“We will not recover a theory adequate to the decision for and against
life unless we turn from political theory to political theology. We must
go back to the beginning and, for us, that is Abraham and Isaac.”
—Paul Kahn, Political Theology
At a moment when some of the theoretical gestures being inspired by old, new, or futuristic political theologies have become ineffective, Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is a book of extraordinary significance. Or, perhaps I should say that I think it might be a book of extraordinary significance, inasmuch as it bears a potential to do something which has remained impossible, not only for Carl Schmitt, but also for some important contemporary critics of neo-liberal political economy. I want to reflect specifically about the way this impossibility might become possible, strangely, by way of a new migration of Abraham into the territory of philosophies of freedom and difference.
Throughout, Kahn constructs a stage on which is presented a complex encounter between a decidedly American revolutionary heritage, a deeply European critique of liberalism, and a repeated and self-conscious reflection on Jewish traditions. In this encounter, each figure appears bathed in mutually illuminating light, a situation which is much more difficult to stage than one might think. Just for a start, it would have been impossible for Schmitt himself to conjure a similar forcefulness for his ruminations on intractable questions of freedom with these three actors. A sporadic anti-Judaism and anti-Americanism endemic not only to Schmitt’s writings in the ‘20s but also to the larger conversation about legality, freedom, and authenticity in which his work participated saw to that.
Much more pressingly, however, Kahn’s inflection of questions about freedom and political constitution through Judaism, the American experiment, and classic European critiques of liberal political economy also seems to me something that recent brushes with political theology by Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou (to name three whose importance should not be denied) have not attained either.
In this first respect my hope is that Kahn’s constellation of figures could help to save for political thought something of an American revolutionary inheritance which seems otherwise to be very effectively disavowed by the dominance of liberal political philosophy in North America, namely, the ineluctable assertion of non-juridical forces which precede or exceed the forms of self-grounding imagined by representational politics. The redemption (so to speak) that Kahn’s work might afford occurs at one level by virtue of the fact that it remains faithful to this revolutionary heritage by likewise remaining faithful to thoughts also rooted in nineteenth-century European anti-capitalist movements. Here I note simply that convincing expositions of such mutually affecting fidelities are not forthcoming from thinkers who are never (or should never be) far from Kahn’s analysis of Schmitt, namely, Agamben, Žižek, and Badiou in their recent work. Kahn’s book is extraordinarily significant, therefore, because it signals—even incites—a certain need. Are there not too many students of the American revolutionary tradition stuck outside the particular rapprochement that Kahn’s work establishes so effectively with European critiques of liberalism? Such students remain mired—just read the signs—in awkward jokes about Stalin (cf. Žižek), defensiveness about naming atrocities under Mao (cf. Badiou), or in a minimalist form of political speech burdened by neo-Heideggerian poetics (cf. Agamben). If there is a viable North American future for these critical theorists—and this is something we should struggle for—the ideas at work in their texts need to remain nourished by a singular fidelity to the American experiment. These three thinkers have all reflected more or less explicitly about what is “worth fighting for” in the Western theological inheritance. Kahn’s book also asks more pointedly, and to better effect: why is the American Revolution worth fighting for?
But these migrations of individuals and translations of political visions are all bound up with an equally interesting Auseinandersetzung with the figure of Abraham. Notice the call that Abraham receives within Kahn’s tableau. He is called not so much to leave his home among the nations. Nor is Abraham’s migratory passage through time and space (from inhabitant of the nations to sacrificial founder of a new community) of interest here as it was for the ancient Philo, obsessed as his text “on the migration of Abraham” was with a Platonic psychagogy from the sensuous to the ideal. On the contrary, the point of Abraham’s call in Kahn is much more focused, namely, to exemplify a founding principle, not only of a people but of all peoples. Recall Kahn’s Conclusion: no one (at least none of Us) escapes the Schmittian moment of Abraham’s sacrifice. And if, as the book argues throughout, phenomenological or existential attention to political constitution will effectively pierce the “states’s self-presentation as an efficient means of justly advancing welfare,” what Kahn’s analysis will glimpse through this phenomenological unveiling of the state form is, above all, a founding patriarch with a knife in his hand.
Kahn’s work exhorts that, “We should begin with a kind of phenomenology of the political, which is just what political theology must be today.” And, as mentioned above, in the Conclusion he suggests that, “We will not recover a theory adequate to the decision for and against life unless we turn from political theory to political theology. We must go back to the beginning and, for us, that is Abraham and Isaac.” Obviously, the We’s in question here are protreptic, open-ended, potentially otherwise. Of course, we might add, the We who must return to the figure of Abraham is plural, not one, certainly not already given in any factical sense. (This is not even to mention the multiple Abrahams we could discover back there at “the beginning.”) Kahn is certainly not unaware of any of this. He even pre-emptively responds to this pluralism throughout the book when he sometimes wonders at the multiplicity of founding irruptions of a force he nonetheless glosses under the one name of the “sacred.”
Against some of the other recent posts, however, I’d like to stir the pot by saying that the standard—even ideologically clichéd—issue of eliding difference is not really the pressing problem here. Rather, the problem for Kahn’s book is not that it will become a tyrannically limiting paradigm, eliding too many We’s who will not be interpellated by his repeated, invitational We. Nor is the issue that the Abraham to which We must return, the Abraham this We would call toward a migration into a new philosophical state, is also multiple. Is not the real issue, the real problem, precisely the opposite: whether there is—for a non-representational Us—an event which would enact a fidelity at once to the American Revolution, to European anti-capitalism, and to central figures of Jewish thought? Is not the real issue, in other words, whether there is, for Us, something here—even a sacrifice—that We might believe in, and believe in as that which is in Us more than ourselves?
Kahn points out that Schmitt’s book had no conclusion and then appends one of his own, which asserts that contemporary political freedom cannot escape an encounter with Abraham. Fine. For the moment let’s accept what is only an invitation for thinking, after all. In reading the tale of Abraham in relation to Schmitt, Kahn even hints at the possibility of rendering God’s “I am that I am” as a kind of pressure immanent to existence rather than as a discretely transcendent substance. Good. In such a case, Abraham’s “Here am I” would be a kind of odd repetition of the biblical God’s “I am,” instead of an indication of a submission to or answer for an external other in any typical sense. Our return to Abraham could thus generate a new founding myth of repetition in which an obscurely excessive becoming emerges in Us as an affirmation that scrambles the usual calculations. This affirmation would more intimately unite what, in the biblical story, might otherwise be easily mistaken for discretely separate figures of God and Abraham, that exemplary cause-and-effect of revolution. Such an interpretive move would be comparable to Stanislas Breton’s efforts to link a radicalized Althusserian interpellation to biblical accounts of calling.
But such a conclusion would only repeat a (democratized) Schmittian aporia, whereby a grounding sovereign exception emerges like a miracle to found a new community. The return to Abraham in this way serves only to repeat the essential thematic issue of the book in a new key. What I want is a conclusion in truth, and not from Schmitt but from Kahn—or, perhaps even better, from that still opaque site of freedom that is an Us yet to come. Is there a ‘belief’, an affirming Yes, which would construct a synthesis or found a communal space in which the faithful of the American Revolution, of European anti-capitalism, and of Judaism alike would recognize themselves, even if—necessarily—transfigured? Or, to return to the Abraham story, is there a viable transformation of the current state of the neo-liberal economic order which would be creative enough as to evoke this primal scene of violence?
In this respect, Kahn, like Schmitt—and perhaps more like the biblical text than he acknowledges—elides a conclusion. After all, Kahn’s conclusion is just a repetition of the book’s basic theoretical assertion, that (at least in this tradition) new political creations occur like the founding gesture of Abraham: before the law. But, detective that I am of religion’s past and future primal scenes, I am greedy to see filled out Kahn’s concluding, and perhaps prophetic, turn back toward the biblical tale. If revolutionary creation, for a protreptical or emerging Us, will bear an Abrahamic inflection, then what shall be that collective which an energetics of creation transformatively unites across readymade identitarian lines? And if this miracle of exception, or this fragile invention of possibility, begins to cut the umbilical links it bears in relation to old states and outmoded identity formations, then who or what might end up on our altar, the site through which creative affirmation will have been voiced?
In this sense, I find a productive—even protreptical—irony in the way Kahn’s book concludes with a repetition of the theoretical state of ideas about the ineluctable necessity of a founding sacrificial event (even if this thematic repetition is provocatively repeated by way of a biblical myth). And—pace the crazy and (therefore) perennially fecund tale of Abraham—in the conclusion we are still repeating theory rather than participating in the specifics of “existential and phenomenological” intensities Kahn earlier evoked as precisely the dagger with which to pierce through theoretical or merely representational discourses on political experience. To repeat Kahn’s premise against his own conclusion (and perhaps even against his own desire not to inhabit a normative discourse), if we are to pierce through the self-descriptions of the state and its current assemblage of identities with an actual experience of the political, we will do so only when we find ourselves naming the items missing from Kahn’s concluding repetition of the Abrahamic tableau, some of which I enumerated above. To name these otherwise elided or absent terms, and to affirm these names with a vibrancy which produces Us in their very affirmation, would of course be the transformation of Kahn’s exemplary political tract into a political experience. And here, fearing and trembling as usual over the specificities of the Abrahamic tale, is where our conclusion remains a merely thematic conclusion rather than the phenomenon of a new beginning. Reverberating throughout Kahn’s book, however, are the rustlings of a subterranean “here I am,” which might just yet expose Us to (and as) an occurrence of freedom from which our states, philosophies, and religions alike are currently constructed to shield us.
This is a wonderful book. I hope it yields more than is safe, and more than we hope for, we strange children of Abraham.