The Age of the Despicable Sovereign (Harriet Pollard)


Reading this extract from Foucault’s Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France [1], it was impossible to ignore parallels to our current political climate. His analysis of the “despicable sovereign” and “ridiculous authority” brings to mind many of the leading political figures of today. He writes of a particular type of grotesque that is inherent in the mechanisms of power. To illustrate his point he uses the historical example of the Roman Empire, where the emperor, who had more uncontested power than anyone else, was, “at the same time, in his person, his character and his physical reality, in his costume, his gesture, his body, his sexuality and his way of life, a despicable, grotesque, and ridiculous individual.” This description perfectly fits the many current political figures who are constantly ridiculed and depicted as clownish or buffoonish, but despite this, still wield a huge amount of power. There is a growing list of figures to choose from: Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and Theresa May all spring to mind.

However, Foucault concludes by stating how he does not think that explicitly showing power to be ridiculous or despicable is a way of limiting its effects. Instead, he believes it is a way of giving a “striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor (…) even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.”

My chosen clip illustrates this idea. It is a video from the popular “Bad Lip Reading” series, where Donald Trump’s inauguration is turned into a comedic farce. The video is edited to make Trump look ridiculous, and even though it may succeed in turning him into a clown, there is still the bleak reality of the fact that we are watching his inauguration into presidency. This is the moment when the “unavoidability” and “inevitability” Foucault talks about becomes final and becomes real. We laugh at Trump’s ridiculousness, we agree that he is despicable, but we can do nothing to take away the power he has just been given. In the face of such “despicable sovereigns,” what can we do except to try and make their grotesqueness as explicit as possible?


[1] Michel Foucault, Excerpt from Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France (New York: Verso, 2003), 11-13.

One comment

  1. Trump perfectly embodies the grotesque individual that is described in Foucault’s lecture. I think the most grotesque thing about Trump is his speeches and what he says. The bad lip reading exaggerates and satirizing Trump’s grotesque way of speaking. Trump is already grotesque and this clip highlights it.

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