De Sade, War, and Civil Society

The trouble with writing about the first two Terra Ignota books is knowing quite where to begin. They’re dense in ways that much modern science fiction is not. They engage with the existing literature and traditions, but quite unashamedly demand that readers abandon the usual reading protocols. If Gene Wolfe is one obvious point of reference (not only the New Sun books – Bridger seems to have stepped right out of The Eyeflash Miracles), the books are not in the Wolfeian tradition – they’re something of their own – counter, original, spare and strange. Not all of it worked for me, but what did work, worked very well indeed.

Palmer is an intellectual historian. It is a truism of historiography (more precisely – it was a truism when I studied it in graduate school two decades ago, and I hope it still is) that the ambition of studying history wie es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened, is both impossible and undesirable. Every age puts the travails of its predecessors to its own uses, taking up those parts that seem handy, wrenching them as needs be to fit into new machineries, and abandoning those pieces that cannot be made work. What seems to me entirely original in Palmer’s books is how she uses these processes of historical appropriations to build a bridge to a fictional future. Science fiction needs to build worlds that are sufficiently strange to seem alienating, but not so alienating as to be incomprehensible. As I read her (everything I say below may of course be wrong!) Palmer uses parallel misprisions of the Enlightenment to sustain the connection between the imagined 25th century she wants her readers to explore, and the actual 21st century that they inhabit. Both ages interpret and misinterpret the ideas of the Enlightenment to justify and explain a myriad of social institutions. However, they take up quite different parts of the Enlightenment and use them to quite different ends. Most obviously, Providence is far more important to Mycroft Canner (and his peers ??) than it is to us today. Carlyle is taken up for his Great Man theory, while his racism and curdled conservatism are forgotten. Canner’s role as a historian provides another bridge held up by misunderstandings – he explains more than he might explain to a contemporary, because he fancies himself to be writing for future generations, though in point of fact he is writing for the past.

There are many questions I’d like answers to. There are also aspects of the book that I had difficulties with – the plot – all elaborate machinations among a very few people who combine vast power with extreme ability – sometimes seems more a fiction composed by the Humanists of the book than the structure that should contain that fiction. Some, or all, of this is surely intentional – in the second book, one of the characters suggests that his story is as extravagant as that of the Count of Monte Cristo. Palmer – or Palmer’s narrator seems to be subjecting the matter of science fiction to older narrative forms. She also signals that the narrator, while seductive (Canner’s voice is extraordinary, especially when it is digressive) is not at all to be trusted. We’re left, Carlo Ginzburg-like, trying to decipher an entire and complex world whose existence we know of only through the deranged subjectivity of a decidedly odd individual. For me at least, a guide as to why Palmer has written the kind of story she has written would be extremely helpful.

That’s an aside. I’d like to throw out two sets of ideas that might or might not be right – about the relationship between the modern reception of Enlightenment ideas and their imagined reception in Palmer’s future. I’ve a better chance of getting away with this than anything resembling real inquiry into the Enlightenment itself. I can’t claim any very exacting knowledge of the eighteenth century, but I’m a card carrying member of a discipline which is about as imbued with Enlightenment ideals of rational inquiry into society as it’s possible to get. What is interesting is that this is not the part of the Enlightenment that gets picked up (e.g. Condorcet seems to have vanished). More on that later.

de Sade

I’ve never had the patience to read de Sade’s own books – they sound as though one has to wade through a lot of repetitive material to get to the insights. I have however read Angela Carter’s book The Sadeian Woman which provides a modernish take – not that it’s the same thing, but if one wants to compare 21st and 25th century interpretations of de Sade, it’s at least a start. It’s a wonderful, angry book – theories drawn from 1970s feminism and imbued with Carter’s relish for the grotesque and fantastic. Carter puts de Sade’s books to work that they were hardly intended for, drawing upon them to illustrate the ways in which women (and men) are trapped in essentialized roles.

Carter argues that even while pornography portrays absolutes and purported archetypes, sex is historically contingent

The nature of actual modes of sexual intercourse is determined by historical changes in less intimate human relations, just as the actual nature of men and women is capable of infinite modulations as social structures change.

de Sade is valuable because he is

capable of believing, even if only intermittently, that it is possible to radically transform society and, with it, human nature, so that the Old Adam, exemplified in God, the King and the Law, the trifold masculine symbolism of authority, will take his final departure from amongst us. Only then will freedom be possible; until then, the freedom of one class, or sex, or individual necessitates the unfreedom of others.


his work as a pornographer is more descriptive and diagnostic than proscriptive and prophetic. He creates, not an artificial paradise of gratified sexuality but a model of hell, in which the gratification of sexuality involves the infliction and the tolerance of extreme pain. He describes sexual relations in the context of an unfree society as the expression of pure tyranny, usually by men upon women, sometimes by men upon men, sometimes by women upon men and other women; the one constant to all Sade’s monstrous orgies is that the whip hand is always the hand with the real political power and the victim is a person who has little or no power at all, or has had it stripped from him. In this schema, male means tyrannous and female means martyrised, no matter what the official genders of the male and female beings are.

Carter isn’t attracted by de Sade’s notions of what sex should be, which are a parodic version of the mores of a society where men do what they will and women suffer what they must. Carter wants freedoms that de Sade is unwilling to countenance, so that love between and among men and women can be liberated from the empire of force. What she is interested in is his diagnosis of the relationship between power and sex – conducting philosophy in the boudoir implies that the “bed is now as public as the dinner table and governed by the same rules of formal confrontation.” Sade is important more because of the questions he raises than the answers he provides. To clearly depict the power relations between the tyrannous male and the martyrized female is to take a crucial step towards figuring out how to escape them. For Carter, working through de Sade and past him offers the utopian possibility of freedom from the pre-determined roles of male and female.

She doesn’t even begin to spell out what this utopia would look like, which makes it far easier for me to throw her argument against Palmer’s future semi-Utopian society (which Carter, who was as close to an f/sf writer herself as makes no difference, might have had very interesting things to say about). Palmer’s 25th century is one in which the gender dynamics that Carter writes about appear at first glance to have disappeared. Indeed discussion of gender has been banned from polite society (this is a utopia in which – as we see from the very first page – both censorship and social norms strictly discipline public discussion). Canner inquires very early on in the first book:

Does it distress you reader, how I remind you of their sexes in each sentence? ‘Hers’ and ‘his’? Does it make you see them naked in each other’s arms, and even fill this plain scene with wanton sensuality? Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they’, pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh.

He (if Canner is indeed a he – I would guess that he would say so, regardless of his physical gender) [^fn3] wants to shock the reader’s presumed sensibilities, by repeatedly using gendered pronouns and adjectives to describe others. Yet his understanding of gender borrows from de Sade, at least as Carter presents him. Dominic Seneschal seems to be biologically female but is described as male, because of his cruelty and desire for mastery, while Carlyle Foster temporarily becomes female when she exemplifies the values of kindness, tenderness and good works). Sniper warns us not to trust Canner’s assignations of gender to characters, since Canner has been tainted by Madame.

Madame is one of the few characters whose physical gender we can be reasonably sure of – she has carried a child to term. She is a Madame in the sense both of a woman who has achieved a certain formal status in society, and the operator of a brothel. Although, as she prefers to describe her establishment, it is

a Gendered Sex Club. I offer our members archaic sex, with old-fashioned gender differentiated men and women. Our clients like to seduce or be seduced, and enjoy skirts or breeches, rather than the neutered egalitarian copulation one gets outside nowadays.

de Sade, who is frequently invoked in the book, is the presiding genius of Madame’s operation. This is not because the establishment’s habitues are sadists and masochists:

The Marquis’s is an exciting name, but we we have no need of most of the things associated with him, our clients get quite enough of the thrill of the forbidden with gender.

but because ideas and gender have become intimately conjoined in a world where both are so greatly constricted. Public discussion of religion is forbidden in Palmer’s 25th century as a likely cause of faction, so that Madame’s club one of the few places where one can enjoy the thrill of illicit speculation about ultimate meanings. Philosophy is forbidden in the agora and has hence retreated to the boudoir.

Since in the modern day discussing religion has become forbidden again, just as it was in the eighteenth century when anything radical could get you executed, the thrill is back too.

On Canner’s own reading (presented both through his own speculation and his reporting of what others say), Madame’s success in attracting clients shows how hard it is for a society to get away from gender. He finds in Sade something quite different from Carter’s “infinite modulations” of what men and women are, depending on their social and political contexts. Canner isn’t a gender essentialist. His theory of gender seems less an argument about true nature than deeply embedded historical habits – the old habits of gender have existed for thousands of years, so they are not easily erased by newer practices of gender-neutral courtship. Yet he suggests that beneath the professed public non-interest in gender lurks a generalized prurient curiosity about questions such as whether Sniper has male or female genitals.

Palmer’s characters find something very different in de Sade than does Carter. For Carter, de Sade’s frankness about power relations opens up the hope and possibility that things could be different, and that men and women could decide who they want to be if social circumstances were radically rearranged. For Palmer’s characters, de Sade offers the possibility of escape from a society in which there is no gender, to one where gender is omnipresent and alluring and linked to the discussion of forbidden topics allowing all kinds of play with identity that aren’t possible when sexual identities blur into homogeneity.[^fn1]

The “Sadeian Woman” of Carter’s book is one who has achieved a limited agency in a male world, by becoming like a man, a cruel dominator of others.

his great women, Juliette, Clairwil, the Princess Borghese, Catherine the Great of Russia, Charlotte of Naples, are even more cruel still since, once they have tasted power, once they know how to use their sexuality as an instrument of aggression, they use it to extract vengeance for the humiliations they were forced to endure as the passive objects of the sexual energy of others. A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster. Her freedom will be a condition of personal privilege that deprives those on which she exercises it of their own freedom. The most extreme kind of this deprivation is murder.

It’s more complicated for Palmer’s Madame. She has freely and consciously chosen to recreate gendered desire, and its associated cruelties as a means towards power rather than having them imposed upon her. If she is a monster, she is a self-created one, and a creator of other monsters, most notably Dominic Seneschal. Sniper perhaps is another Sadeian type, but again from choice rather than necessity – Sniper’s most profound desire is to escape human relations altogether, by becoming a conscious but entirely passive object for others’ gratification.

For Palmer’s characters, Sade doesn’t represent the whispered possibility of freedom from traditional gender relations that he does for Carter. They already have that freedom – indeed they have so much of it that it doesn’t feel free at all. Hence, perhaps, their desire to escape from it so as to enjoy the thrills of gender essentialism, thrills which may be no less exciting for being based on a series of mistakes about what gender relations actually were in the eighteenth century – a de Sadism without the accompanying sadism.

War and Civil Society

Palmer’s Enlightenment is mostly the French Enlightenment – Diderot, Voltaire, de Sade and others. Hobbes appears here and there, but mostly by implication. Her society’s politics can be read, as Canner reads it, through the Great Men and Women who created it and shaped it. They could also be read through the aspects of Enlightenment thought that have been occluded in her future – thinkers like Adam Ferguson and David Hume, who picked up on Hobbes’ themes of civil society and civil disorder and their modern heirs in the social sciences.

Hobbes’ Leviathan presents two main images of politics. One is internal order, which is built by Leviathan itself, the state that ends the Warre of Every One against Every One, building the conditions for what later came to be called ‘civil society’ – a realm of voluntary association and peaceable interactions. Civil society, as Hobbes understood it, could only prosper under the protection of an all-powerful state. Others were less sanguine than Hobbes about the willingness of an all powerful state to refrain from abusing its population, leading to a body of thought on how civil society could restrain the state, which stretches from classical contractarianism to the modern political economy of Doug North and Barry Weingast. Ernest Gellner argues that civil society works well when it does not atomize individuals so much that they cannot act to constrain the sovereign, but where it is not itself so overwhelming as to stifle individuality. It does this through ‘modularity’ – creating a society where groups are not overwhelming and bound by ritual, but instead allow people to be members of multiple associations, and move from one to another without undue cost.

The other image presents the realm of international politics, where “at all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators.” In this realm, there is no Leviathan to bring an end to the state of war. However, thinkers and politicians after Hobbes began to argue that more stable international relations were possible. If states fear that their adversaries may become powerful enough to defeat them, and especially fear another state becoming powerful enough to topple them, they may look to maintain a ‘balance of power,’ maneuvering so that no other state becomes powerful enough to dominate them (or threaten general domination). The policies of Metternich, Castlereagh and others responsible for the Vienna settlement were bent towards maintaining just such a balance.

Each of these has led to its own body of thought – the one focusing on ‘civil society’ within the territory of sovereigns and how it can be maintained against the state and its own contradictions, and the other focusing on international politics and the need to preserve some balance between sovereign entities. Yet today, we’re seeing the two beginning to mix together. Vast increases in flows of information, goods and money across borders is tearing up traditional notions of jurisdiction. This is unbalancing traditional understandings of where the State of Warre stops and civil society begins. Rosa Brooks writes about new security threats in her recent book, How War Became Everything, saying that:

Our increasing global interconnectedness has created new vulnerabilities as has our increasing dependence on the Internet and other forms of electronic communication. North Korean hackers can now bring down major US media websites; terrorist ideologues in Yemen can use the Internet to disseminate bomb-making instructions to extremists in Boston or London; Mexican drug cartels can launder money through a series of near-instantaneous electronic transactions; the self-styled Islamic State can bring videos of brutal hostage beheadings into every American living room via YouTube; and everything from pollution to bioengineered viruses can spread rapidly around the globe.

As she notes, militaries and other security focused actors have taken this as a call to expand their operations into areas of social life that used to be out of bounds. A lot of my own work – see this with Abe Newman and this, looks at the consequences for civil society and civil liberties. We don’t have much recourse against e.g. surveillance by foreign governments, but as data flows, and ways of tapping into those data flows have increased, those governments can do more and more to make our lives unhappy.

Palmer presents a future where the mixing of civil society and the State of Warre has gone, much, much further. There are no states: instead, rapid travel has created a largely borderless world in which politics is dominated by distributed “Hives” of people with roughly shared interests and affinities. The remnants of old states and institutions[^fn2] share space with thoroughly new entities – the Humanist Hive, the Cousins, and a patchwork of complex inter-Hive law and local ordinances that hold it all together. The results might seem more readily comprehensible to a time traveller from Medieval Europe or the Renaissance than to us – a web of cross-cutting allegiances, in which it is sometimes hard to tell where the jurisdiction of one political system ends and another begins, and where a lot of practical politics is mediated through the intimacies of sex, reproduction and actual or fictive kinship.

In this world, civil society has not only escaped from its conditions of origin: it has overwhelmed them. Rather than sheltering under Leviathan’s cloak, it has created its own international politics. There isn’t any ‘state system’ of the kind that diplomats and international relations scholars today are familiar with. Instead, there are tensions between different Hive organizations, each of which is organized in a very different way towards very different goals. The pressures towards homogeneity of modern states (which, whatever their origins, mostly end up acquiring prime ministers, ministries of foreign affairs and so on, because of the desire to emulate, or better compete with, other states) have been greatly weakened. The different hives serve different functions – Cousins provide aid and counselling and are organized as a vast advice bureau; the Brillists and the Utopians carry out very different kinds of research (the one working like a university, the other, I think, a distributed anarchy), while the Masons adopt the trappings of hierarchy and empire. None of these organizations – even the Masons – appears to have acquired anything resembling a conventional military. They have supplanted states – organizations that specialize in violence – with organizations that specialize in various other things and have very little capacity for violence at all.

SPOILERS AHEAD This leads to a question – perhaps the question of the books so far (and maybe the books to come). How could such a world be peaceful? As a number of characters say, war with high technology and no sovereign demarcation of territory (so that Hives are interpenetrated with each other), would be a bellum omnia counter omnes far more terrible than the one that terrified Hobbes into his embrace of absolutism. War seems imminent at the end of the second book: the awkward question is why it hasn’t happened much earlier. The Hives are not as mutually suspicious as Hobbes’ sovereigns, jealously looking at each other from behind borders bristling with forts. Still, they have clashing interests, and seem entirely willing to cheat to secure advantage. In Gellner’s terms, they are not simple civil society organizations any more, since modularity has been greatly reduced. People can move from one Hive to another, or live Hiveless, but transitions are big steps – more like renouncing one’s nationality today than deciding not to renew one’s subscription to the Sierra Club.

Throughout the two books, characters express the fear that the balance of power is becoming unsustainable. By the end of the second book it appears as if J.E.D.D. Mason will become some combination of God-King and Napoleon-analogue, or (in Madame’s description, a Leviathan that consumes all the others) uniting or subjugating most of the Hives. Given the complicated and multi-dimensional relations between Hives, it’s hard to see how other hives could balance against Mason, as traditional states used to balance against each other, let alone come together like the Congress of Vienna and its successors to build a stable future dispensation. All that seems possible is war – either a war in which J.E.D.D. Mason will extinguish or neutralize his enemies, radically changing the order of the Hives, or a war in which his enemies (Sniper and its cohorts) will succeed in remaking the Hive system in some undefined way so as to save it.

All this suggests that the problems faced by Palmer’s world have some analogies with the problems that face our own. What’s interesting is how strange the possible answers to these problems seem to a 21st century sensibility (or, more precisely, to this 21st century sensibility). As best as I can see, the possible causes-for/means-towards peace that a 25th century audience might find compelling are:

  • The systematic dampening of religious fervor thanks to the general iconoclasm that followed the Church War.
  • The use of targeted assassinations based on complex analysis of social dynamics as a means to head off crises before they happen. This is based on an implicit Carlyle-ian Great Man-ism (contra Asimov, this psychohistory is all about the Mules). However, one doesn’t have to kill the great man or woman to reshape history – just others who will indirectly influence them (which raises the question: if set-sets are capable of figuring out which butterfly one need crush to change the course of history, why does one need to crush butterflies in the first place, rather than using non-violent adjustment)?
  • Guiding the Hives towards a planned war earlier than it would otherwise happen, to avoid a more devastating unplanned war later.
  • Exemplary murder to demonstrate that humans can do evil for the sake of evil, with accompanying retribution to provide a (ritual?) substitute for war.
  • Tacit coordination among leaders through regular meetings that are cemented by the bonds of illicit sex.
  • Dynastic politics building on the previous – specifically, the shared upbringing of J.E.D.D Mason as a means of generating fictive and real kinship.

Social scientists today, building on the bits of the Enlightenment that have largely been discarded in Palmer’s future, would probably look to other explanations for the lack of war. For example, “Democratic Peace” theory builds on Kant’s essay on Perpetual Peace, to argue that democracies (if you squint right when you define ‘democracy’) don’t go to war with each other. It proposes a variety of possible explanations for this. A few of these are:

  • Political norms. Democracies find war with other democracies to be harder to legitimate to their publics.
  • Negotiation. Democratic politicians are used to dealing with political questions through negotiation rather than violence.
  • Generalized costs – General populations pay more of the costs of war than elite leaders, and enjoy fewer of the benefits. Hence, states in which the public is in charge are less likely to go to war than states run by elites.
  • Economic exchange. Trade and other economic relations bind advanced industrialized countries (which tend to be democracies) together in intimate ties that mean that war is in no-one’s interest.
  • Information. Democracies tend to be far more open in their political deliberation than autocracies. This may make it easier to head off war before it happens. It also makes it easier for democracies to make binding commitments that others will find credible.

Alternatively, social sciences might look to explanations of peace that were not based in the nature of the state (democracies) but the nature of the system that they inhabit. This returns us to the kinds of arguments about balance of power that have already been canvassed.

None of these explanations is extraordinarily compelling, and only a couple (e.g. economic exchange) are applicable to Palmer’s 25th century. What’s interesting is that they are completely different kinds of explanation than the ones that Palmer’s characters would be comfortable with. Being social-scientific, they try to construct rules and laws based on generalizations about entire classes of actors. People seem not to think in this kind of way in the 25th century – returning to Carlo Ginzburg, there are few, if any Galileans in Palmer’s future. The set-sets, if I understand them, don’t work by creating generalizations (as even e.g. our closest modern equivalent – machine learning algorithms – do) but by using altered senses to discern the particular patterns that emerge from enormous quantities of data. Even J.E.D.D. Mason, that “cold calculator”, believes that each individual life is infinitely precious. In short – there is a whole category of explanations that doesn’t seem to occur as credible to the characters of Palmer’s novels, because of the categories through which they organize the world, just as the categories in which they think look bizarre to us.

This puts Canner-as-unreliable-narrator in an interesting light. He is not only unreliable because of his personal history and motivations, but because of the array of assumptions, both considered and unconsidered, through which he tries to make sense of the world, some of which are shared with his contemporaries. It’s this quality I think, the sense that beneath a semi-familiar narrative lurks a very different understanding of the world, that makes Palmer’s novel so dense, and so interesting (it’s the most truly science fictional novel I’ve read in a very long time). We, of course have absolutely no guarantee that the very different set of tools that we employ to make sense of things are at all superior, and some reason to suspect that they are not (we haven’t achieved anything like the qualified utopia that Palmer describes). Still, there are plausibly aspects of Canner’s world that are comprehensible to us in ways that they are not to him. Perhaps (as in Charles Palliser’s unreliable-narrator novel, The Quincunx), there will be other, equally valid interpretations of the events of the third and fourth books, when war does or does not break out than the explanations that Canner offers us, which he cannot simply cannot see or treat as credible, any more than we can readily reason in the manner of Canner and his contemporaries.

[^fn3]: Although given Canner’s understanding of gender, she might also consider herself to be feminine after she becomes a Servicer, and devotes herself to nurturing Bridger, serving J.E.D.D. Mason and other forms of self-sacrifice.

[^fn1]: Maybe the insistence of Palmer’s Humanists and Utopians on individual style as a form of self expression is a kind of displacement of sexual display into display of individuality.

[^fn2]: My favorite is the Economic and Social Committee of the European Union, which today is seen as an almost entirely useless vestigial organ carrying over from a defunct economic model, but which somehow seems to survive until, and possibly thrive in Palmer’s 25th century. The future finds its own uses for things – as circumstances change, people are often more inclined to reshape old institutions for new purposes than to build entirely new ones (the history of today’s IMF – founded as the cornerstone of a Keynesian vision of international economic management, and then put to entirely different purposes when that vision failed to materialize – illustrates the broader phenomenon).

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.