Joseph Owen — Details, Details, Details: Carl Schmitt’s Borderline Critique of Anticipation

This essay has been peer-reviewed by “Frictionless Sovereignty” special issue editor (Ryan Bishop), and the b2o: An Online Journal editorial board.


by Joseph Owen

“[A] borderline concept is not a vague concept, but one pertaining to the outermost sphere. This definition of sovereignty must therefore be associated with a borderline case and not with routine.”

–Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

Carl Schmitt’s famous formulation, “[s]overeign is he who decides on the exception”, has several key components (2005: 5). Schmitt argues that the sovereign shows himself by making the genuine and pure decision, which amounts to some kind of formal revelation, and by deciding what constitutes the exceptional case, which amounts to some kind of extraordinary substantive moment. The decision on what counts as, and therefore what to do about, the exception occurs during states of emergency, peril, siege, catastrophe, urgency, need, or crisis, at a time that requires suspension of the existing order to maintain structural order. The sovereign, in these instances, acts as the borderline; he is both inside and outside of the law, deploying the extralegal exception against the routine accumulation of legal rules and norms. In lineal language, this accumulation is the excess of faintly illustrated lines, symptomatic of political liberalism, which the firmly inscribed borderline supersedes. At the outermost sphere and in the most extreme circumstance: there and then the superior exception explains the inferior rule. In the revelatory and extraordinary decision, the sovereign is made visible. We see through the haze of plurality; we see, finally, who decides.

Schmitt’s absolutist rendering of the line establishes the moment of sovereignty as a moment without friction. Sovereign decision overwhelms un-sovereign indecision. Norms, rules, and the usual order, which in everyday life possess their own internal contingencies and frictions, offer no resistance. His theory of sovereignty pursues a frictionless and transcendent action, by way of an abrasive and aesthetic abstraction. The border causes friction by definition. Schmitt uses the Kantian term Grenzbegriff, which suggests the limit or boundary inherent to human sense experience. He establishes a mutually comprehensible idea to articulate his theory of sovereignty. As Tracy B. Strong notes, this limit or boundary “looks in two directions, marking the line between that which is subject to law—where sovereignty reigns—and that which is not—potentially the space of the exception” (2005: xiii).

Schmitt’s borderline concept exposes frictionless sovereignty as an oxymoron, because the frictionless exception overwhelms that which is subject to law. It erases all other lines—over which sovereignty reigns—through its inscription of the hard line. It also exposes frictionless sovereignty as a redundancy, because it represents a desirable ideal—potentially the space of the exception—as an unattainable imaginary. These apparent contradictions arise from the fact that norms predicate the existence of the exception, so the moral or aesthetic preference for the exception must incorporate the general ubiquity of norms. One cannot exist without the other. The sovereign decision should be understood as both a spatial and temporal intervention. Definite but impermanent, omniscient but imperceptible, the decision cannot be anticipated before its appearance. It has no past but the torpor it explodes; no future but the memory of its decisive moment. For Schmitt, the borderline, which locates the exact place and moment of friction, produces the frictionless decision.


Schmitt’s reverence for the sovereign decision within the political domain is borne of a particular historical moment in Germany. There were twenty separate coalitions during Weimar, with the longest period of government lasting two years. His anxiety about open-ended deliberation speaks to this political landscape. Schmitt deems the contemporary theory of law as both a “deteriorated […] normativism [and] a degenerate decisionism”, which produces “a formless mixture, unsuitable for any structure” (2005: 3). He wanted to delineate legal form and have the German state modify putatively liberal texts such as the Versailles Treaty and the Weimar Constitution to allow for decisive political action. According to him, degenerate compromise must be sacrificed for the pure decision, which cuts through legal formlessness and decomposition, while rendering new demarcations and delineations.

For Schmitt, the unanticipated wins the day. His sovereign decision takes its unique authority from the fact that “the precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of an extreme emergency of how it is to be eliminated” (2005: 6–7). The unanticipated emergency thus requires the unanticipated decision, which eliminates the emergency. Its authority is predicated on suddenness, absolute insight, and pure revelation, which transcends hopeful fortune-telling and prescient formula. Schmitt acts against what he sees as the essence of political liberalism: the ineffective institutional modus operandi that runs contrary to natural political behavior. In his view, what defines much of liberal democratic politics is the temporal desire for pre-emptive policies, established contingencies, and the overriding ability to anticipate. The obsessive need for planning and precision produces suffused and complicated procedures that amount to vague, gestural and meaningless politics.

In both Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, Schmitt sees the burgeoning practice of political liberalism as necessarily one of interminable conversation and limitless discussion. The Second Reich’s tense hybrid of autocratic and popular rule, which is followed by the incipient parliamentary democracy of the interwar period, deformed and sullied the genuine sovereign decision through the eternal stream of amendments, diktats, regulations, rules, and norms. In their most abstract form, these processes can be understood as the excess of lines, whose multiplicities accumulate to produce an image beyond politically effective action and distinction. The decision on how to eliminate the extreme emergency is one of erasing these faint, illustrative lines and replacing them with the ultimate line, the borderline. The sovereign ability to take the lives of lineaments inflicts mass death upon complicated lineal excess, which in turn restores meaningful political identity through a single, firm inscription. Schmitt’s critique of liberalism is predicated on the elimination of lines; this trope features throughout his work, starting in his early culture critiques.


Published in 1918 in the journal SUMMA, edited by the essayist Franz Blei, “The Buribunks” is exemplary of Schmitt’s literary fiction. At its centre are perpetual diary-keepers whose sole purpose is to obsessively document the present, so as to preclude the uncertain future. The article is seventeen pages of imaginative speculation, published on the cusp of two eras, as the desultory Kaiserreich made way for the democratic promise of the Weimar republic. It satirizes and ironizes the putatively liberal tendency of the historical moment: futile anticipation of the political event. This tendency is what the sovereign decision on the exception, theorised four years later in Political Theology (1922), negates and overwhelms. Schmitt’s early literary works locate the problem of sovereign authority; his major political works intend to remedy it. In “The Buribunks”, he ridicules the process of accumulating details, which he assigns to the world of legal positivism, the juridical landscape with which he was closely acquainted. In Political Theology, he theorizes sovereignty as the borderline, which satisfies his cravings for political clarity and visibility; it provides the effective counterpoint to the liberal politics of dense accumulation and hazy pluralism.

Schmitt’s literary and political approaches draw on aesthetic sensibilities. Modernisms, as contemporary aesthetic modes, likewise consider questions of sovereignty through satire, irony, and ridicule. Schmitt participated in the cultural tumult of the early twentieth century. He read and critically appraised writers as varied as Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Hugo Ball, and Wyndham Lewis. Placing Schmitt amid literary modernisms that precede and follow him is a more complicated task; it relies on a broader theoretical apparatus. Critics such as Peter Bürger have connected Schmitt’s desire for the exception to “an aestheticist Lebensphilosophie”, which reveals modernist motifs of abruptness, suddenness, and departure in his thought (1992: 434). Yet, Schmitt’s borderline is a complex force; it is not merely a cipher for rupture, discontinuity, and shock. His necessarily imprecise and undetailed exception provides a challenge for literary modernisms, in which anticipation is often forlorn and lineaments are uncertain. Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty is a product of his cravings for legal order within social disorder, for decision over discussion, and for establishing pure images within chaotic political forms. He moves from being a cultural to a political thinker through his fictions, which should be read against a range of modernist writers. Problems arising from aesthetics can be brought into potentially political formulations, which offer solutions apprehended through the unique effects of literature.

Considering Schmitt’s text “The Buribunks”, this article argues how Schmitt’s coterminous critique—of the accumulation of detail, and of the anticipation of the event—reveals tendencies towards modernism in his ideological anti-liberalism. It outlines the aesthetic sensibilities of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty and how these inform his resurgent intellectual and academic popularity, expressing also his kinship to contemporary philosophical modernisms. Considering examples of anticipation and sovereignty in the works of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Samuel Beckett, this article proposes that in “The Buribunks” Schmitt employs a modernist critique, or a form of critique that anticipates legacies of modernism, to comprehend the inherent follies of political liberalism. For Schmitt, the forlorn accumulation of details, understood as the excess of lines, produces a foolhardy state of anticipation. His theory of sovereignty, understood as the borderline, intends to eliminate this state.


Schmitt elaborates on the sovereign decision through appeals to form and analogy. He cannot create a political concept without turning to the language of rendering and line drawing. Schmitt simultaneously critiques liberalism and advocates decisive sovereignty by evoking lines and spaces between the lines. This echoes contemporary modernist theory. In Paul Klee’s pedagogical sketches, for example, medial lines function within a work of art. They also delineate areas on a map, showing terrain, territories and land mass. Necessarily free, abstract and meandering, the movement of the active line gives birth to space. When hardened, the active is inscribed as the medial line, constructing boundaries and borders. These limits mark both figurative and literal planes, generating geometric and representational areas (1968: 16–20; see also de Bruyn 2014). The transformation of the line, one that moves from the purely aesthetic to the potentially political, and from play to utility, is significant for Schmitt through to his later work on Nomos and Raum (see Schmitt 2003; 2019).

Sybille Krämer considers the concept of the line through multiple spatial and temporal configurations. The existence of lines broadly “depends on the phenomenon of the plane” and their drawing incorporates “the temporal succession of a gesture [which] becomes the spatial simultaneity of a mark”. This speaks to Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, in which the imposition of the borderline creates the symbolic space that surrounds it. This symbolic space can be understood as the phenomenon of the plane; the temporal succession of norms, meanwhile, produces the conditions within which the exceptional mark of the borderline eventually appears. Schmitt’s borderline is deliberately visible and multifaceted. It is simultaneously an act of inscription and of erasure, a single firm stroke that effaces innumerable faint etchings. Krämer describes the components of the silhouette in a way reminiscent of the borderline, insofar as both forge distinctions and suggest motion. The silhouette functions as “an instrument of metamorphosis” and as “a medium of transmission and transgression” (2016: 10-17). Schmitt, too, employed the silhouette form in his early literary critiques. So, to formulate Schmitt’s borderline as a purely political entity—one of norms and exceptions, only—is to ignore its irreducibly aesthetic sensibilities.

Schmitt cannot resist what he calls “systematic analogy” when invoking the theological precepts for his political concepts. Memorably, he states that the miracle in theology corresponds to the exception in politics. Metaphors he deems less valuable merely “yield colourful symbols and pictures” (2005: 37). At unpredictable times, according to Schmitt, “the power of real life breaks through the crust of mechanism that has become torpid by repetition” (2005: 15). This formulation, one of disputably Nietzschean provenance, does not preclude anticipation of the decisive event. The crusting of the mechanism, which supresses or undoes some vital element of human life, functions as a dulled anticipatory image. Visible through their density and accumulation, the excess of rules and norms reveals the torpor of political liberalism. Within the mass of procedures, little can be discerned or clarified because of the surplus of lines. This is what the metaphor of the exception acts against: details, details, details. Schmitt craves the elimination of these details, which paradoxically articulates their visibility. To transpose these details into lines—into the torpid repetitions that reveal the crusted mechanism—is to anticipate, through the formation of a dense image, the apparently unanticipated exception.


Schmitt both embraces and rejects the aesthetic domain in his political theory, which inspires a broader inspection of aesthetics in his thought. George Kateb writes persuasively on the frictions between aestheticism and morality within Schmitt’s concept of the political, arguing that to advocate senseless fighting in an abstract agon is to tend towards an aestheticized understanding of politics. Schmitt’s reluctant cravings for form, line and analogy in his theory of sovereignty are thus suggestive of Kateb’s tripartite classification:

      1. a craving for form, shape, shapeliness, definition, or definiteness; a craving for coherence or unity; a craving for purity or consistency; a craving for discernible identity and ease of identification; a craving for pattern; a craving for clarification or sharp boundaries and stark contrasts; a craving for dualism or bipolarity;
      2. a craving for style, for stylization; a craving for decorum, for comme il faut; a craving for suitability, for “fit”; a craving for appropriate appearances;
      3. a craving for striking surfaces, for color or colorfulness; a craving for novelty (2000: 14).

Sets A and B illustrate Schmitt’s aesthetic methodology. These cravings produce the concept of the sovereign decision, which in turn inspires the novelty of the exception, illustrated in set C. Critically reading these aesthetic sensibilities is important because of his complicated insistence on the aesthetic as both a dangerous domain of intellectual life and as a trivial mode of perception. This is worth noting because his polemical strategy of disavowal subordinates the aesthetic to the political domain.

That Schmitt is at once dismissive and troubled by “aesthetic characterization” elicits an involuntary irony, since he conceives his concepts through the aesthetic mode, through language founded in literature and art (2005: 65). This partly explains why his work on sovereignty persists today and has influenced some major humanities theorists, including Chantal Mouffe, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben. Mouffe uses Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction to articulate a political theory of agonistic pluralism applicable to current forms of social democracy (1999). Derrida deploys Schmitt to theorize the politics of friendship, as well as to interrogate the bestial symbols that represent sovereignty in various cultural forms (2005; 2009; 2011). Agamben draws upon Schmitt’s political philosophy to diagnose in modern societies examples of permanent emergencies, regimes of biopower and conditions of bare life (1998; 2005).

Schmitt seems to be experiencing a second life outside of academia, too. The jurist of the Third Reich and famed twentieth century political theorist is now fodder for editorials in the Atlantic, the Financial Times, and the London Review of Books. Authoritarian conservatives, amoral leftists and self-flagellating liberals have acknowledged, appropriated and claimed affinity to Schmitt’s work. He is invoked to apprehend crises as disparate as Brexit, the rise of Steve Bannon, identity politics, and the electoral successes of demagogues such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro. Even outwardly liberal political and administrative leaders use the language of emergency and enemy when trying to articulate global disasters such as COVID-19. For many, Schmitt helps to clarify the tumultuous present in all its contradictions (see Owen 2019; 2020).


Schmitt’s appeal is threefold. Firstly, he tries to demystify politics. To be political, in his retelling, is to be a truly meaningful person, one above frivolous moral, economic, and aesthetic identities. The political life is thus the essential life. Secondly, his apparent intellect and card-carrying Nazism provide an appalling and seductive framing that anticipates a disastrous era of totalitarian politics. This is why so many commentators are attracted to him today, despite his embroilment with National Socialism. Through him, they can perform moral disgust while claiming insight into a worrying future. Lastly, his mystique is intensified by the way he constructs his ideas. He uses pithy axioms about legal order and state decision-making that are as slippery as they are suggestive. We can do a lot with them. His outward suitability for the present is thus explicable: his thought promises meaningful political identity; he possesses second sight; his language seems appealingly vague.

Prescribing Schmitt, whose ideas seem fixed but can be transposed into innumerable iterations, makes sense. His ideas, aided by concrete-looking definitions and linguistic slippages, seek to be understood intuitively and instinctively, to be immediately visible. But there is ambiguity in his thought. His virile heuristics function as symbolic spaces, within which commentators paint current policies, cravings and sensibilities. They pick any color: a dash of Erdoğan, a lick of Xi Jinping, a blot of Salvini, a shade of Johnson. In one New Statesman article, the headline foregrounds “the terrifying rehabilitation of Nazi scholar Carl Schmitt”, beneath which it notes his prescience for understanding the political phenomenon of Brexit “only too well” (Earle 2019). Powered by a polarized energy, commentators valorize Schmitt’s thought while gesturing at moral aberrations within it. They color in their appreciation of the abstraction. His theory of sovereignty thus functions potently as a symbolic space within which aesthetic sensibilities can be expressed. His borderline concept gestures towards the gaps either side of it. In Eric L. Santner’s words, these gaps amount to “fissures or caesuras in the space of meaning” (2006: xv). The borderline generates the possibility of not only symbols but of symbolic space, a free area of meaning to be identified and rendered upon.

Schmitt appeals across belief spectrums and media platforms because of the ostensible clarity and deliberate ambiguity of his conceptual schema. His language is as precise as it is amenable, his ideas as fixed as they are promiscuous. He deals in axioms and aphorisms, which extend his popularity to depraved internet forums. Noting the attraction of Schmitt for contemporary scholars, Jens Meierhenrich and Oliver Simons point to “the aesthetic and emotional appeal of [his] conceptual interventions”, which often trump their “explanatory power” (2017: 25, 17). Yet, emphasis on Schmitt’s rhetorical and polemical skill overlooks the aesthetic sensibilities that provide much of his explanatory power and which pervade his work. He is politically persuasive because his work draws on aesthetic sensibilities and fulfils aesthetic cravings. This discussion must negotiate in turn the troubling recuperation of Schmitt as a critic of liberalism and the troubling, sustaining legacy of Schmitt as a symbol of intelligent fascism. Analysing his literary approach allows us to cut through and past these versions of Schmitt.


Literary aesthetics are bound up with broader political, philosophical and legal debates. The story of modern sovereignty is thus inseparable from the tropes of early-twentieth century modernism. Schmitt’s formulation of sovereignty brings into relief the complicated use of symbols in modernism to understand a radically changing international order. His theological allusions foreground symbols that purport to represent as well as resist traditional ideas of sovereignty. His appeal to seriousness and political existentialism, which grounds his theory of sovereignty, encourages the tragicomic retort found within the credo of modernism: that the artistically realizable human condition is undercut by the fallibility of perception and the complex powers of literature. As it is conventionally told, innovations in modernist prose destabilized the omniscience of third-person narration while movements in modernist art complicated the authority of perceptive realism. Because the sovereign author has a disruptive attitude towards content, form, and style, his or her work no longer claims to hold emancipatory or empathetic value. These developments confront Schmitt’s anxiety about the aesthetic domain, because modernism’s desire to critique and undermine itself reaffirms its importance to intellectual life and risks displacing the ultimate political domain.

The innovations, movements, and destabilizations wrought by modernism paradoxically draw attention to the fixed scaffolding that sustains the realms of literature and art. By acknowledging their innate failures, the modernist author and artist provide a deceptive, trickier opponent than that of the romantic poet, whose desire for intellectual primacy is never hidden, and who, as a result, provides a clear antithesis to Schmitt’s political sovereign. In Political Romanticism (1919), Schmitt summarizes “the romantic treatment of the universe” as one concerned with:

The instant, the dreaded second, [that] is also transformed into a point. The present is nothing other than the punctual boundary between past and future. It connects both “by means of limitation.” It is “ossification, crystallization” (Novalis). A circle can be wrapped around it as the center. It can also be the point at which the tangent of infinity is contiguous with the circle of the finite. It is also, however, the point of departure for a line into the infinite that can extend in any direction. Thus every event is transformed into a fantastic and dreamlike ambiguity, and every object can become anything. The “universe is the elongation of my beloved.” Conversely, “the beloved is the abbreviation of the universe.” “Every individual is the center of a system of emanation.” Instead of mystical forces, the emanations are geometric lines (1991: 76).

Schmitt, in his broad-brush polemical disdain, conflates the individual egoism of the romantic poet with the egalitarian geometry of the modernist artist; he acknowledges, though, that it is “not the geometric line, but rather the arabesque that is romantic” (1991: 74). This distinction heeds the idea that modernisms, more so than romanticisms, were self-critical, self-reflexive and acutely aware of literary forms and artistic traditions. They thus pose different, difficult questions about the nature of aesthetics that haunt Schmitt throughout his work. Critically reading his theory of sovereignty both with and against developments of modernism illuminates his writings on representation, parliamentary democracy, the political, myth, symbol, humanity, and Nomos.

Friedrich Kittler includes a lengthy, translated extract of “The Buribunks” in his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999). Geoffrey Winthrop-Young notes one pivotal issue of Kittler’s broad theoretical stance:

[…] discontinuity—a forceful, at times polemical emphasis on ruptures, breaks and caesuras designed to obliterate any attempt to infuse history with gradualist, progressive, teleological or dialectical notions. History is not smooth; it doesn’t lead out of the cave of early illusions into the mature blaze of enlightenment; it does not exhibit any growing intelligibility; and it cannot be reduced to a fanciful relay of revolutionary subjects (2006: 10).

Discontinuity is likewise crucial to understanding Schmitt’s treatment of history in “The Buribunks”. The narrator dismisses the limited efforts of Leporello, Don Juan’s servant, who lacks the ambition and ability to document his master’s life in precise detail and perfect continuity. He makes errors and omissions and possesses neither a methodological framework nor an obvious strategy. He has no interest in his subject or in the demographic factors that surround his subject. He does not write about Don Juan in context: not with reference to statistics, politics, law, economy, or society. He lacks the tools and motivation for extended scientific enquiry and is bereft of the chronic self-awareness required to project his own life onto the documentation of his subject (2019: 102–04). Schmitt ironically portrays the narrator’s dismissiveness towards Leporello as a blind belief in the relentless meaning of historical record. Schmitt’s assessment of this complacency is central to his understanding of the question of sovereignty.


The decision, according to Schmitt, “emanates from nothingness” and “contains a moment of indifference from the perspective of content, because [it] is not traceable in the last detail to its premises and because the circumstance that requires a decision remains an independently determining moment” (2005: 32, 30). Schmitt privileges decision ahead of indecision, exposing what looks like an essential desire for form over content. This desire is a defining component of literary modernism. Gopal Balakrishnan concludes that Schmitt’s writings:

[…] contain a number of sharp, composite images of an era characterized by the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. They are attempts to capture the experience of the end of several overlapping eras in European history at an explosive convergence of turning points [during …] a seemingly irreversible devaluation of the dominant political traditions of the belle époque: conservatism, liberalism and moderate socialism (2000: 268).

This highfalutin summary illustrates the scholarly desire to place Schmitt’s politics in his literary context. Modernisms sought ways to redress the poverty of meaning engendered by hyper-detailed, anticipatory political liberalism. “The Buribunks” helps assess whether his writings are ‘modernist texts par excellence’ (2000: 268).

Schmitt, after all, sought to advance a theory against anticipation, through which to remedy the political crisis of the period. The modernist literary mission is one historically premised on rupture and transformation. It is the dominant mode through which the collapsing orders of the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond were challenged and comprehended. This apprehension of crisis and collapse is particularly striking in the apparently politically dispassionate works of Anglophone modernism, in writers such as Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. Schmitt is likewise concerned with the relationship between modernity and crisis. Yet, the classic modernist characterization of rupture and transformation—often as a predicate for newness—is neither sufficient, nor accurate, for evaluating his relationship to aesthetic modernism. It is more persuasive to argue that Schmitt, alert to the political potential of disorder, desires new understandings of order, and that in various periods and modes of modernism there is a similar excitement in disorder combined with a yearning for order. This affective combination produces subversive responses to ideas of continuity amid seismic social and political change.

A melancholy intellectualism defines political and artistic approaches to the early to mid-twentieth century. The contemporary diagnosis of state failure corresponds to the modernist diagnosis of aesthetic failure. Political philosophy of the period tends to grapple with anticipation, as do literary modernisms; in both, there is a desire for the not-quite-yet to disrupt and clarify the age. Melancholy, failure, and anticipation thus constitute the Schmitt-modernist diagnosis of sovereignty. Robert B. Pippin usefully pinpoints these intellectual states as integral to philosophical modernism, because modernity shifted from its “repetitive […] culture of melancholy”, which was “morbidly fixated on failure”, towards:

[…] the realization of an even more radical notion of historical time, without purpose or structure, but infinitely repetitive, one which thereby eliminates any notion of decisive, revolutionary moments, [which] might make possible a “confirmation” of this life, not an anticipation of a future or different or missed life (1999: xi, 152, 156).

In the modern period, Pippin continues, “[w]e require a profound sense of the infinite repeatability, and so of such infinite sameness, to avoid the false hopes that inspire melancholy” (1999: 157). Just as Schmitt tried to reinstitute the authority of the decision to counter widespread political failure, currents within philosophical modernism sought to extinguish and replace the sovereign decision with an infinite series of repetitions that would preclude its existence. Through a melancholic vision, they desired a future that could not be seen, traced, or expected. Yet, their diagnoses were drastically different. By cross-stitching the states of melancholy, failure, and anticipation into an intricate mesh, and by drawing upon intellectual traditions that privilege these states within modernism, Pippin suggests that they are inextricable, interminable and co-productive. In this spirit, this article argues, Schmitt and literary modernisms make major appeals to structural continuity, to the interplay of order and disorder, and to the reorderings of political and artistic forms. Modernist writers not only invoke rupture, transformation and newness to address the period but also draw on the symbolic and social orders of repetition, reorder and restraint, which can correspond to the states of melancholy, failure and anticipation.


Tragedies wrought by intimacy and deception, without obvious villains, are studded throughout literature. Schmitt’s regular readings of Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), another literary figure emblematic of sovereign façade, firmly places his intellectual concerns within this genre of proto-modernist writing. Melville gives these words to the title character, the displaced captain of the ship San Dominick:

[…] you were with me all day; stood with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best man err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men (1998: 158).

Benito Cereno is addressing his rescuer, Amasa Delano, who has been deceived by a series of extravagant performances. Slaves, led by the manipulative Babo, have taken control of the ship and, to avoid detection, retained Cereno as their leader, a silhouette of authority. Cereno’s position is rendered into a façade, and his erratic behaviour arouses Delano’s suspicions until the truth aches to be let out. It is the seminal tale of intimacy and deception, how often one arises from the other, and how difficult it is to locate good and evil in desperate circumstances. Melville’s tragedy of the false sovereign spoke powerfully to Schmitt, particularly in his post-World War II thinking.

Many works of modernist literature anticipate a late, symbolically crumbling but institutionally resilient global imperialism. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) famously depicts the brooding melancholy, cataclysmic shocks and subsequent confusions that destabilized European understandings of sovereignty and post-national orders. Lauren Benton, who exemplifies the contemporary law and literature approach to sovereignty, notes how the novella imagines and reformulates “the wilderness [which] threatened to lure men into the usurpation of sovereign authority, [and] into delusions of kingliness that might have borne some superficial similarity to [Colonel] Kurtz’s interior empire”. Benton states that “Conrad worried about dark places upriver where nature ruled”. In his depiction of the Congo, “the big trees were kings” (2009: 42). Uncertain spaces of looming nature form key modernist tropes of sovereign anxiety. Yet, Benton alludes to modernist literature in her discussion of sovereignty without fully realising its unique potential for explaining the nature of sovereign authority. Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which rejects the accumulation of detail as a predicate for anticipation, echoes the modernist tendency to use ill-defined symbols for a radically changing order. Conrad shows the forces of nature as tantalizing and deceptive, and as able to encourage phantasmal forms of sovereignty; in doing so, they preclude the genuine, visible decision. Suggestive of Schmitt, Lord Jim (1900) features disciplinary regimes defined by racialized conceptions of sovereignty, while Nostromo (1904) contains a republic founded on the state of emergency (Rehn 2012; Adams 2003).

Conrad’s fiction is broadly elusive, foreboding and anticipatory. In his short story “The Secret Sharer” (1910), central to his collection ‘Twixt Land and Sea (1912),  Conrad malforms the timeworn symbols of the severed head and the festering cadaver, reproducing sovereign anxieties about decapitation and decay. In the darkness, the unnamed ship captain recalls first misidentifying his doppelgänger, the stowaway Leggatt, as a headless corpse, before placing himself onto the figure whose “shadowy dark head”, like his, “seemed to nod imperceptibly”. The captain remembers facing his abyssal “reflection in the depths of a sombre and immense mirror” (2008: 86­–88). The deception of the sovereign exists through his nominal memories: his melancholy sense of aloneness, his failed authority and consequent disorientation, his anticipatory fear of violent displacement, and his complicated desire for doubling. Opposed to Schmitt’s clear delineation of land and sea, Conrad’s suggestion of betwixt and between represents sovereignty as a contested space, which can be dubiously reconstructed as one of unambiguous decision. Daniel R. Schwarz notes that the captain, through his relationship to Leggatt, “discovered within himself the ability to act decisively that he had lacked” (1982: 2). The sometimes vivid, sometimes hazy, retrospective monologue functions as an immediate present, which places the reader amid the character’s psychic and moral development. By steering the ship away from land and its associated dangers, the captain obtains the appearance of resolve and command. By looking backwards but presenting forwards, Conrad identifies the captain’s figurative movement into the assured and respected sovereign. The narrator’s reminiscence reveals that he who now decides is whoever once commanded, a past source of disputed agency, retrospectively known and yet still necessarily unknowable.


Schmitt’s cultural prescription in the years leading up to the publication of “The Buribunks” is literary, complicated and contradictory. His early works include “Silhouettes” (1913), a series of unflattering portraits of cultural figures, the politician Walther Rathenau among them. Although Schmitt avoided evaluating modernist novels from Mann, Musil, and Alfred Döblin, he did produce a monograph on Theodor Däubler’s long poem “The Northern Light” (1915). Published in a widely read literary journal, “The Buribunks” echoes the title of Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks (1901), and acts as a pivot for discussing Musil’s ideas. Schmitt’s literary criticism inflects our understanding of his political and legal tracts. His desire to base the concept of sovereignty on the state of exception, and to shape the political as the supreme domain of human action and intellectual life, draws on his anxieties about the aesthetic domain while assimilating the rhetorical styles of his culture critiques.

For Schmitt, the literary approach provides an apt diagnostic method to seek out the problems of law and politics. His interest in motifs and images is consistent and long lasting. His 1923 essay “Roman Catholicism and Political Form” considers forms of political representation, and his 1938 book on Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan interrogates ideas of political symbolism. He wrote his major works during the Weimar period, namely Political Theology and The Concept of the Political (1932). Schmitt published articles defending the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1936, after which he was ousted due to intellectual differences and internal criticisms. Using literary forms to distance himself from his National Socialist affiliation, he crafted a childlike fable of history, Land and Sea (1942). Many of his intellectual concerns came full circle. He wrote his 1910 university doctoral thesis in criminal law on guilt and returned explicitly to this theme in his Shakespearean critique Hamlet or Hecuba (1956). This marked a body of thought preoccupied throughout by aesthetic considerations, translated into subjects of sovereign decision, states of exception, and the concept of the political in the Weimar period.

This is to suggest that throughout his life, Schmitt never loses sight of the literary scene. This allows for consideration of a broad range of literary figures. Melville and Conrad produce ill-defined anticipatory symbols in their writings. Reading Schmitt’s later work on Nomos and the katechon encourages comparison with Beckett. His attempts to reconcile ideas of sovereignty and anticipation are suggestive of Schmitt’s permanent anxieties about the liberal, technocratic desire to record, document and accumulate details. These processes undermine the visibility of the sovereign decision and the clarity of political life. About contemporary analogies of the state, Schmitt writes:

It may be left open what the state is in its essence—a machine or an organism, a person or an institution, a society or a community, an enterprise or a beehive, or perhaps even a basic procedural order. These definitions and images anticipate too much meaning, interpretation, illustration, and construction (2007: 19).

Beckett, a very different sort of modernist writer to Melville and Conrad, blurs further the function of analogies and anticipatory symbols. Beckett depicts the futility of too much meaning, interpretation, illustration and construction. In works such as Waiting for Godot (1953), through to lesser-known short fictions such as the 1030-word “Ping” (1967), Beckett gestures towards the unknowable qualities of the future. These gestures suggest guesses, form possibilities and indicate ominous threats; together these elements constitute an inhibited epistemological effort, an attempt of literary detail, and a distinctive aesthetic method, which renders anticipation within symbolic spaces while destabilizing their surrounding contours.


The symbol or figure of the katechon, originating from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, denotes the great restrainer that is able to hold back the Anti-Christ. Schmitt’s post-war development of the katechon concept, which he retrospectively applies to his early theories of sovereignty, can be brought to bear in discussions of Beckett’s works, which contain comic and forlorn undertakings of presumed authorities and messiahs. Ambiguities of mid-twentieth century cultural life redefine the sovereign decision, which now includes the decision to do nothing: to commit no action. Paralysis is key for Schmitt’s understanding of the katechon, particularly “[t]he belief that someone or something restrains the end of the world is the only explanation which reconciles the eschatological paralysis of all human efforts with the historical greatness like that of the Christian Empire of the German kings” (2003: 60). The purpose of Schmitt’s amorphous katechon is to delay and engender anticipation of the Second Coming. This suggests the innate value of ostensibly melancholic waiting; the katechon lends agency to what appears to be stasis.

Schmitt’s literary method is bound up with his use of the katechon. One of his final published works, Political Theology II (1970), which cites negative influences ranging from Goethe to Brecht, “presents a certain literary obscurantism with references made to arcane sources, oblique hints, suggestive undertones, double meanings, crafted ironies and symbolic figurations” (2008: 3). Michael Hoelzl suggests more comparisons with Beckett: Waiting for Godot is “a truly political book” because the decision not to act, as depicted through Vladimir and Estragon, is fundamentally political. In turn, the time that occurs between inaction and action is defined by anticipation, which must be theorized by the katechon concept. As Hoelzl notes, “[t]he katechon is the only possible explanation to bridge the gap between the paralysis of all human efforts and innerworldly ambition. The katechon defines the space between the radically spiritual and the purely political” (2010: 99, 108). How, then, do Beckett’s aesthetic sensibilities function within this polarized symbolic space?

In “Ping”, the katechon is the ping sound that accompanies a barely visible figure struggling through what appears to be its final moments of consciousness. The figure exists in a small box bordered with white walls that trigger glimpsed traces of memories, that is, the lines of the past. The story begins with “[a]ll known”, and for the following 1028 words, the narrator, the figure, and the reader fall into a condition of “known not”. The repetitious, anticipatory form is broken by punctures of silence and the sound of ping. It ends on something definitive, “ping over”. The movements between beginning and ending, between acknowledgement and the event, constitute anticipation in the text. The critic Michael Wood states that in Beckett, “the future is not a place, and not much of a time” (1981). Wood understands the future as temporal and spatial, suggesting that Beckett’s works lack these markers and delineations. Yet, for Beckett, the future remains crucially a setting, considered through measurements and observable geometry. In “Ping”, “one yard” mirrors “one second”. Beckett articulates demarcated space through fractured and percussive time, and successive time through confined and overwhelming space (1967: 25–26).

Schmitt’s life-long literary preoccupations tease further comparisons with Beckett’s prose shorts, many of which contain apparently atemporal renderings. These pieces are residual, the cast-offs and reformulations of longer pieces. They are discrete in isolation but offer refractions of the human condition viewed together. Using the shorter form, Beckett maintains the state of anticipation through distorted movements that are difficult to discern. These may be extended, quick, sparse and frantic, but they always suggest linearity. Paralysis does not necessitate stasis; to be fixed in time is not a moral preference, or a source of inherent value, or a desirable method of representation. These pieces retain movement and almost replicate artworks, sketches and compositions. As in visual art, Beckett evokes stillness and chronology. He proposes that the reader looks around and across the text just as the viewer looks around and across a painting. As in music, Beckett offers permutations, repetitions, modulations and deviations. He keeps the reader’s ear to a metronome before producing onomatopoeic interruptions, a twang or, in this instance, a ping.


Melville, Conrad and Beckett offer diverse temporal strands of literary modernism that blur and refocus symbols within states of delay and waiting. These bring into relief Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty and facilitate a critical approach for understanding his rendering of anticipation in “The Buribunks”, a parody of institutionalized egoism and false forms of sovereign decision. Scholars have variously described the text as “surrealistic”, “a dystopia”, a mockery of “the secular ritual of confession”, “a satire of detached intellectualism”, an ironic “world history of inscription”, “a critique of modern subjectivity”, and a “biting caricature of the boheme and of positivism” (Bredekamp 1999: 251; Balke 2017: 633, 644; Meierhenrich and Simons 2017: 7; Kittler, 1999: 231; Mehring 2014: 86; Kennedy 2004: 44). Such characterisations both subvert and suggest its position as a modernist text. We have modes and genres of modernism, but these are contemptuous of the putative aesthetic subjectivities that modernisms desired to represent. Schmitt uses the text to interrogate systemic failures of technological modernity and scientific progress. He depicts institutions as conspicuous and unwieldy, the practice of historicism as self-important and futile, and the individual as devitalized, as abstracted from value and meaning. For Reinhart Koselleck, the conditions of institutionalism, historicism and individualism form a “negative utopia”, in which the diary keeping Buribunks represent “the interior […] turned outward”. The public accumulation of interiority constitutes a project of surveillance, which he calls “a mode of the performance of perfected terror” (2002: 93). Schmitt renders interiority as a hard surface, or as another unit of measurement, to critique the belief that history can be mastered, decided upon, and anticipated.

“The Buribunks” arrives on the cusp of Schmitt’s apparently decisive shift from cultural to political thought. Through techniques of extended irony and self-reflexive footnotes, Schmitt challenges the Wilhelmine culture that had failed to respond to his call for political clarity and visibility. From modernist origins and his discovery of early avant-garde movements, he assaults an inert, debased and embedded institutionalism. It is the most mature manifestation of his early critique of liberalism, which he reads as a vehicle for the obsessive accumulation of details that produces needless anticipation of the event. He sought to critique an age that venerated rules and norms, celebrated scientific arrogance, idolized selfhood and valorized technological advance:

From an early discovery of modernism and expressionism, Schmitt created the figure of liberalism that guided his analysis of Weimar’s institutions, a gesalt and doctrine that was part romantic and part positivistic and that was the spirit of his age. […] Schmitt’s antiliberalism was literary and theological at its core (2004: 40).

Schmitt uses the chaotic starting points of aesthetic modernism against his enemy figure of liberalism. Many currents of contemporary modernisms were likewise sceptical of the tendency to accumulate details, to endlessly discuss, and to attempt to mitigate the otherwise unanticipated event.

“The Buribunks” is a product of Schmitt’s combined experiences within the legal academy and under military command. The text offers an alternate society in which the desire to produce continual lines of information is held as the highest virtue, which is evidenced by a vast institutional framework. Organizations have lengthy and ludicrous initialisms, which constitute the populated landscape of the Buribunks. There are, among other things, “400,000 buribunkological dissertations (20 divisions!)”, the “International Buribunkological Institute for Ferker and Related Research (IBIFERR)”, and “the Buribunk and Ferker Research Panel Commission (BAFREPAC)”. Schmitt in turn creates a linear history of the Buribunks, one that eventually leads to the supreme state of Buribunkdom, which is the purest realm of the Buribunks. He begins his visionary history with Leporello, who mostly notes the sexual exploits of Don Juan, before tracing the dynasty of the Buribunks’ forerunners, including the fictional creations of Ferker and Schnekke. These scholars’ incipient, failed attempts at self-illustration lay the ground for the perfect world of accumulated knowledge. In this ultimate universe, the Buribunks give meaning to their existence by incessantly detailing it. Their concluding philosophy is thus one of inclusive and simultaneous “I-ness” (2019: 99–100, 104–108, 110). Such rampant officialdom, matched with unchecked egoism, fuels Schmitt’s critique of liberal progress, particularly its emphasis on common laws and on the central sovereign subject of the modern individual.


In “The Buribunks”, the obsessive process of anticipation debilitates the body. The Buribunks undergo physiological changes because of their diary keeping. Their growing intellect correlates with “an enlarged mouth”, for example. Consciousness and selfhood produce corporeal effects on anatomical surfaces. Schmitt creates an alternative rendering of the human body, comprised of deformed faces, creaturely habits and machine-like tendencies. He further invokes the body to outline the sense of uncertainty that provokes extreme anticipation. The dread with which the Buribunks view the future is described as “the dark body”—imposing, fearful, racialized—which is precluded by an obsessive, anticipatory present. The Buribunks ignore the sovereign decision, as Schmitt understands it, in favour of the accumulative detail that generates outward order. This constitutes the manipulation of the material world from an institutionalized distance, which is disguised as the simple frictions of the collective good. The Buribunks are biophysically transformed through their vast data production and bureaucratic surveillance. Their deification of communal processes thwarts the pursuit of human meaningfulness. For Schmitt, the desire to produce excessive temporal proximity leads to psychological indulgence, not physical vitality.

Schmitt compares the study of the Buribunks to popular contemporary anthropological assessments. He interrogates the correlation between intellect and physiognomy by mockingly invoking the example of tribes and employing a sort of ironic racism: “[…] lesser peoples, Polynesians, Terra del Fuegoans, Ba-Ronga-Niggers, and other tribes incapable of an education, have a relatively small mouth, even though they are cannibals, the close connection between the enlarged mouth and a higher intellect becomes a probability” (2019: 101, 110). This prefaces his writings the following year, wherein:

[p]rimitive peoples—humanity as childlike—are also bearers of these unlimited possibilities. The contradiction between rational limitation and the irrational profusion of possibilities is romantically eliminated because another equally real but still unlimited reality is played off against limited reality: in opposition to the rationalistic, mechanized state, the childlike people; in opposition to the man already limited by his profession and accomplishments, the child who plays with all possibilities; in opposition to the clear line of the classical, the primitive in its infinity of meanings (1991: 69).

Schmitt compares plurality of meaning to a childlike primitivism, and single linearity to a form of classical thinking. He traduces infinite possibilities and valorizes the delimiting power of the borderline. This amounts to using racial anthropology as dubious shorthand for illustrating his anxieties about lineal excess. Through literary techniques, Schmitt’s racist thought emerges. These passages function as portents for his anti-Semitic characterizations of Jews in his 1938 book on Leviathan and in texts such as Land and Sea (1942).

The defining message of “The Buribunks” is that to excessively quantify and repeat is to perpetually anticipate. This commitment to research means that the study of the Buribunks is valued more than the Buribunks themselves. Schmitt calls this mode of enquiry “scientific buribunkology”, which amounts to a chronically aware self-justifying meta-sphere of learning (2019: 99). It is smug, circular, overly referential and ever inwardly expanding. This continued expansion leads to indelibility. To create, to manufacture, and to multiply constitutes success and supremacy. This economy functions at maximum output and at optimum delineation. This functioning holds innate value because quantity is made into quality by virtue of its facticity. This predates Schmitt’s critique of liberalism, which he thinks “discusses and negotiates every political detail […] in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in everlasting discussion” (2005: 63). Schmitt polemically dramatized parliamentary democracy as a mode of government made up exclusively of discussion. His ironic appraisal of scientific buribunkology presages his appraisal of political liberalism.


Schmitt complicates the self-proclaimed values of the liberal Enlightenment, which he would later taunt for its belief:

[…] in a clear and simple upward line of human progress. Progress would above all result in the intellectual and moral perfection of humanity. The line moved between two points: from religious fanaticism to intellectual liberty, from dogma to criticism, from superstition to enlightenment, from darkness to light (2007: 73).

He suggests the Enlightenment was more accurately a part of the “successive stages of the changing central domains [which] are conceived neither as a continuous line of ‘progress’ upwards nor the opposite” (2007: 82). In “The Buribunks”, constant documentation is a source of fact beyond mere science. This sense of superiority and of the supreme idea of fact makes scientific buribunkology the overwhelming and most conclusive sphere of knowledge and understanding, even “more than theology, jurisprudence or philosophy”. Any refusal to keep a diary must be “justified and described in detail”; the disobedient Buribunks will otherwise face elimination to the lowest class in the system. For them, elimination is a fate worse than death. With echoes of Beckett, Schmitt states that “[t]he wheel of progress passes silently over the silent one”. Such a punitive measure enforces a simple idea: that in this world, even nothing must be reproduced in detail.

Schmitt sardonically expresses the oversaturated and falsely unifying nature of the Buribunks’ project: “[w]hat would all research be without the secret weaving of the spirit which transforms life-less details into a living organism and for the purpose of repeated comprehension elevates every act of perception to a process of re-membrance”. Schmitt creates textual ambiguity in his use of “organisator” in the original German, because it can be translated as: “[…] the secret weaving of the spirit which organises life-less details”. The study of scientific buribunkology forms the logical endgame for an academy obsessed with both organisation and transformation, which is inscribed through both quantitative and qualitative output. Schmitt remains sceptical of details that are rationalized, contextualized and historicized. He ironically scolds the inchoate and prototypical Leporello, who has “less of an urge to gather reliable research into details—nowhere does he trace the deeper connections of the specific conquest”. As a sign of intellectual progress in scientific buribunkology, “entries of an erotic, demonic, satirical, political and so on nature are grouped together (under the strictest observation of the copyright law pertaining to each entry)”. Life is sterile, relative to the mode of scientific inquiry that seeks to understand it. Memory, otherwise clipped and intangible, is solidified and certified on repeat. This predates Schmitt’s metaphor of the crusted mechanism, consisting of rules and norms that have grown torpid by repetition, which his exception seeks to overcome.

Endless lines, details, repetitions, conversations, and discussions: these constitute Schmitt’s critique of the state of anticipation, that which denies sovereignty and the political. Schmitt wishes to “trace the outlines of [the] sociological architecture” and provide an “[o]utline of a philosophy of the Buribunks”. The central claim in the Buribunks’ manifesto is: “thinking is nothing other than soundless speech; speaking nothing but scriptless writing; writing nothing but anticipated publishing and therefore publishing is identical with writing, with such minor differences that they may safely be disregarded” (2019: 100–10). The Buribunks write and publish simultaneously, and by doing so, they distort notions of time and of the body. Through their extreme efforts to anticipate, they merge their commodity with their labor. As Schmitt notes while in postwar detention, “[o]ur life acquires furrows and lines through our labors, through our productivity in work and profession” (2017: 46). In the biophysical imperative to transform themselves, the Buribunks face a process which makes it impossible to discern between I, the typewriter, and history. Historical reality denotes the past, the midwife the present, and the dark body the future. This use of language precipitates Schmitt’s full embrace of legal and political solutions to the problem of sovereignty. His satirically loose use of metaphor in “The Buribunks” illustrates his resistance to claims that a mere image could anticipate the exception. In Political Theology, he resorts to the crusted mechanism and the torpor of repetition for his dulled anticipatory symbolism. His use of metaphor concedes to aesthetic sensibilities within his theory of sovereignty. His cravings for the borderline produce a distorted silhouette, a phantasm of the immediate sovereign decision.


In “The Buribunks”, Schmitt renders what-is-to-come as the imperceptible abyss, in which “the future lies there as dull and indifferent as the keyboard of a typewriter, like a dark rat hole from which one second after another (like one rat after another) emerges into the light of the past”. This anticipates Beckett’s desolate and repeat pronouncements within “Ping”, the moments of history that are smothered by quantified one-second intervals. Schmitt writes that the Buribunks capture blinking rats, so as to record one second of clock time. By doing this, “the fearful anticipation of the future loses its horror”. Death is no longer a source of anxiety, because it is obsessively anticipated. The final judgement is a mere rat-second of neutral value, observed through complete and earnest clarity. Writing history as it writes them, the Buribunks extinguish the “illusion of singularity” and “deceive world history’s deceitfulness” (2019: 110–11). Immortality and posterity are achieved through outwitting history and establishing absolute facts, culminating in true ethics, founded in facticity. Schmitt laughs once more at the tendency to accumulate details in the state of anticipation, prefacing his mockery of the legal and political aim “to regulate the exception as precisely as possible […] to spell out in detail the case in which the law suspends itself” (2005: 13). For Schmitt, to spell out the sovereign decision is impossible and undesirable. The active cannot become the medial: in envisioning the exception, he sees only the borderline. Yet, the symbolic spaces that the borderline generates do not simply constitute pure political forms or systematic analogies but offer vast planes within which aesthetic sensibilities can be, and indeed are, articulated.

Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty attempts to preclude anticipation, and in doing so, it aims to establish a meaningful political identity, the essence of human life. Thus, Schmitt wishes to eliminate the lines and frictions of political liberalism. This craving is illustrated, somewhat innocuously, by his shifting attitude towards two of his contemporaries. After his early infatuation, leading to an effusive monograph, he ended his friendship with the poet Däubler. In his post-war diaries, Schmitt is instead drawn to the language, symbolism and companionship of Konrad Weiß. Only in retrospect did he understand the breakdown and the blossoming of these relationships. Akin to Hegel’s interpretation of the owl of Minerva, Schmitt states that “just as the grain of wood grows in a tree […] [this change] belongs to the lines of our life, which we can trace later but not foresee or determine in the midst of its development” (2017: 44). This evokes much that is central to his theory of sovereignty. In the moment of decision, the sovereign is made visible, but the immediate image does not precipitate knowledge and understanding, nor can it be anticipated beforehand. Instead, the capacity to judge through hindsight colours Schmitt’s method of political diagnosis, which sought to minimise the value and desirability of anticipation in politics, to render pointless and inhuman the lines of prediction that define political liberalism.

This political diagnosis has literary origins. To recall, Schmitt reads Melville’s Benito Cereno both as a noble tragedy of reminiscence and as a forlorn fable of human obligation. Following “the voiceless end” of his usurper Babo, Cereno, the erstwhile sovereign, reconciles himself with his own imminent demise. Delano, his rescuer, urges him to observe the unlimited possibilities of the future. He implores the captain to prepare for the sun to rise, for the sea and sky to turn blue, and for the leaves to turn over. The response is one of gloom, melancholy and debilitation. Why does Benito Cereno not seek solace in these accumulated details, in tracing the lines of his life, and in recognising the apparently perpetual truths of the natural world?

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human” (1998: 158).


Joseph Owen is writing a doctoral thesis on Carl Schmitt, modernism and sovereignty at University of Southampton.



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