Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


7 May 2021

Deconstructing Sovereignty Discourse in a Time of Covid-19

Presented By Professor Lasse Thomassen as part of the CRCC Seminar Series, co-sponsored by the Loughborough University Populism Research Group

About this event

During the Covid-19 crisis, critique of government restrictions have mainly come from right-wing libertarians and right-wing populists. This has been the case in the US, the UK, Denmark and Spain – the four countries I will draw examples from. The critique has been made in the name of individual freedom against what the critics see as state oppression and even dictatorship. Meanwhile, the Left has generally been supportive of government restrictions. On the Left, Giorgio Agamben stands out for his view that the government restrictions are the latest instance of the realization of the total sovereignty of the modern state. In my presentation, I look to Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of sovereignty discourse in his later work for an alternative progressive response to state sovereignty. I take two points from Derrida’s work on sovereignty, both of which serve to responses to Agamben’s view and to help us think about an alternative progressive response to state sovereignty. The first point is that sovereignty is never total (unconditional, indivisible, etc.), but always conditional (dependent on others’ recognition, etc.). The second point is that the things we oppose to state sovereignty – reason, cosmopolitanism, human rights, individual freedom, and democracy, for instance – all share some of the logic of sovereignty because they all rely on some notion of “I can” or “we can.” The conclusion is that we must reject any opposition between sovereignty and non-sovereignty, such as the one Agamben relies on. Instead, we have to examine how different discourses of sovereignty may, or may not, have emancipatory effects. This has to be the starting point for a progressive assessment of state sovereignty in a time of Covid-19.

After completing his PhD in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex, Lasse Thomassen taught there for two years and then moved to the University of Limerick. He joined Queen Mary in 2007, and from 2008 to 2011 he was a García Pelayo Fellow at the Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales in Madrid. From 2019 to 2021, he is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen.

His research focuses on three areas: debates within radical democratic theory and radical politics (autonomy vs hegemony, movement parties, etc.); identity politics and the politics of inclusion, particularly in the context of the UK and Europe; and new approaches to the concept of representation. In addition, he has a long-standing interest in the work of Jürgen Habermas. Cutting across these research foci is his interest in developing deconstruction and discourse theory as methods for political analysis. During his Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen (2019-21), he is working on a project developing deconstruction as a critical method for political theory.

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