Fall 2015: Markell Abstract

Decomposing Sovereignty
Patchen Markell
Associate Professor, Political Science

University of Chicago

When Hannah Arendt famously wrote that “if men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce,” she referred not to sovereignty in the traditional and relatively narrow sense of the existence of a site of supreme authority in the organization of a polity, but to the much broader idea that human beings are, or can be, masterful agents, in control of their own fates. Arendt’s critique of that idea—which she thought rested on the failure to acknowledge human plurality, and fed a variety of forms of destruction and domination—has inspired many subsequent critiques of the idea of sovereignty, my own included. In this presentation, however, I will suggest that there are some surprising pitfalls lurking in the Arendtian critique of sovereignty, not because it is wrong, but because it can be understood and appropriated in ways that inadvertently reproduce the object of her, and our, critique. In response to this problem, I’ll sketch an alternative way to pursue the critique of sovereignty, to understand the meaning of “non-sovereignty,” and to relate sovereignty in its broad, ontological sense to sovereignty in its narrow, juridical sense. This alternative is devoted not to the (perpetually deferred) end or death of sovereignty, but to what I call its decomposition.

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