In the Sovereign Machine:Sovereignty, Governmentality, Automaticity

Bradley, Arthur Humphrey (2018) In the Sovereign Machine:Sovereignty, Governmentality, Automaticity. Journal for Cultural Research, 22 (2). pp. 209-223. ISSN 1479-7585

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This essay explores a series of sovereign ‘machines’ – slaves, puppets, automata – in political theory from Benjamin to Agamben. It is now well-documented that the philosophical question of ‘the machine’ – of whether a complex system requires a human operator or whether it can function autonomously – is also a crucial political question that haunts every discussion of sovereignty from Hobbes onwards. However, my wager in what follows is that this machine is not just a metaphor for a metaphysical situation – whether it be rationality (Hobbes), bureaucratization (Weber), neutralization (Schmitt), historicism (Benjamin) or governmentality (Foucault) – but a material phenomenon that carries transformative political promise and threat. To summarize the argument of this essay, I contend that ‘sovereign machines’ like slavery (Aristotle, Hegel, Kojève, Agamben), puppets, automata or clockwork (Descartes, Hobbes, Schmitt, Benjamin, Derrida), lens, optics and mirrors (Hobbes, Kantorowicz, Benjamin, Lacan, Foucault) and so on do not merely reflect but change our understanding of the causal relationship between sovereignty and governmentality, decision and norm, exception and rule. If the self-appointed task of the modern political theorist has so often been to obtain or regain sovereignty of, or over, the machine – to jam its gears – I seek to expose what the later Derrida calls the ‘machine’ of sovereignty itself. In conclusion, I argue that political theory’s attempt to reveal or retroactively invent the sovereign person at the heart of the machine only ends up revealing the sovereign machine at the heart of the person. What – if anything – is really inside the machine of sovereignty?

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Journal Article
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Journal for Cultural Research
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This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Journal for Cultural Research on 24/05/2018, available online:
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12 Apr 2018 10:28
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15 Sep 2023 00:42