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Geoffrey Bennington “Sovereign Stupidity and Autoimmunity”

October 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Bennington, Geoffrey 2009. Sovereign Stupidity and Autoimmunity. – Cheah, Pheng; Guerlac, Suzanne (eds). Derrida and the Time of the Political. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 97-113

[…] government (as executive) as such is usurpatory with respect to sovereignty (which is in principle legislative and only legislative) as such. Execution is already a usurpation of legislation. (99) Rousseau

This originary usurpation is possible only because sovereignty is from the start a little less than sovereign, is willing,, by definition, but is thereby also wanting or failing, just because it needs an executive in the first place to supplement itself and secure itself as sovereign. A sovereign that remained itself, purely sovereign, in its defining self-sufficiency, indivisibility, inalienability, an perfection, […] would not even be sovereign, insofar as its will would find no possibility of execution, and it would therefore do nothing and be nothing, certainly not sovereign. A truly or simply sovereign sovereign would not even be sovereign. (99)

Here then is the case of autoimmunity: the very attempt the sovereign makes to establish itself as self-same and thereby immune from other entails opening itself up to usurpation and eventual destruction. (100)

Whatever government is permanently […] instituted, it will always (if it is to be legitimate) have its roots in this radically “democratic” moment. So even though […] Rousseau does not really think that democratic government is feasible, democracy is in at the beginning of politics, at the precise point, in fact, at which the political emerges from the natural and in so doing begins its inevitable decline back to the natural. (101)

Democracy is, then, a kind of zero degree of politics, on the very edge of the state of nature, the state-of-nature-of-politics, the nature that remains to haunt politics even as politics is supposed to be the emergence from nature. (104)

This kind of configuration, with all the important differences one might bring out between Rousseau, Hobbes and Spinoza, seems at the very least to double democracy up. On the one hand it gives it this primary position, as a kind of originary (and quasi-natural) state of the State. In Hobbes, the other forms can come into being only on the basis of this primary democracy; in Spinoza, democracy is explicitly the most natural form; in Rousseau, as we have seen, it is as it were the obvious (if impractical) form of government for the Sovereign to adopt, or at least the only legitimate way that any form of government can be instituted. On the other hand, as it were after this archidemocratic moment, democracy is just one form of government or regime among others. I want to argue that all forms of government […] remain haunted by this primary moment, which is constitutive of sovereignty itself, and importantly a moment of nature. As is perhaps clearest in Spinoza, democracy has a natural quality to it, and this quality brings with it something less than, or other than, rationality. (105-106)

I want to suggest that this archidemocratic moment […] says something important about the political as such, insofar as it implies a plurality or multiplicity that will always work against the unitary aspirations of sovereignty, but also that its somewhat fabulous quality is problematic, marking any particular empirical instantiation of democracy as rather less than fabulous, or as intrinsically wanting. We’re always dissatisfied with our democracy, which seems by definition never quite democratic enough. […] this quality of being wanting is also democracy’s best (indeed only) chance. (106)

Democracy is a kind of limit case of government […] (107)

[…] a curious consequence of this positioning of democracy , whereby it seems as though it should be the best (the most sovereign) form of sovereignty […] but constantly shows up as the least sovereign form. Democracy would be the best form, says Rousseau, as Derrida recalls, for a “people of gods”, for which read, a people without politics, for a nonpolitical polis. Democracy is fabulous just because it is the form politics would take if it were not political. The “politics of politics”, however, means that politics is political, and therefore that democracy is struck by a kind of impossibility. (107)

[…] so [as the principle of differance] with democracy, which is and remains political only to the extent that it is never quite itself, and the demos, thank goodness, somewhat in spite of itself, never quite becomes a people of gods. (108)

This non-self-coincidence of a any sovereignty and any demos is what allows Derrida to open up the dimension of the à-venir, the to-come, that consistently marks his thinking about democracy, the opening to the unforeseeable event as such, the other, the arrivant, the “messianic” opening through which, a priori, no Messiah will never enter. And just this dimension is what enables him, in his late work, to play the unconditional against the sovereign. But the unconditional in this sense is not so much just opposed to sovereignty […] as at work already in sovereignty as the inevitable motivation for its ambitions, and as its principle of the ruin or dispersion. Indeed, that opening is none other than the possibility of the very “exception” that defines sovereignty itself in Schmitt’s famous definition […] (109)

[…] the sovereign cannot be sovereign unless it involves this opening, this opening that it may seem bound to want to close (that it contains, then). (109)