Political Theology:

Paul Kahn’s roots

posted by Nancy Levene
Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations. We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks and the earth opens up into the depths of the abyss.
—Pascal, Pensées

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Paul W. Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is a compelling book, though compelling in a sense not unlike an intellectual bruise one is drawn to press on again and again. Ostensibly a re-purposing of Carl Schmitt’s 1922 Political Theology, Kahn’s book possesses a more ambitious armature than his title and the format of following Schmitt’s chapter scheme might suggest. Kahn is a legal scholar by training, and interested here in the problem of sovereignty, which takes him deep into questions of law, jurisprudence, constitutional reasoning, and forms of political organization. It is no less notable, however, that Kahn’s project weighs in on four classic philosophical and political problems: a) the problem of whether and how freedom is possible; b) the question of how a social body is constituted, reconstituted, and reformed; c) the question of whether there is anything human beyond reason (i.e., the question of whether reason comes to an end); and d) the question of when modernity begins, and thus of what its signature concepts and practices are. Subsidiary matters in Kahn’s disquisition on sovereignty include the nature of artistic creation; the motif of creation as such, in relation to religion, politics, and art; and the question of what the origin of a social body has to do with its subsequent operations. This last issue is the one that connects Kahn to Schmitt, since it is Schmitt’s famous contention that the primal act (decision) of collective origin is recapitulated in the ordinary operations of statecraft, a fact it behooves us to remember, but—and this is Schmitt’s raison d’être—also a fact that we subjects of modern liberal democracies, with our proper procedures and our endless debates, largely repress (consistent perhaps with Freud’s famous contention that this repression was itself the primal act of collective origin). We should not be surprised, says Schmitt, that undemocratic phenomena erupt in the midst of democratic structures, for such eruptions tell us something ineradicable about the political as such, and thus about ourselves.

This claim, if true, might be seen as yet another dark myth for our dark times. However, for Kahn, and presumably for other thinkers similarly drawn to Schmitt, it is most definitely not a depressing claim. It is not simply about wiretaps and orange alerts and foreign ambushes. And this makes sense. Why write a book renewing our interest in a sometime Nazi thinker who merely says that, at their heart, democracies are also undemocratic? Don’t we have plenty of our own tyrants and failures to keep us foul company in the long and laborious struggle toward a more democratic and free universe?  On the contrary, Kahn seeks the counsel of Schmitt because he thinks Schmitt’s observations about the political—specifically his observation that politics is about deciding, not about reasoning—are liberating, indeed, are a theory of liberation. In contrast with “a theory of politics as reasonable discourse,” alongside which Kahn places discourses driven by questions of rights, justice, procedural equality, and so on, a political theology of the kind Schmitt offers captures “the character of our political experience as authentically free.” Free, he tells us, like Picasso was free. Free, he writes, somewhat more disturbingly, like Abraham was free.

And here is the bruise. Kahn is not simply offering us Schmitt to banish the illusion that we can do without decision in political life—and thus without force, violence, or sacrifice. He is offering us a Schmitt whose meditations on decision bring us solutions to the four classic problems noted above: of freedom, of origin and practice, of reason, and of modernity. Kahn wears many colorful hats in this book, and takes many risks, assuming in one moment the mien of sober expert on institutions of law and justice, and in another the theorist or perhaps even the practitioner of art, while in yet another he writes as a philosopher returning us to the most elemental problems of the human condition. In this cornucopia, Kahn reminds me of Terence Malick trying to produce a film written by Jerry Bruckheimer. We will heed Schmitt’s voice along the way, adequately updated and made progressive for a renewed liberal polity. We will also enjoy the spectacle of the decision, clenched fist hammering on raucous, conversational table. But there is a grimness that besets Kahn as he wends through this story that belies the loftier intellectual realms in which he seems to want to take his place. There is no doubt that Kahn usefully recalls us to a consideration of the structures of political life. But Schmitt proves a wayward interlocutor on the more foundational topics those structures bespeak, and seems to support Kahn in his least convincing mode, arguing for the salience of will over reason in the problem of freedom.

Kahn has advanced this argument elsewhere, that the will, and not reason, forms the center of “Judeo-Christian metaphysics,” most notably in Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil. It is, I find, a significantly distracting claim. Does he not know, I mutter to myself, pulling Pascal and Kant and Kierkegaard off the shelf, that Schmitt’s petty algorithm of decision is woefully incapable of taking us through even problema 1 of the relationship of the universal and the particular in the problem of freedom? Kahn brings up Abraham in order to imagine for us a politics that “begins with an act of willing self-destruction that rests on faith, not reason.” But what does Kahn make of the fact that, in Kierkegaard’s telling, it is the hero Agamemnon, not Abraham, who, by the logic of Kahn’s political theology, places faith in the divine higher than his human obligation, who, as Kahn approves, leaves off “the finite in the presence of the infinite”? (And is this not the very constitution of terrorism?) For Kierkegaard, Abraham, by contrast, refuses this calculus, this “faith,” and thus, in asserting his love for Isaac as equal to his love for God, shows that these two loves, both faithful and rational, both universal and particular, do not—ultimately cannot—conflict. Faith would then be the commitment to this novum. One can certainly argue this notorious biblical episode, with or without the likes of Kierkegaard, well into the next millennium. But—Kahn knows—at some point there is (can be, should be) a decision on what it means. His is chilling, opting for decision itself as outside the framework of human understanding. Kahn is careful to overrule the arbitrary, arguing that decision (will) hews a path between the irrational or mad and the ordinary rule of rational norms and procedures. But it is startling to find on this middle ground a defense—from the finite to the infinite—that would not be out of place on a recruitment poster for martyrdom.

This conflation of Abraham and Agamemnon is repeated in diverse ways throughout Kahn’s analysis. In thinking through the origins of community—the origins of the state—Kahn writes:

The originating act rests on the faith that through death is life, the central idea of every sacrifice. There can be no nation of Israel as a community sustaining itself through history until families are willing to sacrifice their children for the sake of the existence of the state. They do so not because of a promise of their own well-being, as in Hobbes’s idea of the social contract, but because they have faith that the state holds forth an ultimate meaning. Sacrifice is the appearance of the sacred as a historical phenomenon. Its domain is silent faith, not reasoned discourse. We can talk forever and never reach a position of faith. This is the faith that connects the transcendent experience of revolution to the jurispathic moment of judicial decision, and both to the state of exception in defense of the nation.

Here, again, there is the supposed opposition between faith and reason, between reasoning as the position of deferral and naiveté, and faith and sacrifice as the signs of true politics (marked by the appearance of the sacred). But surely he knows, I mutter, pulling Spinoza and Hobbes off the shelf, that there is a whole literature that makes central the complex relationship between reason and commitment (faith) in the enactment of political being. A thinker like Spinoza, rationalist to the core, is fascinated with the question of how sovereignty is made collective—how a mass, in other words, is constituted as rational when rationality is only possible in a mass. Spinoza’s notion of reason as collective (and thus connected to power and sovereignty) is unlike Kahn’s model, which would have us debating ad nauseum in the desert until someone, call him the king, has the cojones to bring the reasoning to an end. As Kahn puts it, “sovereignty is constituted in the imagining of the sacrificial act: the willingness to kill and be killed establishes the temporal and geographic boundaries of the state. The pledge speaks the same language beyond reason that Abraham spoke to God: ‘Here am I.’” And yet, amazingly, almost as an aside, Kahn also writes that “the condition of free thought is not isolation from others. Rather, if freedom is realized in discursive engagement, then its condition is mutual recognition. Freedom is a practice we do together.”

This is the point at which I have to admit my own limits—to say that, if Kahn’s argument about freedom and decision can be held together, then perhaps it is just my own dimness that cannot make it out. It seems right to say at the very least that the problem the so-called contract theorists address seems fundamentally the same as Kahn’s. How do we conceive of the moment of origin? What kind of an act is it? How do you move (if indeed you do move) from nature to freedom? Like Kahn, Spinoza has recourse to the image of the ancient Hebrews as a mass constituted before God. But they interpret this image very differently. For Spinoza, the case of the Hebrews displays both the democratic quality of the divine-human relationship, as the covenant with God “left them all completely equal,” with equal “right to consult God, to receive and interpret his laws,” and to share “in the government of the state,” and the dangers of having God as the head of state—the need, in short, to transfer this position to a human, and ideally democratic sovereign, as the Hebrews did for a time. It demonstrates the coordination of commitment and reason, for God, as the sign of democratic sovereignty, is the very embodiment of reason, while also being, in human hands, a site of conflict. Another way of putting this is that reason, for Spinoza,  is no less about decision than it is about principle, so to mark the haunting of a state by its origins is not threatening to democratic unfolding (i.e., not the sign that there is something undemocratic afoot). There is no moment, no decision, that is not subject to “talk,” no transcendent that transcends the mind making it comprehensible. For Kahn, by contrast, the presence of revelation and faith in the case of the Hebrews demonstrates the centrality of sacrifice and exception:

A politics of the exception is one that relies on revelation and faith rather than argument and reason. It is, as Schmitt writes, a politics of the miraculous, but – and this is the most important point—it is also an experience of freedom. This is the moment that liberal theory rejects as a failure of reason. Despite the failure of theoretical comprehension, the history of the nation has been the narrative of these moments of decision, just as the history of the Jews is a narrative of God’s revelation.

It is not that people cannot disagree about such things: reason, faith, origin, the political, or more narrowly, the history of the Jews, the history of the nation, America. It is that Schmitt, on these topics, is a mallet. In encountering again and again Kahn’s insistence that “political theology” is a form of authenticity and an expression of freedom insofar as it “rests on an experience beyond discourse . . . on faith, not argument, and on sacrifice, not contract,” I was moved to look again at some of the more searching accounts in the philosophical tradition (of the West) of the limits of what we can know. One does not have to look far.

There is Pascal, for one, who writes so movingly of “the supreme difficulty” that our “very being” presents to us, but who writes, nevertheless, that there is a “relationship between man and all he knows,” and who knows, thus, that, if reason’s very power is constituted through the “recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” this beyond is no more a receptacle for faith than it is for further scrutiny of the “greatest prodigy in nature . . . man himself.” Who better than Pascal to agree with Schmitt that faith is a wager unplumbed by reason? But how impoverished Schmitt seems next to the French early modern, who takes us with great subtlety to the frontiers of each. Commit, says Pascal, for you—your being as both rational and faithful—are already committed. Now account for both in the life you piece together in their wake.

There is Kant, for another, whose position on reason and freedom Kahn typifies as the subordination of “the self to a universal rule.” Kahn’s argument with Kant (and Rawls) launches him into an extended discussion of artistic creation, as if Kant simply failed to recognize that real freedom involves more than applying a rule. In the course of this dispute, Kahn makes some powerful connections between creation, interpretation, and imagination. But hovering over the proceedings is the Schmittian mallet: Artists “do not know how it is that they do what they do. They do not know because the imagination is not an expression of reason but of free will.” One appreciates what Kahn is saying when he says that “the artist does not apply the universal.” It is just that this maxim masks the thing that Kahn shares with Kant and his heirs, not just Rawls and Habermas, Kahn’s bêtes noir, but a wilder, more creative thinker like Alain Badiou. Of course freedom is not the application of a rule. Of course it is an “event” with no precedent and no premise. Of course, Kant would say, we have no examples of it, for it is not given in the nature of the world as we ordinarily (Badiou would say), or phenomenally (Kant would say), receive it. In this, Kant and Kierkegaard stand together. Reason and faith can each hollow out the quotidian pieties with which we ordinarily move through the world.

But Kahn’s (Schmitt’s) striking conclusion, that freedom can only be preserved outside the range of reason, seems too costly a conclusion in terms of what it blinds him to: It makes any notion of free will literally blind, for, in the idiom of the artist, the actor “does not know how it is that they do what they do,” a truly disarming and contradictory notion. And it makes Kahn blind to the, again, more subtle structures of freedom and reason present in someone like Kant. For Kant acknowledges that freedom is awesome, incredible, wondrous. We would not believe it possible were it not for the consciousness we have of the moral law, to which all of our vague, fumbling projects of self-interest (abandoning the finite for the infinite, for example, whether that infinite is God or Oprah) nevertheless—or, indeed, therefore—point, and which requires the postulate of freedom. When Kahn transposes the moral law into the language of rule-obeying contra the freedom of muses and creative daimons, he is surely confused, for the idea that, loosely translated, I can take the other’s standpoint as my own is doubtless as radically unprecedented as any human action there is, and is no less present in Guernica than in the Declaration of Independence. Or he is crazy. For the idea that there is something more free (higher, better) than finding common cause with the other is, like Agamemnon, part of a world I, with Picasso and Abraham, would disavow. Kant’s reason, like Spinoza’s, is constituted in the collective, outside of which there is only fate, self-deception, and the banality of taking oneself as the measure of all things. This does not mean it is sheerly comprehensible. But, Schmitt might grudgingly approve, it is comprehensible “in its incomprehensibility,” and this, Kant notes, with Pascal, “is all that can fairly be required of a philosophy that strives in its principles to the very boundary of human reason.”

These (Pascal, Hobbes, Spinoza, Kant, Kierkegaard, Badiou) were not the only thinkers I pulled off my shelves in reading Kahn’s treatise. Bestrewn on the floor are Aristotle (on the nature of knowledge deferred), St. Anselm (on reason and borders), Maimonides (on the fall and its disavowal), Plato (on the divided line and on killing and being killed), Sartre (on authenticity), Levinas (on Sinai and freedom) . . . the list goes on. Freud, as I note above, is actually a vital case for Kahn’s work, for Freud can look now like Schmitt, with his primal killings, and now more like Spinoza or Derrida, who conceive origins as already, i.e., primarily, repressed, which is another way, oddly enough, of saying that they are “originally” rational insofar as consciousness and unconsciousness are thereby understood to come into existence together. There is Strauss, too, a companion in arms for many readers of Schmitt, a writer who similarly loaded his ambivalence about reason into the arrows he flung at enemies theological and political. But the thought was by that point too fatiguing. The book clearly got my goat, and perhaps that is a mark of its strength. I wanted, in revisiting these thinkers, to expose Kahn’s (Schmitt’s) anemic notion of reason as the standard Trojan horse that it is, smuggling in an empty genealogy of the West and of modernity, while tapping into something importantly true and often bungled: that, as Pascal notes, it is reason that knows it is not enough, reason that is always drawing and redrawing its borders and its unknowns. And thus it is reason that is enough. It needs—god knows it needs—no mallets.

I conclude, in lieu of this longer project, with a gesture toward a better genealogy (and thus a better account) of modern reason, which would begin, Kahn might well recognize, in Genesis, on which, one could say, his treatise is a partial commentary. For, even though Kahn, like so many before him, makes Reformation and Enlightenment (in Schmittian parlance, decision and its rationalization) the twin sources of modernity (without accounting for their sources), his treatment of reason as a nattering cipher silenced by the muscular arm of the sovereign owes more than a little to that familiar story of God and the serpent and Eve and Adam. In the midrashic imagination I have in mind, however, the God character is a little different from Schmitt’s fearless, sovereign actor. Confronted with his act of creation, God tries to keep knowledge out of the relationship, himself repressing (in confusion? in vainglory?) what he has established in creating in the first place: self and other, reason and faith. There is no mystery in Genesis, no ignorance of how what is done is done. There is simply, in the serpent, mystification, as knowledge is passed off as inconsequential. There is simply, in Adam and Eve, double-mindedness, as they confront, out of Eden, the laborious commitment that da’at, knowledge, will require of them. And there is simply, in God, the combination of bluster, self-regard, and self-consciousness that artists like Malick use to great effect to bring faith and reason into ever new deliciously undecidable relation. Is it not a beautiful joke that his new film, Tree of Life, full of gauzy pieties to God in the voice-overs, is prefaced, not with a verse extolling God’s trembling mystery, but instead with God’s blunt and angrily rhetorical question to Job as God appears, finally, after a long silence: “Where were you [while I was here making the land of good and evil]?” It is a measure of the film’s depth, its own da’at, that it simultaneously acknowledges the force of this question and responds, with painstaking attention to detail, bypassing rhetoric for reason: “Here.” “Here,” the Jobs of Malick’s film say. “We were here, as you were, citizens and sovereigns of the land the knowledge of good and evil made.”

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