Political Theology:

The integrity of theory

posted by Paul W. Kahn

I am delighted that my new book on political theology has provided the occasion for this conversation.  The editors have suggested that I offer an “interim” intervention.  This is a good idea, since already much has been said. I am going to try to advance the discussion rather than defend the book, which will have to fend for itself.  That a creative work must stand on its own is, by the way, central to my book’s claim about the nature of the free act, as well as to the attitude I take toward Schmitt’s text.

Framing my book as an exercise in “thinking with” Schmitt, I have to bear the consequences of the association.  While most of the commentators acknowledge my effort to democratize Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign, my sense is that, for the most, part they continue to read me through the familiar lens of a reactionary Schmitt.  They voice worries about the exclusionary character of the sovereign, about compulsion in place of freedom, and about those who suffer from the violence of the state, both internally and externally.  Despite my efforts to describe a project rooted in American history and law, they worry about an essentializing tendency in my work.  All of these are legitimate worries about the character of American politics, but I am not offering a defense of American practices.  Rather, I am trying to bring some clarity to the way in which we have imagined politics, for good and for evil.

More importantly, reading me in the Schmittian register, the commentators have tended to focus on the specifically political parts of the book, spending far less time with the chapters on legal judgment, discourse, and creativity.  Contra someone like Agamben, my effort has been to “normalize” the exception, not by arguing that we are in a constant political crisis, but by showing the pervasiveness of decision in our ordinary lives.  At the center of my inquiry is an attempt to understand a free act as one that neither follows from a rule nor is arbitrary with respect to rules.  This is the notion of freedom that links revolution to legal judgment, and both to the creative acts of the imagination, including ordinary discourse.

My interlocutors in this round, however, want to speak of the relationship of theory to power, and so I will focus my remarks on this.  I will not repeat the arguments of the book.  Rather, I will try to respond “in the spirit of the book.”

My central project has been to study the American political imaginary. I show that it makes use of symbolic resources that are in wide circulation in the West.  This makes a comparative project compelling, but I leave it to others to offer a rich account of how these same elements are configured—combined and juxtaposed—elsewhere.  The American political imaginary has combined revolution and constitution, sacrifice and well-being, violence and law.  This combination has made our politics a source of ultimate meaning for many, but also a very dangerous practice.

There is no necessity in any of this.  We have no reason to think that politics takes the same form elsewhere; and we have every reason to think that these elements are deeply contested in American political life today.  There is an analogy to religion, which has taken certain forms in the West, and more particularly in American history, but there is no universal necessity in this either.  Similarly, there is not one political life that we must live.  A central idea of the book is that we must decide.  Some of the commentators will immediately ask, “Who is the we?”  There is no answer that exists apart from the way in which individuals think of themselves, and that is both a cause and effect of power.  I agree with a number of commentators who argue that we have to examine how it is that various discourses have been used, and continue to be used, to construct a collective subject—as well as to contest that subject.

While I have in view American political experience, a number of commentators have also pointed to recent events in the Middle East as a sort of challenge to, or check on, my views.  If I were claiming something essential about politics, perhaps that would make sense, but I am not.  I have, nevertheless, been struck by how much the popular accounts we are offered of the events in the Middle East adhere to the narrative structure of revolution and constitution that I explore.  First, we see the centrality of sacrifice to the revolutionary claim.  Sacrifice appears as the presence of the people themselves. Second, who are the people?  I am struck by the importance of national boundaries.  Of course, revolutionary actions invoke universal values—equality, human rights, democracy—but the complex relationship between the particular and universal is at the center of the themes I have explored.  The recent events seem to invoke “we the people” as a nation-state, not an ethnic, religious, or transnational community.  Third, we see that the appearance of the people is a moment of violence prior to law; a nonviolent politics is not one without sacrifice.  Fourth, we see the way in which peoples first constitute themselves as such before they take up the question of what the law should be: constitution follows revolution.   Finally, watching these communities of committed young people, one feels that here, too, one is witness to an erotic communion: love and the sacred are bound together.

I do not put this forward to support a claim that what we are watching is the unfolding of the universal character of the political.  It is hard to know how much of the narrative is a matter of Western press coverage, for example.  I suspect, however, that we are seeing the power of a certain imaginative structure.  Why do we see this configuration of Middle Eastern politics now? I would point the inquiry in a different direction than have some of my interlocutors.  We need to look well beyond politics, economics, and religion.  This imaginative structure is embedded in multiple cultural productions that come at us from every direction: film, television, novels, song, and reporting, as well as popular rhetoric at both the local town hall and the national capital.  If we want to understand the global reach of the American imagination, we are going to have to consider these sources of reproduction – and, indeed, my next book does just this.

Emphasizing these sources of cultural reproduction will not satisfy most of my critics, who are interested in the way that hegemony fails.  They point out that there is no single political narrative in the United States; there are groups that have understood American power, not as something in which they share, but as something from which they suffer.  Of course, that is correct.  We have to remember that we are dealing here with imaginative resources, not with natural structures.  Every narrative construction presents an opportunity for disavowal as well as avowal.  Contention is part of every order of belief.  For this reason, the project is necessarily historical.  Indeed, ours is a moment at which there is a good deal of pressure on the imagination of sovereignty – popular or otherwise.  The structure of that tension puts at issue the relationship between law and sovereignty.  Theory, however, will not tell us the outcome of this conflict.

Some will say that I have so far missed the point of the examples of both the Arab Spring and the politics of marginalized groups.  The point is not about diversity or its absence, but about political possibilities.  These events and groups show us the potential for an alternative politics.  This is a normative claim about what our political life should be.  I insist that my work is not normative—a claim about which many are skeptical.

Of course, I do not mean that I am indifferent to conceptions of justice.  I repeatedly try to make clear that my own values are liberal.  Nor do I think that it is impossible to do liberal political theory.  My book on this subject was called “Putting Liberalism in its Place,” not “Putting Liberalism Down.”  Commentators on my new book are particularly skeptical because of my frequent invocation of “authenticity.”  I ask and answer the question of whether we can conceive of our political practices as supporting such a norm.  But my point here is not different in kind from what I have had to say about justice.  Our political practices bear on a number of norms or values.  There is no neutral, non-normative way of engaging in politics.  The theoretical inquiry I pursue, however, does not offer an ordering of these different and incommensurable values.  Theory does not tell us whether anyone should find the value of authenticity in political practice.

This comes out in my argument that conscription can now occur outside of law, through the misfortune of finding oneself on a highjacked plane—a problematic claim for some of the commentators.  I do not suggest that one cannot resist at this moment—just as there were resisters to the formal draft.  The question, I say, is, “What will you do?”  I don’t have an answer to the question of what you should do.  It is not some sort of mistake to reject a political practice of sacrifice.  It is, however, a mistake of theory to refuse to recognize the power that sacrifice has played and continues to play in shaping the American imaginary.

My exploration of the American political imaginary is non-normative in the same way that an inquiry into the Christian or Jewish imagination is non-normative.  I respect the fact that millions of people have lived and died for these beliefs.  There is nothing universalizing or essentializing about respect.  Moreover, what these structures shape is a field of possible contention.  Americans actively contest virtually every aspect of their political lives—except perhaps the continuation of the American political project itself.  Trying to understand the shape of the political imagination will not and cannot settle these debates.  Noting the role that war has played in our understanding of sovereignty hardly tells us whether we should engage in any particular war, or whether we should devote ourselves to ending all war.

Some worry that describing a hegemonic form of the imagination is itself an act of hegemony.  I simply don’t agree.  Academics often write as if theory were a form of politics.  But theory will not do the hard work of politics for us.  I don’t believe that theory gives me a privileged place in politics.  Actual politics requires situated judgment; it requires evaluation of the possibilities in a complex fact situation.  Theory provides no training in judgment and it never reaches the particular.  At best, theory as I pursue it can help us to understand why our politics assumes certain forms.

My ambition has been to plot the diverse normative valences at work in American political experience.  That which is incommensurable cannot be made commensurable in theory.  Thus, authenticity is a value, but so is justice; revolution is one form of political experience, but so is the rule of law.  The aims of law are no less contestable than those of revolution.  Theory can bring some self-consciousness to these multiple forms of life, but it cannot tell us what we should do when we must choose. I cannot tell anyone whether they should put love over justice or justice over love.  We all hope that we do not face such conflicts.  When we do, the choice is our own to make.

This brings me back to the central theme of the book: freedom.  I have tried not just to trace the ways in which the locus of sovereign decision has moved to everyman, but to show that the decision always exceeds the norm.  My effort was to explore this idea of freedom in its political, jurisprudential, and discursive dimensions.  This hardly amounts to a proposal to subordinate justice to authenticity.  How we should exercise our freedom remains an open question, not just in politics but in every domain of our experience.

America, I would insist, and many of my interlocutors would agree, has not been a project centrally concerned with justice.  The liberal political theorist wants to contribute to the amelioration of this condition.  That is an admirable political ambition but a poor ground for understanding the field of meaning that has been American history.  The choice cannot be between justice and apologetics.  Theory must have its own integrity.

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