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.
Posts Tagged ‘Carl Schmitt’
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.”
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.
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 . . . .
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.
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.
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?
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.
Last Wednesday evening, eminent theorist of literature and culture Terry Eagleton gave a talk at Columbia University entitled “The New Atheism and the War on Terror.” New Atheism is also the subject of last year’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which developed as the product of his Terry Lectures (no relation) given at Yale in 2008. Having never seen Eagleton speak before, the talk surprised me in a few ways, so I’d like to give a short review and also use the occasion to address some issues that were conspicuously absent given the title of the lecture.
I wondered how long it would take DPDF participants to undo what I thought I had carefully assembled in my opening post on “Secularism, secularization, and why the difference matters.” Not very long at all, it seems. And so, I will try a response here to Justin Reynolds and Alex Hernandez, both of whom have questioned what I actually mean by saying that “secularization” is a conceptual improvement over “secularism.”