Paul Kahn’s book offers bracing yet troubling meditations on the four chapters of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology. Because Kahn aspires “to think with rather than think about” Schmitt, he necessarily dramatizes the limitations, and not only the value, of Schmitt’s way of theorizing politics and the sacred. In what follows, I affirm that value, as Kahn understands it, to some degree, but I also try to indicate the problems in Schmitt’s argument that he both repeats and elides, and the new problems that he creates.
What, then, in Schmitt’s text is worth reiterating? First, Kahn rightly emphasizes Schmitt’s claim that secularization has not abolished the sacred but entails, rather, its remaking and relocation: “Political Theology is best thought of as an effort to discover the persistence of forms of the sacred in a world that no longer relies on god.” Kahn thus elaborates Schmitt’s theory of the state and sovereignty as a modern site of the sacred: the point of political theology is not to endorse fundamentalism or subordinate the state to “religious doctrine or church authority, but to recognize that the state creates and maintains its own sacred space and history.” Second, Kahn is also right to emphasize how Schmitt’s articulation of “the political” is a credible and still necessary critique of “liberal political thought.” In this regard, he compellingly lays out Schmitt’s view of the dimensions of “the political” that are avoided by liberal thought but undeniably present in state practices and political experiences that liberalism lacks the vocabulary to acknowledge.
Whereas liberal political thought imagines “law without end” through the self-evident application of moral norms or legal precedents, Schmitt (and so Kahn) instead emphasizes the inescapability of “decision” about “exception” to signal the constitutive role of interpretation, judgment, choice, and commitment in the making, interpreting, and enacting of the norms (or precedents) that actors invoke as authorizations. Kahn thus follows Schmitt in insisting on the impossibility of escaping “the political,” as the practice of fraught, and to some degree self-authorizing, “decision,” which is also an experience of freedom situated between the norms whose meaning we must interpret and the exceptions we must declare. Kahn also draws on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, which defines “the political” as constituted by the distinction between friend and enemy; thus, any association of human beings achieves a specifically “political” existence at moments of existential definition that articulate experiences of intensified attachment and enmity. Kahn, too, finds “ultimate meaning” in such moments, which call us beyond mere living as we judge and declare a life worth dying or killing for. Invoking Heidegger alongside Schmitt, Kahn insists that only if an individual or collective confronts the possibility of its death can it achieve the “authenticity” that he links to “freedom.” Because liberal political thought imagines a foundation of contractual relations and posits a horizon of dispositive consensus, Kahn follows Schmitt in arguing, it displaces this experience of chosen sacrifice, which, in joining the political and the sacred, endows human life with ultimate significance. Like Schmitt, therefore, Kahn links the political—as decision about the exception, about friend and enemy, and so about mortal sacrifice—to the state and/as a sovereignty relocated by war or revolution but never escaped. But, like other theorists who would democratize Schmitt, Kahn thinks of sovereignty as a revolutionary (constituent) power to declare an exception and (re)found a regime, and as “popular sovereignty,” a sacred but never fully manifest “presence” recurrently invoked to authorize political action.
In sum, because “liberal political thought” emphasizes reason, interest, and contract, and in these terms seeks a foundation for rational deliberation about justice, Kahn claims that it cannot grasp the political experiences—of decision, exception, state violence, revolution, and chosen sacrifice—crucial to constitutive political moments in American history, like the Civil War, the Cold War, and the “War on Terror,” while it is precisely such moments that Schmitt’s emphasis on “faith,” “will,” “decision,” “identity,” “authenticity,” and (sacrificial) violence can help us to understand. “We will always be surprised by the violence of which the state—even the liberal state—is capable. Liberalism as a theory of the political fails when political practice turns to killing or being killed, whether that violence is turned inward in the form of revolution, or outward in the form of war.” In this sense, Kahn is not replacing a liberal orientation that relates freedom to contract and justice but contesting it by way of a Schmittian supplement. In other words, he would maintain the ideal of the lawful, as well as the freedom he affirms in the liberal ideas of contract and consent, but would have it avow rather than disavow the phenomena of decision, exception, and violence that exist in tension with it.
Though he retains Schmitt’s emphatic investment in the state, violence, and sacrifice as the loci of the sacred in political life, Kahn offers his reading of Political Theology, not as a theory of the state and of sovereignty, but as a “phenomenology” of the political as it is experienced in modernity. Whereas Schmitt makes a structural argument about the character of the political—as depending on decision, as opposed to rational deliberation, and as incorporating a secular correlate of divine sovereignty in the figure of “he who decides”—Kahn addresses specifically how the political is “experienced” by the subjects of the state. That is, he follows a “phenomenological” approach that emphasizes the perspective of the subject and the terms and narratives that construct its experience of the political. Accordingly, he defines “the work of political theology” as giving “theoretical expression to those understandings that already inform a community’s self-understanding,” to expose how “our political life remains embedded in a web of conceptions that are theological in origin and structure” and how these form “the common background of the political imaginary which is shared” even by ostensible adversaries. Thus, as a phenomenology of political experience, political theology parallels cultural anthropology. But Kahn insists, surprisingly, that his account of “experience” is simply descriptive, and that his phenomenology has neither normative premises nor direct worldly implications. One must ask, however, what is hidden and what is justified by his “description” of the “imaginary” that frames “our” political perception and experience?
If the drawback of a phenomenological approach is that it gives the first and last word to the subject and its imaginings, rather than interrogate the conditions of its experience, then it can be said that Kahn, too, fails to critically examine the discursive, institutional, and, I would add, unconscious determinants that shape how subjects perceive and experience the political. Similarly, just as the historic danger of cultural anthropology was that analysts imposed and yet effaced their own perspectives in the name of a pure ethnography that would disclose the authentic experience of the native, Kahn likewise casts his particular interpretation as a neutral description. And by interpreting culture as “experience,” he denies how culture involves hegemony, whereby a “common sense” reflects unequal social power.
My claim and concern, then, is not only that Kahn is captured by Schmitt’s particular view of political theology as a disclosure of the sacred in modernity, but also that he de-politicizes culture by imagining it as consensual, while he also disowns the positioning and perspective that drive his “description” (as if from nowhere) of a foundational “imaginary” defining (indeed sacralizing) national identity. What premises constitute his avowedly Schmittian, but also “American,” position? And how do the blind spots of this position—what it implicitly disavows, excludes, or fails to acknowledge—reemerge into the theoretical framework that Kahn elaborates? Here, I will pursue these questions from two vantage points, first by way of canonical political theorists who share Schmitt’s critique of liberalism but depart from his view of the sacred and the political, and then by reading Kahn’s “political theology” through American racial history and African-American responses to it.
One way in which Kahn is captured by Schmitt is exposed by his selective use of Hannah Arendt. Rightly arguing that Schmitt’s emphasis on decision and sacrifice is a theory of freedom, Kahn invokes her as an ally. Granted, Arendt also refers to the “miracle,” as the exceptional moment that ruptures linear, mechanical causality, bureaucratic rationality, positive law, and the ordinary, as routine “behavior,” to use her word. But, while Schmitt conceives of freedom as the decision that establishes sovereignty over an unstable and heterogeneous political field, Arendt depicts freedom as natality, or the capacity to initiate a novel sequence of events, links it to what she calls “action-in-concert,” and insists that it depends on renouncing, not resuscitating, the very idea of, and aspiration to, sovereignty. In her view, political freedom arises out of human plurality and generates “boundless” reverberations among agents who cannot master their actions, whereas sovereignty entails the violent domination of the plurality both in the self and the world, in the name of securing the rule (and, for some, the rationality) of a “free will.” In Arendt’s phenomenology of the experience of the political and its place in “the human condition,” the sacred (as the miracle rupturing the routine of life) thus appears in and as a political freedom that is antithetical to sovereignty. For her, modern experiences of the sacred occur horizontally, through the action-in-concert that reveals its own foundation in plurality and natality—not vertically, through the state as a transcendent power vested with the task of consolidating the identity of the nation.
More recently, however, some political theorists have objected to the investment in exceptionality that joins Schmitt and Arendt in relating the sacred and the political. In contrast to Christian (or perhaps Pauline) juxtapositions of law and grace, or deadening routine and its miraculous rupture, Bonnie Honig (in Emergency Politics), for instance, elaborates a “Jewish” political theology, drawing on Franz Rosenzweig, for whom the miraculous is not a violation of law but an as-yet-undisclosed possibility (Jonathan Lear calls it “a possibility for new possibilities”) for which people are prepared by immersion in—not by rupturing—the ordinary (liturgical) practices of life. And whereas for Kahn, “in politics as in ordinary life, the ordinary is first of all and most of the time a domain of inauthenticity,” some have used Cavell or de Certeau to show how capacities for creativity and change, for risk, sacrifice, and self-overcoming, are embedded in “the ordinary” and can be cultivated only by practices seen as liturgical in character. They locate—and would engender—experiences of faith, commitment, and sacrifice, as well as the freedom to initiate the new, in sites and practices that resist Schmitt’s state-centric account of the sacred and the political and its inflection by Kahn’s nation-building civil religion.
In the very way he theorizes the sacred and the political, then, Kahn is not describing the world so much as advancing a political theology that is selective in what it renders visible, and how. In doing so, however, he repeats but obscures the interpellation of subjects into the particular imaginary of the American nation-state. He is surely right that, in the American case, experiences of the political are framed by a “civil religion” that joins nation and state; if the task of theory in this context is to examine the foundations of that civil religion, as Kahn says, then any such effort has to attend to the structures of power that it sustains as well as the refractory plurality and alternative voices that it de-legitimizes. Otherwise, the theorist risks sustaining hegemony in the name of describing “culture.” Likewise, Kahn is surely right that the American regime enacts “Schmittian” dimensions of politics—the return of what liberal theory represses—by defining existential threats, declaring exceptions, and demanding violence. But in this regard, his account bespeaks only the privileged or enfranchised position of one standing with the state as a “friend” and not with those declared its enemies. Invested in instructing “us” in the necessity of such distinctions to the constitution of “our” identity, he does not register the contingency or judge the credibility of specific antagonisms, let alone “visit” an alternative perspective on that identity.
Indeed, if we focus on the politics of race, the problem in American liberalism is not the denial of what Schmitt calls political theology. For white supremacy in American is a political theology: the declaration of a (racial) state of exception, and so of friend and enemy, to mark a constitutive outside and an internal enemy is constitutive of a republic that repeatedly defines itself and defends its freedom by declaring certain people and practices to be existential threats. For Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, or James Baldwin, for example, democratically authorized racial domination founded the liberal-nationalist regime, and racialized demarcations continue to define the meaning of a popular sovereignty and normative citizenship. Demonological obsession with existential threats—what Michael Rogin calls “counter-subversive” politics—is thus Schmittian decision in American drag. Here, then, is the paradox: Schmitt calls liberalism anti-political because an inclusive, pluralist, consensual creed defers the decision and avoids the antagonism that he defines as properly political; whereas in the American liberal state a racialized language of exception and antagonism criminalizes black agency, and thereby demonizes many features of the political.
Contra the formalism of Schmitt and Kahn, decision on the exception and the enemy neither embody “the political” as such nor give access to the sacred, for their meaning (even as forms of disavowal) is contingent and situated. Likewise, Kahn makes sacrifice—killing or being killed, he repeatedly says—central to the political and to the (American) imagination of the sacred. But, for Ralph Ellison (see “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”), lynching, and not, as on Kahn’s account, revolution, was that very sacramental act—surely, if ironically, a black Sabbath—whereby popular sovereignty constituted a republic through the sacrifice of actual blacks and, therewith, the exorcism of what blackness represents. Like Kahn, Ellison sees a structure of disavowal in liberalism, but one allied with the very political theology that Kahn articulates. Ellison would agree with Kahn that “we” need to acknowledge what we already practice, but for Kahn this “we” must learn to accept a logic of necessity and exception in the exercise of state power and the formation of identity, whereas Ellison calls for whites—those enfranchised through the exclusion of blacks—to acknowledge, rather than demonize and exorcise, the mortal finitude and inescapable politicality signified by blackness. The specifically political meaning of acknowledgment changes radically as we shift from the formalism by which Kahn justifies violence to what Ellison calls “the lower frequencies.”
In naming the state of exception enabling liberal nationalism, critics of white supremacy must at once depict how the grammar of political theology is racialized and take exception to it its exceptionalizing logic, and to the American exceptionalism that it sustains. But what kind of politics could suspend the states of exception that sustain the liberal rule? Kahn’s themes—faith, love, commitment, and sacrifice, as well as the necessity of persuasion—figure prominently in African-American thought, but they problematize his insistence on the state as the center of sovereignty and violence, as well as his investment in the nation and popular sovereignty. Political circumstances, and a prophetic genre, seem to have fostered a characteristically agonal relationship of black politics to states and nations; renaming America a Babylon, critics of white supremacy repeatedly imagine a political space between nation and empire, where the miracle of freedom might appear through practices of steadfast labor and abiding love, in tension with both state sovereignty and the unmarked whiteness of popular sovereignty. Ideas of decision and exception, as in civil disobedience and violent self-defense, and themes of sacrifice in practices of communal solidarity and non-violence do intersect at points with Kahn’s Schmittian meditations, but they question his fundamental assumptions about state and nation as the sole sites at which the sacred and the political intersect in modernity.
Perhaps it is a matter of tone: whereas Kahn concludes his book by depicting “us” as inescapably conscripted in a war on and with terrorists, we instead might see him as conscripting readers into a project that replenishes state sovereignty and unifies a national subjectivity by declaring an existential crisis. And whereas he locates the sacred in a sacrificial relation to this violent state and the national subject it represents, we instead might invest the meaning of the political in practices that resist violent sovereignty, partly by refusing the language of necessity and sacrifice by which he, like Schmitt, sacralizes it.