Below is a long review of two of Jacob Taubes’ recently (relatively) translated works. This was originally written for a journal, but I was not able to speak to the ideological commitments of the journal and so it has languished as they’ve waited for me to correct it. At some point I realized I would never really be able to meet their requests for a variety of reasons and so decided to pull it so they might find a more suitable reviewer. I’m not sure those who are familiar with Taubes or Continental philosophy of religion will find anything new, but since I had spent some time on this (though years ago now) I am posting it here for those who might be interested.
Review of Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford UP, 2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford UP, 2010).
Anthony Paul Smith (Spring, 2012)
During the mid-point of the Bush-Blair years two intellectual inquiries rose to prominence: questions relating to sovereignty, focused around a renewal of interest in the work of German far-right jurist Carl Schmitt, and questions relating to the so-called “return of religion”, which resulted in a number of para-Marxist engagements with the thought of the Christian apostle Paul. What drove both of these trends from being simply passing academic fancy to something actually reflective of live questions operative within cultural consciousness was their connection to the practice of sovereignty undertaken by the Bush regime and the seeming return of religion into the public sphere, especially in the form of resurgent fundamentalisms vying for political power. These two lines of thought came together in 2004 with the publication of Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul in English-translation, which was originally published posthumously in German in 1993 but originally delivered as lectures in 1987. The seminar from which the book comes was to be Taubes last and during its preparation and delivery he was suffering from the final stages of an advanced form of cancer. According to Aleida Assman, the editor of the lectures, Taubes could not stand “even for a moment” during the seminar and delivered his lectures lying down in great pain. This book joined other left-wing philosophical readings of Paul’s writings, like Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, Slavoj Zizek’s own engagements in The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf, and the less well-known engagement by Jean-François Lyotard in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. While there are a number of important theoretical differences at work in these books, though perhaps more minimal with regard to Agamben’s text due in part to shared sources (primarily their working with Benjamin’s theory of time), the crucial difference is that Taubes understood his reading of Paul to be the culmination of his intellectual work. His commitment to give the lectures reveals that Taubes’ intellectual work was more than just an academic interest, but a real struggle with themes and concepts that Taubes believed were of ultimate concern for Occidental history. In the writings of Paul, specifically his “Letter to the Romans”, Taubes finds within Paul, essentially a thinker whose ideas had been completely absorbed into the World (that is, the State, the Church, and all other forms of authority and law), a radical example of the living out of the experience of apocalyptic temporality, an experience that Taubes claims is to be expressed in the philosophical and theological thinking of all true revolutionary moments in history. Continue reading “Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture“ →
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.
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.
[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” →
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.
From Jacob Taubes, “Psychoanalysis and Philosophy,” in From Cult to Culture, pp. 323-24:
The analysis of man according to the guideline of history, carried out for example by Hegel and Marx, is replaced around the middle of the nineteenth century by an analysis of man according to the guidleline of psychology…. Freud is positioned within this turn, and his psychoanalysis gives it a particular acuity. And still, the problem of history poses itself anew in Freud…. Psychoanalysis differs from all other variations of psychology as the most radically historical. Its fundamental design is historical. It works with histories of illness and with the biography of the individual as a constitutive part of its therapy…. A reflection on the process of psychoanalytic theraby necessarily encounters the problem of the historical method in general and, as I claim, particularly the problems of the historical-dialectical method. It is the explicit thesis of these reflections that Freud’s psychological writings in general and his metapsychological writings in particular answer questions posed by Hegel’s dialectical method and philosophy of history. That is, sub specie Freud the fundamental problems of Hegel appear in a new light; sub specie Hegel, the fundamental problems of Freud appear in a new light.
I’ve been reading Taubes’s From Cult to Culture and finding it fascinating and challenging. One particular passage struck me from his Tillich essay, which I had read before in a “death of God” anthology edited by Altizer, where he claims that the very fact that we must do theology is already a sign that the old religious symbols are losing their meaning: Continue reading “Taubes on theology” →