Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

Continue reading “Political Theology syllabus”

…which begs the question: “What is political theology?”

I’ve been feeling lately that I am on the losing side of a terminological dispute. The term in question is one that has become absolutely central to my academic research: political theology. It is, admittedly, a somewhat ill-named field, and thus ill-defined. The juxtaposition of the two terms and the relation of noun and adjective makes one think initially of a politically-engaged theology (i.e., “political” is the determinate difference that distinguishes “political theology” as a species of the genus “theology”). If one had to venture a further guess, one might hit on the idea that it refers to treating politics as though it were theological: political theology as opposed to political theology. But surely no naive reader of the phrase would hit on precisely the definition that I prefer: namely, the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields. Instead, while maintaining some space “my” version, the field seems to be converging on the first, most obvious meaning as the guiding thread.

Why do I insist on the less intuitive definition? It’s not because it better reflects the origins of the field, though it does. Schmitt’s Political Theology mixes all three versions to some extent, but the third, counterintuitive version is the real innovation and contribution. Yet obviously Schmitt does not deserve our loyalty. Nor is it simply because I have written books using that paradigm and don’t want to have to scrap all that work — which I don’t have to do in any case, since “my” approach is certainly still seen as a valid part of the big tent of political theology.

My insistence comes, instead, from a belief that the third, counterintuitive definition provides the greatest chance of contributing something distinctive. Continue reading “…which begs the question: “What is political theology?””

Pandemocracy and the State of Exception

These reflections are not only the product of our current global crisis but also respond to the theoretical challenge of thinking otherwise about the nature of biopolitical governance, the challenge of discovering some resources within the biopolitical to support an insurgent form of life. Recently, Roberto Esposito in Two (2013) has made the attempt to discover in the globalization of sovereign debt the possibility of overcoming the sovereign splitting of the biopolitical decision, between “making live” and “letting die”: “The fact that all states, divided by a clear inequality of resources, are now indebted to an entity as elusive as global finance means that for the first time, perhaps, the world will experience a condition of shared suffering. It is as if splitting had become the general form of unity. We are joined by a debt that separates us even from ourselves, by suspending us from a model of development that produces loss. Since everyone is included in it, we are at the same time also all excluded. The point of arrival for economic-political theology is identity, with no remainders, between inside and outside, whole and part, One and Two.” (Two, 208) Esposito cautions us not to try to return to this condition of the “identity . . . between . . . One and Two” by resurrecting some new form of sovereignty. Instead, he suggests that we create what I am calling a “pandemocracy” out of our globalized condition of being unified by our experience of being split between our identity as owners and our identity as owers. He claims that what “flickers” in our commonality as Ow(n)ers is “the law of jubilee.” (209)

Esposito did not imagine the possibility that it would not be the collapse of the global finance markets that allowed the law of jubilee to flicker, but the global pandemic. Giorgio Agamben recently characterized the pandemic as inciting a sovereign autoimmune response that decides, as Foucault descbribes it, one population to make live and another to let die. But the pandemic does more than that. In the midst of this sovereign decision, those who are called upon to execute it demonstrate a sacrificial exorbitance that is the sign of those who renounce their ownership of secure life and livelihood in a demonstration of common owership. I am of course referring to the women and men who daily minister to the sick and dying. This is not unique to this pandemic. Thucydides speaks of such self-sacrificing care in his description of the plague that broke out in his besieged city of Athens.

In Athens and today, the common owership displayed by the health workers is understood to be grounded in a sacred bond, the Hippocratic Oath. Agamben has taught us about the intimate link between oaths and the sacred. I would suggest that Asclepius, god of healing, is the figuration of the other of the sovereign decision between making live and letting die. It is not surprising that Asclepius is himself put to death by Zeus and transformed into a constellation, Ophiuchus, the “snake holder.” The wisdom of the snake is self-regeneration, a.k.a resurrection. Besides the jubilee of our redemption from debt, resurrection is also what “flickers” on the horizon of our “shared suffering.” Marx, in his 1841 dissertation on Epicurus, said that the heavenly bodies (ta meteora) in the ancient world intimated the fulfillment of our species being as a single immortal life form, no longer divided between owners of bodies and owned bodies. Each constellation, Marx explained, was thought to be a god-species. Marx shows that Epicurus’s philosophy of atomism was the reflection of the dissolution of the social bond of ancient polis and the atomization of its citizens into abstract individualities. Epicurus, Marx argues, could not bear the contradiction between his dirempted self-consciousness and the intimation of the unified form of species life intimated by the constellations. He could not bear the flickering of another form of life for our human species being. He turned the constellations into long-lasting but mortal atomic configurations. Mortal gods. Marx later connected Epicurean atomism to Hobbesian materialism. The Hobbesian sovereign, the mortal god, has become the figure our constricted vision, our atomized selfhoods turning away from the flickering of another form of species being. I fear that Agamben himself may have blinded himself by staring at the sun’s sovereign glory. He seems to have lost sight of the constellations, and especially Asklepius, the snake holder.

Robert Yelle has recently published a wonderful book, Sovereignty and the Sacred (2019) that beautifully complements Esposito’s Two. Yelle also draws out attention to the law of jubilee. In a philologically rigorous and historically informed study of the intimate relationship between the myths and rituals associated with sovereign investiture and the sphere of the sacred in general, Yelle demonstrates the doubled and split nature of our political conjunctions, whether in ancient city-states, medieval kingdoms, or modern liberal states. His book traces political theology (Yelle prefers “spiritual economy”) not only to its Greek and Roman antecedents, but to the Indic precursors of both traditions in Sanskrit myth and ritual. Esposito’s and Yelle’s books are sober accounts of the violence that continually (re)founds our polities and invests sovereignty with the lightning flash of the sacred, the brilliance of the heavens carving a murderous path to the earth. But Yelle and Esposito have not allowed themselves to be blinded by Zeus’s glorious weapon, the lightning of sovereignty. Like the early Marx, they teach us that the heavens also intimate our common life of owership, the pandemocracy that is no less sacred than Hobbes’s mortal god who demands obedience as the price of our claim to live more than “short and brutish” lives. That bargain is revealed today to be a sham. We may, as Agamben has suggested, allow ourselves to be duped again by this mortal god’s offer of security. Or we may, as Esposito and Yelle suggest, find another god flickering in the darkness, the god who promulgates the law of jubilee and raises our hope that the snake’s wisdom has not been utterly forgotten.

You’re On God’s Time Now

The following is the text of a presentation I gave last summer in Berlin. While some of the ideas and problematics articulated here are ones I wouldn’t frame in quite the same way now–that’s the nature of a research project that’s still very much active!–I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve provided any kind of update on the direction my research on time and usury is taking, and thought it might be of interest for some readers here.

1.0 In his review of Deleuze’s The Fold, Alain Badiou positions his own philosophy against Deleuze’s by placing the two of them on opposite sides of one and the same basic decision or divide. The choice, he claims, is between “mathematic” and “organicist” paradigms of multiplicity. Or—as we run through the sequence of opposing terms that reiterates this point throughout the review—a choice between “number” and “animal,” “Plato” and “Aristotle,” “quantity” and “quality,” and, finally—and to my mind, most decisively—“extensive” and “intensive” multiplicities.[1]

Badiou’s—and his admirers’—polemics against Deleuze, have centered in large part on the question of novelty; of what it means for something truly new to come about. This is an issue of both politics and ontology, but this emphasis on novelty also makes it an issue of time—of the time of the new; of how we should think of time in order to think what’s new about the new. The new is, after all, novel because it differs from what comes before it; novelty is a temporal idea. I don’t want to rehash, here, the long and exhaustive debate that’s played out between partisans of these two philosophers over the last several decades—entering a new volley in the repeating fire across the trenches simply isn’t something I’m interested in.

What I want to do instead is take the fact of this division—between extensive and intensive temporal multiplicities—as a kind of index. In particular, I want to take the fact of this division to index a certain operation of division. When I say “operation of division,” I’m recalling especially of Daniel Colucciello Barber’s work on Spinoza, and his chapter “Metarelation and Nonrelation” in Serial Killing, echoes of which you may hear throughout this piece. If we’re being asked to divide time in two for the sake of a decision in favor of novelty—in whatever form that might take—then what is this operation of division that’s being asked of us? What are its stakes and what is its impetus? I’m doing this, for reasons that might become clearer over the course of what I’m saying here, in order to speak in favor of a certain kind of refusal of this division, which is also to say a refusal to decide on the form of the new. I want to apologize a bit for how schematic many of these comments will be, and how much they’ll jump back and forth in both time and disciplinary space. Hopefully you’ll be able to follow the resonances here, and I’m of course happy to talk more about why I’m connecting certain texts and ideas. Continue reading “You’re On God’s Time Now”

On civil war

Ever since Reagan, Republicans view any branch of government they have ever controlled as their birthright. Clinton and Obama were illegitimate in their eyes because the Republicans own the presidency. The same goes, but even more, for the Supreme Court. Media commentary seems bizarrely fixated on the idea that the Republicans are just now securing control of the Supreme Court, but they have actually held a majority for most of our lifetimes — secured in part by appointments from Republican presidents installed against the popular will. In reality, Democrats had their first shot at a majority in almost a generation, and the thought of allowing that was so unthinkable that the Republicans were basically willing to burn down everything. And the media went along with it as a case of “political hardball,” rather than the unprecedented insult to the American people it really was.

This points to a deeper crisis in our system. You can’t have a party-based representative democracy when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party. The premise is that you alternate power and each party has the right to implement its agenda while in power. Republicans reject that premise. For them, any Democratic president or congressional majority is a state of absolute emergency. The number of Republicans willing to engage in traditional horse-trading politics while in the minority has dwindled sharply, while there are plenty of Democrats willing to play ball — Joe Manchin, most dramatically, but also many others who have voted for Trump cabinet and court appointees on the principle that the president has a right to appoint people who share his views, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Republicans refuse to even consider a Democratic Supreme Court nominee who would change the partisan balance, while many Democrats happily voted for the boring conservative who was nominated for the “stolen” seat and only mounted serious opposition when Kavanaugh turned out to have a cloud of sexual abuse and violent alcoholism in his past. And again, Republicans treated these reasonable concerns as an unprecedented outrage — because they own the court.

At this point, by continuing to play along with the system as it exists, Democrats objectively exist to give procedural cover for Republican rule. And it’s not clear to me how to break out of that pattern, because the public discourse is so systematically corrupt and false. Republican voters have been so brainwashed to believe that the Democrats secretly control everything that they are effectively inoculated against the idea that Republicans are rigging the system. The mainstream media has no interest in dispelling these illusions. Even if the Democrats managed to thoroughly delegitimate the Republicans in the eyes of their own base, they have no means to exercise institutional power — and hence they would only provide further justification to the Republican habit (accelerated under Trump) of governing only on behalf of their “base” and viewing the opposition party and public opinion with contempt.

Like many, I find the idea of delegitimating the Republicans and, with them, the whole Constitutional system deeply appealing. But in the absence of a plausible alternative with a claim to popular legitimacy, delegitimizing the system creates a situation where force decides, and I think we all know who would win if push came to shove. Yet surely there comes a point when the attempt to avoid civil war becomes a way of conceding victory in advance. Perhaps push has already come to shove — but in that case, it is very unclear how to proceed. Electoral victory is one option, but the Republicans have already primed their base to reject the validity of election results.

The last time our country was on the brink of civil war, the slavers had a stranglehold on institutional power and the terms of debate and yet continually viewed themselves as oppressed victims — and as soon as an opposition president took office, they decided to blow up the country rather than accept his victory. Like contemporary Democrats, Lincoln was conciliatory to a fault, but the slavers would not take yes for an answer. Lincoln was, of course, actually able to become president in the first place despite the slavers’ opposition. If a Democrat won the 2020 election, would they even be able to take office? Would Republicans control enough state-level governments to steal the Electoral College outright? And then what?

Abolish the states!

As is well-known, the US Constitution includes two major institutions that do not operate according to the principle of majority rule. The first is the Senate, where both California and Wyoming receive the same representation despite their vast difference in population. The second is the Electoral College, which in our young century has twice delivered the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Critics of these institutions emphasize their obvious anti-democratic character, while defenders point to the special role of the states in the federal structure set up by the Founders. Though the system does go against our majoritarian instincts, the story goes, these so-called “laboratories of democracy” are crucial to America’s unique form of constitutional democracy.

Lost in this debate between democratic intuitions and the Founders’ intentions is the empirical question of whether the states as they currently exist actually fulfill a legitimate role in our system. One way to answer that would be to ask what states would have to look like to justify providing them with special representation even if it meant overriding the popular majority at the federal level. Clearly the states would need to have robust and meaningful democratic legitimacy on their own. They would need to represent coherent communities with identifiable and distinctive interests and values, and they would need to display an engaged political culture among their citizens.

Though each of our existing states would fare differently, it is clear that almost no actual-existing state meets those minimal standards of democratic legitimacy. Continue reading “Abolish the states!”

Political Theology: A Reading List

Some Facebook friends have asked me about my personal “canon” of political theology, and I decided it would make a good idea for a blog post. This list, like any attempt at a canon, does not simply reflect the state of a field but aims to change it. It is about what political theology is and also about what it could and should be. While some of my choices are presumably obvious, others reflect my conviction that political theology must grapple with questions of economics, race, gender, and sexuality, that our contemporary neoliberal order is an order of political theology, that political theology is a genealogical discipline, and that the root of political theology is not the homology between politics and theology but the problem that motivates both — in political terms, the problem of legitimacy, and in theological terms, the problem of evil. In other words, this could be taken as a reading list to understand the style of political theology I practice in The Prince of This World and Neoliberalism’s Demons. But more broadly, it is an attempt to group together a body of works that can be productively read with and against each other. [UPDATE: I have added two works to the list as several people have pointed out that I underemphasized the specifically Jewish contribution to the field.]

Here’s the list, in something like chronological order:

  1. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza coins the term political theology in reverse, with a foundational work of modern political theory that is at the same time the foundational document of modern biblical scholarship.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: So many of the key questions of political theology — the complex intertwining of morality, religion, economics, and power, as well as racial and ethnic differentiation — are front and center in this text, which also provides the basis for the genealogical method.
  3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The conventional blinders of political theology, which defines the political as excluding the economic, is the only thing that keeps this text from being an obvious classic for the field. Everything we expect from a political theological study is present in this text, and the exclusion is even more egregious when we recognize how deeply Weberian Schmitt is (precisely because he is also deeply anti-Weberian).
  4. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: I’d be laughed out of the room if I didn’t include this one, and rightly so. I have been living for years in the tension between the promise of Schmitt’s research project here and the blinkers that lead it into a destructive blind alley.
  5. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism: psychoanalysis has always played a role in political theology, and this is Freud’s most theological text. I would accept Totem and Taboo as well, but I lean toward Moses and Monotheism in recognition that most classics of political theology tend to be total unwieldy messes on the textual level.
  6. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: Another “gimme.” In dialogue with the other texts in this list, however, we can see in Kantorowicz a version of political theology that takes the interweaving of the political and economic for granted — this study is just as much about fiscal policy and corporate charters as it is about the vaunted parallel between Christ and the king.
  7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: This book provides the groundwork for the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic — which in Neoliberalism’s Demons I call “Arendt’s axiom” — that will decisively shape subsequent studies in political theology. It takes Schmitt’s incohate bias against the economic realm and equips it with real theoretical rigor and a full-dress genealogy. I view the influence as unfortunate, but we need to confront it head-on to get past it.
  8. Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology: Taubes’s account of the dynamics of eschatological thought and the way that different political-theological paradigms tend to grow out of the deadlocks in their predecessor helps to connect the genealogical and synchronic elements of political theology.
  9. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: This is really a stand-in for the entire lecture series, but this particular volume does a lot of heavy lifting with the influence of pastoral management techniques on modernity. So far, Foucault is presumably the author who would be most puzzled by my designation of him as a political theologian, but I don’t think we can understand the field as it is today, nor do the kind of genealogical work that needs to be done, without drawing on and extending Foucault’s analyses.
  10. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: a masterwork of genealogy that ties together the rise of capitalism with the rise of race thinking, the disciplining of gender and sexual expression, and the ever-evolving place of theological and metaphysical thinking.
  11. Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism: A conceptually elegant account of the political ambivalence of monotheism, recognizing it as an ultimately unsustainable revolutionary demand.
  12. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: here again, this is more a stand-in for his entire body of work, which has pushed political theology forward in so many ways. The Kingdom and the Glory has been most influential for my thought as well as for the field as a whole, forcing the question of the economic — albeit in a way that I find to be incoherent, due to his near-fanatical loyalty to Arendt’s axiom. (And of course, it meets the “unwieldy mess” standard.)
  13. Alexander Weheliye, Habaeus Viscus: A profound critique of Foucault and Agamben that homes in on their blindness to the question of race. His account of the unruly flesh provides one way of getting at the “unfixability” of the problem of legitimacy and the problem of evil that stand at the root of my account of political theology.
  14. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: While she would surely not relish the comparison, Brown’s study of neoliberalism is deeply Schmittian in structure and approach and gets at the question of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of our present order. Brown is guided by an unwavering faith in Arendt’s axiom that ultimately undermines her project in my view, but her way of posing the question of neoliberalism was what opened me to the possibility of thinking of it in political theological terms.
  15. Jared Hickman, Black Prometheus: This study of the enduring influence of the figure of Prometheus in modern race thinking is also (in Peter Coviello’s estimation as well as mine) the definitive political-theological account of race in the modern world. His theory of competing racialized political theological paradigms within the global space of immanence opened up by 1492 cuts through any number of the false binaries that prevent us from truly grasping the deep dynamics of modernity.

Of course, it would be arrogant to put my own books on there, though presumably if you were puzzled as to why these texts all belong together, taking a look at my work might help. And if anyone wants to hire me to teach a grad class with this reading list, you know how to reach me….

Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. Continue reading “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld”

The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”