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Agamben Symposium: Adam Kotsko

The field of political theology has not yet been rigorously defined. It is more a field of affinities than a clearly delineated disciplinary space—a kind of “zone of indistinction” between theology and political theory where the terms of debate are still very much up for grabs. Even as the range and shape of political theology as a field of inquiry remain somewhat inchoate, however, there are points of reference that already seem more or less obvious or obligatory. The work of Giorgio Agamben is surely one of them, a status that The Kingdom and the Glory will just as surely reinforce. […]

Genealogy and Political Theology:

On Method in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory

The field of political theology has not yet been rigorously defined. It is more a field of affinities than a clearly delineated disciplinary space—a kind of “zone of indistinction” between theology and political theory where the terms of debate are still very much up for grabs. Even as the range and shape of political theology as a field of inquiry remain somewhat inchoate, however, there are points of reference that already seem more or less obvious or obligatory. The work of Giorgio Agamben is surely one of them, a status that The Kingdom and the Glory will just as surely reinforce.

Rarely has the work of documenting parallels between the political and the theological been carried to such a fine-grained level. Where much work in this field focuses on the sovereign decision and its analogies with the acts of God, here we are treated to visions of angels as God’s middle managers and of political ceremony as an echo of the acclamation that calls divinity into being. Yet at the same time as the analogy on which the field of political theology depends is filled in with such detail, the very notion of “political theology” (as developed by Carl Schmitt) is displaced in favor of the competing paradigm of “theological economy” (associated with Erik Peterson), and the miraculous “state of exception” fades in importance when compared to the providential “invisible hand.” By the end of Agamben’s analysis, it seems that the exemplary figure for what we call political theology is no longer the sovereign president, with his power to declare alleged terrorists homo sacer, but the technocratic central banker, whose invisible hand moves the entire economy through actions that few notice or understand.

Hence it seems likely that The Kingdom and the Glory’s influence will lead political theologians to devote greater attention to economics and to the concrete workings of government, and it is hard to object to such developments. Yet I believe that this work has something more fundamental to contribute to the field of political theology: its genealogical approach can point the way to greater methodological clarity in a field that too often relies on vague structural homologies.

Rather than directly laying out Agamben’s approach to genealogy, however, I will proceed by responding to a critique recently leveled against Agamben by Alberto Toscano (in “Divine Management”), which issues from a political engagement for which Agamben’s attention to matters of economy is all too belated: Marxist communism. In my view Toscano misconstrues Agamben’s project and its relationship to theology—but my purpose in addressing this issue is not so much to “correct” Toscano as to head off similar misunderstandings that could easily lead some in the field of political theology to embrace Agamben for the wrong reasons. Relatedly, Toscano’s attempt to play Agamben’s approach to genealogy off against more “standard” exemplars of the method like Nietzsche and Foucault points toward ways that Agamben’s argument in The Kingdom and the Glory could be expanded and deepened by future scholars.

Toscano lays great weight on the word “theological” in Agamben’s subtitle. For him, it indicates that Agamben is claiming that “the atheism or secularism which nominally characterize contemporary philosophy—be it liberal, conservative, or Marxist—are surface effects beneath which lie the compulsions of a theological matrix” (125). All this is reminiscent of a Radical Orthodox-style narrative according to which modernity is nothing but a derelict form of Christian heresy, and it is probably inevitable that at least a few theologians of that “sensibility” will embrace Agamben’s work on that basis.

Whether from a polemical or positive perspective, however, such a view of Agamben’s project here does not square with the rest of his work. I have tried to show elsewhere that Agamben’s method, drawn from Walter Benjamin, places no importance on the line between the religious and the secular (see my essay in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern). In The Sacrament of Language, for instance, he frequently castigates theorists of religion who too easily demarcate “the religious” as a purely separate sphere, and in The Kingdom and the Glory, he takes a similar line on the “secularization debate.” His dismissal of the latter may, as Toscano says, be “haughty” (127)—Agamben’s work is, to put it lightly, characterized by ample self-assurance—but it does not indicate any kind of preference for the religious over against the secular.

Rather than indicating an attempt to discredit secular modernity—and hence Marxism—it thus seems to me that the phrase “theological genealogy” indicates simply that he is carrying out the theological portion of a hypothetical complete genealogy of “economy and government.” That is, he is particularly concerned with the vicissitudes of the concept of oikonomia when it goes through a kind of hibernation in the rarefied realms of scholastic philosophy, providing only a sketchy account in the concluding appendix of how it reawakened in the thought of key early moderns, from which it would spring again into practice in the concrete techniques of governance.

This leads to Toscano’s critique of Agamben’s genealogical method, which he argues is too “substantial” and “idealist” to count as a proper genealogy. Here again, the notion of a “theological” genealogy assumes prime importance:

This has to do with the idea of a theological origin. Behind this reference lies not only Agamben’s sympathy towards the Schmittian notion of secularization but the conviction, mediated by a pervasive Heideggerianism, of a historical-ontological continuity which allows one to argue that our political horizon is still determined—and worse, unconsciously determined—by semantic and ideational structures forged within a Christian theological discourse. (128)

In Toscano’s view, such a stance puts Agamben dangerously close to embracing the Christian apologetic claim that the Christian patrimony has been somehow “stolen” by modernity and needs to be restored to its rightful place.

More importantly, Toscano also argues that it represents a betrayal of Foucault, for whom genealogical research was first of all about discontinuity. Toscano quotes several passages from Foucault, but one could also return to the genealogical ur-text of Nietzsche:

there is for historiography of any kind no more important proposition than the one it took such effort to establish but which really ought to be established now: the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated…. the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion. (Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, Section 12)

The emphasis here is clearly on discontinuity. The thing that has “somehow come into being”—a phrasing that obviously displaces the question of origin—becomes caught up in a power struggle whose results could not have been predicted, and it is the aleatoric path of that power struggle that is of real interest. Yet in order for a genealogical narrative to make sense, there has to be some reference to origin and some sense of continuity. The thing that gets caught up in the power struggle has, after all, “somehow come into being,” and over the course of the power struggle it remains, in some sense, still recognizably that thing. It is, however, not that thing in the sense of a persistent substance or concept that would exhaustively determine in advance the kinds of relationships it would enter into or the uses to which it would be put—hence Agamben’s use of the term “signature” to indicate this less strictly defined point of continuity.

Genealogy does reject the easy continuity posited by something like the “history of ideas,” but that doesn’t mean there is no continuity whatsoever. At the same time that genealogy is concerned with discontinuity and rupture, it also reveals what might be called inertial effects. One can see this in Nietzsche’s Genealogy: certainly no one would have predicted that the logic of debt would get tangled up in the bad conscience and become guilt, but at the same time, the logic of guilt is still recognizable as a descendant of the logic of debt.

In this sense, I would argue that Agamben’s genealogy is very much in the spirit of the “classic” genealogists. Who would have guessed that oikonomia, a concept of household management, would be pressed into the service of imperial administration? And from there, who could have possibly anticipated that it would become an important point of reference for Christian articulations of the inner life of the Trinitarian God, then supply the paradigm for God’s indirect providential guidance of the course of world history, only to wind up as a guiding principle for the management of people and things toward the end of endless accumulation of capital? “Economy” remains somehow recognizable within each of these contexts, yet the shifts are strange and vertiginous, and the new contexts significantly change its character and function.

While I don’t agree with Toscano that Agamben betrays the genealogical method, I do concede that Agamben’s “pervasive Heideggerianism” (128) is problematic in several respects. The difficulty, however, is not so much that the influence of Heidegger leads him to a too-substantial view of the concepts or “signatures” at play in his genealogy, but rather that his Heideggerian sympathies lead him to flatten out the historical field through which they move. Like Heidegger, Agamben seems to view “the West” as an unproblematic historical unity, for which the advent of modernity represents at best a particularly extreme development. He certainly does not appear to regard the Christian era as something notably different from the late classical era, and his account of the history of Christian thought treats the patristic and medieval periods as essentially one undifferentiated field.

Agamben’s fidelity to the genealogical task pushes against this Heideggerian oversimplification, but the Heideggerian influence does artificially limit the number of “pivot points” in his narrative. It is clearly the case that Agamben has more work to do in connecting up his “theological genealogy” with modernity, but in my view he also still has more work to do in fully developing the “theological genealogy,” with greater attention to the twists and turns of the history of Christianity and of Christian thought. I would argue in addition that he needs to cast a wider net in terms of filling out the context within which the notion of “economy” operates in any given era—for instance, “economy” is central to the way the patristic writers understood the salvation that God had brought about in Christ, and so why couldn’t Agamben look at some of their narrative accounts of how that plan was supposed to have been carried out? The very significant difference between patristic and medieval narratives of salvation would have made it clear that no easy continuity can be found between the two era’s notions of “economy” (I carry out a detailed comparison of patristic and medieval accounts of the narrative of salvation in my book Politics of Redemption).

Overall, though, it seems to me that Agamben’s genealogical approach provides a rigorous and flexible methodology for the field of political theology—and in fact, it provides a point of view from which Agamben’s own project can be critiqued, deepened, and extended.


Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor at Shimer College. He is the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths (Zero Books, 2012). He blogs at An und für sich.

4 thoughts on “Agamben Symposium: Adam Kotsko

  1. I agree on your point on continuity/discontinuity in genealogy, but don’t you find that Toscano has a point if you read him as saying that Agamben has very little to say about the context in which all this takes place? Both Nietzsche and Foucault tried to link their genealogies up to shifting power relations, social forces, etc., which seems to be almost entirely missing from Agamben’s works.

    1. Ayn Rand fictionalized this continuity/discontinuity in Fountainhead when Roark and Wynand first meet. Wynand talks about his life being like a typing exercise sporadically interrupted by “events” that he sees in retrospect. He asks Roark about that and Roark agrees. Wynand then says did you know it at the time and Roark says yes.

  2. Agamben could certainly do more with “context” than he does in Kingdom and the Glory, though the book is already gargantuan by his standards. I’m not sure the comparison with Nietzsche and Foucault holds up, though — Nietzsche’s genealogical narrative is basically completely made up, and I think Foucault’s focus is very much on “the history of systems of thought,” as his title would have it.

    And what about State of Exception, for instance? It’s totally unfair to say that historical context and power relations are absent from Agamben’s work in general.

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