On December 12, 2020, under a month before right-wing activists stormed the US capitol, right-wing Christians from across the denominational spectrum gathered in Washington to perform a Jericho March. In contemporary Christian practice, a Jericho March is a ritual action involving acts of prayer, circumambulation, and blowing shofars (Jewish ritual trumpets). Such Marches are a key part of contemporary “spiritual warfare” practices, whose purpose—this one included—is to dethrone and exorcise demonic entities that have allegedly taken control of the target: here, the US government and judiciary branches, which Mach participants accuse of overturning the 2020 presidential election in favour of Joe Biden, preventing Trump from maintaining his (in their minds) rightful and God-given power. The March was a tool of legitimation and delegitimation, situating participants and Trump as embodiments of righteousness and divine authority, while casting their opponents—whether individuals or institutions—as agents of illegitimate demonic forces. Demons here are framed—like many human targets of Trump’s presidential rhetoric—as illegally occupying space and resources, requiring violent removal in the name of maintaining or restoring the “proper” order to the nation.
The Jericho March on Washington illustrates the relationship of demonology to a core concern of political theology: sovereignty, the structure and justification of who rules or has the right to rule. In its political commitments, it also exemplifies how demonization—how others are cast as “with” demons, both affliction and affiliation—is a central dynamic of the current global political and religious landscape. The global ascendancy of reactionary forces, galvanizing existing antisemitism, antiblackness, and Islamophobia, has escalated the dehumanization of immigrants as well as attacks on queer and trans people, all fuelling violent backlashes against movements for racial, gender, and sexual justice. In Europe and North America, religion—specifically Christianity—provides the conceptual imaginary of these reactionary movements, in which paradigms of white, Christian, cisheteropatriarchal rule attempt to (re)assert sovereign power over the autonomy and futurity of all other(ed) beings and other ways of being. Demonology is among the conceptual tools these paradigms mobilize, whether by literally framing other(ed) humans as “with” demons, or by marking them with dehumanising and eliminationist notions from the history of Christian demonology. However, through these same concepts political theologians and critical theorists might learn to turn demonology to our own ends, learning to think “with” demons.
To begin, I outline how contemporary scholarship generally employs “political demonology” to connote intense self/other binaries. Critically, this connotation is often wholly secularised, stripped from direct connections to religious demonologies (past and present). From here, I sketch out an alternative understanding of political demonology more closely inflected by political theology. Drawing on the work of Adam Kotsko in section two and Cecilio Cooper in section three, I explore how demonology can recontextualise political theological discussions of sovereignty, power, freedom, and subjectivity, also moreover as a potential resource through which the demonized—those marked as “with” demons—can challenge systems of power and violence that seek to demonize them.
Whither Political Demonology?
To think “with” demons requires reframing a political theology with or as a political demonology. Before doing so, however, it is important to clarify how academic scholarship uses the term “political demonology” (or sometimes simply “demonology”). At least since political scientist Michael Paul Rogin used the term in 1987, “political demonology” has referred simply to systems of dehumanisation. For Rogin, the term refers to the exacerbation of existing racial and class divides tied to a broader reactionary tradition in American cultural and political life, one that engaged in the creation of monsters by inflating, stigmatizing, and dehumanizing political foes. This is the primary sense in which political demonology appears today across academic disciplines, from the political theory of Bonnie Honig to the film criticism of Adam Lowenstein. In these works, political demonology names a process of narrating both culture and history that privileges intense binarization: how one’s politics and life become warped by enmity and projection and the simplification that neat, clear-cut binaries bring. Demonology here names the process of dividing the world into self—imagined as pure, whole, and wholesome—and other—understood as threatening, corruptive, violating, and to be shunned.
One hallmark of this understanding of political demonology particularly relevant to political theologians, however, is its estrangement from both lived religion (such as that displayed in Washington on December 12) and the theological history of demonology. It is almost wholly secularized, collapsing varieties of demonology (past and present) and concepts embedded in them to privilege creating self/other binaries as demonology’s solitary function. I am not suggesting such binaries are unimportant—quite the contrary. Rather, situating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom. By doing so, we might open the way for thinking “with” demons, as theoretical tools to comprehend social and political processes of demonization, and through which we might challenge those very processes.
The Included Exclusion
The figure of the demon emerging from Christian theology is not simply a figure of evil, but one constructed and actualised by asymmetrical relations of sovereign power. The Devil is illustrative of this construction, as literary critic Neil Forsyth explores. The Devil, previously an angel in heaven, receives his identity as the Devil through his fall. This is his origin as a subject: he is subjected to divine sovereign power—being defeated and cast down by God—a subjection from which subjectivity and identity emerges. This subjectivity exists both inside and outside of divine order: a system that excludes him defines the Devil’s sense of self, while his actions and their results still exist within and feed into that system. Historian Philip Almond refers to this duality as the “demonic paradox.” The Devil, and demons broadly, are simultaneously the implacably opposed to divine order and (often unwilling) agents of it. Demons oppose yet cannot escape divine order. At the same time, their antagonism allows them to be positioned as an other, a figure embodying everything divine order rejects while being scapegoated for that order’s systemic failures.
The Devil’s inside/outside position is a theme political theologian Adam Kotsko explicitly takes up. Positioning his work as responding to the contemporary demonization of Black people in contemporary America, Kotsko traces the Devil’s journey from early Christian theology through the early modern period to show how the Devil’s story—his fall and irrevocable damnation—serves as the template for notions of sin and blameworthiness in Western society. Interrogating the problem of evil from a new angle, Kotsko explores how the Devil’s fall happens arbitrarily at the instant of creation. The Devil is held morally culpable by God for this fall without specifying whether he could ever have chosen otherwise. Moreover, with small theological exceptions, his damnation is irrevocable. In this way, the Devil’s fall creates a permanent reservoir of “evil” whose energies can always be turned toward achieving the divine plan. In Kotsko’s analysis, the Devil and those aligned with him become included exclusions—that is, individuals and groups who are excluded from the benefits and protections of a given social order but whose exclusion is necessary for that order to sustain itself. Divine order manufactures the conditions for the Devil’s exclusion while rendering him blameworthy for it, ultimately recuperating their energies for its own sustenance and survival.
Examining the legacy of the Devil in secularized systems of antisemitism, antiblackness, and neoliberal economic and social order, Kotsko shows how demonization creates the framework in which free will becomes a paradigm for apportioning sin and punishment. It creates systems of power through which individuals are cast as blameworthy for choices they cannot not choose, justifying regimes of violence that fall disproportionately on disempowered sides of racial, class, gender, and sexual lines. The targets of such regimes of violence become demonized, not simply in the more general sense—drawing on Rogin—that they are dehumanized and othered, but in the sense that they adopt the demon’s structural liminality as the included exclusions of social, political, and theological orders. Like demons, the demonized are situated inside and outside systems of power, ineluctably enmeshed in even while persistently struggling against these systems.
The Black Chthonic
By situating demons not simply in relation to constructions of evil or otherness, but also to liminality and asymmetry, we can foster a critical framework that approaches demonized subjectivities as embedded in broader systems of sovereign power and sovereign violence. Understanding demonization as the construction and imposition of relations of subjection and subjectivity opens space through which to articulate a form of political theology “from below”—one that speaks “with” demons, with the demonized, acting in alignment with those forced to embody infernal substrates of sovereign power—its foundations, its fear, its fuel.
This approach necessitates a theory and politics that draws on the insights of demonized peoples, as seen for example in the pioneering work of Cecilio Cooper. Cooper builds off other recent work in Black Studies like that of Jared Sexton that excavates the potential of the demonic as an intellectual resource for thinking Blackness and antiblackness. Exploring early modern witchcraft and alchemy discourses, Cooper demonstrates how blackness symbolically comes to represent a threat to the messianic teleology of white, Christian reproductive futurity—then and now. Cooper’s work follows early modern witchcraft scholarship in chronicling the complex ways sincere belief in the reality of the demonic, and efforts to counteract its influence, galvanize regimes of knowledge production and transformations in sociopolitical structures and concepts of selfhood. Articulating the “black chthonic,” Cooper underlies how ideas of postlapsarian fallenness become imbricated in constructions of racialized Blackness and settler colonial models of Indigeneity.
Unpacking the lines of tension between constructions of racial blackness and those of an ostensibly non-racial symbolic blackness, Cooper’s black chthonic constitutes a symbolic site of demonological threat to a white, Christian, cisheteropatriarchal social order, representing a site of extraction, darkness, hell, death, disorder, indeterminacy, chaos, and counter-cultural revolution, among others. The black chthonic sutures discourses in which messianic victory of light over darkness are mapped onto property relations by which white Christian society claims ownership of Black humanity. Blackness in Cooper’s analysis is something always out-of-place, in a state of perennial falling, and the nadir of universality. As such, within the symbolic and material economy of white Christian cisheteropatriarchy it must yet cannot be controlled. It situates Black existence as demonologically coded, but also grants Black existence an anarchic potentiality. Teasing out the multiplicities of the black chthonic, Cooper’s work exposes how the demonological represents not only a projection of normative order’s threat, which places the demonized in the liminal role of the included exclusion, but also a potent resource from which the demonized might draw to articulate new strategies of subversion, solidarity, and survival.
Heretofore, the field of political demonology has concerned itself with broadly secularized models of intense othering, models divorced from both historical demonology and the lived demonologies of the contemporary world. The ascendancy of demonology in modern reactionary movements as a resource through which these movements frame models of legitimacy, power, self sovereignty, and state sovereignty—as witnessed in contemporary America—highlight the need for political theology to articulate a new, more nuanced, paradigm of political demonology. Cooper and Kotsko’s works represent crucial steps in this direction, bridging theology, early modern demonological analyses, and modern critical theory to lay the foundations for a holistic understanding of Christian demonology’s conceptual landscape and more or less secularized legacy. Their work not only encourages political theologians and critical theorists alike to look beyond demonology as merely a tool for the violent division of the world into self and other, but also to interrogate the relations of sovereign power, subjectivity, and subjection that this division fosters—and also to begin plumbing its abyssal depths for the forbidden resources by which we might learn to unmake the world and its structures.
Cecilio M. Cooper. “Fallen: Generation, Postlapsarian Verticality + the Black Chthonic.” Rhizomes 38, 2022.
An exploration of political demonology as a critical methodology for examining constructions of Blackness and Indigeneity in discourses of early modern demonology, alchemy, and contemporary ecocriticism.
Adam Kotsko. The Prince of this World: The Life and Legacy of the Devil. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
Presently the sole monograph-length political theology of the Devil. The work explores the relationship between the Devil, blameworthiness, and freedom from patristic theology through to the early modern period.
Adam Kotsko. Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.
A sequel and companion text to The Prince of this World. The text interrogates contemporary neoliberalism as a political theological system that demonizes its subjects, rendering individuals blameworthy for systemic problems.
Michael Paul Rogin. Ronald Reagan: The Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.
An early and influential primary theorization of “political demonology.” Decidedly non-theological, but exemplary of how the term is used in academic scholarship broadly.
Jared Sexton. Black Men, Black Feminism: Lucifer’s Nocturne. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Extends Kotsko’s analysis of demonization through afropessimism to explore Black masculinity and the liminal position of Black men in the Black feminist movement.
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