Up for grabs: A Twitter rant, blogged

All this makes clear what we all kind of knew: that institutional stability and continuity is partisan issue and has been for a long time.

I’ve long joked that the Democrats are the party of “having a government at all,” but it’s not actually a joke.

I know the institutional structure was never “really” neutral, but I think we’re going to miss that enabling fiction going forward.

Because once everything is politicized, you are already virtually in a state of civil war. And the other side has all the guns.

This is where Zizek’s claim that the shock to the system from Trump could be good is so irresponsible and just plain dumb.

Trump doesn’t open up the space for political contestation, he destroys it.

[Editor’s note: This is kind of a shorter version of my Schmittian Reflections on the Election.]

Neoliberalism’s Demons: A Lecture Transcript

[This represents the final version of the talk on the devil and neoliberalism that I gave at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and subsequently at various universities in Australia and New Zealand as well as the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. I have been reluctant to post the text because I am working on an article, but there have been so many requests that I have finally relented. Please do not cite without permission.]

This lecture represents a development of a project that I have been working on for many years – a reinterpretation of the devil from the perspective of political theology. Last year, I completed the first phase of the project, which took the form of a historical genealogy of the devil, tracing the development of the figure from his roots in the Hebrew Biblical tradition up to his decisive role in Western medieval Christianity.

My guiding thesis is that the devil is at once a theological and a political figure, because the God of the Hebrew Bible (and subsequently of Christianity) is at once a theological and a political figure. God is envisioned as the direct ruler of the Israelites – he ensures their survival, liberates them from slavery, hands down their legal code, and secures their territory for them. Everything that an earthly ruler does, he does. But over time, the biblical authors become more and more convinced that God is not merely the ruler of Israel, but in some sense the ruler of the entire world as well. And this means that his truest rivals are not the pagan gods – who are usually dismissed as laughably inadequate, mere statues made of wood and stone – but others who presume to rule in this world.

In the book, I argue that we are still in some sense living in a version of the “minority monotheism” that emerged in ancient Israel and that if we want to understand the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity, the most productive lens is the set of political-theological problems that emerged around the figure of the devil. And now that my book has established that historical genealogy in broad terms, I want to narrow the focus and show how my thesis can help us understand the dynamics of neoliberalism as a particularly extreme and self-destructive manifestation of the modern secular political theological paradigm. Continue reading “Neoliberalism’s Demons: A Lecture Transcript”

A feature, not a bug: Agamben on Heidegger and Schmitt

This utterly phoned-in article on the continuing hand-wringing about Heidegger reminds me of a theory I’ve been developing about Agamben’s use of Heidegger and Schmitt — namely, that he’s not using them despite their Nazism, but because of it. After all, one of the key theses of his project in the Homo Sacer series was that the West was always bound to wind up producing something like the concentration camp. For thinking through the internal logic of that move, it helps to have two interlocutors who are absolutely steeped in the Western tradition, who are creative and brilliant, and who embraced Nazism.

I haven’t systematically gone through the works to verify this, but my sense is that the two are treated differently. Schmitt is more or less treated purely as the Nazi archetype. Schmitt features hugely in the critical portions of the Homo Sacer series but completely drops out in the constructive portion. (I am delighted to share that his name does not appear a single time in The Use of Bodies, for instance.) His postwar work does not really figure in, and to the extent that it does, Agamben is dismissing it as an evasion — most notably in his claim that the concentration camp, which Schmitt utterly ignores, is the true “nomos of the earth.”

Heidegger’s role is more ambivalent, because Agamben acknowledges that he was drawn into the Nazi endpoint of the West but also gives him at least some credit for trying to think past that impasse. That attempt is not fully successful, and it seems clear to me that Agamben attributes a good deal of that to the inertia of the paradigm that led him to Nazism. Agamben is always oblique about it, but sometimes it’s very obvious, as in a passage in The Use of Bodies where he says that Heidegger may have been able to make more progress if only he had ever seriously engaged with Spinoza — and then all but nudges the reader to say, “But we all know why he wouldn’t go there, don’t we?”

Caliphate and Katechon; Or, Is Sayyid the better Schmitt?

Early in Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid recounts an attempt by then-Iranian president Khatami to bridge the gap between his country and the United States by appealing to Alexis de Tocqueville. As an instructor at a school in the Great Books tradition, I found this story to be illustrative of the limitations of the Great Books approach insofar as it showed how empty the claim to universal values is in practice. In principle, custodians of a canon of universally applicable texts should be thrilled when someone from another cultural tradition finds a canonical text appealing. In reality, though, Khatami’s attempt to enter into the Great Conversation was met with outrage and derision.

This reaction is of course conceptually incoherent, and that’s because claims to universality for the “Western canon” — indeed, even the very existence of something like the “Western canon,” which Sayyid characterizes as a “hegemonic project” and a “contingent stitch-up” (pg. 55) — are not conceptual claims, but political ones. This means that they are conditioned by the friend-enemy relationship that, for Sayyid, runs above all between the West and the non-West in the contemporary world. Insofar as he was an enemy claiming possession over Western property, therefore, “Khatami had to commit an act of violence that was prerequisite to his attempt at dialogue” (pg. 28), and the reaction he received was every bit as violent.

Continue reading “Caliphate and Katechon; Or, Is Sayyid the better Schmitt?”

Liquidating Blackness – Blood Book Event

In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt attends to the fact that the sea was always located outside of territorial, juridical regulations, defined as a space that enabled and, indeed, linked the very two “practices” that Kant and Schumpeter saw as distinct and even opposite, namely, we saw, war and commerce. In the naval space … only war and commerce take place. And all that is solid melts into blood. Both the dissolution of space … and the liquefaction of money—its circulation as blood money, under the figure of unification in the blood of Christ—partake of the same logic and of the same transformation. 1

The lawlessness of the sea, its openness and outsideness is the space of transformation and magic. Solids melt into blood, money becomes liquid, and circulates as blood money. I don’t know that there is any clearer example of this magic than the transatlantic slave trade. The dissolution of bodies into blood—differentiated blood—and into blood money. The transformation of black people into property occurs under the banner of the blood of Christ. Continue reading “Liquidating Blackness – Blood Book Event”

A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. Continue reading “A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)”

Obama and the new nomos of the earth

In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt argues that every legal order is founded in a kind of topology that divides the earth into regions and determines the law’s applicability to those regions. His book traces the metamorphosis of this fundamental apportionment of the earth through Western history, with decisive shifts emerging around the relationship between land and sea — and in his present-day, the relationship between the earth’s surface and the sky, where he believes the postwar nomos of the earth will play out.

As Taubes points out in one of the letters collected in To Carl Schmitt, there’s something obscene about Schmitt’s failure to address the place of the concentration camp in the nomos of the earth, and one could read Agamben’s Homo Sacer as an attempt to rework Schmitt’s argument around the very different topology of inclusive-exclusive sovereignty, as revealed most clearly in the camps. Contrary to Schmitt’s claim that the Western nomos has normally created a clearly delimited “free zone” outside the proper European sphere, Agamben points out that the kind of liminal space represented by the camp (and here one could include both the concentration camps and the refugee camps for the stateless) emerges within the political space itself. The apportionment of the earth, its new nomos, is defined by the anomalous space of the camp rather than by any supposedly distinct “outside.”

What is remarkable about our present political conjuncture is that both Schmitt and Agamben’s arguments seem to be vindicated. Continue reading “Obama and the new nomos of the earth”

Paradigms in political theology

The discipline of political theology begins from the fundamental homology between the human and divine sovereign, but the historical experience of political theology begins from their disjuncture. The political theology of the Hebrew prophets was devised to explain the apparently unbridgable gap between the two. At the root of what Agamben calls the “economic paradigm” is not the problem of imperial administration — rather, it is the theodicy problem that the Hebrew prophets answered by positing God’s indirect management of world history using worldly rulers who were unaware of their role in God’s plan. In reality, both of Agamben’s paradigms include an element of management — it is, after all, impossible for a ruler to literally do everything within his realm — but management only becomes the dominant principle when it’s a question of reconciling the lived experience of injustice and oppression with trust in a benevolent and just God.

Agamben continually deflects this “moral” element in the development of the economic paradigm, for instance by downplaying the “evil” nature of the demiurge in certain Gnostic systems, and this omission goes back to his continual refusal to engage with the Hebrew scriptures in a serious way. He is fascinated by Judaism, but his Judaism is always-already a part of the Western tradition — which is why Paul’s epistles can count, for instance, as the most important messianic documents. This is where Taubes’s response to Schmitt is invaluable, in that it reminds us of the “special relationship” between political theology and apocalyptic — and shows us that that “special relationship” is still operative in Schmitt, who is working in the narrow corner of political theology that emerges when the Roman Empire converts to Christianity and is promoted from anti-Christ to katechon.

“Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

Before the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, to claim self-defense you had to demonstrate that you genuinely had no other option. Violence was supposed to be a last resort, and even if the other guy clearly started it, you had no legal defense if you gratuitously escalated the conflict when you could have walked away. This approach makes sense as a way of balancing out the state’s claim to a monopoloy on legitimate violence and the individual citizen’s inalienable rights — in the last resort, everyone is entitled to do what’s necessary to preserve their own life, but it genuinely has to be the last resort.

With Stand Your Ground, a new regime has arisen in which the presumption of de-escalation no longer holds. Instead, the law functions to actively encourage the escalation of violent confrontations and defends the actions taken in that context regardless of “who started it” or whether another option was possible. Under the old regime, I think it’s pretty clear that George Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder, because he initiated the confrontation and stuck with it when he could have easily run away. Stand Your Ground removes those standards — it’s as though the state is saying, “No, don’t walk away, we want to see how this plays out.” And that seems difficult to square with traditional state sovereignty.

What is going on here? Continue reading ““Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty”

So what was the point?

My post on the ontology of academia seems to have been widely misunderstood. Indeed, this was so much the case that it pushed me to the brink of despair about blogging as a pursuit — a dynamic that people’s insistence on reading my descriptive account of the U.S. as a party state as a list of recommendations for reform only exacerbated. While there are external reasons (mainly faculty meetings) that the latter, written over two weeks ago, was my last substantive post for the blog, the sense that anything I wrote was going to be met with incomprehension did not encourage me to make time.

That being said, any misunderstanding is obviously at least partly the author’s own fault, and so I will try to get at what I was doing in the post. My goal was to try to isolate what it is that academics do that no one else does. What is their “product”? It can’t be learning, because everyone is learning all the time and in many ways. In the last analysis, what they produce is grades, which are then agglomerated into degrees. Their activity is fundamentally one of certification. Yes, it’s meant to be certification of knowledge, but we all know that the certification does not always correspond closely with knowledge.

I wanted to suggest that the certification aspect is ineradicable — no employer, no publisher, no one can know in detail all that another person knows and can do. Continue reading “So what was the point?”