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  • Visual Empire
  • Susan Buck-Morss (bio)

1 The Sovereign Icon

The Question of Sovereignty

Just when the nation-state appeared to be waning in significance, national sovereignty is back in the spotlight. The issue takes on special urgency in the United States, where sovereign right has been proclaimed persistently by the president in an attempt to justify policies of military aggression and violations of international and domestic law, executing these policies with disregard for traditional judicial and constitutional procedures.1 Giorgio Agamben’s recently translated book State of Exception has touched off a small case of collective hysteria among American academics by claiming that by their intrinsic nature, democracies undermine themselves, that dictatorship is an ontological necessity of modern politics, and that the sovereign’s power to declare a state of emergency and with it a state exception to the law places potentially the whole world under the sign of the concentration camp.

Agamben’s revelation, however, is not the scandal. It is a logical truism that something cannot be a member of its own set, that constituting power (pouvoir constituens) cannot be synonymous with constituted power (pouvoir constituent).

Plato in the Timaeus described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe–an immortal, perfectly constructed animal [image 1]. Agamben seems shocked to find that such an animal does not exist. If democracies could be self-constituting and self-reproducing, if they could realize the perfect closure of the Oroborus (snake consuming its tail), there would be no decay and no history—but also no hope, no escape from the magic circle of power that is capable of mystifying any political regime, no matter how democratically conceived. The historical event that ruptures the circle’s mythic repetition is also the possibility of a better future.

Unlike both Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, upon whom he relies, Agamben uses history ahistorically, in order to abstract from it a timeless ontology of power. In contrast, Benjamin is attentive to historical concreteness, as is Schmitt—this attention is their common bond. But when Benjamin criticizes the parliamentary democracy of the early Weimar Republic, it is not, as it is for Schmitt, out of yearning for a strong executive to cut through parliamentary legalism and compromise.2 Rather, it reminds twentieth-century [End Page 171] parliaments of their own violent origins. A present-day executive leader who, in using the emergency powers of his office, fails to be reminded of the historical origins of representative governments no longer feels It necessary to submit to democratic rule. Benjamin believed that the watered-down versions of democracy in his own time had become little more than bourgeois governing cliques, and for that reason, he might have appreciated Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion that every generation needs a new revolution. The sovereign who declares a state of exception would then be the citizens themselves.

The question we need to ask is why Thomas Jefferson’s call for permanent revolution is not predictive of the history of democracies in modern times—why it is so difficult to cut off the head of the king so that it stays off, why popular sovereignty consistently resurrects an aura of quasi-mystical power around the sovereign figure—which since Hobbes’s Leviathan has been recognized as a human artifact, a merely mortal god [see image 2]. In a democracy where only the citizens have the legitimate right to declare a state of exception to the law, the real scandal occurs when an executive branch usurps that power and is allowed to get away with it.

More than the sum of merely empirical individuals of which Hobbes’s Leviathan is composed, sovereignty is a transcendent category. The sovereign is an icon in the theological sense. He (or she) embodies an enigma—precisely the power of the collective to constitute itself. The sovereign figure as personification of the collective demonstrates the power of the visible image to close the circle between constituting and constituted power, explaining why even when the illegalities of an individual sovereign are exposed, the faith of the believer is still not shaken. As long as the circle appears closed, sovereign power remains intact; likewise, and...