Some paradoxes and indirect genealogies of Asian sovereignties

Résumé / AbstractThe paper is focused on differential mechanisms of gendering and on subjectivation in the context of nation-building and the establishing of sovereignty. The western hegemonic pattern of sovereignty doesn’t seem to fit the histories and genealogies of sovereignties found in Asia, which have to do with different ways of subjectivation and also with the strongly established Asian option of eschewing subjectivation. The examination of early Buddhism (as a starting point of the non-subjectivity option) as a major example analysed raises epistemological questions as to the subject/object relationship within the western episteme, i.e. regarding the distribution of roles between the subject of theory with western ascendance and its object in non-European countries. Contemporary configurations of “governance” in Asia are then brought into the picture and compared to older figures of sovereignty. The two somehow coexist.


The linguistic turn in philosophy has been very important and innovative: it allowed us to reconsider the role of language in thinking, in subjectivation, to reassess the self-attributed centricity of the west as well as to try to re-evaluate western philosophy as such, among other things. It allows the philosopher and her discipline to put themselves into question without sacrificing the critical function of reflection. It lets one see the benefits and shortcomings – bundled in the same package – of the partaking of reason (partage de la raison[2]). As will be seen further, “Indian” philosophies, in a different history of ideas and different conditions, had had their own linguistic turn very early with Buddhism (sixth century before the common era), i.e. at least a thousand years before Europe. This proved to be a risk to philosophy as the latter is understood in the west – and indeed  “Indian” philosophies have taken different courses from there, being oriented to a great extent to contemplation methods and aims of deliverance. This is also the reason why they have generally not been recognised as philosophy by more classic or academic western philosophic approaches. Most importantly, the linguistic turn has enabled them, as it will allow western philosophy in the XIXth-XXth centuries (I think of Wittgenstein at the latest) not only to question the ego, not only not to build a metaphysics of the subject, but also to cultivate uncertainty about the ability of language to say everything. And this function, relatively absent from western antiquity (although Foucault’s philosophical archaeology restores it through a certain philosophical therapy[3]), has allowed the establishment of a mechanism for a fluid sharing (partage) of reason without closing it: so much so that the question of “delay” (by which it is said that the political subjectivation of women or of the colonised is lagging behind) is not an issue any more. Or that it could be reversed if the exercise were to amuse us (but in this case, concerning a western delay in the linguistic turn, not that of the « Orient » with regard to modernity). Indeed, the Buddhist linguistic turn (coming in a series but starting with the Buddha), is a sort of a very early south Asian modernity. If there is no delay of women or of the colonised with regard to modernity, it is because the standard for the latter was established arbitrarily from a position of hegemonic domination by western modernity. It is the rule of the game that dictates who is late, but the rule of the game itself has never been established by consensus. It is arbitrary. It is the specificity of reason not to recognise the partage. The fact is that the dynamics of sharing/partaking/partage of reason, advancing through bifurcations and making choices at each step, is inevitable. It is how reason proceeds. It becomes unbearable and normative as soon as it stops anywhere to designate two opposite concepts as definitive. It clogs thinking. It necessarily produces a cleavage and an “untranslatable”.

Not being political subjects and citizens, not to have a political project, that is what complements the fiasco of any unsuccessful modernity, be it seen in time (as antiquity), in space (as colonies) or in eternity (as women): it was therefore necessary to institutionalise this failure in order to maintain the privileges of those who would have everything to lose if other agencies were to arise, were to become citizens, especially since they had already lost some subjects (such as slaves or colonies).

It is as if there were an insistence and inertia or fear with regard to any complementarity and balance in dominant human forms: one fears to open up to others because one would see one’s position threatened. But in fact, it is only by the closure, by isolationism and through the vital priority that one destines to oneself, through hyper-autoimmunity, that one can make this balance perilous by enclosing[4]. Within an open and living system, exchange is not dangerous, since life itself is necessarily made thereof, and indeed so is culture. It is through an excess of self and through self-foundation that one censors oneself by making oneself the absolute representative of the other who is forbidden of subjectivity and of effective and direct citizenship, although the latter are in principle and formally recognised through the alleged universality of rights.

In my examples, I have been interested in the mechanisms of gendering and in subjectivation in the context of nation building. The latter is constituted in part through sexual norms, as much as it reproduces them. It also necessarily brings our attention to the differential subjectivation and citizenship of women and men as much as that of the colonised and of settlers, while one theoretically tries to keep away from essentialising gender or racial identities. Because gender is also this: a relationship between two (or more) extreme terms that cannot be defined without remainder (but which lend themselves constantly to it in any normative attempt). I would add that the fact that « the woman » does not exist and that we cannot define the « feminine » does not mean, as some philosophers have wanted us to believe[5], that there is no sense in supporting subjectivation in women, or their citizenship, despite all episodes of post-modern theories of the « death of the subject » and despite the biopolitical and disciplinary aspects included in subjectivation, as Foucault has shown us. Unfortunately, if one avoids subjectivation because the subject would be an authoritarian posture (which it certainly is …), one is generally caught up by communalism/ communitarianism and deprives oneself of any political instrument aimed at improving social or political conditions. At the same time, i do not forget that politics remains in the field of immanence within subjugation and that it betrays both the political (le politique) as well as life: both of these are struggling in that predisposed horizon of immanence. But should one refrain from any action because of the inevitability of self-immunisation in all directions, as some readings of Foucault would have us believe[6]? Or can we meet the challenge of reason that does not let itself be tamed because it is not recognized as such – the reason of the colonised, of women, slaves, of Romas etc.? It is challenging to see some constitution of citizenship and subjectivity even where they have been historically rejected and denied by a stronger reason.

Buddhism is one of the great agents of important successive globalisations. There was a first turning point in Indian philosophies with the appearance of Buddhism itself: it is the decisive and astoundingly early linguistic turn of Indian philosophy (6th century BCE). Its second turning point, now a turn within Buddhism itself, was a theoretical turn[7] (a theorisation of the previous linguistic turn, from the 2nd century of the CE), which also accompanied a complex and progressive disappearance of Buddhism from India and its migrations over the Asian continent. Those migrations and transformations of a worldview, bases of renewed and varied cosmopolitical imaginaries, have made Buddhism a common and unifying factor for vast Asian cultural and geopolitical regions, from South to East Asia, though not exactly for the whole of Asia and not necessarily implying an entity “Asia”, which only appears as the other of Colonial and imperial Europe. Buddhism’s third turn comes in the middle of the 20th century as a political turn (not that it had not been political before; but this time this has been acknowledged by a world-wide public sphere). The « untouchables », now called « Dalits « , make use of it in the 20th century and beyond in India, as a means of getting out of their political subjection and in order to snatch Buddhism from appropriation by Hinduism. They therefore refute the idea that the Buddha should be an incarnation of Višnu and construct social and political projects based on Buddhism. These are paradoxical sovereignties of a kind. They demand modern civic equality, justice and their own subjectifying « empowerment », and they snatch it. Likewise in other Asian countries[8]. Since the thirties, in the projects of independence of a still British India, the question of universalism or of separate constituencies for separate electorates and communities was posed. The British legacy offered the latter option, abhorred by Mahatma Gandhi, who also fell victim to the idea. Another father of the nation, Ambedkar, later author of the Constitution, wished separate constituencies for the masses of « untouchables » but failed to enforce it for them. He wanted positive discrimination in favour of the most vulnerable. In the fifties, shortly before his death, Dr. Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism with several hundred Dalits. Buddhism is supposed to be the « religion » which prohibits discrimination. The political career of Buddhism in India begins and is pursued elsewhere in Asia, whatever the judgment on its success[9]. This stage is parallel to the fourth turning point, namely the late spread of Buddhism towards the west that we have witnessed, although the latter cannot compare, by its magnitude, with its ancient conquest of regions of vast areas of East Asia.

This fourth movement of Buddhism, also in the twentieth century (in some form since early Romanticism), is more diffuse: it is the late migration of Buddhisms towards the west and their taking root, mainly as yoga, as alternative therapies and alternative civilisational choices or political options, linked with anti-war, ecological movements etc. This corresponds on the one hand to a certain idealization of the « east » and, in particular, to the important and now verifiable failures of colonisation, imperialism, international aid, humanitarian efforts, conversion to « democracy »[10] by the force of arms and exporting western models. Certainly, in the wake, other religions of Asia and elsewhere followed. Along with this transfer of « oriental wisdom », there is, in the opposite direction, the rejection of the same by the west, on the basis already described of a supposed western superiority[11]. Yet within Asia, Buddhism remained pervaded by active politics of peace and resistance[12].

In rejecting doctrines coming from the « east » as un-theoretical or un-philosophical, there is convergence between the first depreciation of any speculation inherent in the linguistic turn of early Buddhism and the fact that these philosophies postulate that there is no subject and that they do not theorize the split between subject and object, which all serve as a welcome pretext; but there is also the later cleavage operated by western modernity, that inhabited the colonial enterprise and constructed our knowledge.


Buddhism plays a singular role in « cultural » globalisations, and develops special and long-lasting transnational imaginaries. Despite contacts with the Mediterranean and with Europe since antiquity as well as later through the Muslim world, on the one hand Buddhism doesn’t spread westward beyond Bamiyan[13] and Bactria before the twentieth century. And, secondly, an onirical, imagined “west” shall be, without any historical reference, correspondence or experience, the fictional place where the « pure lands’ » paradisiacal utopia of Mahāyāna Buddhism will be located, unaccompanied by attempts to exportation, and possibly prohibited by the fixed imagination from any exploration[14]. “Pure lands” are located in an imaginary west which is not investigated, lest the magic disappear. Such an imaginary west is the absolute or transcendent “other” from our world, east and west included. It does not respond to the colonial binary of east and west, where Asia is Europe’s Other, unknown to itself as such[15]. Geographic east and west are not an operational opposition, and there is a long tradition, since the philosopher Nâgârjuna at the beginning of the CE, of deconstructing binaries.


From there, the whole of Asia is imbued with the sense of anachronism of being expressed so accurately and so exquisitely in Buddhism[16].


As Asia emerges, we are now at a crossroads of changing paradigms, from sovereignty to governmentality. Opposing the two is a false dilemma. Nowadays the latter (governmentality) is very much formally embedded in the former (sovereignty). Sovereignty is officially maintained, although weakened through devolution or outsourcing of some of its institutions and functions. Sovereignty has transformed many of its features in its epochal shift to Asia. It is not disappearing altogether, nor is the nation, but it has faded in places like Europe and with old hegemonies. It has absorbed governance. The national state has changed its forms and functionalities too within the new international configuration. Governance now operates without the social, political, cultural, symbolic mediation, without intermediaries, without the unfolding of time, without representation (or outside formal mechanisms of representation that in principle do exist in the political apparatus) as they had formerly been practiced by sovereignty, and it works in politically opaque ways. In this sense, its effect is always very brutal in its verticality. We can see nowadays the limits of the patterns of sovereignty and representation, and at the same time their rising importance in emerging Asian countries.  In European continental philosophy, sovereignty and representation have been the vital basis of autonomy as warranty for citizenship and for a stately dominion that has also been exported outside Europe with the nation through colonialism. Colonial history unfolds diverse temporalities, which are in complex relationships with one another.

Western modernity introduced an interruption with their own past, with the histories of their concepts and their own epistemologies for colonized continents. Citizenship belongs to the ensemble of sovereignty-and-of-continuity marked by western modernity and in conjunction with the nation. And citizenship is a palliative intermediary for dispossessed subjects dreaming of a direct connection to power, state or god. But sovereignty, subject and citizenship are not the only possible historic scenario; they are originally the European, then western, then “western” script. They are one of many historic options, even as the form called state has (practically) prevailed. It is under the regime of sovereignty, of individualism and of subjectivity that the political space used to unfold, and not under that of governmentality and governance. The latter have no use for the subject, except formal, a stand by which any change of paradigm is refuted and swept under the carpet, but not in favour of plurality: this reduction is done in the name of continuity of the dominant model. When today the pattern of governance comes to “supplant” or rather to complete that of sovereignty, on the one hand we’ll remember that governance and biopolitics have had their very first experiments in the colonies through the rudiments of “welfare” politics. Something of that Asian (and more generally extra-european) adventure is inscribed in their history.


And on the other hand, sovereignty and governmentality come to be inoculated to conceptual environments, such as the “Indian” or the “Chinese” one, that had chosen from antiquity not to privilege the subject, especially not the individual subject, not to install a sovereignty theory and, in the Indian case, not even to develop effective sovereignty etc[17].
In those « governances » now imbedded in new or renewed proud and arrogant national sovereignties such as are flourishing in Asia and are supported by the interstatal international system, there is of course no reference to the Athenian antiquity, no political vocabulary privileging relationship and citizenship, no centralizing and universalizing French Revolution. We need to acknowledge other and complementary genealogies and imaginaries for the new sovereignties of the 21st century and all they imply. European references have proved to be insufficient to explain Asian sovereignties of late capitalism[18].

Several great schools of Asian philosophy such as Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and even in a way Brahmanism or Hinduism (though here the situation is somewhat different than in the first three[19]) – do not conceive of sovereignty. This does not prevent Asia from having uncompromising state sovereignties-cum-governance today. On the way from sovereignty to governance, the national state does not quite correspond to its territory any more. While the sovereignty paradigm maintains (formally) some kind of ideal democratic horizon for the political individual, governmentality replaces it with direct management, with governance without mediation or the coordination of public space and “civil society”. In other words, without any intervention of manas [mind], the material intellectual/ideal dimension (manas normally bridges the gap subject-object).


How does radical postcolonial philosophy integrate projects of governmentality/governance, how are the latter concepts transplanted and shaped by schools of thought that had chosen in their notable development until the moment of interruption by western modernity – not to construct a subject or sovereignty? Western modernity introduces continuity for itself, discontinuities for others. The Subalternists therefore speak of alternative modernities or histories. But as governance now functions even outside the scope of western type sovereignty, the question is whether the wilful rejection of the concepts of sovereignty and corresponding policies and of a related subject does not enhance oppression? And what are now, in today’s Asian great sovereignties, the appropriate mechanisms of defence and collective resistance?

If we go back to the early and amazing linguistic turn in Buddhism, which was also a linguistic turn of sorts for most “Indian” philosophies and much of the Asian ones (albeit regarding very diverse languages and thinking systems) thanks to the scepticism it introduces into a “direct” material perception of things, we see a very rich and complex picture. It opens up unexpected scenarios (unexpected for any “western” philosophy). Here we have attempts at letting go the ego, not constructing an (individual) subjectivity, of renouncing bhûmi  – the soil as both material support for the mind and consciousness and as possession, appropriation, clinging, attachment, both material and emotional. We have dispossession of the self and a very strong ideal of de-sovereignty, functional to the ideal of deliverance in the meditative line of thinking. We can also verify the reluctance of building sovereignty theories, to which probably the ancient aśvamedha myths, and stories of kings and dynasties in the Purânas do not correspond. On the other hand, the present national sovereignties in Asia, enhanced by the continent’s economic emergence, go directly for governance without much mediation (except in India) of democratic procedures or without an introductory period and the long periods that Europe had to undergo in its history between sovereignty and governmentality. The immediacy and extreme rapidity of it all has a specific quality of violence about itself. There seems to be therefore a new and peculiar gap not yet much observed, which concerns Asia and the specific way it is building up its nations and nationalism in the period 60 years after the liberatory nationalisms of the first decolonisation. On the one hand, the sovereignty of the liberated contemplating individual, the one who meditates and does not attach herself to material goods, points towards a desired sovereignty of the mind and in the mind, perhaps from the mind. It abhors “worldly” sovereignty that concerns goods, property, adherence, belonging, identity and, by extension, the nation or the state. On the other hand, the sovereignty linked with the will to power, to possession, to the nation, to the state. For each of them, the other option is not a life worth living: either life without association with power, or life associated with power. The sovereignty meant in either is very different. But one cannot avoid thinking that, in many life-stories, as part of many if not most cultures in Asia, the two survive even in one and the same individual much as the “two levels of truth” in Buddhism. Truth in the ordinary sense is not contradicted by transcendent truth, but is absorbed in it as a necessary passage. Cultural conventions allow and encourage individuals, like in the vanaprastha period of the aśramas[20], to retire from the world and live at its brink, divested of greed, needs and power[21] and horrified by “the plain possibility of the world governed by the depraved triumvirate of power, survival instinct and greed”[22].






[1] A full length presentation of these ideas appears in R. Iveković, L’éloquence tempérée du Bouddha. Souverainetés et dépossession de soi, Paris, Klincksieck 2013.

[2] Partage de la raison is a French expression (separating/sharing reason), of which I use the French word partage in other languages, because it does not translate very well but is extraordinarily effective in French. It means two opposite things at the same time, incompossibilities necessarily coming together in a package. I sometimes translate it as partaking, but it actually means both sharing and dividing.

[3] FOUCAULT Michel (2001), L’Herméneutique du sujet. Cours au Collège de France. 1981-1982, Paris, Hautes Etudes – Gallimard – Seuil.

[4] ESPOSITO Roberto (2002), Immunitas. Protezione Negazione e della vita, Torino, Einaudi.

ESPOSITO Roberto (2004), BIOS. Biopolitica e filosofia, Torino, Einaudi.

[5] MEZZADRA Sandro (2004), « The borders of citizenship », REPUBLIC, RHETORIC AND POLITICS. Roman and Italian Political Cultures and Contemporary Debates. VAKAVA DOCTORAL COURSE AT VILLA LANTE, Rome, 25-28 October, 2004, manuscript.

[6] See the critique by Mezzadra, op. cit.

[7] I cannot go into details of Indian philosophy here. Iveković, R. Iveković, L’éloquence tempérée du Bouddha, op. cit. Paragraphs from two, chapters  MÉTAMORPHOSES ET MIGRATIONS DES BOUDDHISMES and  ANĀTMAN : C’EST [À] QUEL SUJET ?, have been reproduced here, translated by me.

[8] Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Tibet (including Tibetans in exile in India and elsewhere), Thailand, Cambodia and other countries have regularly been the theatre of a political enacting, display as well as instrumentalising of Buddhism in the 20th century. However, like other religions, Buddhism can be associated with more obscure political drives; the association of Nichiren Buddhism with Japanese imperial expansionism should not be dismissed.

[9] Dr. B.R. AMBEDKAR, The Buddha and his Dhamma, (1965), accessed on march 18, 2012;  Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of caste, Delhi, Critical Quest 2007, also:;  Pankaj MISHRA, An End to Suffering. The Buddha in the World, London, Picador 2004.

[10] Tomaž Mastnak, « Le retour du peuple ; The Return of the people », Transeuropéennes,  February 18, 2011,

[11] In rejecting doctrines coming from the  « east » there is convergence between the first depreciation of any speculation inherent in the linguistic turn of early Buddhism and the fact that these philosophies postulate that there is no subject, do not theorize the split between subject and object, which serve as a welcome pretext; but there is also the later cleavage operated by western modernity, that inhabited the colonial enterprise and constructed our knowledge.

[12] This is not to forget other more sombre and harmful political usages of Buddhism.

[13] But other knowledges do travel westwards, such as mathematics or astronomy. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Harlow (Essex), Penguin 2005, pp. 28-29 ; 178.

[14] For an “indo-chinese” attempt to escape the dichotomy induced by the western mirror and to enter unmediated, direct relationships, CHANG Tsong-Zung, “Preface to ‘West Heavens: Readers of Current Indian Thought’”, http://westheavens.nrt/en/category/researches/readings, accessed on Dec. 8, 2011.

[15] Naoki Sakai, « Le genre, enjeu politique et langage du nationalisme postcolonial japonais »  (“Area Studies and Postcolonial Shame”), Cahiers du genre n° 50 « Genre, modernité et ‘colonialité’ du pouvoir”, 2011.

[16] Yasuo Kobayashi, Le Cœur/La Mort : De l’anachronisme de l’Être, Collection UTCP 4, Université de Tokyo 2007.

[17] Appart from the fact that sovereignty is always a misconception, because it hides the fact of its arbitrary axiom, the foundation being – that there is no foundation.

[18] R. Iveković, “The watershed of Modernity: translation and the epistemological revolution” in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 11 Issue 1, March 2010 pp. 45-63 (Routledge, Taylor & Frances), ; « La révolution épistémologique nécessaire », La rose de personne/La rosa di nessuno, 5/2010, pp. 213-224 ; “Politiques de la philosophie à partir de la modernité”, Transeuropéennes 6 nov. 2009, (paper available also in English); “Subjectivation, traduction, justice cognitive”, Rue Descartes n. 67/2010, “Quel sujet du politique?” dirigé par  G. Basterra, R. Iveković, B. Manchev, pp. 43-50.

[19] See the brahmanistic concept of svayambhū (which can also be buddhist), meaning sovereign, independent, self-generated, self-standing. It refers to self-origination and is self-referential.

[20] Aśramas are the brahmanic ideal “stages of life” of which vanaprastha, “staying in the woods” is the last one, when a sage retires to the forest (at best, accompanied by his wife to serve him) 

[21] Sudhir Kakar, A Book of Memory. Confessions and Reflections, Viking – Penguin India 2011.

[22] Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus project (with photographs by Velibor Božović), Picador 2008.