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Cosmopolitanism and abjection in Montesquieu's "Persian Letters"

Veronica A O'Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

One of the questions at stake in contemporary theoretical debates over the legacy of the Enlightenment is whether the political violence that has been carried out over the last two centuries is inextricably linked to the rationalist values promoted by the Enlightenment. This critique of the political and social legacy of the Enlightenment challenges us to consider how Montesquieu's writings may inform our understanding of the disintegration and formation of social-political bonds and identities. Drawing on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theories, this dissertation explores how Julia Kristeva's theory of the "demarcating imperative" of abjection illuminates both her claim for the critical significance of Montesquieu's Persian Letters and her argument for a cosmopolitanism based on an "ethics of psychoanalysis." ^ The chapters that follow examine how the differences that produce the meaning of the subject and the symbolic order in the text—nature and culture; the pure and the impure; man and woman; human and nonhuman; violence and nonviolence; life and death—are articulated in relation to the figuration of the abject. Chapter one begins an exploration of two movements of the epistolary journey of the fictional foreigner. During one movement of the epistolary journey, the production of critical knowledge has the effect of destabilizing the subject and the symbolic order. In a second movement, the articulation of knowledge functions to contain the uncanny strangeness of the enlightened subject.^ Through a reading of the myth of the Troglodytes and the story of Apheridon, chapter two addresses how the signification of violence functions in the production and destruction of a symbolic order and how monetary exchanges offer the abject cosmopolitan an imaginary refuge from violent nondifferentiation.^ Chapter three begins with an analysis of how rhetorical figures operate in the epistolary exchanges to both produce the meaning of the symbolic order of France and signify a crisis of political signification. This examination of how signifying practices function as sacrificial rites presents the paradox that the Persian Letters both allows for a critical analysis of abjection and participates in the demarcation of a symbolic order that functions to deny consciousness of our uncanny strangeness.^

Subject Area

Romance literature|Political science

Recommended Citation

O'Connor, Veronica A, "Cosmopolitanism and abjection in Montesquieu's "Persian Letters"" (2008). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3315533.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3315533

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