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Book Preview – The Future of Illusion by Victoria Kahn

future of illusion

Victoria Kahn (University of California, Berkeley) previews her new book, The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

The Future of Illusion is the product of long reflection on and frustration with the contemporary discussion of political theology in the humanities and social sciences, and in the broader public sphere. In contemporary debate, political theology often seems to refer to the inescapable theological dimension of politics, whether as a source of individual motivation, political legitimation, or political authority. In this form, political theology very often involves a critique of liberalism, in particular of the putative failure of liberalism to address the profound religiosity of American citizens, as well as the role of religion in global politics. The choice, we’re told, is no longer between Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and faith, but between a vitiated liberal tradition and one ostensibly revivified by its attention to religious belief.

The Future of Illusion traces the origin of much of the contemporary debate about political theology to the early modern period. It does so not simply as a genealogical exercise but in order to intervene in the contemporary discussion about the relationship between politics and religion in the West. Against the equation of political theology with the theological sources of political power, I argue that we should think of political theology as articulating the problem of the relationship between politics and religion, a problem that was at the heart of early modern literature and political thought. Central to early modern thinking about this problem but relatively absent from current discussions of political theology, I argue, was a vindication of poiesis, understood as a secular conception of human agency.

In returning to seventeenth-century Europe to make sense of our modern debates about political theology, I am following in the footsteps of some of the most important twentieth-century theorists of political theology: Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Ernst Kantorowicz, Ernst Cassirer, Walter Benjamin, and Sigmund Freud. All of these figures looked back to the earlier period to make sense of their own political moment, not least of all the crisis of Weimar liberalism and the reemergence of something like political theology in the Nazi state. I argue that we can have a better sense of the relevance of early modern texts to modern debates if we revisit the early moderns with the help of these twentieth-century readers. For this reason, the book is structured as a series of dialogues between the modern critics and the early modern texts that were crucial to their thinking.

The German jurist Carl Schmitt used the term political theology to refer to the secularization of theological concepts in the political discourse of seventeenth-century Europe. Schmitt’s chief example of this use of religious concepts in the service of absolute political power was Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which depicted the sovereign as both an artificial construct and a mortal god. The historian Ernst Kantorowicz located political theology in the medieval and early modern notion of the king’s two bodies, one mortal and the other divine. He then famously traced the dissolution of this paradigm to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard II, arguing that the separation of the king’s eternal body from his mortal body in Shakespeare’s play facilitated later arguments for regicide (the death of the mortal body) and republicanism (the life of the people as the eternal body politic). For both Schmitt and Kantorowicz, seventeenth-century England saw the displacement of political theology understood as the theological legitimation of political power by the human capacity for making. In particular, Hobbes and Shakespeare refashioned some of the century’s dominant tropes as figures for secular agency.

The political philosopher Leo Strauss understood political theology to refer to the vexed relationship between politics and philosophy in the Western tradition, not least of all in the work of Spinoza and Hobbes. For Strauss too a new notion of poiesis was at the heart of these early modern political philosophies: Hobbes famously argued that we can only know what we make ourselves and Spinoza reduced the Bible to a merely human book, what we might call a work of literature with its own history of textual emendation and corruption. In his later work, Strauss traced this primacy of making to Machiavelli and his conception of the state as a work of art, a product of purely human conflict and negotiation. Strauss was critical of this development, which he saw as contributing to the incoherence of the modern liberal project: liberals defend formal equality but are incapable of mounting an argument for substantive values. Strauss’s objection to liberalism, then, was not to its separation of religion and the state but to liberalism’s supposed historicism and relativism.

Unlike Strauss and Schmitt, Walter Benjamin had a more positive view of the poetics of early modern political philosophy. In his book on German tragic drama, Benjamin both registered the complex theological-political effects of the Reformation and its internalization of belief, and argued for the critic’s capacity to produce new insights from the shards of the older theological culture. Something like Benjamin’s positive view of human agency, I argue, animates Freud’s encounter with the early modern period, both in the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and in the work of Spinoza. Freud saw in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise an anticipation of his own radical critique of religion and his defense of culture as a purely human realm of making.

Of all the chapters of the book, I want to single out the one on Spinoza because I think it captures the problem of political theology in all its intricacy. I argue that Spinoza’s rhetorical achievement in the Theological-Political Treatise is the simultaneous critique of superstition and the defense of civil religion. The philosophically inclined reader is gradually educated to the truths of reason, while the people and the state are given the biblical myths and stories they need. For Spinoza, admitting the necessity of rhetoric — writing the Theological-Political Treatise — is only the first step along a trajectory whose ideal endpoint is philosophy freed from the constraints of persuasion. Whether, however, the practical requirements are also theoretical requirements — limits on the very possibility of reason — is, I argued, the ongoing question of Enlightenment.

In conclusion, I want to single out two aspects of the book that I think might provoke discussion and about which I myself have second thoughts.

In the Introduction to the book, I argue, with Hans Blumenberg, against the secularization thesis, understood as the claim that Christianity has explanatory force when it comes to making sense of the emergence of modern science, aesthetics, and political thought. I then suggest that something like this critique of the secularization thesis is built into the modern texts I examine. For the modern figures in the book, it was not Christianity but the Jewish question that provided the paradigm for thinking about the problem of political theology. Writing in the wake of Marx, who criticized the Left Hegelians for mounting a critique of religion instead of a critique of political economy, the moderns insist on the primacy of the ideological superstructure over the economic “base.” For them, what was most striking about the rise of the Nazi state was the power of ideology to triumph over economic interest. While I still think the Jewish question provides a useful paradigm for thinking about political theology, especially in the early twentieth century, I now think that a full account of the fortunes of political theology in our “post-secular” age would, as Marx suggested, also have to attend to economic forces.

In the Coda to the book, I draw on the work of Yirmiyahu Yovel to enroll Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes and Freud in the tradition of what Yovel calls “philosophers of the dark Enlightenment.” At the heart of this tradition is a critical philosophy of immanence that, as Yovel argued, must ultimately be a philosophy of finitude: “As finite beings we can neither affirm the transcendent domain nor rid ourselves completely of its empty yet meaningful horizon. By ‘empty,’” Yovel goes on, “I mean that it cannot be filled with any positive contents or even be asserted to exist. Yet this empty horizon is meaningful as a memento of our own finitude.” I agreed with Yovel that such a position does not amount to nihilism but rather to the recognition of our shared human capacity to construct the values we live by. Placing values on things, I argued, might be described as the activity of fiction-making but we should not construe such values as “mere fictions,” since this would involve passing judgment on them from the position of absolute transcendence, which is not a position we can occupy. In an earlier part of the book, I suggested that Hannah Arendt anticipated something like this argument when she argued that Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment was also an account of political judgment. Although I don’t have space to go into this here, I now think that Arendt’s elision of aesthetic and political judgment raises normative questions she doesn’t fully address. Thus, while I still think that the critique of political theology invites us to revisit the poetic sources of the norms we live by, I now think that much more work needs to be give an account of the normative dimension of a critical philosophy of immanence.

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