xbn .
The Brink

The Trickster: Ancient Spirit, Modern Political Theology

The trickster, an ancient and nearly universal character, offers a new and better-fitting political theology for the twenty-first century than the Abrahamic god.

Political theology in Western/Christian societies has conventionally been conducted in terms of the Judeo-Christian god, which is understandable and forgivable since that was the dominant religious belief. Different societies naturally do or would do political theology in terms of their own local god(s) or, lacking god-concepts, other religious beings or powers, such as animistic spirits, dead ancestors, or animatistic forces. These latter figures might not quite qualify as “theological” according to conventional Judeo-Christian frameworks, but then theology long ago expanded beyond its original meaning of god-study.

In his seminal treatise on political theology, Carl Schmitt counseled that the “metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political structure.” So, what if the biblical god, or any god, is no longer an appropriate metaphysical image of political or social reality? This short essay does not address whether the biblical god exists or not—that is a debate for another day—but whether a different being better represents and reflects contemporary social experience. That being is the trickster, whose traits, according to Agnes Horvath and Arpad Szakolczai, “capture with a striking completeness the main features of modernity…so much so that the trickster could be outright considered as the deity of modernity.”

The trickster is a ubiquitous mythical figure, a person, animal, or deity (or all of the above) of change, ambiguity, paradox, defiance, laughter, buffoonery, and even cruelty. Although he (for most instantiations of the trickster are male—at least initially, since he can often shift or blend genders) varies across cultures, he is commonly a divine messenger, deceiver, immoralist, shapeshifter (mutable in physiology and personality), scatological jester, and blasphemer of all that is sacred and taboo. He is most associated with liminal sites and times, like the market, the threshold, and the crossroads; he is frequently the inventor or bringer of key elements of civilization, such as fire, language, agriculture, or iron-working. He is usually not a creator-god, but he completes—and sometimes challenges—the creator’s work. We might consider him a “second creator,” a modifier or finisher, whose antics gave the natural and social world much of its current shape. His is an undisciplined, even wild sort of creativity, a creative destructiveness. Harold Scheub called him the disruptor of harmony but the founder of a new order, which “is according to his own whim, his own sense of order,” or sometimes an unintentional result of his selfish and foolish behavior.

Greek mythology contained several trickster gods, most prominently Hermes, the god of the boundary-stone (herm or stone-heap placed at doorways, crossroads, and markets), a divine emissary and culture-bringer but also a thief and patron of travelers. Prometheus tricked the gods to steal fire and gift it to humans, while Proteus was a shapeshifter (hence the English word “protean”). The Yoruba god Eshu or Eshu-Elegba, who also appears in Afro-Brazilian Umbanda, was, like Hermes, a deity of the threshold, including marketplaces, doorways, and crossroads, and was renowned as capricious, deceptive, and dangerous. The Norse god Loki epitomizes the malicious trickster.

Paul Radin’s classic 1956 study introduced the Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga (“the tricky one”), a legendary fool and rule-breaker driven by his passions and appetites, and Native American narratives were full of tricksters in the guise of animals like coyotes, birds, snakes, and insects. Among insect tricksters, the Asante (West African) trickster Anansi was commonly depicted as a spider. A paradigmatic boundary-crosser and envoy, he “existed halfway between the earth and the sky and had the power to restructure both the world of the divine and the human.” Although selfish and antisocial, Anansi “brought both wisdom and stories to earth from the realm of Nyame [the high god],” thereby bestowing on humanity “the fundamentals of civilization, wisdom (knowledge) and stories (history).”

By comparison, the biblical god is a being of law and stability, perfectly honest and truth-telling (although several scholars have documented scriptural instances in which he or his followers lied or deceived), and deadly serious, not at all prone to laughter and clownishness. The lens of an oppressively somber, grave, and unrelenting monotone god has made it difficult for Western scholars of religion or politics to appreciate these moments and beings of exception, of liminality and holy disorder, which tend to be perceived and feared as malevolent if not devilish (Satan, the Prince of Lies, embodying soul-destroying deceit).

But as moments of exception and destructive creativity, approaching a state of sustained instability and permanent liminality, have become the norm, the immutable and ever-serious god of Judeo-Christian literature no longer reflects the ethos of everyday social reality. This god may be a rock of ages, but the rock has been eroding for a long time. A turning point was Galileo’s discovery that the earth itself is not static; rather, it moves. The American and French revolutions shredded old certainties and trampled old authorities. By 1848 Karl Marx could pronounce, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” and slightly over a decade later Darwin replaced species stasis with variation and change. It was a short step to Nietzsche’s declaration, put into the mouth of a madman/trickster, that God is dead. The vertiginous effect of plunging backward, sideward, in all directions led to nausea, but Nietzsche got cause and effect reversed: the universe was not suddenly moving because the old god was dead, but instead, the deity was dead to us because we could palpably feel the universe moving. In a way, the madman’s speech is only a restatement of Galileo’s cosmology.

By the turn of the twentieth century, any hope of recovering the certainty and stability of the ancient and medieval world was forever dashed. Einstein’s theory of relativity eliminated any fixed point or privileged vantage-point in/on the universe, and quantum mechanics revealed reality to be unfathomably strange and paradoxical. Artists had already forsaken realism in favor of impressionism and expressionism: it did not matter, maybe was impossible to say or portray, what the world really was, only how I see it and how it makes me feel. The cataclysm of World War I obliterated the ground under the feet of sensitive thinkers, yielding forms like surrealism and Dada. Tristan Tzara’s 1918 “Dada Manifesto” gleefully or manically asserted, “There is no ultimate truth…. I detest greasy objectivity, and harmony…. I am against systems.” Dadaists among others reveled in irreverence and destruction, while art and anthropology veered toward perspectivism and relativism.

Perhaps the motto of the early twentieth century and the century to come was expressed in Yeats’ 1920 poem with the ironically biblical title “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” World War II offered a brief period of clarity and conviction as “good” seemed to struggle, and prevail, against “evil.” However, the horrors of the Holocaust and of the totalitarian regimes that enabled it—and the nuclear age that followed it—pushed scholars to new depths of uncertainty, unbelief, and solitude. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) and Camus’ The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947) introduced Western societies to the existentialist burden of freedom that had been brewing at least since Nietzsche and Kierkegaard had been given “scientific” imprimatur by Marx.

And the insults to order and any god of order kept on coming. Wittgenstein taught that knowledge was a language game; Berger and Luckmann implanted the notion that reality is a social construction; Foucault forced us to face the fact that social systems are merely regimes of truth held together by biopower and techniques of discipline; and Kuhn dethroned scientific objectivity and progress by explaining that scientific ideas and theories were incommensurable paradigms or worldviews, each giving way to the next. Any lingering dream of the return of reality was crushed by Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 Simulacra and Simulation, which prophesied that simulations would eventually not imitate reality but would replace reality with a kind of hyper-reality and virtual reality that we mostly take for granted today, that we even seek and crave. He understood before nearly everyone else that simulation “threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’”

Somewhere around that time we crossed the line, perhaps irrevocably, between modernity and post-modernity. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s celebrated 1979 report on the “postmodern condition” diagnosed that the “grand narratives” of history and society had lost their credibility. People were thrown increasingly onto their own perceptions and their own decisions regarding values, institutions, and truth itself. As Walter Truett Anderson put it in Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be, under the classic premodern condition there was no choice; “If you choose, you are at least modern. If you know you are choosing, you are postmodern.” Not much later Zygmunt Bauman described postmodern reality as essentially “liquid,” unable to “keep any shape for long and…constantly ready (and prone) to change it.” In a world of advanced disintegration, each person finds herself in

an individualized, privatized version of modernity, with the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders. It is the patterns of dependency and interaction whose turn to be liquefied has now come. They are now malleable to an extent unexperienced by, and unimaginable for, past generations.

For many people today, coping with economic precarity, political upheaval, category confusion (e.g. genders, races, etc.), environmental disaster, and institutional failure, “liquid” does not capture the volatility of life as effectively as Marx’s metaphor of gas or air.

The deconstruction or dissolution of reality extends also, or perhaps especially, to the political order, which some people persist in believing rests on some bedrock—legal, constitutional, traditional, normative—but even this bedrock proves to be tectonic, constantly shifting, crashing, and re-forming. Recent decades have illustrated to us just how vulnerable a political system, up to and including a democracy, is to the machinations of a committed populist and autocrat. Leaders from Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and of course Russia’s Vladimir Putin and America’s Donald Trump have exploited the fragility and fluidity of laws, traditions, norms of office, and indeed truth to gather power unto themselves, to establish a personalistic style of governance that tolerates no structural or institutional impediments to their own interests and those of “the people,” often conceived as a “sacred nation” in desperate need of a savior against the ravages of enemies such as foreigners, globalists, experts (scientists, journalists, etc.), liberals, secularists, and political “elites.”

In much of this political activity, observers have sensed the trickster at work. Xymena Kurowska and Anatoly Reshetnikov see “trickstery” afoot in Putin’s Russia, where Putin’s policies and actions of “satire, prevarication and ambiguity about the truth” (not to mention censure of the press and assassination of dissents and rivals) yield “normatively undecidable situations that exceed the analytical capacity of, for example, the strategic use of norms, norm contestation, and stigma management literatures.” And all this was before his invasion of Ukraine, which Russians dare not call a “war,” nor are they free to access or disseminate true information about it.

If anything, commentators have been quicker still to discern the trickster in Trump. Prior to his 2016 election, Rosario Forlenza and Bjern Thomassen labeled Trump a “political trickster”:

His program is slippery, undefinable. He will defy questions relating to political substance, and he will smoothly change position on key policy areas, cunningly pretending that such a change of opinion never took place. He is proud of his ability to charm women, but he seems unable to commit to lasting relations. His charming laughter and boyish innocence can in a split second freeze into a violent, sinister attack on the interlocutor. His laughter is that of a demonic clown.

Corey Pein went further, to crown Trump “the personification of a Norse god named Loki…god of mischief and lies,” “a master maligner” whose wicked humor, personal inconstancy, and absolute immunity to public contestation and condemnation make him the ideal shapeshifter.

In conclusion, it appears that Jungian scholar Susan Rowland was correct when she reckoned, “Modernity lost a valuable psychic resource in abandoning its trickster/medial fool myth.” Or more urgently, political theology lost or has not taken advantage of a mythical figure that best epitomizes the spirit of our age. But what is that spirit and what is that figure? Ours is an age, and the trickster is a figure, of flux, instability, discontinuity, simulation, transience, rupture, emergence, hybridity, and borderlands—and most profoundly, of the acts of will that both cause and respond to these features. In a word, the trickster is “will personified.” He has no care for rules, structures, precedents, or the consequences of his conduct. He is driven sometimes by grievance and malice, sometimes by sheer prankishness and caprice, but always by appetite—for food, for sex, for vengeance, for freedom.

He may not care about consequences, but his behavior is consequential nonetheless. And this brings us back to Schmitt and political theology. Schmitt redirected political theology toward sovereignty, the exception and the decision, and the will that creates law but is necessarily outside of law. Any Schmittian sovereign bears the likeness of a trickster, because their decisions are neither predictable nor constrained by existing political and social realities, not even by “truth.” The trickster resides beyond true and false, legal and illegal, good and evil. As Schmitt understood, the sovereign’s decisions have a miraculous quality, breaking into society like Eliade’s “hierophany.”

But one does not have to be a sovereign to exert will and play the trickster. On every occasion of decision, even under the routine “procedures” of law (as by a judge), that decision is underdetermined by law, custom, tradition, institution, or constitution.  And the human lot is to be condemned to decide, make law, to construct reality, and thereby to question and overturn what our predecessors decided, made, and constructed. The trickster is us.

Thus, if all modern political concepts are religious concepts, then the source of those concepts need not be theism, certainly not necessarily Christianity, but may be something older, more ubiquitous, but also more ambivalent and elusive. The Judeo-Christian god reserves the right to intervene in worldly affairs and perform miracles, yet remains a being of law, justice, and truth, and any miracles are in service of and conformity with these values. For a world of discontinuity, of repeated if not permanent liminality—where law, justice, and truth melt from solid to liquid and evaporate from liquid to air—this god is not an apt emblem. To extrapolate Schmitt’s historical analysis, the ancient kingdom or empire was consonant with a steady lawful god; “the modern constitutional state” with impersonal “deism”; and the postmodern, post-constitutional, post-state, and post-truth condition with the hyper-personal wildly willful trickster. Like totemism for Claude Lévi-Strauss, the trickster is good to think with today. He aids us in seeing and comprehending our world of messy order, temporary stability, compulsory freedom, and creative destruction.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!