TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Post-Secular and the Pluralization of Political Theology

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

With the confirmation hearings of John Brennan as director of the CIA fresh in the news, who can doubt the accuracy, or at least the resonance, of Carl Schmitt’s conception of the sovereign—the sovereign is “he who decides on the exception.” With sovereignty so conceived, it has effectively been cast outside the law, introducing a certain arbitrariness and creating a legal limbo that undermine the principles of a liberal democracy.

Enhanced interrogation. Drone attacks on foreign soil. Targeted assassinations. And now, a 16-page white paper from the Department of Justice outlining the legal authority to kill a U.S. citizen without trial. In the words of the New York Times report, the legal brief “adopts an elastic definition of an ‘imminent’ threat, saying it is not necessary for a specific attack to be in process when a target is found.” It also asserts that the decision to kill is not subject to judicial review or restraint.

Returning to Schmitt, the problem with him, of course, is that he employs this conception of sovereign power not only as a description, but as a prescription as well. So even as he tells us something almost undeniable about how we know political power to operate, our democratic sensibilities are rightly offended. Something in us rebels, recoils, searches out for alternative theories, less cynical explanations.

But before rushing to judgment, consider the following thought image:

Think back to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election cycle between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Contrast the caricatured imagery: Bush the resolute Decider, impervious to counter-intelligence, uncurious about the world, and unapologetic for any mistakes made or collateral damage caused; verses Kerry the flip-flopper, cast this way and that by the winds while windsurfing out at sea, the legislator who voted for the Iraq War before voting against it.

No doubt, the reason this image of Kerry as the windsurfing flip-flopper stuck was at least partly the result of effective messaging by his political opponents. It followed a standard script casting him as the elite, effeminate, New England liberal. But that was not all. There is a real, palpable frustration, disillusionment, if not outright cynicism, with regard to the endless deliberation and handwringing of government officials; a sense that they are our era’s scholastic theologians arguing over technicalities no more consequential than the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, while meanwhile the stench of the smoldering of the Twin Towers was still fresh on people’s minds.

On this level, we can understand the Schmittian appeal as a visceral one. Carl Schmitt is of course one of the first and greatest critics of modern liberalism. My objection is how this visceral appeal gets conflated with his repudiation of democracy. Schmitt was not wrong to reject self-styled modern democratic states as nothing more than technocratic states caught in endless proceduralism. And as Professor Paul Kahn has so masterfully shown in his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, neither was Schmitt wrong to link sovereign power with the capacity/need to decide.[1] But for me—and this is the central question of my work—it is a question of who decides.

The problem with liberalism according to Schmitt is no one decides.

The problem with Schmitt is that by his remedy only one decides.

It is for this reason that I want to speak of the pluralization of political theology, of democracy’s diffusion of power that thereby functions as a multitudinous force. It is what I call the “anonymous sovereign.”

Conceived theo-politically, the anonymous sovereign is not so much without sovereignty, as it is a displaced and dispersed sovereignty. The phrase I borrow from Sheldon Wolin for this, which he makes in reference to Tocqueville, is that there is a “fundamental shift in the order of divine dispensation.”

Another way to put this, which is the central argument of my book, is that democracy is the political instantiation of the death of God.[2]

Think here of Tocqueville: when he analyzes the theo-political logic of the democratic rule of popular sovereignty, his phrase is that the people occupy the place once occupied by God. This is an unwitting recognition of the death of God half a century prior to Nietzsche. Tocqueville is baffled by it—specifically with what appears to be God’s own apparently willed annihilation.

But because the people’s power is a diffused power, it is not the same conception of power that was once assigned to God. Not so much without sovereignty as it is a sovereignty that is diffused, dispersed, and unlocatable.

As a diffused and dispersed power, it is also multiple, which gets us back to this notion of a pluralized political theology. Hent de Vries and Jacques Derrida are helpful here. For them, the transnational flow of global capital has rendered the modern notion of sovereignty located within the nation state as obsolete. For Derrida, this leads to his reading and embrace of democracy in terms of a plural divinity. For me, I discuss this in terms of the collapse of the Schmittian theopolitical logic of the one. In its place is the theopolitical logic of the many.

Likewise with Hardt and Negri, their employment of the post- or transnational situation is well known. For them, this means there is no single center of rationality transcendent to global forces. It also must be thought in connection with Machiavelli and Spinoza, who posit the autonomy and priority of the multitude. The upshot of this is that sovereign state power is then seen as secondary or derivative, arising only as an aftereffect. It is resistance or rebellion that is constitutive and foundational.

Unlike Derrida, this isn’t meant as a messianic force, but like Spinoza, it is meant instead a theorization of the possibility of an immanent political theology.

A messianic nullification that knows the political to be a thoroughly human project.

Not waiting for a God to save us, which I take as a sign of theopolitical despair, but the key image instead is that of the Exodus—a resistance and rebellion—an insurrectionary force that is an immanent opening to the immeasurable—in Negri’s words, “a taking leave of domination.”

Which brings me to my final point regarding political ontology. To speak of resistance and rebellion as constitutive is to affirm human cooperation, a being-togetherness, an ontological plentitude based in a profound sense of interrelationality. Democracy so conceived is an an-archic, but still, a generative force, issuing forth not from a lack, but from precisely this plenitude. Borrowing from Catherine Malabou, this speaks to the “secret kinship between ontogenesis and ontology.”

This is an opening to the immeasurable. Not in order to lose oneself in the void, but to recognize the oversurplus of potentia (that creative, revolutionary power Negri finds expression in Spinoza) that reveals the limitations and artificiality of potestas (or the sovereign power most often associated with the state form). Democracy, as such, is a primal, positive, generative power. It is not so much a discontinuity, rupture or break as it is a sovereignty undone or interrupted by its own overflow, its own excess—an uncontained and uncontainable energy that reverberates out of itself, beyond itself.

And here are the theo-political implicates in this change in the order of divine dispensation—this generative power that is based in plenitude and interrelationality—or the plenitude of interrelationality—this is not the substitution of an omnipotent and self-sufficient God who creates out of nothing for a people who make a politics out of whole cloth—a decisionism that always and necessarily rests on a state of exception. Not a one-way transaction and transfer of power, but a change in the very nature—and subject—of power. A multiplicity. An excess. An oversurplus that undoes and outstrips any and every theo-political logic of the one.

A moment or force or energy of decision that is prior to the founding of state sovereignty—and as such, more fundamental. Not so much a politics without sovereignty as much as an analysis of the democratic basis of/for sovereignty.


1. See Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

2. See Jeffrey W. Robbins, Radical Democracy and Political Theology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

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