Agamben Symposium: Joshua Dubler

Six months or so after Lehman Brothers disappeared, and two weeks after the Dow Jones hit a twelve-year low, the creators of South Park ran an episode called Margaritaville, the primary storyline of which recounted the failed attempt by one of the boys to return the eponymous blender that his idiot, moralizing father had bought. In a gleefully sloppy primer on the financial crisis, Stan follows the increasingly inscrutable chain of capital from the profligate consumers, to shady third-party financiers, to the securities bundlers of Wall Street, and ultimately, to the public sector ex post facto debt assumers. At the heart of financial darkness, Stan’s odyssey takes him to the Treasury Department where a tribunal of economists determines the value of his margarita maker to be ninety trillion dollars, a calculation determined, it is subsequently revealed, through a divining process involving men in powdered wigs, a kazoo, and a decapitated yet still ambulatory chicken tossed onto a wheel-of-fortune style game board labeled with a range of monetary, fiscal, political maneuvers: Socialize/ Let Fail/ Coup d’etat/ Bailout!

Six months or so after Lehman Brothers disappeared, and two weeks after the Dow Jones hit a twelve-year low, the creators of South Park ran an episode called Margaritaville, the primary storyline of which recounted the failed attempt by one of the boys to return the eponymous blender that his idiot, moralizing father had bought. In a gleefully sloppy primer on the financial crisis, Stan follows the increasingly inscrutable chain of capital from the profligate consumers, to shady third-party financiers, to the securities bundlers of Wall Street, and ultimately, to the public sector ex post facto debt assumers. At the heart of financial darkness, Stan’s odyssey takes him to the Treasury Department where a tribunal of economists determines the value of his margarita maker to be ninety trillion dollars, a calculation determined, it is subsequently revealed, through a divining process involving men in powdered wigs, a kazoo, and a decapitated yet still ambulatory chicken tossed onto a wheel-of-fortune style game board labeled with a range of monetary, fiscal, political maneuvers: Socialize/ Let Fail/ Coup d’etat/ Bailout!

Treasury’s divining machine is but the coup de grace in a volley of absurdist riffs on the resonances between economics and religion, riffs that also include a bevy of street-corner apocalyptics preaching the need for penitent austerity before a wrathful Economy, and an idealistic Jew who with a platinum AMEX card takes on the collective debt of the country. (The economy is “not a supernatural all-knowing entity,” Kyle preaches, but “just an idea made up by people thousands of years ago… not real, and yet it is real…truly meaningless until we put our faith in it.”)

The economy of Margaritaville—the narrowly conceived economy of Econ departments and the stock pages—is notable in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory largely for its absence. As an object of indefinite anticipation, it arrives in time for only a concluding appendix. For the preceding 250 pages, meanwhile, Agamben slowly sifts through two-millennia of Christian thought for the traces left by the concept over the course of its history. It is a dig by means of which he will coax the economy into revealing its unspoken theological secrets.


Anonymous artist, incarcerated at HM Prison Grendon

After a proto-secular preamble in Pseudo-Aristotle for whom the oikonomia was merely “the administration of the house” as opposed to that of the city, the concept begins to gather steam with the Church fathers. Agamben tracks the mutation from the “economy of the mystery”—which is how Justin characterizes Paul’s typological doctrine—to Irenaeus’ “mystery of the economy.” In the shift, oikonomia becomes the key for conceptualizing not merely the abstraction of the Trinity, but also the mysterious process through which the Trinity is articulated into the world, “conferring a hidden meaning upon every event” (50). This unity of divinity and economy, of being and practice, which characterizes the concept through late antiquity, soon fractures, splitting God into God the King on the one hand and God the Governor on the other. As King, God is transcendent, eternal and theoretical. As Governor, God is immanent, temporal and practical. From an anthropocentric standpoint, this split could not be more significant in that it makes possible and necessary both ethics (54), and more crucially for the story at hand, a governmental order (66). Subsequently, and what is true for Augustine will also be true for Hegel, “the problem of the ‘government’ of the world and its legitimization becomes the political problem that is in every sense decisive” (67).

That “Gnostic split” (140) between God the King and God the Governor is sutured in Providence. Through the two-tiered mechanism of the Providential Machine, God’s eternal Kingdom serves to found and legitimate a Christian government of men that must remain, inasmuch as the Christian history bends in the direction of humanity’s deliverance, on final analysis, extraneous. For the meantime, however, in this protracted cosmic interregnum, God’s agency is through the government of men wielded only vicariously. Consequently, Agamben argues, the problem of governance is paradigmatically not ontological but economic. Vis-à-vis the acts of governance, power is always allusive. Because every power “deputizes for another…there is not a ‘substance’ of power but only an economy of it.” (141). As far as power is concerned, that is to say, the pressing question is not what, but how.

If not a substance, power might be said to possesses a currency. That currency is glory. For the sustenance of both the divine Kingdom and Christian government, the flow of glory is necessarily wholly reciprocal. The government depends on the glory of God for its survival, but for his nourishment, God too needs glory, which he receives through the acclamations of men and women. And in this process of production and exchange, “the economy glorifies being, as being glorifies the economy” (209). Indeed, it is in this very velocity of circulation that glory is glorified. But this circulation on which both God and State so desperately depend is all that there is. In one of his big reveals, Agamben writes: “Government glorifies the Kingdom, and the Kingdom glorifies Government. But the center of the machine in empty, and the glory is nothing but the splendor that emanates from this emptiness, the inexhaustible kabhod that at once reveals and veils the central vacuity of the machine” (211). No gold standard props up this currency. The only thing backing it, rather, is a form of collective faith. The Amens and Hallelujahs of the church liturgy, and eventually, the displays of “public opinion” in modern politics, are not the instruments of power, they are power itself, a power derived from the glorious void that is located where its substance is supposed to be. And so, like Marx’s Protestant subject, freed in body at the cost of his soul, the contemporary media-saturated citizen is subject to “a glorious democracy, in which oikonomia is fully resolved into glory and the doxological function, freeing itself of liturgy and ceremonials, absolutizes itself to an unheard of extent and penetrates every area of social life” (259). Sacred pomp has been sublated into more devious and distributed forms. And so, just as the Protestant requires no sacraments for the greater glorification of God, so too are fascist parades, as a means for the glorification of the State, by now somewhat quaint.

anonymous artist, incarcerated at Wessex Youth Offending Service, 2009

The general arc of The Kingdom and the Glory is appealing and the fine granularity of Agamben’s archeology erodes one’s defenses. Nonetheless, at this preliminary stage of digestion, the book leaves me baffled in two distinct respects, which I mention here with the hope of feedback. My first site of puzzlement concerns what precisely Agamben is doing, and the second site pertains to what precisely Agamben hopes for what he is doing to do.

First—and this question could well be asked of much political theology—what precisely for Agamben is the ontological status of a concept across time? In some sense, the rules of the game are clear. By his own lights, Agamben is hoping to take Carl Schmitt’s seminal axiom that all central concepts of modern political theory are secularized theological concepts, and extend it to “the fundamental concepts of economy and the very idea of the reproductive life of human societies” (2). Contra Weber, secularization for Agamben is much more a matter of continuity than of rupture. In their secularized iterations, concepts evince a surplus of signification, which refer them back to their prior field or determinate interpretation. Agamben calls this surplus a “signature.” While a signature may be found wherever a concept has been displaced from one field to another, in the imperial realm of political theology into which the present study expands, that field, axiomatically, is theology. “Theological signature operates here as a sort of trompe l’oeil in which the very secularization of the world becomes the mark that identifies it as belonging to a divine oikonomia” (4). Much like in the resistance of the Freudian patient, the secular concept is one that protests too much the case of its non-religiosity. As Agamben dismisses one scholar who, in referring to the “traditional sense” of the term, fell prey to oikonomia’s ruses: “In truth, there is no theological ‘sense’ of the term, but first of all a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning” (21). And so in its everyday usage the concept comes to obscure the theological character that to the Schmittian critic is nonetheless manifest.

What would be the proper metaphor for such a concept that at once obscures and betrays its displaced theological denotation? Because the historical movement of the concept over the centuries is crucial, the simple manifest/latent structure of the Freudian sign will surely not suffice. As well, because it effects the Schmittian critic rather than the subject at large, the language of the trompe l’oeil would seem to obscure more than it reveals. And so what? Are we talking about the concept’s DNA? Rings of xylem on the trunk of a tree? Russian dolls? Puppets and dwarfs? In the final analysis, how essential is the force of history? At times, (see, e.g., gubernatio, 126), Agamben’s concepts seem to possess an immanent telos. At other times, by contrast, (see, e.g., Aristotle’s rejection of fate as related to modern techniques of government, 124), the connection between the ancient and the modern seems much more tenuous, a matter less of genealogical provenance than of analogical resonance.

The hermeneutic fireworks that such revelations ignite not withstanding, what are the real consequences in and for practice of using modern concepts without attending to their displaced theological core/precursor/[     ]?

One yield seemingly—and here I jump from the internal logic of Agamben’s project to its intended implications—is a re-centering of political theory. “What our investigation has shown,” Agamben writes, “is that the real problem, the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty, but government; it is not God, but the angel; it is not the king, but ministry; it is not the law, but the police—that is to say, the governmental machine that they form and support” (276).

Alan Compo Norbert, via Prison Creative Arts Project

At risk of disrespecting one of the giants of our age with a spasm of anti-intellectualism, I feel compelled to ask: other than to the Schmittian archeologist, to whom is this reframing a surprise? I think back to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s critique of paranoid reading practices, which is as true today as it was the day she published it fifteen years ago. As Sedgwick complains: “Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enrolled in the penal system? In the United States and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure, there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hyper-visible from the state may be offered as an exemplary spectacle, rather than remaining to be unveiled as a scandalous secret” (Novel Gazing, 1997, 18). Sedgwick proceeds to talk about the visibility of torture, which back then required appealing to Argentina, i.e. someplace other than here. My point now is little more than Sedgwick’s point was then. If fighting against exploitation and injustice is what we are after, are we really suffering from the sort of collective misrecognitions for which a better archeology of concepts might serve as a corrective? In this age of clear, present and deliberate mass incarceration, perpetual war and unlimited corporate political spending for the purposes of things like climate change obstructionism, must we continue to vociferously dispel the baroque and subtle mysteriousness of our ideological ether?

So, however, it would seem, especially as far as the economy in its more colloquial sense is concerned. Indeed, it could be argued that the inscrutable, mysterious nature of the economy has been the dominant feature in the stories we have told about the financial collapse. I’m not talking about populists like Matt Bai or rationalist liberals like Paul Krugman (Thank God for them!) but in the narratives of NPR’s Planet Money, The Inside Job, and Michael Lewis’ Big Short and Boomerang, the human agents primarily responsible for our global economic mess are characterized less by their avarice or even their recklessness than by their cluelessness. Led through the nitty-gritty of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and other scholastic stuff I’m able to keep straight for about five minutes tops, the financial crisis comes across less a tragedy than a farce, not a crime but a folly. Again and again, the story is told of puffed up, ivy-educated 24-year olds on overpaid magician’s apprenticeships developing financial instruments that neither they nor anyone else understood, and—cue the kazoo—here we find ourselves in a brave new world of perpetual double-digit real domestic unemployment, austerity as brutal as it is mulish, and imploding countries on Europe’s periphery. There is much before us to be done, and yet, we choose to marvel.

As an intellectual matter, of course “the invisible hand” is theological! Who but an economist could possibly think otherwise? And yet, as liberal democracy wanes and neo-feudalism dawns, is it not exceedingly curious that the putative mysteriousness of the economy has become the open secret we must repeatedly declare?

 

Joshua Dubler is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Down in the Chapel, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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