Agamben Notes: Ch. 7, “The power and the glory”

(Before beginning, I should note that I found the chapter difficult to follow. In some places, my eyes really glazed over. The final proper chapter, “Archeology of glory,” is much longer than previous chapters and appears to be something of a “payoff,” so perhaps the present chapter will turn out to be mainly a collection of evidence, like previous chapters going through where all the church fathers used the term oikonomia. In fact, now coming back to this parenthetical, I see that he was mainly trying to establish that previous scholarship on political pomp — which hasn’t even been very extensive, apparently — has never gotten at the core issue: Why does power need glory?)

In the relationship between glory and governance, the articulation between Reign and Governance reaches a point of maximum intelligibility and maximum opacity — on the one hand, it clarifies the difference between the two moments, but on the other hand, it leaves unclear what a purely “glorious,” liturgical politics really would be. In order to get at this question, we must of course look yet again to Peterson, in this case to his dissertation, Heis Theos: Epigraphische, formgeschichtliche un religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, which seeks to understand the relationship between political ceremonial and ecclesiastical liturgy — the liturgy being, as we have seen, the only truly “political” significance of the church. The key to Peterson’s argument is to see the formula heis theos not a confession of faith, but an example of acclamation, which played a major, but seemingly undefined, role in Roman politics throughout its history. Sometimes acclamation could take on a recognized juridical power beyond simply that of endorsing an already determined action — and Schmitt later argued, citing Peterson, that acclamation was essentially the “constitutive power” of the people. Schmitt turned this point into a criticism of liberal democracy — where ancient republics had seen the people express themselves publicly as a unit, liberal democracy completely atomizes the people through the secret ballot, such that it does not count as real democracy anymore.

Agamben then turns, for reasons that are unclear to me, to the primitive Christian liturgy, about which the scholarly consensus is that it unites the Eucharistic celebration with a psalmodic/doxological celebration — two elements that the scholars seem to think can be distinguished, but Agamben points out are complexly interwoven. Viewing the doxological aspect as the more strictly “liturgical” part, while the Eucharist is the “economic” part, he notes that even the Eucharistic prayer itself begins with the common Roman acclamation, Vere aequum et iustum est (in the modern rite, this is the part where the priest says, “We do well always and everywhere to give you praise….”). This element of acclamation clarifies not only the link between secular and ecclesiastical liturgy, but the properly “public” character of the mass. Following up on this point, he reviews Peterson’s somewhat tortured attempt to distinguish between the terms laos and ochlos in the NT, in order to make them map out in some predetermined way that will show that one of them is totally unpolitical — the interest here comes in a note, where Agamben points out that Paul uses neither to refer to his communities, but only the generic “we”: “The messianic community as such is, in Paul, anonymous and seems to be situated in a threshold of indifference between public and private.”

Agamben’s next subject is the work of Andreas Alföldi, who in 1934-35 published a work debunking the widespread scholarly consensus that the Roman Empire borrowed ceremonies, etc., from Eastern empires and demonstrating the continuity between the imperial cult and previous Roman ceremonial — including extremely detailed analysis of all extant evidence of said ceremonial. Alföldi ironically dedicated this book to Theodor Mommsen, implying that Mommsen’s book Staatsrecht had omitted a necessary part, namely the analysis of ceremony. (I have no idea who any of these people are.) There follows an analysis of the performative power of certain objects in imperial ceremonies — chairs, types of garments, etc.

Our next obscure scholar is Ernst Percy Schramm, who tried — somewhat futilely — to give more precision to the notion of political symbolism by creating compound technical terms (Herrschaftszeichen and Staatssymbolik). The point here seems to be that even scholars who have attempted to comprehend the role of ceremonial symbolism in politics never really get very far, perhaps because of the very term “symbol” — it never becomes clear why the symbol is necessary. Agamben then turns to Karl von Amira, who talks about gestures and their performative qualities, leading to a pretty standard discussion of performativity that culminates by claiming that the constantive preceded by a performative is a “signature” (a kind of subterranean key term for the book, it seems).

It then turns out that there is a crucial Roman symbolic object that previous scholars have neglected, etc., namely the fasci littori. I had a hard time figuring out what this was even referring to, and I basically spaced out for a few pages while he was discussing it. I apologize to everyone if this turns out to be the key to the whole book. Yet another space-out occurred during his analysis of a text by a late-Byzantine emperor, who described in loving detail how insanely Byzantine imperial ceremonial had become by that point — the take-away here seems to be that acclamation remains important. After further analysis of acclamation, including dismissing all theories offered by previous scholars, Agamben decides that the element of “glory” is something akin to the figure of homo sacer, insofar as it is a kind of zone of indistinction that emerges from a seemingly “prepolitical” level underlying the normal run of things.

The next scholar up for examination is Kantorowicz, who had played a key role in Homo Sacer (I need to review that section in particular after finishing this book). In question here is his study Laudes regiae, which focuses on the liturgical formula “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat,” which seems to originate in what is now France around the 8th century and spreads from there. The formula is followed by an acclamation wishing vita to the pope and the emperor. Then a litany of angels and saints is followed by an acclamation of ecclesiastical and political functionaries, after which the formula is repeated, along with some “military” acclamations of Christ. Kantorowicz shows that the formula has origins in the pagan imperial court and that it played a decisive role in the increasing intertwining of imperial and church power in the middle ages — for instance, in the papal crowning of kings. Kantorowicz believes, however, that the role of acclamation is only one of endorsement, never a constitutive role, and for support of this he points out that it is increasingly the clergy rather than the people who pronounce acclamations.

Agamben claims that the real point in question in Kantorowicz’s analysis in Laudes Regiae is political theology, as illustrated by the subtitle of the follow-up book The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Medieval Political Theology. In fact, the political-theological significance overshadows the attempt to specify the juridical status of acclamations — as shown by Kantorowicz’s use of the tension between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. Just when the Fascist government was restoring apparently “theological” styles of acclamation that had fallen into disuse through most of the modern period, the pope instituted the feast of Christ the King, which reinstated the formula “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat,” in apparent protest against Mousilini. Kantorowicz goes on to cite Peterson in connection with the Nazi acclamation Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer, saying that its origins can be found in Peterson’s analysis of the acclamation Heis theos. The point here is that Peterson’s attempt to exclude a Christian political theology brings him into close contact with totalitarianism.

The final scholar to come under scrutiny in this chapter is Jan Assmann, the famous Egyptologist who reverses Schmitt’s famous formula to say that “the most meaningful concepts in theology are theologized political concepts.” Agamben thinks that this kind of reversal doesn’t accomplish much — but the fact that it can be so easily done points to the solidarity between the two. Agamben proposes that “glory” names a phenomenon more originary than either politics or theology, spiritual or profane, which is to say it is the place where the two meet and become indistinguishable. Citing Thomas Mann’s saying that religion and politics are always trading clothing, Agamben claims that in fact the religio-political is nothing but the clothing — there is no body or substance underlying it. “The theological and the political are what result from the continual shifting and movement of something like an absolute clothing which, as such, however, has decisive juridico-political implications.” Glory is a signature rather than a symbol, therefore.

The threshold sets up the question that will dominate the final chapter: what is the relationship that links power to glory? Rather than follow the traditional instrumental interpretation, where glory “shows forth” power, Agamben proposes to ask about the connection and operation between the two — not about glory as such, but about glorification.

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