restricted access Sovereignty, Violence and Resistance in North East India: Mapping Political Theory Today
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Sovereignty, Violence and Resistance in North East India:
Mapping Political Theory Today

A commentary on “Bare Sovereignty: Homo Sacer and the Insistence of Law” by Peter Fitzpatrick, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2001)

Peter Fitzpatrick’s 2001 article titled “Bare Sovereignty: Homo Sacer and the Insistence of Law” exemplifies both the widespread allure of Agamben’s concepts and the limits of Agamben’s theorizing. In this piece, I draw upon experiences from the North-East region of India under an extraordinary law to note that the social and political conditions of our times require a return to debates on sovereignty, state power and violence that have not been as central for political theory. The dominance of the Foucauldian paradigm had led to a focus on disciplinary mechanisms and biopower as tools of understanding power in modern times but now such framing appears to be mediated by efforts to re-conceptualize sovereignty, violence and bare life a la Agamben. A particularly creative manifestation of such an effort is to combine a Foucauldian perspective on biopower and sovereignty. Furthermore, thinking with and even beyond Fitzpatrick, I suggest that a focus on this relationship between biopower and sovereignty in recent scholarship has generated new modes of ethnographic thinking that capture the pain and suffering of marginalized subjects and their resistance; as well as theorize the everyday practices of the state.

Peter Fitzpatrick in his piece starts off by stating “It has to be a puzzle how Giorgio Agamben’s evocation of ‘an obscure figure of archaic Roman law’ has assumed such a purchase on recent political and philosophical thought.”1 He refers of course to homo sacer (sacred man) that represents bare life— a life rendered vulnerable and above all embodying the continued power of the sovereign in modern times. It is a life that cannot be sacrificed therefore beyond divine law and cannot be convicted of homicide so beyond human law.2 But it is a life that can still be killed by anyone since it is rendered unprotected and laid bare— that, for Agamben, is the originary power of the sovereign because such a life is included in the juridical framework precisely [End Page 76] because of its exclusion.3 The basis of such a theory explicates a conception of law and sovereign power that is indeterminate as well as decisive and specific at the same time, which is one of the primary nodes of criticism for Fitzpatrick. Instead, Fitzpatrick suggests another conception of sovereign power—based on sociologics—constituted through law but not completely predetermined or at the mercy of the sovereign.

Fitzpatrick makes two major points in this essay. First is his reference to Agamben’s contention that the concept of bare life emerges as a way to complete Foucault. In other words, Agamben notes that for Foucault there occurs a shift from sovereign power to biopower meaning that sovereign power and legal power cease to be that important. Fitzpatrick does accept that Foucault’s conception of governmentality becomes more significant in characterizing the 17th and 18th centuries. To put it differently, the management of life supersedes the right over death. But for Fitzpatrick, Foucault’s conception of biopower operates in a much more simultaneous manner and certainly not as a replacement of sovereign power entirely.

Second, Fitzpatrick is also concerned with how Agamben explains the origins and substantive meanings of “bare life,” “state of exception” and sovereign power. For example, he questions Agamben’s use of habeas corpus as an originary example of bare life since the writ of habeas corpus was used much before the 18th century and was not actually an “organic lump,” rather was a very specific case of “singular legal subject.”4 Similarly, Agamben’s discussion on exclusion linked to the state of exception appears absolute even though law works in a much more ambivalent manner than what he acknowledges. Fitzpatrick takes the example of the refugee who is both included through their exclusion but also experiences a generation of life through some protections under international law.

Over all, Fitzpatrick offers a more socio-logic basis of sovereignty as opposed to an absolute theory of sovereign’s...