Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cutting off the King's Head: Foucault's Society Must Be Defended and the Problem of Sovereignty

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Cutting off the King's Head: Foucault's Society Must Be Defended and the Problem of Sovereignty

Article excerpt

    What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn't erected
    around the problem of sovereignty.... We need to cut off the King's
    head: in political theory that has still to be done.
    Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power" (1977)

Foucault's concern with the problem of sovereignty has been known to his Anglo-American readership for some time. However, it is only with the recent translation of his oft-cited College de France lecture series Society Must Be Defended that we are in a position to engage with the full extent of Foucault's explorations in this area.

In this article I argue that Society Must Be Defended is an important and sophisticated text for beginning to understand the complexity of sovereignty as an intense site of political and philosophical problems. The lectures form a timely and badly needed contribution to a resurgent but largely unsatisfactory critical-theoretical debate on sovereignty. This debate has no doubt gathered momentum in response to the violent and contentious assertions of sovereignty invoked since September 11, 2001, in the name of "antiterrorism" and the "war on terror." Sovereignty has once again been brought to the fore as a pressing contemporary problem, given practices of "exceptionalism," imperialism, and the resurgence of Carl Schmitt as the theorist of these problems posed in their starkest terms.

Rather than interpret the lectures as an addition to the entire Foucault oeuvre therefore, I wish to argue that Society Must Be Defended is in its own right an extremely important text for thinking about the enduring politico-theoretical problematic of sovereignty. I will offer a reading of Society Must Be Defended that both challenges the existing readings of Foucault on the problem of sovereignty and highlights the paucity of the post-9/11 sovereignty debate. This, I hope, will help open up a more sophisticated understanding of sovereignty as a site of intense politico-theoretical problems.

9/11 and the Sovereign "Exception": Agamben, Schmitt, and Benjamin

Before discussing Society Must Be Defended, I want to lay out the basic terms of the recent critical theoretical debate on sovereignty. Giorgio Agamben can be credited with explicitly linking the problem of sovereignty with the problem of the "exception," preemptively capturing in theoretical terms much of the sovereigntist logic that is being played out in post-9/11 world politics. The exception has become an especially sharp political concept that is being used to characterize and critique the contentious political practices undertaken since 9/11 in the name of the so-called war on terror. These practices include the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the internment of foreign "terrorist" suspects in Belmarsh Prison in London, the extrajudicial killing of "terrorists" by the United States in third countries, (1) the "preemptive" war in Iraq, the use and sanction of torture by Western states, (2) the discriminatory treatment of Muslims, a tightening of asylum and immigration procedures in Europe. (3) ... The list goes on.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben aligned the contemporary sovereignty debate across two theorists in particular: Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. (4) Although by no means exhaustive choices, Schmitt and Benjamin have come to be considered as two of the most incisive expressions of the problem of sovereignty and sovereign exceptionalism.

In Schmitt's very sharp terms, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." (5) For Schmitt, the very definition of sovereignty is the capacity to declare exceptions to the norm (of civil liberties, human rights, the rule of law, and so on). Agamben argues that Schmitt's uncompromisingly statist form of sovereignty is a conservative response to the apocalyptic conception of sovereign power that is posited by Benjamin. (6) In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin argues that we have entered a period of history where the exception has become the norm, plunging us into a "permanent state of exception. …

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