I have been reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty in preparation for the next meeting of the Interccect reading group and wanted to jot down a few thoughts.
Why are modern political concepts supposed to be secularized theological concepts? That is to say, why is the theological supposed to be more originary? Doesn’t it seem obvious that the notion of divine sovereignty only arose after the notion of the ruler’s sovereignty — and perhaps, in some settings, as a challenge to that sovereignty?
The Jewish notion of a single God sovereign over the whole world, who manipulates empires and chooses as his own people precisely that nation that is in no position to rule anyone, certainly seems like a protest against worldly sovereignty, or an attempt to “detach” its theological appendage and turn it against that sovereignty. The same would then be true of the early Christian movement — and not only the early movement, as the Eastern Church’s attempt to maintain the power of icons against an “iconoclastic” emperor who actually wanted to keep the power of icons to himself demonstrates. (See Mondzain’s much-discussed-here book for information on that.)
Modern sovereignty’s “theological roots” would then be a particularly forceful, and manifestly successful, attempt to reclaim the conceptual apparatus that theology had artificially autonomized.
In Derrida’s Gift of Death, he outlines the common Christian strategy that I would call “displacement” — in his case, the displacement of the logic of debt into heaven so as to clear a space for a different type of practice on earth. One could also say that Christianity displaces sovereignty into the heavenly realm, which is why, as Agamben argues in The Kingdom and the Glory, the doctrine of providence could serve as a kind of laboratory for developing what would turn out to be the conceptual apparatus of governance.
Both cases show the limitation of this strategy: no matter how successful it is in opening up a provisional space to do otherwise, it still valorizes what it’s displacing. A simpler example: claiming that human property claims are invalid because God actually owns everything only displaces the concept of property, it doesn’t discredit or reject it. Ownership isn’t problematic in itself — it’s just that we’re falsely claiming what God rightfully owns.
It’s God as the “constitutive exception,” founding our (purportedly) moral behavior through exercising all the rights we supposedly should not. One of the major goals of my theological work is to figure out a way to get rid of this logic of displacement and the constitutive exception.