Protecting Our Precious Bodily Fluids: The Nature of Sovereignty in Dr. Strangelove

In Political Theology, Carl Schmitt famously argues that the “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Thus began Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which is a hilarious exploration of what happens when political contingencies–such as a nuclear attack capable of destroying all life on earth–is decided by the pre-determined rules of deterrence.

Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology can be seen as a direct attack on liberal constitutionalism, or the idea that all political decisions must fall under the purview of established rules that limit what political actors can do. Schmitt’s basic argument agaginst liberal constitutionalism is that it cannot account for the truly exception, the contingencies that the rules cannot anticipate. In the face of these contingencies, the legal order is unable to decide, because the rules do not apply. Thus, it falls upon the sovereign to decide what to do, and this kind of political decision-making is no longer rule-based but existential. Subsequently, in The Concept of the Political, Schmitt argues that it is the existential decision-making process that defines politics, not a priori rules.

Dr. Strangelove deals extensively, and almost exclusively, with a singular political contingency: the decision by General Ripper to unilaterally initiate an attack on Russian military targets whose logical consequence is total annihilation of the Earth. A large part of the film’s humor, and its plot, derives from all other political actor’s inability to deal with this contingency with existing rules. In the first scene in the War Room, President Muffley is exapserated by General Turgidson’s explanation for why he cannot override General Ripper’s command: because the rules have taken out any element of individual human control. And ironically enough, as General Turgidson reminds President Muffley: you approved these rules yourself.

Of course, the central metaphor for pre-existing rules is the doomsday device: a device that completely removes any and all elements of individual decision-making. The doomsday machine is automatically and irreversibly triggered when a certain set of circumstances are present, and there is no one anything can do about it. The doomsday device is a stand-in for deterrence and MAD, in that it is supposed to be public information whose very publicity is designed to deter the very kind of aggression that the machine itself is doing when it is activated. The idea is that once all the actors are aware of the rules, they will play by them since the consequences of violating the rules are too great to bear for any rational actor. Thus, the rule creates behavior that is stable and self-sustaining.

Except when contingencies happen, in which case the rules are unable to account for any unforseen circumstances that the creator of the rules could not anticipate. And Schmitt’s central argument in Political Theology is that the realm of the unanticipated contingencies is precisely the realm of the sovereign, who by its nature is beyond the rules. After all, if rules could be designed such that they can anticipate every single possibility, then there would no longer be a need for actual human decision-making. But since this is obviously impossible, the sovereignty exists to make those decisions.

The hilarious, and fatal, problem in Dr. Strangelove is that all the political actors involved have stripped themselves of sovereignty by making rules that remove all elements of individual decision-making. In other words, the political actors in Dr. Strangelove have de-politicized themselves, in order to avoid an undesirable political situation: namely, total annihilation.

Schmitt was always critical of liberalism precisely because he felt that liberalism tried to de-politicize the political, which to him is neither possible nor desirable. He explicitly rejected the idea that the political solely consists of rules and laws; rather, he wants to say that it is precisely that which is NOT covered by the rules that constitute the essence of politics.

Does this mean that Dr. Strangelove takes a position one way or another? I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure, the movie is pessimistic that rules and their publicity can prevent distastrous outcomes. It is a critique of MAD and deterrence, because the outcome of following these rules to their logical extreme is complete annihilation. In fact, the movie mocks the political actor’s inability or unwillingness to make decisions. For example, in the scene when Dr. Strangelove is talking about preserving a certain percentage of people underground, the President says he is unwilling to make the choice, at which point Strangelove says that a computer can make the choice instead. Surely this scene is mocking, because it exposes the trust that political leaders have in the ability of rules to solve all political problems, when it is the singular act of General Ripper that started the entire crisis.

And this is why I love the movie so much, because every time I see it, I catch something new. I would have never detected any Schmittian ideas in the movie before I started reading Schmitt. However, now that I have, I see something new in the movie that makes me think about both Schmitt and the movie all over again, and anything that prompts me to think and re-think is always good in my eyes.

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