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.

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