My long-promised book on the devil will be published by Stanford University Press, under the title The Prince of This World: The Life and Legacy of the Devil. Details of the publication date, etc., have not been decided, but I do know that I’ll be spending my winter break making final revisions. I’d like to thank my editor, Emily-Jane Cohen, as well as two conscientious and perceptive peer reviewers, for their work on behalf of this project. A description of the project follows beneath the fold.
I have been invited to join a show called “The Experts” at the Mission Theatre inside of the iO Theater complex. The theater is run by famed improvisers TJ and Dave, and past guests can be seen here: http://theexperts.jigsy.com/
I’ll be contributing some material on the devil on Thursday, March 12, at 8pm. The address of the theater is 1501 N Kingsbury St, Chicago, IL 60642. I hope to see some of you there!
One of the primary sources for my devil research is the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual that became one of the first best-sellers of the early print era. As I’ve worked through its theological logic in a couple different courses, I’ve come to see a basic underlying structure to the bewildering array of accusations against witches. The pattern is that feminine sexuality is something unruly and powerful, and if women are allowed to control it themselves, they will use it to dominate men and destroy men’s sexual agency. This is what is going on with the classification of midwives as witches, as well as the frequent claims that witches cause male impotence — indeed, at the most extreme, the text allows that witches can make the male member seem to disappear (though thankfully for us men, this is a mere illusion and the member remains intact through God’s grace).
Much contemporary anti-feminism follows the same underlying logic: if women are allowed to control their sexuality, they will use it to dominate and destroy men. Sometimes the power attributed to women is still quite literally supernatural in scope, as in the claim that legalized abortion will allow women to destroy the white race. The most insidious application of this logic, however, is in the myth of the false rape accusation, which the news media, television drama, and many individual men are deepy invested in. The woman in this myth is an evil creature indeed, seducing a well-meaning man and then using her sexuality as a weapon to ruin the man’s life and reputation.
In real life, of course, a woman would have to be insane to use a rape accusation as a power play, given how hugely tilted the American justice system is toward the accused in cases of sexual assault — and how complicit the media is with the campaign of character assassination that the defense conducts against every accuser. As with all ideological myths, however, the myth of the malicious rape accusation is not about real women at all, but rather about justifying the existing power structure. It’s a kind of preemptive strike, as though they’re saying, “Look at what would happen if we did take rape accusations seriously and gave women the benefit of the doubt! All hell would break loose!”
In his testimony before the grand jury, unrepentant cold-blooded murderer Darren Wilson claimed to have been afraid of Michael Brown — an unarmed man literally the same size as Wilson — and said that in his rage, “it [Brown] looked like a demon.” Perhaps Wilson can pursue a second career as an exorcist in the long life of freedom that he has been unjustly granted.
What strikes me about this remark is what an appalling reversal it is from the original purpose of the language of demonization. For the Jews of the Maccabean period who created the concept of the demonic as we recognize it, as for the early Christians who took it up and developed it, the demonic was a concept that was synonymous with unjust earthly rulers.
Previously, the Jews in exile had been able to view earthly rulers as more ambivalent figures, carrying out God’s punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness to the law and then subsequently being punished by God for their own injustice and violence. In the Maccabean period, however, the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes rendered this intellectual compromise impossible by persecuting Jews precisely for being faithful to the law. No longer was he the unwitting servant of God, but his conscious enemy and rival, who must be defeated in order to usher in the messianic age. The apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel are centered around this cosmic battle between God and the demonic forces embodied in Antiochus (symbolically designated the “little horn”).
Multiple texts from this period (most notably 2 Maccabees, widely available in standard Bible translations) focus on his torture of a mother and her sons for refusing to defile themselves by eating pork, and the authors credit the bereaved mother with creating a key theological concept: the resurrection of the dead. The grief of a mother whose innocent sons had been slaughtered is thus a primary site of theological reflection, something we shouldn’t forget today.
As an interesting sidebar, the same text that documents the origins of the Jewish-Christian theory of martyrdom also recounts a successful armed rebellion on the part of Jewish religious leaders, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for a century. We tend to view non-violent resistence as an alternative to violent revolution, but the two have never been far apart.
The question I’m trying to get at in my devil research is how we got from there — where Wilson himself would be viewed as a demonic functionary of the Satanic system of oppression — to here — where language of demonization has been co-opted by the oppressors themselves. From a liberal perspective, this question is purely academic in the negative sense of being irrelevant: demonization language always “others” and “dehumanizes,” and so it is rejected on formalistic grounds as simply “bad.” Yet I think this view falls prey to the same false symmetry that always infects liberal formalistic arguments. Demonization language in the mouth of Wilson does illegitimately dehumanize Brown, but demonization language applied to Wilson reflects the objective fact that Wilson has dehumanized himself, has allied himself with demonic forces actively opposed to divine justice.
So I maintain that demonization language is both powerful and necessary — though my study of its legacy in Christian history shows me that it is also dangerous. That is in the very nature of a weapon, however, and we should not be so quick to dismiss theological tools that emerged from communities of the oppressed in the moment of their direst need.
In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.
Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.
This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.
In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.
Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil,” and the text of my talk is available in PDF form here. The talk is aimed at an undergraduate level, and so I did not include much theoretical or scholarly discussion. You can get a sense of how I see these ideas relating to the discipline of political theology, however, if you keep in mind that this recent post was written while I was drafting the lecture.
On Wednesday, October 30, at 3:15, I will be giving a lecture a Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil.” It will be a partial sneak preview of my long-promised project on the devil, providing what one early reader of the text for the lecture calls “a really good reckless dash through the history of devil thought.”
Shimer College is located at 3424 S. State St. in Chicago, blocks away from the 35th St. Green and Red Line stops. The lecture is in the Cinderella lounge on the second floor of our building. Feel free to e-mail me at a.kotsko at shimer dot edu for further details. It is rumored that drinks at Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport, along with fortification from the Pleasant House Library, may follow this event.
The last decade has witnessed an explosion in supernatural themes, in novels, movies, and television. Vampires and zombies have been particularly successful, but few mythological creatures have been left totally unexplored. That’s why the absence of the devil from our entertainment landscape is so striking. There are lingering rumors of some kind of Exorcist remake, but that doesn’t really have much hope of being a long-lasting TV franchise. Thankfully, I’m here to help.
Basically, someone needs to make a show where the devil and his legions of demons have decided, like the vampires of True Blood, to make themselves known to the general public. Their primary ambition in “mainstreaming” would be to institutionalize the act of selling one’s soul, and they could also run a sideline of short-term demon possessions for various purposes, perhaps to be able to get away with a crime — this could be run by “rogue” demons. The main characters would be a demonic middle manager and his minions, and through various plot contrivances we could get a peak at higher levels in the satanic hierarchy. Subplots would include following the lives of people who’d sold their souls, plus watching short-term possessions play out. The rogue demons offering possessions could be pursued by a kind of demon police. Surely there are thirteen decent episodes in this premise.
This show would be the logical outgrowth of the sociopath trend and could potentially be the step too far that killed it — asking us to identify and sympathize with figures who are destroying human souls by means of debt.
[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups.]
The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.
From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.
Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. Continue reading “The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory“