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Monday, May 08, 2006

"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.

  • At 5/08/2006 04:03:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Good log, Inkhorn, excellent post. I'd like to pretend I already knew, to pick only one instance, about the Lowith-Blumenberg debate, but I didn't.

    I'm going piggyback on Inkhorn's post to bring up a related issue that his post briefly touches on, namely the way DKS uses the term "Christianity" in discussing the "third way" (Inkhorn's term) between secular politics and puritanical politics, which she describes as a "Christian polity" founded on "penitential justice" (133). (DKS actually calls this a "second version of political theology, one modelled on penance rather than law-enforcement," but I think Inkhorn's third way better describes what she's getting at.)

    Here's how she describes this project: "The contrast between penal and penitential ideals structuring Measure for Measure points to the existence of a second version of political theology, another way of imagining the regnum Christi besides the Platonic-Puritan system of compulsory virtue and condign punishment. 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). From there she goes on to consider Augustine, "the first of the Latin Fathers for whom Christianity was the official state-religion," in whose writings "one finds an extended reflection on pentitential justice as the basis of Christian polity" (134). And then, in her only comment after the book's transcripts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "I do not know whether we should permit it [i.e., the imposition of a Christian morality of forgiveness into a political process]. My point is simply that Measure for Measure's version of Christian morality has in fact been imposed on a political process [i.e., in South Africa]--that it could work" (140).

    I wonder what others think of Shuger's appropriation of the terms "Christianity" and "Christian" in these contexts. It seems as if what she's doing here is trying to dislodge "Christian" and "Christianity" from their modern associations with the "Platonic-Puritan systems," but, of course, Puritans in the sixteenth century very much believed, like those in the religious Right today, that they were the true followers of Christianity. I'm sure Puritans would counter DKS's argument by claiming that she hasn't read her Bible correctly and that their political theory is the truly Christian one.

    In effect, it seems as if she's simply replicated the conflict between Puritans and Conformists/Arminians/Laudians/Anglicans (depending on the context) over whose views are the truly "Christian." And like the C/A/L/As, she, by claiming the label "Christian" as her own, slyly renders the "Platonic-Puritan system of compulsory virtue and condign punishment" as somehow not "Christian." It's not enough to say these two models were in tension in Plato, in the sixteenth-century, and in the twentieth-century. Once she lays claim to the mantle of "Christianity," her opponents become, logically, not "Christian," or at least outside orthodox Christianity. Laudians in Caroline England (like the avant-garde conformists before them) made this same rhetorical move, and while not explicitly calling for "penitential justice," they did encourage Christian irenicism (between the Protestant and Catholic churches), the avoidance of theological controvery, and, yes, recreation on Sundays. Or, today, there is the ongoing debate between "conservative Christians" and "liberal Christians," the latter of whom, as Amy Sullivan has noted, tend to call for policies "like protecting programs to help the poor, supporting public education, and expanding health care."

    While DKS's argument is slightly different in its emphasis, it does strike me as remarkable similar to those of sixteenth-century "anti-Puritan" Chrisitans and modern-day "liberal" evangelical Christians. This doesn't invalidate her argument, but I do think it gives us a better idea of her argument's polemical heritage and the type of response it would most likely generate (which is why I was a bit less happy with the book's surprise ending than H & I).

    What do others think?


  • At 3/04/2007 01:15:00 PM, Blogger rebeccarust wrote…

    Just wanted to say, I love this blog (in general), and this discussion of Shuger's book in particular. I agree with many of the perspicacious comments here, particularly on Shuger's curious lack of engagement with the Kantorowicz-Schmitt-Benjamin school of political theology.

    I am writing a "political theology" kind of diss. right now, with a chapter on Measure that touches on Shuger's arguments in passing. The argument as a whole is actually much more engaged with bringing some of the less frequently read parts of Kantrowicz's Two Bodies to bear on the play, and also with teasing out the way the play is haunted by the vexed position of early modern English Catholics. Indeed, another complaint I have with Shuger's book is that in constructing the binary between "Anglican" (a term that I agree is somewhat ill-chosen in this context) and "Puritan," the question of the Catholic totally drops out (but then, this is a complaint that applies not simply to Shuger, but indeed much work on early modern English religion).

    Anyway, since I'm still writing said dissertation, I can't take the time to go much further now. But I thought I would share one paragraph in particular that I wrote on Shuger's argument. Maybe what I say about Augustine needs to be nuanced more, but I hope the larger response to Shuger is of interest:

    "The citation of the “pirate” in Lucio’s speech ["Thou conclud’st like the sanctimonious pirate that went to sea with the ten commandments but scraped one out of the table" (1.2.7-16)] also recalls Augustine’s anecdote about the confrontation between Alexander and the pirate in the City of God: “When the king asked him what he meant by infesting the sea, the pirate defiantly replied: ‘The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a little ship, I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor” (IV.5; 148). Augustine uses this exchange to demonstrate that, without “justice,” the difference between pirates and sovereigns is merely a difference of scale; both are spiritually illegitimate when they allow themselves to be governed solely by the exigencies of material existence. Shuger cites Luther’s version of this parable to demonstrate a split between two styles of rule that she identifies with Angelo and the Duke respectively: “while Angelo’s hypocrisy is consistent with his (stage) Puritanism, his punishing of others for self-offenses means that he also stands for unjust or tyrannous authority—Luther’s big thief—in contrast to the Duke as bearer of heaven’s sword” (68). However, in this context, I am arguing that the split identified by Shuger does not necessarily constitute a clear-cut “binary structure” (71) or “dualism” (70), especially in Augustine’s terms. Shuger associates Angelo and the Duke with the denizens, respectively, of Augustine’s City of Man and City of God: “In the Earthly City, princes are as much mastered by the lust for mastery as the nations which they subdue are by them; in the Heavenly, all serve one another in charity, rulers by their counsel and subjects by their obedience” (XIV. 28; 632). While the two cities seem to be completely opposed, Augustine also reminds us that both share a single “human nature” that is, at its base, “bound to sin and the necessity of death (XIV.1; 581). Grace is only partial, provisional and promised on earth, not actualized, and thus, we can find qualities of each city intermingled, even in a single sovereign figure in the world. The figure of the pirate sovereign haunting the sacral person of the Duke in Measure for Measure, is a reminder of this ever possible intermingling This factor inevitably compromises the sacrality of the ruler to a greater or lesser extent. For Augustine, the “Heavenly City” is conspicuously lateral and mutual; sovereigns and subjects “all serve one another in charity,“ functioning as a quasi-democracy of the “heart” that throws suspicion on all claims to true sanctity from political leaders who claim authority based on hierarchy. "

    Anyway, keep up the good work! I look forward to your comments on SAA 2007 and hope you also continue your reading group. I would be particularly interested to see your responses to Lupton's book . . .


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