Torrey Shanks, The Rhetoric of Contract and Commitment [2018 C4eJ 3] (Book Forum)

[read the rest of the Symposium on Mara Marin, Connected by Commitment: Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine It (2017)]

Torrey Shanks*

Connected by Commitment is a provocative book in the best sense of the word. It asks us to reimagine the concept of obligation, traditionally reserved for a narrow slice of political life oriented toward sovereignty, as instead an open-ended activity of commitment, situated in the unbounded realm of social life. The book invites readers into this new mode of thinking by means of analogy and it is the choice of analogies between intimate, parental, and friendship relations and social structures that provokes in an unexpected and creative path, particularly so for those of us influenced by feminist theory and democratic theory influenced by Hannah Arendt. Why would we want to take some of our most flawed and gendered ways of binding ourselves as a vehicle for picturing our connections to one another, for good and bad? Marriage, in particular, stands out as an uncomfortable image for a feminist reimagining of social structures.

And yet, there is something very powerful about the invocation of our most familiar (and familial) relations, comprehensible in the most personal terms, in order to make vivid the social structures that easily seem abstract and impersonal. Perhaps this is what it means to really think the personal as political?

The provocation deepens, however, when we consider this work of analogy in relation to the social contract tradition that provides the backdrop for the intervention that Connected by Commitment makes. In chapter 3, a strong case is made for a break from the social contract tradition, exemplified by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and its posing of judgment as a problem for which law is the solution. This chapter is important for the way that it reorients our view of law as something that connects us in interdependent relationships, rather than insulating us from one another’s influence, as liberal frameworks often have it.

The break with the social contract tradition is not entirely clean, however. There is a striking compatibility between Connected by Commitment and the tradition it seeks to break from, in a method, or style, that proceeds by analogies that travel between domestic life and that of social and political community. Contracts can be social or political, we learn from Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, but they also feature prominently in marriage and employment. In fact, the contract as a political device makes sense precisely because it resembles more familiar arrangements of marriage, property, and labour. The social contract theorists take such ordinary and established practices and import them into new territory for consent and contract, with sometimes reassuring and sometimes shocking consequences.

The rethinking of obligation across these various kinds of relationships is something that links Connected by Commitment to the tradition that in other ways it seeks distance from. I want to explore this disavowed connection to ask if it might not bring into focus a long-standing method of creative political thinking that is exemplified in Connected by Commitment and that finds unlikely resources in the very tradition it challenges.

It is not for nothing that Locke dedicated extensive consideration of the figure of Eve as wife and mother in the First Treatise of Government and that he put so much effort into disproving the absolutist argument that children are under the complete control of their fathers, as if they were property available for use, sale, or destruction. Even though Locke asserts the fundamentally different nature of parental and political authority, following Aristotle, it is hard to ignore the way that his defense of authority as shared by mothers and fathers enables readers to more readily accept, even envision, the plausibility of divided sovereignty. The analogies between family and political society are even closer in both Hobbes and Rousseau. In one of the more spectacular, if tortured, examples, Hobbes imagines mothering as a relation of consent, given by the infant in exchange for its survival. Rousseau’s sentimentalized fathers and children figure affective ties to one’s native city and fellow citizens. For many feminist readers, these analogies smuggle inegalitarian and gendered qualities of home and marriage into the social contract and political life more generally. Perhaps they just didn’t go far enough?

As it turns out, the social contract theorists themselves were not entirely novel in their trafficking in public and private images of authority. Not only did they cobble the social contract out of a mixture drawn from natural law, Protestant covenants, and economic contracts under the common law, they also borrowed and reworked familial images of authority from practices of medieval kingship. Monarchs had long authorized their power through tropes of filial and parental devotion.[1] Instead of rejecting this familial rhetoric, social contract theorists rewired a “libidinal economy” of authority to generate a new rights-bearing and consenting political subject.[2] This stylized intermixing of claims of human nature, convention, and creativity afforded many different iterations of contractual logic. Political authority figured as a marriage contract could be presented as a voluntary affirmation of a natural hierarchy, with the king as husband and the wife as subjects. But metaphors do travel, and frequently into the hands of political opponents, as they did in the radical upheavals of the English Civil Wars where Parliamentarian Henry Parker cast the king in the feminized position of the wife. The familial and marital language of power afforded a capacious range of political implications, from absolutism and republicanism to nascent democratic thought. Could it do so for feminism in a democratic mode?

Connected by Commitment, in a certain sense, engages in this kind of creative and critical practice of thinking figurally across public and private. We might see this as part and parcel of a feminist practice that challenges liberal divisions between public and private, which certainly is part of the purpose of this book. But that risks overlooking some of the productively uncomfortable ways the book thinks between intimate relations and public life that would not necessarily sit easily with many feminist and democratic modes of thought. I say this because political theorists often want to protect the public sphere from other forms of human relations, something that liberals can share with agonistic democrats. This risks making the political realm into a rarified place that is hard to conceptualize in any ordinary sense – have we ever really experienced the political? It can be hard to say. But Connected by Commitment calls our attention to the ways we have experienced personal relationships in the form of friendship, intimate and marital bonds, and coworkers. If we draw upon these examples, we can come to better understand the nature of our unequal and unjust relationships to one another as well as a better route to enacting their transformation. Like an earlier wave of social contract theories, the book invokes ordinary and established practices to make social and legal structures and their transformation thinkable in new ways. Unlike those earlier versions, it does so in a way that challenges, rather than reproduces, the inegalitarian relations of our domestic sphere. It only makes sense to pursue this project if we recognize how the creative work of analogy between private and public relations does not necessarily reproduce the inequality from which it begins. In more concrete terms, to think with figures of marriage, parenting and friendship is to think what we do in pursuit of doing those things in altered ways.

To say this somewhat differently, there is a challenging recursivity to the analogies that goes beyond the earlier tradition. We, as readers, are invited to think about our intimate and domestic relations in ordinary life from which to develop an account of structural relations that can then be used to critically reassess our social and personal obligations and arrangements. This is not a break from the social contract tradition’s rhetorical moves, but perhaps delivers a radicalized version of them — a task I have elsewhere argued in favour of for the critical contract theories of Carole Pateman and Charles Mills.[3]

What is refreshing and creative in this book is the effort to deepen our thinking about the public nature of our intimate, caring, and work relations. It is not just to identify private modes of oppression and propose public solutions or to make these relations the subject of political debate. These things are important, but the novelty in Connected by Commitment is to reconceptualize these relations as much more akin to political action – that is, as open-ended and relational activity. Implicitly what this analysis does is to show how analogies can smuggle new ways of thinking into old forms – and what is smuggled is not only covert oppression and inequality, but possibly new ways of thinking and acting more politically.

* Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

[1] Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies. Princeton University Press, 1957.

[2] Victoria Kahn. Wayward Contracts. Princeton University Press, 2004, 58. For discussion of Henry Parker’s claim, mentioned below, see 102.

[3] Torrey Shanks, “Affect, Critique, and the Social Contract,” Theory & Event 18.1 (2015).


Kahn, Victoria. Wayward Contracts. Princeton University Press, 2004, 58. For discussion of Henry Parker’s claim, mentioned below, see 102.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies. Princeton University Press, 1957.

Shanks, Torrey. “Affect, Critique, and the Social Contract,” Theory & Event 18.1 (2015).