Border Sovereignty

In Politics of Religion/Religions of Politics. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 51-68 (2014)
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n Part I of this essay I take a canonical case of political theology, Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty (1985; 1922), and show how Agamben derives his account of sovereignty from an interpretation of Schmitt that relies on the interesting theological premise of an atemporal act or decision, one that is traditionally attributed to god’s act of creation, and that is only ambiguously secularized in the transcendental moment of German Idealism. In Part II I show how this reading of Schmitt can be used to avoid a certain kind of negative political theology associated with deconstruction because Agamben’s reading of Schmitt explains the emergence of certain specific temporal structures associated with the sovereign political decision: the sovereign political decision cannot be represented as having a beginning, and hence recedes phenomenologically into a kind of a priori past; and the sovereign decision cannot be represented as completed, and hence it is experienced as a ‘perpetual expenditure of energy’ that lacks comprehensible relation to a goal. In Part III I defend Agamben’s interpretation of sovereignty as a transcendental act from Negri’s objection that Agamben simply equates without argument Negri’s radically democratic conception of revolutionary constituent power with Schmitt’s conception of sovereignty (1999, p. 13). My defense relies on identifying Agamben’s ‘paradox of sovereignty’ (Agamben 1998, pp. 15ff.) with a ‘paradox of democracy.’ (Mouffe 2000; Whelan 1983) In Part IV I realize a corollary of the identification of the two paradoxes, of sovereignty and democracy: that political borders are the spatial site of the application of the act of political sovereignty, and possess a kind of transcendental spatiality akin to the special temporality associated with sovereignty. I apply this understanding to the privileged special case of the US-Mexico border: the structures implicit in Agamben’s analysis explain some crucial features of this case of walling: its manifest failure to achieve, even in principle, the purpose for which it is allegedly intended; the failure of democratic polity to address those affected by the wall; the appeal to sovereign powers in the legal legitimation of border policy. I defend Agamben’s analysis against other apparently competing views, especially those of Wendy Brown (2010) and argue that the transcendental act of sovereignty comprises a kind of primary political repression that opens up the space for ideological understandings of the wall, but does not itself comprise one. In Part V I address the question whether Agamben’s derived category of ‘bare life’ can also be used in the context of the border, arguing that it can. I conclude with some critical remarks about the limits of Agamben’s view.

Author's Profile

Alistair Welchman
University of Texas at San Antonio


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