As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Charles Kollmer looks at Stephanie Frank’s “Re-imagining the Public Sphere: Malebranche, Schmitt’s Hamlet, and the Lost Theater of Sovereignty,” from Telos 153 (Winter 2010).
In “Re-imagining the Public Sphere: Malebranche, Schmitt’s Hamlet, and the Lost Theater of Sovereignty,” Stephanie Frank outlines a compelling approach to Carl Schmitt’s complex oeuvre. She sets out to rectify a common mistake made in existing treatments of Schmitt; in studies of Schmitt’s early work Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923), scholars tend to rely on a later work, Constitutional Theory (1928), as an explanatory crutch. Both texts model representation, but a conflation of their respective models obscures how Schmitt’s project changes between the works. As a corrective, Frank traces the nuances of Roman Catholicism‘s model back to the influence of seventeenth-century theologian Malebranche, who in turn influenced the eighteenth-century revolutionary Abbé Sieyès. By grounding Roman Catholicism in this historical context, Frank not only sidesteps the circularity of her colleagues’ interpretations but also lays the groundwork for a persuasive reading of Schmitt’s turn to aesthetics in Hamlet or Hecuba (1956).
In order to demonstrate the importance of Malebranche and Sieyès for Schmitt, Frank cites his Political Theology (1922), a work in which he famously writes that “all the significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized versions of theological concepts.” Schmitt substantiates this claim by examining how the notion of the volonté générale changes from Malebranche to Sieyès to Rousseau; “that Schmitt was aware of the theological provenance of the notion of the volonté générale is clear” (74). Thus, Frank justifies her use of Malebranche’s Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion (1688) to illuminate the theological model of representation developed in Roman Catholicism. In the Dialogues, Malebranche’s character Theodore attempts to resolve the Catholic-Protestant dispute over the Church’s authority. He devises a clever thought experiment: the Church convenes a representative assembly to decide the nature of the Eucharist, only to transform the representatives to “witnesses who attest a fact that it is not possible for them not to know” (78). Frank writes, “No representative body, still less a representative body convened by the Church, could ever ‘vote against’ the church, because to do so would be to vote against the reality of the incarnation” (79).
Frank uses this figure, the representative made witness to “the reality of incarnation,” to understand the theological particularities of representation as presented in Roman Catholicism. Here, by virtue of its special authority, “the Church represents (1) the civitas humana; (2) the person of Christ himself; and (3) the connection at every moment in history, to the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ” (71). Additionally, Frank argues that the “model of representation that Schmitt developed vis-à-vis the Church resisted translation into purely ‘political’ domains” (73). Indeed, Frank reads Constitutional Theory as an artifact of this resistance, in which Schmitt attempts “to preserve the structure of the incarnation but subtract the God-made-man aspect” (84). Schmitt’s secularized formulation states, “To represent means to make an invisible being visible and present through a publicly present one” (70). The Church’s already established authority anchors the representation of Roman Catholicism, and without it, Schmitt struggles to account for the legitimacy of political representation. He writes, “Thepresentation of the political unity is an intrinsic part of the [state] form. . . . Presentation, however, need not be the production of political unity” (85). Here, Frank interjects that “what made Malebranche’s theatrical interlude so powerful was that the ‘representatives’ were converted instantly into witnesses precisely by the fact that there was nothing to be produced: the question of the authority of the Church had already been decided.”
In the gap between Schmitt’s two models of representation, Frank situates the loss of a specific, already established authority, with its roots in the Catholic theological tradition. She then proceeds to “show the way in which Hamlet or Hecuba presents an attempt to recoup in tragedy the element of the Church’s representation that had . . . been lost” (73). In the following passage, Frank explores the ramifications of this attempt for Schmitt’s understanding of the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit):
If, in Roman Catholicism, the public sphere was the audience of Schmitt’s genuine representation, in Hamlet or Hecuba—in a peculiar inversion of Malebranche’s play-within-a-play—the public sphere denotes the audience’s being drawn into the representation. Schmitt returns to this point more than once. He suggests that the source of tragic action in Hamlet is the “immediately available historical reality that encompasses the playwright, the actors, and the audience.” Perhaps most tellingly, Schmitt insists that tragedy only obtains in the circumstance that unites them thus:
A writer can and should invent a great deal, but he cannot invent the realistic core of a tragic action. We can weep for Hecuba. One can weep for many things. Many things are sad and melancholy. But tragedy originates only from a given circumstance that exists for all concerned—an incontrovertible reality for the author, the actors, and the audience.
In Hamlet or Hecuba, then, the playing out on stage of immediately relevant historical contingencies generates a public sphere that breaks down the distinctions that were previously so central. In the eminent representation of Roman Catholicism, God and the representative featured on one side and the audience on the other, whereas in Hamlet or Hecuba, the demarcation lies between God on the one hand and the “representatives” together with the audience on the other.
Why should Schmitt, in Hamlet or Hecuba, deconstruct the very boundaries in which he seemed so invested in Roman Catholicism and Political Form? If Schmitt does not hold out any hope for the reassembling of the lost political-theological unity, he does seem to think that a certain baroque theatricality might be reclaimed, at least within the confines of tragedy:
All the world’s a stage, or so it had become in the already intensely baroque atmosphere around 1600—a Theatrum Mundi. . . . Men of action in this epoch saw themselves on center stage before spectators and understood themselves and their activities in terms of the theatricality of their roles. . . . Action in the public sphere was action on a stage and thus role-playing.
Here, Schmitt identifies the public sphere specifically with theatrical display, and he implies that tragedy makes this sort of theatrical public sphere available again. (89–90)
Using a novel strategy to read Schmitt, Frank expertly untangles his intertwining of theological, political and aesthetic argumentation. By beginning with a careful examination his historical interests, she discovers valuable clues for deciphering the motives underlying his key works. Her well-chosen excerpts and insightful commentary elucidate some of Schmitt’s most fascinating ideas. Because of this, her article is sure to provoke interest, not just from readers already familiar with Schmitt, but also those with a general interest in modern theories of sovereignty.
Read the full version of Stephanie Frank’s “Re-imagining the Public Sphere: Malebranche, Schmitt’s Hamlet, and the Lost Theater of Sovereignty” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.