Sovereignty in Ruins: A Politics of Crisis

Sovereignty in Ruins: A Politics of Crisis


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Featuring essays by some of the most prominent names in contemporary political and cultural theory, Sovereignty in Ruins presents a form of critique grounded in the conviction that political thought is itself an agent of crisis. Aiming to develop a political vocabulary capable of critiquing and transforming contemporary political frameworks, the contributors advance a politics of crisis that collapses the false dichotomies between sovereignty and governmentality and between critique and crisis. Their essays address a wide range of topics, such as the role history plays in the development of a politics of crisis; Arendt's controversial judgment of Adolf Eichmann; Strauss's and Badiou's readings of Plato's Laws; the acceptance of the unacceptable; the human and nonhuman; and flesh as a biopolitical category representative of the ongoing crisis of modernity. Altering the terms through which political action may take place, the contributors think through new notions of the political that advance countermodels of biopolitics, radical democracy, and humanity.

Contributors. Judith Butler, George Edmondson, Roberto Esposito, Carlo Galli, Klaus Mladek, Alberto Moreiras, Andrew Norris, Eric L. Santner, Adam Sitze, Carsten Strathausen, Rei Terada, Cary Wolfe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822363170
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/07/2017
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

George Edmondson is Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth College and the author of The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson.

Klaus Mladek is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Dartmouth College and the editor of Police Forces: A Cultural History of an Institution.

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Sovereignty in Ruins

A Politics of Crisis

By George Edmondson, Klaus Mladek

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6302-6


Natural History:

Toward a Politics of Crisis

George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek


Beneath our built environment of cultural habits and rules, behind our "organization of work and solid communicative habits," between the furrows of every form of life, there persists a substratum of human uncertainty and groundlessness that constitutes a natural-historical invariant — or so Paolo Virno would have us believe. As Virno sees it, we humans are disoriented animals, so thoroughly lacking an instinctual blueprint to guide us, even at moments of maximum danger, that we are always generalists, always adaptable, never constrained by a preordained set of rules. Our instability and our language faculty, our anthropogenetic flexibility and mobility, our "dearth of specialized instincts," our permanent crisis: these qualities mean that we can adapt to any environment. But they also condemn us to a Manichean existence in which, on the one hand, our flexibility and adaptability make us ideally suited to the demands of the contemporary capitalist labor process while, on the other hand, our natural historical invariance — or, to be more precise, our invariant and dangerous groundlessness — constitutes an indestructible opening that makes us capable of insubordination.

Virno is clearly onto something important with his explication of the link between crisis, which he defines as "an emergency situation" wherein "a certain pseudo-environmental setup is subjected to violent transformative traction" and "the potentiality ... of the human animal takes on the typical visibility of an empirical state of affairs," and natural history, which he defines as the inventory of "the multiple socio-political" representations (i.e., diagrams) of "the biological invariant that characterizes the existence of the human animal" as a "potential animal" in time. We admit, in fact, that our position varies from his only by a matter of slight degrees. All the same, we find that his concept of "natural-historical diagrams," by which he means "the socio-political states of affairs which display, in changing and rival forms, some salient features of anthropogenesis," remains uncomfortably close to the harsh excesses of "biolinguistic capitalism" precisely because, like Negri and Hardt's "biopolitical productivity," it meets capitalism on essentially the same terrain: the same anthropocentric machine that separates political and linguistic human life from nonhuman and dumb apolitical life; the same fascination with original forms of productivity, innovation, and change arising from the dangers of an unruly state of nature; the same concept of an incontestable "metahistory" so basic as to determine the common behavior of humankind. Rather than further historicizing and politicizing natural history, Virno, in a distinctly Heideggerian manner, tends instead to ontologize natural necessities and, in that way, risks repeating the classical gesture of political thought: to separate an objective, indisputable sphere — nature — from the subjective interventions of thought and praxis. That can only mean reducing the critical ferment inherent in natural historical crisis to an organizing principle for future political life, which for Virno means only those "institutions of the multitude" that rely exclusively on the human form.

In Marx and the Frankfurt School, by contrast, natural historical crisis is permanent and pervasive, and it follows a specific dynamic of thought totality and dialectical decline in any given historical situation. Accordingly, it exposes even the assumption of capitalism's unfathomable complexity, the ungraspable character of its mobility and flux — in short, the ideology of permanent change that is said to be our fate — to the dynamics of transience. (One might even go so far as to say, in fact, that the permanent succession of crises on which capitalist circulation thrives is arrayed against precisely this insight into a more all-enveloping crisis.) For Marx, a real dialectics contains "the recognition of [the] negation" of every state, "its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary." A real dialectics is "critical and revolutionary" (always complementary terms for Marx) because it is not merely a dialectics of concept and logic but a dialectics of natural history that extracts the transient kernel and momentary existence from any "historically developed form." Not surprisingly, this critical and revolutionary dialectical procedure draws out all the resistances and anxieties of the bourgeois order. In Hegel, nature had merely behaved unreasonably, refusing to play along in the dialectical playbook except as negation and as an antithesis to be sublated. Natural historical dialectics in Marx expresses real relations determined in particular historical situations wherein the inherent laws of nature operate as fundamental principles in the real. For Marx — and, following him, Adorno and Benjamin — the natural historical stratum identified by Virno is never sub, never an "invariant human nature" that suddenly erupts from underneath established cultural encrustations in times of crisis. In Marx's idea of natural history, what Virno calls "species-specific prerogatives" are themselves profoundly historical and constructable, inseparable from the sphere of world history in which they are enmeshed. Other than invariant, always part of a specific historical constellation with its own mode of expression and laws of transition, natural history persists as an indestructible layer in the midst of any cultural formation — there as infinite perishing and transience — even when that formation is thriving (because natural history elicits an immunitarian response that is coexistent with what is perceived as crisis). The persistent truth content of things, their still-living obstinacy, is not an authentic being; nor is it a constitutively dislocated and unsheltered "Being" in the Heideggerian vein. This is where Virno goes astray: drawing heavily on Heidegger's terminology, he gives natural history the status of a more authentic and generic layer in human life, an "as such" that, as in Heidegger, tends to become our irrevocable historical destiny. Naturalizing natural history, Virno removes it from analytical scrutiny, from the practice of intervention and presentation, and thereby repeats the concealment of the very natural historical layer that he advocates as the engine of revolutionary politics in times of crisis. The result is that politics then gets cordoned off, as exclusively human history, from nonhuman forms of life, including things and animals, their techne, or the life of machines. To draw political philosophy out of its self-satisfied contemplation, political analysis must, as Marx and the Frankfurt School well knew, close off any recourse to metahistorical invariants grounded in the generic nature of man. Politics must instead be cognizant of the fact that truths, far from being permanently available for reflection, are to be seized in concrete, pressing situations and from fleeting, exigent objects — be they inorganic matter, ideas, or living beings — that can get irrevocably lost. Hence a natural history that manifests itself, both in health and in crisis, as an energy of passing away, an indestructible that is not an invariant groundlessness of humans alone but the continuous perishing, the total and infinite passing away, that encompasses concrete political formations, including all nonhuman and thingly life.

Natural history is thus to be understood not only as a perishing that befalls even the nothingness and groundlessness of the human but as a perishing that is itself a new ontology, realized in the task of critical intervention, of ourselves and of the present. What this means, in the first place, is that there can be no stratagem of governance predicated on the separation between a wild thinking underneath and the social calcifications above. Subversion and containment, health and disease: these supposed dichotomies are in fact complicit, with wild, anarchic thinking and the pastoral power of law and order sharing the same topology, one figured in terms of regeneration, of a cyclical understanding of perishing and rejuvenation, like the ups and downs of markets. By contrast, natural history manifests, in specific historical sites, a perishing even of the system of a rhythmic, predictable, regular perishing. To understand natural history is to understand that there persists an incompatible order — transient, unstable, deeply historical, decaying, and therefore dialectical — which folds over and doubles a capitalist order that, like the sovereign, exploits crisis as its engine and foil. It is to understand, moreover, that the vision of the critic must be attuned to the difference between a mythological knowledge that props up the government/sovereign executive order and the scrutinizing, ruinous knowledge that, in its capacity to disarticulate this first order, allows critical knowledge to distinguish between the crises that give rise to police interventions and the crisis that is constitutive of critical ruination. In short, the critic must prompt a self-encounter of critique and crisis with the ambiguous genealogy they share.


Perhaps the prime example of such critical prompting can be found in Foucault's sympathetic engagement with Kant. For Foucault, Kant's critique of reason constitutes an especially bold move because it manages to exceed the bounds of the Enlightenment — manages to become transhistorically imperative, universalizing, even revolutionary — by being a double of itself that, degenerative and self-ruining, dismantles not only the idea of governing crisis but the art of governing as such. When the late-period Foucault returns repeatedly to the question of critique, it is to apply the pivotal concern of the Enlightenment, "the relationships between power, truth and the subject," "to any moment in history" by staging a confrontation between the two arts that, according to Foucault, give rise to modern critique: the art of governing and the art of being "not quite so governed," "not like that," "not for that, not by them," or — Foucault flirts with anarchic defiance — "we do not want to be governed at all." The art of critique begins with this primary decision, which is a critical decision in the original meaning of the term: one that reorients history around a new cause that never fails to be an efficacious power in the real. It expresses an individual and collective will, detectable throughout history, to revolt against government — and against modern governmentality, where the subject is piloted through life with the help of precise medical, legal, and theological techniques of self-governance, in particular. The incandescent traces of this will cut diagonally across history and return to modernity as primal scenes of critical dissent and insubordination. These include, for example, the strategy, common to Saint Paul and Kant, of disobeying the order as though one obeyed it or, as happens with many of Kafka's protagonists, disobeying it by being excruciatingly obedient. Or they appear in the past scenes of upheaval that Foucault invokes — the trial of Socrates and the revolts of mysticism and reformation against the pastoral powers of the church — scenes whose historical diagrams become legible only belatedly, once we encounter the question of Enlightenment reason.

It is one question in particular, however — Kant's question, "What is Enlightenment?" — that openly declares a bold, courageous exit from the discursive field, from the trappings of a "self-incurred immaturity" that indolently relies on the guidance of such self-proclaimed guardians as books, doctors, and priests. As an art of subtraction and separation from the discursive scene, Kant's manifesto for Enlightenment critique marks for Foucault the advent of a completely new self-conscious political attitude toward one's own contemporary reality. Kant's critical operation asserts itself as a principled, recalcitrant gestus, an act born of a philosophical ethos that both partakes in and parts with the master discourses of his own time — the art of governing and Enlightenment reason — by interrogating and finally reversing the conditions of their acceptance. It does so, moreover, by making critical use of the very faculty of reason, otherwise destined to validate the systems of knowledge (legal, medical, theological) that undergird mechanisms of coercion: deploying reason's inherent critical powers against its own power effects, endlessly applying its own universalizing truth procedures against it. Kant's reason critiques, and then critiques reason, in a self-limiting auto-dissolution, curtailing the force of knowledge it generates and, in so doing, delimiting knowledge's hold upon the subject. The end of critique is to make it impossible for us to accept naturalized forms of knowledge.

But critique as transformative truth procedure does more than just derail natures and legitimacies; it instills crisis in the core of those traditional legal, medical, and political forms of critique that seek to liberate us or merely reform our sociopolitical institutions. Such forms of critique remain, in their goal of liberation and reformation, profoundly wedded to the logic of the sovereign, who welcomes our critical care, impatience, and indignation. The conjoined tasks of liberation and reformation come at the steep price of resuscitating a sovereign just as he is about to expire. Foucault's patient form of critique, by contrast, advocates a critique that confers upon itself an insubordinate, intransigent right beyond juridical rights "to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth." In this respect, critique — critique as an ungovernable right without legal rights — resonates with the twin concepts, Pauline on the one side and Kantian on the other, that neither what is covered by the law nor what is deemed to be outside the law is up to the self-appointed task of critique. Only a critique that folds back on itself, perpetually demarcating the limits of its power, expanding and contracting its reach, accelerating and stopping short, truly understands its revolutionary power as something more than reformational. It grasps its capacity to coin new terms, terms worthy of the event, and enduringly loosens the hold of the sovereign by tethering him to his crisis.

In this spirit, Foucault proposes to name his own historical-philosophical project of critique a "procedure of eventalization," the key strategy in the art of not being governed. Submitting pyramidal figures and principles of sovereignty (final authority, unitary origin, necessity) to an archaeological and genealogical examination designed to dissolve the links between elements of knowledge and procedures of coercion that induce governable behavior and discourse, the eventalizing operation injects crisis into the natural, necessary appearance of such established links so that their singular elements might be reconfigured for the construction of events. Exposing a scientific or institutional system to its "essential fragility," following its "breaking points" until the full display of its arbitrary nature and violence makes it more and more difficult to accept, eventalization reverses the destination of knowledge and power as a prop for the art of governing by making the effects of power contained within a strategic field available for the presentation and creation of pure singularities and positivities. Thus Foucault's rhetorical question: "How can the indivisibility of knowledge and power ... induce both singularities, fixed according to their conditions of acceptability, and a field of possibles, of openings, indecisions, reversals, and possible dislocations which make them fragile, temporary, and which turn these effects into events, nothing more, nothing less than events?" Eventalization is the archaeological and genealogical procedure of making crisis return in governmental orders, the aim being to ensure the power of reversibility and therefore of transformability as such. Accordingly, it forgoes historical veracity and necessity for the sake of transmitting expressive truths and singularizing events. Foucault's passion for the event, beginning "with this decision not to be governed," entails bringing about nothing, understood as the perishing of those seemingly irreversible powers that derive from masters, deep-rooted foundations, legitimizing laws, and unitary causes. The radical will not to be governed at all finds its counterpart in the will to relegate such sovereign figures to "disappearance" or, barring that, in the capacity at least to identify "by what and from what [such] disappearance is possible."


Excerpted from Sovereignty in Ruins by George Edmondson, Klaus Mladek. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Sovereignty Crises / George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek  1
Part I. Ruination and Revolution
1. Natural History: Toward a Politics of Crisis / George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek  21
Part II. Italian Affirmations
2. Left and Right: Why They Still Make Sense / Carlo Gailli  63
3. Politics in the Present / Roberto Esposito  100
4. Cujusdam nigri & scabiois Brasiliani: Rancière and Derrida / Alberto Moreiras  125
5. Pasolini's Acceptance / Rei Terada  144
Part III. The Endgames of Sovereignty
6. Reopening the Plato Question / Adam Sitze  173
7. The Royal Remains: The People's Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty / Eric L. Santner  201
8. Arendt: Thinking Cohabitation and the Dispersion of Sovereignty / Judith Butler  220
9. Beyond the State of Exception: Hegel on Freedom, Law, and Decision / Andrew Norris  239
10. Humans and (Other) Animals in a Biopolitical Frame / Cary Wolfe  273
11. Thing-Politics and Science / Carsten Strathausen  292
Bibliography  319
Contributors  341
Index  343

What People are Saying About This

My Father's House: On Will Barnet's Painting - Thomas Dumm

Sovereignty in Ruins breaks new paths in political philosophy by seriously reexamining the premises of the biopolitical and sovereignty in the context of late modernity. Presenting work by some of the most prominent thinkers out there, this book's power resides in its engagement with the political impasse of the present. An excellent collection, Sovereignty in Ruins will find a wide audience among contemporary political theorists and thinkers across the humanities."

Biopolitics: A Reader - Timothy Campbell

"The essays that George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek have collected in Sovereignty in Ruins linger both for the power of their insights into contemporary life and for the tactics, biopolitical and ethical, that dart below the surface of their critique. Framed by a terrific introduction, Sovereignty in Ruins pushes us to consider other possibilities in lieu of a sovereignty; other possible futures too. Absolutely recommended."

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