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Telos 153 (Winter 2010): Special Issue on Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba

If recent discussions of Schmitt in these pages have made a broad case for the centrality of culture for his thinking, the current issue both specifies and generalizes this approach. The specificity derives from our focus on one key text by Schmitt that is often passed over but is in fact crucial for understanding his work. The generality is a result of the breathtaking sweep of issues that this text opens up for the contributors to this issue: the relation of sovereignty to popular will, the ontological status of modernity, the role of myth in society, the representational structure of human existence, the relation of art and theology to the public sphere. These discussions take our understanding of Schmitt into new directions that draw out not just the aesthetic and cultural aspects of his thought, but also reveal the import of his methods for fundamental questions of epistemology and ontology. He arrives at such questions through the consideration of a single exemplary case: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His critical intervention has led to an increasing engagement by Renaissance scholars with Schmitt’s work over the last decade. In the work of scholars such as Victoria Kahn, Anselm Haverkamp, and Kathleen Biddick, the example of Schmitt never functions as a simple template that would assert the isomorphism of religion and politics, but rather as an invitation to an impasse. What is it about politics that finds itself bound up in the person of the sovereign, the drama of the decision, and the state of exception even while regrounding the rule of law and the legitimacy of a constitution? What is it about politics that remains distinct from the content of ethics, economics, and culture while nonetheless bearing on them? Finally, what is it about politics that both courts and resists theology, catching civic and religious life in an impossible dance of failed separation and catastrophic rapprochement, the Scylla and Charybdis instanced by secularization on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other? These are all questions worth asking, and reading Schmitt has assisted many students of the Renaissance in attempting some provisional answers, or at least limning the deadlocks that these questions harbor. What emerges in the pages of this volume, however, published in tandem with the release of the first full authorized translation of Schmitt’s 1956 Hamlet or Hecuba, is a Schmitt deeply concerned with political representation in its relation to theater, not as part of an ideological apparatus of branding and spin in a society of spectacle, but rather as an ontological enterprise that concerns the way in which human collectivities take shape through representative gestures and acts. In Schmitt’s words, there is “no state without representation because there is no state without state form, and the presentation of the political unity is an intrinsic part of the form.” What representation does—whether via the person of the king, the elected representatives of the people, or the citizen-creating votes of a direct democracy—is gather together, primally and constitutively, the state as a unity, bodying forth political belonging as a fiction with legs (lots of them). In other words: no political body without representation, a representation that is really an act of presentation, of constituent sovereignty. Political representation involves an audience as well as actors. The representative, whether the benefactor of primogeniture, apostolic succession, or parliamentary election, not only facilitates but also depends upon the collective representation of the people to each other as a people, and is thus always dependent on a democratizing potential. The question at issue in the essays of this volume, though, is whether the invitation to consider a theatrical politics, on the one hand, and a political theater, on the other hand, is based in a project of merging play with politics or of recognizing their difference. For Schmitt, the difference between the two becomes a basic opposition between symbolic representation and incontrovertible reality. Some commentators insist on the radical opposition between these two in Schmitt’s thinking, taking the intrusion of the time into the play as an anomalous remainder (Eric Santner), a divine intervention (Stephanie Frank), or the mythic past (Katrin Trüstedt). On the other hand, Carsten Strathausen, Timothy Wong, Drew Daniel, and Aryeh Botwinick think through the way Schmitt blurs the boundaries between play and reality. A lot turns on the specific interpretation of the intrusions into the purity of the play that Schmitt describes. For Strathausen, these intrusions present the intervention of one mythic structure upon another. Rather than setting up a strict dichotomy between play and reality, the reading of the intrusion as a deformation of a typical plot structure means that the reality that intrudes is not an objective reality but itself a literary trope and thus a mythic figure. It is in this way that “poets create what endures,” as Schmitt writes in a little-known 1952 essay on Hamlet (ably translated here by Kurt Buhanan). The enduring aspect is not a piece of “objective reality” but what Schmitt calls the “dark areas” that Daniel reads as areas of indecision, symptoms in the play of issues that remain unresolved in the political sphere. Here again, it is a matter of competing mythic structures—Protestant vs. Catholic conceptions of demonology and Elizabeth’s attempt to manage her public image in the representational contest with Mary—that for Daniel create the pressure on the play that leads to its unresolved elements. In a similar way, Wong, by pointing to the importance of succession in Schmitt’s reading, highlights a conflict between a mode of political representation that emphasizes the dying voice of the sovereign and another that places more importance on the popular will. As Christian Emden points out in his review of Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory, this conflict was for Schmitt not just a historical but a contemporary one, since the Weimar constitution allowed “democratic and monarchical principles to exist side by side.” To the extent that this contradiction was not just a legal technical but also a political one, Schmitt’s turn to Shakespeare seems to be an attempt to return to the problem of Weimar democracy with a renewed focus on issues of representation. If the play stages competitions between opposing structures of political representation, the dramatic representation becomes inseparable from the political one. Consequently, for Botwinick “playacting” becomes “the substance of human reality.” This understanding of the dramatic quality of reality is, on this reading, precisely what is at stake in Schmitt’s attempt to distinguish the “tragic,” as a simultaneously theatrical and political event, from “pure play.” If one holds to this reading of Schmitt, the result is a view of both drama and politics together as “the ebb and flow of re-presentations usurping the space of an enduring original scene or personage.” In such a situation, play and politics merge, not only to the extent that politics lead to the establishment of specific modes of representation but also in the way that plays form the site of conflicts between representational alternatives. In contrast to these attempts to think the aesthetic and the political as part of a single space of representation, Santner’s approach regards the separation between art and reality as a more categorical one, referring to Schmitt’s “dark areas” as “uncanny” moments that break through a particular “form of life” in order to register the overarching historical forces that lurk beneath James’s identity. Rather than marking a political conflict between competing mythic structures, the dark areas present for Santner a “tear in the fabric of being” and a momentary glimpse of an underlying reality of the “metaethical self” that exists beyond the specific political confines of the “personality.” Significantly, Santner grounds his interpretation in Schmitt’s reference to the shift from land to sea as the basis for England’s move into an industrialized modernity. In referring to this underlying historical dynamic, Santner foregrounds the strict contrast between real history and mythic structure that forms the explicit frame for Schmitt’s analysis. If Santner privileges the uncanny aspect of the dark areas of intrusion, Frank and Trüstedt similarly focus on Schmitt’s separation between reality and representation but then go on to defend the play aspect against Schmitt’s insistence on the incontrovertibility of reality. For Frank, the key distinction is not between aesthetics and politics but between theology and politics, and she argues that the reality of the incarnation of Christ forms the ultimate ground for politics in Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form, and that Hamlet or Hecuba continues this focus on God in “the era after the demise of political theology” by setting up God as the audience that serves as the theological opposition to the dramatic unity of politics and play. Using a similar critique of Schmitt’s insistence on incontrovertible authority, Trüstedt argues that Schmitt holds to a strict separation of reality from representation in order to show that modernity “is still dependent on and defined by the ‘origin’ that it supposedly has replaced.” She contrasts Schmitt’s methods with Hans Blumenberg’s emphasis on how myth itself always stages an overcoming of reality. In so doing, she advocates a focus on the play itself as that which can overcome modernity’s “historical burdens.” The choice between emphasizing the separation or the merging of play and reality is a fundamental one. Whether one appeals to an uncanny remainder of reality or the ability of play to defuse the authority of an incontrovertible reality, the insistence on the distinction of representation from reality is grounded in a particular understanding of the ontological status of modernity as having been established on the basis of a radical break with the past. According to this account, the modern condition is a fundamental reality based on objective historical changes. The alternative conception of a merging of play and reality opens onto an account of modernity in which its legitimacy depends upon the same mythic structures as the representational forms that it supplants. The rise of the natural sciences, nation-states, and liberal democratic institutions in the early modern period have been continually adduced as the main evidence for the first position. The twentieth-century world wars and the experience of Nazism in particular have served as the sobering supports for the second. No one doubts that Schmitt himself stands on the conservative side of this opposition. Yet as much as he himself remained a critic of liberalism, his myth-based account of modernity does not necessarily entail a choice between the defense or the rejection of liberal ideals. Rather, it is also possible to imagine a liberal appropriation of Schmitt’s position in which the determination about the solidity or ephemerality of the contrast between representation and reality defines differing perceptions of the degree of political will needed to defend those ideals. The degree to which representation and reality are understood as unitary determines the extent to which liberalism must see itself as engaged in a representational struggle against its enemies. As much as Schmitt himself was conflicted about the possibility or legitimacy of liberal designations of the enemy, his indecision in fact reflects a continuing split within liberalism itself. If “the play’s the thing,” it is a thing whose dual character as representation and reality, though offering the promise of reconciliation, presents a site of continuing conflict. Notes 1. Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007), p. 241.

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