Graduate Seminar in Political Thought

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Course Description

This graduate seminar in political theory has two primary objectives. The first is to pursue a series of questions about concepts central to politics in late modernity—How have the dominant forms of political power and political order been configured through modern sovereignty? What is political sovereignty, how has it emerged, and how have theoretical understandings of power, order, and sovereignty evolved? What came before sovereignty, what forms of power and order exist alongside it, and what alternatives to it exist? Are we now –as many scholars have argued– in a post-sovereign condition, and if so what forms do political power and order now take?

The second objective is to practice political theory as a deep and sustained engagement with thinkers and texts —as an apprenticeship in thought meant to enlarge one’s capacity for thinking critically, conceptually, and creatively about political problems. Our seminar begins with Michel Foucault’s suggestion in his History of Sexuality, vol. 1 that political theory must “cut off the head of the king.” By this remark, Foucault apparently meant that we must learn to theorize power outside the framework of law and sovereignty; at the very least, he is challenging us to think more closely about sovereignty. This seminar accepts Foucault’s challenge and alternates between three approaches in doing so. First we will follow Foucault’s own research as he theorizes the transformation of modern sovereignty (culminating in his conceptualization of “biopolitics,” “security,” and “neoliberalism”). Second we trace the development of sovereignty through three canonical theories from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau). Third we will trace contemporary theories of sovereignty (Agamben, Amoore, Brown, and Sullivan).