A brief review of a brief book: Taubes, To Carl Schmitt

Only a Christian would make a deal with the devil. That’s what’s so disturbing about the gesture of selling your soul — it only makes sense if you know what’s at stake, yet it’s precisely because you know what’s at stake that it doesn’t make sense. It seems to me that this is a possible lens through which to view Jacob Taubes’s complex relationship with Carl Schmitt, as expressed in the brief collection To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, which the introducer of the volume, Mike Grimshaw, has already announced and discussed here on AUFS.

What makes Schmitt a great thinker in Taubes’s eyes is that he really did understand what was at stake in his historical moment. He just chose the wrong side in the decisive conflict that was unfolding. Taubes grapples with this gap between the diagnosis and the course of treatment throughout the fragments collected here, and he never comes to any firm conclusion on Schmitt the man. On Schmitt the thinker, though, he is unequivocal in asserting his brilliance and signal importance — an assertion for which he can draw on the authority of Walter Benjamin. In what for me is one of the most interesting passages in the collection, Taubes makes his point by means of the passage from “On the Concept of History” about the “tradition of the oppressed” and the “real state of exception”:

Schmitt’s fundamental vocabulary is here introduced by Benjamin, made use of, and so transformed into its opposite. Carl Schmitt’s conception of the ‘state of exception’ is dictatorial, dictated from above; in Benjamin it becomes a doctrine in the tradition of the oppressed. ‘Contemporaneity,’ a monstrous abbreviation of a messianic period, defines the experience of history on the part of both Benjamin and Schmitt; both involve a mystic conception of history whose principal teaching relates the sacred order to the profane. But the profane cannot be constructed upon the idea of God’s empire. This is why theocracy did not, for Benjamin, Schmitt, and Bloch, have a political meaning, but solely a religious significance. (17)

Sandwiched in between Benjamin and Bloch! All of them understand that this world is permanent, that no worldly structure can claim God’s allegiance or legitimation, but that they are all ways of heading off the apocalypse. Yet Schmitt can see in the apocalypse nothing but destruction. He sees the horizon of this world, yet cannot see anything of value beyond it — and so throws his weight behind a katechon who turns out to be the Antichrist. Taubes continues in an enigmatic paragraph that follows up on the implicit reference to the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the mention of Bloch evokes:

If I understand anything at all of the mystical historical construction that Benjamin here constructs with one eye on Schmitt’s theses, then this: what is superficially a process of secularization, of desacralization, the dedeification of public life, a process of step-by-step neutralization right up to the “value freedom” of science as an index of a techno-industrial form of life; this process also has an inner face that testifies to the freedom of God’s children (as in the letters of St. Paul), hence an expression of a reformation that is nearing its completion. (17-18)

The alternative that Taubes, with Benjamin, is gesturing toward here remains unclear to me, but the reflections in this slim volume convince me of the value of reading Schmitt against the grain in order to think toward it.

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