I have spent a lot of time with Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory, but until this time through, I was always baffled by the structure — the whole thing seemed to jump around quite a bit, and the motivation for the investigation of glory seemed difficult to discern. Why not skip the glory and more fully develop the stuff in the appendix? As far as I can tell, I am not the only person who has had this problem, and so I thought I would share the structure I have gleaned from the very detailed reading I’ve been undertaking over the past few days.
- This is a book about the debate between Carl Schmitt and Erik Peterson — but not on their own terms. Rather, it’s about what they both disavow (economy) and what they both unwittingly share (glory). This is a big source of misunderstanding, because it’s easy to think that Peterson is supposed to be the source of the economic paradigm Agamben is developing (particularly back before Peterson was actually translated into English).
- While the analysis of economy takes up slightly more space, the goal is to get to glory. Angels provide the hinge between the two parts, as the chapter “Angelology and Bureaucracy” seems to establish that there is no redemptive possibility in economy, while there are hints that glory is at least pointing toward something beyond our destructive power structure.
So I’ll just go through the chapters one by one.
1. The Two Paradigms: Agamben begins by contrasting the political-theological paradigm and the economic-theological paradigm. The former is obviously associated with Schmitt, and so we get a treatment of his notion of secularization — and a hint that the same logic might not hold for economic theology, given that theological concepts are somehow “already” economic. Then we get the debate between Schmitt and Peterson, wherein Peterson claims that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity somehow renders political theology impossible. Agamben finds this claim to be far from self-evident and turns to investigate one of Peterson’s quotes from Gregory of Nazianzen — and lo and behold, there’s all this stuff about “economy” that Peterson totally ignores, even though Gregory says you have to understand the discourse of the economy to get what he’s saying. The same holds for one of the passages Peterson quotes from Tertullian. Given that Peterson is a great scholar, surely something is up here — and so this sets up the immediately following chapter. But it also opens up a bigger question of Peterson’s alternative to political theology, namely his view of liturgy as somehow a directly political action, which will only come back in chapter 7. Again, the two paradigms aren’t Schmitt and Peterson — they’re Schmitt and whatever he and Peterson are both trying to fight against (i.e., economy).
2. The Mystery of the Economy: This chapter is almost pure philology, and the point is to fight against a tendency in theological studies that rankles me and Agamben equally — the habit of assuming that because a theologian is using a word, it becomes a kind of “insta-jargon,” even if it’s a perfectly common word whose common meaning fits perfectly well in the text. He establishes the semantic core of “economy” in the realm of home administration, which is a kind of know-how rather than a form of rigorous knowledge and shows how this was already beginning to spread metaphorically in classical times, for instance to rhetorical terminology. Then he turns to the scriptural and patristic uses of the term, which for the most part are easily understood as belonging to the same basic family of meanings, without any need to presuppose a specifically theological meaning. There’s a tendency to reverse Paul’s notion of the “economy of the mystery” (i.e., God’s prudent carrying out of his goals) into the “mystery of the economy” (so that God’s action in the world is itself the mystery). There’s also a general shift from using economic metaphors to indicate God’s prudent carrying out of his salvific goals to using them to describe the internal disposition of God’s own life as Trinity — the latter usage being an attempt to claim the term back from Gnosticism and thereby use it to seal up the gap between the transcendent god and the immanent government of the world. Agamben makes a lot of references to modern political concepts throughout, but the most important is the modern concept of history. In the threshold, he picks out the last three themes mentioned as particularly important disjunctions that the notion of “economy” is deployed in order to “manage,” and the next three chapters focus on them in turn (to the extent possible — they significantly overlap).
3. Being and Acting: This chapter sets the economic paradigm in contrast to the classical ontological paradigm exemplified in Aristotle, where the relationship between the Unmoved Mover and the world initially seems to be unproblematic in a way that the relationship between the Christian God and the world is not. Agamben believes that the economic paradigm grows out of the breakdown of classical ontology, which initially expresses itself as a gap between being and praxis — oikonomia as the know-how associated with managing conflicting demands thus becomes a strategy of managing this unbridgable ontological gap. This chapter traces the historical attempts to clarify the relationship between God the Father (being) and the Son (action/governance/economy). The Church Fathers’ attempts to chart a middle path between the Gnostics and the classical ontology produces a series of tensions or contradictions that will, in Agamben’s view, propagate themselves throughout the history of Christian thought — meaning that the structure of “economy” as a way of managing the gap between two heterogeneous levels marks all of Christian thought, even if the development of trinitarian orthodoxy meant that the term itself ultimately took up a subordinate place.
4. The Kingdom and the Government: This chapter begins with the enigmatic image of the roi mehaignié or wounded king, who is unable to exercise power but nonetheless somehow remains sovereign. This is the ultimate example of a phrase that becomes a major point of contention for Schmitt and Peterson: “the king reigns, but does not govern.” Agamben shows that they are both opposed to the sentiment that the phrase expresses — though curiously, Schmitt regards it as the very essence of liberalism, while Peterson views it as an example of the “bad” political theology that he is determined to foist onto the pagans and Jews and exclude from Christianity. Through an exploration of Aristotle, Aquinas, and others, Agamben shows that the Christian alternative to the Gnostic idea of a totally transcendent God who does nothing ultimately does not wind up giving God much to do — even in Aquinas, transcendence seems to be identical with the immanent order of the world as such. He then pushes the problem into the worldly political realm, with the medieval notion of the “two swords,” spiritual and political. Instead of asking which of the two is superior, he asks why there are two — and it turns out that there’s an inherent necessity to have a secondary sword to do the dirty work that’s beneath the spiritual sword. In other words, however the duality is hashed out in terms of names, the “transcendent” pole is always going to be idle and redundant. Every sovereign is finally the roi mehaignié. At this point, the political-theological paradigm appears to be simply a subset of the economic paradigm, wherein the two powers are simply identified. In other words, Schmitt collapses into the economic paradigm he so desperately wants to avoid. (One down…)
5. The Providential Machine: This chapter serves to address the Christian concept of history while at the same time providing the “connective tissue” between Agamben’s work on the Trinity and Foucault’s work on pastoral power as the paradigm of modern politics. The economic logic at work here is providence, which is supposed to coordinate God’s eternal plan with the contingent interaction of finite created things — this is often expressed in terms of primary causes and secondary causes. The goal of the providential apparatus is to respect human freedom and to respect the integrity of the created world more broadly, which Agamben seizes upon to claim that the providential paradigm is “democratic.” As a consequence of this democratic ethos, God cannot “force” anyone to do anything, but instead must rely on collateral effects. Finally, since everything within the providential machine is done on behalf of the transcendent God, who does nothing directly, all power is inherently vicarious in nature. At this point, Agamben thinks it’s reasonably clear that the providential paradigm matches up really closely with modern democratic techniques of government — hence we can see why Schmitt and Peterson would repress the economic theology that lies at its root!
6. Angelology and Bureaucracy: Having dispatched the unsaid point of agreement in terms of what both are rejecting (economy), Agamben turns to the more overt disagreement between Schmitt and Peterson — more specifically, he turns to Peterson’s alternative to “political theology,” namely liturgy conceived as a directly political action. For this, he turns to Peterson’s book on angels, where he portrays them as continually worshipping God and as validating the worship of the church by participating in it. Here again we have repression — surely Peterson knows that angels also have a role of carrying out God’s plan, and hence an “economic” role. The contemplative and administrative roles tend to blur together, following up on the reverse-Pauline notion of the “mystery of the economy.” Nonetheless, it seems that we return to the problem of the inactive God, insofar as the economy of salvation will culminate in the Last Judgment, at which point God and the angels will presumably have no more work to do. This is what opens up the path to the investigation of glory, because worship (glorifying God) is what the angels and saints will do when they have nothing more to do. In a brilliant digression, however, Agamben points out that we also have the chance to observe what an endless “economy” would look like insofar as there are some angels who continue to carry out God’s will forever — namely, the demons punishing sinners in hell. Given that the underlying assumption of modern politics is that the state is immortal, that means we neoliberal subjects are basically living in hell, which we all suspected. The pay-off in terms of Peterson is that even his attempt to avoid economy winds up being intimately tied with economy, so that now both of them have been collapsed into the economic paradigm.
7. The Power and the Glory: The burden of this chapter is to show that Peterson’s supposed liturgical alternative to Schmitt is really no alternative at all. There’s a lot of detailed analysis of imperial ritual, with a particular focus on acclamations — and the immediate purpose of this investigation (which was not terribly interesting to me) is to connect acclamations and overt political ritual to exactly the fascist form of politics that Peterson thought he was rejecting in foreclosing Schmitt’s political theology. Hence the Peterson-Schmitt debate seems to be essentially “closed out” in this chapter. This investigation of acclamation or glory then opens up the question of why power seems to need glory — though we already have hints in his analysis of the performative nature of the acclamation, which represents a way of suspending and remobilizing the denotative force of language — setting up the last, and longest chapter.
8. The Archaeology of Glory: This is the most varied and puzzling chapter, jumping around among Judaism, Christianity, and (very surprisingly) Indian religions as investigated by Mauss. The “big reveal” of this chapter is that the human act of glorification actually creates and sustains the gods, something that is explicit in Judaism and that even Christian theology implicitly admits. While chapter 6 had broached the possibility of a glory that outlived the economy, it becomes clear that glory is itself economical in Christianity — even within the divine life itself, where the trinitarian persons ceaselessly glorify each other. The end goal of the analysis, however, is to get at the inoperativity that the machinery of glory-economy covers over, an inoperativity that opens the possibility of a life that would escape a pre-given form (foreshadowing the analysis in The Highest Poverty of a life that would simply be its own form, a form-of-life) and thus give us access to the moment of anthropogenesis (anticipating The Sacrament of Language) so that we could become human in a new and different way. Jewish messianism (which here seems to include Paul, though not the whole New Testament), with its vision of a Sabbath-rest, provides a privileged access to this inoperativity, as does poetry, which suspends the denotative force of language in a way opposite to that of the acclamation (again anticipating The Sacrament of Language, where philosophy will replace poetry). The threshold on public opinion seems to “close the circle” on the Peterson-Schmitt debate by showing that liberal democracy does fundamentally rest on acclamation — demonstrating that both Peterson and Schmitt failed to escape the liberal democracy they loathed… and that liberal democracy has failed to escape Peterson and Schmitt.
The appendix seems to me to be relatively extrinsic to the structure of the book, even though these investigations feel somehow more “natural” than the progression to glory. I think they’re important in terms of gesturing toward the kind of “connective tissue” that could substantiate his continual gestures toward how the structure of economy and glory prefigures modern liberal political structures, yet they may also be a distraction, insofar as they maintain the focus on economy (which Agamben has shown to be finally a hellish apparatus) and away from the inoperativity that glory is inadvertantly pointing us toward.
Hopefully this overview is helpful for viewing The Kingdom and the Glory as a whole and can provide a helpful framework for figuring out how individual portions fit into it.