Culture@Large 2001: Rethinking Sovereignty

Society for Cultural Anthropology, Culture@Large, “Rethinking Sovereignty,” Theorizing in the Global Context. Organized by Vincanne Adams, Washington, D. C., 2001

Sovereignty as a concept and as a peculiar arrangement of power has been the topic of a wide variety of anthropological debate and inquiry of late. To some extent these debates pick up where Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics left off, placing questions about forms of discipline and governance in the context of globalization and attempting to explain the mechanics of subject-making in terms of economic, state, and repressive power as well as the liberatory politics such efforts might inspire. Discussions emergent from philosophy, history, literary criticism and economics have engaged anthropologists to formulate a broad set of conceptual frameworks for dealing with questions of sovereignty in its bodily, local, national, and global dimensions. Emergent in part from the rise of globalism in the world economy and the anticipation of a post-national moment, scholars have questioned the mechanisms of a global sovereignty in configurations of empire and the subordination of the nation-state to regimes of capitalist domination (Hardt and Negri’s work). Elsewhere recognition of postcolonial nationalisms has spawned discussion about the recent emergence of nation-states, as hopeful apparatuses of national sovereignty in the decline of empire (John Kelly’s response). More recently, questions of “global terrorism” raise interesting possibilities of the spectre of empire, as national sovereignty is subordinated to political concerns circulating in and through rhetorics of global economic and security demands.

That would be the sense of urgency of these questions because they became so visible post 9/11. From Negri and Hardt’s use of Lenin, for example, “If you want to avoid civil war” he said, “You must become imperialists.” Today, however, we, and they, consider the inability to name the enemy in terms of a sovereign state. Rather, we find the enemy through internal recognition—those within (immigrants, citizens like you and me)—posing the possibility of “civil war” as the inevitable conceptual outcome, after all.

Debates about the legal ambiguities built into sovereignty raise questions about the violence afforded the modern state toward its own citizens. Internally, within state systems, declarations of a “state of emergency” renew potentially catastrophic regimes of incarceration, racial profiling, and repression in the name of the sovereign’s “duty” to protect bare or “naked” life. This brings us to questions of internal governance. How might we theorize beyond state/agency dualisms to capture the biopolitical as the contemporary means of governance, even (or expecially) when it harms? Veena Das’ work addresses these questions in terms of the illegibility of the state and the law—the blurring of the rational and magical to unwittingly conscript citizens into subjugation. I look forward to Joao’s response to this essay.

What peculiar aspects of sovereignty open up spaces for governance that link the biological body to the body social? Post-Foucaultian inquiries by Agamben concerning this question have identified mechanisms by which the state is able to insert itself into citizen bodies as a measure of sovereign power, enacting specific forms of violence by the rule of the exception through which sovereign power is defined, turning all life and all political battles into battles, again, over bare life.

At the same time that global political arrangements reinforce these internal possibilities, global arrangements of economic and market forces also potentially disrupt the easy coherence of state sovereignty and internal governance. Global technologies that propose transcendence of national boundaries render the body superfluous to the enterprise of governance, disrupting the easy coherence of state and subject. Genetic technologies dissolve the body itself into networks of scientific communication and transregional operations of biomedical science and profit capitalism. What might be said of the sovereignty of the body at this juncture? (I believe Margaret Lock will tell us much here). Finally, efforts to convey experiences of modern subjectivity that lay beyond the ethical frameworks already delineated within sovereign regimes remains a persistent concern and pursuit not just for anthropologists but for many others across the disciplines. What are the possibilities for ethnographic work under conditions of erasure that are built into sovereign regimes, given their ethical, legal, political infrastructures? How does an analytic of sovereignty make this task of expression easier or more difficult? (Mariella will be left with the burden of summarizing here, in response to Margaret’s work).

This session is organized around the presentation of scholars who are writing and thinking about sovereignty in new and compelling ways that are differently localized in relation to one another. The panel does not begin, nor with it end, I think, with a definitive statement of sovereignty. Rather, it aims to provide a space within which we can hear about recent work, offering collectively an analytics of sovereignty in relation to the specificity of its ethnographic locations. It also aims to provide a means for generating responses to these efforts across disciplines and across the various localizations of this work.


Michael Hardt (Literature, Duke) 30 min

Discussant: John Kelly (Chicago) 15 min

Veena Das (Johns Hopkins) 30 min

Discussant: Joao Biehl (Princeton)15 min

15 min break

Giorgio Agamben (Philosophy, University of Verona) 30 min

Discussant: Stefania Pandolfo (Berkeley) 15 min

Margaret Lock (McGill) 30 min

Discussant: Mariella Pandolfi (Univ of Montreal) 15 min

30 min for discussion with the audience


HARDT, Michael (Literature, Duke University, co-author with Antonio Negri of EMPIRE) SOVEREIGNTY AND COUNTERPOWER During the modern era, the dominant concept of democracy was tied to national sovereignty and the bounded national space. Democracy was conceived principally through the representative institutions that sustained a notion of the people. In the contemporary world, national sovereignty is gradually ceding its position to a new, unbounded form of sovereignty, which Negri and I identify as Empire. Correspondingly, as democratic institutions lose the footing they had in the national space, the mechanisms of representation itself lose their effectiveness and the concept of the people becomes increasingly abstract and ungraspable. 

As we rethink sovereignty in the contemporary era of shifting national and global relations, we need also to rethink the concept of democracy. We need to conceive a democracy that is no longer popular but one that is grounded in the multitude—a democracy that is non-representative or differently representative. To reconceive democracy we should begin with the concept of counterpower as a new foundation. Counterpower consists primarily of three elements: resistance, insurrection, and constituent power. Rethinking these elements in our contemporary context could provide a new ground on which to invent a new notion of democracy.

DAS, Veena (Johns Hopkins University) THE SIGNATURE OF THE STATE I argue in this paper that the idea of the state as a rational entity engaged in maintaining public order by keeping violence in abeyance is in a dialectical relation with another notion - that of the state as a spectral presence in the life of the communities it seeks to regulate. The iterability of utterances and actions in which the signature of the state can detach itself from its origin and be grafted to other structures and other chains of signification appears in stark relief in the enthnography I present from low income neighbourhoods. How does the state then claim legitimacy in the face of obvious forgeries, corruption within it own procedures, and the mimesis of its structures? In order to understand this I turn to the realm of excuses a classical subject in the Austin's analysis of language but not often used in understanding the realm of politics. I show that in this region of language we encounter vulnerability of action and vulnerability of utterances but that this very vulnerability in the natural economy of language becomes a form of power in the entangled circulations between state and community.

GIORGIO AGEMBEN, a philosopher from the University of Verona, will be one of our featured panelists. (This is not his abstract. It is a description of his work in relation to this session) Two of Agamben’s recent books offer insights about sovereignty that may be of use to anthropology: Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life, and Remnants of Auschwitz. In Homo Sacer, Agamben explores the violence engendered by legal ambiguities of sovereign power in the modern state. Developing an exploration of biopower begun by Foucault, his analysis shows how sovereignty authorizes a “power over life” by the rule of the exception—being both above the law as its constituting force and safeguard of the law in its deployment. He recognizes this as a position of danger when, under modern conditions, ideas of the sacred are entwined with sovereign power-- when the sacred is shattered into all aspects of bare biological life, making life itself the sacred terrain for all forms of governance, including the right to kill or to make live. In Remnants, Agemben interrogates the ethical terrain of modern sovereignty through language and discourse. He recognizes the incommensurate abilities for modern life to both produce unspeakable violence and offer a linguistic or ethical infrastructure that could render the experience of this violence knowable. In the erasure produced in its wake, one grasps a sense of the essence of life itself as a remnant, a recognition of the human who survives the inhumane as a witness.

LOCK, Margaret (McGill University) BIG PHARMA, THE LIFE INDUSTRY, AND THE CONTROL OF BARE LIFE The rigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR) has become a top priority in recent years in the enactment of foreign policy, notably by the US government. It is asserted by agrochemical-pharmaceutical conglomerates, that IPR are essential for research and development and those countries who have contested the patenting of plant material taken from their territories have been subjected to economic sanctions. International trade negotiations are forums where the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) are regularly reviewed with the result that, increasingly, monopolies, generally in the form of patents, that have formerly fallen under the domain of national law have been seriously eroded. Efforts made by governments in the “developing” world to balance the interests of innovators with those of society are seriously damaged as moves to “harmonize” patent law worldwide are gradually brought about. In contrast, the patenting of human genes in the “developed” world has met with some government opposition, resulting in a catastrophic but brief NASDAQ slump. Using specific case studies, including those of the patenting of genes associated with breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and of basmati rice strains, arguments about empire, sovereignty, globalized inequalities, biopower, and resistance will be revisited with particular emphasis on implementation and regulation of genetic technologies in a domain where uncertainty, scientific disagreement, closed doors, and promissory capital hold sway.