Agamben Notes: Chapter 8, “Archeology of Glory”

[Since this chapter is very long, I am going to do the chapter and its threshold separately.]

Agamben begins by castigating Hans Urs von Balthasar, who has led astray all theologians by confining glory to the aesthetic realm rather than its properly political place — and this despite the obvious clue provided by the German word Herrlichkeit. By contrast, Agamben sets out to prove that the terms kabod and doxa (glory) are actually never used in an aesthetic sense in scripture, but only in a political one. He starts with kabod, using Maimonides’ three-part definition from Guide for the Perplexed: the glory of the Lord is something that God gives off (in the sense of a separate created thing, like the reflected glory that hangs around Moses for a time), something inherent to God (his glory in itself), and something that humanity and indeed all creation gives to God (praise, etc.). This last Agamben terms glorification, and Maimonides’ strategy — followed by subsequent interpreters of all stripes — is to base glorification in a preexisting glory. Agamben holds the question of priority in suspense for the moment, but notes the tension between “objective” and “subjective” kabod, kabod as glory and glorification. (Two footnotes discuss the relationship between kabod and Shekinah and the eschatological significance of kabod in the OT and rabbinic Judaism.)

Doxa is used as the LXX translation of kabod and in the NT as well. This translation, however, represents a significant transformation in the meaning of the term, because in Christianity it is put in a dialectical relationship with oikonomia — the doxa theou is first of all the reciprocal glorification of Father and Son: “The trinitarian economy is constitutively an economy of glory.” Agamben demonstrates that this is the case through an analysis of key passages in the Gospel of John, where, significantly, the mutual glorification of Father and Son also includes the glorification of humanity. (A footnote contrasts the NT doxa with the Homeric term for glory, kleos, which only the poet can truly create — it’s only glorification, with no antecedent glory. This becomes significant further on.) Turning to the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul claims that the glory Moses saw in Exodus was only a foretaste, Agamben notes that the accent in Paul has shifted away from the mutual glorification of Father and Son (though it’s still present) and toward the glorification of humanity. (Does he think the Gospel of John is from before Paul?) The center of Paul’s message isn’t the trinitarian economy, but messianic redemption — this is a key distinction that is kind of a subterranean force throughout this chapter.

Common scholarly opinion has it that the early church fathers don’t continue the theory of glory, but Agamben claims that their elaboration of the economy always necessarily includes an elaboration of glory — he demonstrates this through an extensive quotation of Ireanaeus. A footnote indicates that Tertullian was up to a similar thing. The most significant contribution to the theory of glory, however, comes in a digression in Origen’s commentary on John. Agamben had pointed out before that Paul’s discussion of glory is couched in optical terms, whereas Origen puts it in terms of knowledge. The mutual glorification of the Father and the Son is God’s self-knowledge.

Agamben then returns to the distinction between the immanent and economic trinity, saying that the book up to this point could be understood as an attempt to understand how various other polarities developed out of this one — Reign and Governance, general and special providence, etc. He quotes Rahner’s famous statement (as though it stemmed from Moltmann, however) that “the economic trinity is the immanent trinity and vice versa” and then goes through Moltmann’s elaboration of the meaning of this claim. The two are inseparable, yet they must not dissolve into one another — glory is where the two meet, and therefore doxology is the most dialectical point in theology. In the liturgy, we can see this because of the way that acclamation and eucharistic mimesis are inseparably interwoven. (A note says that this dialectical moment is also a risky moment, because it can lead to subordination of the economy trinity — hence it’s not surprising that Origen is often seen as a precursor to Arius. Such a heresy is so harmful because it completely undercuts the Christian apparatus, which depends on a continued mutual circulation among the persons of the Trinity and between the economic and immanent Trinity: “The economy of glory can function only is it is perfectly symmetrical and reciprocal. The whole of economy must become glory and the whole of glory economy.”

After the Last Judgement, however, the economy Trinity will be finished and reabsorbed back into the immanent Trinity (this is still based on Moltmann) — all that will remain is the endless song of praise. Despite the attempt at symmetry, glory ultimately points toward that time when the economy will be over with and just as in the profane sphere, glory as such belongs only to Reign, not Governance. Yet glorification is necessarily mutual. The center of this mutual glorification of Reign and Governance is just a void — “glory is only the splendor that emanates from that void, the unexhausted kabod that both reveals and veils the central vacuity of the machine [of mutual glorification].” Agamben shows that this same logic is at work in Protestant theology with reference to Barth’s section on glory in Church Dogmatics II/1 — which also transfers glory out of the political realm and into the aesthetic.

Agamben sees this aestheticization of glory serves a crucial role in the debate over the relationship between God’s inherent glory and the glory human worshippers give him. Agamben notes that wherever there is glory, there is also glorification. But why? The traditional answer is because God is worthy of praise — a circular answer in which “glorification is owed to glory because, in some way, it derives from it.” (A footnote relates this to the distinction between creation’s internal order and its ordering according to God.) Agamben claims that Barth attempts to escape from this vicious circle and in so doing actually brings it to its most extreme point, completely overturning the Lutheran warning against a theology of glory — human glorification is to be understood ultimately as the work of God, yet the only freedom of humanity is found in this very act of divine self-glorification. Thus the life of the creature is ultimately obedience. Despite Barth’s activism against Nazism, Agamben sees this logic as identical to that of earthly power — the sovereign deserves glorification inherently, without needing it.

This is the paradox of glory: the goal of all God’s action is solely his glory, which nevertheless is always already at a point of absolute fullness. The Jesuit motto is illustrative of this paradox. Ad majorem Dei gloriam — but God’s glory is already at the highest possible point! The concrete result is a flurry of activity meant to glorify God, activity that can never be enough. Post-tridentine theology in general tends to place the same accent on human glorification, which corresponds to an increasing interweaving between church and secular power and to an image of God as a kind of “eternal Caesar” who uses humanity as an instrument of his glory. (A footnote shows that Leibniz also holds to the concept of a God who is greedy for glory.) Among other sources, Agamben quotes the Oxford theologian Eric Mascall, who claims that neither the knowledge nor the love of God can be the ultimate end of humanity after the last judgment, because both necessarily include self-regard — only the pure glorification of God can truly fit the bill, and this is because it does neither God nor humans any good!

There follows an analysis of several liturgical acclamations like the Gloria or Te Deum, which he argues (along with other scholars) have secular origins — and which have also been used on “secular” occasions, normally when people were overwhelmed by an unexpected victory. It’s unclear to me what the role of these sections in the present context is, since he’s already established that the liturgy includes a ton of acclamations in the previous chapter.

From here, he turns to some unfinished works of Mauss on prayer, which falls into a kind of negative sweet spot — anthropologists don’t want to analyse it because it’s not a “primitive” enough form of religion, but theologians obviously don’t have the same goals as scientific analysts. What emerges is a kind of zone of indistinction between magic (using words to directly effect the desired results) and religion (using words to get the gods to do something for you) — i.e., the idea that prayer and sacrifice directly produce the gods. This is a real turning point in Agamben’s argument, lending credence to the idea that, contrary to traditional theology, glorification is actually more originary than glory. The initial context of Mauss’s research is in Hinduism, but such a notion is also found in rabbinic Judaism and Kabbalah, where the point isn’t the creation of God ex nihilo but rather that God actually needs worship in order to maintain his strength and keep from decaying.

At this point, Agamben says that his point here is not to demonstrate that religion originates in the attempt to create Gods, etc. — nor in fact is his point to prove definitively the Schmittian thesis that political concepts are secularized theological concepts, because his readers should be sufficiently convinced that political problems are at least clarified to some extent by the reference to theology. With this in mind, it should be clear that glorification isn’t an ornament of power, but is absolutely required. Yet the question now is how liturgy “makes” power, that is to say, to specify exactly what role it plays in the governmental machine constituted by the poles of Reign and Governance.

Further confusing me, Agamben then immediately decides to analyze the term “amen,” the ultimate acclamation in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The analysis is interesting in itself, but more interesting is his footnote on Jesus’ reverse usage in the Gospels — rather than respond to something with “amen,” Jesus will say, “Amen amen I say to you….” Agamben believes it is possible that this is a conscious messianic reversal of the acclamation into an affirmation, “of the doxology that approves and repeats into a position that, at least in appearance, innovates and transgresses.”

We then return to some Mauss stuff, specifically his analysis of Hindu theories of divine nutrition. All of this Hindu material is very interesting and makes me want to do some research into it, but my lack of background knowledge makes it difficult for me to summarize. The “take-away” seems to be, yet again, that the gods actually require worship, that glorification makes the gods, etc. Jumping around still more, a section and the following footnote juxtapose Rilke’s putting the elegy in the form of a hymn and Hölderlin’s putting hymns into the form of elegies — yet another area where you the blog-reader are put at a disadvantage by my lack of knowledge. Here the “take-away” is that the hymn is the suspension of linguistic meaning, rendering it inoperative. (Hölderlin’s elegiac hymns are a kind of mourning for the loss of meaning — Rilke’s hymnic elegies simply testify to his loss of meaning. I guess.)

Agamben then begins his focus on the theme of inoperativity [inoperosità], which takes up the whole rest of the chapter. Throughout, we have seen that glory and inoperativity are connected — the end of the divine economy of salvation corresponds with a situation in which there is nothing but glory left, for instance. In Judaism, the Sabbath shows that inoperativity is the “dimension most proper as much to God as to humanity.” It’s not the work of creation, but the rest that is commemorated and called holy — and the sabbath-rest is the eschatological end as well. The letter to the Hebrews shows the same logic, binding together glory, inoperativity, and eschatology even more closely. (Here he annoyingly attributes it to Paul, though with a parenthetical “or whoever wrote it.” He puts great importance on Paul as the chapter goes on — doesn’t it make a difference if he didn’t really write this?) Augustine also struggles with the problem of inoperativity at the end of City of God.

The last problem remaining is the intimate relationship between glory and Sabbath. Beyond the fact that the post-Judgment, glory-only condition of humanity and divinity is defined as a Sabbath, Agamben sees the maintenance of the void of glory as a crucial part of the governmental machine of Reign and Governance. This is graphically illustrated by the motif of the empty throne, which occurs in both secular and ecclesiastical contexts — in the latter, it has a distinctively eschatological edge to it. In any case, Agamben sees it as a symbol of glory as such, rather than of royalty. Inoperativity, after the last Judgment, is shown to “constitute the ultimate mystery of divinity. And glory is just as much objective glory, which the divine inoperativity exhibits, as glorification, in which human inoperativity also celebrates its eternal sabbath. The theological apparatus of glory coincides here with the profane and, according to the intention that has guided our research, we can now make use of it as an epistemological paradigm that can permit us to penetrate the central secret of power.” (I guess this would be a compressed statement of his methodology.)

The upshot: glory as inoperativity is necessary to the exercise of power because of the constitutive inoperativity of humanity. It is because humans don’t have a “use” or “job” that we are enabled to be so incredibly active. Just as the theological apparatus needs the central void of glory to function, so also “the governmental apparatus functions because it has captured in its central void the inoperativity of the human essence.” (A footnote finds this notion of the inoperativity of humanity in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)

Okay, so: problem solved. What remains, though, is whether it is possible to think this inoperativity outside “the apparatus of glory.” Agamben believes that the key to this is the idea found as much in Judaism as in the New Testament: eternal life, or in Greek, zōē aiōnios. [Sorry for all these literalistic paraphrases/translations of "tanto... che..." expressions.] Agamben sees in the term aiōnios not so much a temporal as a qualitative significance — and he believes that for Paul, “eternal life” is not only a future condition, but “the special quality of life in messianic time,” the now-time. The messianic life is marked by the inoperativity denoted by the Pauline hōs mē, as if not. Since the messiah has fulfilled the law and rendered it inoperative, all juridical relations are marked by the hōs mē for members of the messianic community. This amounts to the revocation of every bios, every determined form of life, in favor of the zōē tou Iesou — inoperativity is actually the messianic operation par excellence. [This part of my notes borders on paraphrase moreso than most.] Paul’s description of the eschatological status of the body is a key point illustrating where the Christian tradition betrays his messianism and turns it into glory — what he leaves completely open, they begin to define, prescribing a determined form to the “glorious body.”

Using Spinoza, Agamben refines the notion of inoperativity. The contemplation of one’s own pure possibility is the essence of inoperativity, and the “self” or “subject” is the void of inoperativity at the heart of all action. In inoperativity, “bios corresponds without residue with zōē.” Thus we can understand the importance of contemplation in the Western tradition — it is “the metaphyiscal operator of anthropogenesis, which, liberating the living man from his biological and social destiny, assigns him to that indefinable dimension what we are accustomed to call political…. Zōē aiōnios, eternal life, is the name of that inoperative center of the human, of that political ‘substance’ of the West that the machine of economy and glory seeks incessantly to capture within itself.” (One footnote connects this inoperativity to poetry, and another says that the failure of Heidegger’s analysis of technology stems from his failure to think the properly political stakes of economy.)

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6 Responses to “Agamben Notes: Chapter 8, “Archeology of Glory””

  1. JD Says:

    Well, I woudn’t say “all theologians” have been led astray by von Balthasar.

  2. Adam Says:

    The fun part about being Agamben is that you get to make those kind of sweeping claims all the time.

    In a world where entire scholarly literatures are missing crucial points, only one man can set things right…”

  3. Tony Says:

    Again, the trap into which many readers of Balthasar fall is to read Balthasar’s ouvre selectively rather than integrally. The Theological Aesthetics is just one part of a three-part work and must be read as leading to the Theological Dramatics. It is true that Balthasar never consciously wrote a political theology, but as O’Hanlon has shown, there are resources in Balthasar’s works for a political theology that remains true to God’s own revelation. That “doxa” is also a “political” term requires careful analysis. Otherwise, the question could be asked whether Agamben’s “castigating” of Balthasar runs the risk of subsuming God’s “doxa” to a this-worldly frame. Agamben is guilty of the usual either/or dichotomizing tendency of theologians when they read other theologians: either aesthetics or politics, either aesthetics or ethics… He sets up a straw man so that he could more easily shoot it down. It is a lazy and cheap way of doing theology.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think Agamben is “running the risk of subsuming God’s ‘doxa’ to a this-worldly frame” — he’s directly and intentionally doing just that.

  5. ben Says:

    If I can respond to a comment from half a year ago, maybe that’s really just the fun part about being Italian. See, for instance, Croce.

  6. sw Says:

    A comment 2 years after your notes!

    Is there any chance that you’d be willing to translate this footnote to which you refer, re: the “failure of Heidegger’s analysis of technology stems from his failure to think the properly political stakes of economy”? I would be really grateful for this!!

    Thanks for the notes, btw…

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