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Social Text 18.4 (2000) 1-23
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The International, Bentham, and de Sade
The word international was coined by Jeremy Bentham in a book published in 1789. In the very first instance where the term appears, it is aligned with the word jurisprudence. International jurisprudence is suggested by the author to replace the term law of nations, what he deems to be a misnomer. He explains in a footnote that the new term
is calculated to express, in a more significant way, the branch of law which goes commonly under the name of the law of nations: an appellation so uncharacteristic, that, were it not for the force of custom, it would seem rather to refer to internal jurisprudence. 1
I would like to suggest that the drive behind the neologism, as indicated by Bentham, may offer a remarkable key to the entire Benthamite edifice. The older phrase law of nations, according to Bentham, refers to a certain discursive space only through the force of custom, or convention. What he thinks to be more appropriately required, however, is a designation that would go beyond mere convention. The phrase international law is therefore purportedly linked to that which it signifies in a manner never achieved by the phrase law of nations. Law of nations, in other words, is a sign relying on the mediation of convention. Without the convention, "the force of custom," the phrase law of nations might be understood as one designating the domestic, municipal law of diverse nations. On the other hand, international, corresponding to that to which it refers in an intrinsic, immediate, or unmediated manner, is a term of presence in the Derridean sense. 2 That is, international is a term that stands in no need of the mediation of custom and convention. The drive behind the neologism could be a unique key to Bentham's thought, for it is emblematic of a certain attitude toward meaning formation in language that significantly underwrites much of the Benthamite oeuvre.
The Marquis de Sade, a contemporary of Bentham, was also troubled, notoriously so, about the mediation of custom and convention in meaning formation. In this article I bring together Bentham and de Sade to argue that the two share a strikingly similar view of language, one that is symbolized in the coining of international by Bentham. The distinction Bentham assumes between the terms law of nations and international law [End Page 1] crudely corresponds to the opposition J. L. Austin famously draws between "performative" and "constative" instances of language. 3 Accordingly, while performative utterances are essentially interpretive, requiring the mediation of such extrinsic elements as context and convention, constative utterances are mere descriptions of objects or states of affairs. Constative utterances, consequently, stand in no need of extralinguistic, contextual support. In the course of his analysis, however, Austin comes to raise more and more doubts about the validity of such a radical distinction, hinting instead at constatives as no more than a mere subcategory of a now generalized category of performatives. In this view, all language is essentially interpretive. Bentham, on the other hand, is convinced that in order to attain rigor in meaning, language needs to be cleansed, as much as possible, of performative terms, namely terms that require the extrinsic support of custom and convention. I argue in this article that de Sade is equally strongly contemptuous toward the mediation of extralinguistic elements in meaning formation in language.
I then link the two authors to the contemporary studies of the international, of international political theory, suggesting that the prejudice toward the mediation of custom--of the performative, the mimetic, which Bentham and de Sade prominently display--is an equally prominent characteristic of the mainstream perceptions of international politics. This concept of global politics rests on an exclusion of the mimetic from its thematic concerns, with an emphasis instead on the "real." The history of international relations as an autonomous discipline 4 is that of international politics studied from a perspective introduced in the late 1930s and 1940s by writers such as E. H. Carr...