The Problem of Sovereignty in the Marquis de Sade

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The Problem of Sovereignty in the Marquis de Sade

Type: Master thesis
Title: The Problem of Sovereignty in the Marquis de Sade
Author: Harrington, Samuel Ernest
Issue Date: 2016-06-30
Keywords: Sovereignty
Marquis de Sade
Carl Schmitt
Political Philosophy
Abstract: This thesis intends to use The 120 Days of Sodom to contribute to a reflection upon sovereignty in political philosophy. The overarching aim is to determine the extent to which Sade’s conception of transgression in The 120 Days can illumine the problem of sovereignty. The thesis will argue that this novel presents a sustained revelation of a particular paradox evident in sovereign theory. This paradox is explicitly dealt with in the political philosophy of the German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). It is the contention of this thesis that the political philosophy of de Sade, as outlined in The 120 Days, contains precise affinities with Schmitt’s theory of the exception. Like Schmitt, Sade articulates the transgressive capacity of sovereign power. Sovereignty rests upon mere attribution, not moral or normative considerations. Sovereign authority, once attributed, is legitimate because the sovereign has the power and authority to decide that it is legitimate. This ‘decision’ creates our paradox: the transcendent preserver of law is ultimately not bound to the law that is ordered. Consequently, the sovereign power alone is capable of legitimate transgression, going beyond the normal order with the aim of sustaining the normal order. Any suspension of law on behalf of the sovereign is an act of transgression. In the suspension of law, the sovereign transgresses the limits of the juridical order, with the aim of sustaining the legal order, hence the paradox. This thesis will focus on The 120 Days of Sodom as a philosophical novel about the possibility of absolute sovereignty. In the ‘real world’, the suspension of law sustains the juridical order, the transgression ultimately serving a practical purpose which is to uphold juridical normalcy. In Sade’s fictive space, however, he details no such bounds. The 120 Days is a wildly destructive exercise; it imitates the justification of sovereign power found in the decision to create a situation of infinite transgression of boundaries and limits. Sade forms an impossible universe wherein the exception becomes a normative principle. Sade accelerates the principle of sovereign power – the decisionistic aspect of the law – portraying seemingly endless attempts to sustain the “miracle” moment.
Supervisor: Sneller, Rico
Faculty: Faculty of Humanities
Department: Philosophy (120 EC) (Master)
Specialisation: Philosophy of Humanities
ECTS Credits: 20

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