Squaring the Exceptional and the Normative? A Realist Response to Kahn’s Political Theology

Essays

This book is a timely intervention within current debates about the role of religion, politics, philosophy and the public square. I was reading it as the Western World was once again reflecting (and in a not very coherent or analytical way) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As Kahn persuasively reminds us, international terrorism inextricably linked to religious imaginaries has forced liberal democracies and liberal intellectual disciplines to wake up to the real nature of politics: the themes of sovereign decision; the power of the exception rather than the bureaucratic norm; the lure of sacrifice and martyrdom; the will to act and choose authenticity rather than the use of reason or appeal to the norm. These are the seductive and destructive options that the international and religiously inspired terrorist offers us.

This is the sixth essay in an eight part series discussing Paul W. Kahn’s recent book, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Kahn’s response will be posted on Monday, Nov. 28 and Thursday, Dec. 1.

This book is a timely intervention within current debates about the role of religion, politics, philosophy and the public square. I was reading it as the Western World was once again reflecting (and in a not very coherent or analytical way) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As Kahn persuasively reminds us, international terrorism inextricably linked to religious imaginaries has forced liberal democracies and liberal intellectual disciplines to wake up to the real nature of politics: the themes of sovereign decision; the power of the exception rather than the bureaucratic norm; the lure of sacrifice and martyrdom; the will to act and choose authenticity rather than the use of reason or appeal to the norm. These are the seductive and destructive options that the international and religiously inspired terrorist offers us.

I loved this book for its cool elegance and concision of thought. I also thought its use of Schmitt was strategic, unsensational and judicious. Above all, I applaud the fact that this book doesn’t seek to come to triumphant answers that re-assert the religious hegemony over the secularly liberal. Like Schmitt’s original, it also deliberately fails to wrap up its arguments by choosing not to reach a definitive conclusion. ‘Any authentic political theory must be one that simply stops. There can be no conclusion: there is only a pointing beyond to that which theory cannot express.’ (p.154) However, Kahn also recognises, which Schmitt seems incapable of comprehending, that the liberal state can be every bit as violent and oppressive as its terrorist nemesis, as the orange boiler-suited detainees of Guantanamo Bay, or the innocent civilian populations of Afghanistan and Iraq will attest. Both the US and UK are perfectly capable of violently defending their political and economic interests with either explicit or implicit exceptions to international legal frameworks pertaining to human rights and rules of diplomatic engagement. Is state-sponsored extraordinary rendition any more or less ‘authentic’ than individual acts of terrorism carried out in the name of religiously-inspired totalitarianism. Kahn wisely refuses to be drawn on this question, beyond saying that liberal political theory doesn’t have the necessary analogical imagination to examine and critique the violence that accompanies its own rational and democratic discourses.

Instead, his book raises a series of probing questions which prompt us to reflect upon the nature of the new post-secular politics in which furious and moderate forms of religion, and furious and moderate forms of secularism/liberalism seek to either negotiate with or out-narrate each other.

So I would like to shape my response to this fine book with reference to three Rs (realism, responsibility and rapprochement) which I suspect do not provide answers either, but do represent some sort of (optimistic) response to what is in danger of becoming a fatalistic and nihilistic slide into the politics of despair rather than (what I want to argue for) a pragmatic politics of hope.

 

Realism

One of main contours running through Kahn’s book is the important tradition, within Western philosophy, of freedom, and its close associations with authenticity. It is interesting to note the recent trends within continental philosophy towards the speculative return of the Real. In a specially edited volume for this journal, entitled Speculative Philosophies and Religious Practices to be published next year by myself, John Reader and Daniel Whistler, we explore the political and practical implications of this turn, and the attendant shift within the discipline of philosophy of religion away from abstract theorising to engage instead with the lived materialities and practices of religion. In the Introduction to this volume, Whistler refers to the ‘ebbing away’ of the postmodern and poststructuralist approach with the death of its chief exponent Jacques Derrida in 2004. This ebbing away is compounded and expressed with what he calls, ‘the limitations of the linguistic turn’: the Derridean focus on language (rather than actual objects in the world) has led to what Badiou (quoted by Whistler) calls, ‘ the sophistical tyranny of language’. Here we have direct echoes of Kahn’s justified critique of liberal political philosophy and liberal democracy generally where the appeal to enlightened rationalism and the relative autonomy of everyone’s right to ‘have a voice’ leads to endless discussion, and the apparent postponing of the decision (to wit the current economic crisis in the Eurozone). In one of my favourite parts of Kahn’s book, he refers to the current mania for blogging. It is symptomatic, he claims, of the technological rationale that liberal politics has now reached: ‘endless discourse relieved of the burden of ever making a decision’. He pithily concludes: ‘To be active today, for many, is to blog. The disembodied voice can displace every other form of political life.’ (149).

In reaction therefore to this linguistic solipsism, key philosophical voices  (Deleuze, Zizek, Badiou) have returned attention to the material, to the object itself (without mediation between the subject and object), and to what Badiou, writing in the Preface to Quentin Meillassoux’ book After Finitude, refers to as ‘the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers’ (2008: viii). There is more that can be said on these shifts, but for now I draw attention to these trends to make the simple point; that philosophy appears to be emerging from what Meillassoux would call its ‘correlational’ thrall (i.e. the claim that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’ in isolation from its relationship to the subject) that has been the hallmark of the influence of Kant, Wittgenstein and Derrida.

It is thus perhaps more than possible to be committed to a speculative ontology of the Real (what Schmitt would call the miraculous) whilst at the same time committed to the art of negotiation that seeks first to discuss with the Other, rather than obliterate the Other, over issues of equality, justice and empowerment in our increasingly complex and pluralised world.

 

Responsibility

At this point I want to add another R – responsibility. Here I am thinking of the work of Bruno Latour, who as John Reader suggests in the edited volume of this journal to which I have already alluded, is a thinker who forms a bridge between philosophies of religion and practical, public and political theologies. Reader notes the following dimensions of Latour’s thinking: his distinctions between matters of ‘fact’ and matters of ‘concern’ (which involves far more complex and painstaking enquiry into the fluid diversity of our present condition); the consequent role of the critic therefore as one who ‘gathers’ rather than debunks; the importance of bringing values to bear while matters of concern are being assembled rather than limited to reflecting on already ‘established facts’. As Latour says, ‘We explain the objects we don’t approve of by treating them as fetishes; we account for behaviours we don’t like by disciplines whose make-up we don’t examine; and we concentrate our passionate interest on only those things that are for us worthwhile matters of concern’ (2004: 241). So this is where I see a Latorurian consensus emerging which will involve a large degree of responsibility (as in how ethically, intellectually and practically we conduct ourselves in the public square). Rather than using critical theory to divide and bifurcate public life (whether it be liberal/secular ‘sneering’ at religious/transcendent perspectives and ontologies, and vice versa) we are challenged rather to gather and assemble a wide range of facts and perspectives in order to arrive at a more politically and morally/ethically sustainable position. This will involve for example using values to weigh up alternative options as we reach a decision, rather than reading them back into a decision once it is made. I am aware that some of Latour’s political methodologies are in danger of delaying, rather than hastening decision making, thus reinforcing some of Kahn’s arguments. But I refuse to accept that we can never step out of our entrenched, fetishized positions and move into new thresholds of learning and perspective. When we take the courage to do this, is this not similarly an example of metanoia: the inbreaking of the miraculous, the moment of exception that is graceful and progressive, rather than violent and regressive?  Reconciliation is just as hard, risky and painful as sacrifice – arguably more so since by choosing to forgo the policy of the violent annihilation of oneself and/or one’s enemy one is not left off the hook of having to continue to make painful moral decisions. Responsibility and argument need not be dispassionate – one’s identity is not necessarily diminished. Indeed, it can be wonderfully enriched and deepened. It is what I am beginning to develop around ideas of ‘passionate pragmatism’ (Atherton, Baker and Reader, 2011: 92/3)

 

Rapprochement

Which leads me to my final brief R – rapprochement. This frame of emerging ideas relies on simultaneous readings of the spatial and the postsecular. This suggests that any theory of religious or political public space will lag behind (and by some distance) the speed and intensity by which spatialities within both the urban and virtual are evolving. This framework recognises the rapid shift towards urbanisation and the incredible challenges and opportunities created by the breath-taking plurality and diversity which it creates. Some speculate that by the time we reach 2050, and 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities, the human experience will be the urban, and vice versa.

What this means, and what we already see happening, is the creation of new spaces of identity, belonging and community forming. The 21st century has shown us is that the lived experiences and materialities of religion are thriving and mutating by means of globalising imaginaries and patterns of immigration, and profoundly influencing our social and political visions and institutions. Thus any theorising concerning a new political or public space now has to accommodate a re-emerging religious and spiritual presence alongside ongoing secularisation and secularism (i.e. the postsecular). It also has to empirically study new spaces and practices of belief and unbelief (and increasingly many more which are hard to categorically label either way) now springing up in our jostling megacities (Beaumont and Baker, 2011).

It is thus within this spirit of Kahn’s ‘existence preceding essence’ (or normative readings) that public theologians and critical human geographers are becoming increasingly aware of what are beginning to be called new ‘spaces of rapprochement’ (see Cloke, 2011) between faith-based and no-faith based social actors within the postsecular city. Some of these spaces are government-sponsored partnership schemes aimed at promoting social cohesion or cheaper (or preferably free) social care. But moving away from this more instrumental public space, there is also growing evidence of informal, ad hoc and impromptu political coalitions and networks that are forming around urban and environmental justice issues (particularly involving young people). Experience suggests a new openness, amongst some of our citizens, to seek a common ethical understanding for the sake of the urban commons, which is also willing to suspend profound disagreements on moral issues (such as gay rights or abortion).

This anecdotal evidence needs solid empirical research to back it up, but if firm proof can be found of a new politics in which issues of ethics ‘trump’, as it were, deeply held issues of morality, then we are beginning to see a possible reconciliation of the exceptional  and the normative. We are therefore beginning to question what I think is an elegant but inherent fatalism within political theology which suggests the two are irredeemably separate. I do not want to reach the political dead end (or at least no conclusion) offered by Schmitt and implicitly by Kahn. Political theology may help us describe the sacred imaginaries that lurk beneath the surface of liberal political economies. But description on its own, I respectfully suggest, is not adequate. Surely, with both time and resources running out we need to tap into some passionate pragmatism and build (even if only at a local level) more sustainable, more just and more loving communities. Is this where political theology ends and public or practical (or should that read pragmatic) theology begins?

Only time will tell, but certain straws are pointing in certain new and hitherto unimagined political directions.

 

Dr. Chris Baker, Director of Research, William Temple Foundation; Senior Lecturer in Urban and Public Theology, University of Chester (UK).

 

 

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