It has become a truism to say that Samuel Moyn’s work landed like “a grenade” amid common understandings of postwar history. In numerous influential publications, he claims that the post-World War II popularity of “human rights” was not due to the advocacy of enlightened (Kantian) philosophers, liberal democrats, or progressive New Dealers, as many had long believed. Rather, it was reactionary European Catholics who elevated human rights as the buzzword of the era, part of their successful effort to build a conservative, anti-communist, and spiritually intolerant Western bloc. Moreover, Moyn provocatively maintains that Catholics, who spent the 1930s assiduously combating the notion of individual rights and assailing democratic regimes in Austria, Germany, France, and elsewhere, did not embrace human rights out of a heroic change of heart or a recognition of democracy’s intrinsic values. Their flimsy support of these principles stemmed from the conviction that human rights could be mobilized in their decades-long crusade against communism, individualism, and gender equality. Moyn therefore casts a harsh light on Europe’s postwar reconstruction and the era’s human rights renaissance as a whole. The architects of both, so it turns out, were actually the gravediggers of liberalism and equality.
Posts Tagged ‘politics’
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.
What is evil? The question is asked in very different ways in two recent articles. The first, by Ron Rosenbaum at Slate, asks whether, in the terms of neuroscience, evil can be said to exist. He’s unsure about this.
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.
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.
As a lawyer, I appreciate the critical importance of historical inquiry to contemporary legal challenges; as a historian, I resist attempts to demand normative outcomes from historical research. Balancing these disparate commitments is no easy feat and the endeavor warrants restraint.
Over at the Religion and Ethics blog of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Slavoj Zizek has written an opinion piece on what he views as the aspect of the Christian legacy that is most important for radical politics today—atheism.
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.
There are reductive categories . . . that have been and should be abandoned in scholarly discourse because the terms are inherently pejorative. But there are other terms—such as religion—that, while not explicitly denigratory, can very rarely be used without legitimating a deeply problematic political position.The issue is ideology and not only oversimplification.
Since the process of understanding divine law is not a uniform or singular one, there are multiple interpretations of what divine law is, and, consequently, there are many schools of Islamic legal thought. The sharīʿah-fiqh distinction is one that is clearly recognized in Islamic jurisprudential texts and beyond. While I am still in the process of undertaking a thorough historical study, I suspect that the conflation of the terms sharīʿah and fiqh became normative among Muslims in the modern era—particularly in the context of Islamist-based resistance to imperialism. Regardless of the precise genealogy, the use of the term sharīʿah rather than fiqh in contemporary Muslim discourses has political motivations and ramifications; in other words, it is essentially about power.
From Fortress Press, an interview with Mark Lewis Taylor, author of The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Fortress, 2011).
Should the state be in the business of marriage, or is it inherently a religious union that should be performed solely by religious groups? Will the religious exemptions to recent same-sex marriage laws influence their viability in the long run? Last week, The New York Times posted a debate on its website, in which five public figures, scholars and writers, argue about the ways in which the religion and marriage debate draws out perennial questions about the appropriate relationship between religion and the state.
For a brief moment in 2007, news of a hit Iranian television series, whose Farsi title was translated variously as Zero Degree Turn or Zero Point Orbit, proliferated across the print and digital mediascapes of the Anglophone world. The series, created by Iranian director Hassan Fathi at great expense and broadcast in a thirty-episode season on the flagship state television station IRIB1, revolves around a Romeo and Juliet plot of illicit romance, with a distinctive twist: while the proverbial Romeo is one Habib Parsa (played by Iranian hearthrob Shahab Hosseini), a Muslim Iranian pursuing his studies in France, his Juliet is none other than a Jewish classmate, Sarah Astrok (played by the French actress Nathalie Matti), with whom he falls in love.
The wave of protests shaking the Arab political regimes has quietly but forcefully made its way to Morocco. The February 20 youth movement—made up of a loose coalition of independent groups, backed by liberal, leftist, labor, and Islamist opposition movements—is leading the call for democratic change. Since February it has organized two mass demonstrations across fifty major cities and towns, drawing several hundred thousands of protesters. Social and political protests in Morocco are not new, nor do they yet threaten the survival of the regime. But the revolutionary spirit and mass appeal of the movement signal a major shift in popular attitudes regarding the monarchy’s monopoly and abuses of power.
Mahmood Mamdami places the Egyptian revolution and other protest movements in the historical context of popular struggle in Africa.
“Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists broke matzo with Jewish Israelis in a Tel Aviv basketball court before this year’s Passover began. The “Out of Egypt” seder, a thousand-strong gathering in a seedy park near the central bus station, was four days early; many of the guests—African refugees and Asian migrant workers—are busy cleaning Israeli homes during Passover proper. The Sudanese and Eritrean guests have literal Out-of-Egypt stories to tell: Most lived in Cairo for months or years before crossing the Sinai by foot to get to Israel. But there’s no Moses in their exodus stories. There are Bedouin smugglers who charge thousands of dollars to lead them through the desert. There are Egyptian border guards who shoot. There are barbed-wire fences to run and jump—if they make it, into another people’s Zion.”
In another example of how mass media shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam and religion more generally, the New York Times published a news analysis on April 10, 2011, that explains Minister Louis Farrakhan’s recent support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as an attempt to gain support, or at least attention, for his declining movement. I was a source for the story, but an exchange of twenty-three emails seems largely to have failed to convince the reporter of my analysis of the phenomenon as an example of pan-African politics.
In Foreign Policy, Elizabeth McAlister—a member of the SSRC Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life—writes on recent electoral victory of Haitian pop star Michel Martelly and how music shapes politics in Haiti.
I have been in Egypt since February 6, 2011, where I have been witnessing events, talking to friends, activists and non-activists, and to the public in Cairo’s streets—and it is not an exaggeration to say that every corner in Egypt talks politics today. . . . From my observations of events and numerous discussions with others, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S appears, in some ways, to be absent from most of the heated discussions going on today. But upon closer examination, this relationship has been present in the revolution, not only during and after the peak of events—from January 25 to February 11—but also, I would suggest, in the very anti-imperialist underpinnings of the revolution, a revolution that the mainstream American media has miscast as one generated purely internally.