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Asymmetry and the Reimagining of Political Theology

An earlier version of the following paper was presented at the 2017 Telos Conference, held on January 14–15, 2017, in New York City. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

What Is New About the “New Wars”?: Reimagining Political Theology Beyond the Illusory Symmetry of the Modern State

If the phrase “asymmetrical warfare” is taken to connote scenarios where “one side is possessed of overwhelming power with respect to its adversary,”[1] together with manifold embodiments “of asymmetry in media representations, ideology, religion, sub- and supra-national actors, the environment and even psychology,”[2] then there would appear little doubt that today’s world is pervaded by such conflict. Necessarily, the unique historical conditions of the present, globalizing era—with its fragmenting as well as revanchist states, and its dizzying technological accelerations—are evoked by “new wars”[3] that embroil a proliferation of non-state actors, along with states who believe that they should rightly monopolize (or be immune from, as the case may be) such asymmetrical modalities as nuclear arsenals, mercenary forces, drones, cyberattacks, and propaganda innovations. Moreover, within these instances of contemporary asymmetry, attempts to capitalize on an absence of strategic equilibrium between one’s adversary and oneself overlap with telling discursive contests, engaged in by combatants ranging from Western powers and their rival countries, to an organization like ISIS. Sought, thereby, is the shrouding of oneself in moral legitimacy, while simultaneously tearing that mantle from one’s adversary—we, the guardians of civilized humanity and sacred virtue, you, the savage barbarian, or apostate; we, the purveyors of honest truth, you, the hawkers of fake news, and disruptors of democratic processes. In light of the modern, statist investment in the presumed, normative superiority of symmetrical warfare, it is hardly surprising that these discursive contests characteristically feature states condemning the asymmetrical nature, or tactics of their adversaries. Representative epithets might include the omnipresent, ready-to-appropriate signifier, “terrorism” (say, in the case of insurgents); or, a charged violation of international protocol that demands being sanctioned (say, in the case of accused computer hackers). This all being said, the well-established point that there is nothing modern about asymmetrical warfare, per se, given the phenomenon’s narrative positioning within the Old Testament long before even the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), amplifies the query: what do the “new wars” intimate about perceived, twenty-first century political, and broader metaphysical realities?

One revealing indicator conveyed by the “new wars” involves the extent to which they display the need for emerging ways of reimagining political theology. “[T]he increasing prevalence of asymmetric warfare,” to a degree warranting current debates over whether “state-centric,” just war principles should be extended to cover non-state combatants,[4] calls for paths beyond the singular, post-medieval, Christian-derived state center where the sovereign’s effectively divine power to include and exclude, save and condemn, has been overwhelmingly based. The Hobbesian dictum that the “great LEVIATHAN . . . [is] that Mortal God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence,”[5]—artefactual construct of, and forcible colonial implantation from seventeenth-century Europe that it is—has less and less plausibility, amidst the transforming political sovereignties, and irreducibly variegated creedal composition of today’s world. No doubt, leaders on the shape of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi (one could multiply more contentious examples) might disagree, resting on their re-inscribed certitude that the nation-state sovereign’s sword, wielded mercilessly against insurgency, or mere dissent, is all that can keep sectarian chaos at bay. However, Assad’s and Sisi’s own cynical manipulations of categories of religious and ethnic difference, in the service of buttressing their regimes, only acts to underscore how sub-state and supra-state forces, along with intercommunal fissures manifested in the “new wars,” point to the time-bound fragility of sovereign claims like theirs.

A more encompassing historical and geographic, and, for that matter, metaphysical perspective might suggest that, in fact, ours is a fundamentally “asymmetric world,” wherein struggle over such intimate forms of human identity as those that Barry Scott Zellen terms “tribal” and “ethereal” is much the norm.[6] As Zellen asserts:

. . . modern states are neither eternal nor unchanging. They are dynamic and evolving. . . . Indeed, across much of the world, there may truly be no state system at all, despite its prominence in the minds of theorists dating back so many centuries—but instead, in its lofty place, is an ethereal but nonetheless lasting interconnection that varies greatly by region, shadows cast upon the wall of mind deep down inside Plato’s cave—mere glimpses of an overarching order, amidst a kaleidoscopic amalgam of organic and synthetic parts, each doing what they do best: surviving in a maddeningly complex world—for as long as they can.[7]

A vital question, therefore, is how the political might be understood as animated and inspired by the theological, in ways that are justly reflective of the asymmetrical contours and contestations of human difference; this, as supposed to the artificial superimposition of violent, ostensibly symmetrical order.

Notwithstanding a vast genealogical array of conceptual underpinnings to modern, statist logic that might be suggestive of symmetry—from the “King’s two bodies,” to balance of power theory, to take just two immediately evocative examples—such ideas are, of course, no less imaginary, historically contingent constructions than anything else seeming to undergird the notion of the contemporary state.[8] Further, proceeding to the most basic, epistemic levels on which these ideas rest, one could well assert that the quintessential, modernist “yearning for security, stability, control and harmony,” such as to “override and dismiss contrasting notions, asymmetric patterns of relations, antagonism and difference,” bespeaks a Promethean worldview confident that it can surmount the “asymmetr[ical] . . . principle of being.”[9] As no less a spokesperson for post-Westphalian consciousness than Henry Kissinger allows, the early-modern European narrative postulating “a general equilibrium of power,” through which “the ambitions of rulers would be set in counterpoise against each other,” acted to help create the perception that “a balance of power . . . [is] natural and desirable.”[10] On this perception, so ostensibly typical of “the modern sensibility,” it became possible to “[seek] to distill order from multiplicity.”[11] However, what if, as the theoretical physicist Frank Close maintains, it is, indeed, inexorably the case that “[t]he world is an asymmetrical place full of asymmetrical beings”?[12] Might this not indicate that—to continue for a moment down the road of philosophies of science, by way of paraphrasing Bruno Latour—we have never been symmetrical, howsoever much we might believe ourselves capable of being that, as well as modern?[13]

Might an Apophatic Political Theology More Openly, and Humanely, Manifest the Asymmetry of the World?

Ironically, the cosmic asymmetry veiled by the illusory symmetry of the state—or, perhaps it is most reflective of the state’s claimed potency to say, the ostensibly anarchic, asymmetrical void against which the state regards itself as a salvational bulwark—is intimated by none other than Carl Schmitt’s account of political theology. Especially revealing is Schmitt’s critique of the notion he attributes to Hans Kelsen, namely, that “a metaphysics . . . identif[ying] the lawfulness of nature and normative lawfulness” makes possible, thereby, an internally cohering “state and legal order.”[14] Rather, as Schmitt suggests, the miraculous character of the sovereign’s decision on the exception inheres precisely in the spontaneous, violent moment of creation with which the sovereign’s establishment of political order manifests a transcendence, indeed, an abnegation of the seeming laws of nature. As such, Schmitt does indeed “[pursue] a kind of negative theology”[15] characterized by the absence of determinate metaphysical principles upon which to found the political.

Suppose, though, that apophasis were to inform a less statist political theology, one more openly manifesting the asymmetry of the world. With its evocation of divinity’s unknowable infinitude, impervious to worldly claims of determinate authority in the name of God, might negative theology be a font of inspiration for the political, in ways that preclude the attempted transmutation of formless, divine power into the sole, faux-symmetrical domain of state-monopolized violence? Might apophasis help to open up paths for productive interrelation, and contestation, among myriad visions of the good life, while insisting on a spiritual humility that withholds from any of these versions the imprimatur of divinely ordained supremacy?[16] Not least amidst today’s global environment perfused by messily juxtaposed embodiments of difference, world history’s ongoing, agonistic emergence of contending political realities and potentialities seems a process that could carry forth a sacred imperative for human freedom and justice, in a manner permitting the sacred to remain beyond the realm of doctrinaire formalism.[17] Perhaps, in the “cloud of impossibility”[18] lies an inspiration for pursuing humane politics, asymmetrically.


1. Ivan Arreguín-Toft, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), p. xi.

2. Josef Schrӧfl, Sean Michael Cox, and Thomas Pankratz, eds., Winning the Asymmetric War (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009), p. 16 [from editors’ “Introduction,” at pp. 15–18].

3. Herfried Münkler, The New Wars, trans. Patrick Camiller (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

4. Allen S. Weiner, “Just War Theory & the Conduct of Asymmetric Warfare,” Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, vol. 146, no. 1 (2017): 59–70.

5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996 [1651]), p. 114.

6. Barry Scott Zellen, The Art of War in an Asymmetric World: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2012).

7. Ibid., p. 318.

8. See, for instance, Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, with a new introduction by Conrad Leyser (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2016 [1957]); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2016 [1983]).

9. Edwin R. Micewski, “Asymmetry and Western Society—Culture-Critical Reflections,” in Schrӧfl, Cox, and Pankratz, Winning the Asymmetric War, pp. 23–33.

10. Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Frank Close, Lucifer’s Legacy: The Meaning of Asymmetry (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 1.

13. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993). As it happens, Latour aptly diagnoses distorting asymmetries at work within modernity’s believed division of the natural from the social.

14. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 41.

15. David Pan, “Political Theology for Democracy: Carl Schmitt and John Dewey on Aesthetics and Politics,” Telos, no. 161 (2012): 120–140; here, p. 125.

16. Fruitful possibilities are suggested by Catherine Keller, in her book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2015).

17. Cf. Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011).

18. See Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, p. 1, citing Nicholas of Cusa.

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