As the ‘sovereignty of its sharing’; Jean-Luc Nancy and the politics of lost authority

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As the ‘sovereignty of its sharing’; Jean-Luc Nancy and the politics of lost authority.

Samuel Kirwan

School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom

As the ‘sovereignty of its sharing’; Jean-Luc Nancy and the politics of lost authority

This article addresses how the work of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy might inform our understanding of changes to policing and the law introduced under the 'Community Safety' agenda and more specifically under the term 'Anti-Social Behaviour'. Having set out the 'governmentality' approach to this field it argues that what is missing from these accounts is an attention to authority; specifically the question of what it means to have lost authority, following Hannah Arendt's claim that authority transcends the exercise of power. The article proceeds by detailing Nancy's approach to politics, authority and community in its re-working of Arendtian themes. Such an approach, I argue, gives an alternative reading of how 'communitarian' ideas were represented in these initiatives, and in particular how they were integrated into the criminal law. The article concludes with a set of questions around which we might orientate a politics of community, one that would be both critical of these changes as well as retaining a productive and transformative approach. The key to such a balance, the article argues, lies in inscribing an authority as community, rather than 'of' or 'against' it.

Keywords: community; Jean-Luc Nancy; authority; governmentality

As ‘the sovereignty of its sharing’: Jean-Luc Nancy and the politics of lost authority


Such behaviour is not being effectively checked by the community as a whole with the backing of the police. I have in mind, for example, graffiti and criminal damage. Those involved drift into disorder and drift further into crime.

(Jack Straw, speech to commons 14th November 1997, shortly before the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) in the Crime and Disorder Bill)

It’s time to move beyond the ASBO. We need a complete change in emphasis, with communities working with the police and other agencies to stop bad behaviour escalating that far.

(Theresa May, speech at Coin Street Community Centre, 28th June 2010)

Like many, such a juxtaposition displays the repetition of ‘New Labour’ themes, promises and aspirations in the first months of ‘coalition’ government. That the latter dream of a perfect co-operation between the community and the police, ensuring a locally produced authority that would guarantee the moral formation of its citizens, would one day be represented as a radical shift from the Anti-Social Behaviour Order would no doubt have proved a shock to the Straw of 1997. Yet he need not have worried; the proposed vehicle for this ‘move beyond’, the ‘Crime Prevention Injunction’, with its promise to be “less bureaucratic” and as such “speedier’ and ‘more effective” (Brokenshire, 2011), holds rigidly to the anti-statist tendency within criminal justice reform for which, in the 1990s and 2000s, ‘Community Safety’ was the established term.

This article follows Nikolas Rose in recognising this tendency to display the orientation of Western neo-liberal democracies (principally the United States and United Kingdom) towards “governing through community” (1999:192). Yet while Rose’s primary focus therein is upon a distributed appeal to the ethical self – an ‘ethico-power’ – the article examines a different aspect of this form of governing described by Rose, namely the discursive foregrounding of the lost authority of the state, and its accompanying project for authority to be returned to the community. In this change of emphasis, the article seeks to respond to certain blind spots within Rose’s engagement of this dynamic, most importantly to the lack of analysis of the nature of authority. Through the concept of a ‘politics of lost authority’ I describe the pressing question of this ‘government through community’ to be less the enticement of the ethical subject than the drive to fill the loss of community with close-knit, neighbourly relationships that would regulate behaviour in a more ‘intimate’ manner. This shift of emphasis demands not only a reappraisal of community and authority, but also of political action. The aim of the article is to provide a response to the failure within ‘governmentality’ studies to articulate a political approach to the terrain of community empowerment and behavioural interventions beyond the negativity of critique.

The rejoinder posed however is drawn not from the communitarian tracts of which Rose and others are directly critical, but from the work of Jean-Luc Nancy (1991, 1993, 1997, 2000; Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, 1997a, 1997b), alluded to without being fully explored in Rose’s work (1999:195). I explore how Nancy’s approach both re-configures our understanding of what is at stake in these political developments and allows for the articulation, albeit in a very different form, of an alternative political practice of community. Nancy’s work is presented in the article through its re-working of two critical problematics taken from the work of Hannah Arendt; the exhaustion of the political as a distinct sphere and the analogous exhaustion of authority as a specific modality of power. Having presented Rose’s narrative and its relevance to the field of Community Safety in Section 1, these separate considerations, of the political and of authority, are explored in Sections 2 and 3, with the common form of Nancy’s re-framing of these Arendtian themes being presented through the concepts of ‘retreat’, ‘unworking’ and ‘interruption’.

Having explored these re-workings of politics, authority and community in Nancy’s work, the article argues that a different understanding emerges of the manner in which, through the ‘communitarian’ accounts of Amitai Etzioni and others, the law is made to ‘represent’ the community. Casting these accounts as an attempt to ‘hypostatise’ the excessive moment of subject formation, it argues that what is at stake in the ‘Community Safety’ agenda is the closure of community as it is present in the criminal law. Describing these socio-historical descriptions as articulations of the ‘politics of lost authority’, the article argues that the demand emerging from Nancy’s work is to contest the desire for an intimate, or ‘immanent’, authority created and executed within the community, instead inscribing the very failure of the community to guarantee the morals of its members through an interruption or disruption of the ‘immanent figure’ such an ‘immanent authority’ implies. In a context in which authority has become the terrain for the closure of the ‘intimate exteriority’ (Levett, 2005:430) community is, it is in the name of another authority that this opposition must be formed.

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