The Beast, the Sovereign, and the Beautiful Loser; with Guest Co-Host Maria


Hi and welcome to episode 22: discussing Jacques Derrida’s Beast and the Sovereign

Alex is on his annual pilgrimage to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but while he’s away our good friend and former colleague Maria joins us. Maria was with us during that fated Shakespeare and Sovereignty seminar that shaped so much of our intellectual formation during graduate school. Maria is another essential member of this mosaic of intellectuals that were in and around Houston a decade ago. In many ways Maria has been a silent partner from this show’s inception. I began talking with Maria about the show in early March and her feedback and perspective has shaped the show in countless ways. Now that we have a new intellectual project and purpose for the show, it’s fitting that we can formally integrate Maria into the fabric of this project.

Having Maria on also provides another vantage point to revisit the intellectual culture that made our Shakespeare seminar so great, and also invites us to reflect on the nature of seminar discussions in general. In many ways this show is our attempt to capture a little bit of the energy that can spark during a great seminar discussion. At their best seminars provide occasion to build knowledge in real time and can train a certain kind of intellectual and rhetorical endurance. When the right pieces come together a seminar can become a crucible to forge a high performance team. This seminar was one such crucible and it is for this reason that we continue to talk about it nearly a decade after it was held. 

It’s fitting that for Maria’s first episode we go back to one of those texts that shaped our thinking back then. This week we discussed Jacques Derrida’s first lecture from his seminar The Beast and the Sovereign.

This lecture comes from the end of Derrida’s career, just months after the September 11 attacks. Derrida is turning the entire arc of his career and his intellectual project to understand the interval between the attack and the response. Today, almost 20 years into wars that seem to have no clear end, the noise of international conflict is merely a nagging hum. For Derrida, the moment provided occasion to ask questions about the nature of politics and war itself. 

This episode provides us an opportunity to introduce the work of Jacques Derrida and post-structuralism more broadly. Derrida is one of the boogey-men of poststructuralist theory. Often read, always misunderstood. The reasons for this are myriad and byzantine. In an effort to demystify some of the aura that surround’s Derrida’s work, we approach Derrida in the same way that he approaches his subjects: slowly, methodically, carefully. Rather than jump to the conclusions, let’s see if we can build the arguments and test them along the way. And so we begin our discussion of post structuralism by outlining a set of questions pertaining to knowledge, the use and purpose of knowledge, and how it relates to language and perception. 

If Derrida’s work broadly belongs to a movement of thought known as post-structuralism, then what was structuralism? And why do we need to move beyond it? Structuralism as an intellectual movement provides a means of interpreting cognition, culture, culture, and behavior based on a system of internal relationships. The word “tree” is a conflux of word and the image that it produces in your mind. Furthermore, the word itself is only meaningful within the context of the English language. Structuralism asserts an essential quality to the system itself, but grants that the specific set of signs is arbitrary. Different languages have different words for tree, and in fact the pronunciation and spelling of words evolves over time into completely new languages. In this way there is nothing “essential” about the word tree.

One of the most important concepts to emerge from structuralism is the binary. Binaries have existed long before structuralism, but in structuralism you have a focused use of the binary as a vehicle for meaning. One trajectory of this binary-based thinking is computing and binary codes. One a seemingly different (although not really) axis you have something like Carl Jung’s collective unconscious and all the angels and demons that inhabits his Mythos. 

The most common mistake that casual critics and thinkers make is to assert that the work of post-structuralism exists to undermine or invalidate the arguments of structuralism. If that was the primary task of this work, then we ought to simply become Platonists or religious zealots. The post-structuralists take seriously the arguments of structuralism, but they go deeper into them. What is the true nature of the binary relationship. Are binaries really opposites? What makes a binary, a binary? What is the structure of structure itself? 

Derrida’s writing is so difficult because it’s asking questions that rarely, if ever are asked. In fact, the questions themselves are so foundational to the way that we think that we hardly even recognize them as such. Although Derrida was trained as a philosopher and much of his work engages with philosophical texts, his intellectual work is much more in line with literary critics. Similar to how we framed Heidegger before him, Derrida accepts a premise that a certain tradition of philosophical work has ended and that the labor of intellectual practice must continue within a discourse that considers philosophy, culture, history, literature, expression, political theory, theology, media theory; moreover, Derrida insists through his work that the only method fit to work in this multidiscursive and polysemous landscape is close-reading or textual explication. 

The Beast and Sovereign are two different images of political power. They appear mirrored, in the sense that they are equal and opposite. The sovereign is the king or the head of state; the beast is the rogue state or the terrorist. Derrida observes that these two figures are united in their existence outside of the law. Each acts and moves in a way that no one else in a society can mimic. From this initial Carl Schmidt inspired observation comes a careful reexamination of the binary relationship between sovereigns and beasts. Derrida is careful to point out that the two are not the same, but they each rely on each other in a number of essential ways. You cannot have sovereigns without beasts, you cannot have beasts without sovereigns. 

The Take-Away

Starting with this episode, we’re going to try and highlight one core idea that emerges from the text. 

Our take-away this week comes late in the seminar. Derrida asks:

“How can we tell the difference between a civil war, and a war in general?”

The insight here is that the justification for war is always a mask that hides the fact that every war is a way against man. Or put another way, every act of violence is an act against ourself. 

This observation is both literal and figurative. Literal in the sense that war involves killing people and figurative that the modern concept of the nation state is built upon the metaphor of a living, rational being (according to Hobbes’ Leviathan). If there is a sense of “mankind,” then we can think of every war as a civil war: to wage war is to kill ourselves. The bonds that we use to distinguish ourselves from one another (nation, religion, creed) are arbitrary when cast against this more fundamental truth. 

This core insight strikes at the very beginning of written culture. The Abrahamic religions teach that violence begets violence. If this is true, then isn’t the outcome of every war more war? More contemporary thinkers like Nietzsche drew upon this insight in order to provide a different way of understanding morality, namely as a system of vengeance that one generation or culture enacts on a former oppressor. The cycle of oppressed to oppressor appears endless. 

Against this eternal recurrence Derrida dares to imagine the possible ways that one could break the cycle. However, the cycle cannot be broken until we understand the nature of the cycle itself. The take-away this week is not only about the nature of war, but the about the nature of the mask that hides the truth of violence from us.