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  • Sovereignty’s Ontological Indecision:Derrida and Heidegger on the Other Line (Between the Human and the Animals)
  • James Phillips (bio)

“Humanity, bestiality”

— Carl Schmitt

The study of sovereignty, as Derrida implies, is a branch of zoology. Throughout The Beast and the Sovereign, the posthumously published lecture notes for seminars that he held between 2001 and 2003, Derrida piles up literary citations, historical references and past philosophical arguments in which sovereignty reveals its animal features. Even if a strain of denunciation runs through this archival material, Derrida’s own interest is not in siding with humanity against the beast and the sovereign: “the question is not that of sovereignty or nonsovereignty but that of the modalities of transfer and division of a sovereignty said to be indivisible—said and supposed to be indivisible but always divisible” (B&S I 291). Sovereignty, in short, is to be deconstructed.

Yet this programme behind the seminars, which establishes them in a continuity with all the other deconstructions that Derrida undertook from the 1960s onwards, might seem open to doubt on grounds that Derrida himself earlier articulated. The snag on which a deconstruction of sovereignty risks being caught is the non-deconstructibility of justice. Does the practicability of Derrida’s programme with regard to a deconstruction of sovereignty rely on a neglect of the role of justice in the definition and defense of the sovereign? More than a decade prior to the seminars, Derrida wrote: “Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law, is not deconstructible” (“The Force of Law” 14). Sovereignty, if it is to be deconstructed, must therefore be stripped of its claim to justice. Particularly in its pre-modern discourses, sovereignty cannot survive the disentanglement from justice, for it is in the name of a justice irreducible to the law that sovereignty defends its suspensions of the law. The polity that acknowledges the superiority of justice to positive law is more likely to give a hearing to a monarch’s insistence that he or she not be bound by the letter of the law: the royal prerogative takes its cue from the rulelessness of justice. In the Two Treatises of Government John Locke [End Page 68] appeals to the so-called laws of nature in order to contain the threat posed by the precedent of “God-like princes” whose justice opens the way to the tyranny of their successors (347).

Notwithstanding Derrida’s recourse to early modern figurations of the bestiality of the sovereign, it would nevertheless be wrong to overestimate the difficulty of deconstructing sovereignty. This is because in its contemporary form sovereignty by and large does without the authorizing invocation of a higher justice. Sovereignty in the present day has rendered itself vulnerable to deconstruction. The bestiality of the early modern tyrant—all the more conspicuous for being contrasted with the angelic character of the just ruler—persists as a trait of sovereignty in the exceptionalism by which it relates to human community; according to Derrida, every sovereign state is, as such, a rogue state.1 The front on which a deconstruction of sovereignty can proceed is the question of its unity or totalizability and its operative inclusions and exclusions. Popular sovereignty, with its shift from the supralegal justice of the monarch to the comprehensiveness of the notional people of the state, aspires to closure, and hence invites that critique of the professedly self-identical and integral which Derrida, following Heidegger, pursues. The deconstruction of modern sovereignty is thus an heir to Heidegger’s Destruktion of the modern subject. In both cases, ascriptions of totality presuppose an obliviousness to an originary ecstasis, contamination and exposure—the line that is drawn around the sovereign no less than around the subject is a site of contestation.

That sovereignty is not to be simply relegated to the lumber-room of political history is because the concept neither lends itself to easy excision nor shows itself, on analysis, to justify unequivocal rejection. The anti-monarchical propaganda that again and again over the centuries portrayed heads of state as wolves preying upon the flocks mistakenly entrusted to their care was not, according to Derrida, merely playing with metaphors to mobilize against...


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pp. 68-82
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