A few scattered thoughts after reading Agamben’s Stasis

I’m beginning to think that at the end of the day, Agamben’s Homo Sacer series isn’t “about” sovereignty at all. If there’s a single core problem in this overlapping and yet heterogeneous collection of studies, it might be the threshold between the household and the political. Both Homo Sacer and State of Exception spend considerable time on that issue, though it’s rarely highlighted in discussions I’ve seen (or discussions I’ve participated in). In the first half of Stasis, it’s absolutely front and center.

The second half of Stasis deals primarily with political theology, through a reading of Hobbes — but in The Kingdom and the Glory (whose former place in the ordering Stasis is now taking), we learn (or kind of get hints?) that the root of the political theology problem is precisely the “economization” of the political, or in other words, the breakdown of the threshold between the household and the political. And — spoiler alert, sorry! — The Use of Bodies studies the place of the slave in the Greek household extensively.

I don’t want to sound more definitive than I am — obviously there is stuff that is hard to fit into this scheme. But I think that a reading of the Homo Sacer project from this starting point could at least be interesting and productive.

Down with departments

One of the great tragedies of American higher education is that essentially every school bought into the organization of the modern research university. In that model, professors are distributed into departments that are defined by a given discipline or group of disciplines. They teach students that discipline, which means that they teach students how to do research within that discipline or, effectively, how to go to grad school in that discipline. There are transferable skills conveyed, of course, but the “job” that it prepares you for — or prepares you to train for — is academia. And as much as the idea of an “oversupply” of professors is abused, I think we can all agree that even absent adjunctification, there are not and never will be enough professor jobs for literally every English major, for instance.

This is where the liberal arts ideal comes in. Students should get a breadth of knowledge, unconstrained by any narrow field. And how they do this is, for the most part, by taking an incoherent smorgasbord of introductory courses to various disciplines. Students generally resent being forced to take these courses, and academics don’t like teaching them — meaning that adjuncts do. Lately departments are figuring out that this hurts them in the quest for majors, which brings me to my next complaints: majors.

Oh my God, majors! I wish the system of majors could be abolished altogether. It misleads students (and their parents), who generally hold some fetishistic belief in the power of a major to lead directly to a job, as though the job market is the next level of college applications. This is obviously not the case, and it is not even the case that you need to go to grad school in the field you majored in! The whole major thing is literally a lie. And it’s a lie that serves the worst trends in higher ed. It creates interdepartmental competition for “majors,” in order to maintain the department’s status, its hiring clout, and in the last resort, its very existence. It encourages a naive belief that you’re getting some set chunk of knowledge from college, which feeds directly into the naive belief that majors are direct paths to jobs. And it also creates a ton of administrative overhead, as a four-person department still needs a chair, and these departments must all be corralled into a school (or college), overseen by a dean who in turn answers to a provost, etc., etc.

What is the basis for this entire architecture of departments and majors? Expertise. That’s the basis for the university’s legitimacy and for its internal prestige economy. But here’s a dirty little secret: first- and second-year students cannot remotely handle “expertise” as traditionally conceived. Indeed, learning from a hardcore expert can be pedagogically problematic, because if someone knows something really really well, they have a harder time getting into the mindset of someone who knows something not at all. Departments tacitly admit this by having graduate students — aspiring but not-yet experts — teach many of the lower-level courses.

I think we can go further, though. This is based on personal experience. I have taught all manner of materials at Shimer. Teaching something within my expertise, narrowly conceived, is the exception rather than the rule. When I try to teach within my expertise, in fact, it generally doesn’t go as well as when I’m learning along with the students. I have taught visual arts, music, sociology, anthropology, economics, world religions, and now even some primatology and evolutionary theory. If they let me, I’ll teach chemistry and biology.

I am able to teach all these subjects because I can read and because I’m naturally curious. It’s not because I’m a polymathic genius with unparalleled reach. It’s just that people with more expertise than me have collaborated in putting together a good set of materials, and I’m able to keep ahead of the students to a sufficient degree to give them some value-add. At the very least, I model a certain enthusiasm and curiosity, I let them know that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and I provide them with the requisite superegoic pressure to keep working through stuff. I learn along with the students, and I can tell they’re learning too. Course evaluations seem to bear this out — because Shimer is one of those weird places where we actually have a consciously articulated pedagogical model and hence don’t throw students back onto the worst form of consumerism when we ask them to assess what happened in class.

My experience also tells me that developing a curriculum like Shimer’s is difficult and contentious. One fight that the division into discipline-centered departments spares an academic community is the fight over what it is that we do here. Each little fiefdom can say that they transmit a discipline, which we know is worthwhile because it just is. As for the school as a whole? I don’t know, maybe we inculcate leadership or excellence or … whatever. Social justice? Yeah, sure. We create citizens, maybe, just to make sure we don’t alienate conservatives too much.

I think there are probably possible models between Shimer’s extreme core curriculum (two-thirds of the typical student’s credits) and the prevalent model of “getting your gen-eds out of the way so that you can focus on your major.” It may even be the case that Shimer itself needs to loosen up a smidge! But some day people are going to realize that paying 100-grand for leadership and excellence is bullshit, and it would be nice if before that day came, we actually created a curriculum that was halfway cohesive and persuasive.

Car culture will kill us all

This afternoon, I dropped The Girlfriend off at the airport. For the first time in close to ten years for either of us, we now own a car — the last leftover of her brief move to Minneapolis, the land of 10,000 expressways. Neither of us wants it, but getting rid of it would require taking a significant financial loss after a year with a lot of unexpected expenses (the dog’s surgery, moving to Minneapolis, then having to break leases and move back, etc.). And so we keep it around, taking day trips to state parks and out-of-the-way brewpubs to justify it.

I’ve always had a strange relationship to car culture, because I grew up in a genuine small town where one really could meet most basic needs by walking. My mom, aunt, and grandma owned a furniture store that was initially located across the main road and then literally on the same block as our house. We were used to walking around the little downtown, walking over to the convenience store, the ice cream shop, the comic book shop. I walked to school up through 8th grade, during more or less any weather.

The experience of being dependent on a car was the experience of being trapped. Reportedly the Holy Spirit prompted my parents to spurn the church within walking distance and opt for another one a thirty minute drive away — it must have been part of God’s plan for me to wile away endless hours wandering around the church during choir practice or the seemingly unlimited number of other activities that occupied our family there. Obviously as a teenager I wanted to have my own car, just to gain some kind of control over my fate: when I could see my friends, when I could have time to myself at home instead of waiting around indefinitely….

Once I got the lay of the land in Chicago, though, getting rid of my car became a positive goal. This despite the fact that it was objectively pretty inconvenient for me to commute at all hours from Hyde Park all the way to the north side. For me, access to reliable public transit was true freedom, while owning a car seemed burdensome and unnecessary. I even grew to hate getting rides from people — the endless waiting around for them to actually leave, the “let me move the stuff out of the back seat” (how the hell did you accumulate so much stuff in the back seat?!)…. If I had to wait either way, much better to wait for the bus so that I could at least read rather than make inane small talk.

And now, whenever I drive anywhere, there’s this voice in the back of my mind saying that none of this should have happened. All these expressways should be thriving neighborhoods, all these four-lane highways should be train lines, and every suburban-style development with its detached houses and stripmalls should be an open field. All of it, all of it is wrong. We need to tear out and start new to have any hope.

That’s not going to happen, though, is it? Not only because the obscene wealth inequalities in our society mean that the rich can endlessly bid up the price of the few rationally planned communities in the United States, but because car culture — like gun culture, like the carceral state — has popular legitimacy. Places like Russia and China were able to tear out and start new in the 20th century because people there desperately wanted and needed a change. They were profoundly aware of the inadequacies of their present systems and were, at the end of the day, game for a hugely risky totalitarian project.

In the end, of course, Russia wound up with something not unlike what we in the United States currently enjoy: a declining empire with a rudderless and hugely costly foreign policy, an overactive repressive apparatus, a chronic overinvestment in unsustainable economic infrastructure, and a reliance on imports to meet basic consumer demand. And up to the very end, it enjoyed popular legitimacy. It might have collapsed under its own weight eventually, but in point of fact it collapsed because the elites who had been formed by the cynicism and brutality of their system decided it was time to cash out. That collapse may have been more graceful than the other realistic alternatives — the counterexample of Yugoslavia leaps to mind — but the result was that things got much worse for most people and largely stayed worse.

Meanwhile, the greatest minds of our generation are making billions by making it easier to call a cab — or, more to the point, desperately trying to make ends meet by driving those cabs. And hardly a day goes by without an exciting new pipe dream about driverless cars. Because that’s the answer: more and better cars. Oh, and maybe a light-rail development to help attract tourists to the gentrified part of town.

The purpose of the pope

Aside from his various theological and administrative roles, the pope serves as the public face of the Roman Catholic Church. In that connection, his job is to shore up the loyalty of his members and burnish the reputation of the Church in the broader world. After Benedict, both were in question, particularly outside conservative circles. I have no doubt that Francis’s liberal statements and gestures are sincere, but there is a reason the College of Cardinals elected a man who was sincerely inclined to do such things — they needed to get liberal Catholics back on board and forcefully reassert the Catholic Church’s relevance to the contemporary world.

In this regard, the pope’s job is political, and that means that there is going to be a certain level of apparent incoherence and opportunism. A gesture like going along with the sainthood of a brutal colonial figure is likely a sop to right-wing elements in the Church that are increasingly alienated by the Nice Pope routine. And right-wing elements need coddling because they are much more likely to turn schismatic rather than (like liberals) just tune out.

I’ve written before that the same kind of pressures produced Catholic Social Teaching. I think it’s telling that people are made uncomfortable by the fact that Francis’s views are so much more consistently left-wing than previous popes’ — that kind of coherence threatens the ability of the Church’s random grab-bag of political statements to appeal to as broad and incoherent a range of Catholics and sympathizers as possible. In no case should such statements be read as policy recommendations, because Francis is not a politician in that sense. But they are political statements in another sense, insofar as they are a bid to increase loyalty to and esteem for the Church in previously alienated populations.

Personally, if Pope Francis emboldens policy-makers to do more left-wing things, I’m all for it. No, he’s not a perfect left-wing exemplar, and yes, he has said some Bad Things from the left-wing perspective, particularly related to sexuality. But maybe the left can take a cue from the papacy and be a little more opportunistic in forging political alliances.

Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

Below is a long review of two of Jacob Taubes’ recently (relatively) translated works. This was originally written for a journal, but I was not able to speak to the ideological commitments of the journal and so it has languished as they’ve waited for me to correct it. At some point I realized I would never really be able to meet their requests for a variety of reasons and so decided to pull it so they might find a more suitable reviewer. I’m not sure those who are familiar with Taubes or Continental philosophy of religion will find anything new, but since I had spent some time on this (though years ago now) I am posting it here for those who might be interested.

Review of Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford UP, 2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford UP, 2010).

Anthony Paul Smith (Spring, 2012)

During the mid-point of the Bush-Blair years two intellectual inquiries rose to prominence: questions relating to sovereignty, focused around a renewal of interest in the work of German far-right jurist Carl Schmitt, and questions relating to the so-called “return of religion”, which resulted in a number of para-Marxist engagements with the thought of the Christian apostle Paul. What drove both of these trends from being simply passing academic fancy to something actually reflective of live questions operative within cultural consciousness was their connection to the practice of sovereignty undertaken by the Bush regime and the seeming return of religion into the public sphere, especially in the form of resurgent fundamentalisms vying for political power. These two lines of thought came together in 2004 with the publication of Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul in English-translation, which was originally published posthumously in German in 1993 but originally delivered as lectures in 1987. The seminar from which the book comes was to be Taubes last and during its preparation and delivery he was suffering from the final stages of an advanced form of cancer. According to Aleida Assman, the editor of the lectures, Taubes could not stand “even for a moment” during the seminar and delivered his lectures lying down in great pain. This book joined other left-wing philosophical readings of Paul’s writings, like Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, Slavoj Zizek’s own engagements in The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf, and the less well-known engagement by Jean-François Lyotard in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. While there are a number of important theoretical differences at work in these books, though perhaps more minimal with regard to Agamben’s text due in part to shared sources (primarily their working with Benjamin’s theory of time), the crucial difference is that Taubes understood his reading of Paul to be the culmination of his intellectual work. His commitment to give the lectures reveals that Taubes’ intellectual work was more than just an academic interest, but a real struggle with themes and concepts that Taubes believed were of ultimate concern for Occidental history. In the writings of Paul, specifically his “Letter to the Romans”, Taubes finds within Paul, essentially a thinker whose ideas had been completely absorbed into the World (that is, the State, the Church, and all other forms of authority and law), a radical example of the living out of the experience of apocalyptic temporality, an experience that Taubes claims is to be expressed in the philosophical and theological thinking of all true revolutionary moments in history. Read the rest of this entry »

So what was our problem with Radical Orthodoxy?

Many years ago, AUFS was arguably best known among theology blogs for its rejection of Radical Orthodoxy. It was regularly alleged that we had no substantive critique but were simply trashing Radox, presumably out of a desire for attention.

At this late date, I think it should be clear that our critique was well-founded: Radical Orthodoxy, as exemplified by its founder and champion, John Milbank, has shown itself to be an openly imperialist and anti-democratic approach to theology. Far from being an unfortunate accident or dispensable supplement, the political consequences are very clearly put forward as intrinsic to the theology itself — an unsurprising result when we recall that one of the distinctive features of Radical Orthodoxy is the insistence on an ontological hierarchy. Further, it has grown increasingly Islamophobic, as Milbank has insistently pinned the blame for modernity’s “heretical” innovations on the influence of Islam.

One can forgive abhorrent political positions in a writer who delivers profound insight — I am an avid reader of Schmitt and Heidegger, for instance — but there is no such payoff for Radical Orthodoxy. The readings of modern and especially contemporary philosophers is tendentious to the extreme, while the interpretation of classic figures in theology is often contrived at best. Everything is forced into the mold of a Christian orthodoxy that owes more to Plato than to Christ, rejected as a dangerous enemy to this orthodoxy, or (at the most “generous”) read as a failed attempt to attain the pure insight of orthodoxy.

The core problem, however, is that the Radical Orthodox position strips Christianity of literally everything promising or attractive. The God of Radical Orthodoxy is not the God of the oppressed — instead, Milbank feels comfortable asserting (with utterly no basis) that Christianity was an aristocratic movement from the very beginning. There is no meaningful theology of the cross, apart from an attempt to hijack the prestige of Agamben’s homo sacer concept by applying it to Jesus. There is no sense of the apocalyptic tension between God and the earthly ruler — instead, monarchism is put forward as a straightforward logical corollary of Christianity.

So in short, our problem with Radical Orthodoxy was: everything.

A counter-reading of the 20th century

What if we viewed the Soviet Union as the single most important political actor of the 20th century? While reviled, it staved off some of the worst possible outcomes — above all the victory of the Nazis. One could also argue, perhaps more counterintuitively and controversially, that their development of nuclear weapons prevented all-out nuclear war by subjecting the US (which showed itself to be willing and even eager to use nuclear weapons when it was the sole nuclear power) to the logic of “mutual assured destruction.” (Of course, both achievements are reversed in popular mythology: now Western schoolchildren learn that the US defeated Hitler all but singlehandedly and that the Soviets were constantly itching to carry out a nuclear first strike.)

The rise of the Soviet Union also had the indirect effect of enabling the postwar settlement that gave workers an unprecedented (and long-mourned) seat at the table. Between this and the boom in investment, the postwar era serves as a kind of Golden Age for most Western nations — an era of broadly shared prosperity that in the US even appeared capacious enough to start accommodating the demands of women and blacks. Meanwhile in the decolonizing world, the existence of two centers of global power allowed newly-formed countries some room to maneuver, rather than allowing the US to simply take on the mantle of the former colonizers unchallenged. In neither part of the world are we looking at a paradise, but surely everyone was better off — or at least on a better trajectory — than they would be under the neoliberal settlement.

Paradoxically, however, if the existence of the Soviet Union made the Western capitalist classes more willing to accommodating workers’ demands, the unattractive example of the Soviet model — which was exaggerated for ideological reasons but still fell far short of its promises — deprived the rebellions of the 60s and 70s of their logical endpoint. Even though there were movements that had some vision for overthrowing the capitalist ruling classes once and for all and organizing economic life differently, there was never a real popular mandate for such a change. Indeed, the concessions that Western powers made in order to counter the communist threat often served to legitimate capitalism as such, even though such measures were a significant (and as we now know, sadly short-lived) aberration.

From the perspective of Nixon’s “silent majority,” then, the rebellions appeared to be narcissitic and self-indulgently romantic at best, dangerously naive and nihilistic at worst. The crackdown that began in the 70s thus enjoyed popular support even as it destroyed the basis for the widely shared prosperity that legitimized the power structures that were carrying it out. I don’t want to claim that the Soviet Union had any serious capacity to assist in fighting this crackdown — certainly their foreign policy had long been to maintain the status quo indefinitely — nor that it would have necessarily turned out better if they had. But by monopolizing the space for an international anti-capitalist movement without actually maintaining the ambitions that went with it, it effectively deprived the Western leftist movements (which its very existence had done so much to enable, albeit mostly indirectly) of any ground to stand on.

Overall, if we think, as good Marxists must, in messianic/apocalyptic terms, then the Soviet Union was not the messiah of the left, but the katechon — successfully heading off one “man of lawlessness” (Hitler) and holding another (the US) at bay for over a generation. And now that it has been removed, the man of lawlessness enjoys free rein in the form of a rapacious and unrestrained capitalism and in a Western bloc that feels empowered to go to war largely on a whim.


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