Political Theology, Enchantment, and the Necessity for Interpretation

September 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

The academic discourse of Political Theology questions the public role of religion and religious affectivity.  This has recently become central to discourse of liberal democracies and globalization, prompting a political exigency for theories of the religious.  By looking at enchanted political theological aspects of literature, literary scholarship can track public aspects of religion.  While many trace the emergence of political theology to Christian thought, and particularly Augustine’s City of God, the question of religion’s role within the state is of course ancient.  Much scholarship in Political Theology today comes in the form of large tomes that cover large swaths of human history.  As a result they often rely on structural and post-structural readings.  Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, for example, argues that the idea of transcendent religion arises in Mesopotamia and Egypt 3000 years ago with the first states, that the state is more formalized with emergent monotheism, and culminates with the more recent “rational religion” that presents itself as the very overcoming of religion.  Indeed, for Gauchet, Christianity was to be a religion to “end all religions.”  He writes:

the fundamental paradox of religion is both to gain self-possession by consenting to dispossession, by turning away from the goal of dominating nature and to legislate on our own behalf in favor of another goal, namely that of securing an identity defined and controlled at every step. (7) 

The “dispossession” we consent to, according to Gauchet, comes in the form of an acknowledgement of inheritance and ancestry, which concerns what we do with the dead.  The ancient world’s large projects such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids are partially accounted for here.  Gauchet goes on:

Religion in its pure state is drawn into a temporal division that puts the present into a position of absolute dependence on the mythical past, and guarantees the irrevocable allegiance of all human activities to their inaugural truth.  At the same time it ratifies the non-appeasable dispossession of human actors from what gives substance and meaning to their actions and gestures.  The key to inter-relationship between religion and society, as well as the secret of the nature of the religious, lies in its radical conservation which structurally combines co-presence to the origin with disjunction from the originary moment, combining unstinting conformity to what has been definitively founded with a separated foundation. (25)

Both the self and the State here are figured within a founding violence that preserves through conservation or binding (religio) while enacting dispossession through the setting aside (sacred).

During the Enlightenment, rational religion’s attempts to overcome religion itself amounted to attempts to separate the founding act of the nation-state from past myths.  Narratives of secularization emerged.  The social construction of the irrational enthusiast, extremist or schwarmerei on the one hand, and the patriot on the other hand – and the terrorist somewhere in between – develops during this period.  William T. Cavanaugh has challenged the idea that religion in the context of a construction of “the secular” risks an inherent fanatical violence.  In The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Cavanaugh hypothesizes

that religion-and-violence arguments serve a particular need for their consumers in the West.  These arguments are part of a broader Enlightenment narrative that has invented a dichotomy between the religious and the secular and constructed the former as an irrational and dangerous impulse that must give way in public to rational, secular forms of power. In the West, revulsion toward killing and dying in the name of one’s religion is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper. The myth of religious violence also provides secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy.  (Kindle Locations 78-82).

Citizenship in the Enlightenment nation-state becomes a contested site of conflict.  The more porous, liberal self that is presented by religious experimentation, re-enchantment, and new ageism – particularly in the twentieth century – developed a hybrid between a secular fanatic evangelizing liberal values and a religious fanatic evangelizing an ecstatic and mystical experience.  This “self” or citizen is an ideological weapon that enacts a kind of violence in the wiping away of and re-inscription of ego on the one hand; it performs another sacrifice on the political institution of the state on the other hand, by seeking to return to the pre-political.  The sacrifice of the political can be illustrated by the ubiquitous turn toward enchantment, magic, and monsters that saturates current popular media.  Literary and cultural interpretation of the political-theological content of such media becomes a civic act.

The term “political theology” has taken on a particular significance since the German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, in 1922 claimed

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) 

There is an intersection between structuralism and history in this passage that manifests what might be characterized as the problem of the twentieth-century: a tension between vertical, sacred time (being and essence), and horizontal, secular time.  Schmitt’s National Socialism, however, has made him a rather controversial figure among scholars.

Political Theology, as I use the term, relates to an interdisciplinary scholarly discussion developing out of the journal Telos in the late 1980s.  Traditionally aligned with a radical leftist critique of culture, Telos later came to be suspicious of attempts to take a position “outside” of culture.  In the late 1980s, the journal began to publish a number of articles studying the German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt.  As Scott G. McNall writes, because of Schmitt’s Nazism, “the very fact that the journal reviewed and discussed his work was deeply suspect, [and] Schmitt predicted the decline of federations and nation states, seeing them as inherently unstable, while Telos celebrated loose affiliations” (110).  Telos founder, Paul Piccone, was a leftist critic who rejected “managerial liberalism” and sought a turn “to authors outside the Left and on the edge of liberalism as sources.  Carl Schmitt was the most prominent of these” (Turner 117).  Schmitt’s Political Theology famously opens by defining the sovereign as “the one who makes the decision in a state of exception” (Schmitt 5).  While the book has been important for growing concerns over the place of religion in the religious sphere, it has also been of interest because of Schmitt’s influence on the famous aesthete, Walter Benjamin.

In his 1925 habilitation for the University of Frankfurt, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin writes that “whereas the modern concept of sovereignty amounts to a supreme executive power on the part of the prince, the baroque concept emerges from a discussion of the state of emergency, and makes it the most important function of the prince to avoid this” (65).  He then claims that “the theological-juridical mode of thought, which is so characteristic of the [seventeenth] century, is an expression of the retarding effect of the over-strained transcendental impulse, which underlies all of the provocatively worldly accents of the baroque” (65-66).   The focus on the prince as the continued site of community holds the physical world and the theological world together for Benjamin.  The more worldly the State, the more transcendent the leaders must be.  Benjamin’s notes to this section cite Schmitt’s Political Theology, and as Samuel Weber has noted, Benjamin personally wrote Schmitt, sending a copy of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and thanking Schmitt for thought crucial to his aesthetic theory.

You will very quickly recognize how much my book is indebted to you for its presentation of the doctrine of sovereignty in the seventeenth century. Perhaps I may also say, in addition, that I have also derived from your later works, especially the “Diktatur,” a confirmation of my modes of research in the philosophy of art from yours in the philosophy of the state. (In Weber 5)

Benjamin, one of the most important aesthetes in the twentieth century was, through Schmitt, able to use Political Theological ideas for the basis of aesthetic criticism, and the subtext of Benjamin’s book is the liberal crisis in the Weimar Republic during the late 1920s.  To some, it is fascinating that Benjamin would so openly align his thinking with Schmitt, who was already a conservative and went on to become a member of the Nazi party and an outspoken anti-Semite.  The renewed interest in Schmitt in journals like Telos and diacritics in the late 1980s and early 1990s marks a moment when thinking which had originally aligned itself closely with Benjamin and the Frankfurt School’s leftist politics, had come to be a suspicious of their own Critical Theory.  How can one get a view from “outside”?

Even earlier in the century, Schmitt’s influence is apparent.  Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, translator’s of Schmitt’s Political Theology II, note in their introduction that in post-1968 Germany, the rabbi and theologian, Jacob Taubes, invited Alexandre Kojeve to lecture in Germany – a political move to inspire Leftists with French thought – Kojeve’s response was that the eighty-year-old Carl Schmitt was “the only person in Germany worth speaking to” (19).  When this drew obvious concern among German intellectuals, Taubes used Benjamin’s correspondence with Schmitt as conciliatory evidence (20).  Inherent in the revived discussion of Political Theology is not only a critique of the secularization narratives that historically parallel the development of modern nation states.  What is at stake is also the possibility of theorizing itself and particularly the role of aesthetic interpretation in disseminating political thought and ideology.

While Political Theology has different and more specific variants as a term in Christian discourse, the rise of its interest among scholars since the late 1980s has also accompanied questions concerning the nature of religious discourse in the public sphere, particularly in the post 9/11 era.  The Italian philosopher of aesthetics, Giorgio Agamben, builds on Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, calling the post 9/11 era an extended state of exception.  Accompanying this is the disappearance of a certain European notion of transcendence in favor of more immanent views, especially in relation to bulky legal apparatuses that cannot function in states of exception.  These “leaderless” states imply an “absent throne” (or perhaps a puppet-throne) and a return to nature, the pre-political, or the perennial.  Agamben names this, building from Schmitt, explicitly in the book State of Exception.

The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the “military order” issued by the president of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the “indefinite detention” and trial “by means of military commissions” (not to be confused with military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. (3)

Essentially, Agamben argues that since 9/11 the United States has been in a constant state of exception where legal apparatuses are constantly suspended because the deliberative process is too slow to react to states of emergency.

In specific connection to the discourse of Political Theology, Agamben and other intellectuals have been taking a scrutinizing look at the foundations of liberal nation states in attempts to make sense of economic collapses and large-scale humanitarian problems.  The place of religion in relation to politics and the public sphere is central to the discourse.  Many feel, like philosopher Jurgen Habermas, that what liberal democracies need is an “awareness of what is missing” with regard to shifting views about secularization.  Along with Habermas, philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, as well as a younger generation – Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchley, and Paul Kahn – have in the past decade engaged increasingly with the role of religion and ethics in the public sphere.  In general, this amounts to a willingness to engage with religious thinkers in public forums.  Habermas’s discussions with Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope) evidence this when he says, “Indeed, a liberal political culture can expect that the secularized citizens play their part in the endeavors to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a language that is accessible to the public as a whole” (Dialectics 51-2).  I believe that by looking at how political theological ideas emerge in literature and other aesthetic works, we can not only take up the “task to translate” the Habermas calls for, but we can also see that this task has been ongoing in aesthetic works since at least the 1950s and 1960s yet ignored because of a now outdated secularist frame.  Indeed, as some scholars have maintained, a “post-secular” perspective is necessary.

How do we determine the superficial?  When people feel deterritorialized, when they lose a sense of place or home, they often re-orient by appealing to the invisible in the form of enchantment.  Strict secularist commitment has traditionally seen the turn toward affective enchantment as regressive and atavistic, but that thinking is changing with the questioning of secularization as a grand narrative and what is increasingly being referred to as “post-secular” society.  Nation States have a long history of entanglement with transcendent religions.  In “Rethinking the Secular and Religious Aspects of Violence,” Mark Juergensmeyer argues that a rise in religious extremism, “from Islamic jihadist militants to Jewish anti-Arab activists to Christian militia in the United States – the activists involved in these movements are parts of communities that perceive themselves to be fragile, vulnerable, and under siege from a hostile secular world” (185).  But at the same time, globalization threatens nation-states with unregulated international space and no existing legal apparatus.  Juergensmeyer draws on both Tocqueville and Ninian Smart to make the claim that secular nationalism is itself a religion based on “doctrine, myth, ethics, ritual, experience, and social organization” (198).  Secular nationalism’s competition with religions lies in creating the affective conditions to create citizens willing to die or kill for their country.  So long as there is no big threat to the State’s need for self-protection, multiplicity of faiths can flourish.  But globalization’s threat to nation-state creates the conditions for religious radicalism and nationalism to join forces if necessary. Juergensmeyer writes:

The Frankenstein of religion created in the Enlightenment imagination has risen up to claim the Enlightenment’s proudest achievement, the nation-state.  The tragedy is that the challenge to the secular order that emerges from this kind of religious nationalism shakes the foundations of political power in ways that are often strident and violent. (199)

People who are genuinely religious may be turned off by such a ‘worldly’ account of religion as this.  Yet from a different angle, R. Scott Appleby, in “Rethinking Fundamentalism in a Secular Age” and relying on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, writes: “Those religious actors who might properly be called fundamentalists cannot be said to be in the grip of an enchanted world any more than others who are participating in the ongoing construction of modern societies” (236).  The idea that enchantment is something atavistic, that it is the pre-modern past coming back to haunt us, I believe, is misguided.

We have been living with the dead alongside us for some time; we have just been refusing to listen.  Spectrum-based views of the spiritual continue to exist in religions around the world, giving them local identities that are particular and maintaining an enchanted view of the world.  The problem is that enchantment itself has not been taken seriously in public discourse dominated by secular habitus at all gradations of religious experience – and this is as true with regard to aesthetic study as it is to religion.  But enchantment never ceased to exist despite the invention of so-called secular public space.  Herein lies the current exigency for interpreting enchantment.

Roger Green + Ordy Garrison, September 25th, Hi-Dive

September 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Roger Green + Ordy Garrison, September 25th, Hi-Dive

The great Ordy Garrison of Woven Hand will be accompanying me on percussion on September 25th at Hi-Dive, 7 South Broadway, Denver. Should be fun and even trippy pretty.



September 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last week in Oxford, I had the pleasure of meeting Dana Sawyer, an Aldous Huxley biographer and professor of Religious Studies. Dana is featured in a new film about the Esalen Institute, where I long to teach and learn someday. Here is a trailer for the film.

Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

The following is a paper I presented for The Condemned Playground: Aldous Huxley and His Contemporaries, a conference at Balliol College, Oxford UK in September 2013.  The heavy footnotes are for brevity.  This is part of a larger project entitled Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Political Theology and Literature.


Aldous Huxley’s pacifism was – and continues to be – received as both naïve and “anti-political.”  In his introduction to a 2012 edition of Ends and Means, sociologist Howard Schneiderman’s descriptions of Huxley’s work on pacifism are particularly backhanded.[1]

In reference to Huxley calling twentieth-century politics “primitive,” Schneiderman claims, “We might well take this as the utopian atavism of an otherwise brilliant and progressive mind at work” (xviii),[2] and despite what he refers to as Huxley’s ability to “arouse interest” among current “social scientist intellectuals,” Schneiderman’s indictment of Huxley is clear: “the fact that [Huxley] extolled the virtues of pacifism, in spite of its consequences for the Jews, shows his utopian thinking as an ethic of conviction that is morally and politically distasteful” (xxii).  Perhaps because of narrow disciplinary interests, Schneiderman has nothing to say about Huxley and religion in relation to his apparent moral vacancy, nor does Schneiderman have anything to say about the much more politically exigent place that international and even supra-national politics and economic forces have in 2012.  Taking a much broader reading of Huxley’s vast amount of work my aim here is to read Huxley as a political-theologian presenting a vision of citizenship that requires an overcoming of ironist intellectualism (present in Spinoza’s work).   Based on the metaphysics of Vedanta, Huxley’s political theology arises from a deep critique of western European, Christian political theology that offers a re-enchanted model of citizenship in a “post-secular” age.  Read this way, Huxley offers a useful counter-discourse to contemporary discussions of political theology.

Let me begin with Huxley’s metaphysical view, which is informed by Vedantic thought and comes to be fully expressed during the late 1930s.  In Ends and Means he tells us, “Liberation from prevailing conventions of thought, feeling and behavior is accomplished most effectively by the practice of disinterested virtues and through direct insight into the real nature of ultimate reality” (3).  He also says, “far from being irrelevant, our metaphysical beliefs are the finally determining factor in all of our actions” (11).  That Huxley practiced such disinterestedness in his characterizations can make his later prose seem cold or overly philosophical.  This comes from Huxley’s notion of direct insight and is based on the overcoming of subject-object distinctions, amounting to a break in causal relationships.  Non-physical states, for him, can exist with no correspondence to the physical world (342-343).  Non-physical states can be accessed by meditation and, as his later work shows, such access can be accelerated by the use of psychedelics.  Direct insight reveals a connection to an impersonal ultimate reality that unites Being while sustaining differentiated subjectivities represented simultaneously by multiple characters.

Huxley’s metaphysics are informed by his concept of Goodness as action, derived from Meister Eckhart, as “the means by which men and women can overcome the illusion of being completely independent existents and can raise themselves to a level of being upon which it becomes possible, by recollection and meditation, to realize their one-ness with ultimate reality” (345).  Such action demands the transcendence of personality and a transcendence of conceptions of the divine as personal – a collapse of immanence and transcendence.  This does not mean the ego has no use; rather, the benefit of personality is in its malleability, and the action toward Goodness, as it appears in Huxley’s work, reveals a conception of citizenship that counters what critics mistakenly believe to be his anti-politics.  In his later fictional characters, this shows up through a softer approach to non-intellectuals and the presentation of high intellect as an Achilles’ heel.  Smart characters most overcome ironist intellectualism by intending toward Goodness.

Based on his metaphysics, Huxley’s conception of citizenship is beyond worldly or cosmopolitan, beyond cities of God and cities of men; it is universal.  It exceeds nationalism, and it transcends politics of nation-states, but Huxley by no means promotes a “World State” either.  His political imagination places a heavy emphasis on local economies differentiated enough to prevent a consolidation of resources to create large military powers that threaten the world.  To theorize this is not to simply wish-away existing political powers.  Rather, Huxley suggests reorganizing human potential according to his metaphysical model in the face of history.

History is a particular problem for Huxley because it articulates causal relations that form habits over time, and those habits are eventually mistakenly interpreted, especially in cases such as National Socialism, as fate.  This does not mean Huxley disregarded history.  In The Grey Eminence, Huxley traces the emerging Second World War in Europe to religious conflict during the 30 Years’ War.  He characterizes Father Joseph’s belligerent political actions in terms of his mysticism acquired through Father Benet’s break with the traditional Christian mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.  In Huxley’s reading, Father Benet’s intentional use of the image of Christ’s Passion at the highest level of meditative prayer introduced a kind of worldliness to Christian mysticism that had political consequences during the emerging Enlightenment (78).  This aestheticized “Copernican Revolution,” as he terms it, relativizes true mystical experience in Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (83).  In Huxley’s view, the absence of “true” mysticism during this period exacerbates political violence and accompanies the modern conception of the nation-state based on territorial and military violence.  Whether it is Christian-centered or Rousseau’s “civic religion,” modernity’s alienation as the ground for the emergence of liberal subjectivity is suspect for Huxley.  He is not anti-political; he is against a European-derived conception of politics that arises during the Counter Reformation and secularization.

Huxley sees both large-scale religion and the state as ultimately producers of violence, but this does not mean he believes either religion or politics to be unnecessary, atavistic or without use.[3] Oppressed, mystical strains of Christianity for Huxley emerge as the conscientious-objector movement in the Great War and eventually become the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s, but addiction to a citizenship based on nationalistic self-preservation and armament leads Huxley to his frequent condemnations of the State as Nationalistic Religion.

In An Encyclopedia of Non-Violence, Huxley defines “nation” as “a community organized for war” (61), negating definitions based on race, language, and geography.  Huxley cites the League of Nations’ recognition of nations based on having an army, which leads him to be less hopeful of post-war attempts to define universal human rights.  Huxley characterizes entities such as “the Nation, the Race, the Class, and party” as part of a general move in Europe away from monotheism toward “tribal idolatry,” usurping the place of God (62).  “The strength of the nation-state,” Huxley says, “lies in its power to assuage the sense of personal inferiority” through identity categories such as citizenship: “The nation-god is glorious and even his feeblest and most unimportant worshippers mystically participate in that glory” (63).  While Huxley seems to think that a “truer” religion and nation-states are simply incompatible, his broader conception of citizenship hints at another option, one that would keep the mystical participation while dumping the necessity for standing armies and instrumental rationality with respect to technology.  Religion in this respect is at the heart of the political and anything but atavistic.[4]

If we read Huxley not just as a writer, philosopher, or mystic but as a political theologian, we could put him into awkward dialogue with a contemporary of his: the German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, author of the 1922 book, Political Theology, which famously opens by defining the sovereign as “the one who makes the decision in a state of exception” (5). Schmitt claimed,   

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. (36) 

Much has been made of the idea of the state of exception within certain academic circles working on the discourse of political theology in recent years (see Giorgio Agamben’s work, for instance).  Huxley, however, has yet to be taken seriously in this discourse.[5]  Surprisingly, Huxley’s concept of the perennial converges with Schmitt’s idea of the state of exception as analogous to the miracle.  The thinkers part ways, however, on access to such a state, and that parting is crucial for understanding Huxley’s pacifism as more than political quietism.

For the conservative Schmitt, state power is stabilized by a sovereign capable of making an ultimate decision in exception to a norm; indeed, for Schmitt, the power to stand outside the norm is what establishes it in the first place.  The sovereign decides for the sake of the nation based on a concept of the political where the relationship between states is characterized as the state of nature necessitating a friend-enemy distinction (Concept of the Political).  Huxley would certainly be in opposition to this, but the two thinkers meet in the idea of the exception itself: it is not just a space of the miraculous; it is a space that exceeds both temporality and normativity.  It is the space of an intentional return to the pre-political, a return to the state of nature.  The perennial is the space of mystical convergence.[6] For Huxley, the space of the perennial collapses time and subject-object distinction, creating the possibility to orient toward ultimate reality, to become Good.  For Huxley, the space of the perennial is a means toward an achievable political end.  The decision to become “good” is in itself a political action that for Huxley transcends the authority of nation-states.  For Schmitt, the sovereign decision occurs in this space and implicitly, the sovereign is only one who communes with the supernatural in order to establish the very order of the natural.  For Schmitt the decider gets to be “more holy” while for Huxley the obligation to orient toward ultimate reality is open to everyone at various levels of intelligence and spirituality.  Pacifism becomes a means to ensure this end, and that is why Huxley constitutes war itself as “incompatible with liberty” (An Encyclopedia 53).

It is not saying much to claim that Huxley and a Nazi would disagree, but in terms of political theology, Huxley is indeed offering a vision where politics and religion can inform one another rather harmoniously without relying on a bulky conception of hard religion that is intimately tied to European political theory since the Reformation.  We might push the analogy between Huxley and Schmitt a bit more absurdly – but not out of line with Huxley’s own literary aesthetics – and cast Schmitt as the sovereign Murugan and Huxley as Will Asquith Farnaby from Huxley’s last novel, Island.  In the book, the political space of the island, Pala, collapses into a state of exception where Murugan, slave to the crassest and most materialistic features of modern technology, consumption and warfare is about to come into power.  Will, who has had his own part to play with the island’s demise takes moksha or liberation medicine and has the following experience:

This dark little inspissated clot that one called “I” was capable of suffering to infinity and, in spite of death, the suffering would go on forever.  The pains of living and the pains of dying, the routine of successive agonies in the bargain basement and the final crucifixion in a blaze of tin and plastic vulgarity – reverberating, continuously amplified, they would always be there.  And the pains were incommunicable, the isolation complete.  The awareness that one existed was an awareness that one was always alone. (Island 341) 

Yet despite this complete isolation, Will’s trip is a participatory ritual that convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island.  Will’s time on Pala may culminate in his moksha experience, but he is set up by hypnosis, dialogue with the islanders, and the reading of the treatise, Notes on What’s What.[7]  While moksha-medicine democratizes mystical experience, it does not end there.  The expectation is that the liberation the medicine provides helps the society as a whole.  The individual subject, “Will,” is always part of a larger whole, and the moksha experience is a limit-experience, which, like the state of exception defines the norm – the distinction with Carl Schmitt being that for Schmitt, this is the sovereign decision whereas in Island, the beautiful young warlord-sovereign Murugan is the very person who refuses and is disgusted by the moksha-experience.

Huxley’s narrative thus ideologically deposes the sovereign by reoccupying the decision in the enlightened subject, characterized by his participation in a ritual that democratizes the mystical through a sacrifice of the nation-state.  Rather than Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign who makes a decision in the state of exception, the psychedelically informed citizen communicates with the divine for moral guidance.  Huxley’s work is more than a utopia; it is an allegory for disparate character-incarnations that are present throughout much of Huxley’s works.  It does not project a future imagined space but more of an alternate possible reality.

Huxley presents a post-secular citizenship through practical mysticism in a perennial that may be aesthetically expressed as a performance overcoming subject-object distinction.  But Huxley’s perennial is not necessarily ahistorical or personalist.  While I risk sounding naïvely embracing of a kind of 1960s idealism here, it also does not work with regard to Huxley to say the personal is political.  Huxley’s metaphysical grounding exceeds personalism and Goodness is marked by the personal intending toward the impersonal.  This is to happen, not by means of either hard law or hard religion but through soft law and an international conception of good will and an avowed commitment that humanity is ready for peace.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  An Encyclopedia of Pacifism. In The Handbook of Non-Violence. Ed. Robert Seeley. Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1986. Print.

—. Grey Eminence. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

—. Ends and Means. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2012. Print.

—. Island. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

—.Political Theology. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2006. Print.

[1] Huxley seems to define pacifism either in terms of what it is not, or in terms of what it stands against.

Thus, pacifism is not politics, indeed it is anti-politics; it is not nationalism; it is obviously not militarism; it is not imperialism; and it is not about competing for international prestige, wealth and power.  On the contrary, Huxley’s pacifism is about brotherly love, reform, peace, cooperation, social justice, and more than less it is about socialism and a leavening of wealth and power.  In a word, it is anti-political. (Ends and Means xvii)

Schneiderman points George Orwell’s claim against Huxley during the Second World War that “Pacifism is objectively fascist” (xxi).

[2] This claim compares Huxley to Max Weber, whom “was undoubtedly the more clear-minded and realistic thinker about politics,” because “Since the state determines the nature of politics, and for Weber, the state is defined by its aims, which differ from state to state, but always by the means specific to it, namely physical force” (xviii).

[3] It is misguided to think of Huxley as a secularist, and it is inadequate to explain away his views on spirituality with reference to the word his grandfather coined: “agnostic.”  Huxley’s justifies his view of pacifism as political action out of what appears to him as “true” Christian mysticism.  In An Encyclopedia of Pacifism Huxley characterizes Christianity before Constantine as essentially pacifistic.  While strains of this pacifism existed throughout the ages, both Luther and Calvin, according to Huxley gave up early emphases on non-violence, embracing a stance of defense against Catholics and violent persecution of Anabaptists, Quakers, and Mennonites (19).  However, the Christian pacifism of the persecuted groups emerges as the conscientious-objection-movement during the Great War and extends to the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s (20).  Similar to his account of Luther and Calvin, Huxley’s concern is that concentrated social entities based on large-scale accumulation of wealth through capitalistic agonism leads to a building up of arms on the premise of maintaining a strong defense.  Communism and Fascism proceed the same way, and “violence begets violence” (23).

[4] During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Huxley returns to Christian history, characterizing Christ a political figure as messiah and king of the Jews.  It is in Huxley’s characterization of Christ’s political agenda that we can glean his notion of a “higher” citizenship and how the politics of pacifism are to positively work.  Huxley believes that Christ’s political plan was that the Jews “were to be the pioneers of a new kind of religio-political action” (50).  He cites the Sermon on the Mount as being politically directed between the Jews and Rome and the injunction to love one’s enemy as applying to Rome and Gentiles. Interestingly, however, Huxley betrays a striking textual fidelity to Christ’s foresight when he interprets the fall of the Temple as the result of Jews who returned to violence instead of love: “Because these things were hid, because the eyes of the Jews were closed, Jerusalem suffered destruction” (51).  This falls under the heading of “International Politics in Light of Christ’s Teaching” in An Encyclopedia of Non-Violence.  Huxley implies that love begetting love transcends nations altogether and that it cannot be accompanied by the use of force.  This is his problem with the League of Nations as it existed, especially with the Treaty of Versailles appended to it.  International Politics must not be enforced for Huxley by means of either international police forces or policies of economic retribution.  While seemingly overly idealist at the time, retrospectively Huxley is alluding to what is referred to today as soft law in international human rights legislation.  As concepts such as soft law more and more tend to affect political deliberations, it is worth re-examining Huxley on religion.

[5] It is undoubtedly in some ways an uncomfortable dialogue, and had I more time I would focus on particular interpretations of Hamlet made by Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza and Schmitt in Hamlet or Hecuba, which is in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s Origins of German Tragic Drama.

[6] To be clear here, Huxley had his publisher make a note on the cover of his Perennial Philosophy that with it, he was not trying to start a religion.

[7] The book summarizes Spinoza:

The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God.  Translating Spinoza’s language into ours, we can say: the more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is. (Island 43)

This passage analogously situates the subject’s experience with God while nodding to the history of Political Theology.


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