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sovereignty, torture and blood Arrow vol 5 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 1, 2006


Sovereignty, Torture and Blood: Tracing Genealogies
and Rethinking Politics

Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel
University of Western Sydney



Recently there has been increasing theoretical debate over the meaning of political sovereignty, in part prompted by concerns over the treatment of asylum seekers and State responses to political insurgency and 'terror.' This essay examines the logic of contemporary sovereignty through the lens of recent media discussion on the use of torture and the capacity of the State to denaturalise citizens. It is argued that given the aim of biopolitical sovereignty to 'both foster life and disallow it to death,' then torture can be said to sit at the nexus of these powers, since it involves the simultaneous deployment of forms of violence and care. Citizenship reveals the blood link between biology and sovereign, reflecting the fundamental importance of the concept of biopower to understanding contemporary sovereignty. It is argued that one of the key challenges today is to unthink the close 'blood and soil' relationship that continues to inform contemporary political discourse.  

1. Michel Foucault offers an acute reminder that political theory's obsession with sovereignty has clouded opportunities for other equally important perspectives on the nature of power. In his words: "we need to cut off the King's head: in political theory that has still to be done" (1980: 121). Yet as Foucault's later work on both government and sovereignty demonstrate, there are questions relating to the genealogy of sovereignty within global political relationships that beg continued analysis.

2. Within Australia since white invasion, the issue of sovereignty has maintained a longstanding influence on the shape of political formations. In late 2002, the Yorta Yorta 1998 Federal Court decision was upheld by the High Court, severely limiting the scope by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could make future claims to native title. The implication of this decision for political sovereignty in Australia were expressed clearly by the co-ordinator of the Yorta Yorta claim, Monica Morgan: "Its not about native title, it's about racism...It's about recognition, it's about seeing our sovereignty" (Morgan qtd. in The Koori Mail , 2003: 3; see also Buchan, 2002).   Certainly the question of indigenous sovereignty has not been resolved in Australian politics today, and as Henry Reynolds indicates, there is no reason to assume that it can easily be removed from the agenda of public politics: "It becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the view that the Aborigines were traditionally without sovereignty. Neither our anthropological knowledge nor our contemporary values allow that position to be held indefinitely" (1996: 13).

3. Another area where developing an understanding of sovereignty has proved important is in recent debates around globalisation. We have seen nation-states "open up" their borders to free up movements of trade, money and commodities, and allow mobility for particular forms of labour. But this apparent change in the meaning of nation state borders should not be taken as a sign of a weakened sovereignty. As political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri emphasise, the restructuring of nation states that has accompanied this process of globalisation has not spelled the end of sovereignty, but, on the contrary, has forced a re-negotiation of the terms of its power (2000). This is a reminder that we now deal with a sovereignty that is no longer confined by the borders of the nation state.

4. Both the longstanding contestation over the legitimacy of Australian sovereignty, and contemporary forms of globalised sovereignty, point to the fact that sovereignty should not be considered a unitary phenomenon. It is possible to imagine different systems of authority that we may want to call sovereignties, and, as theorists of Indigenous sovereignty have pointed out, there are radical cultural differences between white and black understandings of sovereignty and law. Irene Watson, for example, argues that Aboriginal conceptualisations of law differ radically from those originating in the West: "In imposing sovereignty over indigenous laws, the state through military force rapes its way into existence. Creating a sovereignty of violence, and not law. Law is creation. It is song; it is a love of law, and its land and its people; it is all things and in all things. The muldarbi sovereign erases peoples, their memories and ideas of land, in constituting state sovereignty" (Watson, 2002).  

5. So what then is sovereignty? I define sovereignty as a mandated system of authority, rule or control that provides a nodal point for the organisation of political and social relations. Contemporary understandings of sovereignty are in many ways shaped by the Western conception: namely, the perceived right of a monarch or delegated authority to claim a singular, unifying claim to territory and life within a particular domain, and to both organise and exercise legitimised violence. While it is possible to imagine a sovereignty that lays claim to its mandate to rule through a democratic process, contemporary sovereign States cannot, by any means, be said to represent a popular or democratic sovereignty. On the contrary, as the history of white Australian sovereignty patently demonstrates, modern states continue to draw energy from their foundations in annexation, dispossession, violence and blood. The contemporary state embodies many of the generic principles which defined the rule of the western sovereigns of old: centralised decision making; a prerogative to lay claim to resources within borders; the fixture of populations within territorial domains of power; a monopoly exercised over the mechanisms of violence, and the power to legitimate its own violent acts. It is therefore no accident that the schema for sovereignty outlined by Thomas Hobbes in the 17 th Century, remains fresh today:

The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the earth, they may nourish themselves and live contendly; is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon an assembly of men, that may reduce their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own, and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person, shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements, to his judgement (1998: 114).

By and large this logic of legitimation remains in tact within contemporary white sovereignty. And it is this same model of sovereign power that casts a shadow over all other possible forms of geo-political organisation; and increasingly it extends its reach into every territorial and biological region of this planet.

6. It is perhaps appropriate then to turn to the new Australian "anti-terror laws," which appear to rely on the form of sovereign legitimacy described above. In this sense, although the laws have important implications for sovereignty, it should not be thought that they necessarily represent any unprecedented extension of the power of the State. Reaction to crisis through the use of exceptional violence and terror has always been a feature of the history of political States. What is unprecedented though, is the evolution of these powers: we are witnessing an ever-increasing intensification of the governance of population through instruments of force and regulation, arguably to a scale today that has never been seen previously in any era.

7. I believe it is necessary to start by asking a somewhat oblique question of the new "anti-terror" laws:   what does the Australian government plan to do with those who are captured through these new powers?   This is not intended to be a flippant or rhetorical question. Rather it is a reflection of what will no doubt prove to be inevitable: once arrests are made, there will follow questions on how the captured individuals will be dealt with. And questions relating to the legitimate means available to sovereignty - that is, what rights the State evokes in relation to the regulation of the population it governs - will enter public debate. And a number of truly frightening debates have already occurred in relation to this question, both within Australia and overseas. It is possible here to cite two examples, both of which relate to the question of how we deal with those caught within the web of a State-sponsored "anti-terror" action.

8. It was in late 2001 that there emerged public discussion on the use of torture to extract "crucial information" from captured terror suspects, in order to "prevent future attacks." An article by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, disturbingly entitled "Time to Think About Torture," calls for "an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation" (2001; see also Zizek, 2002). Alter goes on to argue that there are grounds for "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical" (2001).   During the same period a group of commentators, including the prominent Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, called for legal statute to bring torture within the regulatory scope of public policy, to ensure accountability for what was in actuality being practiced. The message soon became clear: since torture will be inevitable in these times of crisis, let's start talking now about what we will be allowed to do to captured terror suspects.

9. I raise this because I believe torture has a very important place within the logic of contemporary sovereignty. Importantly, as I will explain soon, if the project of sovereign power has something to do with the management of biological life utilising the simultaneous instruments of "violence" and "care" - force and facilitation - then torture sits precisely at the nexus of these powers.

10. The second debate, which I believe is sharply pertinent to how captured suspects are dealt with, relates to the powers of the State to revoke citizenship. Public discussion has occurred in many countries on the power to denaturalise certain citizens in order to deport them.   In the case of Australia, this debate has previously occurred in relation to the question of how to deal with suspected Nazi war criminals. The context of the Australian debates has more recently shifted to the right to deport "terrorists." The Australian Broadcasting Association reported on the 10 November 2005 that some members of the Federal coalition were "pushing" for the anti-terror legislation to include provisions for stripping citizenship and deporting individuals found to be terrorists (Yaxley, 2005). As Federal Liberal backbencher, Sophie Panopoulos, outlined:   "those found guilty of terrorism should be deported if they have a dual citizenship" (Yaxley, 2005). Another Liberal backbencher, Denis Jensen, expressed concern with the proposal, making the following observation: "What you end up with is two levels of citizenship - one of native-born Australians and other people that are born overseas" (Yaxley, 2005).  

11.   This somewhat alarming public policy discussion on the right to citizenship also happens to provide a powerful clue to the logic underpinning Western sovereignty. It was Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg, who is attributed the phrase "blood and soil," used as a rationale for the expansion of German territories. These two concepts - 'blood and soil' - are in fact immensely important to how we come to understand sovereignty and its relationship to the population it governs. The expression "blood and soil" perfectly describes the functional relationship between sovereign , citizen (and by extension non citizen) and territory : arguably, at least according to the tradition in the West, the concepts are interdependent. Citizenship binds the biological body to the geopolitical presence of sovereignty, and finds its expression in the rights that accrue to those whose biological lineage may be traced to other citizens (see Agamben, 1998: 129-30). Citizenship is an expression of the relationship of the living body to sovereign power. Citizenship coveys 'rights' upon the living body of the citizen and simultaneously delineates the terms by which sovereignty may lay hold of this same living body within the geographic space of its jurisdiction. Biology is important here: particularly given the capacity for citizens to beget other citizens. Citizenship is given as "natural" if you are able to demonstrate a legitimised biological link to the jurisdiction of sovereign power. Although the terms for citizenship in liberal democratic states is normally understood within the context of egalitarianism, the existence of citizenship as a biological birthright demonstrates the underlying blood connection that runs through existing forms of white sovereignty, from totalitarian to democratic.

12. It was Foucault who identified the link between biology and the operations of contemporary power. Foucault observes that traditionally sovereignty was understood only through the use of force: "the sovereign exercised his right of life by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing...The right which was formulated as the "power of life and death" was in reality the right to take life of let live. Its symbol after all, was the sword" (1998: 136). While this traditional understanding of sovereignty as a power to take life and let live remains relevant - indeed the history of the last 100 years provides an overt example of its continued relevance - Foucault suggests that since the "classical age" there has been an important shift in the "mechanisms of power" altering the framework within which sovereignty operates (1998: 136):   the violence of sovereignty is increasingly turned towards an apparently paradoxical concern (or care ) for life. Where traditionally sovereignty found concern only for protecting itself and its own territory, the emerging concern for fostering life found power increasingly focused upon on questions of population . Thus Foucault observes: "Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone, entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity...power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race and the large-scale phenomena of population" (1998: 137).   

13.   It is at this point that Foucault makes an important observation:   "One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death" (1998: 138).   This is a significant step for Foucault, because it is at this point that he identifies what he describes as biopolitics - or a politics focused on questions of life - as an important feature of contemporary relations of power. This means that politics is drawn into debate over the nature of the biological bodies, their vicissitudes and potentialities.   The obvious examples of the emergence of biopolitical rationalities may be found in public debates around euthanasia and abortion, both of which have moved from being properly ethical questions relating to the individual conduct of the self, to publicly political questions that are subject to debate, legislation and the 'conscience vote.' The twentieth century is also littered with examples of biopolitical violence : the genocides and mass exterminations, torture and the camps. Of course the effects of biopower are not by any means limited to these forms of engagement: on the contrary, biopolitics comes to organise a whole field of political relationships, so that a range of social interventions, public health initiatives, community development programs, sport and leisure promotion, are all formed within this framework.

14. What I find startling about this statement - "the power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death" - is that it perfectly describes the specific powers that enable the use of torture as a form of sovereign violence. After all, what else is torture but the capacity to balance a careful violence that stops short of death with forms of care that are designed to resuscitate and heal the prisoner, only so that they are able to be subject to yet further torture? Torture requires both a careful measuring of violence, and attentiveness to the life of the tortured through a regime of care (Wadiwel, 2003). It is no accident that the Chilean torture complexes contained not only personnel trained in the careful infliction of pain, but a whole medical apparatus designed to quickly respond to the consequences of any over-zealous actions within the complex: torture must involve a dual deployment of violence and care. It is for this reason that I would argue that torture sits at the nexus of the powers of contemporary sovereignty: since if sovereignty works within a framework that asks it to both foster life and disallow it to the point of death simultaneously, then surely torture belongs to the very heart of sovereign power as an ever-present possibility.

15. And thus we come back to the question: what is planned for the people that are caught under the Australian anti-terror laws? Although the international community has gone to great lengths in the twentieth century to oppose the practice of torture (as expressed succinctly in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), torture still persists, almost as if there were nothing to formally forbid it. Even those governments which may not practice torture themselves within their own territories are complicit with regimes that are involved in its practice; and further, as is the case with the United States, many nations have been involved with the training of torturers (see du Bois, 1991: 156), and the practice of torture in other jurisdictions. Torture is a ghost that continually visits us, a reminder of a possibility that always remains within the logic of contemporary sovereignty, haunting the apparently benign institutions that we all live with and have come to accept, such as the prison and the camp. The new Australian "anti-terror" laws are certainly extensive, and do not diminish fears that torture may accompany of the exercise of powers legitimised by these laws.  

16. The Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben extends Foucault's analysis of sovereignty and biopolitics, providing at least three observations that I believe are of use here. Firstly, drawing from both Carl Schmitt (1988) and Walter Benjamin (1996), Agamben argues that sovereignty can be defined by the decision upon what is both inside and outside the law: in other words the constitution of exception . This sovereign power of exception is best exemplified in the ban : the power to declare what both exists, yet is forbidden to exist within the legal sphere. The subject of the ban "is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it - at once excluded and included, removed at the same time captured" (Agamben, 1998: 110).

17. Secondly , this same power to ban, to declare the exception, defines the relationship between sovereign power and the population it seeks to govern. Agamben says that those that inhabit a space of exception are constituted as what he describes as bare life : a life that is devoid of a cultural dimension, and is reduced to the mere fact of its biological existence. Once again, we should be reminded here of the victim of torture, who is literally brought to the threshold of life and death by the torturer; and in this regard it is significant that Agamben points to the concentration camp as the premier site for this bare existence. Torture may be understood within this Agambenian frame as the concentrated production of life as a threshold , as a point of indistinction between fact and law, politics and life, life and death. The torturer "goes to work" on the body of the tortured, and uses violence as a means to progressively strip the world of the tortured, and reconstitute the being of the tortured strictly within a space where political questions are posed in terms of biological life (questions such as will the prisoner be able to withstand torture?   How can we aid the recovery of the prisoner so that he or she may be able to withstand further torture? How much will the prisoner be able to take?). The camp, which exists as a the limited field upon which the bios of life is captured, is therefore that space that enacts the wearing down of life, a factory for the "fabrication of corpses," a process which, if not actually describable by the word "torture," remains analogous with it. In a striking statement, Agamben states, "Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West" (1998: 181).

18. This leads us back to the question of biopolitics, where Agamben makes his third important contribution to understanding the genealogy of contemporary sovereignty. Where Foucault argues that biopolitics is a relatively new phenomena, Agamben suggests that this structure of politics has a deep and long-standing history, arguing: "Western politics is a bio-politics from the very beginning" (1998: 181; see also Agamben, 2004).

19. Agamben's statement points to a fundamental assumption that structures our relationship to the political question: namely that it is impossible to imagine politics without biopolitics; community without reference to questions of biological population. And this, of course, leads us back to the implacable concept of "blood and soil," and the seemingly intractable link between politics and questions of life, race and population. The logic of citizenship reflects the limited basis upon which we understand membership and participation within politics. After all if the business of politics is merely to generate exception - or to put it bluntly, decide on who is in and out - and further to make decisions by consulting the arbitrary referents of birth, race and biology, then we indeed have an impoverished basis upon which to negotiate social relationships.

20. What then are the key messages we can draw about sovereignty and terrifying age we find ourselves thrown into? If we follow Agamben, then what we are witnessing is not entirely new.   If sovereignty rests upon a power of exception, exercised through a capacity to both "foster life and disallow it to the point of death," then we should not necessarily be surprised by the events of the last few years, since they have arguably only highlighted what was always inherent to State power: namely an immense capacity for biopolitics, violence and exception.

21. But this does not mean that we haven't seen any change in the powers of sovereignty. We have been witness to some extraordinary events over the last decade, which in many ways have only extended the capacity sovereignty to meet its stated aims. The armed campaign against Afghanistan in 2001 is in many respects an example of the extended capacity. This campaign involved both violence and life giving as integral strategies: the US government deployed not only an unrelenting barrage of explosives and incendiaries, but also 'dropped' humanitarian aid in the form of food and medical supplies. This somewhat perplexing operation, where humanitarian aid was delivered almost literally one payload in advance of an extreme violence, is explicable when one considers the biopolitical face of violence - the capacity to both foster and diminish life - as well as the monstrous capacity of sovereignty for exception. There is arguably an evolution of the powers of sovereignty here. The key elements are still present - biopolitics, violence, and exception - but sovereignty exercises this capacity with an unprecedented vigour and with an ever increasing, almost clinical, accuracy. We should of course acknowledge advancements in the technology of warfare here: which have enabled the deployment of both incendiary and food parcel with equal precision.   All of this does not bode well for the future, since there will be fewer routes of escape for those caught in the gaze of the warring sovereign, and fewer avenues of hope for those who are subject to sovereign violence.

22. The apparently perennial and intractable existence of biopolitical sovereignty does not foreclose resistance to our plunge into the politics of terror:   there is, of course, immense value in engaging in continued critical and tactical opposition to the extension of State violence and coercion. But I believe that we must move beyond public debate over civil liberties and rights and be prepared to challenge the deep links between sovereignty and the forms of violence and politics that we have inherited. This calls for questions to be asked that are by nature non-synchronous with the timing of much contemporary politics. We must be prepared to question the usefulness of the concept of citizenship, and oppose its overdetermination of the terms for participation within public politics. This also means being prepared to not only ask questions about the legitimacy of the detention centre or the camp, but also the prison, the police and the court. We must be open to the idea that other forms of sovereignty contest the legitimacy of the State, and hold the promise of future political organisation that does not know of the relentless violence we have inherited today.

23.   This all points to a long-term task: to rethink the way in which we do politics, and find a more productive basis upon which to engage in political relations with others. The last 5 years have demonstrated the immense negativity of politics that is inseparable from the blood, where the only questions worth asking appear to be who is in or who is out; about what sections of the populace we wish to place in spaces of exclusion within the borders of our territory, and those we wish to send away. Surely we must ask, won't this paranoiac 'enemy within / enemy without' logic continue to devour us unless we are able to find a way to unthink it?


Dinesh Wadiwel currently lectures at the University of Western Sydney. Dinesh has contributed previously to Borderlands in Vol. 1 No. 2 and Vol. 3 No. 2.


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