A Genealogy of Sovereignty

Bartelson, Jens. 1995. A Genealogy of Sovereignty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This was a difficult book so I tried outlining it chapter by chapter: Ch. 1 – Bartelson proposes a genealogy of “sovereignty” and lays out the arguments and methods for his approach for writing a conceptual history of sovereignty through its relationship to knowledge. His question thus becomes not, what is sovereignty, but rather: How have political discourses of and about sovereignty ordered our political reality and our knowledge about that reality. He follows methods of discourse analysis of two broad categories of texts—“traditionary” and “manuals”—from three historical periods (Renaissance, Classical, and Modern). Traditionary texts “furnish blueprints for reality,” while manuals “translate their meaning into reality and action” (9). His central hypothesis is that “sovereignty and knowledge implicate each other logically and produce each other historically” (5).

Ch. 2 – He goes through a deconstruction of sovereignty as seen through macrosociological and international political theory perspectives. Bartelson shows how these two empiricist bodies of thought make epistemic and ontological suppositions about sovereignty that expose internal problematics: international political theory with its unquestioned ontology of the state takes sovereignty as given; and while the macrosociological approach problematizes the state, it nonetheless presupposes sovereignty as a pre-requisite for state formation without giving an empirical explanation of its emergence. Bartelson gestures toward structuration theory as a possible relational synthesis between the two. But he finds the synthesis problematically bound by the circularity of the structure-agency problem and tied down by its attendant quest for essences. He concludes, “The problem is not so much a matter of what sovereignty is, as it is a matter of what this is has come to mean to the modern political scientist” (49). The rhetorical move puts the onus back on knowledge; that is, sovereignty as a politics of knowledge that orders our political reality and the ways we organize thought about that reality.

Ch. 3 – Bartelson closes the previous chapter by illustrating the problem of sovereignty with the parergonal frame, which in itself is neither external nor internal, but helps constitute the two, as in the frame of a work of art hanging on the wall. The concept helps Bartelson illustrate the work done by the discursive formation of sovereignty through insides and outsides (these terms apply to time and knowledge, as much as space). Throughout the book, he continually returns to how these insides and outsides—along with sameness and otherness—are integral aspects of the knowledges that make sovereignty intelligible. He calls these “the unthought parts of our political understanding” (53).

Ch. 4 – Begins the genealogy by tracing the prehistory or conceptual antecedents of sovereignty (and the state) in Medieval theology, legal and philosophical discourses and their subsequent articulation within the Renaissance. He identifies mytho-sovereignty, which refers to the period in which the legitimacy of the ruler was cast through their perceived demigod-like status. Proto-sovereignty, on the other hand, was seen as a more polity-centric paradigm in which the legitimacy of rulers was claimed through more profane—though not entirely secular—sources.

Medieval philosophy articulated otherworldly authority (God) with earthly rule, and this was made possible by the knowledge sustaining this articulation. The church, for instance, was the main collector, arbiter, and administrator of texts and textual evidence. Sovereignty in this precursor moment was expressed through analogy and allegory between the articulable and the visual, e.g. the symbolically laden coronation ceremony. He makes the interesting point that this arrangement became unglued because it induced a reconceptualization of time. The impermanence of rulers in relation to the body politic in time and space became evident through new notions of time. Patria (i.e. fatherland) became something abstracted as separate from both ruler and the ruled, while it instilled certain rights and became worth dying for as an interminable defined space of the body politic—a kind of territory. An outside is thus created. This outside is discursively constructed and political knowledge is implicated in its demarcation.

These antecedents of sovereignty were absorbed into the formation of a “general theory of the state.” All states were (universally) conceived—through legend and observation—as a singular form and origin within Christendom in contrast to a heterogeneous and unknowable outside. But the coherence of this general theory of the state becomes constantly challenged by what is outside and thus beyond political knowledge—fortune, the New World, war, and contingency.

Ch. 5 – In the Classical period questions about the form and origin of political communities become secondary to a new theory of sovereignty. The matrix of sovereignty and knowledge is turned toward the state itself; such an analysis becomes a political technology for dealing with concrete, situated problems in time and space. Bartelson’s interest in looking at the analysis of state interest is not geared toward identifying policy results based on this political knowledge, but rather on their presuppositions—i.e. how the analysis of “interest” (in its contextual connotation) was made possible. State and sovereign were seen as the defining, constitutive properties of each other. The state, as sovereign, could be individuated and empiricized, becoming an object of knowledge that could be known, measured, calculated, predicted, and compared. Outsides are seen as what came before (a primordial state of nature) as well as what is now without (other states or an alliance of states).

Ch. 6 – Bartelson details the emergence of the modern international system from the shell of the Classical Age due to shifting forms of identity and differentiation in knowledge, leading to the depersonalization of sovereign authority. Sovereignty, in a sense, became the hyphen in “nation-state.” Modernity is marked by the understanding of sovereign subjects capable of constructing representations and concepts that make the world around them; they become the locus of sovereignty rather than the king. Political and social relations are perceived through their historicization, while sovereignty becomes an organizing principle of political reality. “The state becomes conceptualized as a whole, capable of assimilating political and social differences into one form, held together by an array of analogical relationships which mediates between the universal and the particular, and between subject and object” (241). The sovereign state and the international system become opposed domains of political reality, “each knowable from one of the two vantage points that correspond to the dual face of the concept of sovereignty” (245).

The final chapter reviews the arguments.

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