On the Insurrectionary Turn In Political Theology (Roger Green)

Commentary, Insurrectionary Theology

The “alethurgy” (as Foucault called it, i.e., the set of procedures for declaring something “true”) that is the manifestation of Trump and the rising of the far right into high profile media discourse has produced re-constellations, re-evaluations and subjectivations.

The 2016 U.S. election was revelatory in the sense that the manifest will of the United States called for identity affirmation of marginalized civil rights categories, while producing neoliberal competition between various groups on the so-called left.  At the same time, the latent desire captured in the electoral college produced what the nation “really wanted.”  This intensifies a recent insurrectionary turn among some scholars of political theology.  What does insurrection mean against the “rising up” of the extreme right?

President Obama’s farewell address last week continued to include the progressive inclusion of the newest recognized categories of gender and sexual identity alongside the struggle “as old as the nation itself,” touting American exceptionalism, while simultaneously remaining unable to publicly recognize the non-citizens at Standing Rock who represent something older than the nation and perpetually displaced by its call for “progress” and assimilation. Such exclusive exceptionalism resonates more with the domination of empire than it does with the ascendency of Christian insurrection.

In this context, I want to return to Michel Foucault’s necessary movement of flight from ideology critique in order to ask – as he did thirty-six years ago this month, at the dawn of the Reagan dispensation in the U.S. – “what can the voluntary bond with truth say about the involuntary bond that ties us and subjects us to power?” (77).

Foucault’s lectures dealt heavily with Oedipus and the truth procedures producing subjectivation.  For him, Sophocles’ play “shows that the manifestation of the truth will be [complete], the circle of alethurgy will be closed only when it has passed through individuals who can say “I,” when it has passed through the eyes, hands, memory, testimony, and affirmation of men who say: I was there, I saw, I did, I gave with my own hand, I received into my own hands” (73).

Foucault characterizes Greek tyranny without the pejorative connotations surrounding the contemporary use of the term.  For tyrants in ancient Greece were “the willing or unwilling authors of democracy.”  And then the pregnant analogy: “tyranny was always a constant and ambiguous model for politics in Greece.  And after all, it could be said that tyranny was for Greek thought what the revolution has been for modern European political thought, that in relation to which, ultimately, one must always situate oneself and that has to be thought of as passage, transition, foundation, or upheaval” (73).

Of course, the subject of Oedipus and Oedipal knowledge was, for Foucault, in conversation with Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, a book to which Foucault contributed the introduction calling it a contemporary ethics.  And Foucault’s opening theme, Septimius Severus’s hidden horoscope in his private chamber giving authority of fate to his reign, is a constellation disrupted by the disaster and eruption of the Real.  Oedipus sought to govern by tuchē and not by universal nomos.

If ancient power was constituted in part by the destined and uninterrupted flow of truth into power – the truth of the stars – the appeal to the flow of power, conservative by nature, was in abiding with the cosmos.  Oedipus as sēmeion of the slaves who corroborate the truth of the Gods at the level of the text is made into a subject through his search [ēuriskein] for the discovery of what has already been revealed.

This seeking, the changing circumstances of the tyrant in which we already see Fortuna at work in Oedipus’s rise and fall, is disembodied and disseminated into the performance of the rising-up of classes and masses in the modern age.  The falling away from monarchical power constitutes the depoliticized world, which Carl Schmitt lamented in his post-WWII reading of his times and which Walter Benjamin praised (citing Schmitt’s Political Theology).  In this reading, the hero is displaced by the intriguer and the intellectual in the modern myth: “Don Quixote is Spanish and purely Catholic; Faust is German and Protestant; Hamlet stands between them in the middle of the schism that has determined the fate of Europe” (52).

The shift characterized by the intrusion of time and what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “world interior of capital” guts the power of sovereignty, disseminating into a broader economy of power.  This power, the examination of which Agamben in large part takes up to answers Foucault’s question, “can there be power without showy garb?” (17) is also what Michael Taussig calls the “magic” of the state and mimicked in the “cosmic” cosmetic surgery of botched butt-enlargements in Beauty and the Beast.

And while aGffect theory such as Lauren Berlant’s assemblage of “cruel optimism” intends to disrupt the discourse of sovereignty, it does so in a trajectory inspired by the late Foucault’s inquiry into governance beyond ideology critique, which in its implied dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari does not “rest on the idea that knowledge and power are antinomic” (339-40). The critique overcomes a metaphysics of a pure and “free” subjectivity against which the late Foucault examined “government by truth.”

A simultaneous interiorizing and exteriorizing presents itself in all of this thought.  Critiquing Foucault, Guy Stroumsa’s 2005 lectures, collected in English under the title, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, situates interiority-exteriority through the move from blood sacrifice to writing, arguing that the seeds of religious interiority can be found in Judaism during the period of the second temple and intensifying after its destruction in 70 C.E.

In other words, the destruction of the earlier temple in 586 B.C.E. precipitates a cultural shift to the development of texts.  Stroumsa argues: “Religion, including religious worship, is above all a meditation on texts, with a central place granted to texts dealing with the individual, with the individual sinner, in particular the Psalms, a meditation that the Christians learned from Second Temple Judaism” (22-23).

Stroumsa thematically contrasts his research with Foucault, even titling a chapter “A New Care of the Self,” a double entendre on the religious innovations of late antiquity and the limits of Foucault’s thinking.  According to Stroumsa, Foucault got it only half right.  He was right to focus on the Jewish emphasis on the interior move toward individual responsibility but wrong with respect to an emphasis on self-annihilation in Christianity in monasticism.

Stroumsa does not mention Nietzsche, but I believe his critique of Foucault is simultaneously a critique of Nietzsche’s characterization of Christianity as world-denying.  I say this because Stroumsa argues that Christianity “enlarges the limits of the self, rather than narrowing them.  The Christian self does not disappear into the community; it becomes, on the contrary, emblematic” (25).  Emblematic, or showy garb?

Stroumsa says Foucault was misled by “the ambiguous status of reflexivity developed by Christian thinkers” and “the disappearance of sungenia [kinship] between the human and the divine world,” a world in which the separation of humans “prevents a narcissism of the self” and invites the moral reform of the self. This moral reform was heightened in the non-elite who were not philosophers who “naturally” possessed the insightful sungenia with the divine.

This democratization and enlargement of the common person’s self is materially reflected in the rise of the codex and the book.  Stroumsa notes that Christian community is centered within the translational efforts of the Septuagint during the 3rd century B.C.E. (44).  Christian culture differed from Jewish culture in its tendency to emphasize translation into different languages.

This would be intensified with Christianity’s emergent place in the Roman empire (43).  It allowed for the enlargement of Christian culture itself: “If the Christianization of the empire did not lead to a radical iconoclasm and to the destruction of pagan literature, it was precisely because Christian identity crystallized around the faith in the message of translated Scriptures, hence detached from their original ethnic or cultural tradition” (53).

Stroumsa articulates how the shifting away from blood sacrifice essentially becomes internalized through prayer ant text-centered community, thus echoing (with qualifications) Hegel’s emphasis on interiorization, (2) highlighting Jewish and Christian emphases on the embodiment and creaturely nature of human persons against Greek (Platonic) ones (112).

While I am unsure if Stroumsa is reacting to early or late Foucault, the transfer of blood sacrifice into the book, the opening of the body of the Torah, which after all looks like a horned bull, situates hermeneutic activity as textual blood. A more rigorous balance between oral and written transmission appears to have maintained Jewish tradition from Qumran to the Masoretes while a transnational tendency to translate ensured Christianity’s coupling and “rising up” to Empire.

Such a history resonates with current political-theological situations.  What kind of “silent” rigor did it take for the continued and relatively unchanged transmission of the Tanakh over the thousand years after the fall of the second temple?

In the re-constellation of perspectives around the manifestation of Trump, characterized not in the least by the very public Marine Le Pen “visit” to Trump Tower a few weeks ago, the term “insurrection” or “rising up” has taken on a new significance.  We have seen a number of demonstrations in recent weeks, the Women’s March being one of the largest.  Is this a “rising up”? Probably not the kind Franco “Bifo” Berardi imagines in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance or the folks involve in Tiqqun in This is Not a Program.

Although preceding Trump’s win, the Christian political-theological strain is present in Carl Raschke’s Force of God and the essay collection, An Insurrectionist Manifesto, both published by Columbia University Press as part of their Insurrections series.

Insurrection here is characterized by an excess of signification, what Raschke calls the force of God.  By way of Lacan and Žižek and in explicit dialogue with Deleuze nd Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia project, Creston Davis writes in his introduction to the manifesto, “the Real, in this logic, becomes the not-All of the symbolic itself.  Here the Real does not take place outside or beyond the symbolic, but rather curls up within the symbolic as the ‘logic’ that, precisely, prevents the symbolic from achieving totality, completion, or groundedness. This curled-up Real is the ‘source’ of insurrection” (9).

If Stroumsa and much recent scholarship concerning the blurriness of trying to separate early Christianity from Judaism.  Here, in this early form indicated by the recent interest in Paul, Christian political theologians look for insight into insurrection.  At the end of his 1980 lectures, Foucault contrasts “the Christian” to Septimius Severus, saying, “The Christian does not have the truth of the world above his head, with the exception of his own truth, the truth concerning himself. The Christian has the truth deep within himself and he is yoked to this deep secret, indefinitely bent over it and indefinitely constrained to show the other the treasure that his work, thought, attention, conscience, and discourse ceaselessly draw out from it” (312-313).

We, and I am not speaking of Christian “we” here but a more imaginative community, should ask whether or not the continued emanation of this interior-exterior desiring machine and the exclusivist iterations in capital as “expansive” notions of “citizenship” is insurrectionary in its production of excess and translation; or if, perhaps, a truer insurrection in the anagnoresis of western hubris. If, as Davis suggests, insurrection prevents symbolic totality, then an asymmetrical justice must take up the causes of the oppressed that neoliberalism identified and determined in order to pit them against one another for a competitive market.

We might look to Jewish midrashic techniques in their asymmetry to keep universalisms in check. In any case, what is required is the necessity to philosophize beyond an overlapping consensus and to shift the channels of our involuntary subjection to power into other registers and dimensions.  Much of this, if it is truly insurrectionary, will not be aired on confessional social media.  And when it must be public, we do well to attend to what the late Leonard Cohen said in a brilliant critique of masculinity, “Let’s sing another song, boys, this one has grown old and bitter.”

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

One thought on “On the Insurrectionary Turn In Political Theology (Roger Green)

  1. This was a well written and full of useful information. However, I do not agree with the premise given as a fact that “manifestation of Trump and the rising of the far right into high profile media discourse has produced re-constellations, re-evaluations and subjectivations”, I think the problems runs deeper within our society. Oswald Chambers was struggling with the same idea. This article was helpful to me. https://www.gbs.edu/alumni/revivalist/

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