240G - 001 | CCN: 23131

Rhetorical Theory

The Layers of the World: Law, History, Political Theology

Instructor: Samera Esmeir,

4 Units

What are the world’s constitutive forces and dimensions, how have its signifiers shifted, and what are the political and ethical consequences of these shifts? Several contemporary disciplines that attach the concept “world” to their objects of inquiry (e.g. world history, world literature, world politics, world agriculture, world cinema) take the world to consist of territorial units (such as the state), the relationships between them, and the movements across them in time. The world, in these accounts, is an expanding stage to be progressively captured by history, law, politics as well as other disciplines that are preoccupied with comparison, translation, and movement. Alternatively, the critical versions of these disciplines emphasize the politics of translatability, including untranslatability. These critical versions refuse the unification of the world and the homogenization of its markers. Nevertheless, they share in the assumption that the world is a material stage for human and nonhuman forms of life, production and movement. In this seminar, we trace the historical rise of the world as a territorial stage in legal and political thought, and explore its material unification by the bonds of the sea, thereby enabling the world’s expansion and its (colonial) capturing (as in the oceanic journeys of the fifteenth century). We juxtapose this rise to narratives about the sea that endow it with other horizons and disruptive potentialities. In addition, we trace articulations of the world that did not limit it to nation states, as in the nineteenth century signifier “the international,” which also brought about a more radical split between the local and the international. We probe the possibility of a world not constituted by the split between domestic and international law. Special attention will be also given to the temporal and other non-material dimensions of the world, as articulated in pre-modern, including Islamic, theological accounts, and their potential persistence in contemporary concepts, even as time, too, has transformed and become homogenous. Our readings will include texts from the natural law tradition, political and legal thought, Islamic theological texts, continental philosophy, and histories of the early modern state, territory, sea and time.
Note: I am organizing a two-day workshop titled ‘World, Imperium, International: Thinking with Ottoman and Islamic Pasts.” Students enrolled in the seminar will be encouraged to read the pre-circulated papers of the invited participants and attend the workshop.