Syntax as Terminology in Schmitt (2)

In the previous post, I have already demonstrated how certain carelessness on the side of the translator can interfere with the flow of Schmitt’s argument against the classical theories of sovereignty. However, this next striking syntactic misinterpretation from the same chapter of Political Theology threatens to make the entire premise of the book unintelligible. Let’s have a look at the passage:

“Praktisch hat eine Jurisprudenz, die sich an den Fragen des täglichen Lebens und der laufenden Geschäfte orientiert, kein Interesse an dem Begriff der Souveränität. Auch für sie ist nur das Normale das Erkennbare und alles andere eine „Störung“. Dem extremen Fall steht sie fassungslos gegenüber”.

At this point, Schmitt has further elaborated his initial definition of the sovereign as whoever decides upon the state of exception and stated that the crucial mark of sovereignty is the authority to suspend valid law. This leads him to a very complex notion of the state of exception which is simultaneously presupposed by the normal legal order as the potential of its suspension and should be considered the proper subject of jurisprudence inasmuch as it differs from chaos and anarchy. In this particular passage, Schmitt emphasizes the irrelevance of the state of exception and, therefore, the problem of sovereignty to the practical concerns of jurisprudence, which consist of subsuming concrete cases under fixed general laws and minimize the role of decision in favor of that of the norm. Precisely because the concept of sovereignty instantiates no preconceived norm and can only be exemplified by the extreme case which stands outside the legal order as its reverse side, day-to-day juridical practice has nothing to do with it. Namely, jurisprudence cognizes only the normal and lacks the instruments to tackle the extreme case as the negation of the same. The English rendering of the passage, however, offers a contrary interpretation:

“A jurisprudence concerned with ordinary day-to-day questions has practically no interest in the concept of sovereignty. Only the recognizable is its normal concern; everything else is a “disturbance”“.

The sentence could, indeed, be deemed syntactically ambiguous inasmuch as it remains unclear which of the two German nouns in the nominative case (das Normale or das Erkennbare) is the subject of the sentence. However, this supposed ambiguity cannot reasonably account for all the inaccuracies in the translation. First of all, in such cases of inverted word order, it is usually safe to assume that the first noun is the subject of the sentence, namely, das Normale. Besides, if we stick to the English translation, it remains unclear why Schmitt would choose to define the previously elaborated normal concern of jurisprudence (the state of legal order where each proceeding is regulated by and subsumable under valid general laws) with the murky and ambiguous notion of “recognizable”. Therefore, both the letter and the spirit of the text speak for our interpretation and against the given English translation. Furthermore, the original (but not the translation) makes it clear that while only the normal is cognizable for practical jurisprudence, the normal does not exhaust everything that is cognizable as such. Otherwise, Schmitt’s talk of sovereignty would be nonsensical as the state of exception as such would be excluded from the valid subjects of legal and philosophical discourse. By limiting the realm of (re)cognizable to the normal practical concerns of jurisprudence the English translator does violence to the very core of Schmitt’s attack on the supposed priority of legal norm over the state and the sovereign decision that grounds it.

Victor Chorny