Architectures of Violence: Defoe's Political Spaces
Christopher F. Loar
The following abstract is for a larger study presented in two parts: one at the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, PA in December 2009 and the other at ASECS in Albuquerque, NM, in March 2010. Both presentations are drawn from a manuscript in progress on fictional explorations of sovereignty, war, and “savagery” in the long eighteenth century.
“I must confess I was never at the sacking a city, or at the taking a town by storm. I had heard of Oliver Cromwell taking Drogheda, in Ireland, and killing man, woman, and child; and I had read of Count Tilly sacking the city of Magdeburg and cutting the throats of twenty-two thousand of all sexes; but I never had an idea of the thing itself before, nor is it possible to describe it, or the horror that was upon our minds at hearing it.” (Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe)
Robinson Crusoe interprets the massacre he witnesses in Madagascar through narratives of atrocity in Ireland and Europe. But it could also be said that his reading of massacres in Europe is conditioned by his understanding of the political space of the “savage.” This paper turns attention to Defoe's writings on fortification and the role of fortresses in transforming the political space of savage locations-and, implicitly, of Britain as well. Fortresses are emblems of state power both on the colonial frontier and within Britain itself; Defoe's writings attend both to the dangers of “savage” spaces—unfortified and shapeless fields of violence—and to fortresses as agents of violence and emblems of the modern state.
The two novels that followed Robinson Crusoe -- The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton (1720) -- experiment with and criticize the common conception of Britain as a political space that is natural or customary rather than one established through founding acts of violence or through explicit moments of contractual consent. In crucial scenes that depict massacres in precolonial spaces, Defoe's texts transplant this conception of Britain's political space into savage contexts, staging confrontations between sovereign spaces in natural and customary forms, on the one hand, and more modern, technologically-enhanced versions on the other. Crusoe's fellow merchants defile the spatial customs of their Madagascan hosts in a confrontation that culminates in the horrifying massacre described above. Captain Singleton's benign pirates briefly find themselves stymied by hostile savages who defend their island from plunder with a “fortress” that is in fact a hollow tree; Singleton's siege of this natural fortress culminates in a horrific act of genocide that transforms the fortress, quite literally, into a cannon. In both cases, Defoe's treatment of savages and their political spaces make visible the fragility of political spaces established only through custom. As modernity, figured by gunpowder, devastates customary or natural space, certain contradictions in the relationship between civility and political space become visible and the boundary between the savage and the civil becomes blurred. The modern state and its fortresses, these texts suggest, may be necessary to contain the passions and desires unleashed by the modern world, and yet may be more savage than the subjects they must subdue.