Empire, Bare Life and the Constitution of Whiteness
Sovereignty in the age of terror
University of British Columbia, Canada
The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, like the bombings of Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, have highlighted the complex nature of sovereignty within the international juridical order. Invasions and occupations—widely treated by major Western intellectual traditions in the late twentieth century as phenomena of a colonial order safely consigned to the past—emerged as central to global politics in the early twenty-first century. This paper examines what the ‘War on Terror’ reveals about the nature of sovereignty in the new millennium by way of engagement with two theories of sovereignty that have become highly influential.
In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben argues the ‘state of exception’ that enables the sovereign’s capture of ‘bare life’ has now become the rule. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make the case in Empire that twentieth century forms of imperialism have been transcended by an emergent order that is instead shaped by inclusionary ‘postmodern’ forms of decentralized power and hybrid forms of subjectivity. I argue neither Homo Sacer nor Empire is up to the task of explicating post/modern sovereignty as they do not engage with its central problematic, the racial logic of power. Demonstrating the centrality of race to the constitution of sovereignty, both in the Nazi ‘camp’ (in the limit figure of the Muselmann) and ‘empire’ (through invasions and occupations), I argue that contemporary struggles for emancipation need to transform the racial logic of power. To do otherwise is to reproduce coloniality and its recuperation of whiteness-as-sovereign power.
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© borderlands ejournal 2012