TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 157 (Winter 2011): Plato, Schmitt, Agamben

Telos 157 (Winter 2011) is now available for purchase here.

The political disorder grows ever thicker. As of this writing, the European financial crisis seems as far away from resolution as ever, although the same complaint might have pertained three months ago nor is the diagnosis likely to lose its validity three months hence. The eurozone insists on tumbling toward an economic catastrophe that may drag the rest of the world down as well. Meanwhile prospects for a liberalizing democracy in the former Communist empire have largely vanished from living (or incarcerated) memory, and the trajectory of the Arab Spring poses more questions than answers. To be sure, things may still take a turn for the good, and the ignominious ends of some of the dictators merit celebration. Yet deserving candidates for violent overthrow and execution remain in power, in Damascus and Tehran, terrorizing their populations, amidst a larger civil war throughout the Middle East. Much of this disorder has profound local roots, stemming from competition among alternative religious traditions, political models, and economic agenda. But some of the instability results as well from the loss of ballast in the wake of the American retreat, itself a symptom of the chaos of American politics. The pre-primary period optimizes neither political virtue nor sober leadership, but even with that qualification, this lead-up to the 2012 electoral season stands out for its chilling hopelessness. It is hard to imagine a happy end to the story. The power of the state continues to expand, which undermines the integrity of individuals, but its capacity to influence the economy nonetheless diminishes. Disorder surrounds us, and the center gives way. Is there room for civic virtue?

This issue of Telos examines questions of political theory and philosophy central to the western tradition and therefore of enduring relevance in the current crises. Is political power compatible with the good life? Can the individual examine one’s own actions without falling into narcissistic introspection? What is the standing of morality in the face of brutal power and tyranny? The collection of articles here begins with reflections on the implications of the death of Socrates and ends with a diagnosis of the totalitarian potential in our modernity: the arc of our culture’s narrative.

The first essay, James Schall’s “A Catholic Reading of the Gorgias of Plato,” builds on Benedict’s assertion of the profound connection between faith and philosophy, revelation and reason, and turns it toward the question of ethics and politics: “A central theme of the Gorgias is whether the politician should have any limits, any checks and balances, as it were. If he has the power of life and death, what is to stop him from doing what he wishes? . . . Callicles is that shrewd young tyrant, described by Plato in the Republic, who looks about at the corrupt characters of existing society and knows that he can rule them. The souls of most young men are empty of everything but what they want. They too fear death above all other evils and love the prestige that goes with power.” At stake then is not solely the morality (or lack of morality) of the politician but also the dialectical relationship between modalities of political rule and the moral character of the population. The two sides have to be thought together. The more the state gains ultimate power over life and death, in particular the death of the most vulnerable, the more it becomes the agent of evil, no matter how good the intentions of its functionaries.

The moral challenges that lie between the totalitarian state and the reflective individual recur as similar problems millennia later, as Jakob Norberg shows with Carl Schmitt, an author extensively discussed in Telos and whose implication in the Nazi regime is well known. Norberg inquires into Schmitt’s own practices of self-evaluation through his engagement with the life-writing genres of the diary and the journal. Certainly Schmitt cultivated a multifold resistance to demands to judge himself: “Schmitt repeatedly expresses his discomfort at the obligation to speak truthfully about his inner essence. In Ex Captivitate Salus as well as in Glossarium, he refers to the monopoly of the Catholic Church in all matters regarding confessions of sin—’if you want to make a confession, go to see the priest’—but he knows that secular agencies have come to demand transparency of the self: pastoral care is mimicked in the institutions of modern government, for instance, for the purpose of discovering culpability and inducing obedience.” This resistance in turn leads to an elaborate genre theory that pervades Schmitt’s writing: “The diary is, like the interrogation, a discursive format through which a subject is enrolled in a diagnostic procedure that he then cannot repudiate from within.”

Political order involves the rule of law: Ulrike Kistner turns our attention to the problem of the exception to that rule, and its alternative understandings by Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, against the backdrop of Walter Benjamin. While Agamben poses as a reader of both, Kistner underscores key differences in the understanding of dictatorship, especially with regard to the political crisis of the moment: “we could say that on Agamben’s analysis, petty sovereigns are proliferating everywhere in the world today, whereas for Schmitt, sovereignty is receding in society, while the need to call it to thought—and with it, to the reconstitution of the political—is becoming ever more urgent.” Similarly Jeffrey Bussolini confronts Schmitt and Agamben, this time with regard to those founding events that “play a continual role in generating and maintaining the political order,” even or especially through processes of secularization. Bussolini explores Agamben’s efforts to expand Schmitt’s theological genealogy thesis: “Agamben indicates a major and productive emendation of Schmitt’s schema, introducing important aspects from Foucault’s thought on biopolitics and governmentality. He alters the paradigm of political theology to include economics and its relation to the reproductive life of human society, and he argues that Schmitt should be extended to involve significant economic as well as political concepts.” In a further comparative treatment, Emily Zakin provides an interrogation of Schmitt’s theories of aggression with Freud’s. She explores the connection between nationalism and narcissism and their potentials for self-destruction, and she also offers a compelling account of the symmetry between the two thinkers: where Schmitt treats politics as secularized theology, Freud analyzes theology as “spiritualized tribal concepts.”

The following three essays give greater conceptual and historical texture to the political-theoretical discussion of power, ethics, and disorder. What are the possibilities of politics in the present? Is there room for progress or even solidarity? These articles sketch out radically different answers. Mark Chou examines the seminal writings of one of the founders of modern international politics, Hans Morgenthau, and his ambivalent standing between a critique of scientism and an embrace of political science, interpreted under the sign of tragedy. A similar critique of scientism, with a diametrically opposed outcome, is central to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, which Wesley Phillips places in a rich framework of contemporary thought (Rose, Negri, Agamben) and a complex reading of German idealism, especially Schelling. David Randall builds a different historical bridge, drawing contrastive connections between Habermas’s account of the public sphere and the philosophy of Hume, in order to rescue potentials for plurality and aesthetic sensibility.

This issue of Telos, which begins with a Catholic reading of Platonic politics, concludes with two distinct religious evaluations of contemporary possibilities. Marcia Pally discusses the “New Evangelicals” and their contributions to the development of non-market support systems. At stake is not only the political allegiance of social groups too easily miscategorized as a fundamentalist right, but also the elaboration of alternative, utopian modes of social cooperation. To every utopian vision, however, a dystopia: Peter Redpath provides an account, grounded in philosophical learning and the religious thought of Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, of the crushing expansion of the emancipated state and the suffocating power of one-dimensional secularism, a Nietzschean legacy. Against this, in the spirit of Maritain, Redpath calls for resistance.

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