An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[The following is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in Portuguese translation in a special issue of the IHU Online Review on Agamben, published by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The questions were provided by Prof. Márcia R. Junges.]

  1. From the perspective of Giorgio Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory, could you explain what Trinitarian oikonomia is?
  2. Giorgio Agamben takes a unique approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than focus on the various debates that led up to the formation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, he traces the fate of one particular key term: oikonomia, which is the Greek term for “economy.” Oikonomia originally referred to the management of the household but spread to other improvisational forms of management—managing the emotions of the audience in a political speech, for instance, or managing conflicts within a multi-cultural empire. Agamben argues that when Christian theologians, including “heretics,” used this language, they were drawing on the same general concept. God has to “manage” his relationship with creation, which means first of all “managing” God’s relationship to God—the inner life of God, meaning the Trinity, has its own “economy,” which allows God to manage the “economy of salvation.”

  3. What is the novelty of this perception and its contribution to the debate of political theology and economic theology?
  4. Agamben is not the first to draw political consequences from the Trinity. He draws attention to the work of Erik Peterson, who argued against Schmitt that a Christian political theology was impossible because of the Trinity. Peterson’s reasoning was that Schmitt’s political theology depends on an analogy between God and an earthly ruler, but the Trinity shows us that God is radically unlike anything in creation—indeed, God is inconceivable in our normal creaturely terms (for instance, how can three be one?). Before Peterson, Karl Barth made a similar claim and also used it to undermine any connection between God and earthly authorities. For both of them, the Trinity shows that God is radically transcendent and beyond anything we can conceive, and so no earthly authority can claim our allegiance.

    Later 20th-century theologians also made political claims about the Trinity, often arguing—against Barth and Peterson—that the Trinity provides a model for human forms of community, which should include the same kind of equality-in-diversity that we see among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A very good recent book that has investigated and profoundly questioned this trend in theology is Linn Tonstad’s God and Difference.

    Agamben is also far from the first to draw a distinction between the political and the economic. That goes all the way back to Aristotle, and more recently Arendt took up that distinction. The theological roots of modern economics are also not entirely unknown, as Foucault was undertaking a similar genealogy. In fact, at around the same time Agamben was working on The Kingdom and the Glory, Dotham Leshem was also working on his own study of the history of oikonomia in Christian theology, which has recently been published as The Origins of Neoliberalism.

    What is unique about The Kingdom and the Glory is not the overall narrative or the connection of the Trinity with politics, but the details of his analysis. Specifically, his connection of the Trinity to the doctrine of providence seems to me to be a major paradigm shift for thinking about the development of Christian thought.

  5. In what sense does the Trinitarian oikonomia become a paradigm of Western governmental machine?
  6. The key point of connection is not the Trinity as such, but its development into the paradigm of providence. This doctrine portrays God’s governance or management of the world as fundamentally economic—which means that God prefers to use indirect means to achieve his goals. God does not force himself on us, but instead works through our own free choices, which he indirectly manipulates to achieve his own ends. This is identical to the way the modern economy supposedly works, where all of our free choices add up to a positive outcome due to the intervention of the invisible hand (which is actually a secularized version of the hand of God, as Agamben argues in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory).

  7. What is the importance of oikonomia with the paradigm of biopolitics and the triumph of economics and government?
  8. This is an area where I wish that Agamben would be more explicit and direct. Sometimes it seems that his analysis in The Kingdom and the Glory is not closely related to the rest of the Homo Sacer books, and his attempt to assimilate it to the other books in the conclusion to The Use of Bodies is not fully convincing in my opinion. One way that I try to fill in the gaps is by drawing a parallel between the economic paradigm—which treats all of society like a household—and the biopolitical attempt to bring “mere life” into the political sphere, when it really “belongs” in the household. From this perspective, we can see that Agamben is preparing the ground for his analysis of oikonomia when he discusses the right of the father in Homo Sacer or the ways that the Roman Empire became the emperor’s household in State of Exception. They are both narratives about how the household overruns the properly political realm, with terrible destructive consequences. And here I think he is deeply influenced by Hannah Arendt’s approach to the political and the economic in The Human Condition—a fact that he announces in the early pages of Homo Sacer, but then never explicitly follows up on. Agamben takes a radically different approach from Arendt, primarily through his reliance on Foucauldian genealogy, but the basic concerns are deeply shared with Arendt.

  9. What relationships can be established between economics and glory?
  10. The theological tradition makes this connection very directly by assigning economic duties to the angels, who exist primarily to glorify God. And of course, the entire economy of salvation ultimately exists to bring glory to God, vindicating him as the Lord and Savior of all creation. To Agamben, this connection seems initially puzzling, because glory is most often associated with the sovereign ruler—in other words, with the political sphere. He devotes an entire chapter to the glory of the emperor, who has his own public liturgies, and he also refers to the resurgence of political ceremonies under 20th-century fascist movements. He also suggests toward the end of the book that what we call the public sphere or public opinion—the circulation of doxa (Greek for both opinion and glory) in the “marketplace of ideas”—is a secularized version of the Christian combination of economy and glory. This analysis seems to me to point back to his claim at the end of The Sacrament of Language that a world that has become solely oikonomia is doomed to speak always in vain—without a properly political sphere, our words cannot have real meaning, but simply circulate as markers of popularity or belonging with no political consequences.

  11. Could you return to the genesis of the Stoic concept of providence and explain how does it form the link with the modern notion of economy and governance of life? What are the fundamental aspects of the reformulation, by Christianity, of stoic providence-destiny as providence-freedom?
  12. Agamben shows how Christian thinkers take up Stoic concepts of providence, which function in very similar ways—God acts indirectly, etc. The difference as I see it is that Christianity does emphasize freedom much more, and Christian theologians keep insisting on free will even when they also embrace predestination. To me, this shows the key difference between the Stoic and Christian worldviews. The goal of Stoicism is to provide the individual with a way of accepting his fate through emotional detachment and contemplation. The goal of Christianity, by contrast, is to pass moral judgment on the world and all the individuals within it. The two converge, as Agamben shows in the appendix, in the modern practice of “theodicy”—which means justifying the status quo of our world in theological terms.

  13. What is indirect governance in Christianity and Modernity all about, taking into consideration this paradigm of the act of governing? What is the “collateral damage” of Providence?
  14. In both paradigms, governance is not directly coercive. God does not come down from heaven and force you to do the right thing, and the government does not hold a gun to your head and force you to pay taxes, etc. Direct interventions are possible, but they are the exception—in everyday life, the government relies on us “voluntarily” following the law. And we keep doing that as long as the system seems to be benefiting us, or at least be preferable to alternatives. So both God and the government control us through our own free choice. And in both paradigms, our free choices sometimes turn out wrong—this is the “collateral damage” that the system brings about. In the theological system, God makes use of the collateral damage to bring greater good out of evil, while the secular system of governance can make use of certain types of “collateral damage” (for instance, the fact that the regular operation of capitalism sometimes leaves people destitute and homeless) as a spur to greater obedience and productivity from the people who fear becoming “collateral damage” themselves.

  15. The perceived fracture between theology and oikonomia, in other words, between being and acting, is Agamben’s explanation for free and anarchic praxis. The political action resulting from such a configuration has its foundation, therefore, not in being but in acting. Could we say this is the logical administrative root permeating Western politics? Why?
  16. This is one of the most difficult parts of Agamben’s argument. I think he is saying that the economic paradigm, which privileges acting over being, winds up demanding action simply for its own sake—meaningless, pointless action that can never come to an end. We want to do things efficiently—and he explores this concept at greater length in Opus Dei—without asking what it is efficient for. We want the greatest utility, forgetting that utility can only exist in the context of an overarching goal—utility cannot be an end in itself. Here, as in so many places, I believe he is reworking Arendt’s ideas in The Human Condition, but taking his own unique path through the Western intellectual tradition in order to deepen and complicate her narrative.

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