Political Theology

0231527004 Over at The Immanent Frame, Gil Anidjar,Bruno Gulli, Nancy Levene, George Shulman, Anders Stephanson, and Paul W. Kahn on Paul Kahn's Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, which “contends that American political experience is incomprehensible outside the terms of political theology—not because the United States is, or ever was, a 'Christian nation,' but because the state 'creates and maintains its own sacred space and history.'” Stephanson:

Unending controversy, raw and existential, attaches to Carl Schmitt, but Paul Kahn cleverly (and, given his aims, rightly) avoids all, or almost all, of that by taking Political Theology as a pure reference text and simply rewriting it in his own idiom and according to his own inclinations. This is a bold move, which works well, though in the end I am not persuaded. And persuasion is in fact very much the name of the game, for Kahn is preoccupied with what he thinks of as “rhetoric”—philosophy and politics as dialogue and persuasion. Thus, he refers throughout to the inclusive “we,” an imagined community of Americans in general and liberals in particular. Because I do not belong to that community, I am not rhetorically addressed, which is not to say that the exercise fails to stimulate.

Schmitt’s basic idea, in the Theology, is that any normal constitutional order of “sovereignty” presupposes the abnormal, the exception, and the right to decide when that condition exists. Beyond the norm and the normal, then, there is no super-norm that informs all the others; there is only the lurking decision about the exception of existential emergency. That “space” becomes the overdeterminant of sovereignty. What makes this “theological” in a hidden way is that (i) actual historical developments turned Christian/religious notions into secularized concepts of the state; and (ii) those concepts, by analogy, include the premise of the miracle, here turned into the “exception.” Deism and liberalism eventually banished both God and the miracle from the proceedings, creating an agreeable façade of order, normality, rationality, science, legitimacy, and civilized conversation amongst those of requisite, recognized competence. The transcendent power is bracketed, the immanent will of the people or nation becomes constitutive.

Kahn’s riff on this is, strictly speaking, not a gloss; he has not set out to expand the contended body of Schmittiana. He wants instead to argue the case for Schmitt’s decisional exception and political theology in a contemporary U.S. liberal frame—a tall order.

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