Photo with kind permission of ©Jorge Uzon

The Powers of Powerlessness

Around the Network

Our modest proposal is for those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

Our modest proposal is for those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

This suggestion may seem, in the strictest sense, out of place.

Political theology names the problem of the constitutive outside, there where the sovereign decides on the exception. This problem is rooted in the political/theological history of Western Europe, especially England and France, where the struggle for power between the church and the monarchy produced the mimetic formations that we now understand as characteristic of the modern state and modern rule.

Via Hobbes, Schmitt, and Agamben, as well anthropologists like Talal Asad, this provincial story has been universalized as Theory with a capital T, a critical episode in the history of the West and its colonies, and by extension the world. Political theology, it seems, is already everywhere, so why should it have to travel? 

But older traces of the sovereign can be found still further West, far out beyond the British Isles. These traces lead to other stories from his past, like the one about the cross and the sword. Listening to these stories is not merely a matter of provincial interest. As Latin Americans and Latin Americanists have long argued, the violence of the Conquest and its ongoing presence in labor practices, racial formations, and configurations of sex and family in the societies the Conquest forged are also world-historical phenomena.

Alberto Moreiras calls the Conquest the “psychotic night” of primitive accumulation. Its psychosis is intimately entangled with the Spanish crown’s territorialization of itself in the New World, insofar as terror was required for the sovereign who could put a stop to it to seem reasonable, and thus for imperial sovereignty to be rendered hegemonic. Each new project for imperial hegemony, Moreiras argues, requires a new forgetting of this psychotic night. But it remains ever-present in the permanent oscillation between the unthinkability of primitive accumulation and its necessity to capitalism.

This oscillation calls into question the exception of political theology by locating the decisive moment of modern power prior to it, “between no-separation and complete separation, [where] it achieves or realizes neither” (346). The sovereign, in other words, is always already moved by forces that cannot be neatly contained within the state formation, the body politic, or his own person.

Yet these destabilizing forces may serve to extend the scope of political theology as a field of inquiry.

The scholars Moreiras claims as the organic intellectuals of imperial reason—Ginés de Sepúlveda, Las Casas—were, first and foremost, theologians. They addressed themselves not just to the Spanish crown but to the Church, which was even then becoming—thanks to the demographic collapse primitive imperial accumulation sat in motion—what Jennifer Scheper Hughes calls an ecclesia ex mortuis, a Church out of the dead. In fulfilling its destiny as a universal religion through the evangelization of the Crown’s new territories, Christianity also engendered a vast crowd of American phantasms pullulating just out of reach, constantly threatening to refuse its gift of faith and thus estrange the Church from American soil. The struggle to separate the Church from the State in Western Europe is also the struggle to grasp this “beyond” of the Americas.

We think political theology should lend its ear to this beyond—but how, indeed?

Here the term “theopolitics,” understood as a counter and complement to political theology, may be useful. Theopolitics names the problem of a God otherwise, or what John D. Caputo and Catherine Keller describe as the God of “an unconditional claim or solicitation without power, as a weak force or power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty” (107). Hearkening as it does to a God otherwise, theopolitics participates in the negative, unspeakable mystical register that resonates with but is never fully contained by society, as de Certeau argues in The Mystic Fable.

If we de-secularize the moment of primitive imperial accumulation—that is, understand it as theo- as well as geo-political—we can begin to attune ourselves to the solicitations that the dead, along with saints, multitudes, animals, earth beings, and other more-than-human entities who elude society’s capture, have been making of the sovereign ever since the Conquest.

As anthropologists, we’re confident that ethnography rather than Theory is the wavelength where this attunement is best performed.

Theopolitics in and of the Americas inscribes the subject of history, and the simultaneously emancipatory and terrifying sensoria where this subject becomes incarnate, at the core of the problem of the sovereign. The claims of this subject may certainly be advanced in language, but more likely as material, emplaced, affect-laden, and historical utterances than abstract concepts, and equally often through incarnated practices of plasticity, rhythm, mimesis, sacrificial violence, and so forth. The matrix of the otherwise, in short, is everyday living, complete with its ghostly presences and its underpinnings to the politics of matter and the flesh. And the everyday is where ethnography works best.

The political theology that emerges from the ethnographic turning and tuning of the ear is one that compels us to recognize and more deeply engage the sovereign’s failures—which are mounting higher every day–along with his powers. But if we can learn to hear—and to smell, feel, taste, intuit, perhaps even glimpse—the powers of the powerless dead of the Americas and other regions of dispossession around the world, they may help move us beyond the inconvenience of these interruptions and toward what a political theology for life must become. 

Inaugural Essay Contest

Symposium Essays

Krista Stevens

Friendships of Listening in Creating Just Societies

Fostering cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships of listening are essential to creating virtuous and just societies, especially in a fractured political climate that fails to serve the human good.

The Powers of Powerlessness

Our modest proposal is for those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!