How can you not hate the world? (even if it’s hard)–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

The thing I most feared during the process of completing this book was that no one would read it. That fear was followed closely by the worry that someone would read it. To have a group of people take the time (in a global pandemic no less) to engage, analyse and challenge my argument for an apocalyptic political theology has been incredibly thought provoking (at least for me!). There is something reassuring about readers both identifying what you are trying to do and pointing to the issues that haunted you as you submitted your manuscript. I am very grateful to everyone who has participated and to Anthony for organising the event.

There are a number of themes that run throughout the responses. First, there is the matter of defining the nature of political theology, its relation to philosophy and the question of secularism. Second, there is the challenge of thinking and living apocalyptically in an era where liberal political ideas remain dominant (even if that dominance is perhaps more visibly under threat than when I finished the book). Is it possible to disinvest from the world without lapsing into apathy on the one hand or a blanket endorsement of violence on the other? Finally, there is the question of whether or not it is actually possible to think apocalyptically. Can one avoid apathy without slipping back into liberalism (however bleak)? And is it possible to prevent apocalypticism from falling back into the comforts of messianism?

Political Theology: Philosophy without Secularism

Political theology is an annoying name for a subdiscipline. In the book I describe the field as concerned with the relationship between political and theological concepts. Adam Kotsko further narrows this definition to focus on legitimacy. I prefer to think in terms of limits: beginnings, endings, violence, revolutions and discipline. Political theology is concerned with those things that allow politics to function and which exist as perpetual threats to the stability of politics. One of the odd things about this understanding of political theology is that that there might not be anything essentially theological about it. Engaging theology is clearly important given the nature of the world—the ideas that govern the central antagonisms that are the world (nature, capital, gender and race) are significantly determined by Christianity—but engaging in theology may be politically fruitful in a more abstract sense. Deleuze argues that there is power in the idea of God and something distinct about the act of thinking this idea. This adds to the genealogical dimension of political theology in analysing both the historical and the conceptual relations between theology and politics which, as Joel Kuhlin shows in his discussion of Peterson and Schmitt, are related but not identical. There may be something about the nature of thinking of limits that collapses the boundaries between disciplines.

As Kotsko points out, this understanding of political theology results in a tension between theology and philosophy. My reading of Hegel is an attempt to push through this tension by arguing that philosophy can use theology without that usage amounting to a form of secularisation. This issue is something that I have continued to work on since the book was published, inspired in part by Hussein Ali Agrama’s description of the asecular. How does one think with indifference to the theological/secular divide? Or, as Kuhlin puts it, there is a form of political theology which works within the immanent relationships of philosophy, theology and politics. This indifference is not a return to some imagined pre-secular but a strategy of refusing a problematic distinction (I develop some of these ideas further in an essay on Hegel and political theology forthcoming here). The problem is that Hegel’s philosophical use of theology is a means of preserving Christianity. In other words, Hegel is secular in the sense critiqued by Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Gil Anidjar and many others. Still, Hegel recognizes the power of the idea of God, a case he makes repeatedly throughout his work, which necessitates a ‘working with theological materials’ that I read as having potential beyond the preservation of Christianity.

Whether or not it is possible to simultaneously become indifferent to the theological/secular divide while also critiquing the preservation of Christianity under the name of the secular is an open question. Ulrich Schmiedel identifies this issue when he critiques my insistence that there is no God for whom all things are possible, sustaining the hope for seemingly impossible redemption. Here, I continue to be influenced by Irving Greenberg’s ‘working principle’ from ‘Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire.’ Reflecting on Judaism, Christianity and redemption, he writes, ‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.’ I take it that if there was a God who acts to relieve the suffering of the world, that God might have acted at some point during the genocide of indigenous peoples, the slave trade, the Holocaust or any of the other countless occasions of violence and suffering. While the Meillassoux bubble of a decade ago has probably burst, I still find the opening sections of his ‘Spectral Dilemma’ to be a succinct summary of this problem—what would it mean to love a God that can redeem suffering but allows it in the first place. Unlike Meillassoux, however, I argue for the rejection of redemption rather than preserving it in a new philosophical form.

Violence, Apathy and the End of the World

This rejection of redemption is central to how I conceive of the apocalyptic. Rejecting the world and the possibility of its redemption is easier said than done, however, and much of the discussion focused on what this disinvesting from the world might look like.

Alana Vincent takes my position to be much more conciliatory than the one I argue for in the book, but she is right to identify the balance recognising the inescapability of the world and the need to define a way of thinking and living against that world. I argue two points in the final chapter which seek to speak from within this tension while maintaining an opposition to the world. First, heroic exhortations to hasten the end of the world risk ignoring the uneven distribution of the consequences of its ending. If, briefly put, the world is the enduring materiality of constitutive antagonisms, its end is equally material. Given the uneven distribution of vulnerability, calling for the end is ethically precarious—I am most likely not going to be among the first to die.

I would thus disagree with Schmiedel’s assessment that I am unconcerned with the violence any revolutionary end of the world might bring. In fact, that is the problem. We are caught between the knowledge that we live in a world which is slowly (and not so slowly) bringing about horrific suffering in the course of its inertial continuation, and an awareness that anything that could fundamentally change that world would also entail incredible, almost unintelligible, violence. I insist that preferring familiar forms of violence over the violence of disruption is ethically indefensible, but that is not the same as lacking concern about the forms of violence that characterise different experiences of the world.

Second, Taubes is a helpful reminder that apocalypticism is adjacent to quietism. Aware of this bordering, I call for an active pessimism. This active pessimism recognises that the process of disinvesting from the world is always unfinished. So, while Ole Jakob Løland does not find ‘a call for an active “anarchic unleashing”’ in the book, there is a call for an active disinvesting from the world and the former may entail the latter.

The ‘what is to be done’ question ran through a number of the responses. Vincent reads the knight of apocalyptic pessimism as taking ‘no steps… to divest from the world-as-it-is.’ For Schmiedel, I present the choice of investing in making the world a better place or not investing in making the world a better place and decide on option number two. Yet, at the risk of a Žižekean ‘both are worse’, this either/or conflates disinvestment. Marika Rose, in arguing that ‘the antagonisms which constitute the world are in us too’, arrives at a position closer to active pessimism. Taubes says that he is not ‘spiritually’ invested in ‘this’ world. The world has an appetite and voraciously interpolates our best efforts. Disinvestment is a ceaseless project of resisting the world, even as we are that world.

I have tended to write against the discourse of hope (both in this book and elsewhere), but I am really more concerned with that for which we hope. I am not sure how one could disinvest from the world without, as Vincent says, ‘changing our vision of what we work for’. Yet the vision can never be disentangled from the world which provides the possibilities for what can be. We are back with Césaire—the end of the world is the only thing worth working for. That end holds out the possibility of being able to one day hope, which is a form of hope I think is compatible with the rejection of redemption. It is not a hope for this world.

Perhaps Schmiedel is right and the problems I am describing are not so much problems of the world, but problems of the world viewed through the lens of Schmitt. Answering this challenge was outside the scope of the book, but as an initial response I’ll mention that Schmitt originally played a much smaller role. He mainly featured as a point of comparison to Taubes. It was only as the project developed and I was thinking more about the problem of the world that I was brought back to aspects of his thought. It was less a case of working on Schmitt and seeing the world through his ideas (something I am not interested in doing) and more of searching for ways of conceptualizing the violence that is the world. While Schmitt helps describe this violence but he does not understand its function. To move beyond Schmitt I engage with people that provide a pedagogy of refusal: Edelman, Fanon, Muñoz, Wilderson, Yancy and others. It is not a case that we can read Hegel, Taubes, Malabou and Schmitt and then apply their insights to understanding these refusals. Rather, it is that Hegel, Taubes, Malabou and Schmitt help explain the need for a refusal that they themselves cannot imagine. Any account of the end of the world demands attending to these ‘conversation partners’ (as Vincent says) whose experiences of the world highlights the violence that sustains ‘our’ comfort.

In short, Vincent and I can both get up and go to work. Or not. Either way, the world will persist. There are ways of both going and not going to work that continue to invest in the world and there are ways that engage in the process of disinvestment, including building solidarity with others engaged in that work. This no doubt involves a significant interior dimension to this project (perhaps what Vincent finds ‘overwhelming Protestant’), but just as Kierkegaard is often unfairly dismissed as being individualistic, I would argue that this interior dimension relies upon wider political and social relations. Disinvesting from the world is hard work and it requires the support of others as well as their reminders when the world is creeping back in.

Living with the ambivalence that marks this situation can be mistaken for apathy, but I have endeavoured to describe something else. We go to work, teach, mark essays, sit on committees to combat racism, vote, protest, attend union meetings, tweet, campaign and any number of other things. I have no assurance that these things will contribute to the end of the world (the world is very stubborn). I argue that we do not do these things because they are likely to bring about the apocalypse, but because they enable us to slowly and perpetually disinvest from the world and find momentary and faint glimpses of other ways of living while we await the end.

On this point, I find Rose’s observations on the joys of refusal particularly challenging. I have tended to think of refusal, particularly violent forms of refusal, in strategic terms, but this neglects the important dimension of pleasure. If the world must be understood in terms of libidinal as well as political economy, the libidinal facets of refusal also deserve attention (something that comes out in Edelman and Muñoz, though in different ways). Fanon’s chapter ‘On Violence’ conveys something of this pleasure, though with an awareness that even this violence will be recaptured by the world. In retrospect, the communal and joyful dimensions of disinvestment deserve more attention than I give them, but I also think we should be cautious about these slyly becoming ways of hoping for redemption. I want to emphasise thinking and acting against the world because it is unbearable to live any other way rather than in pursuit of a set of goals that are condemned to reproduce the world. In other words, abolish police and prisons not because it will make the world right, but because we must.

The Possibility of Living Apocalyptically

There are two temptations that might lure one away from this apocalyptic path. First, is the position that I want too much. I desire perfection. I have forgotten that the Hegel I spend so much time on also warns us of the beautiful soul. Here, Løland and Schmiedel are right to question my critique of liberalism, though I will insist on the need for this critique. There is already a cottage industry devoted to arguing about definitions and genealogies of the term so I will leave that to the side for now (though if liberalism is a vague term, so too is ‘the authentic liberal legacy’). A political theology of liberalism—attentive to the histories of that term, its relation to secularism and its use as criteria for defining the limits of politics—finds that this collection of ideas has been used to defend slavery as well as call for abolition, argue for child labour as well as the reform of schooling and has been invoked to justify the wars that have lasted for all of what we have experienced of the 21st century. The supposed victories of liberalism, which are often invoked in lieu of a real definition, are not the straightforward victories of liberalism, but frequently the accomplishments of radicals who were denounced and imprisoned by liberals who begrudgingly granted rights, freedoms and recognition, often as a means of staving off even more radical demands. There is something idealist (in the Hegelian sense) in the liberal view of history: liberal Spirit, though the cunning of reason, is making itself actual in the world. There has been dialectical progress and we should not confuse these earlier stages with Absolute Liberalism. Hegel was at least honest about the slaughter benches.

Our political imaginary is impoverished if we equate liberalism with ‘good’. Schmitt is a monstrous figure because he asks difficult questions about the limits of liberalism. It is more common for these questions to be dismissed because they are asked by Schmitt than answered with a substantive response. There is always the fall-back position that liberalism is the best of all possible politics. I am not convinced. If liberalism is the politics greater than which nothing can be conceived, I think that says more about our political imagination than the nature of politics.

The other temptation is to abandon the apocalyptic for the messianic. Kotsko concludes his response by asking if I have managed to maintain the apocalypticism I have described. Following both Taubes and Malabou, I argue that every end is necessarily a beginning and this beginning can look suspiciously like the reappearance of the messianic. The messianic places this end-beginning in a narrative of redemption and it is the possibility of redemption I reject. The irredeemable world should be opposed and the end is enough without enquiring about what comes next. Maybe that something is a world (is the world necessary for the human?) and maybe that world is rooted in antagonisms. I don’t attempt to answer these questions, but maintain that reading plasticity and apocalypticism together leads to the conclusion that all destruction is accompanied by the potential for novelty.

One of the downsides of writing an academic book like this one is that its abstract and conceptual nature can occlude the personal dimension of a project. I am interested in political theology, the role of Hegel in shaping perceptions of both religion and history, advancing scholarly engagement with Taubes and expanding the range of voices that can inform political theology. I also find living in the present… challenging (and I am certainly aware that my existence is very far from the most precarious). As I was reaching the final stages of working on this book, I presented an abbreviated version of the first and last chapter to a group of colleagues. The first question was ‘why don’t you kill yourself?’ I think this is a good (if unsettling) question. We are not sufficiently disturbed by the world. I don’t mean that we should sit around feeling bad about historical or contemporary injustices, at least not as an end in itself. Rather, I want to know why we aren’t filled with an overwhelming rage all the time. That seems the only apt response to the present. It is also not sustainable. So, we slowly and continually disinvest from the world, finding beauty and solidarity where we can, and wait for it all to go down. Many of the responses ask ‘what does it mean to disinvest from the world?’ My question is ‘how can you not hate the world?’

This book is my attempt to begin to answer these questions. I am very grateful to everyone for providing such thoughtful and considered responses and to all those who have taken time to participate in this book event.