Mondzain and Agamben

I am about halfway through Marie-José Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy, initially brought to my attention by J. Kameron Carter’s post about it. Already it is clear that one of the primary objections made in comments to Halden’s post responding to Carter (which, to be fair, does seem to have been motivated primarily by contrarianism about icons, leading others to be defensive) is easily disproven — commenters remarked that it was an emperor who first embraced iconoclasm, meaning the link between icon and empire is questionable, but Mondzain is clear throughout that the emperor’s purpose was to reserve the power of the icon solely for the empire and deprive the church of that power. At the same time he was destroying religious icons, he was putting out plenty of imperial icons.

That’s not my main point in writing this post, though — what I’d like to discuss is the potential connection between Mondzain’s book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (which I have studied closely). The overlap between the two is considerable, but it seems to me that Mondzain achieves, in a much shorter work, what Agamben struggles to articulate, namely the relationship between “kingdom” (or rule) and “glory” (or spectacle). Indeed, reading Agamben’s book I got the impression that he was potentially on to something that would completely change his research project, which up till then had been too determined by Carl Schmitt’s political categories, and that as such the work was unusually tentative — and even scattered. It was difficult for me to tell what had motivated his organization of the text, for instance, particularly the fact that he buried one of his most powerful points (the link between divine providence and the “invisible hand”) in an appendix.

Mondzain, by contrast, is working with a textual tradition where the question of the relationship between power and spectacle is absolutely central, and specifically with a text, the Antirrhetics of Nikephoros of Constantinople (which she spent five years translating for the Sources Chrétiennes series), where that relationship was articulated with profound philosophical rigor — that is to say, Nikephoros argues that the divine “economy” (or providence, or governance, or management, etc.) issues necessarily in the icon. Power requires display, which also means it requires abstraction, separation, etc.

It appears that Agamben’s bias in favor of the Aristotelian tradition, which led him to Aquinas rather than to the eastern late patristic writers, worked against him here. I was not aware of Mondzain’s work at the time I read Agamben and so do not know whether he cites it, but given his dismissiveness of the scholarly work on the theological concept of “economy,” I’m guessing he did not know of the book. (If anyone has easy access to the text and can clarify whether he cites it, I would appreciate it.)

In any case, Carter is right to characterize Mondzain’s book as the kind you need to live with for a while. After I finish this read-through with the interlibrary loan copy, I will definitely be picking up my own copy — in a strange way, this concept of “economy” (or the themes it brings together) is revealing itself to have been central to my work so far, to be a kind of knot tying together writings of mine that might appear to be more or less randomly juxtaposed.

9 thoughts on “Mondzain and Agamben

  1. I may need pick up Mondzain’s work. I read the comments on Halden’s post; it got quite ridiculous, even persons accusing J Kameron Carter of being anti- Nicene Creed, which I translate as: Black theologians somehow have to be considered heretics. Oh, it happens.

  2. I was also concerned that some of the dismissiveness was race-related – though I suspected it was more that the skeptics viewed traditional theology as “universal (i.e. White guy) stuff” that a black theologian, with his particularist blinders, could never address authoritatively. If they’d read so much as 30pp of his book, though, they would’ve realized most of them are total hacks compared to Carter on that stuff. I imagine a woman or a Korean, for example, would have gotten a similar reaction.

  3. I just happened to have the French translation of The Kingdom and the Glory on my desk as I read this. Mondzain comes up along with Richter between sections 1.1 and 1.2, where he briefly discusses the literature on oikonomia. Nothing substantial.

  4. Certainly going to read this, or at the very least the extract from the history of the term economy in the theological literature I cribbed from Google Books seems very interesting. Book event perhaps? I’d be interested to know whether it was followed through to discuss the modern use of the term and in what way.

  5. I agree Mondzain’s work here is far superior to Agamben’s treatment of economy, for her reconstruction is not limited to textual theology nor to advancing Heideggerian ontology, but moves into material political practice through the spatial vehicle of the image; consider her discussion of the icon and territorialization. Agamben does not cite her work which anticipated his. I spoke to her about this in Paris two years ago prior to the French publication of The Power and the Glory– she was not surprised and proffered a gendered reading of the omission of her work.

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