Michel Foucault observed that, although the head of the king had been cut off, in political theory the king remained in his place.[ref]I would like to thank my co-editors, Elena Bellina, J. Martin Daughtry, and Crystal Parikh, for their comments on this Afterword and on the Introduction. The editors are grateful to Magdalena Sabat for her transcription of the oral presentations, and for her editorial assistance.[/ref]For Foucault, theory did not appear able to think about politics without an organizing center, although in fact the character of sovereignty was changing decisively with the growth of bureaucracy and capitalist imperialism. Sovereignty had one set of meanings at home, and another in the colonies, and these were sutured together through violence in ways that liberal theorists seldom grasped.

However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent disappearance of the only viable opposition to the world domination of the capitalist state, some of the raisons d’état for preserving sovereignty’s fictions obtain no more. Market forces contest the need for state regulation with ever greater effect. The specter of communism no longer deters those keen to dismantle the state’s welfare apparatuses. And violence is no longer confined within secluded spaces, but is increasingly visible. Its diffusion from state to non-state zones and entities (discussed by Allen Feldman), the prominence of new forms of violence carried out by unmanned weapons (as in drone attacks) and by human weapons (as in suicide bombing, which Banu Bargu discusses), and the occurrence of intimate forms of violence where no logic of identity prevails (as in Drucilla Cornell‘s essay), together point to the far-reaching changes in political authority that have taken place in recent decades. Current language is hardly adequate to grasp these changes (see Mary Louise Pratt‘s essay). We are witnessing a great transformation akin to that of the first industrial revolution, in which prevailing social and political structures were dismantled and new structures built in their place.

In this transformation, older legal categories such as sovereignty, human rights, and democracy designate entities that bear little relation to their earlier meanings. The carapace of the old state form continues to exist, but the demands and affinities of established political practice yield few results, and confirm the sense of their own inadequacy. Meanwhile the convergence of media spectacles and consumer experience across the world seems to imply that in fact, politics may be irrelevant, and that ‘living the good life’ can take place without state intervention.

The contemporary context evinces specific parallels to the problems Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) addressed, for example, in terms of the absence of legitimate political authority, the spread of violence, and the need to ground power in a social contract with the governed. While the solution he proposed, that of despotism, is one that may find all too many neo-Hobbesian advocates today, it also helped to ground modern liberal political theory. I provide the following, all-too-swift, historical summary of changes in political dynamics over time in order to measure the theoretical inadequacy of many responses to present conditions.


We can recall that modern political theory emerged in the wake of the civil war in England. Competing faiths and disparate demands of conscience made claims on power that could not be adjudicated except by violence. Hobbes’ answer was to construct the state as an entity that was external to conscience, beyond good and evil. The morality of the state was thus rendered above the law, and the conscience of human beings was reduced to private opinion without political effect. The boundaries thereby erected could hold in an absolutist regime, but not permanently. The state’s claim to reason could not inhere in the sovereign alone. Reason infused private opinion as well, and gave it an unexpected gravitational force, as became apparent later.

Enlightenment philosophers, and those who came after them, challenged the right to unqualified power, and envisioned social arrangements that transcended all iniquities. But the utopias imagined were in fact mirror images of the absolutism they rejected. These utopias lacked the means of adjudicating their own politics because the philosophers’ response to absolutism was to dream of transcending the political altogether, whether through the invisible hand of the free market, or by socializing the means of production and making the state wither away.[ref]See Reinhart Kosselleck, “Hobbesian Rationality and the Origins of Enlightenment,” in Reinhart Kosselleck, Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988, pp. 23-40.[/ref]

The contest between capitalism and communism that marked much of the twentieth century was, in this sense, a battle between competing mass utopias that neither knew nor sought civil means of engaging with each other. The existence of violence was thus acknowledged, but spatially located outside the West, or in aberrant internal forms such as National Socialism. Interestingly, however, the relationship assumed between legitimate state power and violence implied a continuing belief in the use of violence for transformative and potentially emancipatory ends. What the present era witnesses, however, is the increasingly visible spread of violence that seems linked to no projects of positive social change. This is in part linked to the dissolution of the geopolitical map of the world as these philosophers knew it.

While the Cold War continued, historical events could be mapped as belonging to the first, second, or third world, and rendered intelligible even if the three worlds division was basically incoherent.[ref]For discussion, see Carl Pletsch, “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, Circa 1950-1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 23, no. 4, 1981, pp. 565-590.[/ref]The taxonomy correlated with an understanding of the relationship between state form and the corresponding mode of subject formation in East and West, with the third world extraneous to the fundamental binary of free versus totalitarian societies. This was ironic, because, in the client states of much of the third world, absolutist rule — albeit slightly qualified — continued in neo-imperialist or developmentalist guise, sustaining both first and second worlds. Western arguments about violence disclose an ongoing tendency to draw boundaries that demarcate events seemingly irrelevant to them, while new phases of globalization rupture those boundaries and force a rethinking of customary conceits.

As Allen Feldman (extending Michel Foucault) argues, the end of the Cold War and the onset of global war on terror indicate not only a deinstitutionalization of the state, but a model of ungovernable governmentality in which the state’s task of certifying and classifying knowledge is overtaken by new practices that render political power abstract, virtual and unnamable. Sovereignty here is diffused and “irreducibly manifold,” while violence emerges as the exemplary medium of technicized politics. Spectacular violence today affirms the ruptured relationship between morality and the law, and asserts democracy as a token value. It is in a context thus analyzed that we can place the new forms of self-weaponization about which Banu Bargu writes. This is also the context where, as Drucilla Cornell shows, violence can be waged between different forms of “bare life,” or, as one of her informants says, as “refuse fighting garbage.” The assertion of new individuated claims of sovereignty and the growth of anomic violence are both equally accommodated in the state-free zones of different societies. Here not only human beings but words as well can be weaponized, as Mary Louise Pratt discusses, because language lifts violence out of the purely corporeal realm and renders it a social act. The call that she makes for healing language is thus a resonant one and can pose for us the question as to whether theoretical analysis can inaugurate a sequence of healing speech.

What we notice here is not only the “return” of violence, but the activation of forms of life embedded in their historical contexts. We witness this in the posing of the problem of the theologico-political, perceived through the category of religion as it changes from its Hobbesian status of private opinion to a clarion call against the immorality of states and as answering the crisis of sovereignty. No single answer is provided, to be sure, since political religion, no less than political authority itself, is reworked and appears in new forms that are not necessarily identifiable as such. But undeniably, the majority in the world today, emerging from histories relegated to the West’s periphery, engages with and responds to violence by asserting identities that western liberals believe to be anachronistic. In doing so, they often understand themselves to be acting outside politics as they know it, even when they perceive themselves to be affirming subjugated rights. Grasping the ethical impulse of these assertions and their intrinsically techno-global expression today would be essential to perceiving how violence and politics are being reconnected, in ways that received theories do not always prepare us for.


Arvind Rajagopal is Professor in the Departments of Media, Culture and Communication, affiliated to Departments of Sociology and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. He is currently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

Related Posts

The Accidentalization of War Nota Bene: The following dangerous supplement can be read as a resynthesis of one of the core threads running through Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics and Dead Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which engages war as the medium of state formation, as an archival apparatus, a...
Moving Violations   Long ago, on the lip of memory, when wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were offered as ways to deliver the world from terror, I recall reading a report on what U.S. military planners took to be the political limit of American casualties. The study surmised that if the number of U.S. soldiers...
Introduction   Hannah Arendt noted in 1969 that Georges Sorel's remark in 1906 — that "the problems of violence still remain very obscure" remained true.Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, "Introduction to the First Publication" (1906), New York, Collier Books, 1961, p. 60; Hannah Arendt, “Reflections ...
Modi Will Be Put to the Test   Above, a volunteer for the Election Commission carrying Electronic Voting Machines calls for directions to a polling centre that he was to help set up and man in Hajipur, Bihar as it goes to polls in the second to last phase of the Indian General Elections. Photo by @ravissahani.    ...

Social Text Collective

Social Text is a journal.