I knew that my new book, Political Theology, would be controversial. It covers a lot of ground; it produces odd conjunctions; and its rhetoric can sound extreme. It pays little attention to academic conventions and often cuts against popular, political expectations. Some might think presumptuous its design and method of “rewriting” Schmitt’s classic. Many readers are startled to find that out of an engagement with Schmitt can come an exploration of freedom in its political, legal, and discursive dimensions. Others are surprised to find that a book about sovereignty and law—let alone a theological inquiry—puts the imagination at its center. For all these reasons, I thought it an act of some academic courage for the editors to propose this series of commentaries on the book.
Reading these responses to my Political Theology has always been interesting, but not always enjoyable. Generally, I try to focus on the issues of interest and ignore misunderstanding or misplaced critiques. My interim posting took this approach. Some of the subsequent postings, however, are so disturbing as examples of intellectual exchange that they require a more pointed response. Let me dispose of these before I take up the thoughtful commentators.
Miguel Vatter has lots of advice on the book I should have written to “advance the discussion of the theme of ‘political theology’ in Schmitt.” I don’t think I could have been clearer that this was not my project. Quoting me, Vatter characterizes my work as an “exegesis” of Schmitt’s text. What I actually said was “This work is neither an exegesis of [Schmitt’s] text, nor an intellectual history.” Remarkably, Vatter rewrites this sentence to read, “Kahn says at one point that he is doing ‘an exegesis of his [Schmitt’s] text, not an intellectual history.’”
Jean-Claude Monod agrees with my “diagnosis” of the facts of American political life, but criticizes me for deploying political theology in defense of American policies of torture. His critique is rooted in my “defense” of the Israeli Supreme Court’s torture decision and my failure to criticize the ticking time bomb argument. Both points are frivolous. First, I have no reason to defend the Israeli Court. Rather, my point was about how difficult it is, even for a court, to adhere to the legal rule of no torture, as if stating the rule were the end of the matter. I described this resurgence of the exception even within a decision declaring the absolute character of the no torture rule as a “paradox.” For what it’s worth I would never say what Monod attributes to me: “Even if it is an illegitimate practice, it can be made legal by virtue of a political decision.” That view is sophomoric. The point of my work is to explore the double nature of a political commitment to law and sovereignty, not to reduce one to the other.
This problem of managing the incommensurable has been the point of my work with the ticking time bomb hypothetical. I am frankly amazed by Monod’s description of my work on this point as uncritical. I don’t think anyone has devoted more time to trying to unpack the way in which the ticking time bomb argument actually works than I did in Sacred Violence, which devotes an entire chapter to the problem. Of course, one cannot do everything everywhere, but I do provide the references to the essential debate on this issue, including my prior work.
With Vincent Pecora, we move from the merely sophomoric to the outrightly offensive. His strategy is first to state the obvious and then to taint me by association with the Nazi theorist Otto Brunner. On the obvious, who would deny that the differing attitudes of contemporary Europeans and Americans on the use of force is in large part to be accounted for by their different experiences of violence in the twentieth century? And who would claim that sacrifice is a unique possession of the West? Pecora seems not to understand the meaning of the “American exceptionalism” that I explore, which has nothing to do with the idea that every nation is “somehow unique.” Rather, American exceptionalism has to do with the way in which American law and legal institutions place themselves with respect to foreign and international law and institutions. Pecora doesn’t see this because he believes there is something “unfortunate” in the legal mind. At least it can hold on to some distinctions: for example, that the United States is committed to both the rule of law and popular sovereignty. The puzzle is to understand how this constitutional double actually works in our law and politics, both now and in the past.
Jason Stevens does a little better. Much of his long “detour” on Schmitt and Blumenberg rehearses points with which I agree but that are not at issue in my work. Most of what he says about the operation of religious categories in American political history simply illustrates my argument. My point is not about a single possible use of these categories, but about how they offer an imaginative frame, and thus conceptual resources for the multiple, contesting parties. When he actually comes to my work, he seems so bent on finding a point of disagreement that he turns to an article I wrote some ten years ago critiquing the idea that popular democratic deliberation is likely to be an effective method of responding to moral atrocity around the world. Stevens makes the leap of saying that my suggestion of presidential leadership on such foreign policy matters “follows from Kahn’s argument, in Political Theology, that the President play a Christological role when mediating the sovereign presence and committing it to sacrifice.” What I actually said was:
If we are concerned with deploying the immense military power of the United States for good in the world as we confront the twenty-first century, then we need to appreciate opportunities for presidential leadership. More than Congress and more than the public, the president is subject to the demands of international organizations and the pressures brought to bear by civic and political leaders from around the world. If we want the United States to stop genocide in places like Rwanda, we need to reject arguments that every risky deployment of U.S. forces requires a Congressional declaration of war and advance democratic approval. We should do all that we can to encourage international policing, military deterrence, and the threat of real intervention against those who would commit mass atrocities. We should encourage U.S. participation in such deployments of force. The Constitution was not designed for such a task, nor is Congress likely to assume it. Intervention is, however, demanded of the United States by much of the world. They are right to make this demand, and I do not believe that the structure of the Constitution undermines the morally compelling response.
This was an argument about morality, law, and the pressures of foreign policy on different institutions of government. There was no claim for Christology or sacrifice. My point from 2002 has recently been quite precisely illustrated in the American intervention in Libya, which was not about sacrifice but did require presidential leadership.
In Political Theology, Christology comes up in exactly one sentence when I am considering the locus of the actual power to decide with respect to issues of national security. Historically, I note, the Court has been reluctant to get involved, and power has been successfully claimed by the President in “moments of national crisis”—not at all the topic of human rights intervention considered in the earlier article. After pointing out that the President’s power in this respect seems to be weakening, I go on to say that it would be useful to think about his claim to embody the nation in such instances, not in terms of a sovereign act of creation, but in terms of the imaginative frame of Christology—an individual subject embodying the whole of the community. Understanding the nature of power is not the same as approving of its use.
The rest of the essays are thoughtful engagements with the book, from which I learned a good deal. They pose serious questions of two sorts: those about which I can say something and those about which I wish I could say something. In the latter category, I particularly place Ward Blanton’s beautifully written plea that I transform my political tract into a “political experience” by giving name to “the phenomenon of a new beginning.” I have never claimed to have a prophetic voice, nor to be able to found a new “Us,” although I don’t think that the depth of our estrangement is quite as bleak as this question might suggest. I can offer two sorts of response to Blanton.
First, when I described my ambition in the book as phenomenolgical, not normative, part of my ambition was to speak of the American political imaginary in a way that reminds the reader of just how powerful its claim has been. I want the reader to recognize that this constellation of popular sovereignty, sacrifice, and rule of law is still doing considerable work. We must be careful to understand exactly what is at issue. The political imaginary to which I am trying to give voice can be at work among those who believe that government is failing and that law is no longer representative. The question is what sorts of values do they hope to see realized in political experience. Similarly, the domain within which the imaginary works is hardly limited to our actual political institutions. One has to look, as well, at the many fictional and historical representations of contest and success, of struggle and resolution. My work has tried to explore that archetypical presence in legal opinions, institutional structures, political rhetoric, public memorials, historical narrative, film, and other expressions of popular culture.
Second, when I am not writing about politics, I am often writing about love—and often about the intersection of the two. The experience of a new beginning for which Blanton longs, and which I have called the point at which being and meaning coincide, has not disappeared from our experience, even if the sacred has withdrawn from our political experience. One of the problems with liberal political theory has been its “privatization” of the family. I understand the love of the family, and particularly of the child, as world creating and world affirming. It is not about justice or representation, but about that longed for new beginning that gives meaning to the world. What Blanton really wants to know, I suspect, is what forms of erotic community will emerge in the social order as the state is increasingly dislocated from the center of our experience of meaning. He rightly observes that to answer that question is to move beyond theory and speak from a position in thrall to the sacred. I can’t do that, but what I can still affirm, or at least hope, is that our deep and abiding commitment to love suggests that we do not live in a disenchanted world. Love will continue to draw us forward into new social formations.
Several commentators challenge my claim that popular sovereignty offers an imaginative framework within which a politics of ultimate meaning moves forward in America. I don’t deny that this entire imaginative structure may be passing. When I say my work is not normative, I mean that I take no position on whether such a passing would be good or bad. Yet, it is too soon to declare its death. Most of the critical points the commentators bring up strike me as more supportive than critical of my views. I hardly take it as a point against my argument that there is very substantial dissatisfaction with government today, that many express frustration and disappointment with the government and laws that we have, and some even make extreme threats—the last a point brought up by several commentators. What is interesting in so much of the critique is the way in which the concept of popular sovereignty is invoked. The unsettled place of the popular sovereign is a part of the account I too would give. Precisely my point is that the popular sovereign is not measurable, not reducible to a process or a vote. It is a resource put to work to make particular claims. Those claims will be contested—mostly peacefully, but sometimes violently.
Similarly, the fact that America has a long history of injustice with respect to exclusion of different groups from the popular sovereign is not a challenge to the imaginative force of the idea of popular sovereignty. Precisely because the concept is understood as the point of origin of an ultimate meaning that cannot be reduced to representational form, the varieties of American racism have often played out as an issue of what I have elsewhere called the “material cause” of the popular sovereign. This is the question of which bodies can support the weight or meaning of the sovereign. Groups seen as incapable of taking on that meaning were in a difficult and dangerous position from which law could not easily protect them. To be seen as “incapable” meant, in part, that they could not be seen as embodying the state in and through sacrifice. For this reason, extension of the corpus of the sovereign has so often in American history been linked to sacrifice at war. The proof text of instantiation of the body politic has not been a theory of justice, but a common experience of sacrifice.
Several commentators take issue with my terminology. Politics, they insist, is not necessarily about ultimate meanings, freedom can be located in negative liberty as much as in authenticity, and meaning can be located in the mundane as well as the sacrificial. Of course, all of this is true. If we mean by politics the institutionally organized, public life of the community, then politics goes on as a legal, bureaucratic formation all the time. Many national communities don’t want any other form of politics because of a history that associates a politics of ultimate meaning with authoritarianism, injustice, and violence. I make no claim that they are wrong or that somehow they fail at the essential form of politics. The same can be said about freedom in its positive and negative forms. My book, however, is not a catalogue of political conceptions or a survey of different theories. I am using these terms for rhetorical as well as analytical purposes: not to convince the reader to do anything, but to draw his or her attention to certain imaginative formations. I’m hoping for a certain resonance in this rather violent taking possession of terms from our everyday experience.
This is probably the source of the accusation that I am an “absolutist” or an essentialist. These are difficult claims to make out in a work that puts at its center contingency and the necessity of the decision. The driving point of the book is to make vivid an idea of freedom that begins in the creative act of the discursive engagement, moves from there to law, and then to sovereignty. It strives to provoke in the reader a sense of wonder and respect at the endless fecundity of the imagination. It tries to shift attention from reason to imagination, from causes to actions, from rules to decisions. It offers itself as an example of the free, and therefore surprising, conversation that it theorizes. Accordingly, I react with a certain disappointment when some of the commentators reject out of hand the idea that a discourse with Schmitt can be an inquiry into freedom. My project might not persuade, but its point is not about Schmitt. The aim is to see what we might discover about ourselves through the discursive engagement.
This brings me to the question with which Peter Gordon ends his thoughtful commentary. He asks whether it is right to look to sacrifice as the point at which we find the highest or authentic meaning of a life. First, let me clear away a possible confusion. I am not suggesting that we either do or should seek a sacrificial moment as the point at which we achieve some sort of authentic existence. People are not generally hoping for an opportunity to sacrifice themselves, although I have no doubt that exceptions arise. Second, I am not arguing that a politics of sacrifice is better than one without. That political life has been the locus of a practice of sacrifice is, from the perspective of my work, entirely contingent. There are historical reasons for this, but I am not claiming that there is something about human nature that demands of us sacrificial politics.
How then does sacrifice continue to operate? It stands for the point at which an incommensurable value breaks through our ordinary calculations of interest. Imagining sacrifice, we imagine that possibility, that is, we acknowledge the possibility of such a claim upon ourselves. Sacrifice is for this reason linked to love. Indeed, love absent the imagination of sacrifice is a problematic idea—one better described as desire, interest, or satisfaction. Love is characterized by the awareness that there is a value outside of myself that stands to everything else as a sort of transcendent claim. Sacrifice is another way of speaking of this experience of ultimate value outside of ourselves. How and where we find this value changes through time. That sacrifice has taken a particularly violent form in politics tells us something about the nature of our political formations, not something essential about ourselves. There is nothing necessary about state, religion, or even family as the locus of the experience of such a claim.
That people will continue to search for and find such an ultimate value is, in the end, nothing more than a belief on my part. I don’t know how one might go about proving such a claim. The most one can do is use the rhetorical and conceptual tools available in one’s tradition to try to invoke a recognition of this experience. This is the reason Political Theology is both a philosophical project and a rhetorical project. It is why I describe the project as “phenomenological,” but link that to persuasion. Gordon is right to point out that there are multiple theological sources in our tradition to which one could appeal. But I don’t agree that it follows that political theology should proceed by first settling on a theology and then applying it to politics. The project I pursue begins from within political and legal experience and moves back and forth between that experience and theological resources—analogies, narratives, symbols, and ideas. I tried in the book to give expression to this idea as follows: “Arguments succeed when we find ourselves operating in the world with one set of meanings rather than another. In this sense, every genuinely philosophical inquiry is autobiographical, both as a theoretical and as a practical endeavor.”
My repetition of the phrase “existence before essence” is not a claim that I have access to the facts themselves, stripped of any interpretive approach. Quite the opposite: I argue throughout that every interpretation rests on a free act of the imagination. The risk of such a project is that it can be as impossible as describing color to the blind. The rewards of such a project are when the reader comes away with a sense that something deeply important about the world in which she finds herself has been illuminated. In the end, this series of commentaries has shown me that I have had both sorts of readers.