Personification and the Political Imagination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Amanda Bailey visited our seminar to discuss her work on the philosophic and political imagination of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Through her reading of the play, Bailey illuminates forms of agency and consent that arise out of the fluid intermingling of human and nonhuman entities rather than the embodied and self-contained sovereign subject. Offering a “glimpse of community beyond the semantics of proprium,” Bailey suggests, A Midsummer Night’s Dream gestures toward “an alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” (3).

Bailey elaborates this fundamental claim through two interwoven threads. First, she examines how metamorphosis functions in the play—not as a process whereby one autonomous and stable ontological entity is transformed into another, but rather as a moment or space of perpetual becoming wherein a series of binary distinctions—subject–object, self–other, man-beast, being-in-itself and being-for-itself—dissolve: a space of “mutability and assemblage” rather than fixity and individuation.

Second and relatedly, Bailey advances—via a close engagement with early modern political thought and early modern contract law—a nuanced critique of how the play figures the conjoined philosophic problems of personhood and consent. The “space of persona” opened up in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals the mutability of the human as an ontological category and challenges the political and philosophic ascendancy of the willful sovereign subject—and by extension the structures of state or market dominance with which it is bound.

Central to Bailey’s argument is a lucid exegesis of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Bailey uses Locke’s meditations on non-corporeal personhood to evince the ways in which, as she puts it, “personification is an enabling condition of the collective rather than a crisis of the individual” (6). It’s worth noting, though, that in other texts, most notably the chapter “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulates personhood and consent in the context of a robust defense of primitive accumulation. His famous claim that “every Man has a property in his own person” prefaces an extended reflection on the virtues of enclosure, in England as in the New World (116; ch. 5). And in testifying to the emancipatory powers of money, Locke intimates that when by universal consent money is endowed with value, universal consent is also bestowed upon the inequality that money inevitably produces (Ince 35).

Locke’s philosophic treatment of concepts such as personhood and consent, in other words, was complicit in the naturalization of capitalist and colonial processes. Bailey’s summoning of Locke alongside Shakespeare in the service of imagining an “alternative to dominion and the violence it inspires” is thus somewhat paradoxical. But this contrapuntal application of Locke is precisely what lends her argument its power. She enacts a dialectical move that salvages Locke’s notion of the disembodied person from the uses to which political systems founded on the logic of perpetual accumulation have put it. If Locke’s thought provides philosophic support for capitalist social relations it also, Bailey conveys, contains conceptual tools that might be wielded in the service of alternative social formations.

In this, Bailey affirms an important insight of Stuart Hall’s. The moment of economic determinism, Hall contends in “The Problem of Ideology,” is in the first instance, not the last. Even if our ideas of freedom, equality, personhood, the individual, consent, etc. “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” what this conceptual vocabulary signifies is never fixed, is always open to contestation and transformation (34).

The contest over what concepts such as “personhood” and “consent” describe, however, is today being won by the ideology of the market. If one lineage of disembodied personhood leads to radical social formations beyond the logic of dominion another finds its terminus in the heart of our own neoliberal moment, wherein a legal fiction, the corporation, is afforded the First Amendment right to free speech. This is not to contradict the anticipatory tenor of Bailey’s account, but rather to highlight its urgency.

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx observed that the universalization of commodity rationality makes “definite social relations between men . . . [assume] the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165; ch. 1).  Today as then, the “personification of things” and the “thingification of persons”—the commoditization of human life itself—are two sides of the same coin. Bailey’s vibrant contribution is to shed light upon alternative cultures of personification that might counter rather than express the alienation of human bodies and human communities.

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