Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia Lawrie Balfour

Brennan Neely is a junior philosophy major.

People mill about and chat with others also dressed in collared shirts, jeans and the rolled-up sleeves of early evening. The room has an air of casual but unquestioned curiosity.  We were waiting for Lawrie Balfour’s Political Theory Workshop in Duke’s Gross Hall. Balfour—a professor of politics at the University of Virginia—would turn us to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose words have inspired contemporary novelists and comforted readers like me for years.

As four in the evening approached, conversations dwindled while people sat and skimmed their notes on Balfour’s article “Imagining Freedom: Toni Morrison on Taking Flight and Finding a Home in The Racial Polity.” Balfour began with a brief overview of the article. She told us that what we had read was the middle chapter of an upcoming book on Morrison.

Balfour’s approach to political theory is to take thinkers who fall outside the philosophy canon and let them complicate her ideas, arguments, and biases. Calmly and willingly, she enters foreign spaces and seeks challenging clarification. Toni Morrison muddles freedom for Balfour. For Morrison, freedom’s modern use and conception are inseparable from America’s history of chattel slavery and the racism sown into commonplace dialogue. Human freedom and hierarchy are two ostensibly opposing ideas and yet they construct what we call the English language. Think of freedom— a word with overdetermined connotations, and a history that is intimately connected to racism. African and African Americans were introduced to the English language because of colonization, racism, and slavery. Sovereignty has a different meaning for people of these communities because they inherit a supposedly free society and economy that both exist because they initially treated Africans and African Americans as objects.

image from From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

Author Toni Morrison (image from From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997)

Balfour argues that Morrison explores our intimate understanding of language, showing that seemingly axiomatic concepts like sovereignty can occur in nontraditional settings. To make this point, Balfour referenced Song of Solomon and Beloved, both novels about travel. In Song of Solomon, escape becomes the setting of the story, and in Beloved, travel and transition birth life. We readers sit and read these stories as complete lives, and in this action we accept that fugitivity—illegal and perilous escape—is a sovereign path and destination for the characters Morrison creates.

Balfour, at this point stopped, and wryly added: “Now, be careful giving a novel to a political theorist. Beloved, we will say, argues…” No, Balfour insists—Morrison is not intent on argumentation or explanation. She merely seeks to find “a language worthy of Afro-American culture” by inhabiting the stories of people who never had the traditional sovereignty to tell them. So Morrison provokes the question for Balfour, and for all of us: What do political philosophers do if fugitivity is constitutive of political life? The stateless are the objects of a sovereign’s will, but what if the stateless become the sovereign? If the idea of a state is inseparable from traditional sovereignty, inextricable from racism and its history, then a change in one idea by a beautifully written narrative—the empowered subversion of fugitive escape—ripples up to the normative questions we ask about government. What is a state without racism, and are we capable of imagining it?

Balfour’s modesty as we ended the workshop was stunning after such a concise delivery of ideas important for their destabilizing effect. I should have asked what Toni Morrison teaches us about sovereignty. The question was on my mind and still is. A political theory accepting novels as provocative vehicles for ideas whose normative implications manifest in relatable lives seems particularly relevant to the daily lives of citizens, and not simply an argument that should be confined to a journal article. Yet I wonder: Who is the political theorist, and how do they define “sovereignty?” And what can the political theorist learn from a novelist who uses language simultaneously her birthright and inimical to her identity to expand and explore ideas immanent in people? I’m still wondering, and I have Lawrie Balfour to thank for that.