Agamben Notes: Ch. 1, “The two paradigms”

The chapter begins by claiming that the doctrine of the Trinity has bequeathed two political paradigms to the West: monotheistic political theology that culminates in the theory of sovereignty, and the divine oikonomia that ultimately underwrites modern biopolitics (the eclipse of the political by economy and governmentality). Agamben believes that the oikonomia has not been adequately addressed, in fact spending about a page going through the bibliography and complaining about it, and — like all things that Agamben believes have not been adequately addressed — oikonomia is in fact the absolute key to all political questions ever, etc.

Interestingly, though he opposes the oikonomia to sovereignty, he starts with Schmitt. The famous thesis that all modern political concepts are secularized theological concepts has to be stretched to the breaking point by the notion of oikonomia. It’s not simply a matter of extending the thesis to include economic concepts as well — it’s the more radical move of claiming that the theological concepts already were economic concepts, all along. Here he again brings up the notion of eternal life found in the intro, making a big deal about the fact that the Greek phrase uses zoe and not bios. He also has a long note about the concept of secularization, contending that it’s not really a concept at all but rather a “signature” in the sense of a certain turning of terms without redefining them. “Secularization,” in short, keeps pulling modernity back to its theological roots.

Agamben refers to a debate in Germany between Schmitt and others on the question of secularization, in which Blumenberg claims that the concept of “secularization” is completely illegitimate as a way of explaining modernity. This produced an alliance among Schmitt and some unlikely bedfellows, but the real point at issue was in fact oikonomia, particularly as it had been taken up in the form of German idealist adaptations of Heilsgeschichte, etc. Here he quotes Schelling approvingly and claims that the neglect of oikonomia and the decadence of philosophy in general has unfortunately made his statements incomprehensible. Agamben will make them readable again.

The rest of the chapter is given over to a debate between Schmitt and Erich Peterson, to whom Politische Theologie II is a belated response. Agamben finds the key difference between the two on the question of the katechon who, according to 2 Thessalonians, holds back the parousia. For Peterson, it’s the refusal of the Jews to convert — once the synagogue is emptied into the church, both will disappear in the kingdom. For Schmitt, it’s the Christian empire. (Here Agamben breaks out a note claiming that Benjamin already knew all about eschatology and didn’t need Moltmann to tell him about it — kind of a weird thing to say.)

Agamben seems to be taking Peterson’s side over Schmitt’s, which is kind of refreshing given the onslaught of Schmitt in the Homo Sacer series. Peterson sees the doctrine of the Trinity as a refusal of a political theology based on one God, one empire, one monarch — that kind of political theology can only appear within a pagan or Jewish [sic] framework. Though Christian apologists followed Philo in thinking God in monarchical terms, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity ultimately undoes that. Agamben agrees, but notes that Peterson ignores the absolutely crucial concept of oikonomia, even though it appears in passages from which he takes citations (esp. in Gregory of Nazianzen and Tertullian). He’s not really positively developing oikonomia here, though, so much as pointing out it’s crucial yet neglected place in the debates he’s discussing.

(Sidenote: Agamben claims that the Cappadoccians were against both the Arians and the “homoousians” — it’s a compressed passage, but I think that one can give Agamben something of the benefit of the doubt, since Basil and others opposed the term “homoousia” before it was stolen from the heretics and enshrined in orthodoxy. The familiar one-substance-three-hypostases scheme is indeed different from what the original “homoousians” thought. Still, I wish he would be more precise.)

The “threshold” (this book has thresholds between all the chapters) discusses the difference between Schmitt’s “political theology” and Peterson’s “Christian political action” — which he will be examining in more detail — and notes that ultimately for Peterson, almost every historico-political event is theologically indifferent. Yet since he believes that only the conversion of the Jews stands between us and the parousia, one event can’t be indifferent: the Shoah. Agamben (perhaps over-generously) wonders if Peterson, on hearing of the deportation of Jews from Rome to the extermination camps, felt at all ambivalent about a theological scheme that both fuels anti-Semitism and yet absolutely needs there to be Jews. Agamben hopes that restoring oikonomia to its rightful place will allow that terrible ambiguity to be resolved.

6 thoughts on “Agamben Notes: Ch. 1, “The two paradigms”

  1. Thanks Adam – appreciated. Does Agamben have much to say about Arendt or Habermas? (Memory suggests he has little concrete to say about Arendt in the other volumes and next to nothing – if anything – about Habermas.) Surely they are relevant to any discussion of oikonomia and the rise of the social.

  2. You will know as soon as I know — I’m trying to give a fair representation of each chapter as I read it. I will note that Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere appears in the bibliography, but there’s nothing by Arednt. Her absense is strange, given that Homo Sacer presents the overall project in terms of bringing together Arendt and Foucault.

  3. There was a really interesting paper at this year’s meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology about the Schmitt/Pedersen dialogue by someone from Eastern Europe whose name escapes me. When I find it, I’ll post again. The story is dead interesting, but Agamben’s not the only one tracing it.


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