Darshana Mitra | The Leaking Sovereign and the Hysterical Subject

By Darshana Mitra

Foucault, in his lectures Psychiatric Power, characterises sovereign power through an expenditure-levy dynamic, whereby the sovereign imposes a levy on services, but also simultaneously makes expenditures, such as the provision of protection, or the granting of gifts. Foucault insists that the sovereign does not have to pay back, and their expenditure does not correspond to the deductions made. In fact, there exists a permanent dissymmetry between deductions and expenditure, such that the levy always exceeds the expenditure made. [1] Sovereignty therefore does not establish a relationship of payment of price for services rendered, just as a merchant does not have sovereign power simply by virtue of selling apples at a fixed price to a shopper. It establishes, rather, a relation of deductions and losses exacted by the sovereign, characterised by the use of terms such as levy and toll. Foucault further develops a model of sovereign power as a spiral, containing within itself heterotopic relations of sovereignty, with the sovereign nevertheless as the ultimate arbiter of disputes and movements.[2] Each sovereign relation, be it that the of the patriarch and the child, the priest and the parishioner, or the jail warden and the prison, forms relations of sovereignty, all situated along the sovereign spiral.

If the state acts as the final arbiter of contestations between sovereign relations along the spiral, how does the resistance to state sovereignty challenge the spiral?

According to Banu Bargu, one of the features of state sovereignty is its monopsony of sacrifice, i.e., that only the state can claim legitimacy as a recipient of political sacrifice.[3] Political sacrifice can be construed as a deduction in the Foucauldian model of sovereign relations. However, the Turkish death-fasters create an alternate economy of sacrifice by using their bodies, not to reinforce, but to resist the sovereign power of the state. Note the testimony of a death-faster on p. 302, who states that the death fast is the price that one must pay to live as a human being in this country. Implicit in this assertion is the rejection of bare life in favour of a human life, and the assertion of ideological survival as a basis of sovereignty.[4] The F type prisons as described by Bargu were intended to disrupt the “claim to an alternative sovereignty”[5] that the wards in Turkish prisons represented.[6] This contestation between multiple relations and sites of sovereignty can also be characterised through the right to self-determination, exercised through both the assertion of the prisoners’ right to their life in the prison ward, as well as the prisoner’s right to their body as the last site of resistance to sovereign power. No state likes to have its monetary sovereignty challenged, and by establishing distinct relations of political sacrifice, the prisoners are mounting a direct challenge to sovereign power, by constituting themselves into a self-determined group of revolutionaries with their own currency of politics.[7] The right to self-determination implies here a radical reframing (or rejection) of one’s relationship to sovereign power, and the exercise of political agency to do otherwise than the sovereign demand.[8] The integrity of the biosovereign spiral is also under attack in other ways, namely through what Susan Buck-Morss names the “leaking subject”. Her claim is that sovereign power can no longer be contained within the apparatus, and leak out in unexpected ways, whether it be the leaking of Abu Ghraib photographs or the demonstration of menstrual blood by Egyptian women. Leakage simultaneously implies an overflowing as well as a failure to contain. Sovereign power is stretched thin, and there are cracks in the sovereign spiral.

I want to refer here to Professor Benhabib’s intervention about the specific context of the Turkish death-fasts, and her characterisation of them as possibly also resulting from mass hysteria among the prisoners, provoked by political despair. The first English book on hysteria, titled A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother, described hysteria resulting from a deprivation of the “sovereign power of the soul”. However, I would characterise it, not as a deprivation, but as an assertion of sovereignty over the self, and as a militant rejection of the sovereign spiral of the state.

The idea of hysteria is characterised by a lack of control, and a spilling over of emotions from an otherwise contained self. Foucault in his lectures on Psychiatric Power, describes hysteria as a “phenomenon of struggle”[9], by which patients resisted psychiatric power and its attempts to discipline the patient’s symptoms of madness. Disciplinary power within the asylum is conceived to simultaneously realizing madness as well as smoothening out its outward manifestations, in order to create the ideal patient. Hysterics, according to Foucault, by manifesting a “whole panoply of symptoms”[10], resisted the asylum’s exercise of disciplinary power over madness. Foucault calls hysterics the “true militants of antipsychiatry”[11], and hysteria as an exercise of the human agency to act otherwise. Can hysteria be claimed as a radical act of self-determination, of leakage of biosovereign power from the contained, disciplined self, through the resistance to the psychiatric institutions’ attempts to fix symptoms to disease, and produce an ordered classification of disciplined selves? If sovereignty functions on the basis of extraction of corporeal loyalty, then hysteria is a rejection of the state’s assertion of biosovereignty over ordered bodies.  The death fasters in Turkey characterise their struggle as a psychological war, with the state trying to finish off the protestors “in the head”.[12] The mind emerges therefore as a bulwark of resistance to biosovereign power, and the first fortification for necroresistance[13], with hysteria as a strategic manoeuvre.


[1](Foucault, 2006., p. 42)

[2] (Foucault, 2006, p. 45)

[3] (Bargu, 2014, p. 335)

[4] (Bargu, 2014, p. 307)

[5] (Bargu, 2014, p. 2)

[6] Bargu quotes Turkish Member of Parliament Ahmet İyimaya, who states that ““in the prison there is no state sovereignty but the sovereignty of gangs”(Bargu, 2014, p. 145),

[7] “One’s relation to death was established neither through the idea of risk nor responsibility, but rather through
the mediation of a different category: price or toll (bedel)” (Bargu, 2014, p. 305)

[8] I was inspired to use the idea of self-determination primarily because of how often the Indian state deploys the rhetoric of hysteria to challenge the movement for self-determination in Kashmir. For example, in 2017 there were multiple incidents of Kashmiri women being attacked by mysterious assailants who overpowered the women and chopped off their hair. Women reported passing out in fear, and waking up to find their long braids missing. No culprits were identified, and the Indian state rushed to blame these reports on mass hysteria. The incidents were numerous enough to warrant widespread protests, but no arrests were made, and soon the incidents stopped. The imputation of hysteric motives by the Indian state to Kashmiris (and specifically Kashmiri women) was rejected by Kashmiris themselves, stating that the Indian state had a history of creating panic and paranoia among them, in order to disrupt their struggle for self-determination, by making them mistrust each other and turn to the state for protection. The language of hysteria is used here to impute a psychopathology to the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

[9] (Foucault, 2006, p. 137)

[10] (Foucault, 2006, p. 145)

[11](Foucault, 2006, p. 254)

[12] (Bargu, 2014, p. 290)

[13] “In attacks like these, what is more important than physical power is psychological power. That is, what really matters is your head . . . your ideology. And the resistance made us stronger. Our ideology is that we can venture death.” (Bargu, 2014, p. 300)