AS WILL BE CLEAR from my analytical (and, perhaps, all too crude, given Kalyvas’s reading of Schmitt) distinction between fascist, democratic, and communist exceptionalisms, I do not think all exceptionalisms are the same. Certainly, I do not value all exceptionalisms equally. There are a few scholars who, in view of the contemporary political situation and partly as a criticism of a political Left that has been too focused on the withdrawal from power and the horizontal politics of the multitude, have begun to contribute to the project of rethinking exceptionalist politics, including art’s exceptionalist politics, from the point of view of democracy. Very interestingly, such a project has tended to operate under the banner of “sovereignty,” something that—surely—brings a frown to the faces of many in the arts—and perhaps especially those who think artists and art are “exceptional.” Surely, they think, that would mean they are anything but “sovereign”?
Consider in this context the work of political philosopher Bonnie Honig, who in an article titled “Three Models of Emergency Politics” proposes that we must ask “how democratic theorists and activists might go further to democratize emergency, and to do so not to resist sovereignty but to claim it.” In other words, Schmittian sovereignty is not the only sovereignty that can become meaningful in a state of exception or emergency situation. To democratize emergency, she continues,
means seeking sovereignty, not just challenging it, and insisting that sovereignty is not just a trait of executive power that must be chastened but also potentially a trait of popular power as well, one to be generated and mobilized. Rather than oppose democracy and emergency, then, we might think about democratic opportunities to claim sovereignty even in emergency settings.
Honig lays out different models for this: deliberative, activist, and legalist. It is through the emergency that “new forms of collective living” can come about.
The deliberative model she associates with Elaine Scarry’s position in Thinking in an Emergency, where Scarry advocates “a fully deliberative approach to emergency preparations in advance of any actual crisis.” This goes against Schmittian decisionism—what one gets instead is collective deliberation and the community building that it brings. But many other Schmittian elements remain intact: the friend/enemy distinction, for example, familiar to readers of Schmitt’s Concept of the Political; or also the threat of war, the real possibility of war, as an organizing cause.
It is Honig’s second, activist model, which she derives from the work of Douglas Crimp, that most obviously targets the friend/enemy distinction from a queer studies point of view, through its focus on promiscuity. In the middle of the AIDS crisis, Crimp developed promiscuity, which was under attack at the time, “as a form of life, and resisted its stigmatization by those moralists and pragmatists who treated promiscuity as an indulgence or as a sign of gay male immaturity.” To fight the reduction of human life to mere life in a state of emergency, Crimp (in Honig’s reading) turns to “more life”: to a higher, more intense form of living as opposed to its reduction to mere life. As opposed to Scarry’s “devotion to deliberative processes and risk aversion,” then, Crimp “sees the promises and pleasure of spontaneity.” For Crimp, “democracy is itself promiscuous.”
It is, finally, in the legalist approach—associated with Louis Freeland Post—that Honig finds elements of both Scarry and Crimp combined, of deliberation and promiscuity combined. Post was a proceduralist who was weary of proceduralism, and Honig appreciates this promiscuous approach to deliberation. Honig casts Post, whom she also discusses in her book Emergency Politics, as someone who introduces us to “the paradox of politics.” This refers to a touchstone in Honig’s work, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s problem of “how to design a good polity when, to get good law, you need good men to author it, but to get good men, you need good law to shape and socialize them”? She notes that this is a “chicken and egg” problem that, I would add, resonates with the problem of the state of exception itself, and whether it is the sovereign who makes the exception or the exception who makes the sovereign.
As Honig had already discussed in detail in Democracy and the Foreigner, Rousseau famously brings in a “lawgiver” who comes along to give people a law that they cannot generate themselves, only to remove himself from the political scene after that. Whereas this issue is usually situated at the origin of political communities, Honig actually points out that such scenes return in political communities on a daily basis, “as new citizens are born into a regime or immigrate into it, and old ones are resocialized into its expectations and norms, and demands.” Honig appreciates Post because he reminds us that “the paradox of politics” is always there, that politics is always partly procedural and partly promiscuous. And both those elements, as well as their particular legalist combination, can come out of state-of-exception politics. In this way, state of exception politics actually revitalizes democratic politics, rather than accomplish the fascist suspension of democracy.
Honig’s argument is a major shift in the discourse about the state of exception that, so far, I have considered largely within a Schmittian perspective, which tends to promote the state of exception’s association with fascism. Honig taps into a different tradition—the thinking of the state of exception as democratic. The advantage of Honig’s approach is that it enables one to develop a critique of the state of exception, a consideration of its legitimate versus its illegitimate uses, its democratic versus its fascistic uses. Honig thus turns the state of exception into a “critical” concept, a concept whose politics cannot in any sovereign way be decided but is perpetually under discussion. Merely by developing the democratic take on the exception, Honig challenges the sovereignty of this notion and begins to rethink it.
Chantal Mouffe does not use the term “sovereignty” in this context—I don’t think it appears a single time in the two texts she devotes to Schmitt in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt—but her political thought is obviously influenced by Schmitt. In fact, when Mouffe seeks to think a truly political liberalism—a left liberalism as she calls it—she has in mind a liberalism that would incorporate Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction. It is true that by turning to Schmitt’s text from 1927/1932, Concept of the Political, she avoids having to address the notion of sovereignty, which is associated with the text from 1922, Political Theology. At the same time, it is hard to avoid the connection between the two texts, because Concept begs the question of who is to decide on the determination of someone as friend or enemy. Such a decision, which is arguably ultimately a decision on the state of exception (for the enemy is the one who poses the threat of existential negation and thus may necessitate the suspension of the law), is made in Schmitt’s thought by the sovereign. It is therefore the sovereign who lurks behind the friend/enemy distinction that is most visible in war.
While Mouffe does not want war, she does want the tension of Schmitt’s concept of the political—she wants to rethink liberalism from there. And so she transforms the antagonism of the friend/enemy distinction into the serious but more playful agonism of adversaries who seek to convince each other through a debate. It’s important to note that there is no cultural relativism here. Also, Mouffe insists that the debate need not have only one rational solution; to think that such a solution can be found puts unnecessary pressure on the debate. She has in mind instead an “agonistic pluralism” where “the political”—“the dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations, antagonism that can take many forms and emerge in different types of social relation”—is never plastered over by “politics”—“the ensemble of practices, discourses, and institutions which seek to establish a certain order and organize human coexistence.” The latter operates under conditions that are always “potentially conflictual, because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political.’” Politics in Mouffe’s view “domesticat[es] hostility and . . . [tries] to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations.” Democracy’s central question becomes then not “how to arrive at a consensus without exclusion”—a question whose answer she considers impossible from an ontological point of view (see, for example, “Agonistic Politics and Artistic Practices”)—but “the different way” in which the us/them opposition is established “in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.” The other is no longer the Schmittian enemy who must be existentially negated but “somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question.” What this position aims for, then, is a position of “conflictual consensus.”
In Mouffe’s view, it is the fact that this agonism always has a taint of the antagonistic to it that distinguishes her position from that of Honig who, she claims, “leaves open the possibility that the political could under certain conditions be made absolutely congruent with the ethical.” She does not explain the latter—“the ethical”—in the footnote where she hints at the difference between her own position and Honig’s, but in the introduction to The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, she associates “ethics” with postpolitical Western liberalism, which imagines “that antagonisms have been eradicated” and has reached the state of “reflexive modernity” in which “ethics can now replace politics.” Mouffe’s focus here appears to be on “‘deliberative’ or ‘dialogic’ forms of democracy” of the kind she attacks elsewhere—the work of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, for example.
But it seems that Honig can hardly be associated with that position—at least not the Honig I have discussed here (and, to be fair, the works of Honig that I have looked at all date from after Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox, in which the footnote about Honig can be found). When Honig discusses the deliberative model in her work on emergency politics, a model she associated with Elaine Scarry, she balances it out with Douglas Crimp’s promiscuous politics in order to ultimately arrive at a legalist emergency politics that combines proceduralism with the transformation of procedure. This is perhaps not articulated in terms of antagonism, but it is definitely not deliberation’s replacement of politics by ethics either. Certainly, when Honig aligns her position with “sovereignty,” which after all is a term that is closer to Carl Schmitt than “liberalism” (which Mouffe claims for her cause), it seems that it is Honig (rather than Mouffe) who may be closer to Schmitt’s antagonism. Neither of them, of course, would claim in any way to be Schmittians, not even left Schmittians. One might say that they approach the same issues from different sides: Mouffe wants to “politicize” liberalism, whereas Honig wants to liberalize “sovereignty.” Both are important.
I bring up Mouffe’s work, however, because she has been trying to consider art and aesthetics in this context—to think “agonistic politics” and “artistic practices” together. “Art has been subsumed by the aesthetics of biopolitical capitalism,” she writes, “and autonomous production is no longer possible.” But the new system of labor—so-called post-Fordism—that (according to some) art has helped produce and into which art has been subsumed, also “opens the way for novel forms of social relations in which art and work exist in new configurations.” “The objective of artistic practices should be to foster the development of those social relations,” she continues, “that are made possible by the transformation of the work process.” Art’s task, then, is “the production of new subjectivities and the elaboration of new worlds.” She imagines art as a “space of resistance,” and artistic resistance as “agonistic interventions within the context of counter-hegemonic struggles”—struggles against power politics that claim to exhaust the social field. Instead, something is always left over, and that excluded something asserts itself counterhegemonically against hegemonic power. Against neoliberalism’s “there is no alternative” mantra, art asserts that there is an alternative—the alternative of what is excluded from any power formation. No hegemony is total.
As Mouffe explains, she does “not see the relation between art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other, between which a relation needs to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art.” She doesn’t distinguish between political and nonpolitical art but she thinks about possible forms of “critical art.” The state of things today is not “the kind of dispersion envisaged by some post-modernist thinkers. Nor are we faced with the kind of ‘smooth’ space envisaged by Deleuze and his followers. Public spaces are always striated and hegemonically structured.” This pretty much guarantees that there is an exclusion from where a counterhegemonic struggle can develop. What Mouffe calls “critical practices” cannot only deconstruct, de-identify, smoothen, et cetera. In addition, they must “bring about something positive”—and this is where her position is clearly beyond “postmodernism.”
In that same text and elsewhere, Mouffe articulates this position in institutional terms. A leftist strategy that seeks to “ignore institutions and to occupy other spaces outside the institutional field” is in Mouffe’s view “profoundly mistaken and clearly disempowering because it prevents us from recognizing the multiplicity of avenues that are open for political engagement.” Here one sees, of course, her left liberalism in action. “To believe that existing institutions cannot become the terrain of contestation is to ignore the tensions that always exist within a given configuration of forces and the possibility of acting in a way that subverts their form of articulation.” “[W]e should discard the essentialist idea that some institutions are by essence destined to fulfill one immutable function.” In short, Mouffe is telling us to engage our institutions rather than withdraw from them.
To require a “total break with the existing state of affairs” is, in Mouffe’s view, not political. She calls it a mistake. Artists today can no longer afford to take up that position, which elsewhere she understands to be a position of “exodus.” Here is how she summarizes that strategy:
The traditional structures of power organized around the Nation State and representative democracy have today become irrelevant, and . . . they could eventually disappear. Hence the belief that the multitude can ignore the existing power structures and concentrate its efforts in constructing alternative social forms outside the State power network. Any collaboration with the traditional channels of politics like parties and trade unions are to be avoided. The majoritarian model of society, organized around a State, needs to be abandoned in favour of another model of organization presented as more universal. . . . political action should aim at withdrawing from existing institutions and freeing ourselves from all forms of belonging. Institutional attachments as [sic] deemed to constitute obstacles to the new non-representative forms of “absolute democracy” suitable for the self-organization of the multitude.
This forecloses, Mouffe correctly notes, “an immanent critique of institutions, whose objective would be to transform them into a terrain of contestation of the hegemonic order.” “Such a perspective,” she writes with reference to the long quote above, “is, in my view, profoundly mistaken and clearly disempowering because it impedes us from recognizing the multiplicity of avenues that are opened for political engagement.” Instead, she wants to advocate “a strategy of ‘engagement’ with institutions.” This comes from the conviction that “things could always have been otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities”—the conviction of hegemony and the counterhegemonic struggle.
When critical practices “[desert] the institutional terrain” rather than “[engage] with it,” they “do not contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle.” The latter “[fosters] dissent and [creates] a multiplicity of agonistic spaces where the dominant consensus is challenged and where new modes of identification are made available.” That seems particularly important in a time when many identities have been leveled by postmodernism or turned into mere sites for value extraction by neoliberalism. Rather than withdraw from the museum, then, critical artistic practice should engage with the museum and turn it into an agonistic space.
But to think in this way also has political parallels: “think for instance,” Mouffe writes, “of the change of attitude of a part of the European left with respect to the institution of the welfare state.” “Similar considerations could be made towards the rule of the State which, after years of demonization, has been re-evaluated during the 2008 financial crisis,” presumably as a political agent that may be able to keep economic agents in check. Unfortunately, things went the other way and the State ended up bailing out the banks, realizing the fictitious capital that they had created (to put it in Anna Kornbluh’s terms). But, Mouffe notes, “things could have taken another direction” had “the power relations been different.” It seems the counterhegemonic struggle failed in this case. The conclusion is clear: “instead of celebrating the destruction of all institutions as a move towards liberation, the task for radical politics is to engage with them, developing their progressive potential and converting them into sites of opposition to the neoliberal market hegemony.” This goes for the art museum just as much as it goes for the welfare state or the State tout court.
At this point, I do not think we are too far removed from Honig’s position. Mouffe’s focus, of course, is on agonism (which has its roots in antagonism, and therefore in Schmitt); but this is an agonism that revitalizes liberalism, makes it political again. Honig doesn’t name the engagement that Mouffe calls for “counter-hegemonic,” but she makes it part of a discourse on “popular sovereignty” (Mouffe doesn’t use the latter term) and calls it (in her book on Antigone) “counter-sovereignty.” The latter she characterizes as bringing a break or interruption to “many theorists’ fascination with rupture over the everyday, powerlessness over sovereignty, and heroic martyrdom over the seemingly dull work of maintenance, repair, and planning for possible futures.” This characterization further helps us understand the particular politics of exceptionalism that she is interested in. She is defining an exceptionalism here—she is talking about a break or interruption with the notion of countersovereignty—but it is an exceptionalism of the everyday, maintenance, repair, planning (as in Elaine Scarry, for example). Honig puts the point very explicitly: “I go on to ask,” she writes, “whether feminist and democratic theorists might rethink the rejection of sovereignty and consider devoting themselves instead to its cultivation.” Reading this position back into Mouffe, this would mean pushing Mouffe so far as to have her devote herself to the cultivation of new hegemonies through counterhegemonic politics.
My final example comes from a thinker that Honig critically engages with in this context, Judith Butler. In her book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler is thinking through assemblies of bodies in the street as part of political protests—and as distinct from political speech, as she repeatedly puts it. Her focus is on “the people” and the institutions that claim to represent it. Specifically, she is interested in the notion of “popular sovereignty” and its claim to represent (and enact) the power of the people.
In a chapter titled “We the People,” Butler makes a claim that reminds one of Mouffe’s work, namely that “no one popular assembly comes to represent the entirety of the people, but each positing of the people through assembly risks or invites a set of conflicts that, in turn, prompt a growing set of doubts about who the people really are.” This is Mouffe’s issue of hegemony and the exclusions through which it operates, which trigger what Mouffe calls counterhegemony. There is, Butler suggests, “no assembly” that can truly claim to represent the people. Instead, there is always this “conflictual process” of constitution that raises the “epistemological” issue of who the people really are.
Mouffe also articulates this as an ontological issue in the sense that, for her, the people are never united in the way that deliberative theories of democracy like those of Rawls or Habermas would want them to be.
If Butler is also interested in the speech act that constitutes the people, she is more interested in this context in the fact that assemblies already constitute themselves bodily, in the streets, before any words are uttered. So this is really much more the Arendtian position of bodies collectively appearing in space and making politics in this way. “Freedom of assembly” thus becomes, in her view, “a precondition of politics itself.” It is in this way that we arrive at the notion of “popular sovereignty” as distinct from state sovereignty in Butler’s text.
What interests me about all of these examples is how they criticize sovereignty (and, in view of the project I am pursuing here, art’s association with sovereignty) not from sovereignty’s outside but from within—immanently, so to speak. Exceptionalism—and, by extension, sovereignty—is reclaimed from Schmittian discourses of sovereignty for democratic purposes. This is what I would characterize as these authors’ critique. It is what separates these authors from one kind of exceptionalism and pushes them instead toward another—that of the everyday, maintenance, repair, planning, as Honig has it.
I know that some people have come to consider “sovereignty” a bad word, one that associates politics with a singular subject and a form of executive power with territorial claims. Sometimes it is used as synonymous with mastery, and other times with subordination. Perhaps it carries other connotations, though, that we would not want to lose altogether.
What are those connotations?
One only needs to consider debates about native sovereignty in Canada or read the important work of J. Kēhaulani Kauanui on the paradoxes of Hawaiian sovereignty to see how crucial this notion can be for popular mobilizations. Sovereignty can be one way of describing acts of political self-determination, which is why popular movements of indigenous people struggling for sovereignty have become important ways to lay claim to space, to move freely, to express one’s views, and to seek reparation and justice.
Voting certainly does not exhaust the meaning of popular sovereignty—there is more to it. In fact, Butler uses the reference to voting to make the claim that what is called popular sovereignty “always remains nontransferable, marking the outside of the electoral process.” Popular sovereignty translates into electoral power, “but that is never a full or adequate translation”:
Something of popular sovereignty remains untranslatable, nontransferable, and even unsubstitutable, which is why it can both elect and dissolve regimes. As much as popular sovereignty legitimates parliamentary forms of power, it also retains the power to withdraw its support from those same forms when they prove to be illegitimate.
There are echoes here of what Giorgio Agamben in his reading of Thomas Hobbes theorizes as the “dissolved multitude,” which he considers to be the true state of politics (as opposed to what he exposes to be the optical illusion of “sovereignty”; the people-king only exists in the moment of its institution—it crumbles into the dissolved multitude immediately afterward, a state of dissolution that might intensify into Civil War, which may lead—if the rebellious side is victorious—into a disunited multitude, which might elect a people-king again, and so on).
However, given the fact that Butler is not a thinker of the multitude—she in fact explicitly presents herself as a thinker of “the people,” and therefore a thinker of sovereignty—it may be more correct to say that there are echoes here of Schmitt. In a discussion of Schmitt’s book Constitutional Theory, Panu Minkkinen points out that, for Schmitt,
constituent power . . . can never exhaust itself into the institutions it has constituted. . . . Or, in Schmitt’s terms, a people “anterior to and above” the constitution, that is, the presupposed people behind every democracy, can never quite reduce itself into a people “within” the constitution, that is, into the people that the constitution identifies and recognizes as an institution. A constituent residue will, namely, always remains dormant in the institutions that the people may have constituted, and will re-emerge and activate itself if its political existence becomes threatened.
For those who might object to the association with Schmitt, Minkkinen finds this position in the work of Bruce Ackerman and Jason Frank, both scholars whose work is clearly in the background of Butler’s thought. This leads us back to Andreas Kalyvas’s reading of Schmitt—specifically, the Schmitt of Constitutional Theory—as a democratic theorist.
Butler suggests that we may want to call the gap between popular sovereignty and electoral power “an ‘anarchist’ interval or a permanent principle of revolution that resides within democratic orders, one that shows up more or less both at moments of founding and moments of dissolution, but is also operative in the freedom of assembly itself.” Schmitt would likely have shuddered at this, as he distinguishes anarchy from the state of exception. And it is perhaps on this anarchic count, to which I will return, that non-Schmittian exceptionalisms (and even unexceptionalisms, as I will argue later) truly set themselves apart from Schmitt.
In closing, let me consider how one could see some of these very issues mobilized in Scaffold, a work by Sam Durant. Durant’s work created controversy: installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden of the Walker Art Center, the work had been taken down after protests by the Dakota people who had taken offense with the work. Built on a 1:1 scale, the work showed an immense gallows that was partly modeled after an immense gallows that had been used in the mid-nineteenth century to put thirty-eight Dakota men to death in Mankato, Minnesota. It had been, apparently, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. If Durant had rebuilt that massive technology of death here, exposing what Walter Benjamin already called “something rotten” in power, it was obviously not to celebrate that technology but to criticize it—and that appears to be how the work was received in Europe, where it had already been shown to great acclaim.
Not so in Minneapolis, where the artist’s intention was perhaps not less clear, but where that intention’s actualization through this particular work of art gave cause for offense. Perhaps even more disturbingly, Durant’s attempt to criticize U.S. sovereign power, defined by the right to take life or let live (as Michel Foucault observed), was reappropriated by racist groups who showed up on the site of the protests by the Dakota people to defend their heritage through defending the sculpture. It was in view of this, and after careful conversation with representatives of the Dakota people, that Durant ultimately decided with the Walker Art Center to take the sculpture down. Moreover, he signed over the copyright for the sculpture to the Dakota people, essentially agreeing never to use the sculpture again. For a while, the fate of the sculpture’s materials remained unclear. It was said that the materials would be burnt. Ultimately, because of the role of fire for the Dakota people, it was decided that the materials would be buried at an undisclosed location. This act resonates not only with Antigone, a figure who is central to both Honig and Butler’s work, but also with the execution that Durant’s work evoked, for at that time the Dakota people had not been allowed to bury their dead.
Some thought Durant was too quick to give in to the Dakota people and should not have accepted what they considered their “censorship.” But Durant himself did not feel that way. He appreciated the Dakota people’s concerns, and acknowledged that installing the work in Minneapolis, and not consulting with the Dakota people for its installation or even its design (which, after all, uncovered a very painful part of their history), was a mistake, a failure of the artist-as-a-white-man to listen to the concerns of “the other.” Durant, who usually makes provocative, research-based work that engages racial issues in the United States, had evidently decided to memorialize a painful part of U.S. and indigenous history through a monumental work that he considered an abstract reminder of sovereignty’s power to take life. But he had perhaps not sufficiently considered how his decision to rebuild a gallows at the 1:1 scale also risked monumentalizing that painful part of history and how the work of art risked becoming complicit with the very sovereignty it contested. There was a way, in other words, in which Durant somehow assumed an even greater sovereignty for art, as if art would somehow—and in an exceptional way—be able to stand outside of history, in a transcendent realm of abstraction, as art separate from the world.
This illusionary conception of art was contested, however, from a perhaps surprising corner: from the site of a third sovereignty, the indigenous sovereignty of the Dakota people, who took offense with Durant’s work and used their indigenous sovereignty as the ground to make that offense explicit. They claimed the emergency to propose a democratic, agonistic countersovereignty (thus pluralizing sovereignty itself). Everything here takes place within the realm of sovereignty. And it yielded, I would argue, a critical sovereignty (as Joanne Barker, editor of a book on sovereignty and indigenous gender, sexuality, and feminist studies puts it) rather than sovereignty’s outside. That was Scaffold’s critique.
I am pretty sure Scaffold was meant to be critical of sovereignty, but I do not know if Durant had intended with the work a critique in the sense that I have used the term here. If critique was his goal, then I think rebuilding the scaffold on the 1:1 scale in an attempt to reclaim death-wielding technologies of sovereignty for “other uses” was ill-conceived. My suspicion is, however, that what Durant intended was not critique but mere criticism. I’m suspicious about whether he thinks any aspects of sovereignty can be redeemed. The irony is, of course, that with his grand, critical, artistic gesture he seemed to reinstate precisely—presumably against his own intention—the violent power of sovereignty, this time in the form of art. And because it was art, he thought, surely everyone would realize that it was outside of the problematic sovereignty that he sought to contest.
While political sovereignty and sovereignty in the form of art are of course different, this was nevertheless proven to be a naïve assumption. What happened to Durant’s work laid bare beyond this obvious difference art’s imbrication in, and even complicity with, sovereignty. It exposes, furthermore, that the idea that art somehow exists separately from the problems of sovereignty that Durant wanted to contest is itself a sovereign illusion that repeats the very problems it seeks to contest. Now, what’s interesting about all of this is that this does not get exposed from an intensification of Durant’s intention and this naïve assumption about art. It does not get exposed from an artwork that manages to be separate from sovereignty, as Durant had perhaps assumed about his own work. Instead, this gets laid bare through another sovereign intervention, critical this time, from the Dakota people, who both contest the sovereignty of art and the U.S. sovereignty from which they have suffered and continue to suffer. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point that indigenous sovereignty is something that both Honig and Butler are very interested in and write about.
One exceptionalism is leveled against another here and thus something begins to happen to sovereignty and Scaffold’s complicity with it—something that can lead us to question certain Schmittian elements in exceptionalist accounts of art at large.
In other words, Durant actually learns something here, in the middle of his perhaps naïve criticism of sovereignty (and unwitting reinforcement of a sovereign theory and practice of art), about how sovereignty can be critically useful. Far from leading to the rejection of sovereignty, then, Scaffold leads one back into it, laying bare sovereignty’s critical and democratic potential, against the fascist instances of sovereign violence that I have mentioned—but also outside of naïve theories of art as exceptional that risk perpetuating the very problems of sovereignty that Scaffold sought to attack.
Some may be surprised by my use of the term “sovereignty” rather than “autonomy” in my discussion of Durant’s work. I opted for the term “sovereignty,” of course, in view of the fact that Durant’s work shows a technology of sovereignty. But by using sovereignty rather than autonomy in this context, I also seek to contest the ways in which an artwork’s autonomy risks taking on a sovereign dimension—the way in which autonomy risks becoming confused with sovereignty. This is a subtheme that was launched at the end of the previous chapter, when I noted the glossing of autonomy as the idea that “artistic genius is sovereign.” Such an identification of autonomy with sovereignty is problematic, first of all because it defuses autonomy’s critical potential in relation to sovereignty. Here, however, I have approached that issue from the other side, by drawing out the ways in which sovereignty can also be emancipatory precisely by how it exceeds autonomy. This may be one other reason why the term “sovereignty” rather than “autonomy” should be the term of operation in this context.
Let me conclude my reading of Scaffold, then, by emphasizing that there is nothing simple about any of this: indeed, to label the actions of the Dakota people as “sovereign” means to inscribe them within a political history of Western power that they may very well want to refuse. It risks perpetuating a logic of internal colonization through Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s celebrated but problematic master/slave dialectic, in which true self-consciousness is reached through a process of recognition. The anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli has pointed out the “cunning” of such a process when it comes to inscribing the “other” within the master-narrative of the “self,” given that recognition always takes place in the master’s terms (in this case, “sovereignty”)—even if it is ultimately the slave who is the hero of Hegel’s dialectic. But others have taken a more pragmatic approach when it comes to Indigenous politics and have argued that such recognition is necessary to be politically effective. In addition, to insist on one’s sovereignty and to make claims from that ground means to refuse being labeled a “minority group.” Durant’s work, situated in the context of these specific debates as well as broader debates about sovereignty today, can help one navigate some of these complexities.