White Rose University Consortium logo
University of Leeds logo University of Sheffield logo York University logo

Performing sovereignty: Civilisation and savagery in the New and Old Worlds

Mathieu, Xavier (2015) Performing sovereignty: Civilisation and savagery in the New and Old Worlds. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

[img] Text
Revised thesis - Xavier Mathieu.pdf
Restricted until 31 December 2020.

Request a copy


This thesis explores how sovereignty is performed through appeals to the concepts of civilisation and savagery. In the discipline of International Relations (IR), most scholars still consider sovereignty as a largely unproblematic (if now socially constructed) concept. Following post-colonial scholars this thesis argues that a compelling understanding of the concept requires a questioning of its universality and objectivity. Sovereignty needs to be re-connected to the cultural context and to the civilisational values that contribute to its emergence. Although they have rightly pointed at the Western origin of the concept of sovereignty post-colonial scholars have rarely engaged with how the civilised and sovereign identity of Western states is produced. In order to provincialise European sovereignty, they have focused their research primarily on the external side of the construction of civilised sovereignty. In other words, their interest has lain in the relations between the Western sovereign states and the ‘uncivilised’ Rest that was denied sovereignty. References to the contemporaneous internal construction of Western civilisation and sovereignty have been scarce and underdeveloped. What is missing is an explanation of how the Europeans dealt with their own civilisational doubts and how they constructed their own civilised sovereignty at the same time as they were denying it to others. Indeed, this specific focus has engendered a disconnection between the analysis of the ‘domestic’ task of statecraft and the ‘international’ affirmation of sovereignty. This thesis offers a non-Eurocentric approach to sovereignty that captures both the internal and international dimensions of ‘writing civilised sovereignty’. It reveals the inherent ambiguities and unexpected similarities of the process of statecraft in both spheres. Such a re-integration of the domestic ‘colonial encounter’ of the West with its own Others is important for our understanding of sovereignty. First, it shows how sovereignty must be seen as a site of political struggle irrespective of where (or upon whom) it is claimed. In particular, the construction of sovereignty is attached to the differentiation of the civilised with the savage. As such, sovereignty is inextricably and as much bound to savagery as it is to civilisation: actors claiming sovereignty require the presence of a savage that can in turn threaten their very claim and from whom they must differentiate themselves. Second, considering the ‘internal’ side along the ‘external’ one enables the identification and comparison of two colonial frontiers, i.e. two demarcations between the civilised and the savage. One is performed ‘inside’ the sovereign state and one ‘outside’ of it. These two frontiers function in similar ways and have the same purpose: allocating an indisputable sovereignty to the representatives of the Western state. Because they separate the civilised from the savage, these frontiers are crucial political tools in the legitimation of claims to sovereignty. Finally, and interlinked with the above, juxtaposing the ‘internal’ and ‘international’ processes of statecraft reinforces the critique of the image of the sovereign state as unitary and culturally uniform (an image that mainstream IR strives to preserve). This thesis thus questions the usual and common-sense association between sovereignty and independence and argues that sovereignty promotes (at best) the independence of the sovereign elite adhering to the values considered as civilised in the West. Through the analysis of more than 300 archival sources, I demonstrate how the sovereign agency of the West and the task of statecraft require an appeal to civilisational superiority that can only be established through the identification of familiar (yet degenerated or underdeveloped) similarities between the civilised West and the savage non-West. The discourses of sovereignty in fact represent a resolution of civilisational ambiguities in order to (re)produce the illusion of a unified, civilised and sovereign Self. The theoretical conclusions of this thesis are informed by an extensive exploration of claims to sovereignty in 16th century France. This focus is justified for two reasons: the Age of Discovery is usually taken as the beginning of the modern practice of colonialism (and thus the extension of European sovereignties to new territories) and in Europe claims to sovereignty strengthened and were more often successful during that period. In essence, then, this thesis provides a richer understanding of sovereignty and of its role in the creation and management of ‘difference’ in international relations. Through its interrogation of sovereignty this thesis also possesses a broader resonance for some key concepts of international relations and IR as a discipline. As shown in the review of the literature on sovereignty, the role of culture is overwhelmingly silenced by IR scholars through different strategies despite the fact that international relations are essentially intercultural relations. As such, the way cultures perceive each other (as different) is crucial to the functioning of our international ‘society’. Looking at sovereignty and at its links with civilisation also highlights the importance of colonial frontiers in international relations. These frontiers correspond to the differentiation established and constantly reproduced between the civilised and the savage. Such frontiers are both internal and external to the sovereign state, which means that the internal Other is never far from the external one. These civilisational hierarchies are not only relevant for sovereignty: they also shape other international practices such as war or state-building. All these areas are informed by these colonial logics of differentiation and hierarchical ordering. But all are equally troubled by the lack of stability and permanence of these colonial frontiers between civilised and savage. More generally, these international practices seem to create the very problem that they are designed to solve or reduce: difference. This is ironic since difference is also the source of the dangers and problems that these practices are designed to deal with. Finally, this thesis contributes to the literature on encounters and the Age of Discovery and expands upon some of their conclusions, thus building a stronger link between History and International Relations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Sheffield > Faculty of Social Sciences (Sheffield) > Politics (Sheffield)
Depositing User: Dr Xavier Mathieu
Date Deposited: 23 May 2016 08:53
Last Modified: 28 May 2019 11:30
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/13032

Please use the 'Request a copy' link(s) above to request this thesis. This will be sent directly to someone who may authorise access.
You can contact us about this thesis. If you need to make a general enquiry, please see the Contact us page.

Actions (repository staff only: login required)