Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Political Theologies de Vries and Sullivan

The preface sets out to contextualize the present age as one of globalization and the “apparent triumph of Enlightenment secularization” which is ironically founded on a recognition of the continued force of “public religions” (xi). Commentary on globalization and political liberalism are often voiced in theologico-political terms, but what does this mean and what is the history of connection between theology and religion? There is a growing pushback against the rigid boundaries between public politics and private religion that come out of the Enlightenment (x). It is also no longer popular to condemn religious conviction. This volume of essays seeks to look at issues of politics and religion in the public sphere.
Introduction- Hent de Vries
De Vries opens with a statement of the goals of the volume: “To open or, rather, reopen an inquiry concerning religion’s engagement with the political (i.e., with its very concept and its conceptual analogues, such as sovereignty, democracy, etc.), as well as with politics (i.e., in its juridical, administrative or policy-oriented, national, and international aspects), is the aim of this volume” (1). The first task of the introduction is to interrogate the meaning of the term religion and to ask what has happened to “pre-, para-, and post-political forms [of] religion” in a globalized and technological world where social bodies are not bound to specific places and sovereigns. These are the problems of the post-secular world, where this term doesn’t denote a time period but a problematic. Following Joas and Habermas, post-secular can also be understood as follows: “‘Post-secular’ doesn’t mean, then, an increase in the meaningfulness of religion or a renewed attention to it, but a changed attitude by the secular state or in the public domain with respect to the continued existence of religious communities and the impulses that emerge from them’” (3). The project of this collection, then, is to frame the problems of our world, one with various claims to religiosity and secularism and globalization and its benefits/harms (5).
De Vries then moves to explaining the timeliness of this discussion in the context of global terrorism and the bifurcation of the supposedly secular West and the post-colonial, developing world. De Vries lays out the pervasive fear of Islam along with Muslim immigration into the West to explain the particular timeliness of this volume and calls for an investigation of the relationship between the political and theological, which is not at all obvious (6). The way that journalists and scholars debates on public religion have been fragmented and often assumes religion to be a dangerous problem. De Vries notes the coexistence of the permanence of relgion and the retreat of religion, which he says may be explained through a combination of modern metaphysical discourses, markets and evolution of nation-states.
De Vries then outlines the (perceived) relationship between religion and violence. He notes the importance of considering local conditions, which are often ignored. Understanding this connection, which has been theorized in the past, is now even more difficult because “in the present, post-secular domain the inspiration, motivation, and effectuation of political theologies no longer lie within the cultural and institutional, ecclesial or communal heritage of the major religions or within the modern forms of political sovereignty with which their theologically (or cynically) driven politics were, historically, geographically, empirically, and conceptually linked” (9). He also notes that people cling to shrinking religious realms as well as beliefs in secularism by turning to “rhetorical overdrive” (10). De Vries outlines analysis by Olivier Roy on the connection between Islam and violence which traces western roots of violence; Roy’s analysis assumes that “‘politics’ prevails over the religious—as well as over its metaphysical understanding and inflection of ‘the political’—so that political Islam must necessarily fail” (12). In a sense, failure is inevitable because of the mismatch between earthly political concerns and theological concerns (13). Roy’s writing shares similarities with the ideas of Gauchet who argued that Christianity’s success led to its downfall. Roy also argues that it is national/ethnic not religious concerns which drive violence associated with Islam: the problem is not with Islam itself but local conditions and media portrayals (13-15). In discussing technology, especially the internet, a move is made to consider a multipolar instead of bipolar world (16). Another theoretical consideration is violence as performance, one that mimics western hegemonic power and violence (18-19).
De Vries next moves on to discuss Spinoza’s deconstruction of natural political theology that are the basis of contract theories like Hobbes’ (20-21) and the idea of imitation of affects (22-25).
The introduction ends with a return to a consideration of what political theologies are. He traces the term back to Marcus Terentius Varro in the 2nd century BCE who distinguished political, mythical, and cosmological theology (25). There are a range of relationships between theology and politics that have been laid out by different thinkers. Jacqueline Lagrée writes:
how should one understand the coordination of the two adjectives theological and political? As a conjunction or as a distinction? As a subordination—and in which sense—or as interdependence? Five positions are logically possible, without taking into account the nature of the possible link—analytical or synthetic, contingent or necessary:
1. conjunction by simple juxtaposition (Plato?)
2. strict separation (epicureanism)
3. subordination of the political to the theological (Jewish theocracy or strict
4. subordination of the theological to the political (Hobbes)
5. interdependence (between natural religion and a democracy favorable to the
freedom of thought) (26).
De Vries also discusses Assmann’s work on the power-salvation relationship to raise questions about how the theology-politics relationship has changed over time and the limits of the concept (how the theological-political can be evoked beyond direct reference to God or politics) (28-29).
Dan has outlined essays from sections I and IV. I’ll add some helpful quotations from the introduction that summarize themes .
“In a preliminary way, we might assess the results of our inquiry so far by saying that the ancient, medieval, and modern concept of political sovereignty and authority in city, state, empire, and nation, whatever the discursive and rhetorical modes of its immanent, earthly, and lay theoretical justification—which may well include a magical-mythological imaginary of sacredness, even in the most secular of its articulations—has more often than not been presented as inherently ‘theological’ or ‘theologico-political,’ premised upon a ‘mystical foundation,’ as Derrida, following Montaigne and Pascal, reminds us in his ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundations of Authority.”’ One need not share Schmitt’s appeal to the state of exception and its theological presuppositions to discern the systematic—at once structural and hence more than merely metaphorical or analogical—relevance of the divine and the transcendent for the terrestrial and the profane, that is to say, for immanence” (36-37).
“At this point, a second preliminary result might suggest itself. Political theology seems a intellectual discipline not of the general or universal (which, traditionally, would be metaphysics, including general metaphysics or ontology but also special metaphysics, within which one counts natural theology), nor of the individual or singular (of which, traditionally, there can be no scientific knowledge at all), but of the elusive, that is to say, of that which absolves itself (the ab-solute), the spiritually and motivationally recalcitrant, the invisible, imperceptible, intangible, and imponderable. These give themselves to be read through words, things, gestures, and powers, without being reducible to them. But then, political theology could also be seen as the analysis and phenomenological description of the wide spectrum of all too literal, material, and figurative fixations of this theologico-political difference within dogmatic forms of thought, rigid and ritualized codes of conduct, and idolatrous images of aesthetic representation, all of which reduce the theologico-political to partial—and inevitably exclusive—incarnations and sedimentations all built upon a principle of exaggeration whose necessary effect is that of escalation. Perhaps a final, no less crucial, task for political theology—in the singular and the plural—would be that of a search-engine, locating and exposing theologico-political noise, often in the form of babble and sophistry.” (42).
“At this point, let me attempt to formulate a third preliminary conclusion, closely related to the first—which distinguished ‘‘political theology,’’ on the one hand, as the scientia of the elusive and absolute that governs and often unconsciously drives and inspires, or destabilizes and terrorizes, the public domain (the ‘‘theologico-political’’), and, on the other hand, especially in its plural dimension, as the name and description of the many diverse forms in which this ‘‘empty’’ notion or open dimension can become dogmatically fixated, socially reified, and aesthetically fetishized. On both counts, descriptive and normative aspects of the analysis should be differentiated in principle, even though they inevitably interfere with—indeed, mutually presuppose and solicit—each other.” (46).
“The political, we have said, regardless of ideological justification and representation, has often been seen as inherently theological, premised upon a ‘‘mystical foundation,’’ that is to say, on some reference to an ‘‘empty signifier,’’ whose historical and systematic connection to the tradition of religion, in particular, to the divine names, seems evident. Conversely, both historical religions—‘‘primitive’’ religions as well as the monotheistic religions of the Book—and those that haunt the contemporary imagination, including alternative religions associated with New Age forms of spirituality, have always supplemented their beliefs, rituals, and institutions with a practical politics in addition to a more abstract interpretation of the political.
“In order to understand the relationship between the domains of the religious and the theological, on the one hand, and the political and politics, on the other—as well as the violence and horrors they might each separately and in relation provoke (or allow)—we must interrogate the historically fairly recent assumption of the autonomy, neutrality, and homogeneity of the public realm, just as we must rethink the origin and range of the state’s sovereignty in light of its more elusive constituents. This assumption should not only be understood against the background of an age-old tradition, whose metaphysical premises and religious elements have, in modernity, often been ignored or played down, and whose very idea and structure is captured by the term political theology. We should simultaneously recast it in light of the new dimensions opened up by the late-twentieth century revolution in and exponential development of modes of communication and the newest technological media, as well as in view of global processes, economic markets, and the ideas that they have accompanied, enabled, indeed, expressed and propelled. An even greater challenge, broached in some of the contributions discussed above, remains the task of rethinking the theologico-political in view of the twentieth- and twenty-first century revolutions in the ‘‘technologies of life,’’ both organic and artificial, and the ontological and existential, not to mention ethical and juridical, consequences they entail. These questions are more complex than current references to Foucauldian bio-politics or reductionist neuroscientific explorations of artificial intelligence, gene technology, and so on suggest. The final part of this book discusses some of these issues and their repercussions for our understanding of life and living together, experience and perception, agency and human rights” (75).

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