Stay For The Sign; The English Revolution and the Outlines of Liberal Legal Ideology

Will Searby


In October 1656 James Nayler, one of the most prominent Quaker pamphleteers of seventeenth century England, entered Bristol on a donkey, his followers singing hosannas and casting their clothes in the mud before him. In the months that followed, Nayler was tried as a 'grand imposter, and a great seducer of the people'. The case, conducted by parliament, under a written constitution, without any precedence, and entirely in contradiction to the legal rights of liberty of conscience and the juridical limitations of parliamentary authority, foregrounded a formative crisis in the history of British legal relations.

The contradictions exemplified in the Nayler case are symptomatic of the profound tremors shaking European society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the case itself reflects the condensation of several acute ruptures in early-modern society. An analysis of the Nayler case allows us to interrogate relations between the emergence of capitalist property relations, liberal juridical authority, and the development in modes of scriptural exegesis which peripherally also include the decline of scholasticism and the development of modern empiricism. This paper will pay close attention to the role played by the state in the interpolation of political agency and subjectivity, focusing on the critical rupture between the fetishisation of social relations which characterised feudal society (most prominently in the body of the King) and the fetishisation of commodities which remains the determinate characteristic of a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

This paper will make use of semiotic and psychoanalytic analysis to deconstruct the relationship between language, identity, and state power, crucially examining the antagonisms between different modes of scriptural exegesis and their effect in the constitution of legal and political identity in early modern England. By interrogating the legal and political superstructure in this period this paper makes a modest contribution to an understanding of Ettiene Balibar's theories of 'transitional modes of production.'

I am a recent History Graduate and member of rs21. I am due to start an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at the CRMEP this September.

Lacan - Althusser - Balibar - Marx - Reformation - Primitive Accumulation