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The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups. It was originally posted at An und für sich.]

The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.

From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.

Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. For instance, who could deny, after reading Agamben’s account, that Adam Smith’s infamous “invisible hand” is modelled on theological accounts of divine providence? The somewhat more opaque question of the shift from the Pauline “economy of the mystery” to the “mystery of the economy” also becomes more clear when we remember that in Anselm’s Proslogion, the most profound truths of God’s inner life (including even the Trinity!) are immediately accessible to pure reason—whereas what is truly mysterious and above our comprehension is where God’s justice and mercy meet in the fate of the individual soul, which is to say, the only mystery here is precisely how things play out in the economy of salvation.

As a student of patristic and medieval theology and of contemporary philosophy, I am of course very interested in the concrete results of Agamben’s analysis. Yet I am not content simply to report on Agamben’s findings—I want to figure out how to produce such interesting insights myself. Hence my focus in thinking through Agamben’s work in The Kingdom and the Glory has tended toward methodological questions, and indeed Agamben’s own thinking seems to have tended in that direction as he conducted his own research. His most direct statement on methodology, The Signature of All Things, appeared the year after The Kingdom and the Glory in Italian (though the vagaries of the translation industry reversed the order for English speakers), and The Kingdom and the Gloryrepresents the most thorough-going deployment of the technical term “signature,” which is so central to the method presented in The Signature of All Things.

To put it simply, a signature is what the scholar follows along in a genealogical investigation. A signature is not a concept, because that would imply that it was stable and unchanging. Rather, a signature is a kind of flexible or unstable pattern, a persistent tension that changes form as moves into new contexts over the course of its history while remaining recognizable. To use a familiar example from Nietzsche’s GenealogySchuld (the German term connoting both guilt and debt) is a signature in Agamben’s terms—it changes decisively in the course of its journey from debt to guilt, most dramatically in the self-undermining apotheosis of debt represented by Christianity, and yet there is a recognizable continuity amid all the remarkable discontinuity. In Agamben’s own account, then, “economy” would be a signature par excellence, mutating rapidly in its vertiginous leaps from the sphere of Greek “home economics” to the practicalities of imperial management, and from thence into the sphere of theological speculation—where it then lies in wait before ultimately reemerging into the world of financial speculation. In all these very different contexts, a common thread is identifiable, and that common thread is not an invariant concept, but a signature that marks all these shifts as part of an iterative process.

There is an irony in Agamben’s method here, however. Although signatures are emphatically not concepts, it seems clear that Agamben is most comfortable in the realm of conceptual analysis, and hence tends to focus on the most quasi-conceptual signatures in his investigations. This has provided ample fodder for those who find Agamben to be inexcusably ahistorical, and I think it has also unnecessarily limited the scope of his research. Within the theological sphere, for instance, we might note that he has devoted an entire book to the Pauline epistles—a favored point of reference for philosophers since the early modern period due to their quasi-conceptual character. Yet despite apparently viewing the life of Christ as an authentically “messianic” event, he very rarely directly quotes the Gospels. This seems like an obvious missed opportunity—already in the New Testament itself, the life of Christ is undergoing an iterative process across the four gospels, making it a natural object of Agamben’s inquiry.

More broadly, what I want to suggest is that stories can also be signatures in Agamben’s sense, and in fact, stories might prove to be more fertile for his approach than the quasi-concepts he prefers to focus on. As an example, I will focus not on the canonical Gospels, but on a somewhat later iteration of the story of the life of Christ—the so-called “ransom” or Christus Victor account of Christ’s redeeming work found in the patristic writers and made famous in modern times by Gustav Aulén’s pioneering typological work.

More specifically, I want to trace the shifting place of the devil in that redemptive narrative. I have several reasons for this. First, my research into competing atonement theories for my book Politics of Redemption (available wherever fine books are sold!) has convinced me that the shifting role of the devil is of much greater importance for the history of theology than is generally recognized—a point I hope to demonstrate in my next major research project. Secondly, it seems to me that the devil fits well with Agamben’s preference for seemingly marginal or outdated themes—just as sovereignty seemed obselete after the supposed worldwide triumph of liberal democracy, and just as theories of divine providence have waned along with the doctrine of predestination that seems to have finally lost its fascination for Western Christianity in the modern period, so also does the devil seem to be a relic of the past, superceded in all but a few fringe pockets of contemporary Christianity. Against such dismissals, I maintain that we are still dealing with the legacy of Christ’s struggle with the devil—but “without the benefit of an inventory,” as Agamben might put it.

The devil is not completely absent from Agamben’s work. Indeed, he plays a cameo role in what I found to be the most satisfying chapter of The Kingdom and the Glory, “Angelology and Bureaucracy.” There he puts forward the angels as the middle-management of God’s economy of salvation, the ancestors of the modern bureaucrat. The key difference he sees between the medieval and modern economy is that whereas the economy of salvation would presumably come to an end in the Last Judgment, the modern economy is meant to go indefinitely, world without end. Already in the medieval paradigm, however, we sense that they have a presentiment of our contemporary predicament, because there is one place where the economy lasts for all eternity—namely, hell, where the fallen angels carry out God’s will by torturing the damned. Agamben’s goal in the chapter is to make the transition from the discussion of economy to that of glory, and so this move remains little more than a clever aside. Yet it raises a serious question: how did the devil, who is presumably God’s greatest enemy, wind up directly executing his terrible will? And furthermore, in the transition into the modern world, how does it become possible that the greatest of Christian poets, John Milton, can portray the devil in a way that can lead so many to view him as a heroic rebel?

The paradox of the seemingly heroic devil of Paradise Lost is all the more puzzling when we recall the devil’s place in the patristic narrative of redemption. The way that story goes is this: when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, they were simultaneously obeying the devil’s suggestion. On the Pauline principle that you are a slave to whoever you obey, the first couple thus wound up enslaving themselves to the devil—and due to their unique position as the parents of everyone, they passed this oppressive status down to all subsequent human beings.

At this point, one might object that God should simply seize humanity from the devil by force, as his own rightful property. Yet the Church Fathers were committed to the proposition that God is non-violent, which in this case means that he must intervene into the situation as it actually exists. The saving work of Christ thus represents an attempt to undermine the devil’s rule from within, and the lever is Christ’s status as fully God and fully human. The structure is, as Gregory of Nyssa puts it, that of a bait and switch. As a human being descended from Adam and Eve, Christ should be formally subject to the devil’s rule—and indeed, Christ’s unique charisma and miraculous power drew the devil’s attention and prompted him to try to make that implicit claim explicit.

When Christ refused to submit, the devil exercised the ultimate right of sovereign power, choosing to kill him rather than countenance his defiance. In so doing, however, he inadvertantly claimed sovereign power over God, which is clearly impossible. Since the devil’s claim is to exercise dominion over all humanity, any exception undermines it—henceforward, the devil and his servants are “dead-enders,” still exercising power but with no legitimate authority. In short, this narrative is diametrically opposed to the modern one: the devil is the oppressor, and Christ is the seductive rebel, undermining his rule from within.

The early Fathers anticipated objections to this account, focusing on the question of how God can rightfully use deception. Later theologians such as John Damascene and Anselm rejected this view for a different reason, however—they could not countenance the notion that God would grant the devil any legitimacy whatsoever. Damascene follows the characteristically Eastern route of reinterpreting the old narrative in terms of human bondage to death, which was always an overarching theme among the patristic authors. By contrast, Anselm—by all appearances—tears out and starts fresh in his hugely influential attempt to derive the Christian account of salvation from the principles of pure reason in Cur deus homo.

As I argue in Politics of Redemption, however, the basic structure of the patristic narrative exerts a powerful inertial effect on Anselm’s account—or to put it in Agamben’s terms, the patristic narrative remains a signature that we can detect in Anselm’s apparently independent theory. In fact, Anselm only displaces the devil to a marginal position, whereas his structural role in the narrative remains crucial. The view of Christ as liberator is too strong to displace, and so Anselm positions him as our liberator, not from the devil, but from God, conceived as a creditor aggrieved at his delinquent debtors. As in Agamben’s account of the theological genealogy of economy, once you start looking for the parallels, it seems as though they were hiding in plain sight—one easily finds very detailed correspondences between Anselm’s account and the patristic narrative he is supposedly rejecting. Even the bait and switch logic puts in an appearance in the passage where God offers Christ the reward he has earned by his meritorious voluntary death, only to discover—lo and behold—that Christ is God and thus has no need for reward, meaning that Christ’s infinite positive balance can be applied to humanity’s infinite debt.

In coming to occupy the devil’s slot in the narrative structure, Anselm’s God takes on certain devilish characteristics—he is unforgiving, eager for glory, jealous of his honor. Most notably, the concept of love is totally absent from Anselm’s account. It falls to Abelard to supplement Anselm’s theory with the traditional emphasis on love—and at the same time, he does a great deal to lay the groundwork for viewing the devil as a kind of divine “subcontractor,” carrying out God’s dirty work so that the Lord of Hosts can keep his hands clean. [Indeed, Abelard’s Commentary on Romans, which is the primary source for his much-vaunted “moral influence theory,” contains some truly appalling material on the divine wrath and our helplessness in face of it—hopefully the recent Catholic University Press translation of the full text by Steven R. Cartwright will help to dispel the overly idealistic image of Abelard, although the bit on the devil as God’s subcontractor can be found in the widely available selections translated in the Library of Christian Classics volume A Scholastic Miscellany.] And here we can rejoin Agamben’s account of divine providence from a different angle, noting how God is increasingly viewed as responsible for evil as well as good in Late Scholasticism—a theme Agamben will follow up on in an amusing way in a passage where he discusses the devil in Opus Dei, which I don’t want to spoil for you.

I still have considerable work to do to fill out that basic narrative of the transition from the patristic to the medieval paradigm and to extend the genealogy to the modern period, but I believe that John Calvin provides a crucial hinge here, insofar as his reworking of the patristic theory of redemption in the Institutes can be tied to his theory of the state—reprising the New Testament and patristic theme of using the devil as a metaphor for the state, albeit in an ironic way, insofar as he lays the groundwork for the devil’s rebellion against God to serve as a metaphor for the rebellion of secular power against divinely legitimated despotism. I hope I have done enough here, though, to indicate the way in which the story of God’s struggle with the devil can be viewed as a signature in Agamben’s sense, and to provide some initial evidence of the productivity of Agamben’s genealogical method of tracing signatures when applied to narrative material.

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