Stacy Douglas & Daniel Matthews
in Daniel Matthews & Scott Veitch (eds), Law, Obligation, Community (Routledge, June 2018), Chapter 7, 22 pages
Introduction: If ever it left us, sovereignty has returned. The protectionist and nativist instincts that helped propel Donald Trump into ofﬁce have been felt throughout the Western world as new nationalisms have forced themselves into the political mainstream. The promise of post-national identities, global ﬂows of people and capital, and the weakening of the ‘bright lines’ of state control have been met by a forceful resistance that foregrounds local interests and concerns, often depends on ethnically deﬁned notions of identity and clings fervently to nationalistic histories and modes of belonging. Whilst we might dismiss some of these movements as being motivated by atavistic fears of difference, there is a powerful sense that the events of 2016 represent the high watermark for the form of turbo-charged globalisation let loose as the Berlin Wall fell and the ‘new world order’ took hold in the early 1990s. As Kyle McGee argues, the West is suffering from a loss of both ‘place’ and ‘land’ as the dual forces of globalisation and global warming put extant forms of attachment to locale and community under erasure (McGee 2017). In such conditions, the allure of sovereignty with its promise to ‘take back control’, as the Brexit campaign had it, is quite understandable. If ‘waning sovereignty’ (Brown 2014) has accompanied these ‘twin vertigoes of placelessness and landlessness’ (McGee 2017, p. 128), its recent revival offers – some would believe – a line of defence against the forces of globalisation and the increasing precarity this brings. Against this background we engage with the theme of obligation in two ways.
First, we explore the ways in which juridically enforceable obligations installed and defended by modern constitutional sovereignty are crucial to giving shape to the affective life of a community. We approach sovereignty through the sentiments that it produces – or claims to produce – and the particular effect that it has in enframing the world and giving scope to a sense of our political attachments and modes of belonging. We dwell on the sensibilities associated with sovereignty and on how the mobilisation of the rights and duties associated with the protection of sovereignty affectively enframes the way a political community attaches to place, past and an imagined future.
Second, continuing our emphasis on the register of affect, we explore a sense of ‘being-bound’ that both precedes and exceeds juridically deﬁned obligations. The binding quality of obligations – evidenced in the root word ligare, which we ﬁnd in ligature, ligament, allegiance and religion – limited notion of an obligation at law. It is this more expansive sense of ‘being-bound’ that we explore in what follows, underscoring the affective, political and existential dimensions to the bonds that give form to collective life. Ultimately, we are interested in unsettling the affective life of sovereignty, in revealing and attuning our selves to a sense of ‘being-bound’ that challenges sovereignty’s power to recentre an autonomous legal subject, and its attendant national community, within an anthropocentric horizon. Such a horizon is today increasingly compromised. In particular, the ‘twin vertigoes’ of globalisation and climatic change ought to attune us to a set of relations that transcend the assumed bifurcation between human and non-human life, ushering in a sensitivity to the bonds that sustain habitability beyond the limited set of relations honoured by modern sovereignty.
We ﬁnd possibilities for such an unsettling of sovereignty’s affective force in artistic practices coming out of South Africa, namely in the work of J. M. Coetzee and Nandipha Mntambo, and explore the implications of their work for rethinking what it means to ‘be-bound’ beyond the juridical proscriptions associated with sovereignty. The complex challenges associated with the constitutional settlement in South Africa is not our central concern. Rather, by attending to the practices of two artists working within this context we hope to shed light on a broader problematic. The oldest questions of legal and political theory – the nature of the body politic, the territorial limits of political power and the aspirations of the common good – are today being reposed with a renewed urgency. It is our contention that turning to art and literature helps unseat the predominant affective disposition installed by contemporary juridico-political techniques. We think that the South African case, as it has been tumultuously unfolding for the past nearly 25 years, can offer some important insights here, especially as it demonstrates how the affective force of sovereignty reafﬁrms a deeply held anthropocentricism that we must today begin to challenge if we are to avoid an eternal return of well-worn scripts that equate constitutional sovereignty with justice. We begin by unpacking our approach to affect before moving to discuss sovereignty, South Africa, Coetzee and Mntambo.