Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia.
Posts Tagged ‘political theology’
There is Power in the Blog is hosting an eight-part discussion on Paul W. Kahn’s recent book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2011). Featuring posts by Susanna J. Snyder, Jerome Copulsky, Michael Hollerich, Vincent Lloyd, William T. Cavanaugh, Chris Baker, as well as a response from Kahn, the discussion reflects the wide range of reactions to Kahn’s complex work. For even more on Political Theology, please browse through The Immanent Frame’s extensive series.
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.
This video is an excerpt of a lecture by Jürgen Habermas, delievered at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs on October 19th.
Paul Kahn has written a remarkable meditation on Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology. A truly adequate response would undoubtedly require a book at least as long as Kahn’s own. Instead, I want to offer some comments playing off of some of Kahn’s own observations. Indeed, as Kahn makes clear, his own book is meant to be, not a genuine exegesis of Schmitt’s (in)famous book, but rather his own reflections that have been stimulated by taking the concept of “political theology” seriously. I find Kahn convincing that the concept draws not only on the notion of “sovereignty,” insofar as it is transferred from God to those who claim “leadership” of the state, particularly when it is faced with existential threats, but also on the important reality of “sacrifice.”
At a moment when some of the theoretical gestures being inspired by old, new, or futuristic political theologies have become ineffective, Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is a book of extraordinary significance. Or, perhaps I should say that I think it might be a book of extraordinary significance, inasmuch as it bears a potential to do something which has remained impossible, not only for Carl Schmitt, but also for some important contemporary critics of neo-liberal political economy. I want to reflect specifically about the way this impossibility might become possible, strangely, by way of a new migration of Abraham into the territory of philosophies of freedom and difference.
I agree with Kahn (and with Schmitt) about the fact that political theory should leave room for decision and exception. But to me, the main question is: to what extent? Are there no principles that admit no exception? When I read Kahn, as when I read Schmitt, I don’t seem to encounter any such principles—anything like what Habermas thematized in Law and Morality as “indisponibility,” that is, rights that are not at the disposal of the sovereign. Can the sovereign decide that torture is a legitimate practice? The answer, to me, should be no without exception.
“At stake in our political life,” Paul Kahn observes, “has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our own lives an ultimate meaning.” While it would require little effort for me to catalogue the many insights that seized my attention while reading Kahn’s thoughtful and highly provocative new book, it is this basic insight that chiefly arouses my interest, insofar as it serves as the organizing premise for the argument as a whole. It is therefore this claim most of all that deserves close scrutiny.
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.”
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.
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.
From Fortress Press, an interview with Mark Lewis Taylor, author of The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Fortress, 2011).
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.
Ayça Çubukçu on state sovereignty and the political theology of humanitarian intervention with regard to the ongoing crisis in Libya, at Jadaliyya.
One of the great benefits of conducting research at the British Library is that days off provide the opportunity to soak up some of London’s first-class cultural amusements. Like Paris, Rome, and Washington D.C., England’s capital is a museum city, brimming with galleries and monuments. The city itself is a reminder of traditions jostling—often uneasily—with the seemingly ineluctable pressure of changing values and mores. I try to keep business and pleasure separate, of course, but while taking in the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I was struck by the way in which this cultural history constructs a certain trajectory of secularization.
Nicolas Guilhot on when political theology became international relations theory.
In The Utopian, Yale Law professor Paul W. Kahn argues that the discourse and imaginary of secular political theory fail to grasp the deep and abiding theological—specifically, sacrificial—dimensions of U.S. politics and the American political imagination.
Most observers, even the otherwise sober-minded journal The Economist, agree that the anticipation and then election of Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States carried—and continues to carry—the promise of something like a “redeeming effect.” What has not been well-understood, even less clearly explained, is what I take to be one of the key factors of Obama’s phenomenal success. He won over an unlikely coalition of voters based on an inspirational message of hope for the common good, while running a campaign that stood out for its impeccable discipline and, at times, ruthless efficiency—at a certain moment the New York Times even spoke of its “military precision”—its message-oriented focus and lack of drama, its technological sophistication as well as its overall outreach where it mattered (its so-called ground battle, “street by street, block by block,” as the mantra went). It is fair to say that both the Clinton and the McCain camps and most conservative pundits fatally underestimated what they were up against, completely misread the signs, the writing on the wall, and, in the end, had no idea what had truly hit them. […]
“During their meeting, the Holy Father and the President discussed a number of topics of common interest to the Holy See and the United States of America, including moral and religious considerations to which both parties are committed…” The United States committed to “moral and religious considerations”? Considerations shared with a particular religious organization, the Roman Catholic Church? This was news, or seemed to be. […]
The Stillborn God begins as a book about two chess games. Part of the book explains, in all too cursory fashion, how the second chessboard came to be built after a stalemated game on the first board (Christian political theology) descended into violence among the players. But the real drama is in the analysis of strategies on the new board, as David Hollinger has seen. There were of course many such strategies, each having its own background, and one could write a history of how each and every one of them developed, who used them in which historical contexts, and the like. I have not done that. Rather, I have focused episodically and analytically on a few grandmasters whose strategies stand out as having advanced the game and revealed its inner possibilities: Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel.
Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God feels like two books, oddly yoked together. One is a fascinating study, which traces a post-Enlightenment tradition of theorizing about religion starting from an anthropocentric focus. Religion is to be understood from the human desire or craving or need for religion. The originator of this way of thinking is Rousseau, but he rapidly acquires followers in Germany: Kant, the German Romantics, Schleiermacher. […]
The idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics: If there is one claim to which Lilla returns again and again from different angles, this is it….But in fact, ample evidence exists that traditional political theology has contributed vitally to incubating, sustaining, and expanding liberal democracy, in thought and in practice, before, during, and after the early modern religious wars.
My thanks to all those who have taken the time to respond to The Stillborn God, with sharper comments than I’ve received so far in published reviews, and to The Immanent Frame for organizing the discussion. I’ve already posted a separate comment on José Casanova’s thorough remarks, to clear up some misunderstandings. Here I’ll try to respond first to the overlapping concerns raised by Winnifred Sullivan, James Smith, and Elizabeth Hurd in their generous contributions. (Nancy Levene’s arrived too late to be included for now.) My Columbia colleague Gil Anidjar’s “review in three parts” is different in tone, and needs special treatment. So I have two responses: one in narrative mode, the other in mock-lyrical mode. […]
Lilla turns aside to the small cadre of the Enlightened who see the story for what it is….“We” turns out to be the sect of modern-day Essenes living on the upper West Side, who have vowed to abstain from the illusions of the masses and consigned themselves to the cold, hard desert “reality” disclosed by reason. Lilla and his exceptionalist monastic brotherhood of enlightened “us” have girded their loins in order to make their way in the world without the comforts of faith and revelation […]
“The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination. Many people still refuse to believe that there are only two sides, that the only choice lies between absolute conformity to the one system or absolute conformity to the other.” What Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind was calling “a great dispute,” Mark Lilla calls “The Great Separation.” With this phrase, The Stillborn God presents itself, like its predecessor, as an account of the world, “our world, the world created by the intellectual rebellion against political theology.”
For Lilla, Westerners are the exception because we live on what he calls “the other shore.” Civilizations on the “opposite bank” puzzle us because we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. They are, moreover, unlikely to follow our path because to successfully navigate the hazardous shoals of political theology as we have done would require a difficult excavation of theological resources….contra Lilla, could it be that we are all on the same shore, struggling with questions of transcendence and immanence in different languages and traditions?
It would have been enough for Lilla to frame this book as an explanation of the genealogy of bourgeois protestant German Christian liberal political theology and the long shadow that it casts over the post-enlightenment world order. To see that theology as inevitable and as uniquely significant as a diagnostic for comparative political theology undercuts the very conversation Lilla begins with, one that is well worth having—a serious comparative study of political theologies, one that acknowledges that separation is also a political theology.
One should be suspicious of any argument that presents the multiple alternatives facing contemporary societies around the world today as a simple binary choice between theocratic political theology (i.e., religious fanaticism) and secular political philosophy (i.e., liberal toleration). To present such a dichotomous alternative, as “the two ways of envisaging the human condition,” not only ignores the many other complex ways in which Western and non-Western societies have envisaged the human condition, but it views societies as individual actors facing existential choices, a rhetorically dramatic but rather problematic conception of human history and of the human condition.
Among the various fields of the social sciences, international relations theory has established itself both as scientific and as politically relevant. Along with economics, it is a model of social scientific expertise, and it has an established record of informing state policies. It provides a standard of political rationality against which policy decisions can be matched and assessed. […]