Help me plan a module on angels and demons in medieval theology

I’m due to teach a new course in September, which sets out to use angelology and demonology as a way into medieval theology and philosophy. We don’t currently have any modules that focus specifically on the medieval period, though my students read a little of Augustine on the fall of the angels in their first year, and we touch on a few medieval thinkers in some of the other modules I teach.

Here’s the catalogue summary for the module:

Belief in angels and demons has come to seem eccentric and disconnected from real life, in talking about these spiritual beings, medieval theologians explored many of the issues which were, to them, of central concern. By studying the work of medieval angelologists and demonologists, we can come to understand crucial debates about the nature of reality, matter and time; what it means to be human; and how society should be organised. This module will explore key questions of medieval philosophy and theology through an examination of debates about angels and demons.

I’ll be planning the course over the summer; currently my key points of reference are Adam’s The Prince of This World; David Keck’s Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages; Hoffman’s A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy; Lenz and Iribarren’s Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry; and Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I think I’ll probably include Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy because it’s so foundational for 13th century thinkers, and I’m tempted to edge into the early modern period and look at angels in John Dee. I think I’m going to try for a mix of primary and secondary texts, so any suggestions for good translations would be much appreciated, as would any other ideas or suggestions about key – and undergraduate friendly – readings, scholarship, etc.

Pandemocracy and the State of Exception

These reflections are not only the product of our current global crisis but also respond to the theoretical challenge of thinking otherwise about the nature of biopolitical governance, the challenge of discovering some resources within the biopolitical to support an insurgent form of life. Recently, Roberto Esposito in Two (2013) has made the attempt to discover in the globalization of sovereign debt the possibility of overcoming the sovereign splitting of the biopolitical decision, between “making live” and “letting die”: “The fact that all states, divided by a clear inequality of resources, are now indebted to an entity as elusive as global finance means that for the first time, perhaps, the world will experience a condition of shared suffering. It is as if splitting had become the general form of unity. We are joined by a debt that separates us even from ourselves, by suspending us from a model of development that produces loss. Since everyone is included in it, we are at the same time also all excluded. The point of arrival for economic-political theology is identity, with no remainders, between inside and outside, whole and part, One and Two.” (Two, 208) Esposito cautions us not to try to return to this condition of the “identity . . . between . . . One and Two” by resurrecting some new form of sovereignty. Instead, he suggests that we create what I am calling a “pandemocracy” out of our globalized condition of being unified by our experience of being split between our identity as owners and our identity as owers. He claims that what “flickers” in our commonality as Ow(n)ers is “the law of jubilee.” (209)

Esposito did not imagine the possibility that it would not be the collapse of the global finance markets that allowed the law of jubilee to flicker, but the global pandemic. Giorgio Agamben recently characterized the pandemic as inciting a sovereign autoimmune response that decides, as Foucault descbribes it, one population to make live and another to let die. But the pandemic does more than that. In the midst of this sovereign decision, those who are called upon to execute it demonstrate a sacrificial exorbitance that is the sign of those who renounce their ownership of secure life and livelihood in a demonstration of common owership. I am of course referring to the women and men who daily minister to the sick and dying. This is not unique to this pandemic. Thucydides speaks of such self-sacrificing care in his description of the plague that broke out in his besieged city of Athens.

In Athens and today, the common owership displayed by the health workers is understood to be grounded in a sacred bond, the Hippocratic Oath. Agamben has taught us about the intimate link between oaths and the sacred. I would suggest that Asclepius, god of healing, is the figuration of the other of the sovereign decision between making live and letting die. It is not surprising that Asclepius is himself put to death by Zeus and transformed into a constellation, Ophiuchus, the “snake holder.” The wisdom of the snake is self-regeneration, a.k.a resurrection. Besides the jubilee of our redemption from debt, resurrection is also what “flickers” on the horizon of our “shared suffering.” Marx, in his 1841 dissertation on Epicurus, said that the heavenly bodies (ta meteora) in the ancient world intimated the fulfillment of our species being as a single immortal life form, no longer divided between owners of bodies and owned bodies. Each constellation, Marx explained, was thought to be a god-species. Marx shows that Epicurus’s philosophy of atomism was the reflection of the dissolution of the social bond of ancient polis and the atomization of its citizens into abstract individualities. Epicurus, Marx argues, could not bear the contradiction between his dirempted self-consciousness and the intimation of the unified form of species life intimated by the constellations. He could not bear the flickering of another form of life for our human species being. He turned the constellations into long-lasting but mortal atomic configurations. Mortal gods. Marx later connected Epicurean atomism to Hobbesian materialism. The Hobbesian sovereign, the mortal god, has become the figure our constricted vision, our atomized selfhoods turning away from the flickering of another form of species being. I fear that Agamben himself may have blinded himself by staring at the sun’s sovereign glory. He seems to have lost sight of the constellations, and especially Asklepius, the snake holder.

Robert Yelle has recently published a wonderful book, Sovereignty and the Sacred (2019) that beautifully complements Esposito’s Two. Yelle also draws out attention to the law of jubilee. In a philologically rigorous and historically informed study of the intimate relationship between the myths and rituals associated with sovereign investiture and the sphere of the sacred in general, Yelle demonstrates the doubled and split nature of our political conjunctions, whether in ancient city-states, medieval kingdoms, or modern liberal states. His book traces political theology (Yelle prefers “spiritual economy”) not only to its Greek and Roman antecedents, but to the Indic precursors of both traditions in Sanskrit myth and ritual. Esposito’s and Yelle’s books are sober accounts of the violence that continually (re)founds our polities and invests sovereignty with the lightning flash of the sacred, the brilliance of the heavens carving a murderous path to the earth. But Yelle and Esposito have not allowed themselves to be blinded by Zeus’s glorious weapon, the lightning of sovereignty. Like the early Marx, they teach us that the heavens also intimate our common life of owership, the pandemocracy that is no less sacred than Hobbes’s mortal god who demands obedience as the price of our claim to live more than “short and brutish” lives. That bargain is revealed today to be a sham. We may, as Agamben has suggested, allow ourselves to be duped again by this mortal god’s offer of security. Or we may, as Esposito and Yelle suggest, find another god flickering in the darkness, the god who promulgates the law of jubilee and raises our hope that the snake’s wisdom has not been utterly forgotten.

Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

Like everything else, my Qur’an blogging has been disrupted by coronavirus. We had one final week of in-person discussions after Spring Break — during which my class, full of graduating seniors and athletes, were understandably distracted by their disappointment in all that they’d be missing the rest of the year — and then moved to a discussion-board format. This was a natural fit given that I had assigned them to present short papers to the class as their primary writing requirement, so that those could be the main prompts for a text-based discussion. We are going to do a few optional video conferences in the remaining weeks, but overall the format seems to be working well. But I am still sad that this class, which I put so much work into designing, is ending in such a diminished form.

In any case! As I mentioned in the previous post, Spring Break marked the Hijra, and we are definitely in Medinan territory now. Continue reading “Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina”

We can’t let the invisible hand kill us

There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.

But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?

The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.

Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”

Translator’s Note: Giorgio Agamben asked me to translate this brief essay, which serves as an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy (see here for the original Italian piece and here for an English translation).

Fear is a poor advisor, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see. The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic. The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter. The dead — our dead — do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject. What do human relationships become in a country that habituates itself to live in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society that has no value other than survival?

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.

What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present, but what comes after. Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technologies, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.

What if there’s no hope?

Looking at the primary results this morning, I wasn’t angry or outraged so much as sad. And there was something else in there I had trouble placing — almost a whistfulness or nostalgia, as though I was savoring the memory of that moment when I believed that a moonshot to the leadership of the Evil Empire was a feasible strategy. Ah, to be that young, that hopeful! I wish I could still be that person I was before 6pm yesterday evening! Most affecting, I think, was recalling some of my Twitter commentary, where I had bought into the Sanders narrative that mobilizing the grassroots would outweigh any chicanery on the part of the DNC. Who cares that a bunch of sad losers were lining up behind another sad loser? Who cares that another candidate is splitting the left-wing vote? Who cares that media coverage is one-sided and unhinged? At the end of the day, the people vote. And now Joe Biden is ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Continue reading “What if there’s no hope?”

The Roaring Twenties

I have a tendency to take arbitrary numerical milestones literally. I try to close out my accounts as much as possible prior to the New Year, for instance, and my mind often wanders to other forms of autobiographical numerology about the number of years I’ve taught at various places, the timing of my book publications, etc. Now I am approaching one of the biggest of arbitrary numerical milestones — my fortieth birthday, which has me thinking a lot about the stereotypical experience of decade-based units of life (your 20s, your 30s, etc.). In my case, the objective life milestones match up weirdly well with the arbitrary deacde-based milestones. When I was 20, I did a study abroad semester in Oxford that completely changed my life, or at least made me realize that a different life was possible. And when I was 29, I finished my PhD and got my first academic job. There isn’t as clear a milestone happening right now, but my 20s and my 30s both map onto pretty clear stages in my life — the latter being a much happier time, in fact the only time in my life (perhaps aside from early childhood) when I would say I was happy most of the time.

I was not happy in my 20s, nor was I much fun to be around. Continue reading “The Roaring Twenties”