The Birth Of Modern “Sovereignty” – The Dialectic Of Subjection And Abjection, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

It is not incidental that the apologists for these necropolitical regimes as they were in the midst of their formation always considered them “humane” in some ironic, if not perverse, sense of the word.  The Spanish Conquistadors essentially wielded against the native peoples the same humiliations and tortures concocted by the Inquisition against heretics and conversos.  They were abjectifying their subjects somatically under the pretext of saving their souls from heathenry. 

A similar rationalization often was cited when it came to the conditions of slaves.  But for the most part the temptation to completely dehumanize Africans grew out of the sheer and impressive magnitude of profit to be made from the industrialization of slave labor. In the words of James Walvin, “whatever scruples Europeans might have had about the sufferings they inflicted on growing numbers of Africans, they were never strong enough to overcome the slave trade’s commercial appeal.” (loc. 737).

Thus the genesis of what we may call “popular” sovereignty goes hand in hand with the collective act of conjuring predatory and conscienceless “war machines” that fit the model Deleuze and Guattari proposed a half century ago in their “Treatise on Nomadology”, perhaps the most scrutinized section of their massive tome A Thousand Plateaus

Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the war machine, which draws on a wild and idiosyncratic profusion of sources from philosophy to anthropology to semiotics and remains somewhat opaque as to its role in contemporary critical theory, does not need to be reviewed in any detail here.  But what makes it relevant to our discussion is its central thesis of two kinds of sovereignty – state and nomadic – following the research of the French philologist and linguist George Dumézil. 

Deleuze and Guattari maintain that “political sovereignty has two poles, the fearsome magician-emperor, operating by capture, bonds, knots, and nets, and the jurist-priest-king, proceeding by treaties, pacts, contracts.” (424). The latter with its focus on sovereignty as a function of law, which guarantees the liberty of free “subjects” in the abstract sense of self-legislation or auto-nomy, emerges as the socio-semantic correlate to the dominance of the self-certifying Cartesian cogito, the empire of modern “rationality” that relies on the metaphysics of a transcendental self-consciousness.  It is a distributed sovereignty manifest in the territorialized political setting as republicanism or “representative democracy” and on the international scene as the post-Westphalian compact of independent nation-states united ultimately in what the philosopher Kant envisioned as a transnational “civil commonwealth.” (48).

According to Deleuze and Guattari, what forces the changeover from the “magician-emperor” (i.e., monarchy) to the “jurist-priest-king” is the operation of the “war machine.”  Loosely stated, the war machine is a didactic notion in Deleuze and Guattari to generalize the dynamic yet repressive inner workings of what James Joyce dubbed the “terror of history” whereby nomadic tribes assault intricately organized city-states and imperial domains, precipitate anarchy and collapse, then reassemble what they refer to as the “apparatus of capture” that creates the symbolic webworks by which the process of governance as a whole is both carried out and legitimated.   

The war-machine, nevertheless, does not belong to structures of governance.

As for the war machine in itself, it seems to be irreducible to the State apparatus, to be outside its sovereignty and prior to its law: it comes from elsewhere. Indra, the warrior god, is in opposition to Varuna no less than to Mitra? He can no more be reduced to one or the other than he can constitute a third of their kind. Rather, he is like a pure and immeasurable multiplicity, the pack, an irruption of the ephemeral and the power of metamorphosis. He unties the bond just as he betrays the pact. He brings a furor to bear against sovereignty, a celerity against gravity, secrecy against the public, a power (puissance) against sovereignty, a machine against the apparatus. He bears witness to another kind of justice, one of incomprehensiblecruelty at times, but at others of unequaled pity as well (because he unties bonds.. .). (352)

Throughout A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari seem to construe at times the “war machine” as interchangeable with capitalism itself.  From this perspective Joseph Schumpter’s concept of capitalism as a juggernaut of “creative destruction” comes strongly to mind.  But the war machine can also be identified equally with the religious factor, as David Hale has argued.  For Deleuze and Guattari, it is the “monotheistic” impulse in particular that drives the secret, violent logic of a convert history (Hegel’s List der Vernunft, or “cunning of reason”). 

The “rationality” of the war machine, which appears from outside the state architecture as a supreme species of irrationality, is what allows the two kinds of sovereignties to oscillate at an historical level between one another.  And it both propels the expansion of the state itself as the inscription of sovereign unity on a global multiplicity of bodies and territories while at the same time leaving a variety of openings and lesions for “nomadic” incursions of predatory populations exterior to its apparatus to bring it down and tear it apart time and time again, until the same cycle repeats itself.  Deleuze and Guattari surmise: 

The absolute of religion is essentially a horizon that encompasses, and, if the absolute itself appears at a particular place, it does so in order to establish a solid and stable center for the global. The encompassing role of smooth spaces (desert, steppe, or ocean) in monotheism has been frequently noted. In short, religion converts the absolute. Religion is in this sense a piece in the State apparatus (in both of its forms, the “bond” and the “pact or alliance”), even if it has within itself the power to elevate this model to the level of the universal or to constitute an absolute Imperium. But for the nomad the terms of the question are totally different: locality is not delimited; the absolute, then, does not appear at a particular place but becomes a nonlimited locality; the coupling of the place and the absolute is achieved not in a centered, oriented globalization or universalization but in an infinite succession of local operations.(382-3)

In many respects these “local operations” signify the so-called “voygages of discovery” on the part of merchants, buccaneers, and soldier of fortune who over the centuries of the early modern era wove the latticed apparatus of capture for Anibal Quijano’s “colonial matrix of power,” the locus classicus for the development of theories of “decoloniality” by Mignolo and others. 

But to understand the elaboration of the colonial matrix of power, which not only persists today but gathers momentum indefatigably in its neoliberal avatar from, we cannot solely occupy ourselves with what from the very end of the fourteenth century onward.  We must look, as Deleuze and Guattari imply without benefit of the sophisticated historical, anthropological, and cognitive linguistic data we have acquired in the half century since their book appeared, at what they term the “passional delusion” which is “profoundly monomaniacal,” one which derives a fundamental element of its assemblage in monotheism and the Book” and eventuates in the “regime of subjectification”. (128).  

Phrased in its own argot, Deleuze and Guattari’s massive and non-linear analysis of the roiling human odyssey they insinuate behind the metaphor of the “war machine” is not worth summarizing or even incorporating in significant measure at this juncture.  But we may adapt their well-known psycho-semiotic approach to the regime of capital in calling our attention to the towering shadow of Oedipus and its reproductive machinery of “desire” – and by extension the convoluted epistemic satrapies that arises to instantiate the “colonial matrix of power” –  in examining what might be implied by the supposition of both a colonial and a “decolonial” subject. 

The Oedipal superego, which in classic psychoanalytic theory unfolds the framework for both repression of the indigenous perceptual apparatus and the organization of the symbolical and syntactical field of cognitive operations we regard as “rationality” in the generic sense, is only apparent in its individuated guise, as Freud profoundly grasped a century ago and Deleuze and Guattari elaborated fifty years later. The superego is essentially the genealogical and moral principle cast as the conscience of the Cartesian subject which at an “industrial” level of production churns and spins vast systems of “self-evident” knowledge templates, impregnable lattices of cultural and political hegemony, gruesome juggernauts of grinding economic exploitation, and intricate, yet often indecipherable, webs of social classification and hierarchization.

It is the zero point for the colonial matrix of power, for “cognitive empire”. But it also serves as what Mignolo calls a “salvation” scheme that replicates the Medieval ideal of a “holy Roman empire” fantasized as “Christendom” with a post-Christian secularized – and globalized – simulacrum. For Mignolo, “salvation has several designs, all co-existing today, but that unfolded over 500 years, since 1500: salvation by conversion to Christianity, salvation by progress and civilization, salvation by development and modernization, salvation by global market democracy (e.g. neoliberalism). Thus, the rhetoric of modernity is the constant updating of the rhetoric of salvation hiding the logic of coloniality – war, destruction, racism, sexism, inequalities, injustice, etc.”

The formation of the subject is inseparable from the indication of sovereignty.  There is no sovereignty without a corresponding regime of subjectification, but how does this transmutation occur, especially when the former comes to be diffused within the body politic, which in turn has been “disseminated” (as Jacques Derrida would say) as part of a mobile, malleable, and extremely agitated “regime of signs”.  The “reprobation” that is enforced on the human record by God is nothing compared to its very simulacrum that is instrumentalized in both the social and political setting through the everyday operations of “pure practical reason”, through the effort to achieve the “holiness” (in Kant’s language) of a truly universalized moral will as part of a “kingdom of ends”. 

Delueze and Guattari declare:

This is the paradox of the legislator-subject replacing the signifying despot: the more you obey the statements of the dominant reality, the more in command you are as subject of enunciation in mental reality, for in the end you are only obeying yourself! You are the one in command, in your capacity as a rational being. A new form of slavery is invented, namely, being slave to oneself, or to pure “reason,” the Cogito. Is there anything more passional than pure reason? Is there a colder, more extreme, more self-interested passion than the Cogito? (130)

Cannot we perhaps begin to understand the creation of slavery as that “most peculiar institution” as the Golem-like growth of the “slavery” of self-legislating, bourgeois, “pure” rationality which coincides almost exactly with the advent of the “monomaniacal” vision of a mathesis universalis?  Can we not agree with Goya that el sueño de la razón produce monstrous (“the sleep of reason brings forth monsters”)?  Is the misleading contemporary, polemical trope of “whiteness” that is used as a kind of socio-critical phlogiston nowadays little more than an unconscious ploy of metonymy to disclose the ubiquitous hegemony of a racially marked regime of signs that systemically replaces the insuperable and indivisible “will of God” with the Cartesian “clear and distinct” imprimatur of right reason? 

For Deleuze and Guattari the “war machine” shows itself most transparently in the modern age in the dispersive flux of subjectification through the creation of empty, contentless “rational agents” that become socially dis-placed and disconnected (the atomized “mass man” of existentialist literature) and mutatis mutandis dissemble as the “free” political subjects of representative democracy. 

It is in the exercise of this “freedom” that the infinite will of the monopolitical Bodinean sovereign is alchemized into the infinite and indeterminate subjective “inclination” (Neigung) of Kant’s moral philosophy.  Kant, of course, understood the danger of basing political theory on any type of utilitarian ethics.  Any kind of “felicific calculus” invariably masks a devolving of the libertarian subjectification machine into the differential calculus that accompanies a politically unsustainable profusion of arbitrary velleities, fantastical wishes, and fleeting desires. 

The presumed rationality of this highly irrational regime of subjective significations can be seen in the economics of the slave trade, which industrialized both abject labor and the most efficient, streamlined, and “value-added” processes of commodity production not in order to address the problem of impoverishment and underconsumption among Europe’s vast, miserable peasant populations but to tease out of the mire of baseline human biology novel tastes and addictive proclivities toward such vendibles as sugar and tobacco. 

As the historian Gerald Horner writes in his own distinctively scrappy and tendentious style: “Queen Elizabeth herself was said to have the ‘black teeth’ that characterized those with undue fondness for sugar, a commodity that was to propel waves of Africans across the Atlantic with Morocco receiving lances and pikes in return, easing the conquest of Africa due south and facilitating this odious commerce”.(206)

The new regime of rationality, which coincided with the era of “discovery” and pari passu gave rise to both science and slavery, the distributional signifier and the extraction of surplus value from destituted labor, the freebooting pirate and the mercantilist monarch, the worldy asceticism of a merciless Calvinism and the oversubjectification of the “desiring machine” (in the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari) that goes hand in glove with both classic liberalism and contemporary neoliberalism, could only survive if it systematically extruded the fullness of what fulsomely purported to be a “humanized” novo ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages.” 

If the seventeenth century invented the “differential” that would prove so crucial to the taxonomical frenzy of the eighteenth century and to the identity politics of today, it could only hoist on a planetary scale its unprecedented empire of proliferating signs if it also refined what Hegel would later dub “the power of the negative”.  Mbembe puts it as follows:

The Remainder—the ultimate sign of the dissimilar, of difference and the pure power of the negative—constituted the manifestation of existence as an object. Africa in general and Blackness in particular were presented as accomplished symbols of a vegetative, limited state. The Black Man, a sign in excess of all signs and therefore fundamentally unrepresentable, was the ideal example of this other-being, powerfully possessed by emptiness, for whom the negative had ended up penetrating all moments of existence—the death of the day, destruction and peril, the unnameable night of the world.(11)

The power of the negative as the master modernist signifier – or viewed from the “postmodernist” perspective, especially if we take account of Deleuze’s posturing “against the dialectic”, what can described as the discriminatory dynamics of the differential –  thus frames the entirety of the system of knowledge that has overspread the planet in the last half millennium. 

Modernity, according to Mignolo, both subjects and dominates, damns and privileges, elevates and castigates the domains of life and experience in wielding the “negative” semantic operator as a pure hegemony that thrives on the sovereign power of distinction.  Modernity and the colonial matrix of power, whose virtual scepter is the power of the negative (whether expressed dialectically or as Deleuze’s “difference engine”), had transformed both the knowledge base and the resource base for the peoples of the world. 

It extracts both matter and memes, human bodies in the form of forced labor and semiotic trifles in the name of scientific precision.  It transmutes rich and deep-reaching rhizomes of ancestral linkages, cultural memory, and intersubjective anxieties and loyalties into “social scientific” abstractions, which are easily unmasked as fabrications that are routinely refined and manufactured into certain “self-evident” collective truths deployed to maintain the prevalent regime of biopower.   The present system of global biopower we recognize today as “neoliberalism” has as its watershed the colonial matrix power. 

As Mignolo remarks, “knowledge in the colonial matrix of power was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it was the mediation to the ontology of the world as well as a way of being in the world (subjectivity). On the other hand, as far as knowledge was conceived imperially as true knowledge, it became a commodity to be exported to those whose knowledge was deviant or non-modern according to Christian theology and, later on, secular philosophy and sciences.”  

Likewise, it morphed from regimes of meaning into massive apparatuses of social and economic production.  “This combination was successful enough, in terms of the amassing of wealth and power, that by the end of the nineteenth century China and India had to confront the fact that Western men and institutions saw them as…lagging behind historically; and history, for the West, was equal to modernity. Consequently, Western knowledge became a commodity of exportation for the modernization of the non-Western world.” (13)

The intimate interconnection between the modernist episteme and the rise of capitalism is today indisputable.  The common denominator is the principle of “commodification” arising out of the capture and total reification of natural human networks of commerce and reciprocal transactivity by the global market, as Marx argued so effectively in the first book of CapitalOn the global market the process of commodification, beginning with the alienation and transformation of labor along with resources into its commodity form, reaches completion. 

The end product is the monetary metamorphosis of the commodity into its pure symbolic or virtual equivalent. Marx writes: “When money leaves the domestic sphere of circulation it loses the local functions it has acquired there, as the standard of prices, coin, and small change…In world trade, commodities develop their value universally. Their independent value-form thus confronts them here too as world money. It is in the world market that money first functions to its full extent as the commodity whose natural form is also the directly social form of realization of human labour in the abstract. Its mode of existence becomes adequate to its concept.” (240-1). 

The global market itself, however, could only become a golem-like monstrosity bestriding the earth without the turn in the seventeenth century to a mathesis universalis involving all knowledge, to what René Guénon tendentiously dubbed “the reign of quantity.”  The financialization of everything and the etherization of every natural human sympathy and affect into binary or “digitized” sign-mobilizations, as is most obvious with both the social sciences themselves and social media consists all at once in the insidious apotheosis of the colonial matrix of power.  The “matrix” itself, nevertheless, as in the Hollywood movie by the same name, permeates everything and functions complete outside the ken of those who are slowly, casually, imperceptibly, and casually crushed in its cognitive gearworks.  

The momentum behind “coloniality” driving the growth and global dispersion of the matrix is the differential rhythmics of subjection and abjection.  As Engels emphasized unblushingly in his highly polemical tract Anti-Dühring, these rhythmics are inherent in the historical passage from peasant to urban societies.  They are a byproduct of the extraordinary deployments of  “force” required to sustain the complex patterns of social organization and commercial interchange required in the rise of any particular “civilization”.  The exploitation of labor power has gone hand in hand with the elaboration of vast infrastructuers from irrigation canals to granaries and temples that define this trajectory of social development at comparable historical junctures in both hemispheres. 

In that regard the backstory to all forms of modernity is the ubiquity of forced labor.  “Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.” (209).  

But forced labor also engenders a forced consciousness. The slavery which cast the architecture of early modern systems of production, and which were enabled by the specific differential rationality that racialized slave labor and ultimately refined it later in the nineteenth century as a “scientific” racism combining Darwinism with Linneaean taxonomy, must be understood as a logical, depraved consequence of the modernist episteme itself.  

As the research of anthropologist James C. Scott has made transparent, the linguistic output of the modernist episteme has created a kind of double narrative (corresponding to Du Bois’ “double consciousness”) in which plain speech and social domination conspire to foster the illusion of a precise world ordering, whereas in truth the cognitive and communicative performances of the dominated are distended through asymmetrical power relations to appear as some sort of peculiar “subcultural” sidebar, as mere patois.  It is not that the subaltern in Spivak’s formulation cannot speak, but the subaltern is deprived of an authentic voice. 

In other words, the mastered can only speak in the register of the master.  And the force of the master narrative is compensated by the artful dissemblances of those who are deprived of their dignity, their autonomy, and their own genuine story.  Scott quips: “the more menacing the power, the thicker the mask.” (3)  

If power is rational power – i.e., Foucauldian biopower, or Weberian “substantive rationality” –  it is by its very nature a “public’ power, since rationality in Scott’s view amounts to certain rituals of public performance.  These modes of performativity constitute a “public transcript”, according to Scott, but they automatically generate among the subjugated a “hidden transcript” that conceals semiotic linkages that form a linguistic reserve for active resistance, in both the semantic and political contexts, against the dominant discourse. 

The dominant discourse, therefore, is ipso facto “civil discourse”, the discourse of the “civilizing mission” claimed by every imperial or colonial enterprise from the ancients onward.  In short, the modernist deep frame for knowledge production contains within itself the eventual release of its dangerous Doppelgänger.  In the Caribbean it was the incessant paranoid planter fantasy of the slave revolt.  In the progressive neoliberal dialectic of a hyper-refined, administrative rationality that seeks to classify and conquer, it is that of the “deplorable”, who can be of any color, as it turns out.

As we move into the twenty-first century, the ongoing dialectic of subjection and abjection has yielded an increasingly unstable epistemic as well as social and political system that transforms what Foucault calls “truth telling” into a catachresis of increasingly empty and volatile binary signifiers (e.g., race, class, gender) that render real sovereignty impossible.  Sovereignty resides in the “dialectic” with those who are on top suddenly finding themselves on bottom only to rise to the top once again in a short span of time, and to repeat the cycle once more. 

Thus it is no longer sovereignty in the Bodinean sense, which can point to some transcendental origin.  It is a sovereignty without origin or any kind of transcendental condition tout ensemble.  It is the “sovereignty” of the drowning man who out of foolish pride refuses the rope that is thrown to him.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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