With demons like these…: A Response from Adam Kotsko

I would like to begin by thanking all five contributors for their engagement with my work and Sean Capener for his labor in coordinating the event (and selection of great post-header images!). Not everyone has the privilege of getting such varied and interesting responses to their book from five brilliant friends. And in contrast to many other book discussions I have seen (both of my own work and those of others), I never got the sense that anyone was misreading or mischaracterizing my work, responding to “the kind of thing” they think it is rather than to its specific goals and approach. While internal critique is not the only viable method, I think that academics as a whole tend to read with too much impatience and too little sympathy, mistaking harshness and negativity for intellectual rigor. The most productive discussions, in my mind, are never “debates” between opposed sides, but open-ended discussions between friends.

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Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Piercing the Darkness

The following post is by Devin Singh. Devin is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth and the author of Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford University Press, 2018).

I very much enjoyed this book. Adam Kotsko treats his subject matter with characteristic lucidity and distills a number of scholarly tropes and conversations into accessible and engaging prose, with accompanying clear analysis. Perhaps because Kotsko and I are excavating similar archives with many overlapping presuppositions, I found little that was problematic or troubling with his overall presentation (obviously, neoliberalism as subject matter is troubling, but that’s not what I mean). What follows, then, are less points of critique than of interest and potential further discussion.

“Arendt’s Axiom” is what Kotsko labels Hannah Arendt’s false dichotomy between the political and the economic, built upon a specious reading of Greek thought (especially Aristotle) that distinguishes between a distinct logic and ethos of the polis and of the oikos. This leads to Arendt valorizing the political above the economic, exalting “political man” as an ideal over against the “laboring animal” of the economy. Such a hierarchy, as Kotsko notes, presupposes the slave economy and relegation of the mundane tasks of procuring the goods of bodily life to a profane realm, while holding up as sacred an elite realm of speech, deliberation, and governance. I appreciate Kotsko’s thorough dismantling of this assemblage, which has garnered an unjustified afterlife and trajectory of scholarly impact.

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Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: We are going to make them give us what we want

“To educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations his respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him, who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

One of the central puzzles of Christian theology is the question of how evil entered the world. Why, in a world perfectly designed by a wise and benevolent God for the total satisfaction of its creatures, would anyone choose to reject the love of God – the highest of all the goods? At some point this question, first a problem for readers of the Genesis account of the fall of Adam and Eve, is pushed back before the creation of humankind to the creation of the angels. Sin, evil and suffering entered the world not when Eve ate the apple, but when the devil rebelled against God. Adam and Eve fell because Eve was tempted by the devil. But all this does is to intensify the problem of evil’s genesis. Eve was a woman, and an embodied human; for early Christians, longing to be freed from captivity to the flesh, it was not so difficult to imagine the lure of god-like knowledge. The devil, though, had no body to contend with; had nothing to tempt him except nothingness itself. Why would an almost-divinely perfect being choose to reject eternal bliss? Following Augustine, the standard answer came to be that the fall of the angels was almost instantaneous, taking place ‘the first instant after their creation’ (what, after all, could change in heaven so significantly as to prompt this change of heart?), because of an angelic refusal to submit to God’s authority, resulting in the permanent distortion of the now-demonic nature of the fallen angels. As Kotsko writes,

This conception of the fall of the devil is very difficult to understand. Everything that we associate with moral responsibility seems to be lacking. There is no moral obligation at play here other than sheer submission to God, a demand that seems to have no concrete content. There is no way to assess motivations or circumstances, because the decision to rebel was not only instantaneous but at the time it occurred was quite literally the only thing that had ever happened in God’s created world. It seems more like a random impulse than a morally relevant choice, much less a choice carrying such severe and inescapable consequences. (83)

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Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Maybe the Real Hell Was the Guilt We Incurred Along the Way

This post is by Timothy Snediker, a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbaraspecializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, psychoanalysis, political theology, and non-philosophyHis current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world. 

At a pivotal moment in the titular chapter of Neoliberalism’s Demons, amidst a discussion of the thorny problem of the freedom of the creaturely will and the paradoxical temporality of the fall of the devil, Adam Kotsko evokes—briefly—a specter that haunts every Christian theological attempt at theodicy. I refer, of course, to the figure of the malicious God, who, in creating the angels sets them up for failure, for their own fall, so that he can lay blame upon them and punish them (84). Kotsko has undertaken an extended and more granular study of this particular theological problematic in his prior work, The Prince of This World (Stanford University Press, 2017), but the basic point of the paradox is here adequately adduced. The discomforting image of the malicious God, Kotsko notes,

cuts against a commonsense reading of the doctrine of providence, namely that God allows evil to happen owing to the conceptual necessity of allowing free will and subsequently makes up for it by drawing good out of evil. What the primal scene of the fall of the devil shows is that the causation is reversed: the first thing God does is induce some of his creatures to ‘rebel’ against a meaningless imperious demand, to ensure that there will be a reservoir of evil for him to turn toward the greater good. (Ibid.)

Here we have a God for whom evil is not only necessary in an abstract sense, but for whom evil is positively desirable, since God uses evil, as would an addict, in order to glorify himself. In fact, I reckon that one could deepen and intensify the significance of this idea further still. To wit, evil is not, per se, desirable (it is not the object of God’s desire) but is itself God’s desire, that which is, in God, desirous of God.

In the following, I suggest that the emergence of this figure of the malicious God is one of the many conceptual felicities of Kotsko’s general theory of political theology. I understand Kotsko’s general political theology as exemplary of what he has elsewhere called ‘political theology from below.’ Such a view from below not only accords with a Benjaminian ethics of thinking according to ‘the tradition of the oppressed’ but also avoids the most obvious pitfalls of the narrow, Schmittian schema of political theology, which concerns itself almost exclusively with questions of state and sovereignty, and which offers itself as the obvious paradigm of ‘political theology from above.’

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Make us like the other nations

The controversy surrounding Ilhan Omar’s remarks about pro-Israel lobbying activity is enragingly stupid. Mainstream Democrats want the diversity of the food court. They’re pleased to be able to point to different skin tones and exotic names — but once someone actually draws on their experience in a way that makes a difference? Horror…. All the Democrats lining up to scapegoat a Muslim-American woman should be ashamed of themselves. It’s an absolute fucking disgrace.

One question worth asking here is: Why do pro-Israel lobbying groups spend so much money to influence US politicians? I can think of some reasons.
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Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Seeing Through a Bubble Darkly

This post is by Dean Dettloff. Dean is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies. He is also a host of The Magnificast podcast and writer for America Magazine.

There are a lot of stories about how we got here, to a moment in human history where our species is on course to burn ourselves out of the only planet we have because of one of the most harebrained economic systems ever made up. Among them, though riddled with plot holes, is the one told by Peter Sloterdijk. Once upon a time, he says, certain humans lived inside a metaphysical soap bubble, a canopy of orienting ideas. Surrounded by a conceptual atmosphere, some people could look up and see themselves in the ordered fabric of the cosmos, situated in a reasonable station among other reasonable beings and relationships. The colorful doctrinal hues that slid into one another across the film of that bubble changed significantly over time, but the bubble, that fragile source of safety and familiarity (even a place for tragedy), remained all the same.

Somewhere along the line, the bubble popped–!–evacuating the air and revealing humans live on a big, weird rock hurtling through the horrible void of space around a terminal star. As Blaise Pascal put it in one of his Pensées, gasping for Providence, “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Without the concentric circles of the planets as guides, Sloterdijk explains, Europeans needed another way to stabilize the contingencies of life. Providence was displaced by Fortuna, and while prayer and fasting certainly did not go away, debt and credit were more reliable forms of genuflecting. Sloterdijk describes the globe of colonial expansion like an “occult clock,” connecting the hours of profit to continents and the people that live there, reduced to speculative equations. Modern capitalism became the means by which human beings, bereft of cosmic guarantees, could be more predictable, calculable, or at least more accountable. Today, Sloterdijk says, it is insurance, the logic of manageable or controlled risk, that has defeated all the lofty conceptual boundaries of philosophy and theology alike, creating what he calls the “world interior of capital.” The air inside has changed, and all that is solid melts into it–Dense Fog Advisory.

Adam Kotsko is also telling us a story in Neoliberalism’s Demons, one that picks up where Sloterdijk eventually veers right. Continue reading “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Seeing Through a Bubble Darkly”

Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: A Contribution from Amaryah Shaye Armstrong

This post is by Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Neoliberalism’s Demons is an exciting development in Adam Kotsko’s thought. The most significant contributions here are, I think, methodological. With this book however, Kotsko offers up a helpful rearticulation of political theology that exchanges obligation to the Schmittian sense of political theology for a more heuristic sense. Overcoming some of the stalements of what I’ll call the “classic” form of political theology, Kotsko provides a clear and concise sense of political theology that finally catches up to the multitude of analyses that have been taken up under its banner. I primarily found his examinations of the the link between the political problem of legitimacy and the theological problem of evil to be a very astute insight that subtly but effectively shows the conceptual homologies that tie questions of governance to questions of meaning and value. This definition in particular stayed with me:

Political Theology is a holistic genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment. Political theology in this sense is political because it investigates institutions and practices of governance… and it is theological because it it deals with questions of meaning and value… And it is both simultaneously because the structures of governance are always necessarily caught up with questions of meaning and value and because the answers we offer to questions of meaning and value always have direct implication for how the world should be governed–in other words, the structures and sources of legitimacy tend to correlate conceptually.

It seems obvious now that Kotsko has stated it so clearly, but having spent time with some stodgy old white men doing “political theology” in what felt like a deeply stilted and unecessarily narrow sense, it can’t be understated how helpful this is as an intervention into the more “traditional” sense of political theology. Along with his rearticulation of the relationship between the political and the theological, Kotsko also helpfully revises the conception of economic such that political theology’s bias against it is able to take more seriously its structuring of everyday life. This will go a long way in overcoming some of the hang ups of the field that have prevented useful analysis of the political, theological, and economic to emerge.

Aside from the methodological, the book is generally accurate in its intuitions of how neoliberalism operates as a political theological paradigm. However, there were places that felt thin or underworked, specifically around demonization and blackness, that revealed the extent to which political theology needs a serious engagement with black studies. Primarily relying on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the gestures to race in Neoliberalism’s Demons while not wrong per se, are not at the theoretical level of the rest of Kotsko’s sources. This belies not only a gap in Kotsko’s argument, but a gap in political theology that is worthy of significant study. Such study would, I think, shift the terms of enunciation for more than just Kotsko’s argument, but there are specific ways I think it would apply here.

In the book, there seems to be the sense that neoliberalism demonizes everyone, and while there’s a vague attempt to note that not everyone experiences this in the same way, the desire to present neoliberalism as a total worldview seems to ignore the sense in which antiblackness is the total worldview that gives order to the economic arrangement on which neoliberalism depends. For instance, to track the sense in which individuals are now scapegoated in the name of freedom and become captive to debt is to ignore the sense in which blackness was already structured as that permanently demonic figure of wretchedness, Fanon’s damned, for centuries preceding the emergence of the neoliberal paradigm. What neoliberalism seems to reveal is the extent to which the carceral techniques that have structured the antiblack economy of the world have developed into a unique set of justifications, practices of governance, and technologies of control through which to manage non-black people now, albeit according to a different logic of reproduction. And it is this inability to perceive that the situation that white people are now subject to is not a novelty in black life, but has been its persistent climate (what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather” in her book In the Wake), that sometimes left me frustrated with the book. To use a black colloquialism, when white people have a cold, black people have pneumonia. A more attentive tracking of not only the disparate racial formations that structure neoliberalism, but a sense of how the liberal democratic project was always already funded by antiblack carcerality would shift the tone of the book toward a more precise sense of the novelty of neoliberalism and its extension of and dependence on the antiblack justification of carcerality that long precedes it.

In her groundbreaking work, Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams inquires into the persistent oversight of the oppressed of the oppressed in theology. And not just dominant theology, but black liberation and feminist theologies. Her methodological intervention, rereading and a womanist hermeneutic of identification-ascertainment highlights the urgency of reforming perception prior to even beginning critical analysis. With this rereading and reorientation to material, Williams write, “heuristics and issues emerge.” In what sense does Kotsko’s helpful diagnosis of neoliberalism as a political theological paradigm highlight the sense in which antiblackness as a political theological paradigm continues to be the unthought that produces novelty in other fields? Such a pervasive and persistent imperception of the ways that black studies has been theorizing and surviving these problems reveals the depth of structural white supremacy that orients most fields of study. Blackness either becomes an illustration of a more general problem or is unthought. What would it mean to take this moment of methodological reorientation in political theological to also radically reorient it, rereading it, such that it can be thought as a heuristic in service of a radically black mode of inquiry? By this line of questioning, I simply mean to say, what would it mean to think from the underside of neoliberalism and its demonizing machinations? It is only through such thought that a clearer picture of neoliberalism’s operations emerge and, in so doing, we can recognize what is truly novel about it while resituating within the antiblack economy as a new conflict in white governance that continues the deadly effects of white governance for black people the world over.

Now that white people are subject to extensions of antiblack protocols of governance, many are beginning to wake up to the death-dealing of antiblackness and its carceral economy. This is not an “I told you so.” In some sense, since the invention of modern racial slavery and global antiblackness, it’s always been too late. The blackness of justice is that it is never timely but of its own time. This can be a lesson for us in becoming adequate to our own time, always living in the failure of being too late. Still, our lives depend on making something of that lateness, and Neoliberalism’s Demons provides an occasion for just that.