50 Shades, Carl Schmitt, and Extremes


Cultural phenomena like 50 Shades of Grey can help us understand the thoughts of a most controversial political philosopher.

Political philosophy? Jurisprudence? Public law?

Yawning already?

How about some tweedy bore coming along and capitalizing on a cultural phenomenon, all the while intending to expound on topics like the ones listed above?

Call it cynical, but I’m going to give it a go!

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read the book that all the brouhaha is about. The fact that I haven’t endured 50 Shades (a film version is due to be released in a few days) is no obstacle to ‘getting the picture.’ After all, you needn’t have read The Godfather to understand what that book is about.

Despite my admitted ignorance, one important point should be clearly stated. In its exploration of extreme themes, 50 Shades is not all that different from many popular movies and books. Cinema-goers, by definition, are a bit partial to extraordinary violence and events. Furthermore, as a general rule, mundane events rarely make the evening news.

So, 50 Shades seems to fit into a general, cultural tendency; a tendency for the extreme.

Many women (the gender I’m presuming make up a majority of fans of the erotic trilogy) mightn’t have been humiliated to such an extent as the heroine of 50 Shades. Yet, it is very possible that they acquire some insight into their own more ‘normal’ relationships via the extreme violence of 50 Shades. And, after all, isn’t the book merely a modern version of Beauty and the Beast, a tale of the taming of man by woman? Encountering a beastly prince maybe hasn’t happened to many women, but that doesn’t mean that such a story is a meaningless expression of culture, either.

At this point, let the slightly opportunist hook to Carl Schmitt be made.


Revolutions wracked Germany after WWI and made Schmitt consider the legal value of exceptions.

In trying to come to grips with public law – the area of law that deals with relationships between subjects of a government and government itself – German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) focuses on extreme and extraordinary events. Since he is interested in public law, Schmitt’s inquiries into the extreme have a bearing on political philosophy. Now, it is understandable for us to think that politics and law function like clockwork, only disturbed by major crises or court cases. Extraordinary events and celebrated cases happen, but play no part in ‘normal’ politics or law. This approach was personified in Schmitt’s time by Hans Kelsen, the famous Austrian jurist who still exerts a huge influence on the European Continent.

In opposition to ‘normativists’ like Kelsen, the extraordinary and extreme (termed ‘exceptions’) are not the black sheep of public law, Schmitt asserts. The savage eroticism of 50 Shades may shed light (or darkness) on those relations between the sexes that are of a more mundane variety. Similarly, exceptions are the heart of the normal ebb-and-flow of public law theory and political thought for Schmitt. Exceptions are in reality part of normal situations even though they remain hidden for long periods of time. Exceptions spice things up politically, but also are a valuable tool for analysing the routine.


Schmitt’s rival was Hans Kelsen. He denied the legal importance of the exception.

Some examples of exceptions for Schmitt are; (1) Wars for survival. Conflicts show that there is no legal system without the protection of a political power. Relations of dominance are evident. (2) Constitutions – especially the logic, rationale, and spirit of the constituting process – must not be left behind but carried forward into the life of political entities like nations. Constitutions bond citizens and subjects to their governments at their inception. (3) There is the very act of humans making their home on the land. The sea is formless but on land there are many different geopolitical arrangements. So, for instance, a land-locked country and a sea-bound one have different outlooks as a result of them making an exceptional decision on where to live. You make your bed, you lie in it.

On the rock of the exception is where Schmitt builds his whole theory of public law and where his inquiries into sovereignty, decision-making, political governance, and representation, to name but a few topics, originate from.

So, that is the analogy between a cultural phenomenon and Carl Schmitt. Possibly, this was a cynical attempt to flog a book that hasn’t been published yet. I hope that domestic abuse has not been trivialized, or the uncivilized barbarity of BDSM glorified. Yet, cultural phenomena do deserve to be understood and Carl Schmitt, who is the most controversial political theorist of the 20th century, definitely needs to be listened to for not ignoring the extraordinary, the extreme, and the exceptional.

Maybe E.L. James deserves some credit, too. Not that I’ll be putting money in her pocket …

Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt. Any comments or suggested corrections to this post are welcome. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here.

 “50ShadesofGreyCoverArt” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpg#mediaviewer/File:50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpg

“Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0048, Revolution in Bayern, Gefangener” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0048 / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2004-0048,_Revolution_in_Bayern,_Gefangener.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2004-0048,_Revolution_in_Bayern,_Gefangener.jpg

„Kelsen Plakat“ von Glorfindel Goldscheitel – Eigenes Werk. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kelsen_Plakat.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Kelsen_Plakat.JPG

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