“At stake in our political life,” Paul Kahn observes, “has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our own lives an ultimate meaning.” While it would require little effort for me to catalogue the many insights that seized my attention while reading Kahn’s thoughtful and highly provocative new book, it is this basic insight that chiefly arouses my interest, insofar as it serves as the organizing premise for the argument as a whole. It is therefore this claim most of all that deserves close scrutiny.
Kahn’s book is fascinating, insightful, and a delight to read. But it is many things. Although its arguments are set forth in a largely holistic fashion, one can distinguish at least three distinct aims: 1) a more or less faithful and analytic reconstruction of Carl Schmitt’s 1922 work, Political Theology; 2) a meditation on the applicability of Schmitt’s political-theological insights to specific features of contemporary American political-legal practice; and 3) a bold proposal, only loosely grounded in Schmittian textual evidence, that argues for political theology as the indispensable framework for grasping the character of politics in the modern world. The first of these aims helps to explain why the book owes its title and its chapter-by-chapter architectonic to Schmitt’s original work. The second explains why Kahn not infrequently departs from the task of reconstruction by offering illustrations drawn from contemporary American law and politics. The third leads us to Kahn’s most provocative conclusion, that there is something distinctive about modern politics qua politics that can only be understood if we remain alive to the theological sources that animate this dimension of our experience. Unlike some of the other commentators, my training and interests do not lie in the sphere of contemporary politics, and most certainly not American politics. I will therefore refrain from offering any challenge to Kahn’s reconstructive or illustrative purposes and will focus my attention chiefly on the third and final strand of the book.
Kahn develops his brief for politics as a sphere of “ultimate meaning” through a stylized portrait of American political experience. Although he characterizes his descriptive method as an exercise in “phenomenology,” it is not clear what distinguishes this method from a more hazardous recourse to generalities—for instance: “America, of course, remains a land of religious faith, while Western Europe has become a largely secular society.” As a specialist in law, Kahn certainly recognizes that such generalizations obscure as much as they reveal. (Think, for example, of the German public educational system, with its compulsory religious instruction, as compared to the separation principle that in the United States disallows any such public instruction.) Still, in Kahn’s view, America remains exceptional insofar as “[f]aith in one form or another is a deep part of our political culture and of our political psychology.” It follows that we can only make sense of American politics if we make sense of the peculiar hold of religious belief on our collective imagination: “We need to understand the set of beliefs that sustain and support American exceptionalism as a practice of ultimate meaning for generations of Americans.” But the quality of religious faith that Kahn claims to find in American public life bears a distinctive character: “In our imaginations, political life remains a matter of life and death—that is exactly the meaning found in 9/11.”
Whether observations cast across such vast terrain truly permit us to understand the peculiar character of American politics in our own age is a worry I will not address here. Nor will I contest Kahn’s use of the first-person plural in phrases such as “our collective imagination,” notwithstanding the considerable risks that attend this sort of ethnographic holism, especially when speaking about a polity as diverse as this one. These are generalizations that permit Kahn to move from the analytic-reconstructive purposes of his book to its evidentiary purposes, as I noted above. What concerns me is that Kahn occasionally seems tempted by the far more ambitious possibility that his ethnographic portrait of the social imaginary is applicable not only to the contemporary United States but to all of modern experience as such.
It is this far more ambitious exercise in what one might call a generalized political phenomenology that, in my view, may come at too high a price. To be sure, at times Kahn seems willing to confine his diagnostic-interpretive observations to the contemporary United States, a political order that remains captive, he claims, to a species of mythico-religious imagery. In such moments, Kahn seems to be describing only the beliefs of what he calls “ordinary Americans,” but he often permits himself the far greater latitude of pronouncing upon the nature of modern politics as such. Here he follows the principle (also familiar from psychoanalysis) that the pathological is our best guide to the norm: “Politics,” Kahn writes “is not striving to be a perfect system of reason. Not reason but decision describes that most characteristic of all political acts: killing and being killed by the state.” To such a dictum one might reply that the limit of the political does not furnish the most instructive insight into the essence of the political. But in what register are we to access such a claim? Its truth is apparently unbounded by time or place: it extends (or so Kahn proposes) all the way back to Abraham and Isaac, insofar as it is already in the origins of biblical religion, in the paradigmatic moment of anticipated sacrifice, that the truth of politics is ostensibly revealed: “As long as we can imagine such a moment of sacrifice,” Kahn concludes, “we remain within the political imaginary.”
In such moments I detect in Kahn’s book something more than a merely methodological appeal to political theology. It may be that political theology can serve as a helpful diagnostic instrument for comprehending the pathologies of the contemporary American political imagination, but I also detect in his arguments a singular kind of political existentialism, that is, a philosophical doctrine regarding the basic character of political experience.
It is this facet of his book that troubles me most of all. Kahn professes to abjure any speculative interest in pure theorizing insofar as an “authentic political theory” must be one that “stops” before the actual experience of politics. Against the merely discursive constructs of liberal theory as exemplified by both Dworkin and Habermas (toward neither of whom is Kahn entirely fair), political theology, in Kahn’s characterization, points to “an experience beyond discourse.” It rests on “faith, not argument, and on sacrifice, not contract.” But what goes unacknowledged in this contrast is that the characterization of politics as a non-rational event is already a characterization of politics according to a specific and necessarily discursive traditional schema: It is not a successful evasion of mere theory for the sake of phenomenological accuracy. Nor is it a bold rejection of intellectualist naiveté that obeys the existentialist credo, “existence precedes essence,” which Kahn often evokes as a methodological justification. The difficulty with this apparent reversal is that the attempt to escape mere theory for the sake of description ends by reproducing another highly conditional and contingent understanding of political practice. The sophisticated rejection of liberalism as a merely discursive evasion of “decision” is ultimately a decision for a different image of human experience. But this image of politics is no less conditioned by theory and interpretation than the image it is supposed to displace. Kahn’s quasi-existentialist appeal to “existence” (as against essence) is presumably meant to signal that he is not interested in anything more essential than our actual political practices. But his arguments recapitulate a familiar error of existentialism by transforming existence itself into the privileged field for revealing what is “most characteristic” in human experience.
To grasp this point we need only to consider Kahn’s highly controversial claim that the “most characteristic of all political acts” is to be found in decision rather than reason, and, more specifically, the decision to sacrifice. This is ostensibly a truth of politics (or, at least, a truth about politics in the contemporary United States: this is one of several moments in the book where Kahn strays well beyond a description of specific practice.) In any event, it is a truth that enjoys a tremendously ancient lineage, for the political-theological underpinnings of our political life have not yet emancipated themselves from the sacrificial imagery of biblical religion.
To cast better light on Kahn’s political existentialism, let me pause to consider in greater depth the Akedah, the tale of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, which Kahn mentions only in passing. It deserves mention that (pace Kahn) the Hebraic conception of this event does not typically fasten upon the moment of sacrifice itself. On the contrary, the sacrifice never comes. One might therefore read the episode not as a call to sacrifice but as a lesson in the contractualist beginnings of collective life: The polity, conceived here as a patriarchal chain of generations who will eventually take on the burdens of the law (and, significantly, the Decalogue’s renunciation of murder) appears to find its point of origin not with sacrifice but with its annulment. The human community persists only because we are inducted into a logic of conceptual abstraction by which one particular can stand for another: the ram for the son. Although I am wary of attempts to derive political doctrines through biblical exegesis, if one felt compelled to read the biblical narrative as a lesson in political founding, its lesson might be not the indispensability of sacrifice but rather the necessity of its annulment through our induction into a symbolic order. The non-murderous collective would find its origin not in a decision to sacrifice but precisely in the readiness to forgo sacrifice. Nor should we forget that politics in ancient Israel begins not with a mystical event of divine theophany (God’s appearance to Moses) but only when this event is displaced for the sake of a legal-juridical discourse (the law). Theology itself would enter into politics only thanks to the conceptual-symbolic renunciation of God’s immediacy—a renunciation that, ironically, also inaugurates the possibility of secular law.
The theological reading I have offered above is hardly uncontroversial. Nor am I concerned here with its defense. But I presume it would be a condition for any political-theological interpretation of contemporary politics that it specify which theology it considers pertinent to its claims. Kahn does not pause to consider the many sources of the American social imaginary, its disunity and its diversity. Instead he seems to take it on faith that the theology in political theology consists in a set of ready-made mythico-religious themes—“sacrifice,” “the sovereign,” and so forth—terms whose very abstraction would appear to contravene Kahn’s statements that he prefers practice to theory and the phenomenology of felt experience to liberal-intellectualist pieties. Indeed, one explanation for the great appeal of Schmittian political theology may be that it dissolves the bewildering specificity of political experience into the gauze-like profundities of mytho-poetic discourse. Schmitt’s theological lexicon, unfortunately, is rather impoverished: If political theology were to serve as a useful device for understanding contemporary politics, one would have to provide a far more detailed anatomy of contemporary political experience, and one would have to move some distance away from the abstractions of Schmitt’s political existentialism to specify exactly which strands of our tremendously variegated theological tradition are truly of relevance today.
What troubles me in Kahn’s argument (as in Schmitt’s) is the assumption that we already know what theology is and how it speaks in today’s world. But if theology is not just a univocal preserve of themes, such as “decision” and “sacrifice,” then the movement from theology to politics already demands (or has already achieved) a certain doctrinal specification: only certain theological gestures enjoy legitimacy. It is precisely this unacknowledged moment of theological interpretation that is also at work in Schmitt’s “political theology.” When Schmitt asserts that the moment of political “decision” is analogous to the moment of divine intervention, he has already imported into theology the specific interpretation he wishes to discover. As critics before me have observed, the God that underwrites Schmitt’s illiberal species of political theology is a post-nominalist God who exercises his powers unconstrained by nature or reason. Whether this is the God of biblical monotheism is another question entirely. But it is a question that could be decided only on the basis of further interpretation, and not by appealing to some ostensibly theory-free site of religious existence. Lest I be misunderstood, I should explain that this is not an objection to Schmitt based on an objection to his politics (though it always bears repeating that his politics were abhorrent). The grave error of political theology in the Schmittian style is not the ideology it helped to support. Its deeper error is conceptual: it imports into theology precisely the politics it wants to find.
Kahn makes a strong case for political theology, perhaps especially when he entertains the startling notion, somewhat at odds with the rest of the book, that the epoch of political theology may have come to an end. I find a great deal of what he has argued both thoughtful and thought-provoking, but I fear that his inquiry has committed the same sleight-of-hand as Schmitt’s: In the name of a norm-free phenomenological “description,” it has insinuated into theology what is already an interpretation of theology, and, in analogous fashion, it has insinuated into political “existence” what is already a specific interpretation of the political. On my reading, this means that Kahn has been misled into believing that there is a non-theoretical way of pursuing a description of politics, as if liberalism could be defeated by demonstrating that it has evaded some realm of ostensibly self-evident political facts. But the notion that we can discover what political existence actually is—or, in Kahn’s language, the notion that we might disclose politics as the site of human “authenticity”—is a notion that indulges in the anti-intellectualist ideology of political existentialism. Securing its credentials from a gesture of anti-theoretical renunciation, it endorses a different but no less determinate political theory.
This recourse to political existentialism is evident most of all in Kahn’s repeated allusion to moments of crisis and decision as signposts to the nature of contemporary political experience. Though the idea has obvious origins in Protestant theology (especially that of Kierkegaard), it has been a trademark of existential argument ever since Karl Jaspers, who argued that a certain kind of Grenzsituation, or “limit-situation,” had the power of shattering the comfortable shells of everyday life so as to bring us face to face with the very core of our existence. The argument was further developed by Heidegger and acquired a starkly political meaning in the political-theological musings of Carl Schmitt. What troubles me most of all, then, in Kahn’s argument (as in much of the contemporary literature indebted to political theology) is the normative belief that such a crisis-situation really does bear a revelatory significance, that it illumines a deeper, if less comfortable truth, (or, in Kahn’s own words, a certain “authenticity”) in our experience.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, a great many editorialists casually indulged in this sort of argument: 9/11 assumed an iconic status as the Grenzsituation of our time. Kahn, too, mentions the events of 9/11 in just this fashion. He concludes his book with the surprising, and very un-Schmittian, observation that we must balance our longing for authenticity with the pursuit of justice. But the book’s denouement hardly suffices to undo the political-existentialist premises of the argument as a whole. Kahn seems to believe that the violence of those attacks tore away the veil from the comfortable illusions of liberal theory. But his gestures in this direction leave me uneasy: Is the true structure of the political best revealed only in its moments of greatest threat? Is it really the case that one can properly understand the constitutive meaning of political experience when its principles are most in jeopardy?
The old axiom of mid-century existentialism—that only human phenomena in extremis reveal our authentic condition—still survives today in much of the theoretical literature inspired by Schmitt. But even while I appreciate the need to develop theoretical insights that unsettle the pieties of American liberalism, I doubt that political existentialism is the right way to proceed. Perhaps this is because what Adorno called the “jargon of authenticity” leaves me profoundly unmoved. Or perhaps it is because I simply don’t participate in the sacrificial religion that Kahn sees at the core of American politics today. There are different sorts of political theologies. But not all of them draw their spiritual nourishment from Schmittian intimations of mortality.
I would therefore be grateful to Paul Kahn if he might explain what I take to be the two underlying premises of his argument: 1) that we still look to politics as a source of “ultimate meaning.” This already strikes me as unconvincing, or, at the very least, requires further explanation. In a lifeworld of competing value-commitments it remains uncertain how any one value-sphere might be said to enjoy preeminence. But even if one were to accept such an idea, there is still 2) the premise of political existentialism, namely, that the highest significance of our lives is to be found in moments of mortal danger. What warrants the specific assumption that we discover such a higher sort of meaning only in the moment when sacrifice is required? After all, the establishment of politics has as its regulative ideal the establishment of an order in which danger has been brought to an end. Those who are still hoping to discover some sense of ultimacy in our collective lives would do well to consider the possibility that we will find it—and we will find the true beginning of politics—only when the angel appears and sacrifice is forbidden.