Agamben Symposium: J. Kameron Carter

The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, which continues Agamben’s interest in the history of sovereignty and the exception, brings the discourse of theology to the forefront of questions about the nature of modern political economy and government. Agamben’s claim is that theology has left its indelible signature on and therefore deeply animates modern life. But how? […]

The Inglorious: With and Beyond Giorgio Agamben

The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, which continues Agamben’s interest in the history of sovereignty and the exception, brings the discourse of theology to the forefront of questions about the nature of modern political economy and government. Agamben’s claim is that theology has left its indelible signature on and therefore deeply animates modern life. But how?

In what follows I want to track, even if only schematically, Agamben’s argument, though I want to recast it at its limit. That limit has everything to do with race. I will speak of this under the sign of “the inglorious” with a view to glimpsing a genealogy of politics and religion, of politics as religion and religion as politics, that is appositional to Agamben’s. In short, my interest in the inglorious moves toward a counterhistory of political theology.

Let me begin with Agamben’s account of classical trinitarian thought inasmuch as it is at the center of the genealogy he develops. In classical Christian theology trinitarianism advances a notion that God is not a static being, a single monarchy closed in upon Godself. Rather, God in freedom (not out of necessity) relates Godself to that which is not God, that is, to the world. This freedom to be differentially Godself in a unique economy or administration of the divine life is what makes creation possible. Put differently, God’s being as a unified difference of persons already contains every possible difference, including the difference of a created, “exterior” world. According to patristic theologians from Irenaeus of Lyons to the Cappadocians and Augustine, God has indeed activated this difference and has in freedom created the world. But not only has God created the world; God has chosen to not abandon that world, but to preside over it (this is the notion of divine providence) while at the same time leaving creaturely freedom intact. Agamben puts it this way:

Christian history affirms itself against pagan fate as a free praxis; and yet, insofar as it corresponds to and realizes a divine design, this freedom is itself a mystery: the “mystery of freedom,” which is nothing but the other face of the mystery of the economy. (46)

And also,

Christian theology is not a “story about the gods”; it is immediately economy and providence, that is, an activity of self-revelation, government, and care of the world. The deity articulates itself into a trinity, but this is not a “theogony” or a “mythology”; rather, it is an oikonomia, that is, at the same time, the articulation and administration of divine life, and the government of creatures. (47)

Divine freedom and providence support creaturely freedom precisely in founding and governing “an immanent praxis of government.” Further still, divine providence makes use of law in the governing of creatures. But just as the divine life is groundless or marked by the abyss of freedom, thus making the divine life “anarchic,” so too an “exception,” or a groundless “anarchic” ban, can emerge in law’s relationship to economy and within the government of the world (cf. 49). And so, God’s providential will not to ban or abandon the world slips at the scene of law into the possibility of exception or abandonment from the law. In grounding this claim Agamben references canon law in the 7th century Byzantine Church and Leon VI’s 10th century imperial legislation as instances when  law and economy start to acquire the meaning of abandonment.

What Agamben wants his readers to grasp is that the providential history of humanity is in fact a history of the exception. Further still (and a point Agamben only at best implies), the history of humanity, which discloses “the supermundane mystery” of the coincidence of divine economy and the government of men (51), wherein life indistinguishably meets and grounds itself in the exception or in what (or who) it abandons, is also implicated in a history of imperialism. Agamben would have done well to build on the recent work of Marie-Jose Mondzain, which also inquires into theological economy but that is keen on the problem of empire (and its gendered and sexualized features) in a way that Agamben’s is not. (I will return to this problem momentarily.)

From here Agamben takes up the ceremonial and liturgical aspects of power, thus turning to the theme of the second part of the title of his work, that is, to “Glory.” The most complex but most interesting part of his study, the theme of glory is also fraught with profound implications and marks the place where it will be necessary to go beyond Agamben and enter onto the terrain of the inglorious.

What does Agamben want us to understand about glory, or more precisely about glorification, as it flows out of trinitarian thought? Glory is where the trinitarian logic of economy and providential world government is at its most expansive. “Glory,” he says,

is the exclusive property of God for eternity, and it will remain eternally identical in him, such that nothing and no one can increase or diminish it; yet, glory is glorification, which is to say, something all creatures incessantly owe to God and that he demands of them. From this paradox follows another one . . . : glory, the hymn of praise that creatures owe to God, in reality derives from the very glory of God; it is nothing but the necessary response, almost the echo that the glory of God awakens in them. [Thus] everything that God accomplishes, the works of creation and the economy of redemption, he accomplishes only for his glory. However, for this, creatures owe him gratitude and glory. (216)

Capturing the heart of his account of glory, this quotation suggests that glory is profane, worldly, and quite interestingly the veritable globalization of divine economy. Glory, we might say, already pushes towards and entails the secular. But it is here on the issue of glorification as profanation that I would like to consider a crucial but woefully undeveloped insight on Agamben’s. It is an insight that, had it been developed, may have changed the very character of his study. This insight concerns the body and more specifically the body as the locus of (glorious and inglorious) processes of homo sacerization as racialization.

Agamben mentions the 16th and 17th century Jesuit missionaries as exemplars of how globalization or modern profanation took place as the circulation of glory. It was at this time that “the human activity of glorification [came to consist],” he says, “in an impossible task: the continual increase of the glory of God that can in no way be increased. More precisely . . . the impossibility of increasing the inner glory of God translates into an unlimited expansion of the activity of external glorification by men, particularly by the members of the Society of Jesus” (216; emphasis mine). Post-tridentine, Baroque, and missionary thought at the early modern moment entailed a unique work of human activity that was nothing less than the work of (global) glorification. We meet at this early modern/colonial moment what Agamben calls an impossible (because at once centrifugal and centripetal) task: “At the same time that the sovereign territorial state begins to adopt the figure of the ‘government of men,’ the Church, setting aside its eschatological preoccupations, increasingly identifies its own mission with the planetary government of souls, not so much for their salvation, as for the ‘increased glory of God’” (218).

While Agamben has in fact brought his readers to a crucial scene in the history of sovereignty and in the history of homo sacerization, he nevertheless begs off the question of how this two-sided but “impossible” task of glorification at home and abroad is sutured. That is, he leaves unasked what it means that those at home are characterized as “men” and so, it would seem, properly human and those abroad not as “men” but as something else, “souls.” I submit that this is precisely the work that racialization gloriously and ingloriously accomplished. In other words, we are in the midst of the production of (imperial) Whiteness in theological relationship to its inglorious or homo sacerized, that is, non-White others. (Laura Doyle has recently explored just this process, including some of its religious dimensions, in the 17th-century emergence of British (racial) identity along with the production of its negative racial others, and how this in turn funded 18th century American Revolutionary sensibilities and the forging of a post-Revolutionary, American racial imaginary that, I would argue, is in its own way theo-political.)

A number of radical black intellectuals have examined this process, looking at it from the vantage point of the inglorious, that is, from the point of view of abjected blackness. One thinks of Frantz Fanon who theorized in psychoanalytic terms homo damnatus, “the wretched of the earth” and a decolonial or “genuine new departure” from modernity/coloniality’s “zone of nonbeing,” a departure that would “takes advantage of this descent into a veritable hell” with a view to bringing an end to the racial situation. I would suggest that this is precisely the striving for “eternal life” that Agamben wants to realize in his project but arguably cannot because it remains eurocentrically framed.

Is this critique fair? Does it criticize Agamben for not addressing an issue (racialization) that in fact is beyond his project’s purview? I think not, for Agamben’s argument that “the governmental machine of the West” is in fact a “glorious” machine points to the central role, though he does not explore it, of the senses and the body in the national and global circulation of the gift of glory.

I make this claim based on the fact that Agamben lays particular stress on the visual and sonic aspects of glory. In fact, he gives considerable attention to its sonic register, as the attention he gives to acclamation attests. But sonic acclamation as he expounds it, I want to argue, has a colonial structure.

Sonic acclamation works, we might say, in two directions. On the one hand (and this is principally in the metropole or at home), with the body, acclamations to God are offered in the liturgy, which is by definition public and does the work of suturing the nation and thus enacting or constituting (often in relationship to political constitutions) “the people.” Forging “We the People . . .” is a liturgical, public, and acclamatory act. Given its importance, Agamben spends much time explaining the public and therefore the political significance of praise and the offering of “Amens,” the Kyrie eleison, the song Benedictus, Allelujahs, the doxology Gloria Patria, etc. on the part of those who would glorify God and thus have subjectivity transformed into citizenship. On the other hand (and this occurs principally abroad), through missionary work the benighted are made to participate in the acclamatory work of the more “enlightened,” as it were.

We therefore see that in speaking of glory we are speaking about nothing less than the economy, or more precisely the economization, of the body. But even in this, all bodies are not economized or made to acclaim in the same way. Or as Frantz Fanon put it in Black Skin, White Masks, responding to Jean-Paul Sartre: “Sartre forgets that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man . . .” That is, some acclaim gloriously; others ingloriously; some to govern, others to be governed; some as the saved, others as the damned, homo damnatus.

My point here is that Agamben’s suggestive claims about glory call for more careful reflections on the glorious and especially the inglorious aspects of corporealization. They call for richer inquiry into the aesthetic apparatuses of sight (the visual) and sound (the sonic) that underwrite modernity/coloniality’s “scenes of subjection.”

But would this not require, perhaps as a start, recasting Agamben’s reflections on Jewish homo sacerization in all of their ingloriousness in the death camps of the twentieth century? For Jewish bodies were visually and even sonically “othered” precisely through racial operations by which the Jew was figured as a Semite and thus “converted” into non-Aryan or less-than-White flesh. It was in this way that the camp was ingloriously spectacularized as a “scene of subjection,” a scene at which Jews were pushed somatically towards blackness or closer to slave and therefore killable being.

The trinitarian notion of glory (and especially its inglorious or exceptional underside)—particularly when one thinks this notion within the modern/colonial conjuncture and its legacies, as I’ve tried to do here—suggests that it is not just the camp (with its racially produced denizen, the Semite and thus the Jew/the Arab) but with it and sequentially at least before it the slave ship (with its racially produced resident, the Black) that must be interrogated. Indeed, conceptually they must be interrogated as theological co-productions, as negative anchors, of modernity’s “inglorious” scene of acclamatory subjection. Therefore, what must be attended to is the monstrous intimacy between glory and the inglorious in the making of the modern body (politic) of homo racialis.

 “The Slave Deck of the Albaroz, Prize to the Albatross,” 1845.
a scene of the inglorious making of slave being.
Original painting, the National Maritime Museum, London (neg. A1818).
Image reference E029, as shown on

To conclude, I want to suggest that Agamben’s project, including his attempt at a theological genealogy of economy and government, was already anticipated—by a number of radical black intellectuals. I spoke earlier of Fanon in this regard. But now, I offer Aimé Césaire’s epic poem Cahier d’un retour au pays (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). It is here that he sought poetically, and thus as a feat of the imagination, to enact an upheaval of the colonial order that produced Martinique as a kind of festering sore or colonial wound in the Caribbean archipelago in relationship to imperial France.

In this text, produced over the period of 1939–56 and with such events as the Jewish holocaust, World War II, emerging decolonization, and New World slavery simultaneously in mind, Césaire sought to enact a counterdiscourse, an appositional history, of glory and thus of political theology. This appositional history charts the upheaval of “Man,” an upheaval intended to overcome the bios/zoe split, the very split that produced homo racialis and installed European Man as an Imperial God-Man within this arrangement. This upheaval, a real state of exception, is a poetics of “eternal life,” which is to say, a poetics of a new humanity. Such an upheaval is founded upon an appositional economy and history of blackness. It’s founded, that is, on black futurity such that Martinique and by extension blackness no longer carries the weight of Man’s divine economy. Signifying on the language of Christology and atonement, Césaire referred to this weight as “the weight of an eternally renewed cross.” Césaire’s Cahier is a poetics that aims to disrupt the divine or “atoning” economy of Western Man, to render it apocalyptically (and here I return to Agamben’s language) “inoperative.”

It remains to be seen how Agamben will develop his notion of inoperativity and “eternal life” (zoe aionios). But if we take seriously the ways in which black intellectuals like Césaire have probed the convergence of race, religion, and theology in the history of the sovereign production of blackness (and whiteness), of the inglorious (and the glorious), and if we take seriously the ways in which black intellectuals have thought towards the inoperativity of “Man” and towards “eternal life” and thus towards a new humanity, as Sylvia Wynter has said, “after Man”, then it may be that Agamben’s project must in fact turn towards blackness and towards black studies, which has long been involved in the project of a new way of life, a new way of being human beyond the glorious economy of “Man.”

J. Kameron Carter is Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of Race: A Theological Account (Oxford UP, 2008). He blogs at

One thought on “Agamben Symposium: J. Kameron Carter

Comments are closed.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!