While I was in Canberra, I was interviewed by the local public radio affiliate, ABC 666, about my work on the devil, and Fergus Armstrong graciously extracted an mp3 from the streaming audio file. Thanks to him, to Monique Rooney for helping to set it up, and to Genevieve Jacobs for a very enjoyable conversation!
Category: The Prince of This World (book)
Late-breaking addition to the Antipodean Devil Tour
The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.
The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.
I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.
What do you think?
My Australia and New Zealand Tour
This summer, I was invited to come speak at Australian National University by Monique Rooney. Subsequently, I was able to schedule several other talks in Australia and New Zealand, adding up to a three-week speaking tour that will double as a vacation, with The Girlfriend joining me in Sydney. Thanks to Monique, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for their generous invitations.
I will be giving two different lectures based on my forthcoming (and preorderable) book The Prince of This World and giving a masterclass (covering my Crisis and Critique article and some selections from Agamben). The primary lecture will be entitled “Neoliberalism’s Demons”:
The devil is one of the most enduring Christian theological symbols, a figure that has taken on a life of its own in the culture of secular modernity. In this talk, Adam Kotsko traces the origin of the devil back to his theological roots in the problem of evil. One of the greatest challenges to traditional monotheism has always been the existence of suffering and injustice — if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow it? The devil emerged as a convenient scapegoat, a fallen angel who was created good by God and yet freely chose to rebel. This placed the devil at the root of a theological system that used the idea of free will as a way of deflecting blame away from God and toward his wayward creatures. Kotsko will argue that the neoliberal order implies the same logic — deploying notions of free choice as a way of blaming individuals for systemic failures.
The other is entitled “The Origin of the Devil”:
The devil is normally viewed as a theological or mythological symbol, but in this lecture, Adam Kotsko will argue that the devil is equally a political symbol. And this is because the God of the Hebrew Bible is not only an object of worship, but a ruler — of Israel first of all, but also of the entire world. His first major opponent is not a rival deity, but a rival king, namely the evil Pharoah who refuses to let God’s people go. From that point forward, God’s most potent rivals are the earthly rulers who challenge his reign, from the kings who lead Israel astray to the emperors who conquer the Chosen People. This rivalry reaches a fever pitch in apocalyptic thought, which elevates God’s earthly opponent into a cosmic adversary who is eventually identified as Satan or the devil.
Detailed schedule below the fold.
The demonization campaign against trans women
When people think of “demonization,” they usually think of the simple act of painting someone as evil and irredeemable. My research for The Prince of This World convinced me that a further step is necessary if you really want to turn someone into a demon — like the medieval Christian God, you must actively set them up to fail, inducing the “free choice” for which you will blame them. A demon is a creature who has just enough moral agency to be blameworthy but not enough to effectively change their situation. The overt “demonization,” making them out to be nihilistic rebels who seek only destruction, is actually only the last step in the complex victim-blaming process.
Hence, for example, the “superpredator” rhetoric against black men in the 1990s was not demonizing simply because it painted black men as malicious for its own sake, but because it was used as justification for sending black men to institutions that everyone knows for a fact increase criminality, and then leaving them few employment or housing options when they got out. The crimes committed are still the individual’s “choice” in some minimal sense, and there are always those exceptional individuals who manage to completely turn their lives around, etc., but the net effect is that society has a reliable pool of “demons” — against whom mainstream society must be protected (even though the individuals involved have suffered immeasurably more violence from society than they could possibly dish out to society at large).
A very similar dynamic is occurring with the trans bathroom laws advanced by various Republican legislatures. Continue reading “The demonization campaign against trans women”
The Prince of This World is available for pre-order
The Prince of This World has appeared on the SUP website and is available for pre-order. I think we can all agree that the cover design that the crack team of Stanford designers came up with is amazing. Here is the back cover description:
The most enduring challenge to traditional monotheism is the problem of evil, which attempts to reconcile three incompatible propositions: God is all-good, God is all-powerful, and evil happens. The Prince of This World traces the story of one of the most influential attempts to square this circle: the offloading of responsibility for evil onto one of God’s rebellious creatures. In this striking reexamination, the devil’s story is bitterly ironic, full of tragic reversals. He emerges as a theological symbol who helped oppressed communities cope with the trauma of unjust persecution, torture, and death at the hands of political authorities and eventually becomes a vehicle to justify oppression at the hands of Christian rulers. And he evolves alongside the biblical God, who at first presents himself as the liberator of the oppressed but ends up a cruel ruler who delights in the infliction of suffering on his friends and enemies alike. In other words, this is the story of how God becomes the devil—a devil who remains with us in our ostensibly secular age.
It also features great blurbs from Laurel Schneider and Catherine Keller, but I’m going to make you click through to see them (under reviews).
UPDATE: It is now available on Amazon as well.
The devil went down to Australia
A few months ago, I asked Facebook whether anyone wanted me to come talk about the devil and neoliberalism, and Monique Rooney responded that she would like to bring me to her institution — Australian National University. That visit is now evolving into the first stage in a full-blown Australian tour in late July and early August, and there are hints that a side trip to New Zealand may even be possible. I’m already very excited about the ANU visit in itself, though, because it will be my first opportunity to present the entire research project of The Prince of This World in a series of lectures and discussions at a single institution. I will share the dates closer to the time, but for now I’d like to share the overall format.
First, I will be giving a lecture for a more strictly academic audience entitled “The Devil and Neoliberalism.” This corresponds roughly to the second half of the book and the conclusion. Here is the abstract:
The devil is one of the most enduring Christian theological symbols, a figure that has taken on a life of its own in the culture of secular modernity. In this talk, Adam Kotsko traces the origin of the devil back to his theological roots in the problem of evil. One of the greatest challenges to traditional monotheism has always been the existence of suffering and injustice — if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow it? The devil emerged as a convenient scapegoat, a fallen angel who was created good by God and yet freely chose to rebel. This placed the devil at the root of a theological system that used the idea of free will as a way of deflecting blame away from God and toward his wayward creatures. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Wendy Brown, and David Harvey, among others, Kotsko will argue that the neoliberal order implies the same logic — deploying notions of free choice as a way of blaming individuals for systemic failures.
Second, I will be leading a discussion group over my Crisis and Critique article (PDF) as well as some portions of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory. This amounts to a discussion of my methodology and also provides an opportunity to talk about some themes I hope to develop in the follow-up project on the Trinity.
Finally, I will be giving a lecture for a broader public audience called “The Origin of the Devil,” which overlaps with the first half of the book. Abstract:
The devil is normally viewed as a theological or mythological symbol, but in this lecture, Adam Kotsko will argue that the devil is equally a political symbol. And this is because the God of the Hebrew Bible is not only an object of worship, but a ruler — of Israel first of all, but also of the entire world. His first major opponent is not a rival deity, but a rival king, namely the evil Pharoah who refuses to let God’s people go. From that point forward, God’s most potent rivals are the earthly rulers who challenge his reign, from the kings who lead Israel astray to the emperors who conquer the Chosen People. This rivalry reaches a fever pitch in apocalyptic thought, which elevates God’s earthly opponent into a cosmic adversary who is eventually identified as Satan or the devil. Christianity inherits this politically-charged devil from Jewish thought, and the early church almost immediately sets to work attempting to depoliticize it by associating the devil with religious rivals or bodily temptations rather than political oppressors. This lecture traces this complex history, which continues to have strange and unexpected effects in our contemporary world.
After a week in Canberra at ANU, I will be moving on to the University of New South Wales, where Julian Murphet has invited me to give the “Devil and Neoliberalism” talk. My subsequent trajectory has yet to be determined.
If you’re curious about The Prince of This World
As I work on final revisions on The Prince of This World, I’ve reflected on the fact that last year at this time, I was just wrapping up my course “Theology and Politics of the Devil” at Chicago Theological Seminary and beginning planning for the book in earnest. During the winter break, I worked on an article [PDF] for Agon Hamza’s journal Crisis and Critique. Entitled “The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Legitimacy,” it anticipates the ways I link political theology with the problem of evil in The Prince of This World, as well as other more fine-grained arguments.
This was also when I started preparing for a series of lectures on the origin of the devil out of the tensions of the political theology of the Hebrew Bible, which served as the basis for my first chapter. The version I did at the University of Nebraska as part of Roland Vesgo and Marco Abel’s excellent “Humanities on the Edge” series is representative, and can be seen in two parts: 1, 2.
The actual book (for which a brief preview is available here) won’t be available until next fall, but in the meantime I’m planning some further lectures that expand upon my critique of Agamben in The Prince of This World and develop connections between the theology of the devil and the ideology of neoliberalism, which I hope to make available online in some form.
And… I guess that’s all the procrastination value I’m going to get out of this post. Back to the revisions!
The approaching horizon
For the past several months, my ultimate horizon has been the winter break, when I will complete revisions on The Prince of This World and submit the final manuscript. There are presumably things that will happen afterward, but it’s difficult for me to picture anything beyond that momentous, attachment-riddled e-mail to my editor.
Now I have completed my grading and am working my way through the last volume that my reader reports recommended I consult. I still have duties at Shimer, but I can devote most of my energy in the next couple weeks to finishing off what amounts to the biggest single writing project of my life so far. And weirdly, I’m looking forward to the process. Revisions are a painful part of writing, but I think I have enough distance at this point that the emphasis doesn’t fall on destroying the work I completed at such great cost, but on improving and clarifying what I’ve done.
The question will be what comes next. Late this summer, I was dreaming big dreams about diving straight into the next project (on the Trinity). That likely will be the next project, but it’s clear in retrospect that it would have been impossible to make substantial progress while getting into the swing of my altered duties at school and stressing out about the review process on Prince of This World.
The fantasy, I think, was that I would somehow be able to remain “in the zone.” And what stands out to me now is how different “the zone” is from the normal run of things, how seldom I really have time to spend honing and grappling with my own ideas. My job is to help others hone and grapple with their own ideas, and much of my day-to-day writing is reactive rather than self-determined. All of that is worthwhile and meaningful in its own way, but it’s not “the zone.”
Announcement: The Prince of This World to be Published by Stanford University Press
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.
Continue reading “Announcement: The Prince of This World to be Published by Stanford University Press”