Why ‘Political Theology’ is Really about the Spirituality of Aesthetics

December 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

‘Political theology’ at the end of 2015 names a crisis in governance and representation for countries shaped by a “Western” tradition of philosophy, religion, and politics. Although Carl Schmitt’s 1922 book, Political Theology, gives a modern name to the discourse in the 20th century crisis of liberal democracy in Weimar, Germany, the discourse is preceded by and continues to interact with the major political and philosophical traditions that produced western European and the United States (for example, Christian thinkers will push back to Augustine…Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, etc.). It is important, however, to stress the element of crisis in the discourse. The failed attempt to impose a liberal democracy of Germany in the aftermath of WWI is merely one moment in a large and bloody history encapsulating the fall of the Central powers of Germany, the Austro-Hungary (Hapsburg), and the Ottoman Empire.

An earlier coalition of Austro-Hungary and Germany saw the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire via the abdication of the throne of Francis II who then became Francis I after being defeated by Napoleon in 1806. Because the Ottoman Empire had joined the Central Powers in 1914 and lost, much of its governance was divided up among victorious Allied forces. In Germany during the 1920s the imposed structures of governance by western states, which promoted politically liberal and “secular” ideology largely failed. The perception of that failure in the United States has been long in coming and has largely emerged in the wake of what Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History,” during the break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain which had acted as a kind of band aid for the latter half of the twentieth-century. Liberal democracies did not triumph with the fall of the Soviet Union. An initial period of financial growth in places like the United States and Ireland were followed by world economic crises during the early 21st century. Nor was there ever “peace,” as the eastern European crises in the 1990s reached back to the beginnings of WWI. The crises from European wars spread throughout the world in the 20th century. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, however, marks the theological exigence of political theology. It is after that revolution when scholars start really turning to Schmitt.

It is in reference to the role of forms and rhetorics of Islam in galvanizing people in territories outside the conceptual grasp of “the West” that intellectuals turned to Carl Schmitt’s famous dictum 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.[1]

One has to remember, however, that Schmitt’s own nostalgia and conservatism is at work here – and that concept was embedded in Catholic Christianity and the desire for a strong sovereign to make decisions on the exception. To understand the shape of what ‘political theology’ means today, it is important to contextualize it within the extremely prescient words of Michel Foucault who had visited Iran and was interviewed concerning the political situation. In “Dialogue with Michel Foucault and Baqir Parham,” Foucault says,

In England, during the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth century, underneath the bourgeois and parliamentary revolutions as such, we have a complete series of religious-political struggles. These movements are religious because they are political and political because they are religious, and are very important. I therefore think that the history of religions, and their connection to politics, ought to be thought anew.[2]

Foucault did not live to see the break-up of the Soviet Union and the protean forms the Middle East has taken since then. What is emergent here is the idea of the postsecular, but it importantly comes from the radical left in the United States (with the journal Telos and its renewed interest in Schmitt) and in France (with Alain Badiou). It is important to remember this emergence because the postsecular becomes a term invoked widely by scholars like Jurgen Habermas, who is interested procedural democracy. It makes sense, then, that the Turkish-American philosopher, Seyla Benhabib, who is an avid follower of Habermas, claimed in a mini-lecture at Cornell School of Criticism and Theory in 2011 that she does not understand what all the fuss is about with Schmitt. This is because they are not critics of liberalism.

The far left critique is much more critical of mainstream liberal democracy. This is evidenced by a flurry of articles on Carl Schmitt following George D. Schwab’s 1987 article, “Enemy or Foe: A Conflict of Modern Politics.” Telos Journal was founded in 1968 by Paul Piccone to be an intellectual voice for the radical left. The journal became aware of a complacency associated with the mainstream leftism of the United States by the late seventies and by the mid 1980s were taking far right figures like Schmitt seriously. This cost them a good deal of subscriptions, especially as the word “theology” began to creep up. But the initial impulse to be interested in Schmitt, despite his Nazism, was to attempt to understand why celebrated leftist intellectuals like Walter Benjamin had credited Schmitt’s book Political Theology as revolutionary to his thinking about aesthetics. Similarly, it is from a radical left background that French philosopher Claude Lefort wrote “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political” for Hent De Vries 2006 tome, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. In it, Lefort’s critique of liberal democracy resounds with his concluding question:

rather than seeing democracy as a new episode in the transfer of the religious into the political, should we not conclude that the old transfers from one register to the other were intended to ensure the preservation of a form that has since been abolished, that the theological the and the political became divorced, that a new experience of the institution of the social began to take shape, that the religious is activated at the weak points of the social, that its efficacy is no longer symbolic but imaginary, and that ultimately, it is an expression of the unavoidable – and no doubt ontological – difficulty democracy has in reading its own story, as well as the difficulty political or philosophical thought has in assuming, without making it a travesty, the tragedy of the modern condition?[3]

There is little to be optimistic about here. On top of democracy’s difficulty in reading its own story is the difficulty of the idea of the subject borne out of a Kantian and bourgeois philosophical and economic society. Representative democracies like the United States attempt to make legal decisions by the “will” of the people. Schmitt’s critique of the system is partly on the unreliability for the “will” to recognize when it is in a state of emergency. According to Schmitt’s own logic, Germany lacked a strong sovereign to recognize Hitler’s threat to the State. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution should have been invoked to protect the liberal democracy against the rising fascist dictator who then used it to invoke a state of emergency that would last until the end of WWII. Hitler played on this weakness in order to come to power, the same way cartoonish politicians in the United States today simply play an enframed game that has little to do with a “people” of “subjects.”


Badiou metapolitics


The leftist critique also come from France. It has been articulated by Alain Badiou in Metapolitics where he attempts to discuss politics of “truth” outside of the absurdities of representational democracy. Badiou, however, is far from embracing Schmitt’s longing for a strong sovereign. There is actually room for democracy in Badiou’s thinking, which makes him sound weirdly “liberal” in a world where “communism” has no meaning and capitalism does more to oppress than liberate. According to Badiou, the extent to which we can discuss anything like a ‘subject’ as a placeholder is anterior to a critique of proper names. Badiou suggests a political “subject/militant” that becomes activated by a force that exceeds and precedes the decision. Drawing an example from the French Resistance during WWII, Badiou analyzes the lack of decision involved in resistance. There is, as he says, a logic to it that makes a decision itself unnecessary. In particular he calls this eruption of action a surge or insurrection / resurrection. Although Badiou’s project is not overtly identified as political theology, his critique of subjectivity has importance in the discourse.

41UsZEF34fL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Badiou militant


Carl Raschke, drawing on Badiou’s militant, names a political theological exigence for new “Saints” in 2015 to confront liberal democratic crises. Christian in tone but unlike any publicly named version of Christianity (right or left), Raschke also draws on the openly atheist Badiou’s description of the event, as described in St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. A theology of the event has nothing to do with an existing church. Instead, if I understand Raschke correctly, the foundation of a church as in a body has yet to begin. And yet this is no move to deny history or try to retreat to a pre-Protestant Reformation or even early Christian way of life. Fidelity to the event exceeds temporal placing but also exists within a force of history. Raschke here is aggregating Badiou’s thinking with Jacques Derrida’s in “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” which was interestingly published around the same time Fukuyama was calling the fall of the Iron Curtain the harbinger of the “End of History.” For Raschke, adherence to or fidelity to the event is the recognition of The Force of God, which is an etymological reference to Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian. ‘Political theology,’ then, names the crisis for Raschke and adherence to the Force of God names his solution.

Raschke’s landing in Nietzsche’s genealogical method by way of Badiou and Derrida makes his work significantly distinct from that of the professor of aesthetics, Giorgio Agamben, who has also been important to political theological discussions. In his multi-volume work on Homo sacer, Agamben has sought a genealogy of oikonomicos / dwelling (based on Heidegger’s Dasein) through an “archaeology of glory.” This historical excavation maintains a kind of “external” view. Even in the important distinction between “bare life” and “qualified life” there is something merely descriptive in Agamben’s work. It is less a call to action than Raschke’s work and therefore less political theological because its only address to the crisis is a sophisticated scholarly analysis. Raschke’s work calls for more than that in his call for new Saints, and while a strict binary between modes of faith or the “religions” of Christianity and Islam is way too overly reductive a binary to put on Raschke’s work, his work does indeed call for people to address situations of “global terrorism,” not as “subjects” but as “militants.”

How we tune into what Raschke calls the Force of God remains both ontological and aesthetic. But it necessitates and aesthetics that embraces Heidegger’s critiques of Kantian / Cartesian subject-object duality. It necessitates an aesthetics of insurgence, and it especially calls into question what senses we are to activate to understand those aesthetics. That is why, for me, ‘political theology’ in 2016 is really about the spirituality of aesthetics beyond what Herbert Marcuse called One-dimensional Society or what Foucault and Agamben together might call the biopolitical framing of bare-life. The ontological and aesthetic spirituality I have mentioned highlight the distinction between political theology and political theory. ‘Political theory’ as it is generally understood seems to rely on vision and boundaries whereas the “post-subject” aesthetics to which political theology as I have described it point are more ambiguous and will take longer to process once we get through the re-entry process on the hither side of globalized expansion into something that resembles a body.

[1] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapter on the Concept of Sovereignty, Trans. George D. Schwab, Chicago: Chicago UP, 36.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Dialogue with Michel Foucault and Baqir Parham,” Foucault On the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 187.

[3] Claude Lefort, “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political” Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. Ed. Hent De Vries, New York: Fordham UP, 2006, 187.

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