Thursday, July 02, 2009

Hallucinating Sovereignty

Chris Bray:

In the first volume of his biography of Andrew Jackson, Robert Remini neatly captures the strangeness of state sovereignty. It happens in a single quiet paragraph that describes the ceremony on the morning of July 17, 1821, in which Spain relinquished its claim to the Floridas. Jackson handed the Spanish governor "the instruments of his authority to take possession of the territory," and Governor José Callava responded by giving Jackson control of his keys and his archives. Then, finally, having surrendered the symbols of power, Callava "released the inhabitants of West Florida from their allegiance to Spain." The paragraph ends with members of the Spanish crowd -- suddenly finding themselves members of an American crowd -- bursting into tears...

For historians, state power rests on very thin crust. State actors manage imagined communities with invented traditions, but only for as long as the ritual works. States are ephemeral; sovereignty grows out of statements on paper and the performance of symbolic acts -- here are the keys, General Jackson -- and the tenuousness of that recurring project means that it keeps crashing and burning. States disappear, and take the massively powerful apparatus of the state with them; the Stasi archives seem quaint. Floridians were Spanish until some guy read a sentence from a piece of paper that said they weren't.

But how do we bridge that view of the state with the bizarre reality of this thing that owns all the gravity and subsumes everything -- General Motors, AIG, Iraq, the financial industry, and, coming soon, entire broad swaths of the energy and health care fields, and etcetera -- so entirely that we can sit inside its orbit and casually talk about our affairs like Iraq and Lebanon?

I think of the state as a consensual hallucination, and yet somehow the American model turns out to run much of the world like personal property. I don't understand how we get from there to here. The "state" is a guy who shows up with some pieces of paper -- the "instruments of his authority to take possession" -- and then really takes possession.

(From Cliopatria/History News Network.)

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