Announcement: English translation of Taubes-Schmitt correspondence

[The following is a guest post from Mike Grimshaw, Associate Professor in the School of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.]

How can we rethink political theology? One way is though a fascinating collection of the letters between Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt that has been translated by Keith Tribe and- with an introductory chapter I have written- been published by Columbia University Press: To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, by Jacob Taubes; Translated by Keith Tribe and with an introduction by Mike Grimshaw. (By the way: Anyone who uses the promo code “TOCTAU” to buy the book from this site will receive a 30% discount off the price of the book).

This collection of letters not only increases our knowledge of
Taubes, it also demands a rethinking of the role of Schmitt in 20th century thought, theology and philosophy. Part of it takes the form of an intellectual confession from Taubes that provides the background, for the first time really in English, of how a Jewish scholar became a ‘friend’ (Taubes’ term) of a Nazi jurist. Just how this came to be is discussed throughout the letters and forces a rethinking of the influence of German thought upon 20th century thought, in the sense that to think philosophically in the 20th century (and into the 21st) in the realms of politics, theology- and where they meet in political theology, is to think in the wake of Schmitt. As Taubes notes, even Walter Benjamin stated his debt to Schmitt. One possible discussion is the way in which we are still thinking in the terms of the Weimar debates- intellectually are we still –especially in political theology- imaginary Weimar Germans?

The issues that arise out this are complex – and involve the turn to
Paul as political theorist by not only Taubes but also those who have later done so such as Badiou and Agamben and Zizek. Schmitt’s response to Taubes -and Taubes’ wrestling with how and when finally to respondis illuminative. Taubes has a central claim that Schmitt is responsible for the recovery of ideology- and that ideology in the 20th century is in reference- and debt (good and bad) to Schmitt. Schmitt himself, in Taubes’ reading becomes what I would term an intellectual sovereign, in that he determines the exception.

In considering the relationship of Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt, from within their discussions and correspondence can be discerned a gap between Taubes and Schmitt on violence that is to do with their apocalyptic trajectories. Yet both, in their opposition to liberalism, an opposition situated within a particular understanding of democracy, accept as a necessary part of human existence that which can be labelled ‘real, concrete’ violence. Therefore the relationship of the Jewish apocalyptic thinker Jacob Taubes and the German and Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt forces us to reconsider the central role of violence and its aftermaths in the twentieth century. Especially so given that Schmitt is the central figure of political theology, indeed in many ways he literally is the thinker who ‘wrote the book’. What draws them together is a common engagement with history, a viewing and experiencing of history in which politics and theology are intertwined. For as Taubes states:

I don’t think theologically. I work with theological materials, but I think in terms of intellectual history, of actual history. I ask after the political potentials in the theological metaphors, just as Schmitt asks after the theological potentials of legal concepts (Taubes 2004, p. 69).

In many ways each was the spur to the other, that relationship that drove the public expression of each. The theological metaphors, the theological potentials were in fact for Taubes the theological metaphors of Christianity and apocalypse in the political potentials that resulted in the Shoah; while for Schmitt the theological potentials were those of the Jew, the friend-enemy who keeps the law in the face of a Christian society that now proclaims what could be viewed as the legality of grace. Central to both thinkers was the question of apocalypse, the forms of which Jan Assman (Gold 2006, p. 141) identifies as either an apocalypse from below central to constituting the identity of a community, which is Taubes’ Jewish-focused apocalypse, or that apocalypse from above, an apocalypse from hierarchy and order, imposed from above, which is Schmitt’s apocalypse. In the tension of the two, wherein these two forms of apocalypse encounter each other, is the political theology that unites Taubes and Schmitt.

We are reminded here of that famous statement from the beginning of chapter three of Political Theology:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts…The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology (Schmitt 2005, p. 36).

Here is the basis of the tension between a Taubean reading of apocalypse and the Schmittean: does the miracle and exception occur from above (Schmitt) or from below (Taubes); that is, does one proceed from state or community?

But then we must also consider the return of the miracle, which as Schmitt states, has been banished from the world by the modern constitutional state and deism (Schmitt 2006, p. 36). Does this mean that the return of the miracle has to analogous to the sovereign wherein the exception is a form of miracle? For the exception is, like the miracle, an interruption to the normal order of things, an event that demands a response, a challenge to what is deemed possible – or even deemed acceptable. Perhaps this also raises the question Taubes asked under ‘the price of messianism’ whereby the question of messianism can also be seen to under sit such questions as that of the sovereign exception. Taubes asks: “How else can redemption be defined after the Messiah has failed to redeem the external world except by turning inward” (Taubes 2010, p.4).

The response is that this can also be seen to apply to the sovereign who fails to make the right choices – the redemptive choices for the exception. Therefore in the face of the failed sovereign does one also have to turn inward? The issue raised in the letters is how and why Schmitt effectively relinquished antagonism to profane authority in the quest for total liberation. Taubes’ readings therefore ask questions of all who seek to use (and even mis-use Schmitt), for what occurs when apocalyptism surrenders antagonism?; does apocalyptism from above too easily facilitate the surrender to profane hierarchy?

Writing of his relationship with Schmitt, Taubes states, the drive of political theology is that of “ an apocalypse of the counter-revolution”(Taubes 1985); how then, in light of this, is political theology as a movement to be rethought? This counter-revolution is a revolution against liberalism, against claims of liberal progress, and all revolutions involve forms of violence, concrete violence, even when the violence is ideological, even when it is rhetorical, even when it occurs without the spilling of bloodshed. For all revolutions, counter and other wise, occur within human time and human history, all revolutions actually ask a central theological question: what time is it? Remember, as Graham Ward reminds us in Cities of God the question that theology “does not handle”, the question of “what God is in relation to the world” does become addressed in the question of “that relation and that world…[which]…is a question about history and salvation…the question becomes very specific; it becomes the question concerning ‘what time it is’”?(Ward 2002, p. 2). That it is a question implies, I want to state, the necessity of doubt to faith, of doubt to the encounter with grace, of doubt to the whole project of theology.

The apocalypse is the counter-revolution that asks what time is it and answers: the time that acts as violence to all that you have placed your hope and trust in; that which you believed would reconcile you to history by enabling you to self-transcend the limitations of history.

Perhaps the way to conclude is to remember the description of the painter George Grosz made by Count Harry Kessler in his fascinating diaries of Berlin 1918-1937. Grosz “is revolutionary and reactionary in one, a symbol of the times” (p.64). What if we extend this to think of Schmitt, Taubes- and in fact political theology in these terms?

So this is a highly provocative collection of letters and read in toto is like a type of intellectual hand grenade awaiting to explode.

3 thoughts on “Announcement: English translation of Taubes-Schmitt correspondence

Comments are closed.