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Agamben Symposium: Charles Mathewes



1.  Hollywood and academia may not often be thought of in one breath, but they do share some things, not the least being a hyperventilating and parochial culture of celebrity.  Having been in this business now for a few of these cycles, I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seen ‘em go.  Which figures are selected to be smiled upon by the fame machine seems almost random, a matter of tuche, the semi-theological bad luck of those who are selected, by a blind fate, or an erratic Greek deity.  The perduring and valuable work of genuine scholars mounts in height and depth gradually over decades, chiseled out of serious matter, and their import is often recognized only in retrospect, late in a career or after the author is dead.  Others—the academic version of one hit wonders—flash up in an instant, are talked about—though not as often talked to, and still less often carefully read—for a frenzied spasm of a few years, then are dropped like an empty foil bag of chips, left to blow heedlessly among the trees in the groves of academe, or to wander the halls of academic conferences, for decades to come.

I’m afraid, but I’m quite sure, that the work of Agamben falls into the celebrity category.  This is too bad, because—as is so often the case—he has some worthy insights and challenges for scholars working in political theology.  What, once his fifteen minutes are up, will they be?

Here I can only offer a somewhat educated conjecture.  But it is true that much of what he is best known for now rests on dubious conceptual and etymological distinctions (zoe and bios), a series of reduction ad absurdum arguments whose scandalousness rests on their superficiality (Aristotle leads to Auschwitz? Moderns are all Muselmänner?), and insights remarkable to readers only insofar as their knowledge of history and the history of thought is deficient (state of exception? Louis XIV’s cannons had ultima ratio regis imprinted around their mouths, and anyone who has read Augustine on judging has encountered these worries before).

What I think he will be known for is raising, in a certain oblique way, a question about how fully language can wholly represent our reality.  This is a post-Hegelian question, a question about the limits of language, of representation, and ultimately of our capacity to comprehend our world.  And those of us who want to respond to it will of course have to contend with the fact that our response itself will likely take linguistic form, at least initially.  (Such is certainly the case here.)  The radicality of this critique is undeniable: like Hardt and Negri, and Benjamin and Adorno before them, there is a kind of radically apophatic, indeed atheological messianism, yet one so serious about the genuinely messianic character of its messianism that it raises questions, mostly indirectly but occasionally directly, about the ultimate difference between the theological and atheological messianism, when pressed to their uttermost extent.


2.         This is a general claim, and one illustrated best perhaps by attention to a concrete case.  Fortunately one such interesting case exists, in this interesting book by Agamben, and it lies at the heart of the whole project of his multivolume Homo Sacer.  It is the question of what lies at the center, at the very heart, of Christian faith, and of the Christian cosmos.  More specifically, Agamben raises questions about the centrality of praise to the Christian life, and claims to find some aporias inherent in this praise, aporias that, he thinks, reveal a devastating emptiness at the heart of Christian theology and through that, at the heart of modern society and especially modern politics.

Agamben correctly recognizes the centrality of praise in most prominent Christian accounts of God, creation, and the human (though his route to recognizing it is curious, at best), and he builds his own rival account around what he sees as the vacuity of the traditional picture.  He understands that Christians believe that humans are created to praise, and offer well-merited praise to the God who created them wholly gratuitously ex nihilo.  Yet God does not need this praise, for God’s own inner dynamism is already wholly, infinitely, engaged in the activity of loving God’s own being.  So far, so good standard Trinitarian doctrine.  But Agamben does something interesting here.  He suggests that this praise, this giving of glory, is more primordial to God than love is—that love is really nothing but this giving of glory.  God is, then, composed of nothing but praise—so that in God’s own aseity of the immanent trinity, “God is, in other words, literally composed of praise, and, by glorifiying him, men are admitted to participate in his most intimate existence” (pp. 220-21).  Theosis, then, is nothing more than an especially dramatic form of narcissism transference.

This creates problems, Agamben thinks, because it suggests that “doxology is, perhaps, in some way a necessary part of the life of the divinity” (p. 221).  (I especially appreciate the “perhaps” here, which is just one example of the Tourette-like scattering of graduate student pseudo-caution throughout the text.)  Perhaps, for Agamben, God is nothing but praise, praise we give, hence nothing other but our alienated compliments.  Perhaps the Triume perichoresis is nothing more than a vacuous whirlwind, our endless effort at trying to pat ourselves on the back, a self-congratulatory willing of amor sui into being via causa sui, a kind of solipsism arising ex nihilo.


3.         From this, Agamben builds an account of a not-unrelated problem for modern politics.  He says that “glory, the acclaimative and doxological aspect of power…seemed to have disappeared in modernity” (xii), but this is not so.  As he puts it, “modern power is not only government but also glory, and…the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power” (p. xii).  Thus the empty throne of which he makes so much, and the basis of his claim that, in politics as well as in theology, “the center of the governmental machine is empty” (p. xiii).  From this he sees the empty echo-chamber of politics derived as well, as our desire to praise once manifest in theology has now become transubstantiated into a this-worldly political register, more or less.  In this case the emperor is not only not glorious; he has no clothes, either.  This is, in a way, Augustine and Calvin as read through Feuerbach, and then transposed into a semi-Foucauldian register.

I agree with that insight, though I come at it (I think) more honestly, by a reading of Augustine and Calvin on idolatry and our mind’s continuous desire to worship and praise, and by a reading of various civic republicans about the danger of tyranny.  And I would also agree with him that “a more primordial genetic rank [does not] necessarily pertain to theology” (p. xi)—which I take to mean that he doesn’t want to say that politics is theology or it is nothing.  But on second thought, that is what I want to say, at least in a way, at least insofar as it means this: a political psychology that ignores the theological dimensions of politics, as so many do today, is not simply stunted but in some important ways misoriented from the start, as the last decade or so has shown us time and time again.

But here is where his account becomes nihilistic and finally frivolous.  It’s not just that his construal of theology is finally nihilistic; that I’ve seen before, of course.  It’s rather that his picture of modern politics is so radically anchored upon that atheology to be fatuous.  And the alternatives he urges on his audience, the gestures he makes towards another picture, are so apophatic, so anemic, as to amount to a cynical shrug.

What do I mean by this?  Well, at least two things.  First of all, the idea that glory has simply secularized into something like political “consensus” is extremely reductionistic and blinding.  He says “to have completely integrated Glory with oikonomia in the acclaimative form of consensus is, more specifically, the specific task carried out by contemporary democracies and their government by consent” (p. xii)—actually, no; glory has been distributed through liberal society as expressed in the category of privacy and individuality, in the idea of the liberal individual, and in the fascinating and deeply problematic notion of celebrity, including academic celebrity of the sort Agamben himself enjoys at present and with which my response began above.  That is, Agamben wants to imagine that the society of the spectacle is in some fundamental way essentially a matter of governmentality, that “everything is political” in the sense of being about subservience to an alien sovereign, that cultural forces have no autonomy but are simply a mask for the political.  I recognize that this sort of paranoid reduction of all things to power is still common today, almost three decades after Foucault’s death; but I cannot accept it.  This is a politics based on the cynicism of 1968—on the collapse of revolutions into triviality—a politics, that is, that cannot accommodate phenomena like 1989, the phenomenon of real, lasting, this-worldly revolution for the good.

Second, Agamben’s picture of the state as totalitarian is hysterically overdrawn and does not let him see the true character of the challenges facing us today, does not let him see the realities of politics today.  His politics is almost entirely a way to say that no one has any real political power; that nothing ever really changes; that efforts to change things are wrong-footed from the start, and that efforts at pragmatic change in particular are for suckers; that the only change worth imagining, or hoping for (but note: not worth attempting, for it must come, not be created) is the pseudo-theological fantasy of what Bernard Yack long ago rightly named “the longing for total revolution,” though now this is moved in even straightforwardly mystificatory directions by translation into a pseudo-theological register.  I can understand the apocalyptic disgust at the sordid compromises of real politics (hey—I live in the United States, after all!), the weariness at facing the ever-new, ever-old, and ever-perpetual task of, in Weber’s terms, the long, slow boring of very hard boards.

In this sense, in fact, despite his protestations, Agamben is not so much Arendtian as anti-Arendtian, or rather a late example of the sort of otherworldly and escapist philosophical thinking that she sought to oppose when it turned to politics.  In a way I’m not surprised that this is what passes for advanced political thought on the Continent these days; the hangover from the orgy of Cold War Marxism lingers on, and in any event the character of European public life has not given anyone a taste for self-governance for quite some time, being as it is more a parody of politics than a site of consequential political deliberation.  The utter evacuation of political life from the E.U. in favor of a bureaucratic technocracy—a phenomenon that is particularly pointed in Agamben’s home state of Italy, where the technocrats have now been replaced (if they were ever in place in the first place) by kleptocrats—these realities go a long way toward explaining the near-complete innocence about real politics that marks his writing at every turn.


4.         Yet there is something of interest, though (perhaps unsurprisingly) it is framed not most immediately as a this-worldly political question, but rather as a theological one.  It is the question on pp. 240-42 of the book, the question of whether or not Augustine’s account of paradise has any positivity to it at all.  Agamben thinks it does not—that the entire thing is kind of a shell-game, meant to distract us from the gaping hole at the center, what he labels “the unthinkable nature of the inoperativity of the blessed” (p. 241), an “unsayable vacuity” (p. 242) at the heart of the City of God.

Obviously, Agamben is reading Augustine’s text in light of his larger point about the potential emptiness of theology itself, as nothing more than displaced praise.  Augustine cannot say anything positive, on Agamben’s account, because there is nothing to be positive about.  For Agamben, Augustine’s stuttering aphasia on these points, his appeal to paradox and incoherent metaphor, is a sign not that the reality is greater than language, but that there is nothing there at all: “at the beginning and the end of the highest power there stands, according to Christian theology, a figure not of action and government but of inoperativity” (p. 242).  For Agamben, this is the devastating point:

…this means that the center of the governmental apparatus, the threshold at which Kingdom and Government ceaselessly communicate and ceaselessly distinguish themselves from one another, is, in reality, empty; it is only the Sabbath and katapausis—and, nevertheless, this inoperativity is so essential for the machine that it must at all costs be adopted and maintained at its center in the form of glory. (p. 242)

Now, there is something important identified here.  Augustine, then, is ground zero of the core theological argument. And it is an interesting argument; it addresses a suitably deep point and makes an argument about it worth considering.  But is it right?

There I think—you’ll be wholly unsurprised to hear—the evidence is not substantial for Agamben’s position, and in fact the text bears in it the components of an answer to this charge.  The deep question driving these passages is, for Augustine, what happens in Heaven?  What will become of our agency when the distentio of time has come to an end?  While Agamben thinks that Augustine has nothing to say, in fact the bishop as quite a bit to affirm.

Certainly it is the case that Augustine recognizes a radical tension between life here, during the world, and life on the eschatological Sabbath.  But the tension is not a disjunction.  There is commerce across the boundary of time and eternity, Creation and God, “now” and “not yet.”  He is well aware of the temptation to go fully apophatic about this, at least for Platonic or neo-Platonic reasons; but he understands himself to be forbidden to do this by his fidelity to the Scriptural witness and the larger theological heritage in which he wants to inscribe himself.

This fidelity manifests itself in two particular commitments which pervade Augustine’s argument—one pervading the argument of City of God in general, the other particularly palpable in the last several books, and especially Book 22, where Agamben’s reading is focused.  The first commitment is Augustine’s commitment to the Incarnation-to affirming that God became human, the logos took on sarx, in order that creation, and especially humanity, might be drawn up into the divine life.  The other commitment is Augustine’s commitment to the resurrection of the body—to the idea that the consummation of human existence will not be a matter of escaping or fleeing the body, but of the body transfigured, transformed in some utterly mysterious way.

The two of these commitments are part of what I would call Augustine’s sacramental imagination, his insistence that God is always already engaged in our world, more deeply than we are.  It is this sacramental imagination that governs Augustine’s thought.  (Though I don’t want to spend the time establishing it here, in fact this imagination suffuses the whole of the de civitate Dei, and governing the character of the argument and the rhetoric (from the choice of a “pagan” word, civis, to describe the community of the people of God, to the first word of the text—gloriosissimam, “most glorious,” arguably the central axiological term of pagan Roman thought (gloria), but using it to refer to the City of God.)

It is also this sacramental imagination that Agamben seems incapable of understanding.  For all his emphasis on doxology, there’s remarkably little attention to the liturgical or ecclesiological or practical character of Christian life; and while he suggests that “the doxology…is the most dialectical part of theology” (p. 208), I would say instead that the Eucharist is the most dialectical—where flesh and blood are transfigured into something other, something far more real.  But that is a thought that must wait for a longer forum for it to be developed.

Charles Mathewes is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His publications include The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times and Evil and the Augustinian Tradition.

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