Top three “key texts”:
- Paul Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia)
- George Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minnesota)
- Toni Morrison, Beloved (Vintage)
Need to become “essential” texts:
- Ted Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford)
- Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham)
- Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago 2006)
Reasons for including these texts:
My primary reasons for choosing these texts are pedagogical: these are the texts that teach extremely well in the upper level undergraduate seminar I teach on race and political theology. I would note: none of these texts are drawn from what I think of as more usual suspects on theory and political theology: Schmitt (of course), Agamben, Benjamin, or, perhaps, Badiou. This is not because these texts are not key. They aren’t however, “key” to capture the interests of the undergrads I’m encountering. These exceptionally bright students are constantly insisting when it comes to matters of race that theory relate to practice, that theory find root in historical, social, and political example. And so, each of the texts listed either 1) speak theory in order to illuminate or explicate a complicated set of social-political conditions, 2) explicate a complicated set of social-political conditions without speaking theory at all.
Paul Kahn’s Political Theology is immensely helpful in getting students to see the stakes in Schmitt’s original Political Theology while translating those stakes for an American context. In other words, Kahn translates in terms readily experienced by students of the American political project Schmitt’s questions about the nature of sovereignty, how modern versions of sovereignty utilize theological constructions of authority, and how those modern versions live-on in liberal democracies. With his account, students experience a shock of recognition in confronting the Constitution as scripture, American exceptionalism as theocracy, and the practice of American racism as rituals of sacrifice.
Shulman’s American Prophecy doesn’t style-itself as a work of political theology; that is not his chosen discourse. Yet, Shulman’s interest in the way political theorists have neglected the crucial importance of religion—in forms overt and more inchoate—in the political imaginations of figures like Thoreau, King, Baldwin, and Morrision raises animating questions at the heart of political theology. Shulman’s account helps students see the way political theology can be voiced in a counter-insurgent key: political theology as a way of foisting a critique of the domineering and dominating forces of political theology that Schmitt prizes. Most crucial is Shulman’s translations of authority—how it can function democratically and for the purposes of liberation—offer students fresh perspectives on the mechanics of resistance. Freedom, in this sense, is not about throwing off all constraints, but finding commitments of justice. Shulman illuminates all of this through the narrative voices, voices embedded in and engaged with projects of racial justice, of some of America’s most prized social critics.
Finally, Morrison’s Beloved. Here, too, is a text that doesn’t use the language of political theology. Yet Morrison’s act of imaginative bravery is nothing less than an exploration of how to constitute authority, community, and the sacred under the conditions of racial terrorism. Students confront terrifying and astounding examples of sacrifice, of ritualized commemoration, and of harrowing searches for sacredness—all of which open up questions of other spiritual worlds. Beloved is an exploration of political community constituted otherwise: on the basis of commitments that emerge not from liberal agreement, but from a type of piety to stories of struggle, uncertainty, and, even, miracle.
Define and/or describe the field of political theology (two or three sentences)
Political theology begins where liberal theory lets off. Political theology conceives of democracy as “an organization of everyday life founded on an imagination of the sacred” (Kahn, PT, 23), a sacred for which citizens will kill and be killed for. Political theology asks what those sacreds are. In particular, political theology helps expose the way racialized violence and antiblackness constitute the American sacred. In response, political theology explores the way formations of the sacred can be refashioned into forms of insurgent forms of counter-sovereignty against white supremacy. In no particular order, political theology asks: how is community constituted outside of the liberal norms of rational consent and constitutional procedure? in what ways are constructions of race rooted in theological concepts and histories? how do these constructions contribute the ways the nation-state arrogates power? most critically, how can alternately constructed theological concepts and histories offers tools or resources with which to fight back against the nation-state’s racialized political theology?
In what way does it make sense to talk about a “canon” of Political Theology?
I can’t say that in my teaching of political theology, I find myself thinking in terms of a “canon.” This is not to say that it is not helpful to have some texts in common, or, for example, that it is useful for students of political theology to read some of Schmitt. But this reading is important only insofar as it helps lift up central questions for political theology—and these questions can be easily imagined in and through other texts. So, Schmitt, and other “canonical” texts, are valuable only insofar as they lead to a radically ramified set of other texts. And to the degree they bog down or distract from those texts, they are less useful.
The texts I have identified as “need to become ‘essential’ texts” function in this spirit. Smith’s text deals at length with Benjamin, something of a canonical figure. Yet one does not have to read Benjamin to appreciate Smith’s reading: imagining a future version of racial justice out of the contorted legacy of John Brown. Here a reading of Benjamin leads to an unsolved, particularly vexing historical problem. Neither Crawley nor Allen’s texts deal with canonical figures in political theology, yet both are amazing texts of political theological imagination. Each addresses questions of community-creation outside of liberal norms and modes of power. Both search for languages other than “rights” to forge acts and communities of justice. Neither understands their work as normatively religious. Yet both resort to resources that we might want to call religious—glossolalia in Crawley’s case, and sacrifice in Allen’s—in order to slip outside the norms that govern liberal politics.
One thought on “At the End of Liberal Theory”
Hi, professor Kahn. What do you think about the Kierkegaard background of Carl Schmitt? My point of view is that Schmitt created a new christian community idea when he linked the exception with sovereignity.
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