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  • "The greatest possible mastery, the greatest possible self-presence of life"Derrida and the Deconstruction of Sovereignty
  • Laura Odello (bio)
    Translated by D. J. S. Cross

1967: Writing and Difference, Voice and Phenomenon, of Grammatology. If one reads through these texts by Jacques Derrida, which will have been an event in the philosophical landscape,1 one is struck, if not by the total absence, at least by the extreme scarcity of the signifier "sovereignty." With the exception of the study dedicated to Bataille in Writing and Difference and a few occurrences in Of Grammatology, the word is lacking.2 Only late does it come to occupy center stage: it will begin to inhabit the Derridean lexicon in and after the works and seminars of the 1990s, which are dedicated more and more explicitly to juridico-political questions or to those figures of responsibility constituted by the secret, testimony, hospitality, pardon, and the death penalty. [End Page 141] Finally, with the last seminar, the word will fully figure in a title: The Beast and the Sovereign.

Why this quasi-absence in the first texts? How to read it? Is one to deduce on its basis that Derrida's thought will have undergone a turn? That Derrida's interest for the political thing, as commentators so often say and repeat, manifested itself rather late in his life and in his work?

Derrida himself protested against such readings, which indeed seek to identify a sort of ethico-political shift in his philosophical trajectory of the last years.3 Rather than the reception of his so-called political thought (as if it were isolatable as such), in question here will thus be a certain internal necessity that, beyond undeniable changes in tone and accent, defies the possibility of a historical periodization. Precisely on this basis, with the guiding thread of this necessity internal to thinking, an entirely other work must be undertaken, namely, an analysis of the concept of sovereignty that brings forth the admirable consistency and uninterrupted perseverance of a discourse that will have always been political, from the very first writings to the posthumous publications.4

For reasons pertaining to this fundamentally political scope of deconstruction, I do not share the periodizing compulsion of certain readers of Derrida who desperately seek to identify a "before" and an "after," a "first Derrida" and a "last Derrida." No turn, then, no tournant or Kehre because, as Derrida himself writes in Rogues, "the thinking of différance [has] always [been] a thinking of the political, of the contour and limits of the political" (Derrida 2005b, 39). Deconstruction responds each time and ceaselessly to the same injunction to resist every principle of power,5 that is to say, all hegemony that organizes a text or a context.

From the mid-1980s onward, however, what changes little by little resides in the formulation of this intrinsically political scope of deconstruction in a discourse, the codes of which stem more recognizably from conventional politics. For, on the one hand, this discourse ends up more directly confronting concepts and a corpus of texts traditionally assigned to the field that we call "political philosophy" (Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Beccaria, Marx, Schmitt . . . ). And, on the other hand, it struggles with themes stemming from what we commonly call "current affairs" in politics (the death [End Page 142] penalty, pardon, state sovereignty in the age of globalization . . . ).6 This more explicit confrontation could not have taken place, however, without the preparatory work for "the premises of a political discourse in harmony with the demands of a deconstruction,"7 without the lengthy work developing the discursive and theoretical conditions necessary to do justice to the demands of deconstruction.8 To the demands, that is, of what happens or comes [ce qui arrive] (this is one of the rare "definitions" of deconstruction that Derrida ventured),9 namely, politics insofar as it is itself undergoing deconstruction, the political thing in the process of deconstructing itself, of self-deconstruction.

Thus, for Derrida, preparing discourse (but also the practice of political engagement)10 comes down, on the one hand, to interrogating the codes and conventions that have organized and still organize politics as...


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