Lately I have been pondering the direction Agamben’s Homo Sacer project might take as it approaches completion. In The Highest Poverty, he promises us a theory of “use,” the problem that the Franciscans open up but never adequately develop. Agamben argues that the Franciscans were so caught up in defining their practice negatively against legal ownership and property rights that they never got around to asking: “Okay, so if we’re neither owning nor possessing these things, what exactly is it that we’re doing with them?” He finds Franciscan preaching to be potentially more fruitful in this regard insofar as it stages a more thorough-going critique of the regime of ownership. Though Agamben doesn’t put it this way, it seems that the way the sermons he cites approach the question is by asking what ownership or possession does to the owner — and it doesn’t look good, as we know.
Now it seems to me that one common way a Christian theologian might approach the problem Agamben is trying to set up is by referring to the sacraments as an alternative to possession. Yet in Agamben’s terms — and, if I may be so bold, also objectively — this would not work. That is to say, it seems to me that just as the Christian liturgy clears the ground for modern nihilistic duty for its own sake (e.g., “professionalism”), one can see the same dynamic at work with the theory of the sacraments. One often hears the old trope that when you eat something, normally it becomes you (becomes assimilated to your body), whereas when you take communion, you become it (become assimilated to Christ, who is present in the sacrament). This isn’t counter to the realm of commodities, however — it’s precisely parallel to what happens with a commodity. When I consume a commodity, it assimilates me into the realm of commodities, ultimately turning the deepest expression of my self, my labor power, into a commodity as well. In both commodity and sacrament, the objective use-value of the item in question (bread, wine, water) is bracketed in favor of the “theological niceties” — and in both cases, the true spiritual meaning behind the merely physical object is figured in terms of debt (and if we take Anselm’s account as definitive, the grace that the sacrament allows us to participate in is quite literally “surplus-value,” i.e., the superabundance of Christ’s merit).
One might object that these are only superficial parallels, but one might also object that it’s weird for such parallels to exist when the liturgy and sacramental practice is so often trotted out as a counter-practice that forms people in ways completely contrary to capitalism. If my theory is correct, it might help to account for the fact that — at the risk of being overly blunt — Christian liturgical formation essentially never produces subjects who resist capital (see also). For that, you need quasi-monastic communities like Catholic Workers or base communities, which the mainstream church institution legitimated by the liturgy and sacraments always views with suspicion or even tries to shut down.