Tag: Book Discussions

Glory doesn’t work. Amen.

This condensed assertion and acclamation get at the heart of Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, the second part of the second part of his Homo Sacer project (whose volumes include Homo Sacer, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz). The Kingdom and the Glory’s subtitle, For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, allusively explains the Foucaultian-feeling rhythms according to which this text pulses—rhythms that animate the Homo Sacer project from its inception but which come to archaeological fruition in The Kingdom and the Glory. In Foucaultian fashion, The Kingdom and the Glory’s initial six sections trace a meticulous, albeit particular, conceptual genealogy through early and medieval Christian theologies (a genealogy replete with long quotations that serve as evidential support) whose impetus comes, indirectly, from an intertextual conversation between Erich Peterson and Carl Schmitt, which recurs throughout Agamben’s text. More directly, the impetus comes from Agamben’s explicit aim of catching, via theology, “a glimpse of something like the ultimate structure of the governmental machine of the West in the relation between oikonomia and Glory” (xii)—a relation he casts in State of Exception in terms of auctoritas and potestas. […]

For years now, one of Giorgio Agamben’s major concerns has been the fracture that lies at the heart of modern humanity (i.e. humanity’s sense of sovereignty). This is something he has described in a variety of contexts as that which divides the experience of something from one’s knowledge of it (cf. his Infancy and History). Due to such a fracture, we are no longer able to experience life as we ought to. The task of poetry (as it deals with our experiences) is subsequently forever divided from that of philosophy (that which deals with our knowledge). Such divisions, I would add, have since become the preeminent focus of Agamben’s work, taking him on a quest against all forms of representation that would sever the ‘thing itself’ from its image. These thoughts, moreover, have taken him toward an inspection of similar divisions said to lie at the base of our perceptions of the divine (i.e. God’s sovereignty). […]

The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, which continues Agamben’s interest in the history of sovereignty and the exception, brings the discourse of theology to the forefront of questions about the nature of modern political economy and government. Agamben’s claim is that theology has left its indelible signature on and therefore deeply animates modern life. But how? […]

The field of political theology has not yet been rigorously defined. It is more a field of affinities than a clearly delineated disciplinary space—a kind of “zone of indistinction” between theology and political theory where the terms of debate are still very much up for grabs. Even as the range and shape of political theology as a field of inquiry remain somewhat inchoate, however, there are points of reference that already seem more or less obvious or obligatory. The work of Giorgio Agamben is surely one of them, a status that The Kingdom and the Glory will just as surely reinforce. […]

Every week on the lecture trail I meet progressives who are demoralized and/or infuriated by Barack Obama’s performance as president. They insist that they will not work for him again or even vote for him. Many have signed petitions saying as much. They are finished with Obama.

Often they assume that I agree, since I have criticized many of Obama’s policies throughout his presidency, and I have been deeply involved in the Occupy movement. But my progressive friends and allies are overlooking that many of them made this very mistake in 2000, that their charge of betrayal is exaggerated, and that Barack Obama, for all his temporizing and capitulation, is in important ways America’s most progressive president since FDR. Moreover, electing a more compelling human being to the White House is probably impossible in this country. It is too soon to give up on our first African American president. So I wrote The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective [….]

Six months or so after Lehman Brothers disappeared, and two weeks after the Dow Jones hit a twelve-year low, the creators of South Park ran an episode called Margaritaville, the primary storyline of which recounted the failed attempt by one of the boys to return the eponymous blender that his idiot, moralizing father had bought. In a gleefully sloppy primer on the financial crisis, Stan follows the increasingly inscrutable chain of capital from the profligate consumers, to shady third-party financiers, to the securities bundlers of Wall Street, and ultimately, to the public sector ex post facto debt assumers. At the heart of financial darkness, Stan’s odyssey takes him to the Treasury Department where a tribunal of economists determines the value of his margarita maker to be ninety trillion dollars, a calculation determined, it is subsequently revealed, through a divining process involving men in powdered wigs, a kazoo, and a decapitated yet still ambulatory chicken tossed onto a wheel-of-fortune style game board labeled with a range of monetary, fiscal, political maneuvers: Socialize/ Let Fail/ Coup d’etat/ Bailout!

As the humanities have rediscovered religion, new sorts of questions are being asked about religion and politics. Religion is no longer imagined as a check box, as the social sciences would like to see it: something you have or don’t, something that comes in one of several flavors of belief. Now that religion is not only about belief but about practices and ideas, with histories, intertwined with other practices and ideas, the intersection of religion and politics is no longer a point, but a varied terrain with multiple dimensions. […]

What brought Strauss into conversation with Schmitt was their mutual disillusionment not just with the political liberalism of the Weimar Republic but with post-Enlightenment liberalism in general. For theoretical solutions on how to ground political authority in something more substantial than Enlightenment rationalism, they both turned to aspects of pre-modern traditionalism – for Schmitt, an authoritarian Catholic political theology, for Strauss the recovery of ancient political philosophy and its medieval transmitters. On the practical plane, they both thought that parliamentary democracy was utterly unequipped to cope with the various crises afflicting postwar Europe. As a Jew, however, Strauss had no chance of signing on with the various authoritarian options on offer during the 1930s, since they invariably included anti-Semitism as part of their program and ideology. Both men shared ambivalent relations with their respective religious traditions and have even been suspected of covert atheism. In the end, Schmitt’s Catholicism, however episodic and selective, seems to have been more integral to his thinking than Strauss’ ancestral Judaism was to his.

The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar, is a set of papers from a conference held at UW-Madison in the fall of 2008 (Lexington Books, 2012). Many of the papers will be of direct interest to readers, most notably perhaps the set dealing with Karl Barth. Here I want to point out some of the more important observations and analyses that surfaced during the discussions (full disclosure: I attended and have a paper in the proceedings).

In my prior posting, I was concerned with elaborating the disciplinary position from which I take up the project of political theology. It is a part of the secular study of our political practices and beliefs. Accepting these limits, I placed myself within the same modernist tradition as liberal political theory.

There is a deeper point to be made about the symmetry between theory and practice in the modern age. Liberal political theory is committed to the idea that an adequate account must be one that is fully transparent to reason. Theory is to be built through discrete, rational steps from common premises that purport to be universal. Accordingly, it is hostile to any privileged claims made on the basis of a particular faith, including claims for the existence of God or a natural order. In a parallel fashion, the modern, political order is to be autochthonous. It is to rest on nothing outside of itself. This is not a claim about history, which knows no beginnings; rather, it describes a secular understanding of the origin and ground of the state. This is an important idea, for example, in the decolonization movement: a post-colonial state can create itself through an original founding act. It need not express a pre-existing national or ethnic identity.

It is certainly interesting to see a reflection of myself in the response of another discipline, even if I sometimes have trouble recognizing that image. Most useful will be for me to address the meaning of the gap between the two different political theological enterprises represented in this discussion. I will begin by making clear what the idea of a political theology contributes to my project. Following that, I will defend some of the contested theoretical premises of my work. Finally, I will take up the hardest question that emerges from this discussion: is it really the case that my political theological project is non-normative? If there is an implicit normative claim in my work, then the reviewers are right to ask not just whether I have got my description of American politics right, but whether the ethical direction of my work can be supported.