A Storied Shooting: Liberty Valance and the Paradox of Sovereignty

Posted: 22 Feb 2011

See all articles by Joshua Foa Dienstag

Joshua Foa Dienstag

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)


Theorists as distinct as Giorgio Agamben and Robert Cover have emphasized the paradox at the center of democratic legal authority, viz. that it cannot be self-derived but must ultimately rest on some extra-legal phenomenon, usually an act of exclusion. It has not been generally recognized that John Ford’s 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' examines precisely this paradoxical situation through a parable of state formation set in the pre-industrial American West. I argue that Ford not only succeeds in representing the dilemma but actually suggests a novel ‘solution’ that has escaped theorists who have considered the problem in the past. The film’s best-known line (‘print the legend’) in fact represents the opposite of its perspective – which is to carefully deconstruct and reveal (without debunking) the complicated interrelation of law and violence in the formation of any state. In showing what it takes to have been hidden, the film is hardly intended as an unpatriotic act – on the contrary, we are meant to be strengthened, if sobered, by the revelation that law is not self-sustaining but requires a sacrifice to succeed. Precisely by printing the facts and not the legend, the film perpetuates the fortuitous moment of state formation. What constitutes the state, then, is neither law nor violence nor a simple mixture of the two, but rather the matrix of representation that creates the relationship between them – here a film, but perhaps, more generally, a sustaining narrative.

Suggested Citation

Dienstag, Joshua Foa, A Storied Shooting: Liberty Valance and the Paradox of Sovereignty. Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1766975

Joshua Foa Dienstag (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) ( email )

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Box 951361
Los Angeles, CA 90095
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