Agamben Notes: Ch. 6, “Angelology and bureaucracy”

I noted on the table of contents — which incidentally doubles as a list of these posts in forward chronological order — that this chapter was the one I was most looking forward to. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was very interesting and even clarified the stakes of his argument somewhat. (I also note that this brings me up to almost two-thirds of the way through the text, so the end is in sight.)

If State of Exception is a book about Schmitt, then Il regno e la gloria is a book about Peterson. Agamben begins the chapter by noting that in the very year in which he published his argument against the possibility of a Christian political theology, Peterson also published a book in which he claimed that the heavenly city and the church are both “public” and “political” in character — and he establishes this by means of angelology. Peterson defines the church as the ekklesia (a term, we must note, that Agamben hastily dismissed as non-political in Paul’s usage) of citizens of the heavenly city, meaning that the church is necessarily in relation with what we might call the native-born citizens, the angels. This relationship is one of mutual participation in each other’s liturgies, which for Peterson represents a directly political act of expressing the “publicity [Öffentlichkeit — clearly Agamben’s setting the stage to engage with Habermas in a future chapter]” of Christ’s dominion. So Peterson’s exclusion of the possibility of a Christian political theology is meant only in terms of this world, because the only possible politics of Christianity relates to the heavenly city.

Agamben seems to accept Peterson’s thesis that angelology is the key to Christian politics, but he objects to his limiting of the angelic function to the liturgy (“publicity”) only — in the tradition, the angels also have a significant “administrative” role. (Agamben devotes a couple pages here to more closely analyzing what Peterson says about the angelic liturgy, for reasons that are unclear to me.) Over time, angels came to represent the division of the Christian life into the contemplative and active spheres, with the latter attracting much more attention in the medieval period especially. In fact, Aquinas devotes more space to angels in De gubernatione mundi than in questions about angelology proper. He first founds the necessity of the use of angelic ministers in an argument that has come up many times — having intermediaries increases God’s glory rather than detracting from it. He then hits on many of the points that Agamben has already mentioned — the division between the contemplative and administrative angels being the most important. In a footnote, Agamben points out that there are supposed to be more contemplative than administrative angels, meaning that role is more important — but the administrative angels are given more attention and analysis.

The basis for the hierarchy of angels — as indeed the very term hierarchy itself — of course stems from Pseudo-Dionysius. Agamben is very up front about reading Dionysius’s strategy as one of sacralizing both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and all political hierarchies in general through his baroque analysis of the angelic hierarchy. The almost obsessive focus on triads shows for Agamben that this angelic hierarchy is directly related to the divine oikonomia. (There are no real surprises in Agamben’s reading of Pseudo-Dionysius — he (most likely rightly) assumes that his audience is not familiar, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume my audience is.) But the basic idea of the angelic bureaucracy is found as early as Athenagoras and Tertullian, as Agamben already pointed out in earlier chapters. An interesting footnote cites an article that claims that there was a persistent tendency among scribes to mix up ministerium and mysterium, particularly in texts dealing with administration, angelic or otherwise. Agamben believes that the basis for this error is ultimately the shift from “economy of the mystery” to “mystery of the economy,” which again was discussed in earlier chapters.

The next question Aquinas addresses is what happens to the angelic hierarchy after the last judgment. In the cases of the angels called “principalities, authorities, and powers” [not sure on this translation], he entertains the possibility that they will simply cease to exist — but in general, they will be rendered inoperative. This is because in the Christian frame, governance, or the divine economy, is specifically temporal and comes to an end once it is fulfilled in the divine judgment. At that point, it becomes a matter of trying to envision a “Regno” deprived of “Governo.” Insofar as the hierarchical divisions among angels are based in the angels’ nature, they will persist after the judgment, but will have no function. For Agamben, this is a point where Aquinas is coming up against the inherent limit of Christian theology — since the Trinity is thought so much in economic, active terms, how are we to think of God as inactive? In any case, it is clear that what the angels and saints will do is simply sing God’s praises — the liturgy will remain only in its doxological form once its economic role is completed.

A long footnote at this point addresses the question of what God was doing before creation, a question that is only an embarrassment for Christian theology, precisely because its concept of God is so focussed on the economy. Gnostics had no problem conceiving of an idle God, and rabbinic Judaism came up with some things to keep God busy — but the persistent answer to the question in Christian theology is the (only seemingly) sarcastic one: “Creating hell for the curious.” This is actually a brilliant setup for the end of the chapter, which for me is the most satisfying part of the book so far. Aquinas comes to the question of whether the demons carry out the punishments in hell, and he answers in the affirmative — meaning that eternal governance is found only in hell. For Agamben, this shows that within the frame of Christian theology, the model of contemporary politics — namely, an indefinite, eternal governance — is (rightly) thought to be hellish. (And I would say that this is the deeper reason why God can only be “creating hell for the curious” before the divine economy — because that too projects an essentially historical concept of God into eternity). Aquinas also claims that the saved will be able to watch the punishment of the damned, but it will inspire not pity, but only praise for God’s righteousness — meaning that eternity is a theater of torture. (To me, this conclusion was very helpful because the “affect” of the discussion of economy and governance has seemed so positive throughout — to the point where I was starting to wonder if Agamben had abandoned his “messianic nihilism.”)

The threshold discusses the fact that already in Paul, the names of the angelic hosts are political names and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two in his discourse. This is because for Paul, the angels ultimately are the “rulers of this world” — and it’s in this context that we need to understand Romans 13. The authorities do come from God and they are his way of governing us, but they will ultimately be overcome — the members of Paul’s community are told that they will judge angels in the end. This is really the key to Paul’s ambivalence over the law, over political authority, etc. — they do represent God, but under the sign of his wrath. (I don’t know if this is really right.) The properly messianic end of the law and of all political authority is — as in Kafka’s notion of a law that is no longer in effect, but only studied — to be rendered inoperative.

4 thoughts on “Agamben Notes: Ch. 6, “Angelology and bureaucracy”

  1. …This is really the key to Paul’s ambivalence over the law, over political authority, etc. — they do represent God, but under the sign of his wrath. (I don’t know if this is really right.)…

    Re: “principalities and powers,” have you run into Walter Wink’s “The Powers” trilogy (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers)? Not sure how sound the theology is in any systematic sense, but has some worthwhile exegesis on the “powers and principalities” threads; ties-in with the “hellish” (or at least fallen) aspect of institutional governance…

  2. I of course am familiar with Wink’s work, but I have never delved into it in detail — I’ve always gotten the impression that I’m getting basically the same stuff out of liberation theologians, etc., so Wink in particular never seemed to be much of a priority. I have some peace activist friends in particular, though, who love his work.

  3. I’m not sure exactly how Wink’s stance does or doesn’t map onto what it usually classified “liberation theology” — i.e., the slight difference between (a) political liberation assumed to be fully realizable vs. (b) never fully realizable in “this world” but still necessary, or worthwhile, to struggle for it (latter as closer to Ellul’s “Christian anarchist” stance?). That is, there may be a slight difference with the prioritization of transcendence, yet both theologies might still result in advocating the same practical struggles.

    (It’s interesting to me mainly just because W. Benjamin’s and Agamben’s “messianic nihilism” clearly have parallels in certain Christian stances, even if minority ones. For example, Negri cites lib. theology but clearly disagrees with the metaphysics, whereas Agamben’s take on Paul could be seen as compatible to some minimal degree with a certain type of politically-aware Barthian-like stance, IMO.)

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