More thoughts on “political theological method”

The other day, I suggested that Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology has a narrower application than one might suspect — it is primarily about the “special relationship” that developed between politics and theology in the early modern period (and not even explicitly Christian theology, but the philosophical theology that played such a decisive role in early modern thought). What was unique in this moment was that theology/metaphysics and politics reached the same totalizing ambition at the same time. I also suggested that in this reading of Schmitt, the historical genealogy that has preoccupied many in the field of political theology is a subordinate concern.

Where does this leave the task of political-theological genealogy of the kind seen in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory? I have an article coming out in Political Theology putting forth Agamben’s method as a model for the discipline, and I stand by it. What I think this reading of Schmitt can help with is the question of why such a method “works.”

In a passage I can’t find at the moment, Agamben is suprisingly humble about his findings in K&G, saying that he has at least demonstrated that it’s helpful to compare theology and philosophy. Given Agamben’s tendency to seemingly hyperbolic claims about the inner necessity governing the whole Western tradition, etc., I think this hedging is revealing — there is an open question here. It seems undeniable after reading K&G that the Christian tradition’s unfolding of the logic of economy and providence developed in a direction that anticipated modern theories of economy and governance, but it’s not clear why this should be the case. I think the hint is found in Agamben’s tracing of political-economic logic to the problem of governing an empire: that historical moment is one where, just as in early modernity, philosophy and politics reach a similar level of totality. Those moments show the “interface” between the two fields, the fundamental homology between the problems they seek to unravel — because at those moments, both fields converge on the same problems and the same solutions.

There is no need for reductionism here, as though politics is secretly a “religious” pursuit or theology is nothing but political propaganda. Both have their own relative autonomy and their own inner conceptual necessity. This latter point explains why one discipline could serve as a kind of laboratory developing concepts that will come to be used in the other, as in Agamben’s genealogy. Given the fundamental homology, the conceptual problems are bound to be parallel — and there are only so many solutions one can develop in facing certain intellectual puzzles.

I’m not putting forward a theory of intellectual archetypes, but just speaking on the practical level. We could well imagine that the scholastic philosophers pretty well exhausted the field in thinking through possible notions of providence, for example — Lord knows they had nothing but time on their hands. Similarly, Boyarin claims in Borderlands that there are probably only a limited number of ways to construe the relationship between God and the Logos/Memra, which were played out in Christian orthodoxy, early rabbinic Judaism, and the various “heresies” of the same period. Taubes makes a similar point in Occidental Eschatology and elsewhere about apocalypticism.

Hence it seems there’s a fundamental legitimacy, even in an era like ours where the two seem to be relatively “decoupled,” in using theology as a way to think through politics, as well as in using political parallels to assess theology. One need not claim that theological ideas directly “cause” oppression, for instance, nor indeed “cause” liberation — the point instead is to jump to the parallel discipline for the sake of de-familiarizing, shedding new light on over-familiar problems. Particularly in the case of thinking through possibilities for revolutionary new political paradigms, transfering the discussion to the theological realm can be a way of taking one’s distance from a contemporary reality that seems to promise nothing but further despair. With God, all things are possible — so why not hang out in theology for a while?

13 thoughts on “More thoughts on “political theological method”

  1. Not coming from a theological field of study, I find a bit hard to understand all your caution in keeping those dimensions of thought separate—when clearly in other decisive moments of these fields’ (common) history they weren’t. Besides, due to Agamben’s obsessive ontologisation and modalisation, and contrary to Foucault’s, his archaeologies and genealogies brutally and necessarily compress all those layers of history in what almost constitutes imaginary conceptual flights. And surely, in this discussion, it’s fundamental to evoke Agamben’s recent investment on a theory of ‘signatures’, because they’re precisely those… I was going to say ‘operators’, but that’s a conceptual foul word now—allowing him that promiscuous circulation on «subordinate concerns», apparently (as you’ve discovered) not allowed by Schmitt’s «narrower application». Maybe one of his stated «methodological principles», the «genuine philosophical element in every work, whether it be a work of art, of science, or of thought», its «capacity for elaboration», could also shed some light here…
    For instance, Agamben explicitly acknowledged to be working the fields left unexplored by Foucault, namely law and theology, and has been developing—but surely also contesting—some of Foucault’s incredible fertile mid-70’s suggestions, such as of Rousseau’s role in the trafficking of providence into general will, or that liberalism constitutes the most radical critique of sovereignty, namely through its impossible extension to economy…
    It’s not that Agamben’s only «transferring the discussion to the theological realm [as] a way of taking one’s distance from a contemporary reality» or to «de-familiarize»… Why are we to reduce these productive «interfaces» or rubbing offs to mere «comparisons»? And does the distinction between theology and philosophy and politics—at this philological-conceptual level—even makes that much sense before modernity, especially in scholastics? Aren’t we projecting the present distribution of ‘sciences’—our particular shadow theatre—on those times, artificially augmenting their «relative autonomy and inner conceptual necessity»? I do recall a wonderful Deleuze seminar on the univocity of being where he suddenly jumps from the medieval discussions on the univocity of being through Spinoza and then to Foucault, meanwhile stating the following: «A première vue ces termes nous paraissaient morts. Ils font partie des grandes discussions de la scolastique, mais les grandes discutes métaphysiques, ça cache toujours autre chose : jamais les gens ne se sont fait brûler ou supplicier sur des questions idéologiques, encore moins métaphysiques.»

  2. Andre, you’re right that the distinctions between theology and philosophy only really hold in a modern context. Of course this will lead us, ideally, to use caution and be wary of limits if we’re reaching backward into the grab bag of history. But I don’t really see why we should, then, be obligated to affirm – and take as authoritative – this apparent lack of distinction. I realize that there is a way of thinking about theology and philosophy today (or theology and political theory) that’s been affected by critiques of the secular: if these distinctions between religion and the secular are tied to the modern history of Christendom, they are invented distinctions, perhaps thus bogus and dispensable (i.e., we’re living in a postsecular world, stop pretending like the tension between religion and the secular or theology and philosophy is so significant). I’m not sure if this is what’s in the backdrop of the question that you’re asking Adam (your question about why he finds these distinctions important or significant). But this is what came to my mind, as I was reading your response. I’m not sure that Adam would agree with me on this… but I’ll just say that I, for one, am convinced that there’s still a worthy (and more nuanced) set of conversations to be had about the tensions that modern thought infused between these modes of thought (theology/philosophy) as well as social spheres (religious/secular). I’m not interested in upholding these distinctions dogmatically. But so much ink was spilled over the past several centuries, working to think these tensions and distinctions into existence, I think its worth turning them over and thinking about what’s potentially useful about keeping them in play.

  3. I must have been unclear in a number of ways. First, I don’t think that Schmitt “disallows” historical genealogy (nor do I think we would need to obey him if he did). Second, I said “relative” autonomy, not complete — indeed, the entire premise of this post depends on the notion that the two are interrelated.

    It’s not clear to me, in turn, what you’re trying to say about Agamben.

  4. Beatrice, I’m not explicitly making any kind of religious/secular split. I’m talking about the relationship between speculative thought (theology, metaphysics, philosophy, whatever you want to call it) and political theory. The “theology” at play in Schmitt’s discussion of the early modern period is carried out by people we would regard as “secular” philosophers — and it’s certainly not a confessional or distinctively Christian theology (though it’s unavoidably influenced by the Christian tradition, their goal is not generally to undertake Christian apologetics or to do theology in service to church institutions).

    That’s probably yet another area where I was being unclear.

  5. I probably was using “theology” as the blanket term mostly because I’m planning a research project that will be working in the patristic and medieval periods, when Christian theology was (for the most part) the hegemonic speculative discourse.

  6. So it would be appropriate to just replace your references to “theology” in your post with “speculative thought” or “metaphysics” or “philosophy”?

  7. OK. But I definitely think the language that you use in your final paragraph (referring to theology as a kind of parallel discipline, where things can be potentially de-familiarized) suggestively indicates the possible value of splits or decouplings (even if they’re only “soft” or relative). To be fair, this is something I would agree with. So I am probably overdetermining the language you use, as well. But there may be others like me, so beware!

  8. Ironically, in the last couple sentences, I was thinking of an overheard bit of Deleuze to the effect that early modern thinkers’ use of the concept of God was to open up a plane of infinite possibility. I kind of have a bad habit of opportunistically misquoting bits of Deleuze, though (as in my mantra years back that “the best thing you can do for the revolution is finish your dissertation”).

  9. Assuming Adam’s real interest, I may briefly try and fail to rephrase my point: 1. Agamben’s theory of ‘signatures’ is indeed his methodological reflection or response to the general concern regarding the «articulation» of these fields; 2. What he calls the «genuine philosophical element» in the «capacity of elaboration» amounts to an image of how is it possible to relate to a statement like Schmitt’s famous one, allowing oneself to neglect the «narrower application»; 3. Agamben’s really closely following Foucault’s mid-70’s path through “fields” (the confluence of law and theology, precisely) left unexplored and contradicting—or struggling against—some of Foucault’s suggestions, for instance, about liberalism being a radical challenge to sovereignty; 4. Deleuze’s quote was a tentative way of suggesting that we might consider not distinguishing so much those speculative and political levels, since people didn’t got burned in the stakes because of mere ideological or metaphysical “speculations”… these were immediately and dangerously political! The fact that it’s pretty hard to find a well defined political theory in Deleuze amounts to something; as the suspicion, according to Agamben, that there’s a hidden or, better, an implicit ontology in Foucault… What I’ve called before «Agamben’s obsessive ontologisation and modalisation» was this movement of subordinating all instances of thought to his ontological and modal stakes, most notably political theory. In that sense, you can say that there’s actually no «relationship» at all.

    Beatrice, I would say that, for Agamben, in the end, «the distinctions between theology and philosophy» don’t even «hold in a modern context»: the last chapter of ‘Opus Dei’ goes to the point of creating a distinction between two ontologies—one of which we could call specifically theological, that completely subordinated and is actually operating—and not only «anticipating»—modern ethics since Kant. Also, I find your challenge to keep «think[ing] these tensions and distinctions into existence, [because] worth turning them over and thinking about what’s potentially useful about keeping them in play» a bit strange—like you wanted to stop the game and settle the rules for Calvinball—since it’s precisely the opposite producing these challenging and disturbing results and also joy of play, only that making them somewhat authoritative, at least for me.

  10. That does help, André. So in #1, you’re suggesting that my reflections on how Agamben’s approach fits with Schmitt’s narrower approach are beside the point, because Agamben has his own justification for going beyond the narrow meaning?

    As I’ve reflected on this conversation, I’m starting to think that my “substitute speculative thought in general for theology” idea doesn’t really work as well as I thought yesterday. At least for the connection between sovereignty and philosophy, a concept of God seems crucial — so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m thinking in terms of theology, but not necessarily “religious” theology (and thinking of “religious” theology in its more purely speculative moment, without much concern for its “religious” consequences). And if I extrapolate, it seems like a lot of different styles of thought could be broadly construed as “theological” — for instance, anything centered on a “Master Signifier,” etc.

  11. Right, like Eric Santner’s “psychotheology”, which isn’t “religious”, though he’s making reference to – and utilizing – facets of monotheistic thought (particularly in secular Jewish intellectual history). He didn’t need to call this theological, and could have simply called it a form of speculative thought that makes reference to a master signifier. Theology *is* a form of speculative thought. It’s just that, for some reason, Santner determined that there was some particularized rhetorical charge in the theological mode of speculative thought that he found useful. So he deployed it.

    In my strange, and perhaps delusional, attempt to see some interesting rhetorical play of distinction between, say, theological and philosophical modes of thought (in spite of the fact that Agamben has concluded that such distinctions were always untenable) I’m certainly not trying to “stop games” or make some authoritarian attempt to disrupt the “joy of play”. I’m simply noting that there is a rhetorical distinction already at play when two modes of thought are differently named. It may not be a *strong* distinction. And I’m not saying that those modes of thought aren’t deeply entangled, or even so dependent that they might not exist without the other. All I’m really saying is that even small distinctions can be interesting, and productive for thought.

  12. Adam, it never crossed my mind that your reflections were beside the point, but I was indeed surprised at your cautiousness regarding the articulation of those fields. More importantly, in #1, I mistakenly took for granted that Agamben’s approach can’t possibly fit the «narrower application» of Schmitt’s argument, since his history-compressing genealogies do multiply «“special relationships”» beyond «that historical moment» of early modern thought. Unless if—and that would be interesting—you want to extend that «totalizing ambition» to each proliferating occurrences of «interface»… For instance, the subsequent “discovery” of an ontology of (will as) command can hardly be described as «fields converg[ing] on the same problems and the same solutions», but more exactly as one rotting the other from within. Or, even better, just one fundamentally devastating mode of thought traversing two conventionally separated fields. Of course, Beatrice, one must recognize such «small distinctions» between fields aren’t always untenable, but—interesting as they may be—being «already at play» might mean they’re eventually blocking the view of—perhaps more relevant—forces traversing them.

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