Žižek and The Definition of Sovereignty

Apr 15, 2023

Schmitt’s Political Theology is part of the canon for any right-wing student of politics. As I was reading it, I was struck as to how well it lends itself to a reading through Žižek/Lacan. Schmitt’s decisionism, specifically the dichotomy exception-norm find their psychoanalytic counterparts in the way Žižek applies the Lacanian real and symbolic to sociopolitical analysis. The following is a series of notes on chapter 1 of Political Theology, interpreted through the concepts introduced in Žižek’s Sublime Object of Ideology.

Political Theology Ch. 1: The Definition of Sovereignty

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception

Sovereign is he who designates and interprets the master signifier.

The decision on the exception is the decision in the true sense of the word, because the general Norm as represented by an ordinary legal prescription can never encompass a total exception. The decision that the real exception exists cannot therefore be entirely derived from this Norm.

The true exception is undefinable, i.e. unsymbolizable—it belongs to the Lacanian Real. An exception that can be defined as exception is by definition not a true exception: just as the Symbolic can’t contain the Real, the norm can’t define the exception. Let’s take as an example open relationships. You (“as a couple”) may decide that you guys are going to be “seeing other people”, but as soon as the guy actually gets laid, the woman experiences a rupture of the real, an embodied realization that she didn’t intend for the guy to see other people, only herself. Her decision to suspend seeing other people is the true exception, not the contract to see other people (which supposedly justifies cheating).

About an abstract concept there will in general be no argument, least of all in the history of sovereignty. What is argued about is the concrete application, and that means who decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest or interest of the state public safety and Order, le salut public and so on.

To apply this point in a concrete manner, to the descriptivism versus anti-descriptivism debate referenced in Sublime: it doesn’t matter whether floating signifiers are definable in the abstract (which they are) what matters is who decides what they concretely apply to and that is whoever controls, represents and embodies the master signifier.

The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of an extreme emergency and of how it is to be eliminated.

The rupture of the Real cannot be anticipated, sovereignty is revealed in deciding (perhaps retroactively) what constitutes a true emergency (the true Real) and offering up a solution: re-obscuring the Real through symbolization.

If such action is not subject to controls, if it is not hampered in some way by checks and balances, as is the case in a liberal constitution, then it is clear who the sovereign is. He decides whether there’s an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it.

An unlimited and fully arbitrary action is the essence of sovereignty: the ability to define the true emergency as well as the solution—this point relates to the previous point about inability to predict the rupture of the Real.

All Tendencies of modern constitutional development point toward eliminating the sovereign in this sense [in the sense of exerting arbitrary decisions].

Contemporary governance is centered around obscuring the unalienable irreducible fact—that sovereignty means arbitrary and unlimited exertion of Will To Power in the decision—via an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus. Note that bureaucracy also goes hand in hand with ideological deferral of responsibilities: the domesticated bureaucrat identifies with system-ideology, his willed decision is subsumed by the system, thus every arbitrary decision on his part is just him acting as a stand-in for the system.

All inconsistencies of application of these “clearly defined rules” are ruptures of the Real—symptoms.

Nobody seems to have taken the trouble to scrutinize the often repeated but completely empty phraseology used to denote the highest power by the famous offers of the concept of sovereignty. That this concept relates the critical case the exception was long ago recognized by Jean Bodin. To what extent is the Sovereign bond to laws and to what extent is he responsible to the Estates?

Bodin says that the Sovereign is not so bound under conditions of urgent necessity. However, since the Sovereign is only bound during the state of the norm and he decides the exception, he is bound only in so far as he lets himself be bound.


Sovereignty is an indivisible.

There may be competing Powers, but only one true Sovereign, the latter being revealed in the state of exception. Analogous to competition for ideological totalization: which signifier becomes the master signifier // which power becomes the absolute sovereign.


Bodin asked if the commitments of the prince to the Estates or the people dissolve his sovereignty. He answered by referring to the case in which it becomes necessary to violate such commitments to change laws or to suspend them entirely according to the requirements of a situation, a time and a people. If a suspension of the norm requires the deliberation between two parties, then sovereignty becomes a play between two parties—between The Prince and the Estates for example. The actual mark of sovereignty is the authority to suspend valid law. And Bodin wanted to derive from this authority all other characteristics of authority.

Again we see an analogy (albeit less applicable) to the struggle of floating signifiers to totalize the ideological field (i.e. which authority is primary // which master signifier prevails).

Bold emphasis mine:

Everyone agrees that wherever antagonism appear within a state, every party wants the general good—therein resides after all the Bellum omnium contra omnes. But sovereignty (and thus the state itself) resides in deciding this controversy, that is, in determining definitely what constitutes public order and Security in determining when they are Disturbed and so on.

What is the “general good”? When “Our Democracy” is in crisis, what is “Our Democracy”? Nothing else then Our Democracy I.E the regime’s sovereignty/rule. We the People is the government, after all. Determining the meaning of the master signifier is the mark of sovereignty: if the tautological master signifier is what we appeal to in legitimizing our actions, whoever interprets the master signifier is the sovereign.

Public order and security manifest themselves very differently in reality depending on whether a militaristic bureaucracy, a self-governing body controlled by the spirit of commercialism, or a radical party organization decides when there is order and security and when it is threatened or disturbed.

Again, “public order” and “security” are floating signifiers defined in reference to the governing body that projects the master signifier to interpret them through (to totalize their meaning).

After all, every legal order is based on a decision, and also the concept of the legal order which is applied to something self-evident contains within it the contrast of the two distinct elements of the juristic—norm and decision. Like every other order, the legal order rest on a decision and not on a norm.

Every symbolic order is based on an act of will, a decision to discriminate between good and bad (between what is deemed to be the norm [good] and what falls outside the norm [bad]—not in the sense of an exception, but in the sense of a wrong procedure or state of being). In other words, an originatory creation of values in the Nietzschean sense.

Who assumes authority concerning these matters for which there are no positive stipulations, for example a capitulation? In other words, Who is responsible for that for which competence has not been anticipated?

Who defines the master signifier? Who defines the case which no positive set of qualities suffices to capture? I.e. a state that can’t be consistently defined in all possible worlds?

In a more familiar vein it was asked who is supposed to have unlimited power? Hence the decision about the exception, the extremus necessitates casus [the case of extreme necessity].

For example, note the mental gymnastics employed to interpret the American Constitution in increasingly absurd ways. The Constitution is of course nominally not supposed to be interpreted, merely enforced. However the Constitution does not include the exception. The exception suspends the Constitution, paradoxically, by justifying itself in reference to the Constitution. Each interpretation of the non-interpretable is an exception. In certain cases it retroactively justifies itself—through reference to an interpretation (the same one), but really it’s just about power: my interpretation holds because I have power (I am sovereign).

Who is entitled to decide those actions for which the Constitution makes no provision… Who can reobscure the Real once it returns as a symptom, through the establishing of a new Symbolic?

Emphasis mine:

A jurisprudence concerned with ordinary day-to-day questions has practically no interest in the concept of sovereignty. Only the recognizable is its normal concern, everything else is a disturbance. Such a jurisprudence confronts the extreme case disconcertedly, for not every extraordinary measure, not every police emergency measure or emergency decree is necessarily an exception. What characterizes an exception is principally unlimited authority, which means the suspension of the entire existing order. In such a situation it is clear that the state remains, whereas law recedes.

The exception is characterized by a circuit break in the symbolic network. The Real returns in the form of a symptom, the Symbolic recedes.

The existence of the state is undoubted proof of its superiority over the validity of the legal Norm. The decision freeze itself from all normative ties and becomes in the true sense absolute. The state suspends the law in the exception on the basis of its right of self preservation, as one would say. The two elements of the concept legal order are then dissolved into independent notions and thereby testify to their conceptual independence.

The decision becomes fully arbitrary and unlimited. The master signifier defines our State, to preserve the integrity of the master signifier, we must suspend the general logic of our relationships—we must suspend the symbolic order. The legal order becomes illegal order and legal disorder: the latter is legal but not orderly—normative law. The arbitrary decision becomes orderly but not legal (illegal order) and order regains primacy in this case over legality.

The norm is destroyed in the exception.

The Symbolic is destroyed by the rupture of the Real.

The exception is that which cannot be subsumed; it defies general codification, but it simultaneously reveals a specifically juristic element—the decision in absolute purity.

This is in very clear terms the same definition as belongs to the Lacanian Real: defying codification is the same as defying symbolization, simultaneously revealing a specifically juristic element is the same as always returning in some form (return of the repressed). The decision—the act of will—is the Real that re-emerges in a state of exception, which represents the symptom.

The exception appears in its absolute form when a situation in which legal prescriptions can be valid must first be brought about. Every general norm demands a normal, everyday frame of life to which it can be factually applied and which is subjected to its regulations. The norm requires a homogeneous medium.

The symbolic order requires consistency, but because it’s consistent, it must be incomplete: it doesn’t encompass the real. The exception, the exertion of individual will in a decision is arbitrary—inconsistent with the symbolic network—but it’s complete because it’s absolute and unlimited.

There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos. Legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is Sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists.

In order for expression (for symbolization) there must be repression, to turn chaos into order there must be a set of rules that structures the chaos into a manageable form, but the latter never encompasses the whole of the chaos. There is always a residue of the Real. In this case the need is expressed in the arbitrary decision which defines the difference between the norm and the exception, i.e. when there is order and when there is chaos that must be put back into order.

All law is “situational law”. The sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality. He has the Monopoly over this last decision. Therein resides the essence of the state’s sovereignty, which must be juristically defined correctly as the monopoly to decide… The decision parts here from the legal norm and authority proves that to produce law it need not be based on law.

This is just Schmitt restating the point that I made in reference to the previous section.

Schmitt then states emergency law was no law at all for Kant—the rationalists have a tendency ignore the emergency, in contrast to the natural law tendency which is interested in the emergency. It should be of interest to the rationalist that the legal system itself can anticipate the exception and can suspend itself—how the systematic unity and order can suspend itself in a concrete case is a difficult problem for the rationalist to construe.

The tendency of liberal constitutionalism to regulate the exception as precisely as possible means, after all, the attempt to spell out in detail the case in which law suspends self. From where does the law obtain this force, and how is it logically possible that the norm is valid except for one concrete case that it cannot factually determine in any definitive manner?

How does the law define the undefinable context that makes it suspend itself? It cannot, the suspension is either arbitrary or retroactive, but always the action of the sovereign. The exception cannot be defined because it’s a rupture of the Real, a symptom of the repression of the fact that decision-will or willful decision is the ultimate support of any order.

The exception confounds the unity and order of the rationally scheme.

It does so precisely because the rationalist scheme represses the necessity of willful decision. No matter how big and complex the bureaucratic apparatus of the State, it cannot disguise the fact that in the ultimate case, the decision is the only thing that matters.

Precisely a philosophy of concrete life must not withdraw from the exception and the extreme case, but must be interested in it to the highest degree. The exception can be more important to it than the rule… because the seriousness of an insight goes deeper than the clear generalizations inferred from what ordinarily repeats itself. The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything. It confirms not only the rule, but also it’s existence which derives only from the exception.

The symptom is more important than the ordinary functionality of the subject, i.e. the substance of the subject is the symptom.

In the exception, the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.

In the exception returns the repressed Real.

Schmitt then quotes Kierkegaard:

The exception explains the general and itself. And if one wants to study the general correctly, one only needs to look around for a true exception. It reviews everything more clearly than does the general. There are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then the general also cannot be explained. The difficulty is usually not noticed because the general is not thought about with passion but with a comfortable superficiality. The exception, on the other hand, thinks the general with intense passion.

We post short-form content on the Ascetus channel.