- Along the Edges of Law's Empire:Kahn's Islands of Sovereignty
What does it mean to inhabit the peripheries of a world made by liberal empire? Leviathan, a metaphor long favored by theorists of modern statecraft and sovereignty, originally denoted a fearsome creature of the sea. This monstrous being was depicted in the famous frontispiece of Hobbes's masterpiece as a figure, looming over city and country, that bound a body of subjects. Curiously, the watery origins of Leviathan receded in this representation of sovereignty even though the seventeenth century marked the overseas expansion of the Crown. This absence has marked modern political theory: the enclosure and governance of land and its inhabitants defines state-making and sovereignty, whether sovereign power is cast in the language of class politics, bureaucracy, or charisma. In focusing on the oceanic margins of the United States' liberal empire, Jeffrey S. Kahn's Islands of Sovereignty is a welcome contribution to our understanding of sovereignty, empire, and statecraft in a time of new assemblages of state power, projected both in the confines of the "homeland" and over-seas.
Published in the dark shadow of a resurgent anti-immigrant politics in the United States, Kahn's historical ethnography examines the world-historical transformation of the United States' southeastern maritime border into a foreboding space routinely punctuated by the interdiction of seaborne Haitian migrants. Along the oceanic fringes of US empire, Kahn (5) finds the heart of the changing cosmologies of liberal sovereignty—one exercised by the "tension between a foundational submission to constraining legalities and [End Page 1136] the yearning for a sovereign flexibility by which such fetters may be thrown aside." As he notes, the dialectic between the rule of law and the sovereign's desires to evade it not only renders the foundational problematic of modern personhood—i.e. its being torn "between reason and will"—in the terms of statecraft, it is also productive of new spaces, feelings, and forms of subjection (ibid). From the view of Haitian shores, the US regime of maritime interdiction and surveillance created a watery space of exclusion. Kahn (216) narrates,
One could look out from the coastal towns of Haiti's southwestern peninsula and see the white hulls of patrolling Coast Guard ships in the distance. A Haitian captain I spoke with in 2011 recalled sailing out from one such small town after the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide twenty years prior and seeing a cutter in the distance, what he called the Ammintonn... This captain explained how he "saw the Aminton [sic] passing through the channel," approached it, but was told to return to shore by Coast Guard officials, and so never made it to Guantánamo.
In a world defined by the executive branch's recursive attempts to circumvent the limits of liberal legality, the suffocating presence of the US Coast Guard fashioned a maritime "wall," to use an imaginary of our present. In sketching the effects of the executive orders, statutory enactments and judicial opinions upon this border, Kahn unveils the legal infrastructure of racial exclusion as wrought upon the bodies, sensibilities, and horizons of Haitian refugees. Constituted in the language and workings of liberal sovereignty, life at the oceanic ends of liberal empire was "nasty, brutish, and short" for those trapped in the tumult of Haiti's political upheavals between the 1970s and 1990s. Conversely, from the skewed view of the territorial confines of the United States, the exclusion of Haitian migration was barely visible except to those attentive to the bureaucratic machinations of the Coast Guard's interdiction policy (254). Read in light of the Trump administration's family separation policy (among other anti-immigrant measures), Kahn's historical analysis of the securitization of the Windward Passage has much to say about the jurisdictional architecture and imaginaries that tie the racial anxieties of the present moment to past iterations of exclusion.
Islands of Sovereignty is a cosmographical project linking the legal and social geographies that transformed this maritime border to the...