Monday, December 12, 2011

Political Theologies - Hent De Vries (ed.)

Marcel Detienne – “The Gods of Politics in Early Greek Cities”
Detienne counters a narrative of the development of “politics” as an independent sphere where “‘the political domain,’ or ‘politics,’ fell from the sky one fine day in Pericles’ Athens, in the miraculous form of democracy. Needless to say, its subsequent history is superbly linear. It leads us ineluctably from a predestined American Revolution, by way of the so-called French Revolution, straight to our own dear Western Societies, which are so happily convinced that their divine mission is to convert other peoples to the true religion of democracy.” (92) He does so by also challenging the belief that the fragility of the independent political domain, threatened by forces of “theocracy” or “religion” more generally, is a specifically modern phenomenon.
Detienne makes this argument as an application of a theory of comparativism he is developing (to be honest, it isn’t explained very much in this paper – he tells us to wait for his upcoming book…). Detienne wishes to merge the works of specialists and generalists in the fields of anthropology and history to create a “constructive” or “experimental” comparativism, one which works cooperatively between individuals studying different societies to “fabricate or fashion elements that are comparable, and this is done in the laboratory of a ‘workshop,’ where historians and anthropologists work and experiment together, adopting a long-term view.” (94) Anthropologists and historians create “microconfigurations,” general concepts that emerge from the specific study of one society that another scholar studying another society can use as a perspective by which to ask questions regarding aspects of that society. Detienne’s form of comparativism is explicitly experimental, using these microconfigurations as hypothesis that can be tested, accepted, rejected, or altered given the specific information a specialist studying another society has to offer. So I see the procedure of Detienne’s comparativism as something like the following:
1) Scholar of society A studies aspect X of society A and constructs a microconfiguration generalizing that aspect.
2) Scholar of society A hypothesizes that the microconfiguration of aspect X can be used to explain aspect Y, something similar to aspect X, in society B.
3) Scholar of society B uses his/her knowledge of aspect Y to determine whether that microconfiguration is an adequate concept to describe aspect Y.
4) As a result of this study, either:
  1. The microconfiguration is seen to be inadequate to describe aspect Y, and is rejected by scholar of society B. Or,
  2. The microconfiguration is seen to be adequate to describe aspect Y, perhaps with some alterations, and is adopted as a concept by which aspects X and Y society A and B can be compared. The procedure is then repeated with similar aspect Z of society C, and so on.
Detienne hopes that through this procedure, concepts can be created that compare different aspects of a number of societies, though he acknowledges that this procedure will probably not create universally applicable concepts. He does not wish to, only seeking to create conceptual tools that can be used generalize about certain cultures. The only microconfiguration I see him creating in this paper, however, is the definition of “assembly” (see next paragraph). So anyway…
The domain of politics (“le politique”) was the result of a number of practices that did not exorcise the gods from politics, but integrated them into political activity in such a way as to preserve the autonomy of human assembly, “practices of people deliberately assembling in order to debate affairs of common interest.” (92) This originated for Detienne in the practices of decision-making the Greek warrior societies represented in the Iliad and the Odyssey engaged in to come to agreement on matters of war-making. The Achaeans created a semicircular space known as an agora where all warriors could hear and participate in deliberations concerning military strategy, forming the model of democratic assemblies in Ancient Greece: “the space of deliberative speech took the form of a circle of semicircle. Whoever wished to speak for ‘the common good’ would advance to the middle, es meson, where he would be handed the scepter that conferred authority upon his words so long as his agora (in the sense of speech) concerned what the Odyssey calls “a public matter” (ti demion). (97)
What interests Detienne about this practice is the place the gods had in this deliberative decision-making among equal humans. First, every agora had an altar at its center where individuals spoke. Second, the agora was seen as an achievement of human civilization bringing it closer to the gods. The Cyclops, who in the Odyssey represents pre-civilization, barbarity, hated all assemblies, the gods, and had no conception of an agora. The Greeks understood the domain of politics (or more accurately, the polis) to be an achievement of humans: “of all the human activities, politics was thus the one that was specifically constructed by human beings: politics, the government of men by men, a government with full sovereignty that, what is more, sought to affirm that autonomy, in other words, was ‘a law unto itself.’” (100)
At the same time, however, this achievement was always seen as a fragile one, one that needed assistance from the gods in order to survive. In fact, the gods were intimately involved in every aspect of political assembly and citizenship. All cities, along with their particular tutelary deities (eg. Athena’s tutelage over her namesake Athens), paid homage to Apollo and Hestia, the two deities who had complementary powers to assist in political affairs. Apollo was the giver of good advice, an essential deity to consult in the founding of any city and the undertaking of any project, as “the patron of the art of city planning, dividing the territory into allotments of land, building roads and sanctuaries (temene), and marking out the space for the agora.” (97) Hestia was the deity of fire and in particular, sacrificial fire, a fire that was never to be extinguished, thus uniting the fire at the altar in the agora and those of every hearth of every home, embodying the unity of the city. “‘Political’ authority thus came from Hestia, in that she represented the unity of the polis among all of its members, the equality of all to join in the assembly and take part in decisionmaking.
And religious institutions actively took part in political affairs. Decisions made in the assembly were published at sanctuaries and temples, which were open to all, so that all would see the decisions of the assembly. Also, each deme (“a city in miniature, with its own assemblies, its own sacrifices, its own particular gods, and its own sanctuaries” (99)) had gods to whom males who were of age would present themselves as capable citizens. So the gods actively assisted humans in political administration. At the same time, however, humans in political settings also regulated the affairs of gods: “‘the affairs of the gods,’ the first section of ‘public matters,’ were debated, discussed, and decided in the assembly and – moreover – in the first part of the assembly. The assembly decided by a majority vote how the new calendar should be organized and the order in which the various gods would be honored. So the sovereignty of the group over itself clearly also covered its gods and their affairs.” (100)
Thus Detienne concludes that “the autonomy of the political domain did not simply fall from the sky. It was problematic fragile, had to be invented by whatever available means.” (100) The political and religious domains were never fully separate, but were rather always linked by practices that associated human political action and the gods, such that there has always been tension in the supposed autonomy of the “political” and “religious” domains. “It was much the same in the past. Nothing much has changed.” (101)
Jean-Luc Nancy – “Church, State, Resistance”
The separation of church and state is taken as a given of democratic politics, not only in the sense of being foundational to its political theory and practice, but also in the sense that it is an achievement of modern democracy. Nancy argues, however, that this separation has existed since Ancient Greece, at least since the works of Plato and Aristotle: “though the polis, the city, has its own religion, celebrates its own rites, and also makes room for other less public or less “civic” forms of worship, it nonetheless presupposes, in its principle, its very being as polis, a fundamental rupture with any kind of theocracy, whether direct or indirect.” (103) Theocracy and politics constitute two different ways of organizing and representing humanity: “religion is nothing more or less than the collective or communitarian possibility other than that constituted by politics.” (103)
The distinction between politics and religion is one of autonomy versus heteronomy. The polis is organized around the principle of self-governance or self-law (auto-nomy), such that both in its definition and in its institutional structure it makes and executes its own laws, regardless of whether it claims a divine authority for them or not. Theocracy, however, represents rule by another (hetero-nomy), namely the will of god(s), and its institutional structures are designed to manifest and enforce these laws of non-human origin. Thus politics and theocracy, autonomy and heteronomy, are forces that mutually resist each other.
The religion of the city, under these circumstances, consists of the transcendence of the autonomy of politics. A city sees itself not only as an autonomous polis, but also as the representative of something greater than itself in which it participates. The city of Rome, for instance, “signifies the inclusion of autonomy in a heteronomy that, without subverting this autonomy, gives it the double dimension of a transcendence and a fervor. ‘Rome’ transcends its own autonomous immanence; the Roman body politic (Senatus Populus que Romanus) is something more and other than the effective existence of the assembled Romans, of their laws and institutions.” (104) Rome, in other words, makes out of heteronomy an autonomy, such that the idea of Rome is both divine and transhistorical on the one hand, and self-directing through fallible human agency on the other.
Since Carl Schmitt we have recognized that “recourse of a religious sort remains or obscurely returns on the horizon of modern politics.” (105) Modern sovereignty is organized around the same principle of transcendence of autonomy as the Roman republic. Without this recourse to religion and transcendence, “the political is destined to withdraw the essence we assumed it to have, leaving this essence to dissolve into ‘administration’ and the ‘police,’ which henceforth appear before us as the miserable remnants of what politics could or should have done.” (105) The solution to this dilemma is given in Marx, who links transcendence of religion and politics (conceived as the Hegelian state) together in a project of human emancipation to communism, which inaugurates “real social being, beneath and beyond its politico-religious representations.” (106)
The possibility of this double transcendence is itself made possible by Christianity, which effects an essential separation between church and state, by differentiating between the “Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar,” positing not only an ethical but an ontological split between the temporal and physical world of human politics and the eternal world of divine politics (106). At the same time, however, Christianity (particularly after Augustine) imagines the divine world by using a political model (thus the “Kingdom” of God), accentuating the distinction between the “different Kingdom, one that totally escapes the laws of the human kingdom,” and the “political unveiled as a human order, only human and ‘all too human’…” (107)
In modern times this distinction is manifested in the concepts of “sovereignty” and “civil religion.” The sovereignty of the state depends on no authority outside of itself and is therefore autonomous, and must therefore legitimize itself without reference to any form of transcendence. Modern sovereignty legitimizes itself, therefore, through purely rational means: “is this possible in any other way than by invoking the need for security born of the weakness and hostility of men? But can such necessity found more than an expedient – even, in some cases, an authority usurped for the sole good of some?” (108)
The response to this rational, verging on cynical, grounding of modern sovereignty, was Rousseau’s demand for “civil religion,” attempting to supplement the social contract with an affective basis for state sovereignty. Although such a civil religion never came about, ideas representing the “residual minimum of political affect,” such as fraternity and secularism, and more recently friendship, solidarity, responsibility, and justice, were envisioned (108). Secularism in particular interests Nancy, in that along with cementing the essential separation between church and state, it responds to “the necessity of conceiving and practicing something like the observance and celebration of the values, symbols, and signs of recognition that attest to everyone’s adherence to the community as such.” (109) However, as Nancy notes, this celebration has been seized by fascists to create a quasi-religious worship of the state and its sovereign, only to be replaced by the anemic notion of “tolerance” which fails to capture the affectivity required in modern politics.
Nancy seeks a new foundation for modern sovereignty, recognizing that affectivity can serve as a kind of transcendence, using the Christian division between human and divine kingdoms, dividing “the order and the city of the useful and the rational (in the restricted sense that we most often give to this word) and, on the other side, the order and the city of a law that does not call itself the ‘law of love’ by accident.” (109) Modern democracy assumes this separation but does not reactivate the law of love in its own kingdom through “the force of affect.” (110) Thus we find ourselves in our contemporary situation where religion and politics confront each other as adversaries, one on the side of affect and the other on the side of rationality, mutually necessary but currently mutually oppositional.
Nancy, however, argues that there is affectivity essential to being together as humans, that of contact: “contiguity, brushing together, encountering, and clashing – is the fundamental modality of affect. What touch touches is the limit: the limit of the other” (111). This mutual “being affected and affecting” is both the essential condition of human sociality and also tends to violate itself: “we desire to violate the limit, for the limit exposes finitude. The desire to merge and the desire to murder constitute the double modality of an essential trouble that agitates us in our finitude.” (111) The city must be “consecrated” to human affectivity, entirely devoted to its functioning, and to protect it against its own tendency to violate itself through violence.
M.B. Pranger – “Politics and Finitude: The Temporal Status of Augustine’s Civitas Permixta
The City of Man is not simply the physical reflection of the City of God on the earth, but nor is it its opposite. Pranger draws a distinction between Augustine’s understanding of the nature of political and ecclesiastical institutions and that of later Medieval Christians. For Augustine, the institutions of both politics and the church are dependent upon the continuing grace of the Creator, due to the instability caused by temporality. The human world is irrevocably tainted with sin, such that there is no eternal or atemporal human act or institution, from Augustine’s own conversion to the Roman Empire. In time, all human achievements decay because of our tendency towards sin, such that “grace and grace alone is able to sustain life, whether personal or communal, as it is given, here and now.” (114) The civitas permixta is the true human city, “secular, historical, and temporal,” inherently fragile and prey to human sin but with the possibility of redemption through servitude to god (115). Augustine is thus, for Pranger, the precursor to Hobbes’ understanding of sovereignty as necessarily temporal and fragile, as human nature’s tendency towards evil and ignorance can only be curbed by an absolute sovereign authority which stands in for divine grace.
Opposed to Augustine is the later Medieval Christian understanding of the permanence of the Church. Dissatisfied with the fragility of the civitas permixta, the Catholic Church set itself as the alternative to human impermanence, modeling itself on the “mystical body:” “the church is incapable of non-existence: the church never dies.” (Kantorowicz, quoted in Pranger, 115) The Catholic Church is thus the precursor of the concept of the modern “body politic,” the idea of a national sovereign authority that never dies, regardless of the comings and goings of kings and presidents. The Church and the modern sovereign are, as Pranger argues, angelic figures, “the go-between between eternity and time proper, [it] attempts to supplement Augustine’s ‘forcefully simplifying dualism’ between time and eternity with ‘a kind of infiniteness and duration which had motion and therefore past and future, a sempiternity which according to all authorities was endless.’” (116)
Augustine’s civitas permixta is not, of course without a notion of history. Pranger concludes her essay by noting that a force greater than any individual or collective sin, that of Jerusalem and the covenant made between Christ and God, which promises the eventual redemption of humankind. History is the pilgrimage of the City of God on the earth, thus adding a dynamic of historical progression to the cycle of strength and decay of human temporal institutions, taken up later by Enlightenment historians as universal history.
Antónia Szabari – “The Scandal of Religion: Luther and Public Speech in the Reformation”
Enlightenment coffeehouses were not the only sites in which models of modern public speech were first practiced. Public speech is not only democratic, but also “excitable,” with the capacity to offend and foster contention and public scandal that could be used as a political tool. This aspect of modern public speech originated with Luther’s pamphlet wars against German Catholics, where he used rude and offensive speech as a practice of perlocutionary speech designed to separate Reformed from non-Reformed Christians.
Before Luther, offensiveness and slander were only permitted within explicitly agonistic contexts, ie. between political individuals bent on establishing their own reputation and destroying that of others as a marker of social power. Classical rhetoric attempts to instill a particular intellectual and emotional effect into listeners by calculating their responses to particular forms of speech, emphasizing rationality and moderation in the use of rhetoric, looking down on excess and offensiveness as unreasonable and unrefined. Verbal injury has, for the rhetoricians, unpredictable effects, and cannot be articulated in terms of grammatical laws, and so must be excluded from scholarly discourse.
Luther reads the Bible as a divine speech act that utters one true gospel, the “authentic Scripture,” through four linguistic gospels. Faith for Luther is the consciousness of this true intention, such that those with it understand the authentic and true message of the gospel, while those without it are left in ignorance. Faith is thus the “recognizing of a divine intention,” such that if one utters religious words (such as in Catholic liturgy) without faith one blasphemes against God by not understanding His true animating intention (128). The true scandal of religion then, (defined as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall” that is recognized by others (Aquinas, quoted in Szabari, 129)) not improper liturgy, but false doctrine. The utterance of true doctrine makes others realize their error, and so reveals their scandalousness, preventing others from falling into error. Luther thus makes offensiveness and rudeness into rhetorical virtues, designed to make Catholics feel the scandalousness of their errors and impel them to reform, and to prevent other Christians from falling into those errors.
Offensiveness thus goes beyond classical rhetoric, not constituting an effect instilled in one person by another’s words. Offensiveness is an effect created in a dialogic situation where one person reveals that a doctrine another believes to be pious is in fact blasphemous, or more generally that a doctrine another holds has the opposite moral status he or she believes, publicly, using social ostracism to defeat an opponent. Even more forceful is Luther’s satirical strategy, demonstrating that what people would believe to be a blasphemous situation is in fact reality. Offensiveness and satire became two rhetorical strategies common to doctrinal disagreements, both in religion and eventually in politics more generally.
Ernesto Laclau – “On the Names of God”
Mystics and negative theologians encounter a paradox in attempting to produce the effect of a divine unnamable presence through language: “we want to maintain the ineffable character of the experience of the divinity, and we want at the same time to show through language such an ineffable presence.” (139) Mystics have two ways of naming the unnamable God, both of which are self-contradictory:
1) “God” can be treated as an empty signifier, as simply a word without any referential content whatsoever, the strategy of Meister Eckhart. But simply by giving God a name places the experience of the ineffable into “a discursive network that cannot be reduced to this experience. And in actual fact the history of mysticism has provided a plethora of alternative names to refer to that sublimity: the Absolute, Reality, the Ground, and so on.” (142) Only complete silence avoids irreverence towards the ineffable presence to which mysticism attends, to maintain its total transcendence over any possible thing.
2) God can be understood as the indifferent unity of a number of distinct terms, the strategy of Dionysius Areopagite: “we can refer to God by the names of star, stone, flesh, soul, and clod because, insofar as they are part of a universal chain of equivalences, each of them can be substituted for any other. Ergo, they are all indifferent terms for naming the totality of what exists – that is, the Absolute.” (142-143) This strategy Laclau refers to as “equivalence”, and it runs into a double-bind. If all of the enumerated terms are completely equal and interchangeable, the unity of the analogy between them can be named: they become a “simple identity,” and God can thus be named directly, and is therefore not transcendent. If, on the other hand, the terms are equivalent but not identical, God remains transcendent but is no longer universal, and mysticism merely attributes universality to something that is particular.
Laclau argues that the impossibility of naming God can be generalized to all experience. There is no signifier that can represent the totality of human experience, making it into a unity (the divine One). Finitude is essential to human experience, defined as the experience “of fullness, of the sublime, as that which is radically lacking – and is, in that sense, a necessary beyond.” (144) A universal unity can only be posited because experience in itself lacks fullness and unity. Furthermore, the beyond becomes specifically defined as what is lacking in experience that would complete it: “there is no possibility of a beyond of differences that is not ancillary to an operation of reintroducing difference. That remainder of difference and particularism cannot be eliminated and, as a result, necessarily contaminates the very content of the ‘beyond.’ Here we have a process that can be described in either way: either as a ‘materialization’ of God, giving Him a differential content that is His very condition of possibility, or as the deification of a particular set of determinations that are invested with the function of incarnating the Absolute.” (145) Laclau gives two concrete examples of this paradox of naming God:
In politics, we can understand “hegemony” in the Gramscian sense as “a relationship through which a particular content assumes, in a certain context, the function of incarnating an absent fullness.” (145) Terms that promise political fullness, such as “order” or “stability,” can only operate by lacking content, by serving as empty signifiers which merely negate the current social state of disunity and conflict. A hegemonic practice claims to resolve a contemporary lack of unity in a society, masking the inherent lack of unity necessary to all society.
In ethics, against the conservative charge that the lack of a priori and universal foundations for ethics makes moral action impossible, Laclau responds that genuine ethical life depends on “keeping open the two sides of this paradox: an absolute that can only be actualized by being something less than itself, and a particularity whose only destiny is to be the incarnation of a ‘sublimity’ that transcends its own body.” (147) A priori and universal values are different articulations of the non-existent divine unity: ethics must take as its starting point the lack of universal values, such that every moral decision must recognize that in itself will not bring about unity, and that it is itself always subject to review and qualification. We must be, therefore, both committed to our values and recognize that they only exist in particular actions that only imperfectly instantiate them and are thus always compromised.
Claude Lefort – “The Permanence of the Theological-Political?”
Lefort complicates the notion that modern democracy is simply another configuration of a supposed indissolubility of theological and political domains. After the French Revolution, a sense among political theorists emerged that social developments could not be understood without taking into account their religious significance, without understanding whether social change will bring about a restoration of religion to its place within public life or if it will destroy it. At the same time, though, thinkers understood the state to be something that relies on its own authority, without the need for a transcendental ground for its power. Rather than regarding these thinkers as not only self-contradictory but also simply nostalgic, Lefort asks whether or not they in fact have “had a singular ability to grasp a symbolic dimension of the political, of something that was later to disappear, of something that bourgeois discourse was already burying beneath its supposed knowledge of the real order of society?” (150)
Prior to the modern period, religion had served as the social symbolic order, a term Lefort borrows from Lacan to refer to the language which claims to articulate reality, and through which individuals articulate their desires. Bourgeois society, however, had for centuries replaced this symbolic order with one stressing the human capacities for self-creation and self-governance, slowly weakening the ground of the religious. The thinkers of post-revolutionary Europe grasped this aspect of religion’s role in the political order just as it was finally destroyed, and we have now forgotten it today. For Lefort, however, the religious domain “survives in the guise of new beliefs and new representations,” demonstrating “an index of our ignorance or disavowal of a hidden part of social life, namely, the processes that make people consent to a given regime – or, to put it more forcefully, that determine their manner of being in society – and that guarantee that this regime or mode of society has a permanence in time, regardless of the various events that may affect it.” (150)
Although for Lefort defining religion poses no particular trouble (“we can readily agree that certain beliefs, attitudes, and representations reveal a religious sensibility, even though the agents concerned do not relate them to any dogma; even though they do not imply any fidelity to a church; and even though they may, in certain cases, go hand in hand with militant atheism.” (151)), defining politics and the political are more complex, as definition assumes a particular object that can be defined. This problem derives from the distinction in methodology between political science and political philosophy. The former “finds its self-assurance by defining functional models; it operates in accordance with an ideal of objectivity that introduces a sovereign distance between the subject and the social,” taking particular institutions, social relations, ideologies, power relations, and relations of production, as data by which they construct models intended to describe politics as a set of determinate objects and relations (155). For political science, the separation between religious and political institutions is an obvious fact, regarded as two separate domains of practice: any question regarding their relations is empirical and non-essential to the structure of a society.
Political philosophy, on the other hand, attends to the “principles that generate society or, more accurately, different forms of society, and the process by which a society “shapes” its members, gives “meaning to social relations” and stages them (152-153). In the process of shaping a society, religion is for the philosopher always an essential aspect of how social meaning is produced: the political form by which social relations are stabilized and organized is always combined with a religious form, “by virtue of which the realm of the visible can acquire death, and by virtue of which the living can name themselves with reference to the dead, whilst the human word can be guaranteed by a primal pact, and whereas rights and duties can be formulated with reference to a primal law.” (156) For philosophy, the unity of religion and politics is essential to a social system, as they together create and make sense of the social world of a society’s members.
Political philosophy, however, is ultimately in sympathy with religion, in that they both offer descriptions of human societies that treat them as dependent on something extra-human, whether God in religion’s case or the Other in philosophy’s: “Every religion states in its own way that human society can only open onto itself by being held in an opening it did not create. Philosophy says the same thing, but religion said it first, albeit in terms that philosophy cannot accept.” (157) For philosophy, human society is dependent on a primordial and primary difference between people, absolute alterity seen in language, practices, ways of interpreting the world, etc., that is not completely sutured by a given social shaping.
Prior to modern democracy, political power (for Lefort, the most basic form of political shaping) was always conceived in reference to something outside of itself, some other force that gave it legitimacy and onto which the society’s members could project a sense of unity. God, or the king as representative of God, was seen as transcendent and therefore Other to the people, but as such the people were able to cover the essential disunity of human sociality by identifying with the figure of the transcendent authority. In modern democracy, however, power is not held by any one person, but is diffused throughout society, such that there is no transcendent element upon which people can project an idea of unity:
the division of power does not, in a modern democracy, refer to an outside that can be assigned to the gods, the city, or holy ground; because it does not refer to an inside that can be assigned to the substance of the community. Or, to put it another way, it is because there is no materialization of the Other (which would allow power to function as a mediator, no matter how it were defined) that there is no materialization of the One (which would allow power to function as an incarnation). Nor can power be divorced from the work of division by which society is instituted; a society can therefore relate to itself only through the experience of an internal division that proves to be not a de facto division, but a division that generates its constitution. (160)
In modern democracy, political power is also disentangled from religion, as it no longer makes reference to a transcendent ground of its own authority.
Without reference to the transcendent, however, democracy has to introduce an “unknown element in history, of the gestation of humanity in all the variety of its figures.” (162) Social division is not only seen as foundational to human society, but it is also fundamentally unexplainable without the ability to reference Babel or the enemies of the king. The power that shapes society and the divisions it supposedly overcomes “therefore eludes our grasp” and modern democracy “cannot be apprehended in its political form. While the contours of society become blurred, and while the markers of certainty become unstable, there arises the illusion of a reality that can explain its own determination in terms of a combination of multiple de facto relations.” (162) In other words, although the projection of social unity can no longer occur in modern democracy, a sense of social determination can be manufactured by continual rearticulation of ideologies, as democracy “is constantly in search of its own foundations.” (163) Modern democracy rhetorically describes unity by reference to the “people” or the “nation,” but the reference of these terms remains latent. Political identity is continually reimagined given changing circumstances.
Ultimately, however, modern democracy is founded on a “real vacuum” of social identity that can no longer be papered over by the body of the king. Especially after the failures of modern totalitarian experiments it has become clear that “the reappearance of a divide […] between the discourse of power and people’s experience of their situation indicates the impossibility of precipitating the symbolic into the real, of reducing power to a purely social definition, of materializing power in the persons of those vested with it, of representing society as a body without supplying it with an external guarantor of its organization and limits, and of abolishing social division.” (168)
Where is religion in modern democracy, then? For Lefort, it is not to be found at the level of the symbolic, the linguistic articulation of social reality that comprises the official understanding of social identity and the significance of power. Rather, religion is to be found the points of weakness of modern democracy, where the fiction of social unity created by shifting ideologies breaks down. Religion has become the social imaginary, the fantasies of social unity that can no longer be put in terms of the ruling ideology, and thus always appears as a radical and dangerous force, such that we must understand that “the religious is reactivated 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 of the difficulty political or philosophical thought has in assuming, without making it a travesty, the tragedy of the modern condition.” (187) The thinkers mentioned at the beginning of the paper were the only ones to truly understand the role religion played in society as articulating social unity, which was destroyed in the French Revolution. Both political scientists who look only to the institutions and political philosophers who ultimately seek to reestablish religion by noting its necessity in articulating social identity miss this historical shift in its location, and so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of religion in modern democracy.
Marc de Wilde – “Violence in the State of Exception: Reflection on Theological-Political Motifs in Benjamin and Schmitt”
Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt are known for theological-political figures and motifs that are critical for grasping their respective notions of sovereignty. de Wilde demonstrates the affinity between the theological-political figures these authors used, while noting the differences between their eventual understandings of sovereignty, concluding that Benjamin has a more adequate concept of sovereignty to explain the sovereign violence that has occurred since the beginning of the War on Terror.
Benjamin and Schmitt are in agreement that politics cannot be understood merely be studying political institutions, but rather is diffused throughout society, in the media, economy, technology, and beyond, such that they do not refer to “politics” but rather “the political.” The theological-political does not refer to theology as the site of politics, then, but rather “the reappearance of theological figures of thought in a secularized political sphere, in which their original meanings and functions have become obsolete. The theological (re)surfaces not only in fundamental political beliefs, ideologies, and myths, but also, silently, in theories of sovereignty, decision, and the ‘force of law.’” (190) This definition of the theological-political, or political theology, is where Benjamin and Schmitt are in agreement.
Schmitt, however, defines the sovereign ruler as the one who can proclaim a state of exception. In a state of exception, the legal order of a political unit is suspended, thus giving the sovereign “carte blanche to take all measures he deems necessary to suppress the threat posed to the legal order and to restore a normal situation in which the law can again be applied.” (192) Sovereign violence in the state of exception is not used to enforce any particular set of laws, as these have been suspended, but in order to recreate “a normal forming of life relations,” or in other words, to reestablish the social relations and norms under which the legal system is valid, to coerce people into accepting the state’s legal authority (193).
It is clear that the sovereign under the state of exception, without any legal restraint, can either use violence to restore the legal order or can destroy it entirely. The sovereign can, if he or she wishes, simply refuse to reestablish the legal order, such that the state of exception becomes the rule. The reestablishment of the legal order is, for Schmitt, dependent on restoring the identification of the people with the state. “Life relations” do not for Schmitt constitute a “philosophy of life,” but rather merely the state where legal rules are enforceable, a state won by the sovereign by establishing an enemy against which the people rally by identifying with the state, or through “a separation of friend and foe.” (193)
The state of exception is modeled, for Schmitt, on the Catholic conception of miracles, where the sovereign, itself modeled on the divine Creator, creates ex nihilo social order and the establishment of law. In fact, the sovereign is also the sustainer of legal order, just as God is seen as the sustainer of life, as all legal rules require the authority of the sovereign decision: “legal rules need sovereign decisions because they fail to prescribe their application to specific cases unequivocally.” (194)
Benjamin, on the other hand, understands sovereign state violence not as a means to a redemptive end as Schmitt does, but rather as a “principle,” a “manifestation” of a particular form of violence. Violence is a “force capable of founding and modifying relations of law,” and Benjamin labels it “lawmaking violence,” as opposed to “law-preserving violence.” (196) Lawmaking violence is violence that founds and guarantees the efficacy of a legal order, and has four aspects: originality, excessiveness, omnipresence, and furtiveness.
The originality of lawmaking violence is most easily seen in military violence, where after a period of violence, a peace treaty inaugurates a legal order created as the result of the military violence. Thus military lawmaking violence directly originated a legal order. The death penalty reveals the excessiveness of lawmaking violence, where the state commits violence without measure or moderation. This excessiveness of violence in the state’s power to take life when deemed necessary is essential to maintain the integrity of the legal order against weakening through dissidence. The police represent the omnipresent nature of lawmaking violence, not only in their ability to engage in law-preserving violence, but also the discretion granted them to reformulate rules, and extend or restrict their application in necessary cases (ie. riots). Finally, parliaments conceal violence, making it furtive, in that compromise always presupposes the compulsion of both groups to abide by the process and terms of compromise (so if one party won’t compromise, the democratic system falls into decline. Am I right, Tea Party?)
This violence can be critiqued, for Benjamin, by a violence that is a “pure means,” having no purpose outside of itself but rather serving as a medium of a law-destroying violence, without intent to create new social relations. In a “political general strike,” the people use the threat of violence as a means of coercing the state to change social relations, which Benjamin ultimately recognizes as “mythical violence,” recreating political boundaries and maintaining the people’s guilt and subservience to the political order.
In a “proletarian general strike,” however, nothing more or less than the complete abolition of the state is called for, acting not as a means to another end, but as a “pure means,” the medium of law-destroying violence which Benjamin labels “divine violence,” “which at the end of time will destroy the law as such, thus expiating all possible guilt.” (197-198) The divine violence of the proletarian general strike sacrifices the “mere life” of normal political and legal relations in order to save “what is divine in life, […] not mere life itself but its possible righteousness, that is, the moral task invested in life, the fulfillment of which is postponed to an unforeseeable future,” which is modeled for Benjamin on Messianism (198).
The problem with Schmitt’s state of exception’s application in the contemporary world is that it misses that in the context of the War on Terror, people labeled terrorists lose their rights “by and in agreement with the law.” (199) Sovereign violence has not created a zone of suspended laws in a state of exception but used law to deny legal status to “detainees.” Rather, this violence corresponds to the excessiveness of lawmaking violence described in Benjamin, testifying, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, “an obsession with excess, highlighting the absence of limits to state violence,” reflecting a “qualitative change – in the American legal order,” returning to the lawless violence at the heart of state sovereignty (200).
Judith Butler – “Critique, Coercion, and Sacred Life in Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’”
Butler explores Benjamin’s concept of “divine violence” as a critique of legal violence (lawmaking and law-preserving violence), questioning whether it can truly be a “bloodless” violence that opposes the coercive force of law. Butler first goes through the distinctions Benjamin makes between different types of violence, explaining them more clearly than I can:
Law-preserving violence is exercised by the course and, indeed, by the police and represents repeated and institutionalized efforts to make sure law continues to be binding on the population it governs; it represents the daily ways in which law is made again to be binding on subjects. Law-instating violence is different. Law is posited as something that is done when a polity comes into being, and law is made, but it can also be a prerogative exercised by the military in innovating coercive actions to handle an unruly population. (202)
For Butler, law-preserving violence re-founds and makes binding again the law on citizens, and so repeats the founding act of violence accomplished by lawmaking violence, and so repeats lawmaking violence “in a regulated way.” (202) Both lawmaking and law-preserving violence are instances of a more general form of violence, called “mythic violence:”
Mythic violence establishes law without any justification for doing so, and only once that law is established can we begin to talk about justification at all. Crucially, law is founded without justification, without reference to justification, even though it makes reference to justification possible as a consequence of that founding. First the subject is bound by law, and then a legal framework emerges to justify the binding character of law. In consequence, subjects are produced who are accountable to the law and before the law, who become defined by their relation to legal accountability. (203)
The alternative to this form of coercive violence that founds and preserves a legal order is “divine violence,” which again Butler describes better than I can:
Divine violence is unleashed against the coercive force of that legal framework, against the accountability that binds a subject to a specific legal system and stops that very subject from developing a critical, if not a revolutionary point of view on that legal system. When a legal system must be undone, or when its coerciveness leads to a revolt by those who suffer under its coercion, it is important that those bounds of accountability be broken. Indeed, doing the right thing according to established law is precisely what must be suspended in order to dissolve a body of established law that is unjust. (203)
The mechanism of divine violence is compared to the “general strike,” rather than the “political strike.” The latter suspends work in order to achieve particular alterations to the content of the legal order, whereas the former “seeks to undo the entire legal basis of a given state.” (203) The general strike is undertaken in the name of the god, rather than the state, whose commandment “offers a kind of injunction that is irreducible to coercive law,” instituting a form of ethics transcending morality under state coercion, consisting of subjective guilt under an objective legal system (204). Butler argues that there are two potential political boons to be derived from Benjamin’s notion of divine violence: (1) it allows us to challenge the reduction of Judaism to subservience to a wrathful and punitive God, moving beyond the popular notion of “Jewish guilt,” and (2) it mobilizes Jewish perspectives “against the current policies, if not the constitutional basis of citizenship, of the state of Israel.” (206)
The modus operandi of mythic violence is to recast “violence dealt by fate as a violence that follows from [one’s] own action, and for which [one], as a subject, assumes direct responsibility. To be a subject within these terms is to take responsibility for a violence that precedes the subject and whose operation is occluded by the subject who comes to derive the violence she suffers from her own acts.” (208) Mythic violence is the method of subject formation within legal regimes, placing the violence of “fate” under the explanatory framework of subjective guilt, instituting the binding of the individual to the legal order that holds the subject accountable for her actions. Law thus “petrifies the subject, arresting life in the moment of guilt,” permanently chaining the subject to the legal order.
For Benjamin, then, “God is the name for what opposes myth,” challenging the binding of the subject to the legal order, the attribution of subjective guilt that creates the system of morality as responsibility. God opposes this order through the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” divine violence as it is destructive of the legal system. This divine violence is meant to preserve life, rather than destroy it, however, and does so by protecting what is sacred in life: “The desire to release life from a guilt secured through legal contract with the state – this would be a desire that gives rise to a violence against violence, one that seeks to release life from a death contract with the law, a death of the living soul by the hardening force of guilt.” (211) Divine violence preserves life beyond legal subjectivity, or the “soul.”
The commandment also opens a space for a form of ethics beyond that of responsibility to a legal order. The commandment “thou shalt not kill” remains uninterpreted and unquestioned as to its applicability: it is the divine responsibility of all individuals to wrestle in solitude with this commandment in every decision. The commandment has no enforcement mechanism: no force will punish the subject for failing to conform to some recognized standard of appropriate conduct under the objective terms of the commandment, as no such objective terms exist. The commandment “functions as a guideline. And what is mandated by the commandment is a struggle with the commandment, whose final form cannot be determined in advance.” (212) Even if the individual chooses to ignore the commandment, it is her sole responsibility, not in the face of any institution of judgment or enforcement.
With this understanding of the commandment and thus of divine violence, it is easy to see that it does not attempt to establish a new regime of positive law, and thus does not fulfill a historical or teleological function. It is, however, messianic in a very particular sense of messianism, that of creating a sense of the true conditions of human suffering. Mythic violence produces a knowledge of human suffering as caused by individual contraventions of moral norms embodied in the legal system. Transience, the “perpetual downfall of human happiness,” however, for Benjamin constitutes the true and eternal condition of human suffering:
If the rhythm of the messianic is happiness, and this rhythm consists in an apprehension that all is bound to pass away, undergo its downfall, then this rhythm, the rhythm of transience itself, is eternal, and this rhythm is precisely what connected the inner life of the person, the person who suffers with what is eternal. This seems to account for the restricted sense of life invoked by the commandment. It is not the opposite of ‘mere life,’ since transience surely characterizes mere life, but it is mere life grasped as the rhythm of transience. This provides a perspective counter to the view that life itself is sinful, that guilt must bind us to the law, and that law must therefore exercise a necessary violence on life.” (216)
In this context, the act of critique is a refusal to comply to the law, a rebellion against understanding oneself as a guilty, sinful, inherently violent subject who must be coerced into submission by the violence enforcing the legal order.
Stéphane Mosès – “From Rosenzweig to Levinas: Philosophy of War”
Franz Rosenzweig in The Star of Redemption and Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity both frame two radical systems of ethics in terms of reflections on the First and Second World Wars respectively. These wars caused a rupture in the ways the tradition of western philosophy has hitherto understood the meaning and history of western civilization. Mosès compares the reflections on war these two thinkers undertake, demonstrating the difference between their two systems of ethics in terms of the extent to which they believe world war has ruined narratives of western progress and rationality.
Rosenzweig, writing in the wake of World War I, argues that the war shows the falsity of the two central propositions of western philosophy up to and especially including Hegel, that (1) the world is transparent to reason and (2) that man fulfills his dignity and true nature in recognizing and taking up his identity within that order. In the condition of war, the logic of military and nationalist strategy and necessity brings civilization, perfectly rationally, to chaos and destruction, and in this situation, humans become mere units in an army, eventually to become numbers on casualty lists. For Rosenzweig, the only appropriate response to this rational reductivism of philosophy is “the anguished cry of the individual before the threat of imminent death. That cry expresses at once the instinctive revolt of man against the violence done to him (in this particular case, the violence of history), the affirmation of a basic, obvious truth: his irreducible identity as subject and the sudden collapse of all the philosophical constructions intended to make him forget the horror of death.” (221) This recognition of irreducible human uniqueness, at the very moment of exposure to one’s own death, creates the possibility of ethics. Rather than seeing nature as a rationally ordered transparent system, the primal reality is rather chaos and war, a constitutive opaqueness inevitably thwarting the project of creating universal morals.
In essence, Rosenzweig critiques the equation of being and totality, along with that of rational and real, arguing against the notion that the true goal of humanity is to recognize and embody unity. Unity determines human identity in spite of our own everyday experience of multiplicity and irrationality. Ethics does not consist, as Hegel believes, by human incorporation into “ever more general communities to which he belongs: the family, the civil society, and the state. When he is cut off from this context, which alone ties him to the universal, he falls back into a purely natural existence, that is, into his particularity, which is egotistical and therefore fundamentally amoral.” (224-225) Against, Hegel, Rosenzweig argues that only “radical freedom,” original self-possession, can found ethics. The natural individual is a selfhood preceding any moral system or society, as “an original form of perseverance in being […] He represents for Rosenzweig man in his elementary separation, in his pure self-affirmation.” (226) This is the subject exemplified by the Greek tragic hero, and is superseded by a passage to Judaism and Christianity through the break caused by revelation, calling individuals to give up their autonomy in the name of the neighbor and God. The I is understood as always already called upon by God to act in service of the neighbor: “This fundamental asymmetry in the I-Thou relation, in which the Thou always precedes the I, translates, from the ethical point of view, into the subordination of the subject to the commandment. The commandment, independently of its specific content, signifies a shattering of human autonomy, the submission to an absolutely other who invests subjectivity from without.” (227)
Levinas agrees in spirit with Rosenzweig’s critique of western philosophy, but begins with the fundamentally different experience of World War II, involving the “systematic annihilation of human groups as such, and to a certain extent the putting into question of the very idea of humanity.” (222) Levinas does not believe that even individual resistance to historical finality can effectively break with the logic of war, as it still manifests a “vital egotism that stirs within all that seek to ‘persevere in being’ and is the source of the war of each against all.” (222) Only the absolute transcendence of the Other over the self, mandating infinite care for others, can possibly resist the necessities of politics and history.
Levinas critiques Rosenzweig by adopting Hegelian logic against him, labeling the individual’s cry of protest against violence an
…illusion engendered by the ego’s narcissism. The point is not, he writes, to set up an opposition between the experience of totality and ‘the protestation of one person in the name of his personal egotism or even his salvation. Such a proclamation of morality based on the pure subjectivism of the I is refuted by war, the totality it reveals, and the objective necessities.’ In other words, at the time Levinas was writing Totality and Infinity, that is, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, the obvious fact that no one could avoid getting caught up in war, and that individual protest would immediately be negated in the name of a collective logic that usually takes on the appearance of rationality, had long made the individual revolt championed by Rosenzweig obsolete. (Levinas, quoted in Mosès, 229)
Even man in revolt still takes a place within the fundamentally antagonistic relationship between poles in the Hegelian dialectic: the opposition between Axis and Allied powers mirrors the opposition between negations in the dialectic, a “general order from which there is no escape.” (Levinas, quoted in Mosès, 229) Against this mobilization, the only possibility of human revolt is to contest the understanding of humans as objects of knowledge, though also as irreducibly unique.
The only alternative to the totality and its necessary conclusion in war for Levinas is pure exteriority, an exteriority that “infinitely exceeds the idea of an all-encompassing totality in which all differences, all particularities (whatever their place in the hierarchy of the system), are ultimately absorbed into the identity of the same: namely the notion of a pure exteriority itself.” (230) Levinas reads in Descartes proof of the existence of God a model for the idea of the infinite, a thinking of something beyond an individual’s capacity to conceive of, a thought that cannot be thematized but is still known. This unthematizable transcendent thought is that of the Other, who “in his radical exteriority, is imposed upon me as the unintegrable itself, as the one who cannot be reduced to one elements among others in the totality of which I am a part.” (230-231) Only infinite servitude and responsibility to the Other understood as absolutely transcendent to me can challenge the logic of totality and constitute effective resistance to war.
Hent de Vries – “Levinas, Spinoza, and the Theological-Political Meaning of Scripture”
Levinas is known for criticizing Spinoza’s metaphysical system on the grounds that it identifies God with the essence of the totality of beings, and that it affirms that the essence of beings is their striving to preserve themselves in their being. Thus, God as the essence of all things is nothing other than the principle of egotistic striving for self-preservation, a theology Levinas reads most clearly in Spinoza, but considers endemic to the entire tradition of western philosophy. This principle of striving unites all fields of human experience, including and most importantly, politics, religion (particularly scripture), and philosophy. At the same time, however, Levinas’ critique of Spinoza’s uniting of these three domains under the principle of self-preservation demonstrates for de Vries an appreciation of the ambivalence of philosophy. Although philosophy ultimately interprets all human experience under the rubric of self-preservation, it also recognizes an essential inseparability of politics and scripture, a connection in which Levinas is heavily invested, as it subtly implies the possibility of a specifically Jewish, scriptural basis of political action. Spinoza opens the space for a method of interpreting scripture from itself that allows it to constitute a perspective of social and political problems: “Judaism cannot separate itself off from this, just as it cannot turn its back on mathematics; it cannot remain disinterested in democracy and social problems, any more than it can choose to ignore the injuries man and things on man in favor of intelligible relations, such as dialogue, gentleness, and peace.” (Levinas, quoted in de Vries, 239)
Levinas’ critique of Spinoza is ultimately that he provides the idea of a scriptural interpretation of politics, but ultimately undercuts this possibility for a scriptural hermeneutics by deriving the meaning of scripture from the external principle of self-preservation:
Spinoza failed to see a certain hermeneutic whose ‘polysemy of meaning’ is premised on exegesis, not on a text’s genesis, and whose effective history moves well beyond the subjective intentionality of the author’s – or first readers’ – ideas, presupposing a creative role in the ‘production of meaning.’ This is the ‘gift of prophecy,’ whose structure has, according to Levinas, become the model for all modern interpretation of Scripture, literature, and, indeed, philosophy: ‘the religious moment of any reading of books and of all poetic pleasure. (242)
Levinas understands the basis for scriptural hermeneutics to be the “Word of God,” which he considers to be a domain separate from the three forms of knowledge (philosophy, science, and politics) but transcendent to them. For Levinas, an “imaginative faculty” in humans allows them to express and manifest the Word of God in any particular activity, in imagining a “Jewish” form of that activity. Philosophy, politics, and science can thus be seen as activities in which the truth of the Word of God is actualized, in this case, though, not the principle of self-preservation but rather the responsibility to the Other encapsulated in the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”
Levinas, although calling for a scriptural perspective on politics, philosophy, and science, does not wish to equate any one of those with the meaning of scripture. Rather, he understands each of these expressions of scriptural meaning to be a “Said,” a particular utterance in the name of divine meaning. The Said is undercut by the “Saying,” the act of address to the Other which constitutes the true act of ethics. The Saying is the act of invoking infinite responsibility to the Other, which a particular Said could not possibly exhaust, such that “expression carries the principle of its own interruption – its stasis no less than its stability – within itself.” (246) No particular expression of scripture in a concrete perspective on a problem in science, politics, or philosophy, fulfills and thus absolves us of our responsibility to the other: we are rather always held accountable for the eventual effects and results of that expression. Thus, the possibility of interpreting knowledge from the perspective of scripture as embodying our responsibility to the Other is endless, and Spinoza, far from having betrayed Judaism, can actually serve as a central figure in modern Jewish thought.
Paola Marrati – “Mysticism and the Foundation of the Open Society: Bergsonian Politics”
Henri Bergson attempts to effect a conversion in philosophy from a conceptual stance that obscures, even fundamentally denies, the reality of time, to one which affirms it. Philosophy has always attempted to think in terms of universals and thus eternal concepts, rather than the “moving, the new in the process of making itself.” (592) Bergson rethinks time as something with agency, rather than simply a frame in which events follow in sequence. Marrati interprets Bergson’s rethinking of ethics in light of his insights on time, and demonstrates how they can be applied to politics.
Against theories which derive ethical obligations from universal values or from a priori theories of human reason, Bergson begins from a social fact that people seem to obey others based on social position and role. Children obey their parents because that’s what one does: parents are higher-ups, so one obeys: “Their authority derives first and foremost from a social position. Behind moral obligation, society can be discerned.” (595) People exist in societies that function to (in theory) provide for everyone’s biological needs, and so it is a truism that humans are radically dependent on one another. What interests Bergson is the fact that these patterns of obedience based on social position become habits. Bergson does not question that humans have independent reason or agency, despite being biologically determined to a great extent: “The only thing that is not contingent is the habit of taking up habits.” (595) Bergson in fact believes that the reason societies can fulfill their function of resolving biological needs is precisely because humans are by nature habitual beings. Each individual takes up a place within society, obedient to some and in power over others.
Bergson’s surprising conclusion is not that societal morals must be strictly hierarchical, justifying an aristocratic sense of morality, but rather that individuals are inevitably mutually tied to each other in society, giving rise to solidarity. Each individual has a wide set of habits of deference and control, which are experienced as moral obligations to others. We follow most of our lives these habits, within a “totality of obligation” that binds us to society (596). Because obligations, however, are only habits, they can change given the correct circumstances. Bergson argues that habits change when problems arise which require changes in our practices, particularly biological ones. Humans are always free to think up new solutions to new problems, creating relative freedom to change social obligations.
This above description is of a “closed society.” While for Bergson it describes most historical societies, it has a flaw in that it tends to include some and exclude others. Just as boundaries exist between social hierarchies, boundaries also exist at the edges of society. When social cohesion is threatened, order and habit-enforcing violence is the result: “borderless human fraternity gives way to an outburst of violence; everything is allowed against the enemy – murder, pillage, rape, torture, cruelty. To respond that these are exceptional and rare events is but a delusion; there is nothing exceptional about wars except our desire not to see them coming, to exclude them from ‘the normal path things take,’ of which they would only be an unfortunate accident.” (598)
The attitude other to that of habit is that of the “open soul:” “Suppose we say it embraces all humanity: we should not be going too far, we should hardly be going far enough, since its love may extend to animals, to plants, to all nature. And yet not one of these things which would thus fill it would suffice to define the attitude taken by the soul, for it could, strictly speaking, do without all of them. Its form is not dependent on its content.” (Bergson, quoted in Marrati, 599) Bergson’s open soul is characterized not simply by universal love, but by a mystical love. The open soul is a love of movement, not attached to any particular thing, challenging social boundaries, such that “the open society is to include all of humanity, the mystic opening, as we have seen, passes through humanity, so to speak without tying itself down.” (600) The question of moral and political philosophy, then, is not how to conceive of social boundaries and habits in such a way as to make them permanent, but to truly effect the conversion Bergson begins in philosophy from the closed soul to the open soul and society.
Jane Bennett – “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout”
Bennett disrupts current notions of human agency by arguing that non-human objects can possess agency as well, using a concept stemming from Deleuze called the “assemblage:” “a material cluster of charged parts that have indeed affiliated, remaining in sufficient proximity and coordination to function as a (flowing) system. The coherence of this system endures alongside energies and factions that fly out from it and disturb it from within.” (602) The notion of agency arising from assemblages is allied to an “enchanted materialism” Bennett wishes to advocate, which is stated in a “profession of faith” (not a confession), modeled on the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one Nature, vibrant and overflowing, material and energetic, makes of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse ‘is continually doing things, things that bear upon us…as forces upon material beings.’ I believe that this ‘generative mobility’ ‘resists full translation and exceeds our comprehensive grasp.’ I believe that to experience materiality as vital and animated is to enrich the quality of human life. Or, as Spinoza suggests, the more kinds of bodies with which a human body can productively affiliate, the greater the prospects for an intelligent way of life: ‘as the body is more capable of being affected in many ways and of affecting external bodies…so the mind is more capable of thinking.’ (603-604)
The example Bennett pursues of an assemblage with agency in this paper is the North American power grid, and the 2003 blackout which left over a million Americans without power was the result of “an assortment of agentic sites, from quirky electron flows to cocky economists’ assumptions about market self-regulation. It sketches a world where agency is distributed along an ontological continuum of beings, entities, and forces, and it offers an example of what it means to say that a grid lives a life of its own.” (606) Both human decisions and a panoply of material and physical sources gave rise to the blackout, from a deficit of reactive power (electron flows where waves are not in sync), financial incentives, and many others.
Such an account of the blackout gives truth to the intended obfuscation given by the power companies after the fact that the grid has a “life of its own,” challenging classical explanations of human agency centering on intentionality and reason, ie. the mental aspects of agency, ignoring that all human intentionality only exists in an embodied context, where “discrete, reflective selves occupy the middle range, with the human body and its ‘motor intentionality’ at one end, and a nonpersonal, phenomenal force field at the other.” (607) This understanding of agency challenges the anthropocentric accounts of agency Bennett believes are common to the social sciences.
Three concepts Bennett redefines for her new theory of agency are efficacy, directionality, and causality. Efficacy for Bennett refers to the creative and productive power of any particular action, which exists (in the context of an assemblage) amongst a set of other efficacies that are interlinked and thus can give rise to unpredictable results. Directionality refers to a promissory quality of any activity: rather than leading to a purposive (and thus interpretable within a teleological context) result, Bennett uses Derrida’s concept of messianicity to argue that “things appear to us only because they tantalize and hold us in suspense, alluding to a fullness that’s elsewhere and a future restlessly on its way,” indicating that events in assemblages are directed towards a future result we can only incompletely anticipate and is thus always surprising to us (610). Causality, finally, refers to the results of the complex set of efficacies in an assemblage, creating a crystallized result that exceeds any intention or expectation, and is thus always to be reinterpreted in light of future results.
An assemblage is best conceived in terms of the traditional Chinese concept of “shi,” the “style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to a specific arrangement of things.” (613) The shi is the net orientation or tendency of the assemblage as a product of the independent actions of each of its elements (eg. all the physical and human forces of the power grid create its tendency to give us electricity). Each element is autonomous, and has potential to break off from the group and alter the orientation of the whole. Thus, Bennett argues that we can have a distributive understanding of agency that is not human-centered but still allows for holding individuals responsible for their intentions and products, though they are “incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects.” (615) All human intention makes use of physical intermediaries and only functions with these physical forces which act as must as actants as humans do. So the ethical questions we must ask are whether the assemblages in which we choose to participate are ones “whose conglomerate effectivity tends toward the enactment of nobler ends.” (615)
Kate Khatib – “Automatic Theologies: Surrealism and the Politiccs and Equality”
Surrealism, despite its protestations against traditional theological concepts, has potential to recreate a post-secular religion through its concept of the Marvelous through relinking sacred and profane, real and imaginary realms. Surrealism, as Khatib explains, is a movement whose products are not merely particular works of art but encapsulates an entire “theory of experience, a critical – indeed, political – epistemology, whose greatest goal was to develop a radically new way of experiencing the world and of understanding the structure of thought.” (620) Surrealism fundamentally argues that in any individual’s experience a grain of truth is to be found, introducing a radical expression of freedom in privileging experiences “that were not based solely in empirical fact. ‘The loosening of the self by intoxication’ – and not only drug-induced intoxication, but religious and artistic ecstasies, as well as madness and manic fits,” was the ground for reenchanting the entire world (621). Surrealism searches for redemption in the profane world “instead of attempting to transcend it, a redemptive system in which the potential for reenchantment was located squarely within the reality of a base, imperfect, and sometimes even vile everyday world; this is, perhaps, the truest understanding of Benjamin’s profane illumination.” (622-623)
A practice whereby this profane illumination is to come about in surrealist theory is called “automatism,” a form of spontaneous experience meant to bring the world of objects in line with an individual’s immediate experience of the world. Automatism attempts to bring the subject to see experiences as “chance encounters” with an ever-changing, always-new world, which Khatib compares to Eliade’s concept of hierophany, the manifestation of a sacred or transcendent element in the profane world. For Khatib, “automatism’s products are so many hierophanies, manifestations of, if not the numinous element of the sacred, then at least its secular counterpart.” (625) Automatism, then, is a way of accessing this sacred in the profane world of objects, which surrealism dubs, as opposed to traditional religious concepts they consider to have been stultified by hierarchy and inaccessibility, the Marvelous, “the experience of a world suddenly brought into balance by a chance encounter.” (626)
An example of automatism in practice is what is called “automatic writing,” where one writes, as quickly as one can, one’s reactions to the first thought that flows into one’s head, resisting the temptation to edit or think about the words one uses: “The first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is crying out to be heard.” (Breton, quoted in Khatib, 627) What is important in automatic writing is not the product one creates, but the experience one has in doing so, in bringing up that thought which has been lying latent and contains an “unbridled state of joy, free from intention, and flowing through it is something formerly unknown that is manifestly, unquestionably true.” (628) Khatib adds that “automatism has an explicitly political and universal goal: the surrealist experience of the world provides a creative framework that allows one to gain some measure of control over the language that shapes our knowledge of, and thus our experience of and interaction with, the everyday world and the objects within it.” (628) Automatism allows internal inspiration to transform one’s experience of the everyday, unlocking our hidden capacities to see the new and Marvelous in the everyday world, giving rise to an “automatic hierophany, the sudden and profane manifestation of something more, something ‘superreal,’ in the objects of the everyday world. […] a total revolution is what is at stake, and at every moment each individual holds the power to call forth this universal revolt in an encounter with chance.” (632)
Stefanos Geroulanos – “Theoscopy: Transparency, Omnipotence, and Modernity”
Theoscopy is the experience of knowing that one is seen without being able to see back. It is a “religious force, to walk in fear and faith of a tremendous power one cannot face. It is to live a paranoid existence of nakedness before a God who is all-seeing, hence omniscient and omnipotent, and who accordingly metes out a social experience and a knowledge of oneself and one’s history that is based on this awareness of being seen.” (633) This grounding social experience of being seen without the possibility of a returning gaze produces knowledge not only of identity and history, but also of ethics, creating an ideal of transparency before the anonymous gaze. Geroulanos argues that although this experience has its historical origins in the Abrahamic religions, it survives the “death of God in modernity,” and is reconstructed in contemporary society (633). Geroulanos tracks how theoscopy still acts as an organizing principle of social and ethical knowledge in modern ideals of citizenship and community in the social theories of Foucault and Debord. Both thinkers for Geroulanos see theoscopy surviving in modern times in response to two problems: “(1) the emergence of modernity out of a religious and theologically conceived past; and (2) the significance of visually coded interpersonal relationships as bearers of that past.” (634)
Geroulanos argues that for Foucault, power in the modern age has three religious sources:
1. Certain kinds of power are strictly religious (e.g., Christian pastoral power and its development into a sociopolitical force);
2. Within a certain group or society, power can be inflected religiously (e.g., in the addition of a parish church to a panoptic factory);
3. Power, in modernity, may have a fundamentally religious basis. (637)
Geroulanos is most interested in the third religious source of power in modernity, arguing that it is connected to theology in four ways: historical derivation, structural isomorphism, self-referential knowledge, and paradigmaticity.
Power in the modern age is historically derived from theology in that “the organization and regulation of the political domain in modernity follows from a historically anterior theological set of concepts and practices.” (637) Whereas in Christian theology the soul is born in sin and subject to punishment, the modern subject is “born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint.” (Foucault, quoted in Geroulanos, 638) The Christian model of subjectivity, the soul that is subjected to the gaze of God’s judgment and thus to punishment to alleviate its condition of sinfulness, is both preserved and altered: the soul under modern sovereign regimes is subjected to the gaze of the “surveillant society of the carcareal,” and to internal discipline (638)
Power for Foucault is not an object that can be possessed or transferred, but is rather irreducible from the practices that shape the subject into a social model. This diffuse notion of power implies that power is exercised throughout a series of “technological, architectural, mechanical, legal, and social dimensions,” regardless of the conceptual ground of a particular system of social ethics (638). Thus, theological power and modern power are structurally isomorphic in that they are exercised in the same set of spheres, ie. throughout all of a society. This also indicates that modern sovereignty shares the same problematic as theological power, that is to say, how to manage people in a mode of “shepherdhood,” such that the functioning of modern sovereignty ultimately takes the same form as (ie. is isomorphic with) theology.
Power is not simply something that is exercised by one person on another, but is rather actively taken up by the subject and informs his or her conception of his or herself, such that the subject continually actualizes and re-actualizes the society’s power relations through knowledge. Thus, any self-conception relies the prevailing “order of man,” such that knowledge of people in a society is self-referential, or in other words, is merely an inflected repetition of the prevailing knowledge (Foucault, quoted in Geroulanos, 639). In the modern age, the “order of man” recognizes his separation from the natural world, thereby creating narratives of human-centered progress, and individuals understand their own selves in these terms, internalizing the dominant notion of reality.
Foucault, however, argues that in the modern age the upkeep of the “order of man” and the concurrent “order of things” is uniquely difficult, as there was no longer God as a “Great Observer” who could guarantee the truth of one’s representations of the world: “there was no longer any transparency between the order of things and the representations that one could have of them; things were folded somehow into their own thickness and onto a demand exterior to representation. It is for this reason that languages with their history, life with its organization and its autonomy, and work with its own capacity for production appeared.” (Foucault, quoted in Geroulanos, 640) The transparency of the world was no longer an obvious fact, but rather a problem that had to be resolved through science, both natural and human. Thus the paradigm of the modern world was God as the Great Observer, recreated in the panopticon, the prison in which a guard in a center tower observes the prisoners without their ability to see him in return, thus internalizing his discipline.
Debord, for his part, argues that the spectacle, the fundamental organizing practice of modern society, is a “specious form of the sacred.” (Debord, quoted in Geroulanos,643) Modern society is also modeled on theology, but in a perverted form. Debord argues that religious institutions were the historically dominant form of repression and discipline, and that they have been replaced by the spectacle, a form of “pseudo-gratification which still embodies repression.” (Debord, quoted in Geroulanos, 643) Whereas in historical theology discipline is presented as a necessary corrective to sin, giving rise to disciplinary repression of people in order to meet a theological ideal, in modern society people are disciplined by being offered a false form of gratification in the spectacle, a specious pleasure that forms their idea of the good life, causing them to self-discipline in order to maximize utility.
The spectacle can be best conceived as “universalized capitalist idolatry.” (645) Commodities are offered as keys to happiness and freedom, creating an illusion of redemption through objects that both mirrors theology and perverts it through commodification, creating a concrete bondage to consumption:
While the sacred, in its totality, used to deliver a certain sort of existence and to promise other possibilities, the spectacle, in its ambiguous modernity, ‘depicts what society can deliver, but within this depiction what is permitted is rigidly distinguished from what is possible.’ What one faces in the spectacle is nothing less than a false god, a poor parallel to promises of another age that today no longer hinge on their religious foundation or ideology. (644)
Commodities are offered as the path to earthly salvation, constructing a consumerist subject whose only horizons of thought are the images presented to them in capitalist exchange, chaining them to the system of economic domination under capitalism.
The subjection of consumerist humanity to capitalism corresponds to an alteration in notions of time under capitalism. Time for Debord is independent of man, and this used to be understood in pre-monotheistic societies as “cyclical time,” organizing human life around a natural cosmic system. Monotheism created a notion of finality, promising postapocalyptic fulfillment, “first in the restoration of a perhistorical world, then in the historical one, turned to aid the oppressive regulation of society through irreversible historical time, engendering a society that could find temporary relief only in a festival.” (647) In modern capitalism, this temporary relief has been secularized to create “reified” or “spectacular” time, constructed as cyclical time (the work year), punctuated by “false variants” (like vacations). In the society of spectacular time, the capitalist organization of time masters the entirety of individuals’ everyday lives, creating “an empire of boredom, an era in which time is synonymous with the spectacle’s antihistorical, unchanging, everlasting present. In the spectacle, what has gone terribly wrong is that the humanization of time has collapsed into dehumanized reification, breaking the direct connection, even the equivalence, between man and time that supposedly existed in the past.” (647)
In the society of the spectacle, then, each individual acts as a spectator, both modeling themselves on the consumerist notion of secular salvation and acting as interpersonal models, thus creating a net effect where “every participant in the spectacle serves as its component, as an imperfect seer, an insufficient yet ever-present eye and object of another’s eye – trapped in a temporality that extends almost infinitely, to envelop and undermine the possibility of an overcoming of the spectacle. Debord’s subjects are continuously spectacularized, just as much as they themselves watch – what matters in the spectacle is that people unmistakably subject themselves to the economic, disciplinary, and visual conditions of separation by submitting their gaze and desire to it.” (648) Thus theoscopy returns in the society of the spectacle, as each individual tacitly understands that the others are watching and judging, and so maintain their anaesthetized existence as consumers in order to achieve the promised secular salvation.
de Duve, Thierry – “Come On, Humans, One More Effort if You Want to Be Post-Christians!”
de Duve seeks the “exit from religion” in the “religion of the exit from religion, Christianity, taking up a developmental schema from Marcel Gauchet, where the “religious gesture” consists of a “pact with nature whereby people consent to a cosmic order shot through with supernatural forces beyond their control in exchange for a stable place in this cosmos, guaranteed by respect for ancestral law and the perpetuation of the social order willed by ancestors, as opposed to our post-religious pact we have made with nature in the present, “in which nature is offered to us and is subject to the domination we exercise over it through science and technology, in exchange for the expulsion of the supernatural from the world and our fall into the irreversibility of history.” (653) For de Duve, the French Revolution attempted to go past the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love) by translating them into political, secular terms, (liberty, equality, and fraternity), but failed to fully exorcise them from political discourse, thus creating the conditions for religion’s resurgence in politics today.
de Duve seeks to demonstrate this claim by asking what liberty, equality, and fraternity could main if they are translations of faith, hope, and love. de Duve argues that in the context of liberty, faith refers to “faith that the other will make good use of his or her freedom,” which is opposed to belief, which in religion (by which he means animism) demand absolute compliance to the authority of ancestral tradition (654). Thus, faith in its interconnection with liberty is only possible on the basis of the total disenchantment of the world, where traditional (and hence religious) authority is completely destroyed, which the French Revolution tried, but failed to accomplish.
de Duve then argues that “without faith there is no hope. Without liberty, likewise, there is no equality.” (655) Granting another equality relies on the hope that they will use freedom well, grounded in faith. In Christianity, faith grounded hope that all have an equal chance for salvation under God the father: “This is the link of filiation that sustains the Father’s fatherhood and that the believer reasserts by imitating Jesus.” (656) The result of this filiation is that through equality, all men become brothers, such that love between them is expressed as fraternity. Although the French Revolution attempted to destroy traditional authority in the figure of the king, the kind was at most a symbol, and the tyrant Robespierre exposed the myth of the revolution’s ability to inculcate egalitarian rule.
The Revolution did not succeed in overcoming traditional rule because it did not fully take liberty, in the sense of having faith that the other will use his or her freedom well, to its logical conclusion of addressing it to concrete others in society, but amalgamated people to the abstract conception “citizen,” presuming that all others would use their freedom well, thus eliding over problems of otherness and dissent in the new egalitarian society. A key point in this elision of otherness takes place in the realm of sexual difference, where fraternity, a gendered word, stood in for universal love as a hermaphroditic model between abstract citizens. Thus the French Revolution repressed the key problem of the uncertainty of paternity, which keeps the repression of Christianity and traditional religion alive.
Let me attempt to explain this. In Christianity, Joseph is told that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and thus can escape the fear of her infidelity, and that their son Jesus is not his progeny. de Duve argues that Joseph chooses to believe what Gabriel tells him, that Mary did not sleep with another man, thus proving for Joseph God’s existence. Joseph thus withdraws or surrenders the idea of his own paternity, which gives rise to the revolutionary potential, since forgotten, of Christianity: “this is the uncertainty of paternity, the anxiety and denial of men when it comes to admitting it, and the crazy inventiveness with which they have devised systems of kinship and apparatuses of power designed at once to conceal this truth from themselves and to deny women their freedom.” (662) The Christian “universal love,” however, chose not to recognize this, and instead denied sexual difference, re-repressing the uncertainty and anxiety of paternity, which the French Revolution only continued by reference to fraternity as a universal love between men.
Going beyond religion and Christianity requires taking up the withdrawal of paternity once more, acknowledging that not only God the father is dead but also that love is not a hermaphroditic universal concept: “God shows human beings that he leaves the use that they will make of their freedom up to them. He henceforth relies on them to disentangle the political from the religious, while He withdraws.” (669) It is only when Christians realize that being a Christian means renouncing belief in God the father that Christianity will be transcended from within.
Werner Hamacher – “The Right Not to Use Rights: Human Rights and the Structure of Judgments”
That human rights are rights of human beings indicates that they apply not to the empirical totality of the species, nor to a privileged group of humans, but to the “human essence,” abstracted from external attributes. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 was created explicitly to mend a deficiency in our understanding of our own essence, pronouncing that essence publicly, such that “the essence of the human and its humanity is itself and consists in this Declaration, since it makes itself manifest and actual in it” in the sight of God (672) Thus, human rights are the form which the human essence takes, and this form is “the juridical one of rights and their perpetual declaration is rendered more precise by the second implication of the rights of man: human rights, as enduring as they may be, arise from a moment of decision and form a conclusion.” (672) Human rights are the conclusion of a judgment on the essence of man, that he is a juridical being, that that human beings are “the theme of juridical statutes, orders, assessments and decrees, the object of legislative, judicial, and executive measures; that they are supposed to be fundamentally juridical beings.” (674) All judgments about man take legal form, since the human essence is nothing more or less than the right to be considered an object of law.
Hamacher opposes the implicit theory of the human essence articulated in Plato’s myth of judgment after death in the Gorgias to this reduction of humanity inherent to the regime of human rights. In this myth, the soul is judged after death, and so stripped naked of the inessential physical aspects of human embodied life, such that judgment, not resting on phenomena,
does not rest in phenomenal consciousness, either, for after the reform instituted by Zeus, mortals are no longer able to know their death ahead of the time of judgment. Death is not the theme of judgment, but rather the pure structure of judging, an aphenomenal and anepistemic separation, the ablation of the soul’s essence itself, which does not enter into the horizon of a noetic act, but rather determines the horizon by which the judgment takes its course as a pathos, a passion and a passivity preceding any distinction between bodily passivity and psychic activity. (676)
In death, the soul is separated from the body, such that death makes the soul an utterly unique object, devoid of any particular qualities that could be made the predicate of a judgment about that soul: the soul is only the “who,” not the “what” of the person. The unique individual is thus judged to be a “good one” or a “bad one,” or in other words, the absolute particular individual is the subject of judgment, rather than the abstracted legal articulation of his or her essence.
The Gorgias myth makes no mention of rights, thus taking no account of a human “substance” that is anything other than the absolutely particular soul of an individual. Human rights, determining the human essence to be the abstract structure of right, can only construct the “rights of objects: nonhuman institutions not only of reciprocal limitation but also of reciprocal elimination. Right is right-against-right, and therefore, ex definitione, unjust.” (680) Thus, the Gorgias myth points to a form of judgment not reduced only to the abstract claims of wrong between individuals. Rights are simply a claim individuals make against others in order to ensure the unhindered path of their wills: “not according to the measure of the incalculable singularity of individuals, taking into consideration their past and their futures, which cannot in all cases be defined by the will and the calculation of power.” (680) It would belong to the human, then, that the human has the “right not to need rights, not to use rights or be used and used up by them.” (681)
Hamacher thus makes several demands on the regime of human rights:
1. That everyone “alone as well as in association with others” has the right to property, but loses this right whenever it is used for the social, political, or juridical definition of that which he himself, his community, or any other are or should be. […]
2. That everyone has the right to appear in any form whatsoever in and before his chosen public, so long as he does not deduce or demand to deduce from this the further right to regard this appearance as a representation of that which he is or should be. […]
3. That everyone has the right to belong to one community or several communities, and to act upon them in such a way that all other rights are being furthered in every way. […]
4. That sovereignty lies not in a people, nor in a nation or state and its representatives. Sovereignty is neither a category of right nor of its foundation or preservation.
5. That no community and no politically constituted society has the right to isolate any of its members, whether it be in order to protect itself or in order to exert punishment. […]
6. That everyone has the right to inform himself and others about these rights and to participate in the formation of their consequences and the regulations concerning their enforcement. Everyone has the right to question these rights, to respond to them and to their insufficiencies, and to act to transform them, alone or in association with others, in view of their improvement.
7. That there is no natural or positive limit to the right to change all rights including human rights in their traditional definition. […] (684)
The ideal of judgment is Plato’s court judging on the individual soul. For Hamacher, concrete judgment is a permanent striving for that impossible condition. Plato’s myth is apocalyptic corresponds for Hamacher to a messianic event where divine justice concretely exists on earth. Hamacher concludes by referencing Benjamin’s text “Idea of a Mystery,” where history is conceived as a trial where humanity brings complaints against all Creation and against the absence of the Messiah. Witnesses for the future are brought in, but the testimonies of humanity and the defense’s witnesses don’t match, and so the court cannot reach a conclusion. “For this reason, new complaints keep being introduced, as do new witnesses. There is torture and martyrdom. The jury benches are filled with the living, who listen to man the plaintiff and to the witnesses with equal distrust. The jury members pass their duties on to their sons. At last, the anxiety grows in them that they might be drive from their benches. At the end, the entire jury has fled; only the plaintiff and the witnesses remain.” (Benjamin, quoted in Hamacher, 687)
The world court knows only the attempt to reach final judgment on the character of Creation and whether the Messiah can bring the promised judgment. The only possibility of justice, in Hamacher’s reading of this allegory, is that “justice cannot be an object of judgment and of decision, of conclusion and the formation of consent, since it is itself a process (Prozeß) that as a process can only remain just if it isn’t from the beginning concluded by a telos, a goal, or an intentional object. Justice would thus be not a purpose but an event; it would be history as the event of the juridical – and toward the end no longer juridical – fight for justice, a fight that must be abandoned before the judgment is reached so as not to abandon justice itself.” (688-689) Justice would not be a category, but a messianic event eternally deferred to the future, thus leaving us always to live with the possibility that it will not come. Human rights must fundamentally, for Hamacher, understand the circumstances in which rights cannot be applied, the circumstances where people have the right not to refer to rights, and thus must drop the totalizing rhetoric of the human essence. What we need to do is not just increase the domain of rights (though he says that while human rights exist, we need to increase the number of people to whom it applies, such as for those who are silent, mute, unborn, dead, etc.) but work to create conditions where we no longer need rights, where the reduction of individuals to abstract claims against each other is no longer necessary for people to follow their own interests.

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