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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 150-177

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The Desire for the Sovereign and the Logic of Reciprocity in the Family of Nations

Lydia H. Liu

It may sound like a truism that the modern nation cannot imagine itself except in sovereign terms. But what is this truism saying or, rather, withholding from us? When Benedict Anderson wrote his influential study of nationalism in 1983, he circumscribed the imagining of the nation as "both inherently limited and sovereign" and relied on this basic understanding to explain the global transformation of dynastic empires into nation-states [Imagined Communities 6]. That insight, however, has not drawn to itself as much attention or scrutiny as some of his other concepts, like "print capitalism" or "creole nationalisms." If one were to name a few of the blind spots in the contemporary discussions of nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and diaspora, one of them would be the place and placing of sovereignty and sovereign right. To those of us whose initial purpose has been to historicize the nation and nationalism, this blind spot cannot but raise some serious methodological and interpretive questions. Insofar as sovereignty articulates a major mode of exchange between nation and empire in recent history and moreover figures prominently in the realm of what Anderson calls "quotidian universals" [Spectre of Comparisons 33], the truism of its truth needs to be unpacked carefully.

Hence, I would like to raise some tentative questions about desire and sovereignty, not in terms of legal studies, but in light of what we have learned about colonial exchange and its production of difference, fetishism, identity, and the logic of reciprocity. I am going to show that these intellectual and material developments have had significant bearings on the making of international law such that our inquiry into the latter can no longer be confined to the self-explanatory evolution of legal discourse. For sovereign thinking is one of those areas that must be reexamined, to borrow Edward Said's words, "according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections" [18].

In this essay, I begin with a critical analysis of Benedict Anderson's work, focusing on the interplay of the historical and the universal in his study of the nation. I am particularly interested in examining what Anderson chose to do, or not to do, with sovereignty in his theory of nationalism, and I raise some questions about his idea of the "modular," whereby the universal takes on the role of a migrant figure making histories [End Page 150] here and there. Section two introduces the subject of fetishism and desire into the discussion by linking the display of the thrones of the Emperor Qianlong in British museums to significant moments of sovereign thinking in the reign of Queen Victoria and the Empress Dowager of China at the turn of the century. In section three, I attempt a detailed discussion of the sovereignty complex of Ku Hung-ming, a diasporic subject who grew up in colonial Malaysia, was educated in Europe, and ended up serving China as his adopted sovereign country. My analysis centers on Ku's well-known defense of the Empress Dowager during the popular nationalist uprising of 1900 and his work as a translator and publicist in Anglo-Chinese military confrontations. Finally, I turn to the theories of international law itself and ask how nineteenth-century jurists revised the notion of sovereignty to arrive at a new constitutive theory of recognition in the heyday of imperialist expansion. I argue that any attempt to explain the rise of the modern nation-state must take full account of this significant revision in the early nineteenth century, because the revision signaled a paradigmatic shift from natural law to positivist jurisprudence to the effect that a constitutive understanding of sovereign right would eventually overcome and displace the natural law notion of universal sovereignty.

Sovereign Thinking in Migrant Nationalisms

In Imagined Communities, Anderson pointed to sovereignty as a necessary condition in thinking about the nation when, for example, he...