January 2018

Eric Santner: Toward a Political Economy of the Flesh


The concept of popular sovereignty presupposes not only a construction of “the people” but also a theory of sovereignty. Departing from Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous study The King’s Two Bodies, Eric Santner charts the shift of the divine body of the sovereign (as opposed to the earthly body) onto the body politic of the Republic. Rather than disappearing, this divine body becomes the point of “general equivalence” for members of the nation and the “second body” of “the people.” In his lectures entitled “Society Must Be Defended,” Michel Foucault described the evolution whereby the state comes to take responsibility for the body of the people, including the defense of its purity in racialized and eugenicist terms. Santner suggests that we cannot understand this “defense” purely in terms of the function of biopolitical power, because the social body is also constituted by the theological concepts that “descend” from royal sovereignty. Santner argues that biopolitics takes on the role of taking care of this spectral body.

If “making live” is as much a part of the matrix of power as “letting die,” why would a democratic society choose austerity over care for the social body? Santner suggests that it is not the well-being of the population but this second body, the spectral body of “the people,” that neoliberalism “takes care of.” Like in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the desire for wealth is constant even as the fruits of prosperity are refused. Indeed, it is from this second “spectral” body of “the people” that the demand for economic growth emanates, rather than the needs of the physical bodies of the population.

Democracy is neither a complete break with absolutist sovereignty nor is it necessarily opposed to fascism or authoritarianism. We find in democracy the continuation of certain sovereign remains but also the invention of new forms of discipline, social fantasies of domination, and “microfascisms,” in the parlance of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Through Santner’s lecture, we are introduced to another persona besides the rational and self-possessed individual of liberal democracy: Judge Schreber, a schizophrenic brought to nervous excitation by a crisis of symbolic investiture, his body consigned to the pleasure of God. To the image of “the people” we must add this other figure, dispossessed of his own body, which is given over to the enjoyment of power.

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