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Agamben Symposium: Colby Dickinson


‘The divisions of sovereignty’

For years now, one of Giorgio Agamben’s major concerns has been the fracture that lies at the heart of modern humanity (i.e. humanity’s sense of sovereignty).  This is something he has described in a variety of contexts as that which divides the experience of something from one’s knowledge of it (cf. his Infancy and History).  Due to such a fracture, we are no longer able to experience life as we ought to.  The task of poetry (as it deals with our experiences) is subsequently forever divided from that of philosophy (that which deals with our knowledge).  Such divisions, I would add, have since become the preeminent focus of Agamben’s work, taking him on a quest against all forms of representation that would sever the ‘thing itself’ from its image.  These thoughts, moreover, have taken him toward an inspection of similar divisions said to lie at the base of our perceptions of the divine (i.e. God’s sovereignty).

It should come as little surprise that a similar fracture lies at the heart of The Kingdom and the Glory, one focused on the divided nature of power itself, whether it be detected at work in the human being or in our constructs of God.  One of the major points underscored by Agamben in this work is that ‘Power—every power, both human and divine […] must be, at the same time, kingdom and government, transcendent norm and immanent order’ (p. 82).  The tensions that are created by the scission within us chart a course for ‘humanity’—for ‘being human’—as produced by an anthropological machinery that ceaselessly strives to articulate our existence (cf. Agamben’s The Open).  And this would seem to explain why the creation of the human being has always been central to the political, philosophical and literary tasks that Agamben continuously critiques.

Regarding the comparison between the political and the theological specifically, Agamben furnishes a unique model for the exercise of power through a consideration of the dualistic tensions that govern over (and attempt to conceal) the fractured nature of power itself.  And this would also seem to explain the very existence—and which appears as a necessary existence at that—of political theology.  To make power socially operative, theology became the first major ‘institution’ (‘apparatus’ or ‘machinery’ would also be appropriate terms here) to put forth a particularly convincing paradigm to recuperate an Aristotelian definition of transcendence (God as at the origin of all things) in relation to immanence (the ‘secondary actions and causes’ of God’s very being, that is, the praxis that results from God’s nature) (p. 84).  Aquinas’ subsequent appropriation of such a model, we are told, is what marks Christian theology forever after as it is intertwined with a specific form of political practice.  God’s transcendent being is inevitably offset by our immanent order of government, just as our world points only to God’s being—a ‘necessary’ circular economy within our social existence.  Theological speculations can therefore historically only move along an axis established by such a dualistic framework.  Positions deemed more or less orthodox or more or less heretical will in reality only be fluctuations somewhere along this continuum.  As Agamben puts it,

This apparent contradiction is nothing other than the expression of the ontological fracture between transcendence and immanence, which Christian theology inherits and develops from Aristotelianism.  If we push to the limit the paradigm of the separate substance, we have the Gnosis, with its God foreign to the world and creation; if we follow to the end the paradigm of immanence, we have pantheism.  Between these two extremes, the idea of order tries to think a difficult balance, which Christian theology is always in the process of losing and which it must at each turn regain.  (p. 87)

The difficult and complex doctrine on the two natures of Christ is one such example that Agamben will isolate and elaborate upon in this context as an effort to maintain such a precarious equilibrium.  Yet even a doctrine such as this one—from this viewpoint—is little more than another attempt to heal this same fracture at the heart of human identity.  It is here that an economy of ‘human-being’ is established, as ‘Immanent and transcendent order once again refer back to each other in a paradoxical coincidence, which can nevertheless be understood only as a perpetual oikonomia, as a continuous activity of government of the world, one that implies a fracture between being and praxis and, at the same time, tries to heal it’ (p. 89; cf. p 111).  Tries, but in the end, fails to heal.

Referring to the ‘transformation of classical ontology’ by subsequent Christian claims (and here relying heavily upon Augustine’s formulations), Agamben claims that western politics has its origins in western theological graftings of classical models for thinking-politics that are at the same time a form of political praxis.  This is the inseparability of thought and praxis that will ultimately allow for a ‘pure critique’ to develop in his work (see the lucid exposition of this concept in Thanos Zartaloudis’ Giorgio Agamben: Power, Law and the Uses of Criticism).  There is no doctrine that theology could espouse which does not also contain a practical, political program.  Political theology is therefore not an ironic appellation, but an inherent correlation.

Not only is the substance of creatures nothing other than the activity of the divine dispositio, such that the being of creatures utterly depends on a praxis of government—it is, in its essence, praxis and government—but the very being of God—insofar as it is, in a special sense, measure, number, and weight, that is, order—is no longer only substance or thought, but also and in the same measure dispositio, praxis.  Ordo names the incessant activity of government that presupposes and, at the same time, continually heals the fracture between transcendence and immanence, God and the world.  (p. 90)

The fact that things appear as if they should be this way comes to us as a theological endorsement of divine providence (p. 111).  Even Marx could thus be said to secularize this particular theological insight, now perceiving humans themselves as having to posit themselves again and again through their own ceaseless praxis (p. 91).  As Agamben makes clear, modernity has not removed God from the scene; though it has turned to a repressed form of secularity, it has only intensified theology’s hold upon humanity (pp. 286-7).


Are there any paths open to a pantheistic deity beyond sovereign power?

Despite such condemnations of modern conjectures on the divine, I often wonder what Agamben is truly up to in his own musings on the nature of the divine, a point that The Kingdom and the Glory does not help clarify.  For example, his ability to sketch a paradigm for perceiving the intertwined nature of politics and theology in the western world—one that places transcendence and immanence in a dynamic opposition—does not, however, address his own work elsewhere on the fundamental state of ‘absolute immanence’ that he takes up in its Spinozistic-Deleuzean register (I tried to address this theme somewhat in my Agamben and Theology).  Can a form of philosophical (‘absolute’) immanence somehow escape the dualism of transcendence and immanence as posited by sovereign power, much as he claims that a form of ‘pure potentiality’ is beyond the dualism of potentiality and actuality (which also constitutes the axis of sovereign power)?  How exactly would such a form of absolute immanence be removed from our political, representational tensions?  That is, when he champions the positions of antinomian thinkers such as Saint Paul or Sabbatai Zevi, how is his version of antinomianism yet to escape being re-inscripted back into a binary system of representations?

This is, of course, no small point.  It is rather the central question and point of critique surrounding Agamben’s work as a whole.

The ‘limit point’ of thought that Deleuze himself reached was one wherein he was able to consider the absolute indiscernability between immanence and transcendence, a point of vertigo where the inside and outside are virtually indistinguishable (see Agamben’s essay ‘Absolute Immanence’, p. 228).  As can be understood from even a cursory glance at what he has been up to in trying to discern a ‘form of life’ that renders the distinction between law and life inoperative (cf. his recently published fourth volume of the Homo Sacer series, Altissima povertà), Agamben is seeking to bring the economies of the world and their representations to a point where they must grind their violent matrices of power to a halt.  Agamben’s focus on the notion of ‘bare life’ is therefore an effort to highlight ‘the spectral dimension of the flesh correlative to a gap—a missing link—that haunts any narrative of the emergence of human subjectivity’, as Eric Santner has recently put it (Santner, The Royal Remains, p. 76).

What I would want to draw our attention to is the possibility that Agamben’s contentions with sovereign power and its relationship to our conceptions of the divine may in fact be playing out the dynamics of what Santner has referred to as the ‘pantheism debate’ that comes to the fore every century or so.  In 1990, for example, Agamben’s remarks on God and the world in The Coming Community could be said to refer to some type of pantheism, a position certainly in keeping with his statements elsewhere on absolute immanence and other antinomian insistences.  His resonance with certain theologians who have resisted sovereign (patriarchical) claims in favor of pantheistic urgings, such as Grace Jantzen has done, is therefore more than simply notable.

So how do such tendencies lean toward what Santner refers to as the ‘pantheism debate’, something that he suggests returns ‘at the end of each century under a different guise’ (p. 138n. 63).  For Santner, this debate rages between two factions: what he calls the ‘biopolitical pantheists’ (Gilles Deleuze foremost among them), on the one hand, and the ‘creaturely messianists’ (including Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig), on the other.  If Santner is indeed correct in labeling these contrasts as such, then Agamben’s work would appear to be an attempt to unite these diverse strands, much as his oeuvre often tries to unite its Deleuzean and Benjaminian elements.  Such a reading of the messianic as Agamben attempts to formulate it, and as one can see already in the case of Benjamin, is coupled with the manner in which time (or creation) itself could be said to interrupt our constructed versions of history.  In good parallel form, and as with any ‘object oriented’ approach, things themselves interrupt the constructions of our selves within history.  As such, the force of the ‘natural’—beyond our ideological constructs of it—is asserted over and against our various conceptualizations of our world: a presentation beyond representation is consequently proclaimed to be possible.  This would be the entrance of the ontological (the biopolitical) into our material world (hence, ‘pantheistic’ in a sense), the real mystery that humanity has tried to codify through its canonical impositions of anthropological construction, but which remains forever disruptive to such attempts (hence its messianic nature), according to Agamben’s claims.

This critique of history and of normative representations opens us up to the challenge of immanence as a path toward those forms of otherness that lie deep within us, interrupting our senses of self, community, history, sovereignty and the like.  It is a political theology in the sense of evaluating the political tensions within a given theological field, a study which perhaps ultimately says little (if anything) about the nature of the divine itself.  That is, it is a form of immanence that does not perhaps exclude the possibility of transcendence altogether.  And this is why Agamben’s critique of the immanence/transcendence machinery of our world (government/kingdom) will always appear as a separate and yet intimately related issue alongside his own musings on the ‘real’ nature of the divine (i.e. any presumed pantheistic sentiments within his more strictly ontologically-constructive writings).  His critiques, such as are registered in the Homo Sacer project, in fact seem rather to protect and preserve a space made available for the entrance of an indefinable and indescribable transcendence insofar as it serves (as ‘pure critique’) to eliminate all false forms of transcendence.  The accompanying criticisms of traditional forms of transcendence (which Agamben shares with many a feminist theologians) are therefore a welcomed corrective to a sovereign (‘transcendent’ and hierarchical) discourse, though they perhaps do not yet do away with such discourses completely.

We are in fact often simply confronted in the end with the mystery of such tensions before us, one that ever widens rather than restricts its scope.

There is underneath this turn to an ‘absolute’ immanence what I will call a ‘political theology of immanence’—insofar as it is the collective voices of these critiques that merge with the ever-present possibility of what theology could be, an always present horizon for the divine to appear once again in the space traditionally occupied by (false) forms of transcendence (e.g. forms of very earthly sovereign power), though not necessarily as a completely immanent (pantheistic) deity, which Agamben among others, has hinted toward.  Rather such a reading is to envision a political theology of immanence as an investigation of the theological from within, the minimum gesture of self-reflexivity of which theology has often suffered a lack.  Such a political theology is not necessarily, it should be said, a speculation on the ontological nature of the divine.  To conceive of a self-reflexive theological method, however, is certainly a challenge to those forms of theological discourse that are either purely ideological or based upon a transcendent-sovereign, patriarchal, colonial, or racist (hierarchical) structure, though it does not rule out the entrance of an ultimate transcendent deity tout court.

To acknowledge this possibility is to admit that the conflictual binary models constructed on the split between transcendence and immanence have often been grafted onto a reality that continues to exceed their representational limits, though it does not necessarily escape the realm of representations altogether.  In fact, a political theology of immanence presents itself most prominently as a political theology insofar as it concerns itself with the contours of theology in the here and now, providing appropriate critiques of the theological endeavor yet with an aim toward preserving the mystery that lies at the heart of all revealed truths.  As such, my hope would be that a political theology of immanence becomes capable of performing a certain justice to those excluded by or silenced within history (and its accompanying political representations), and that it yet also respects the mystery which could be said to lie at the heart of our most basic religious claims (in many ways a ‘political theology of transcendence’ though perhaps one needing today to be rehabilitated in light of present challenges).  To ensure such a dual function—or that which is no doubt perceived by many as an impossible task—I would turn to something like the possibility of a radical theological hermeneutics that might begin to provide answers to such problematics as Agamben’s ‘pure critique’ opens .


Colby Dickinson is Assistant Professor of Theology at Loyola University, Chicago. He is the author of Agamben and Theology.

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