- The Impotence of SovereigntyTemporality and Repetition in History
The history of modern philosophical and political thinking about sovereignty and the subject is marked by contradiction, the attempted resolutions of which give shape to this history while also tending to soften its rough edges, breaks, and inconsistencies—thereby always threatening to render it as something other than history. One such contradiction inheres to the term subject itself in what are seemingly two distinct modes or meanings: subject as subordinated and beholden to an external authority on the one hand, and subject as the proper agent of self-determination on the other. It is the positionality, the relational "beneathness" designated by the term sub-ject, that allows for these diametrically opposed meanings. The first meaning, subject as subordination, translates the Latin subjectus (lying below), synonymous with subditus or being subjugated to a higher authority. The other meaning, subject as autonomous agent, translates the Latin subjectum (foundation or subject of a proposition), which in turn translates Aristotle's [End Page 103] hypokeimenon, the underlying ground or substance that persists in a thing as it undergoes change. At first glance, the concept of subject in its various iterations—rationalist, idealist-specular, moral, political, and so on—embodies a contradiction between opposing and irreconcilable conditions: passive and active, prostrate and substrate, subjugated and autonomous. I propose, however, that this internal torsion within the conceptual history of the modern subject is not exactly a contradiction, or that the contradiction—if in fact it is one—turns out to be not a problem awaiting resolution but instead the driving force behind the concept. I develop these points first in dialogue with philosophical reflections on the subject and sovereignty by Etienne Balibar and Geoffrey Bennington before turning to a discussion of Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Writing of the God" (La escritura del dios).
First, let me provide a glimpse of where this argument will be headed with Borges. Although the concept of sovereignty is often equated with an autonomous subject—individual or collective, the sovereign is the one who decides whether the law is in effect or suspended, the one who assigns the law and assigns itself the law—Borges's text invites us to think sovereignty as something other than a proper or self-identical law giver. In fact, his text moves between two distinct thoughts of sovereignty: on one hand, as creative power that paradoxically finds itself incapable of action or speech, inclined instead toward repose and muteness; on the other, as a force or agency within language that remains irreducible to any idea of a pure origin or self-consciousness (intent, meaning, will). Borges's text thus proposes a thought of sovereignty as divided within and from itself and, therefore, as anything but a subject. "La escritura del dios" reminds us that there can be no conception of sovereignty, no matter how autonomous, that is not in need of language. Language provides the medium or vehicle through which sovereign decision would pronounce itself as such, as well as the means by which its authority would be comprehended and recognized by those who are to be subjugated to its judgment. Here we encounter another facet of the internal contradiction: sovereignty is associated with the founding of law and order—including linguistic ones—and yet a sovereign that did not communicate itself in an intelligible manner would be no sovereignty at all; thus, sovereignty both gives rise to and presupposes an order of intelligibility. But if sovereignty [End Page 104] presupposes order then it cannot be fully sovereign, because some other sovereign must have inaugurated the preceding order.
Although it may be that we are never able fully to leave behind the association of sovereignty with the idea of self-presence ("I," subject), this association enables a forgetting or a suppression of the openness and incalculability that are necessary for language as communication and understanding: the possibilities of mutation, loss, misunderstanding, and emergence of new or previously inapparent associations that obtain every time we recur to preexisting, repeatable signs. The positing of a sovereign subject must cut these incalculable possibilities short and place them out of view; it must...