Sovereignty without the Sovereign

Bhrigupati Singh’s book is an evocative, powerful, and an exquisite ethnographic reanimation of several concepts that has over time amassed ruinous potential in our imagination of the present. Waylaying their persistent expression in a rhetoric of crisis, Singh carries out this reanimation not out of a repetitive necessity to keep these concepts in circulation outside of its historical suitability, but rather out of a desire to resist easy transactions of novelty where new concepts often replace old ones too hastily and too uncritically. In this note, I will confine my remarks to one such concept out of an entire filigree that Singh maps, that of sovereignty.

Singh’s own definition of sovereignty at first light seems rather uncontroversial. He defines it as the power over life. In this seemingly modest turn of phrase, what Singh however does is establish a contact point between what is considered in present academic parlance to be two distinct political imaginaries: that of sovereignty and that of a notion of power that has life as its object. Depending on how we read the specific force of the terms ‘power’ and ‘life’, the clause ‘power over life’ might imply either the presence of a unified sovereign or the absence of one. But before we delve into how Singh himself sutures these two seemingly disparate conceptions together, I want to briefly refer to how these two came to be aligned with distinct historical epochs in the first place.

In a reading of Foucault that has gained common currency, he is seen to be committed to the view that the displacement of the sovereign modes of royal power with disciplinary and biopolitical modes of regulation in the European nation states during the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries signaled a putative break in the qualitative nature of power and the relations it established between the state and its subjects. The sovereign mode of regulation characterized by the law, which is always the wielder of the sword, was replaced by the disciplinary mode of government characterized by norm, which produced “a technology of power centered on life”. It was not that the concern with life was somehow absent in the epoch of sovereignty, but it had not yet become the exclusive substrate of political existence. Legal subjects had not yet been replaced by living beings as the sole object of power.

This transition in Foucault, however, comes with its own set of perturbations and inconsistencies. One may justifiably ask: If we do not just relate sovereignty and biopolitics in chronological succession with each other then how does one emerge from the other? What happens to sovereignty as it recedes into the background and what do we specifically understand when we nominally speak of it as background? How does it remain there in an incomplete withdrawal and what does this do to our understanding of the sovereign remains? Foucault does not provide definite answers to these questions, but they come into sharp relief and even brought to a crisis in a thinker whom Singh dialogues with directly in his book, Giorgio Agamben. For Agamben, the receded nature of sovereignty within a bio-political horizon comes into full presence in moments of exception when life is stripped of all its relational niceties and is presented as bare life. A life that only has death left for itself. This particularly sovereign characteristic of dealing death emerges as the hidden double of biopolitics most manifestly in the extermination camps where death is allocated in the name of optimizing life. Thus the ambiguity of the transition from sovereignty to biopolitics in Foucault is, for Agamben, a feigned trick which only serves to further establish sovereignty as the secret crypt of biopolitics.

This context is essential for understanding the stakes that Singh has in retaining the concept of sovereignty as not only something that is necessary but also perhaps desirable. Contrary to Agamben who makes sovereignty in its most extreme thanato-political form the pulsating heartbeat of all biopolitics, Singh retains the ambiguity and tenuousness of this transition in which sovereignty never completely falls off our intellectual and political map but also never becomes the hidden imaginary that saturates our conceptual and empirical worlds.

For Singh, the question of sovereignty arises most explicitly in his encounter with Thakur Baba, a headless horseman who is revered as a deity in Shahabad. Singh traces his history in a minor key in which Thakur Baba was not simply a figure in the annals of royalty but also emerges as part of a warrior-band who opened up a new possibility of life. The figure of the warrior (of which Thakur Baba is one) along with the figure of the ascetic, however, are important for more than just historical reasons. Both the figures for Singh are representative of not purely a will to self-annihilation but as specific markers of sacrifice, which Singh translates as achieving a higher threshold of life. The inevitable crossing to death that every human has to ultimately make is transformed into a “conquest over death” for the warrior and the ascetic, thus providing them with an uncanny hold over life, death, and the threshold that lies between. Singh sees the power of Thakur Baba as deity, as emanating from this heightened intensity of life that he was able to acquire courtesy of his historical wager as a warrior. Thakur Baba’s sovereign power over life is not however all encompassing, but becomes pertinent on three occasions; first, in atoning spirits of those who underwent untimely deaths, second in addressing childbirth, and third as an overseer who gives courage.

Another characteristic of Singh’s sovereign is that these transactions between Thakur Baba and the people of Shahabad do not merely subsist as relations of sheer force directed from the deity to the devotee but as a complementary mix of force and contract (derived from the Vedic Gods Mitra and Varuna) in which force comes to be associated with the violence of sovereignty while contract entails a much more negotiable give-and-take relation. For Singh, this particular genealogy of sovereignty as arising out of the Vedic divinities of Mitra and Varuna is not specific to any deity or nation but is the germane condition of all sovereignty. Thus in Singh’s picture of sovereignty, Agamben merely radicalizes its forceful aspect while discounting the contractual half. For Agamben, every democracy is a disguised totalitarian regime, which is its secret double; for Singh, even the most totalitarian of all regimes has seething within it a silenced democratic vulnerability.

But let us stay a bit longer with why this notion of sovereignty might perhaps be indispensable for Singh. When does power become the specific mandate of sovereign power? Singh considers his own meditations on sovereignty as arising out of a theological-political lexicon that emerges from the work of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, who defines the sovereign as he who decides on the exception. What is salient for Singh in Schmitt’s work is not however the indelible and fatal opportunism or decisionism at work in the definition of sovereignty, rather it is Schmitt’s articulation of it in a specifically theological-political register that modernity in its repeated affirmations of secularization tends to repress. By appealing to this particular formulation of sovereignty and then replacing the omnipotent God of Schmitt with the more diminutive Vedic divinities of Mitra and Varuna, Singh is able to arrive at a concept of sovereignty that is not totalizing and absolute but forceful and yet contractual. As conceptual argument, the resultant notion of power that Singh reaches might well be deemed sovereignty. But then the understanding of sovereignty articulated herein cannot be coterminous with Schmitt’s singular definition of it as the one who decides on the exception. Of course, it does not have to be but one may then ask what relation of force and contract is not sovereign for Singh. Or might there be any relation of power that is also simultaneously not a relation of sovereignty?

Viewing these questions within the prismatic of sovereignty as it appeared in our discussion of Foucault might proffer an alternative and perhaps more sobering picture of sovereignty in relation with life. Schmitt is a good point of departure but not a very useful one of arrival. In opposition to the stentorian and timeless assertion characteristic of the sovereign in Schmitt is Foucault’s shadowy sovereign who progressively recedes after the event of its symbolic beheading but never completely disappears. Singh’s picture of sovereignty might be better aligned with the latter as I see him using a vocabulary more proximate to it.

Let us recall Singh’s definition of sovereignty as that of power over life. Life, which is the paradigm of replenishment and novelty, is always, for Singh, anterior to any impingement or capture from the outside. This particular understanding of life, one might say, is very different from how it appears in Foucault’s concept of biopolitics in which life and politics are mutually intertwined with each other. Singh seems to have a much more expansive understanding of life than the form it takes in biopower. Even though it might not be the same expression of “life”, I think it is not all that different either. For Foucault, the proliferation of what counted as life was the precondition for the oncoming of more regulatory and immanent mechanisms of power that aimed to evaluate these burgeoning forms and kinds of living. These different mechanisms of power were not a replacement of the sovereign mode but instead became wounds in its armor that signaled the incapacity of the sovereign to subsume all forms of life. Thus sovereign power was progressively weakened though it could never be completely eradicated. For Singh life is also inassimilable within set or measured forms of power that cannot seize it in any coherent manner. But instead of an absolute sovereign that realizes the finitude of its powers with time, Singh considers a notion of delimited sovereignty as arising from within the precincts of life. Delimited because the sovereign is territorially and ritually marked; Thakur Baba appears as sovereign only within a specific area and is associated with specific rituals of enabling and engaging life like childbirth. The sovereign here does not get progressively attenuated as it does in Foucault but is always limited or finite in its role to begin with. The difference perhaps lies in the prior degrees of redemptive or catastrophic expectations we might have from a sovereign figure. Additionally, while Foucault’s sovereign, even in its depleted form, retains the violence of the sword and so of death, Singh’s figure of sovereignty, on the contrary, enables and pushes life onto thresholds that it is not usually accustomed to. Thakur Baba was a vir who through his own “conquest over death”, and not through allocating death to others, had attained the sovereign efficacy that he exercised. His sovereignty was not given as transcendent law but was yet established in a register of transcendence (or as Singh calls it, “higher threshold”) from within life. Consequently, his recognition as a sovereign figure in Shahabad appears then as not something that is disagreeable or necessary but rather desirable and even volitional.

This switch of framework of sovereignty hardly resolves any questions but probably only leads to many more. To conclude I will raise some of them as further provocations: How might we incorporate this unsaid notion of desire into the twofold relation of force and contract that Singh attributes to sovereign power? Moreover, given that Thakur Baba’s sovereignty is not a given but an achievement, via attaining a higher threshold of life, is it characteristically different from the sovereignty of the state (which we did not quite elaborate on, but which also manifests as a reciprocal relation between force and contract) which merely exercises its power but does not “really” achieve it? Perhaps Thakur Baba’s sovereignty is “more immanent” than that of the state? What does this cleave do to the notion of sovereignty as a specifically theological political concept in which the theological and political counterparts become somewhat at odds with each other? Might we speak about Thakur Baba’s power as singular but not sovereign? Just like a sovereign power can radicalize as Varuna which is its violent face, can it also radicalize as Mitra or just its contractual face? Even though my own piece was geared towards bringing two radically different articulations of sovereignty together, one archaeological and the other ethnographic, is it possible that a philosophical notion of sovereignty might be fundamentally different from an ethnographic articulation of sovereignty given the different temporal horizons within which the concept is considered?

These questions only serve to reveal the powerful and timely set of concerns that Singh has brought to our doorstep, that too without the contrived sense of immediacy that so often gets attached to them. Singh’s book is a testament to how even a little awakeness to the humility of experience can so radically shift our intellectual horizon that what we thought of as ephemeral and deficient becomes something lasting and immeasurable.


Swayam Bagaria is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins University. He is carrying out his research on figures of immolated women and their religious afterlives in Jhunjhunu (India) and the textual traditions of Hinduism.

One Response to Sovereignty without the Sovereign

  1. Pingback: Book Forum – Bhrigupati Singh’s Poverty and the Quest for Life by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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