Agamben Symposium: Roland Boer

Book Discussions

Agamben and the Arctic Lily: Some Thoughts on The Kingdom and the Glory

I began reading Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory as part of a larger reading agenda for a project called ‘The Sacred Economy’. Would not a book that seeks to re-examine the question of oikonomia, tracing it back to classical Greek usage in relation to the mundane domestic sphere, through its appropriation and retooling by the church ‘fathers’ and then its subsequent secularisation prove useful? For some strange reason, it proves to be so.

Of course, the near obsessive etymological sifting through texts that contain the word oikonomia is useful in a catalogue kind of fashion. Worthy of attention are the serious reflections over angelology as the key to a theory of managerial world power (the EU!), and the extended argument that all the peacock-like gowns, archaic mutterings, hocus-pocus and extravagant ritual and pomp are crucial for the very constitution of power. Perhaps the queer appropriations of such matters – via camp – had a greater insight than at first seemed to be the case (it is a pity Agamben does not offer such a camp reading). I must admit to feeling a little let down by the conclusion that all this pomp and ceremony has now been transferred to popular consensus, even to the media circus that passes for modern democracy. Given a choice, I always prefer the queer excess embodied in those fancy robes, mitres, measured steps and solemn monotones.

Be that as it may, I wish to register some scattered misgivings regarding Agamben’s latest offering. They concern theology and origins, secularisation, church history, universals and the arctic lily.

Theology and Origins

On the opening page, Agamben writes: ‘Locating government in its theological locus in the Trinitarian oikonomia does not mean to explain it by means of a hierarchy of causes, as if a more primordial genetic rank would necessarily pertain to theology’ (p. xi). Instead, he suggests that theology is a ‘privileged laboratory’, the ‘paradigmatic form’ of the ‘governmental machine’. This initial formulation gave me some hope that Agamben’s notorious searches for origins would at least be qualified. Privileged, if not a paradigmatic laboratory, theology might be, but certainly not a cause. Reading the book leaves me wondering whether there really is any difference between privilege, paradigm, hierarchy and origins.


Let me take the example of secularisation, which Agamben understands in a rather conventional sense. Eschewing Weber’s theory of disenchantment and detheologisation, Agamben opts for Schmitt’s argument that secularization enables theology ‘to be present and active in an eminent way’. That is, ‘it concerns a particular strategic relation that marks political concepts and refers them back to their theological origin’ (p. 4, my emphasis). He wishes to give this a Foucauldian twist, by designating secularisation as a ‘signature’, which may be defined as ‘something that in a sign or concept marks or exceeds such a sign or concept referring it back to a determinate interpretation or field, without for this reason leaving the semiotic to constitute a new meaning or a new concept’ (p. 4). Again, the emphasis is mine: not only do we have a theological origin, but theology provides the semantic and theoretical boundary fence, in which no gate may be found, and around which guards patrol, searching one for wire cutting implements. Turn you may, seeking a way out, but theology is ‘decisive at every turn’. Trapped thus, ‘secularization operates in the conceptual system of modernity as a signature that refers it back to theology’ (p. 4). Or to shift the metaphor, one may feel that one has stepped from heaven to earth, but earth itself turns out to be a manifestation of heaven.

It now seems special pleading, teasing perhaps, to suggest that he is not interested in causes, hierarchies or origins. Or rather, his argument is far more robust, secured by those beefy theoretical security guards: paradigm, laboratory, origin, enclosure, universe that one cannot leave.

In this light, the reader encounters one old saw after another, even if Agamben claims them, à la Foucault, as brilliant original insights: the ‘Hegelian Left’ replicates the ‘economic’ link between divine revelation and history, in which the human economy is a transferal of the divine (p. 46); Führung (Schmitt etc.) is a secularisation of the ‘pastoral paradigm’ (Foucault) (p. 76); Marx’s praxis, as the self-production of ‘man,’ is but the secularisation of the theological idea ‘of the being of creatures as divine operation’ (p. 90). And so on.

Church History

All of which brings me to church history, although it is a history implicit in Agamben’s etymological scouring of texts (his claims to ‘historical research’ notwithstanding). Church history? At a crucial but unacknowledged point, Agamben replicates Foucault’s unexamined decision to follow the Counter-Reformation in his archaeology of governmentality. Agamben is of course the champion of locating the blind spot, the unsaid of any work, to the extent of attempting to locate his own. But he is blinded here by his own apparent insight. So we find a seamless narrative that runs from the church ‘fathers’ through to Aquinas and Roman Catholic thinkers such as the eternally present Schmitt (who actually anticipates Foucault, p. 75) and a recovered Erik Peterson. That Peterson was himself a convert to Roman Catholicism may be read as the trace of Agamben’s own fateful decision to follow in Foucault’s steps.

The smoothness of this narrative appears in the ease with which Agamben moves back and forth between Gregory of Nazianzus or Clement of Alexandria – to cull but two from a large gaggle of church ‘fathers’ – and Thomas Aquinas, Erik Peterson, Schmitt, or any other of his odd collection of theologians. (The selectiveness of this gathering renders the grand Agambanesque swipes at ‘modern theologians’ somewhat amusing, if not exasperating.)

This point may be illustrated by a search for any significant Protestant, or indeed Orthodox, theologian. Luther appears occasionally, but significantly marginalised. So we encounter him in terms of the ‘Lutheran error’ (p. 137), or following Augustine in an amusing aside, castigating those who ask what God was doing before he made heaven and earth – ‘He sat in the forest, cutting rods to beat those who ask impertinent questions’ (p. 162). To be fair, Luther does have a more positive appearance, now offering a warning from the sidelines not to be blinded in the effort to ‘penetrate glory’ (195-6), but it is still from the sidelines. Or, if Agamben does engage in a more substantial discussion, as with Barth (pp. 211-16), it is only insofar as Barth uses ‘singularly lofty tones that seem more suited to a Catholic theologian’ (p. 215). As for Calvin … Tellingly, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli et al are absent from the bibliography. One can only suppose that they have nothing substantial to contribute on matters of the economy, governance, power, providence, politics or indeed glory.

Of course, my response has a partisan edge, a counter to Agamben resolute partisanship. But that partisanship operates with what may be called a singular universal of exclusion. Anyone who does not fit is absorbed, crushed or ignored. Would it not better to operate with a universal of inclusion, or perhaps multiple universes?


The question of multiple universes brings me to what may be called translatability. On this matter, Agamben is torn. His search for the ultimate theological paradigm, his definition of secularisation, his version of church history all speak of the all-encompassing theological compound in which politics and philosophy play their games. Yet on at least one occasion, he glimpses the possibility that theology may provide one language, a limited collection of codes for speaking of such matters.

After a painstaking exploration of Kantorowicz, along with Alföldi and Schramm, he observes that ‘the relation between the theological and political is not univocal, but always runs in both directions’ (p. 193). Here is some promise, recognition of the limited and relative codes of theology in relation to politics. Now we might begin to think of revolution as the political code for grace and miracle, and vice versa. Or of the theological use of ‘economy’ as but one, restricted use – the narrative of the passage from domestic use to theological to political earlier in the book suggests as much. Agamben even notes Assmann’s astute counter to Schmitt: ‘the significant concepts of theology are theologized political concepts’. Schmitt of course urged the opposite – ‘all significant concepts of the modern secularized theological concepts’ (p. 193).

Too soon the opening is closed down, for according to Agamben, ‘every inversion of a thesis remains, however, in some sense implicitly in agreement with the original’. Schmitt’s authority remains undimmed. But this is not Agamben’s last word, for he goes on to find an even more originary moment. Rather than taking sides in this debate, he seeks the medium of exchange, the currency by which these two sides – theology and politics, spiritual power and profane power – may connect. And he finds it in glory, which provides a prior moment of indistinction, indetermination, an undifferentiated ‘secret point of contact’.

Arctic Lily

So finally the artic lily. The move I have just followed, in which Agamben seeks an amorphous and prior common ground between an opposition is common in his works. It appears, for instance, in his curious search for the amoebal pre-law that lies behind the opposition of faith and law in Paul’s thought, a pre-historical point from which all of Paul’s oppositions begin to make sense.

In that earlier work on Paul, Emile Benveniste provides the methodological inspiration for such a move. Yet it relies upon the flimsiest of linguistic arguments in order to concoct supposedly ancient Indo-European practices and institutions. Benveniste appears briefly in The Kingdom and the Glory, in an effort to locate the truth behind the roi mehaignié, the mutilated or ‘fisher’ king of the Grail Legend. This kind of linguistic dabbling, creating hypotheses on the basis of odd mythic traces, is a distinctly nineteenth and early twentieth century speculative practice tied up closely with the dubious Indo-European hypothesis.

I would like to call this method the arctic-lily method. Why arctic lily? More than three decades ago, I studied Sanskrit in a class of four – a steel worker, a single mother, a gay mathematics teacher and me. We met late in the evenings, filling the room with cigarette smoke, tossing down cheap sherries, led by a uniquely entertaining and bum-fondling professor. At one point, we came across a troublesome Sanskrit word (I forget which). Our professor paused, pondered and announced that it designated a specific flower.

‘Here we find’, he said, ‘a reference to the pre-historic origins of human civilisation above the Arctic Circle’.

Cigarettes hung on lips; sherries poised in mid-air.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The original meaning of this word is probably artic lily. Fermented, it produced the first alcoholic beverage made by human beings. Which goes to prove that human civilisation did indeed emerge first above the Arctic Circle’.

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