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State Power and its Repositories

Rohini Rangachari

By Judith Butler & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2007, pp. 121, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

If the state is what ‘binds’, it is also clearly what can and does unbind. And if the state binds in the name of the nation, conjuring a certain version of the nation forcibly, if not powerfully, then it also unbinds, releases, expels, banishes . . . it expels precisely through an exercise of power that depends upon barriers and prisons and, so, in the mode of a certain containment. . . What does it mean to be at once contained and dispossessed by the state? And what does it mean to be uncontained or discontinued from the state but given over to other forms of power that may or may not have state-like features?   These questions are just a few of the myriad issues raised by an engaging conversation between two of America’s foremost critics and two of the most influential theorists of the last decade—Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at Berkeley and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University—in Who Sings the Nation State? which ranges across what Enlightenment and key contemporary philosophers have to say about the state, who exercises power in today’s world, how boundaries of a state have become more fluid, and how the state is a more provisional place and its inhabitants, more stateless.   The bringing together of literature and global states in this dialogue reminds us of the extent to which the notion of political philosophy is intertwined with the study of words. Take a simple excerpt from Judith Butler’s study –   The state is not always the nation-state. We have, for instance, non-national states, and we have security states that actively contest the national basis of the state. So already, the term state can be dissociated from the term ‘nation’ and the two can be cobbled together through a hyphen, but what work does the hyphen do? Does the hyphen finesse the relation that needs to be explained? Does it mark a certain soldering that has taken place historically? Does it suggest a fallibility at the heart of the relation?   From linguistics emerges significance. Butler notes, it makes sense to see that at the core of this ‘state’—that signifies both juridical and dispositional dimensions of life—is a certain tension produced between modes of being or mental states, temporary or provisional constellations of mind of one kind or another, and juridical ...

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