analyze the dynamic and unsettled parameters of early modern political debates. Some of the questions we will pursue include:

  • To what extent can we speak of “democratic” forces in this period?
  • How did early modern state formation intersect with the emergence of competing publics, or with more radical defenses of the commons and customary traditions?
  • Was the early modern state “capitalist,” and what was the contributing role of trade and economic production to the theorization of sovereignty?
  • And, finally, what was the relation of the early modern state to extraterritorial histories of colonialism, empire, and international law?    

In addition, our discussions will extend beyond the boundaries of periodization as we examine the political and theoretical legacies of early modern sovereignty. In analyzing “states of early modernity,” we will emphasize the integral role of the early modern state in critical work on the cultural and historical foundations of modernity. Our object of study is therefore not only the early modern state, but also the subsequent uses of early modern models of sovereignty for imagining the advent of the modern.

The afterlife of the early modern state and its place in contemporary debates will be the focus of the symposium’s final session: a roundtable seminar discussion based on a group of pre-circulated critical readings. Alongside extracts from early modern political writers, we will look at contemporary theorists–such as Balibar, Foucault, and Negri–whose work addresses the abiding influence of the early modern period on the political life of the historical present.

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