Monday, August 12, 2013

Cole Jeffrey: "Political Theology & Modernity"

Cole Jeffrey

Book Review

Graham Hammill and Julia Reinhard Lupton, eds. Political Theology and Early Modernity. University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2012), 352pp. ISBN: 9780226314983. $29.00 (USD).

1> Political theology is not the same as religion, and it’s not the same as politics. Graham Hammill and Julia Reinhard Lupton want to make that clear in their introduction to Political Theology and Early Modernity. According to them, political theology is not an “alliance” between religious and secular institutions, but a “contest” that begins when the two become entangled in the political sphere (2). The cause of this entanglement is the mutual failure of sacred and secular narratives to meet society’s needs. When religion ceases to be the dominant authority, secular government is its logical replacement. If secular government struggles to replace religion, however, this causes the two to become entangled. In this state, the sacred and the secular continue to challenge one another, but each must also account for its own failures and limitations. Hammill and Lupton refer to political theology as a “knot” that binds conflicting “religious and secularizing impulses” together (3), and they explain that this knot was first tied in Europe after the Reformation. When the two were bound together, they argue, it produced a series of conflicts that defined the early modern era as we know it.

2> Though it may seem that politics and theology somehow disentangled themselves during the transition from early modernity, Hammill and Lupton argue the knot still holds fast. Modernity merely “redefines and rebinds politics and theology,” they write, “in an attempt to manage its deepest tendencies towards chaos and dissolution” (3). In this book, Hammill, Lupton, and twelve other contributing scholars examine this rebinding in order to determine if the knot should be untied and, if so, how that work might be accomplished. Readers hoping for consensus on this issue will have to look elsewhere: while some voices in Political Theology and Early Modernity call for a renewed effort to secularize politics, others find salutary elements in theology that complement the political process. Developing a single argument, Hammill and Lupton explain, is not the goal of this book. Its goal is simply to “think through the problems and promises associated with political theology” (9).

3> The primary problem that dominates this book is sovereignty. If God’s relationship to his creation or the Pope’s relationship to the Church are models of the sovereign’s relationship to the state, as the German philosopher Carl Schmitt argued, then the sovereign is exempt from the law; he or she can transgress or suspend the law at will. In the first section of Political Theology and Early Modernity (“Modern Destinations”), Victoria Kahn, Adam Sitze, Carlo Galli, Jennifer Rust, Kathleen Biddick, Paul A. Kottman, and Jane A. Newman join Hammill in challenging Schmitt’s notion that despotism is justified by theological concepts implicit in political theory. Though they approach this task from a variety of perspectives, they each hope to “recapture the democratic process” envisioned by early modern and Enlightenment-era thinkers (3).

4> In the inaugural essay, “Political Theology and Liberal Culture,”  Victoria Kahn argues that critiques of Schmitt’s politics often make the Enlightenment view of culture untenable because they elevate philosophy over culture. Through Benedict Spinoza, Kahn attempts to demonstrate that culture is not a byproduct of politico-theological debate; culture actually produces politics and religion. By foregrounding culture in our critiques of political theology, she claims, we can reaffirm the Enlightenment’s investment in liberalism and culture.

5> Andrew Sitze and Carlo Galli follow Kahn’s essay. Each scholar analyzes Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba, the philosopher’s foray into literary criticism. While some view Hamlet as one of Schmitt’s minor works, both Sitze and Galli link it to his most important political work, Nomos of the Earth. While Schmitt argues in Nomos that modern politics needs to borrow concepts from theology in order to function, in Hamlet, Sitze and Galli argue, he confronts how those concepts also create chaos and anxiety in the political system.

6> In his own essay, “Blumenberg and Schmitt on the Rhetoric of Political Theology,” Hammill compares Schmitt and Hans Blumenberg’s conflicting interpretations of Thomas Hobbes. While Schmitt invokes Hobbes’ theory of “confession” to demonstrate how theological concepts are first secularized and then transferred to politics, Blumenberg views those concepts as metaphors that can be invented and discarded at will. Blumenberg’s rhetorical approach to politics, Hammill suggests, allows us to escape Schmitt’s notion that politics depends on a vocabulary established by religion.

7> In “Political Theologies of the Corpus Mysticum,” Jennifer Rust evaluates Ernest Kantorowicz’s appropriation of Henri de Lubac’s work on the Eucharist. She explains that while Schmitt emphasized the vertical relationship in the Eucharist to elevate an individual authority over a community, Kantorowicz emphasizes horizontal relationships to establish collective authority. Though she disagrees with Schmitt’s authoritarianism, she criticizes Kantorowicz for treating the mystical as nothing more than fiction. By doing so, she argues, he perpetuates a modern dualism that de Lubac intended to challenge.

8> Kathleen Biddick’s essay “Dead Neighbor Archives” argues the current relationship between politics and theology promotes violence and intolerance. She attributes this to anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim typologies that became embedded in Christianity after Peter the Venerable’s campaign against Jews and Muslims in the twelfth century. She traces how this typology found its way into the material culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and argues that it still exerts an influence on us today.

9> In his essay “Novus Ordo Saeclorum,” Paul A. Kottman explores Hannah Arendt’s meditation on revolutionary spirit. Like Arendt, Kottman is interested in how Enlightenment thinkers remembered early modernity. He argues that the revolutionary spirit that guided those thinkers did not reflect a desire to break with the old, but rather a desire to remember a previous vision of freedom.

10> Jane A. Newman’s “Force and Justice,” the final essay in this section, explores how Blaise Pascal inspired Erich Auerbach’s view of the intellectual as a political activist. Newman argues that Auerbach was not just interested in how secular forces inspire the intellectual to social activism and political resistance; his study of Pascal caused him to accept religious influences on the intellectual as well.

11> In “Scenes of Early Modernity,” the second section of this book, Lupton, Jacques Lezra, Drew Daniel, Gregory Kneidel, and Jonathan Goldberg shift the focus from political theorists to dramatists, poets, and artists. In his essay “The Instance of the Sovereign in the Unconscious,” Jacques Lezra approaches Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos from a psychoanalytic perspective to demonstrate how the play reveals the Enlightenment’s failed effort to secularize its early modern influences.

12> In “Staging the Sovereign Softscape,” Lupton argues that approaches to political theology should be multidimensional: they should not limit themselves to analyzing the sovereign. Lupton’s own approach focuses on courtly decorations. She analyzes several religious tapestries by Raphael that were displayed in various courts during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The content and reception of these tapestries, she argues, reveals a complex attempt to resolve the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter in an age when they were regarded as symbols of mutually exclusive religious and political institutions.

13> Moving from tapestries to marriage, Drew Daniel’s essay “Striking the French Match” begins with the historical irony that the French philosopher Jean Bodin, who argued no sovereign could marry without diminishing his or her power, was commissioned to facilitate a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon. When Elizabeth publicly rejected her French suitor, Daniel argues, she conformed to Bodin’s theory of sovereignty, a theory that would influence Schmitt centuries later. However, as Daniel observes, her private writings provide us with a nuanced view of the personal cost of being a Schmittian sovereign.

14> In “Giving Up the Ghost,” Gregory Kneidel considers the significance of viewing the Bible’s two divisions as “testaments” instead of “covenants.” Kneidel argues that by viewing the Bible as two testaments, early modern interpreters associated it with Roman testate law. This association rendered the Bible as a legal document, and it raised the difficult question of which testament or “will” should be preferred. This issue permeates early modern discourse, as Kneidel tries to demonstrate by examining the poetry of John Donne.

15> In his essay “Samson Uncircumcised,” Jonathan Goldberg analyzes the symbol of circumcision in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes to show how violence and eroticism are conflated in religious imagery. Goldberg demonstrates there is an erotic dimension to political theology that must be considered if we wish to account for terroristic violence. Studying Milton’s radical politics, he suggests, will allow us to understand how erotic fantasies function in political theology.

16> The section concludes with “The Idea of ‘New Enlightenment’ [Nouvelles Lumières] and the Contradictions of Universalism,” a postscript by Étienne Balibar. He argues the Enlightenment should not be treated as a historical tradition, but as a current problem still being resolved. Balibar notes that though the Enlightenment vision of universal freedom, tolerance, and progress has not been fulfilled, neither has it been thoroughly suppressed by rival visions. These visions continue to conflict with one another. As a result, Balibar argues, the Enlightenment vision must reform itself to address its current situation.

17> The diversity of scholarly approaches to political theology in this book is its greatest strength. Political Theology and Early Modernity explores not only the major writings of political theorists and philosophers but sources as eclectic as Hamlet, holy sonnets, chess automatons, circumcision, and tapestries. Readers will thus find a variety of vantage points from which to reflect on political theology—historical, judicial, rhetorical, mystical, literary, artisanal, etc.

18> The weakness of this book, however, is that as diverse as these approaches are, most of them are preoccupied with refuting Schmitt’s political theology. Hammill and Lupton state that political theology involves the use of sacred material to “establish, legitimate, and reflect upon the sovereignty of monarchs, corporations, and parliaments” (1). The book is heavy on monarchism, though, and light on corporations and parliaments. The contributing scholars stress the current nature of the political-theological entanglement, but most of them do not address what seem to me to be the most contemporary manifestations of that problem (for Americans readers, at least). The War on Terror, fundamentalism in politics, same-sex unions, creationism in the classroom, religious appeals during election year—none of these issues are glossed by the authors of Political Theology and Early Modernity. The Schmittian view of sovereignty is undoubtedly a central issue in political theology, but the authors’ approach makes the book decidedly Eurocentric in its focus on the monarchical institution. Readers looking for a more in-depth study of contemporary political theology might begin with Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty or The Fragile Absolute by Slavoj Zizek. While Rorty argued that contemporary society must complete the Enlightenment goal of freeing humanity from its dependence on theological explanations of reality, Zizek tries to reconcile Marxism and Christianity to further the cause of social liberation. These scholars approach the conflict between the sacred and the secular from radically different perspectives, but they both address current problems in the political sphere that are ignored or barely examined by the contributing scholars in Political Theology.

Cole Jeffrey is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas, where he studies early modern English literature. Cole’s interests include aesthetics, literary criticism, theology, and film. He is currently researching how Calvinism influenced early modern aesthetics.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Six (2013): Editions & Editing

No comments: