Notes On Political Theology

May 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


The publication of foundational texts concerning how cultural production relates to the discourse of Political Theology come from the 1950s.  Three central texts are Walter Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama (originally published in 1928, largely unavailable under National Socialism, reappearing in 1955), Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time into the Play (1956), Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958) and Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (1957).  Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State is also remarkable in its structural and mythological presentation of foundational politics.  Each of these texts importantly holds a reading of historical time as central to their arguments.  The historical conception is particularly important in terms of each author’s politics.  However, most of them also pull importantly from Carl Schmitt’s earlier work.

Carl Schmitt, German legal theorist and author of Political Theology (1922), famously defines sovereignty as “he who decides on the exception” (5).  Whether the sovereign is in fact one person or a collected body such as a senate, it is the sovereign decision which establishes legal norm (13). Schmitt is adamant that such decisions are juristic (relying on a decider) rather than technically objective (relying on an apparatus of legal norms, thus only deliberating forensically).  In this book the form of sovereign decision does not rely on aesthetic production, since such production knows no decision” (28, 35).  This begs the question of the roles that both culture and aesthetic production play within Schmitt’s original conception of the State.  In other words, for Schmitt’s early work, aesthetic production plays a rather insignificant role with regard to politics.  Decision-making is immediately necessary during a state of exception or state of emergency. Schmitt defines the exception as “that which cannot be subsumed; it defies general codification, but it simultaneously reveals a specifically juristic element – the decision in absolute purity” (13).  For Schmitt, the sovereign holds both the power to decide and the power to interpret.  Thus, there already arises in Schmitt’s early work a tension with Jurgen Habermas’s more recent and more liberally-minded conception, where citizens (at least educated ones) help interpret and translate religious language to “the public” (Dialectics of Secularization 52).  The decision in the state of exception is precisely what determines normalcy.  Following Hobbes and Spinoza, Schmitt also sees the sovereign as having ultimate authority to interpret scripture and law.  Yet Schmitt takes one more crucial step, claiming that

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts 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. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.  Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36) 

As ultimate decider, Schmitt’s sovereign is able to transcend the normative juridical role during a state of exception.  It is thus the ability to step out of the normative that allows the normative to exist as normative; the exception defines the norm. 

The state of exception for Schmitt is determined by the concept of the political, which in his thought moves with storm-like force, unpredictable by definition.  The concept of the political exists in a violent state of nature.  This state of nature defines the relationship between international States.  His concept of the political does not conceive of domestic politics at this level.  This is another point of tension between Schmitt and Habermas. Seyla Benhabib has emphasized Habermas’s point that “any conceptualization of world politics must deal with both states and individuals.”  In the state of nature, the situation between states, Schmitt’s sovereign makes the crucial distinction between friend and enemy that defines political normalcy and the State.  It is for him only in the recognition of states as (probably geographic) territories that the concept of the political and the distinction between friend and enemy can occur. 

During the Post WWII period, Schmitt articulates what he sees as the demise of the nation State and the ineffectiveness of liberalism, something he had already seen in the failure of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.  States require territory.  Territorialization for him requires a sovereign, yet in the postwar situation European states (and Germany in particular) were deterritorialized, and in American exceptionalism’s “absolute presence,” nations failed to establish new spatialization (Benhabib).  By the late 1960s, Schmitt had begun to refer to the concept of the nation state in the past tense.  As Tracy B. Strong points out, by 1969 Schmitt writes in Political Theology II : “today one can no longer define politics in terms of the State; on the contrary what we can still call the State today must inversely be defined and understood from the political” (xv).  Strong then says, “Underlying the state is a community of people – necessarily not universal – a “we” that, as it defines itself necessarily in opposition to that which it is not, presupposes and is defined by conflict.  It derives its definition from the friend / enemy distinction.” 

Schmitt perceives a change in the idea of the State in the post WWII years.  In this changing notion of the State during the 1950s and 1960s, Schmitt sees the concept of the political, the friend / enemy distinction as transcending the more traditional notions of national borders, a kind of deterritorialization in the wake of WWII and the rise of the Cold War.  It is also in this period that Schmitt turns to cultural products for inspiration.  Schmitt’s 1956 study, Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time into the Play, is evidence.  Curiously, the Carl Schmitt who seems to have little to say about cultural products in his early work mentioned above turns toward literary analysis in 1956 in Hamlet or Hecuba.  Why would a German legal theorist in the 1950s turn to analyzing an English play about Denmark? 

Schmitt’s study allows him to discuss its subtitle: “the intrusion of time into the play.”  Anticipating New Historicist criticism by a couple decades, Schmitt analyzes the construction of Hamlet in light of the historical situation in England at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the beginning of James I.  Schmitt makes convincing arguments for passages of the play that are ambiguous concerning the “taboo of the queen” in relation to both to James’ Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestant Queen Elizabeth’s impending death.  Schmitt also comments on the ambiguous relationship between Hamlet, James, and the Earl of Essex (both of whom were possible candidates for the throne before the death of Essex) claiming the ambiguity disappears in the second half as the “hamletization” of James centers the theme of the play as a revenge tragedy.  Schmitt argues that Hamlet has been elevated to the status of myth over the past four hundred years because it tells the tragedy of the Tudor lineage and the dissemination of the sovereign as King into the body of the modern State.  In Hamlet’s status as myth, though Schmitt’s analysis is historical, Schmitt sees the force of History as a kind of fate that the Tudor lineage suffers between the fall of monarchical sovereignty and the rise of the English naval empire. 

Important to Schmitt’s claim is that the play allegorizes the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism that it remains the “exceptional” play in establishing the genre of German Trauerspiel.  Schmitt makes this argument by disagreeing with Walter Benjamin, who in The Origin of German Tragic Drama argues that Hamlet precedes the German Baroque Trauerspiel. Again, one might ask: Why is Schmitt turning to literary criticism in the mid 1950s, and why is he engaging directly with a book written by a Jew in the 1920s?  In any case, Schmitt’s engagement with Benjamin marks an historical moment where (formerly?) influential political thinkers introduced the question concerning the role of literature in debates about liberalism.  Benjamin’s book was written for his Habitation in the 1920s and he was rejected, which essentially meant an end to his academic career.  Thus, the question becomes more than merely historical.  It becomes one about the form and method of literary study.  Is the literary by definition a realm of free play?  Is the literary secular and historical or is it mythological, aesthetic and a-historical? 

One reason Schmitt returns to Benjamin is that The Origins of German Tragic Drama was written during the period of the Weimar Republic, and it appears to be in part a commentary on the state of liberalism in the 1920s.  Responding to Burckhart, Panofsky, Lukacs and Schmitt, Benjamin wrote his Habilitation on an obscure topic, the German Trauerspiel.  Benjamin argues that the Truerspiel is a secularized version of medieval mystery plays and at least implies that Baroque drama is a paradigm for thinking about Weimar and liberal democracy.  In its secularization according to Benjamin, the Trauerspiel loses all drama of salvation, ends with a stark finitude removing all sense of hope, including eschatology and parousia.  Nevertheless, the plays remain historical while lacking a sense of progress and causal sequencing as well as a sense of motivation.  Benjamin arrives at this by distinguishing between symbol and allegory.  For him, symbols are organic totalities with a stable relationship between the sign and the signified.  For example, the King is the earthly symbol for the divine God.  In allegory, according to Benjamin the symbol is demystified, fragmentary, and the relationship between sign and signified is unstable.  If in earlier plays, the prince was a sovereign head of state occupying God’s authority on earth in a court setting characterized by rationality and order, in the Trauerspiel he becomes a tyrant and the position of protagonist is reoccupied by the Machiavel-martyr who is an intriguer or plotter the likes of Iago, Polonius and even Hamlet himself.  According to Benjamin, the setting and time loses classical unities of time and place and the court takes place in mythological time, which is “found” rather than invented or causally progressive.  The plot becomes strangely spatialized according to the “plotting” of the intriguer who is not a sovereign but a puppet-master whose arbitrary or contingent schemes manipulate the crown through artiface, playing on passions, vices, creaturely corruption and fallen-ness.  The Trauerspiel is characterized further by an emphasis on ludic play and absurd violence.  One gets a sense that Benjamin also had something like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in mind.   

Of course, the Trauerspiel exists in historical time and arises as the production of the Reformation and a loss of authority.  Benjamin sees Hamlet as the predecessor to the Trauerspiel par excellence because Hamlet is prince, martyr and intriguer in one.  Hamlet introduces the character of the self-absorbed Melancholic who has lost a signifier to stabilize meaning.  Benjamin’s book offers itself as a commentary on the ineptitude of the Weimar Republic.      

Schmitt’s reading of Hamlet disagrees with Benjamin.  He wants to present Hamlet as a figure trapped by the fate of history.  Tracy B. Strong has commented on the tendency Schmitt had to “read himself into literature” regarding his take on Melville’s “Benito Cereno” in which Schmitt remarkably identifies himself with the captain of a slave ship who was “just doing his job” as his reflection on his involvement with the National Socialists in Germany.  Similarly Schmitt’s Hamlet, along with his take on the Tudor family, represents the cost of the rise of the coming British Empire.  His historical analysis presents the Tudors as subject to the fate of history through the brutal and necessary fact of secularization.  Hamlet becomes, for him – and as we shall see, for Huxley too, yet in a different manner – a symbol for modern subjectivity. Schmitt’s characterization of England’s rise to power can be read as alluding also to England’s role in post WWII Germany.  While other former Nazi Germans such as Heidegger and Hans Robert Jauss turned toward German literary traditions in the postwar years, Schmitt’s turn toward a play that takes place in Denmark, roughly between Germany and England, seems a way to comment on international political spaces.  England’s literary tradition here re-norms citizenship outside the (German) state by using culture, as Schmitt adopts allied.  Always the conservative, Schmitt’s reading reveals an ongoing nostalgia for institutional order, which can be characterized as a commitment to his Catholicism and put in contrast with two of his Jewish contemporaries: Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss.

Two central hermeneutic conceptions of Political Theology emerge in the thought of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Schmitt’s conception is more common than Strauss’s, partly because it follows the narrative of secularization and remains ideologically Catholic.  As a conservative German legal theorist during Weimar Germany’s post WWI economic disaster.  Amid such turmoil, decision-making was difficult to say the least. Schmitt famously relies on his interpretation of secularization with regard to decision making when he says: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state” (36).  In contrast to Schmitt, Leo Strauss defines Political Theology following Spinoza more closely, with a tension and separation between Philosophy and Theology. 

Strauss historicizes this tension by a view of Western civilization that precedes the Reformation, citing a tension between the reason of Athens and the theology of Judaism.  Strauss and Spinoza’s conceptions, while democratic, rely on a distinction between the “reasonable” elite who do not necessarily need religion and a majority for whom religion helps to ground a sense of authority to make sense of life, while Schmitt’s relies on a God-like commander in chief.   Like Richard Rorty’s liberal ironist, Strauss emphasizes that in order to understand the contradictions present in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise one must understand that “Spinoza addresses potential philosophers of a certain kind while the vulgar are listening.  He speaks therefore in such a way that the vulgar will not understand what he means” (184).  For Strauss, Schmitt falls into the trap of post-Nietzschean, “third-wave” modernity which, breaking from Classical Philosophy loses a sense of both eternity and “vertical” values by replacing “virtue” with the more “horizontal” “freedom” (“What is Political Philosophy” 51-5).  Freedom in this sense is the product of the Enlightenment. This move, according to Strauss, opens a radical and relativistic historicism, while simultaneously adhering to a social authority that Nietzschean thought is disgusted by.  Schmitt is, in this reading both historically relativistic and nostalgic for religious authority.

Strauss’s solution to the problem lies in his interpretive methods, which maintain a “midrashic” quality, as one can see both in the connections he makes between Machiavelli’s The Prince and his Discourses in Thoughts on Machiavelli.  This method employs a philosophical treatment of various texts by a single author as a preconceived system from which one can divine inferences.  Strauss’s interpretative method here is similar to Walter Benjamin’s in The Origins of German Tragic Drama.  Benjamin had, however, felt that Schmitt’s work had inspired his own during the 1920s and had corresponded with Schmitt to thank him for a “confirmation of my modes of research in philosophy of art from yours in the philosophy of the state” (in Weber 5). Carl Schmitt later returns to his dialogue with Benjamin after World War II, after Benjamin had died trying to escape the Nazis.  This occurs in Schmitt’s turn toward literary-historical criticism in Hamlet or Hecuba (1956).  The methods of historical interpretation and the role of “vertical” culture make huge differences in each thinker’s politics. 

One could characterize Schmitt’s conservative regard for authority as nostalgia for transcendent verticality.  Schmitt refuses to see Hamlet as Benjamin does – as archetype for the political intriguer and ineffectual, self-absorbed Melancholic in later German Trauerspiel.  Instead, Schmitt reads Hamlet as symbolic for the decline of royalty in England and the tragic myth of modernity, a dissemination of the king’s body at the mercy of fortune and fate of history, and a transfer from power as defined geographically by the island, England, into the eventual global empire of the United Kingdom.  Hamlet becomes the myth for modern man.  As a religious conservative and failed political intriguer himself in post-WWII Germany, Schmitt laments the history of secularization read as the decline of authority.  Hamlet maintains heroic status for Schmitt, while Hamlet for Benjamin becomes prototypical for the genre of genre of German Trauerspiel as “the loss of the eschatological [which] results in a radical transformation of the dramatic element of theater, insofar as it had been tied to a narrative-teleological conception of history […where] the naturalistic destiny of the prince does not merely imply the rise and fall of an individual figure, but more significantly, the dislocation of sovereignty as such” (Weber 9).  For Benjamin, as Samuel Weber has argued, the task of the sovereign in Baroque Trauerspiel is to actually make the state of exception disappear by overcoming transcendent, king-as-lesser-God status with immanent, sovereign-as-mortal-man status.  Thus, “at the very point in time when the political sovereign successfully gains independence vis-à-vis the Church, the difference between worldly power and that of the divine can no longer be ignored” (14). For Benjamin, the court maintains an allegory of horizontal and relativistic historical space at the same time as acknowledging a difference from the eternal.  Benjamin emphasizes this with his figural approach to the characters of the sovereign, the martyr and the plotter or intriguer where sovereign and martyr characters are blended into one type and the plotter becomes the emphasis of action in the play.  This shift necessitates a dislocation of sovereign authority by removing the sovereign’s tragic status, hamartia, disseminating it into a more general category of flawed humans.  As Weber sums up, “what characterizes this theater is that in it, nothing can ever authentically take place, least of all the stage itself “(17).  Benjamin has no nostalgia for verticality.  Of course his account is still an account of secularization. 

Schmitt, Strauss and Benjamin all offer critiques of liberalism: Schmitt’s pushes toward a complacency similar to Heidegger’s “only a God can save us” rooted in a Greek concept of tragic fate.  Such a fate is curiously addressed by a return to cultural memory characterized by both Schmitt and Heidegger’s turn toward literary criticism and away from politics during the post World War II years.  Strauss and Benjamin’s methods, while certainly not discounting a kind of historicism, set up what some scholars call “the ethical” turn, characterized by a radical maintaining of difference characteristic in later Jewish thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.  These two rival concepts should be vaguely familiar to scholars of various disciplines with their emphasis on accounting for “Otherness.”

This ethical turn emerges in various forms in more recent discussions in Political Theology, especially with relation to how traditional narratives of secularization have failed.  Secularism presented a solution to the problem of religious authority, and a large part of that solution was the concept of liberalism. In liberalism, rationality presents the capacity (reason) and the tools (discourse) for free subjects to have self determination through the “natural light” of reason.  Early liberal thinkers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza give narrative accounts of the secular foundations of government as arising from the rise of civilization out of the state of nature.  Religion in these narratives arises from the necessity to impose authority on other people and maintain obedience from those unable to reason through the benefits of civilization.  Religion binds a fear-based authoritative structure to compel people to act with justice and charity for the sake of the community.  Hobbes presents the idea of the Leviathan as a body politic with the ruler as head while Spinoza conceives a democratic state with the freedom to philosophize in discourse apart from religion. This discourse is that of the “natural right,” liberalism itself. Strauss critiques these conceptions as ultimately leading to the relativism we might associate with the post-modern era, in which crises of liberalism pose challenges to a linear, “grand” narrative – one might say “evolutionary” – conception of secularization as a liberal solution to archaic religion-centered government. 

Out of this, the critique presented by more recent thinkers like Jurgen Habermas is that liberalism has failed to attend to the affective and cognitive needs of citizens that religion addresses; therefore, these fundamental needs must be addressed.  Religious neo-fundamentalism in light of this can be read as a response to global capitalism where the discourse of rights has fled or transcended its liberal home, leaving no language to adjudicate.  Not only that, but the temporality of deliberation and adjudication itself is outmoded by an ongoing state of exception or emergency which, when invoked, allows for the “temporary” suspension of rights and a “return to nature.”  In light of this the question arises: Is there something like a Theological imaginary that is necessary for civilization?[1]  It is here that I want to suggest that we look not only to philosophers and social theorists, but to literature as a potential space of non-violent discussion for cultural production and political deliberation. 

In one sense, I suggest a cultural or aesthetic turn similar to the turn of Heidegger of and Schmitt during the postwar years, while simultaneously suggesting that the hermeneutics necessary in turning toward aesthetic and cultural production be informed by the implied ethical turn in Strauss and Benjamin.  These hermeneutics are necessary in addressing a much larger trend toward immanence over transcendence, which I will suggest (along with Benjamin and Strauss) accompanies modernism. It is in this turn toward immanence that we should look for reconciliation between so-called religious and secular ways of thinking by looking at the theme of re-enchant as pervasive throughout secularization in aesthetic works. 

[1] A prominent thinker in the discourse of Political Theology, Victoria Kahn has suggested that we look at the concept of Homo faber as discussed in Hannah Arendt.  How might making – fiction, poetry and the imagination aid in salvaging liberalism? I am deeply indebted here to Professor Kahn and my student colleagues attending her seminar on Political Theology at the School of Criticism and Theory during summer of 2011 in this extract from my dissertation.

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