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?”

A brief review of a brief book: Taubes, To Carl Schmitt

Only a Christian would make a deal with the devil. That’s what’s so disturbing about the gesture of selling your soul — it only makes sense if you know what’s at stake, yet it’s precisely because you know what’s at stake that it doesn’t make sense. It seems to me that this is a possible lens through which to view Jacob Taubes’s complex relationship with Carl Schmitt, as expressed in the brief collection To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, which the introducer of the volume, Mike Grimshaw, has already announced and discussed here on AUFS.

What makes Schmitt a great thinker in Taubes’s eyes is that he really did understand what was at stake in his historical moment. He just chose the wrong side in the decisive conflict that was unfolding. Taubes grapples with this gap between the diagnosis and the course of treatment throughout the fragments collected here, and he never comes to any firm conclusion on Schmitt the man. On Schmitt the thinker, though, he is unequivocal in asserting his brilliance and signal importance — an assertion for which he can draw on the authority of Walter Benjamin. In what for me is one of the most interesting passages in the collection, Taubes makes his point by means of the passage from “On the Concept of History” about the “tradition of the oppressed” and the “real state of exception”:

Schmitt’s fundamental vocabulary is here introduced by Benjamin, made use of, and so transformed into its opposite. Carl Schmitt’s conception of the ‘state of exception’ is dictatorial, dictated from above; in Benjamin it becomes a doctrine in the tradition of the oppressed. ‘Contemporaneity,’ a monstrous abbreviation of a messianic period, defines the experience of history on the part of both Benjamin and Schmitt; both involve a mystic conception of history whose principal teaching relates the sacred order to the profane. But the profane cannot be constructed upon the idea of God’s empire. This is why theocracy did not, for Benjamin, Schmitt, and Bloch, have a political meaning, but solely a religious significance. (17)

Sandwiched in between Benjamin and Bloch! All of them understand that this world is permanent, that no worldly structure can claim God’s allegiance or legitimation, but that they are all ways of heading off the apocalypse. Yet Schmitt can see in the apocalypse nothing but destruction. He sees the horizon of this world, yet cannot see anything of value beyond it — and so throws his weight behind a katechon who turns out to be the Antichrist. Taubes continues in an enigmatic paragraph that follows up on the implicit reference to the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the mention of Bloch evokes:

If I understand anything at all of the mystical historical construction that Benjamin here constructs with one eye on Schmitt’s theses, then this: what is superficially a process of secularization, of desacralization, the dedeification of public life, a process of step-by-step neutralization right up to the “value freedom” of science as an index of a techno-industrial form of life; this process also has an inner face that testifies to the freedom of God’s children (as in the letters of St. Paul), hence an expression of a reformation that is nearing its completion. (17-18)

The alternative that Taubes, with Benjamin, is gesturing toward here remains unclear to me, but the reflections in this slim volume convince me of the value of reading Schmitt against the grain in order to think toward it.

Schmitt and Heidegger

[Warning: This post is preliminary, superficial, and almost certainly unoriginal. “Just throwin’ it out there!”]

Lately I’ve been making my way through Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth, primarily because it’s where he discusses the katechon (and because I want to have the relevant background when I turn to Cacciari’s Il potere che frena). One thing that strikes me is that it seems very Heideggerian in its approach and tone — the insistence on an originary meaning of nomos that our modern and superficial concepts have caused us to forget, the vast epochal shifts turning on conceptual changes (such as the meaning of a geographical “line”), etc.

One would presume that there would be certain similarities in their thought, given that both were able to function as major Nazi intellectuals, but it’s interesting to me that the connection only jumps out at me in this post-war work. In retrospect, though, one could certainly make a connection between the existential stakes of the properly political in Schmitt and Heidegger’s notion of authentic being-toward-death (and in fact, Paul Kahn does make exactly that connection in his rewriting of Political Theology). And Schmitt’s “sociology of concepts” could be a kind of “history of Being.”


Announcement: English translation of Taubes-Schmitt correspondence

[The following is a guest post from Mike Grimshaw, Associate Professor in the School of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.]

How can we rethink political theology? One way is though a fascinating collection of the letters between Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt that has been translated by Keith Tribe and- with an introductory chapter I have written- been published by Columbia University Press: To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, by Jacob Taubes; Translated by Keith Tribe and with an introduction by Mike Grimshaw. (By the way: Anyone who uses the promo code “TOCTAU” to buy the book from this site will receive a 30% discount off the price of the book).

This collection of letters not only increases our knowledge of
Taubes, it also demands a rethinking of the role of Schmitt in 20th century thought, theology and philosophy. Part of it takes the form of an intellectual confession from Taubes that provides the background, for the first time really in English, of how a Jewish scholar became a ‘friend’ (Taubes’ term) of a Nazi jurist. Continue reading “Announcement: English translation of Taubes-Schmitt correspondence”

Political theology and money

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The project provides an interesting lens for thinking through American political institutions, but I have one major reservation that might be at the root of the other reservations I have about the book. The problem arises in his discussion of Schmitt’s idea of a sociology of concepts. The reading he offers of Schmitt’s own usage is similar to what I arrive at in the linked post, but he concludes that Schmitt was wrong to assume that every epoch will have its own correspondence between political and metaphysical outlooks, because our age doesn’t even have a metaphysical outlook:

In the postmodern world, the sources of fundamental belief, the diversity of metaphysical approaches, the conflicts between religious and secular outlooks, and even the conflicts between the biological and physical sciences are just too many and too deep to think that we can offer a single theoretical model to characterize the epoch. Perhaps we should say that we live in a “postepochal” age. We find that people operate with diverse systems of belief, which do not fall into any coherent order. We have discovered that we can live with this incoherence. The center does not hold, but things do not fall apart. (118)

I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but I’m not sure Schmitt is really thinking about explicit metaphysical systems — he’s thinking about the deep assumptions about the order of the world, which will often surface in the most representative metaphysical systems. And in our contemporary postmodern era, that role is filled by economic reasoning. Yes, any particular school of thought has trouble gaining hegemony, but that’s just the nature of our contemporary “marketplace of ideas” (for example).

Kahn can’t see this because he, like Schmitt, has already dismissed economic rationality as a kind of anti-idea. “Follow the money” is his chief example of the kind of reductionism that he and, by his account, Schmitt are trying to avoid — yet isn’t it reductionistic not to think of economic rationality as a form of rationality, one with its own assumptions and values? At the risk of being pedantic: don’t you at least need to concede that the accumulation of money is valuable in itself before you would act in a way that is explicable by means of “following the money”?

Hence I propose that Kahn’s account needs to be supplemented by Goodchild’s Theology of Money.

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

More thoughts on “political theological method”

The other day, I suggested that Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology has a narrower application than one might suspect — it is primarily about the “special relationship” that developed between politics and theology in the early modern period (and not even explicitly Christian theology, but the philosophical theology that played such a decisive role in early modern thought). What was unique in this moment was that theology/metaphysics and politics reached the same totalizing ambition at the same time. I also suggested that in this reading of Schmitt, the historical genealogy that has preoccupied many in the field of political theology is a subordinate concern.

Where does this leave the task of political-theological genealogy of the kind seen in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory? Continue reading “More thoughts on “political theological method””

Schmitt’s “sociology of juristic concepts”

[I briefly had a post up asking about this notion of Schmitt’s, but I deleted it as I worked through the chapter and figured some things out for myself.]

One of the two famous sentences from Schmitt’s Political Theology turns out not to be a complete sentence at all. The familiar bit is: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”—and weirdly, you very rarely see the rest of this long sentence quoted: “not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts” (36).

Continue reading “Schmitt’s “sociology of juristic concepts””

Weaponized debate and the limits of proceduralism

Sometimes I suspect that the fillibuster was invented specifically in order to support Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal proceduralism. First, the fact that the pretense of debate would be “weaponized” and turned essentially into a brute-force power play represents the ultimate bankruptcy of the fiction of parliamentary politics as a realm of reasoned deliberation. Second, it is a textbook example of an attempt to create rules to govern exceptional situations — in this case, the determination of a minority to obstruct the normal course of legislation. As with all such attempts, it was only a matter of time before someone discovered a way to benefit politically from insisting on the letter of the law (demanding cloture votes on everything) rather than its spirit (reserving fillibusters for things that are a “really big deal,” whatever that’s supposed to mean).

In my opinion, there should be no rules governing the exceptional situation of a minority determined to refuse the outcome of the regular voting process. A minority in that situation, instead of hiding behind some kind of parliamentary technicality, should simply violate the rules — for example, they could refuse to cede the podium, or use non-violent resistence to physically impede the process of voting, or barricade themselves in the legislative chamber. As with all civil disobedience, they should be willing to take the punishment as well.

In such a situation, there would be a genuine political conflict for the moral high ground. As it stands, no clear conflict can emerge. According to the rules, what the Republicans are doing is perfectly “fair” insofar as they are entitled to demand as many cloture votes as they want. Whether it’s unprecedented or abusive or whatever doesn’t matter — the rules are the rules. If you don’t want the legislative process to be constantly short-circuited, then you shouldn’t have a rule that explicitly allows that to happen. If people feel strongly enough about an issue that they’re willing to put themselves on the line by breaking the rules, then they should go ahead and break the rules and see how it plays out.

(This is not an idea I just thought of — I published a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006 advocating that Senate Democrats (then including Obama) physically shut down the Senate if a fillibuster against the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court did not hold.)

Obama’s submerged sovereignty

In all the discussion of the debt ceiling, I think a really simple point is often lost — namely, that if the debt ceiling is not high enough to account for the debt required to spend all the money Congress has legally obligated the executive branch to spend, there is a contradiction in the law. What the president is doing when he requests an increase (or, in a different way, what the Treasury secretary is doing when he takes “extraordinary measures” to put off exceeding the debt ceiling) is politely asking Congress to resolve the contradiction in a face-saving way. If Congress doesn’t do that, then we are in a self-induced state of exception where the law does not provide guidance — and we all know who makes the decision about how to handle the state of exception!

Continue reading “Obama’s submerged sovereignty”