The book blog
As I argued in my previous post, there are indications that Paul Kahn subscribes to Carl Schmitt’s belief in the substantial cultural indebtedness of the modern to “the theological.” Most of these stem from the “genealogical” side of his methodology. But his search for residuum of the past is supported, as I will here attempt to demonstrate, by a very selective use of history.Read Paul Kahn’s mis-prognosis of America’s social imaginary.
Paul Kahn’s task, he says, is to describe and interpret, rather than demystify, America’s political theology. That political theology, he argues, has contributed to making America an irresponsible, at times bellicose and dangerous, superpower. Yet, in Kahn’s opinion, religious faith and “secularized” deposits of religion are so deeply interwoven with nationalism, law, and foreign policy in the American social imaginary that the only alternative, he indicates, is to manipulate the existing political theology, as he defines it, to achieve more desirable goals.Read Is sovereignty necessarily theological?.
In this book, Paul Kahn argues that political theology—as first defined by Schmitt—is not only a “polemical” discourse but also designates a legitimate field of study that can be approached “scientifically,” and that has its own “methodology,” namely, a sociology of concepts. Kahn himself understands political theology as a phenomenological description of “the political.” Additionally, Kahn suggests that liberal democracy may have, or may stand in need of, a political theology of its own. Although I am sympathetic to both proposals, in my opinion this book does justice to neither, and I fear the editor may have overstated the facts by claiming, in the interior jacket cover, that this study of Schmitt and political theology is a “strikingly original work.”Read Political theology or political hierophany.
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.Read The integrity of theory.
Kahn has identified an ideal—the sacrificial ideal of freedom—that exists both as an ideal and at times in practice. And while the U.S. is certainly his main subject, he describes an ideal of freedom that has purchase well beyond American borders. Perhaps this freedom is what we’ve seen evoked by some of the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months. And Kahn is right to draw our attention to the claim that there is something miraculous in the plausible appearance of “the people.” Conjuring the people by giving up one’s self seems to represent just the kind of freedom and popular sovereignty that Kahn has in mind. The challenge for those who accept Kahn’s ideal is how to bring the individual and the conjured popular sovereign into a sufficient degree of unity with the apparatus of government, for such is the condition of more lasting freedom. These are the directions in which Kahn pushes us, and we need not think that he is correct on a factual or phenomenological level all of the time in order to examine this ideal, to ask when and how it emerges, and to see it as something astounding and “theological.”Read The political theology of freedom and unfreedom.
To grasp the deep architecture of the political today, therefore, is to venture into the theological domains of Christology and especially atonement, that area of theology (particularly, Christian theology) that deals with the logic of (redemptive) death. But the journey cannot be simply phenomenological in the way Kahn carries it out. Or, put differently, it may need to be phenomenological, but in a way that Kahn himself has not considered. Atonement thinking, and the “death contract” that binds politics, must, from within a different phenomenology (and therefore from within a different approach to political theology), be redirected. There must be a new future of death and the political.Read The politics of the atonement.
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 . . . .Read Paul Kahn’s roots.
Ritualistic evocations of “America” . . . and the deep-seated sense that somehow the United States is sacrosanct space—war, by definition, taking place elsewhere—are ways of being toward the world that mask an overwhelming desire, sometimes ferocious, to avoid all sacrifices: professionalized (class-based) military, ridiculously low taxes (especially for high earners), lax popular engagement, minimal obligations, a dislike for central authority bordering on hatred. The “exception” was extended into the 1950s by means of the Cold War (which was in fact the intention), but the last time the sacrifice was generally accepted was indeed the last: Vietnam. From then on, the geopolitical imperative has looked different. Accepting the globalism of the U.S. in one form or another is one thing; sacrificing for it is an altogether different one. Sovereignty, the right to decide on the exception, has thus typically resided in the geopolitical imperative, and it has been experienced on the outside. Few foreigners make any mistake about the importance of U.S. geopolitics and the “right” that it seems to embody.Read The geopolitical imperative?.
In liberal theory, essence is privileged over existence, reason over will, and endless discussion over decision. In political theology, things stand the other way around: existence, will, and decision have primacy over essence, reason, and endless discussion. If Kahn, like Schmitt, is right to criticize liberalism (albeit for the wrong reason), this does not mean that the either/or logic he seems to employ (either liberal theory or political theology) ought to be accepted at face value. An alternative to this either/or comes from the perspective (and practice) of the common, which maintains the decision as singular but rejects it as sovereign.Read The perspective of the common.
After the manner of psychoanalysis, political theology reflects the larger, darker, contours that liberalism—the discourse of the modern nation-state—fails to see or imagine for itself. For, “just as Freud argued that the modern idea of the individual as a self-determining, rational agent mistakes a normative theory for the reality of lived experience, Schmitt argued that the modern, liberal understanding of the state mistakes a normative theory for the phenomenon of political experience.” In this new version, the mirror stage deals a double whammy. Ego recognizes itself, no doubt, but it also has to integrate a vastly broader field of meaning. We, citizens of the nation-state, may think ourselves children of the Enlightenment, but our inheritance is ultimately larger; it reaches back further—to Christianity.Read Mirror, mirror on the wall.
My claim and concern is not only that Kahn is captured by Schmitt’s particular view of political theology as a disclosure of the sacred in modernity, but also that he de-politicizes culture by imagining it as consensual, while he also disowns the positioning and perspective that drive his “description” (as if from nowhere) of a foundational “imaginary” defining (indeed sacralizing) national identity. What premises constitute his avowedly Schmittian, but also “American,” position? And how do the blind spots of this position—what it implicitly disavows, excludes, or fails to acknowledge—reemerge into the theoretical framework that Kahn elaborates?Read Pluralizing political theology.
When modern revolutionaries took up the task of translating the felt meaning of political revolution into a constitutional order of law, they thought of themselves as men of the Enlightenment using the language of reason to push religion out of the public sphere. This hardly means that they neither experienced nor relied upon the sacred. In Arendt’s classic analysis, they began by demanding legal rights but ended with an experience of the absolute character of public action. Rights as a means to private ends became a lesser theme to the experience of a kind of transcendent meaning in and through political engagement. In a crisis, it remains true today that the secular state does not hesitate to speak of sacrifice, patriotism, nationalism, and homeland in the language of the sacred. The state’s territory becomes consecrated ground, its history a sacred duty to maintain, its flag something to die for. None of this has much to do with the secular; these are matters of faith, not reason.Read Political theology and liberalism.
Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon is a work, first and foremost, of cultural anthropology. The back cover confirms this fact. Yes, the book is about the incorporations of Oprah. But more significantly, it is an ethnography of “American astonishment,” of what it feels like to live before screens that enlighten and advertise and encompass (the virtual counterpart of living within the effervescent glare of studio lights and perpetual applause). Lofton captures, as few writers can, the everyday magic of our viral time—what, in the ritual grammar of Oprah, are referred to as “Aha! Moments.”Read Every moment an Aha! Moment!.
Lofton tells me she shares with Jonathan Z. Smith the view that difference is the beginning of any good conversation. I am going to take her up on that notion and dwell here on a point of disagreement rather than those points, about the wild commingling of religion and consumption, upon which we agree. . . . I agree with Lofton that there is all too much about Oprah’s world and her devotees to make one wonder—at least from a certain highbrow academic standpoint—about “the intensity of their shallowness.” Call me an unreconstructed humanist, an overly hopeful liberal, but I doubt that banality is the sum of the matter, even for Oprah’s most frivolous (or lighthearted) fans.Read Oprah the Omnipotent.
O is for Oprah. O is for Ozarks. Can the second embrace the first? Though Lofton stays away from the issue of audience reactions, it is an intriguing question. Dubbed an “Evangelical Epicenter” by the Patchwork Nation project, my Ozarks county is a long way from Oprah’s Chicago studio.Read O is for Ozarks.
It’s striking to me how often, with what little resistance, the many scholarly forums this book has now generated have likewise settled into for-and-against discussions of Oprah. This no doubt is tribute to Lofton’s remarkable creation of what Daphne Brooks calls a “self-help meta-empire of scholars trying to come to terms with their own Oprah addictions.” It’s also, perhaps unavoidably, an Oprah effect: What other books have so readily pressed scholars into sharing our experiences, our feelings, about the subjects they engage? (Could we imagine Born Again Bodies prompting a gabfest on our struggles with weight loss and gain? The Mormon Question drawing out our deepest thoughts on monogamy alternatives? The New Metaphysicals eliciting a coming-clean on the checks we wrote to the astrologer?)Read O tedious selfhood, O aftertaste of splinters.
Pervasive presence—or just ordinary ubiquity—is one of the main strategies in Oprah’s attempt to serve as a guide through the jumble of consumer choices, spiritual makeovers, and “original individuality” that is “secular” living in contemporary North America. Reading The Gospel of an Icon gave me a heightened awareness of this ubiquity, a new recognition of the way in which Oprah really is everywhere. As Lofton puts it in one of her clarifying turns of phrase: “She is the divine pervasion.”Read Divine pervasion and the change that isn’t.
In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton holds up a lustrous mirror to the polymorphously perverse dynamics of boom and bust, surplus and lack, and redemptive optimism and paranoid anxiety that characterize America (and much of the world) at the turn of the twenty-first century…. [Her] insight into the intense and extensive contemporary intra-activity of materiality and spirituality is a powerful explanatory tool. For example, it helps explain the explosive growth of global Neo-Pentecostal networks and cultures, which operate through mass media and popular culture to spread a gospel of health and wealth based on the notion that spiritual salvation, economic success, and physical well-being are mutually implicative.Read De-provincializing Oprah.