"I did not want to write political allegory"
|So, I’ve finally finished Shuger. Probably now no one cares. But I’ll wade in nevertheless. And in this post, there will be no dirty stories, I guarantee. We wouldn’t want to further offend Cide Hamete Benengeli.|
I was going to write a very different discussion of Shuger, but this is one academic book that did something a little shocking: it added a surprise ending. So, while I still hope to get to the points that exercised me throughout, I want to start off with the disclaimer in my title, which Shuger makes in her intro, and which seems to me to provide an important key to the book, over and above the specific value of its contribution to early modern studies (3). She’s trying, briefly, to reclaim Christian politics from the social conservatives and from the language of “values.” The final pages of the book suddenly reveal that there are two forms of “political theology,” one that concerns itself with purity and the punishment of every deviation from a rigid moral standard, and one that is “penitential” and seeks the cure of individual souls, even of criminals, and is willing to forgo punishment in order to effect that cure. Nothing prior to about p. 130 has prepared the way for this: throughout, the antithesis seems to be between “political theology” on the one hand and “political theory” on the other hand. That is, between an understanding of the political predicated on the religious, and a secularist understanding of politics. Now, suddenly, at the end – realized in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a third way appears, one that is not secular, but is also not punitive, narrow, puritanical. As Shuger writes, “This seems important, given that the Platonic-Puritan model remains the ideological substrate for the modern Puritanisms of the religious Right, with the result that Christian politics is now generally understood to mean legislating morality, especially sexual morality, and a punitive approach to sin” (133). “I did not want to write political allegory” (3): the line appears in the course of a set of claims about respecting “the alterity of the past” and not projecting one’s own immediate political concerns into that past. When I first read it, I took it at face value. But clearly, the real emphasis is on the word “want”: she didn’t want to, but then she did.
This isn’t a criticism: I like the book better for it. In those last pages, it’s no longer a matter of accounting for the early modern period as it was: Measure for Measure offers a possibility for an as-yet unrealized Christian politics, one experimentally produced in the TRC, but nowhere else. I don’t buy it. But, as I was reading, I definitely found it compelling, and I respect the fact that, as Shuger is reading Plato and Bucer and Baxter, she’s thinking about these things. It’s a presentist move, but it’s one so integral to the thinking of the book that one can actually retrospectively see the book as a whole as a search for something. This I find impressive and of value.
I enjoyed this book very much. I do think there are some real problems, however – many of these have already been drawn out by Hieronimo and Simplicius. (Ah, belatedness). In particular, the question of the history of “political theology” seems to me to be deeply vexed, and the term itself is never satisfactorily explained. In fact, I think that Shuger is at odds with the way the term is currently being used.
The closest Shuger comes to defining political theology is, as Simplicius points out, on p. 41, where she distinguishes it from “political theory,” which descends from Aristotle and is modern, liberal, secular, and constitutionalist. “Political theology,” then, is none of these things, and in fact it “died” in the second half of the seventeenth century (43): it is “a sacral, communitarian vision of the state” that “lasted from Plato to Puritanism” (34). This last passage, if you look at it in full, is I think the other place where she most specifically defines what she means by her key term, again really through a thorough opposition to everything modern and constitutional. We seem to be dealing with a massive premodern constellation of thought. And yet, Shuger is also evasive on this subject: while the passage I just quoted makes it sound as though everything was political theology until Locke, she elsewhere uses Plato and Aristotle to represent the difference between “political theology” and “political theory,” so that it then looks as though this is a conflict structured into Western thought from the beginning. Similarly, she sometimes presents the Elizabethan period in England as purely political-theological, but then at other times (especially toward the end, when the second form of political theology emerges from the shadows) she describes it as having a constitutionalist consensus. The same goes for the Middle Ages. She wants to produce a history with a before and an after, but she can’t seem to decide where the breaking point is. It seems to be either a century after Measure for Measure or several millennia before it. In any case, for Shuger – again, until those last few pages – “political theology” corresponds to a definite position, a sacralized take on the political, a world in which religion and politics have not yet become separate domains of human activity.
This is actually very much at odds with the way “political theology” has recently been used in philosophy and theory, as I understand it, where the point has been to call into question precisely the distinction that seems to subtend most of Shuger’s book: the argument is that the differentiation between “religion” and “politics” never took place, or didn’t take place completely, or can’t take place, or that the process of differentiation itself left certain traces of the sacred in the modern constitution of the state. In other words, it’s precisely not about thinking our way into totally alien, premodern habits of thought; the point is rather that these putatively alien habits of thought nevertheless importantly shape a supposedly secular modern world. In other words, the whole distinction between “sacred” and “secular,” “religion” and “politics” needs to be thought about with much greater sophistication, leaving behind a set of standard Enlightenment assumptions that haven’t panned out. So that, if a kind of theological politics seems suddenly to have returned to the political landscape now, this is in some sense because it never completely went away – and perhaps, according to some people, because it can’t completely go away. I’m baldly paraphrasing here some of Derrida’s comments in his essays “Force of Law” and “Faith and Knowledge" (both widely available, but recently collected in a volume edited by Gil Anidjar under the title Acts of Religion) as well as parts of "The Gift of Death" and "The Politics of Friendship"; also, some aspects of Giorgio Agamben’s argument in Homo Sacer; and Claude Lefort's speculations in his essay "Permanence of the Theologico-Political." Much of this draws on the work of Carl Schmitt, who Shuger does, rather briefly, cite; but where Schmitt thinks that the modern constitutional state has forgotten that it’s really an earthly god and wants to recall it to that origin, Derrida and Agamben want to say that the enlightenment never made good on its promises but that we can use Schmitt’s anti-enlightenment irrationalism in the search for a new way forward.
The other major ground of this work is the debate about secularization between Karl Löwith and Hans Blumenberg – the question being precisely, does secularization mark a real rupture in history, or does it actually leave a kind of residual relationship? Does the modern mark a radically new world, or does it take the place of the premodern, and as such remain conditioned by it in ways that are difficult to see?
(I haven't had a chance to see the recent book on the subject by Zizek and others. I think, also that "political theology" gets used in religion departments more straightforwardly to mean "a theology with political impetus" or something like that, and this usage seems to swirl especially around the work of Karl Barth. But since I checked out two books on Barth, then left them on a bookshelf for two months, then returned them to the library, I can't say anything about that. But it's this discussion in religious circles that, I think, explains the recent Blackwell compantion to political theology.)
But back to the line of thought that leads from Schmitt (and, I should say, Walter Benjamin, who looms large in all of this material) to Derrida and Agamben. I initially thought that this kind of thing was in fact the exact opposite of what Shuger is trying to do; those last pages make me rethink a little bit. But even there, I think she seems to accept a very sharp distinction between the religious and the secular. This kind of polarization actually marks a lot of her work, and I think it not only makes the relationship between the early modern and the modern periods too easy (as though the world before 1650 were so radically different that we can’t imagine it) but also reduces the complexity of the early modern period itself. In this book, the great antitheses of “political theology” as she describes it are Locke, Hobbes, and Machiavelli; but much more complicated arguments about the place of religion in the work of all three of those figures can be offered. On Hobbes, for instance, there’s a huge literature, but a few interesting pages linking his doctrine of the state to the doctrine of the incarnation are offered by Jacob Taubes. In The Renaissance Bible, the antithesis of what she’s talking about there is repeatedly called “the Higher Criticism of the nineteenth century” and is associated with a totally secular, skeptical approach to scripture – ignoring the fact that the form of higher criticism most influential in England, at least, was German (via Coleridge), and was precisely a recuperative project, not an attack on religion. She also ignores the fact that the higher criticism is not purely a product of the nineteenth century: it begins with Spinoza, in the seventeenth, and Spinoza’s ideas have analogues in the work of Jean Bodin in the sixteenth. This kind of binarism reduces the complexity of the early modern terrain – but this takes place, I think, in Shuger’s large-scale formulations. Her actual readings contantly recognize the complexity of the early modern landscape. Nevertheless, when it comes to the larger formulations, her tendency is to dichotomize, and especially around the divide between the religious and the secular.
These are my large-scale thoughts, at a very late hour, I now see. I want to reiterate that there’s much here I found really fascinating, and absolutely worth thinking about. I really do feel that my thinking about Measure for Measure has been enriched by Shuger’s discussions and various contextualizations, and I enjoyed the way the play became a conduit into a larger intellectual history.