Personal Sovereignty, or “He who makes a beast of himself…”

Much has been said recently about sovereignty; if the sloganeering chants that drove a majority of a population to vote to leave the EU are to be believed. Criminology Lecturer Kevin Hoffin examines further.

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This blogpost looks at personal sovereignty, a research area covered by the author, and tries to analyse what we can learn from those that strive for personal sovereignty and apply it towards a wider concept that encourages audiences to “take back control”.

The act of self-rule, a non-adherence with societal norms, wilful transgression presented as a lifestyle strikes a chord within a growing number of people, particularly within subcultures strewn across the globe (this author’s major research lens of the Black Metal subculture- an extreme form of rock music attests to this). However, personal sovereignty is a problematic idea, which is both wholly unattainable, and honestly, quite undesirable.

In his lecture series on sovereignty “La Bête ou le Souverain” Jacques Derrida creates a tripartite relationship between species as a metaphor for his narrative. The relationship “wolf > man> dog” where the wolf is the sovereign beast ABOVE the laws created by man, who in turn domesticates, tames and subjugates the dog. The wolf represents man’s fears- sovereign, aggressive, fearsome, and the dog; man’s powers. Finally man, who due to his humanity and desire for civilisation, community and other (attained) Nietzschean weaknesses, sits in the centre of this paradigm (Derrida 2009).

Here we meet our first dilemma; to be sovereign is to be above existing laws, to be in a position to disregard them. To a literal, physical wolf, this is potentially easy as the beast has no concept of the human laws to begin with. However, upon conflict with man (i.e., attacking people or livestock), man will curb this sovereign attitude, and make an example of the wolf. Hence sovereignty depends on a metaphorical distance being kept between one’s sovereign self and society. As soon as one re-enters that social space where societal norms are expected to be kept, problems will arise. One must allow oneself to be subjugated by those laws and norms in order to function within that space, submission grants access. A sovereign man may physically be present in that space, but will be isolated if he chooses, say, to initiate trade or other social interaction.

The wolf does not transgress for transgression’s sake, as previously stated- it breaks the laws of man through ignorance. The wolf featured in the poem: “On Ederchaillis’ Shore” (Ogilvy 2010), is a prime example. In the poem a wolf has been exhuming and eating deceased members of the community. The remaining villagers see this as an act of evil, although in truth, it is most certainly not- the wolf becomes a necrophage to survive- breaking a deeply-held human taboo. The transgression is exclusively in the minds of the villagers. Contrastingly, if a human chooses to break such rules, disregarding them; making a bold statement that “NO, I will not follow”, then their awareness of those rules and willingness to live against them still means that the rules are central to their being, even by wilful transgression.

Hypothetically, if self-rule has been achieved by an individual, the addition of any authority or responsibility, i.e. over another person, system or position, renders this achievement immediately defeated. Personal sovereignty is lost and the results are two-fold; one must take appropriate responsibility for something or someone else and re-joining the social order becomes necessary for such a transference of duty/care to take place. This individual may hold a degree of sovereignty over the subject but, in turn must submit themselves to the dominance of a mainstream system in order to perform their duty correctly. Thus the natural order of progression through life: maturing, work/career, family, can all be succinctly described as obstacles to personal sovereignty (Hoffin 2019).

Personal Sovereignty can be seen as both a rebellious response to a disagreeable dominant culture, and interestingly, the act of removing oneself from a binary code of good and/or evil. If one chooses self-rule in any form, one is attempting to escape the dominant culture's moral codes, not in order to violate them, and enter a state of post-morality. Whereby, the post-moralist acts solely for themselves, regardless of society's rules. It becomes clear that a declaration of personal sovereignty, in some cases, symbolically allows for the declarant to commit evil while deluding oneself into avoiding the shame of the act, becoming “free” from society’s judgement.

In walking away from society and its weakness, is a declaration of personal sovereignty, the result is an entry into a solitary existence, a society of one. A society therefore that exists without predetermined rules. What becomes of personal sovereignty when there are no predetermined rules? If the wolf just existed in the wilderness; bothered no one and interrupted nothing- raises the question if it would cease to be sovereign, in that there is no reason for sovereignty. A reader may see this as a convoluted take on the logic problem of a tree falling in the forest when no one is around, but the implication is there: personal sovereignty becomes more and more difficult to grasp with any veracity. Sovereignty is immeasurable without transgression of societal rules, but as already discussed- he who acts as a sovereign wolf must do so without knowledge of; or complete apathy towards such rules, or else their sovereignty is only going to be defined by the rules they disobey, and transgressions would be interpreted as an act against the dominant society.

The actual attainment of personal sovereignty in the contemporary era is impossible. The concept can only be actualised inside art itself and in its creation. In the construction of art self-rule can take place; and with it, a state of being that can be shared by those experiencing it for themselves. Inside this conceptual world, it must be noted that whilst one is absorbed fully, the plane must be a world-for-itself, by definition. Invading the 'world-for-itself', or noumenon as Kant would term it, irrevocably transforms this world into a world-for-us.

The presence of the outsider would corrupt the delicate balance that maintains the impetus of each society, and would forever change it. In this Kantian scenario, mere entry to this new society would cause it damage- consequently, the kingdom would be wholly different and individual to whoever ventures inside it. We must continue to celebrate personal sovereignty in art as this is the only true place that we will ever truly be able to grasp it.

The article: ‘“Sans compassion nor will to answer whoever asketh the why": Personal sovereignty within black metal’ appears in Metal Music Studies 5.2, available in June 2019.