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Sovereignty Conditioned and Unconditioned

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 162-173 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0027

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The publication of lectures inevitably raises questions about their place in the “work” of the author. How do these lectures relate to Derrida’s published works and what status should they be accorded within the corpus of his work? It is apparent that they are not texts fully worked up for publication, although some parts of them were published. As successive sessions within a year-long course, they are less formal and more discursive, if that is the right word, than many of the published works. They traverse a variety of themes, philosophemes, topics and concerns, with many digressions, including more than the occasional anecdote, personal remark or piece of Parisian gossip (such as the account in the Fifth Session of what Lacan supposedly said about Derrida, Abraham and Torok in a seminar “that has never been and no doubt never will be published” (B&S I 145). They proceed at a leisurely pace that allows not only for frequent mention of things to be discussed (for example, that the reason of the strongest is always the best), but also for looping back to things already discussed, which are then taken up and developed further. Much time is devoted to reading primary texts. In these and other ways, these lectures function as a workshop in which analyses, interpretations and commentaries can be worked out, perhaps with a view to future, more formal publication.

On the other hand, they were also very public lectures, carefully prepared and with many of the stylistic features familiar from Derrida’s published writings. This is hardly surprising, given that some of his best known works were lectures prepared and delivered for a specific occasion: think of “Signature Event Context” or “Psyche: Invention of the Other.” As in such published texts, we see here Derrida’s repeated use of the strategic anticipation and deferral of a given topic—for example in his recurrent quotation of the first two lines of Fontaine’s fable The Wolf and the Lamb, which functions as an exergue for these lectures: “The reason of the strongest is always the best; As we shall shortly show” (7). We also see the occasional use of self-referentiality as in the Third Session, when he refers to his own power to defer the proposed demonstration of the thesis of Fontaine’s fable, and points out that he has already made use of this power, thereby demonstrating the truth of the thesis: “The demonstration has already taken place, in the very promise and in the différance, the act of deferring the demonstration” (79). In these and other ways, these lectures are recognizably texts prepared by Derrida.

So what are they about? Why talk about beasts and sovereigns, bestiality and sovereignty, or the beast and the sovereign—a pair that in French exhibits the sexual difference “marked in the grammar of the definite articles” between la bête and le souverain? (2). Derrida’s most succinct answer to this question is the one reproduced at the outset from the yearbook of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. He sought in this course to pursue his study of sovereignty, “the political and ontotheological history of the concept and its figures” (B&S I xiii). In particular, he sought to focus on the intertwining of this history with the treatment of animal life and figures of bestiality:

We had above all to explore the “logics” organizing both the submission of the beast (and the living being) to political sovereignty, and an irresistible and overloaded analogy between a beast and a sovereign supposed to share a space of some exteriority with respect to “law” and “right” (outside the law: above the law: origin and foundation of the law).


A primary concern of these lectures is to explore the analogy that recurs in political philosophy between sovereignty and animality—or that particular form of animality that is “represented as bestiality” (14). This analogy relies in the first instance on the way in which both the sovereign and the animal are outside the law: the sovereign is the one who (or that which) determines the law, therefore necessarily an exception, while the beast is the one who...

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