June 13, 2024

Amorous Agonism And The Allergy To Difference, Part 1 (Roger Green)

This is the first in a multi-part series of posts.

In the following series of posts, I want to address some themes related to Catherine Keller’s recent book, Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Republic (2018).  In the book, Keller describes her concept of amorous agonism, which she develops from respectful agonisms offered by Chantal Mouffe and William Connolly.  This agonism is framed in contrast to the antagonism of zero-sum politics, which is characterized by impulses toward strong decision-makers amid liberal-democratic crises.

I want to first cover Keller’s account of “weak messianism” and then, in a later post, situate a few critiques of Keller’s amorous agonism in the Levinas-inflected ideas of Sarah Pessin’s “hate and protect” project, which seeks to confront allergies to difference.  I will then turn toward some thought from Indigenous Studies that I find noticeably absent, not just from Keller’s book but from discourse on political theology more generally.

Let me emphasize from the outset that, despite my criticism, I think Keller’s book importantly addresses issues in the discourse of political theology that are necessary to dispel a kind of Christian myopia and arrogance.  This arrogance is not only what Keller describes as the antagonist-oriented Christianity that aspired to Empire in the time of Constantine and in decision-making “strong sovereign” aspirations today. It is a more subtle form of enculturation that Barbara Mann has called “Euro-forming,” and it affects even well-intentioned Christians who see themselves on “the left” or as performing in the tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907).

According to Mann in her book, Iroquoian Women: the Gantowisas, Euro-forming is a whitely, colonizing form in which “universalist” and “archetypal” interpretations create facile readings based on analogy (62).  I see this tendency throughout process-oriented theologies that serve as the backbone for the second half of Keller’s book (including her own constructive theological position), despite her open (and welcomed) self critique of historical injustices in the name of Christianity and her attention to issues of race and ethnicity in passing moments of her text.  Keller’s self critique is a strength, and one I appreciate as a eurochristian myself who is daily attempting to divest in caustic forms of power.

If it seems strange for me to paint in broad strokes by referring to Christianity as if it were one “thing,” this is because I am trying to elucidate something at the heart of Keller’s attempt to write a political theology of the earth, which would necessarily include non-christians.  It is also because, following Tink Tinker’s Native American perspective, I tend to read “eurochristianity” as a social movement and not as a ‘religion’, because the very concept of ‘religion’ is rooted within christian-dominated worldview.  The same can be said for “theology” and discourse that relegates “religion” to “belief” or “faith,” something that can, in the Lockean liberal tradition, be discreetly privatized.

Any attempt at a political theology of the earth, in my opinion, needs to take more of a historical account of eurochristianity’s intimacy with the kinds of globalizing economic projects that have depleted the earth’s resources.  It will also have to have a very qualified notion of ‘theology’ once that historical account is made. Turning to Keller’s book, I want to emphasize an important qualifier she gives in the book’s opening pages.

And, as theology, this political theology does not perform the Messiah or announce her coming.  Indeed, “the messianic thwarts the teleological unfolding of time (the Messiah will never appear in time).”  That is Judith Butler thinking with Walter Benjamin.  The pretensions of a predictable chromosome fail us. They do not come in time.  But neither is the Jewish messiah timeless, enthroned beyond time itself. The messianic, perhaps even Paul’s messiah, called ho Christos, is always “coming” – never captured in a final revelation of gore and glory. (17)

Keller follows this by invoking a third option: “If the moment of crisis is open at its edge, its eschatos, as kairos, it seems that a specter of ‘messianicity’ (Derrida) starts to materialize within it. A historically worn yet inexhaustible possibility shoots – like the shuttle out of the loom – through the tangles of impossibility. It might make up in creativity what it lacks in power.”  Ideas of temporality, condensed and kairotic, are already doing some formation work.

In Keller’s passage, creativity is distinguished from power in a way that echoes the usurpation of potentas by medieval kings from the Holy Roman Emperor.  While perhaps full of ingenuity, such power-grabbing would not be in any way part of the divine creativity to make and sustain the earth.  This kind of ingenuity would later be the “secularizing” power of the intriguer, the player of politics as a game — a bad dream in Hamlet’s “infinite space” within a nutshell — and that theme of sovereignty is the groundwork for Walter Benjamin’s thesis in On the Origins of German Tragic Drama and the exchanges he had with Carl Schmitt regarding sovereignty.

If ‘political theology’ as a discourse is to attend to such matters of power, it needs to deal with more than political ressentiment or reaction-formations framed in the clothing of “religion” in its eurochristian genealogy because that lineage is itself embedded in Christianity’s will-to-power, a power rooted in its impulse to distinguish its identity from its Jewish “Other” at the seat of Empire, as Jeremy Schott has argued.

Keller sees a “spectral” possibility for Derrida’s ‘messianicity’ in her concept of amorous agonism.  Drawing on Mouffe and Connolly, she bases her descriptions on a split concept of charisma.  Pulling from Max Weber, Keller sees one concept of charisma in lineage with a sovereign exceptionalism as described by Carl Schmitt. This charismatic leader is a form of “superman” whose unique qualities enable him to be just the right man for the job.  This is a form of charisma that informs white masculine privilege and the antagonistic, zero-sum kind of thinking expressed by advanced capitalism and current arrogant leaders like Donald Trump.

The second, messianic form of charisma Keller describes is based on Walter Benjamin’s notion of “weak messianism,” and this is exactly the kind of messianism she thinks ought to underwrite the ‘political theology of the earth’ her book is developing.  She holds up civil rights leadership as an example: “Such messianic agape as Martin Luther King’s, even while not left to angels, does not take the place of politics. But neither can this love be captured in apolitical privacy.  With its history of effects, limited but indelible, it refutes the presupposed antagonism of Schmitt’s political theology” (55).

Keller’s words here find practical resonance with Chandra Russo’s notion of ‘solidarity witnessing’ in Solidarity and Practice, which traces Russo’s ethnographic work with Witnesses Against Torture, School of the America’s Watch, and solidarity walkers of the Migrant Trail.  Russo argues that, despite the practice of witnessing being made up mostly of socially-privileged individuals who do not accomplish tangible goals – such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay, for example, the practice of solidarity witnessing nevertheless is changing politics on an affective level.  Russo argues,

through the practice of solidarity witness, […] activists expand the sphere of politics while incubating alternative ways of thinking, knowing, and being.  The practice of solidarity witness provides these activists with the means to resist state violence with ever greater care, commitment, and conviction.  In turn, their models of resistance challenge our traditional assumptions and categories of political activity. (24)

This would be another example of the “weak messianism” of Keller’s amorous agonism, and a very practical one at that.  The activists in Russo’s study often bridge faith-based and secular activism.  While many writers are keen to see such collaboration as evidence of the possibilities for shared civic space, fewer are willing to question the foundations of what people assume to be “civic” and “civilized” space.

As Keller herself is aware, the environmental situation puts all life — all “qualified” life? — on earth in a time-crunch, a real state of emergency that charismatic leaders mask in their strutting about. And citizens of their increasingly nationalized nations consume the reaction-formation politics and news media that has largely become a gossip column interspersed with “life hacks” as eagerly as they consume an episode of the appropriately-titled television show, Game of Thrones.  Who will lead in the state of exception?  Will some Daenerys Targaryen swoop in with some dragons?  Our cultural products ask this over and over amid localized illustrations of strong individuals who gain exceptional superpowers.

Keller goes on to write:

If that weak power has also been encrypted as crucifixion (not in Benjamin’s writings) it is because, despite its later triumphalism, the cross endlessly recalls an agony that cannot be erased.  In fact the cross performs politically a double-coding: of both the sovereign antagonism and the amorous agonism, of the opposed world schemas intersecting.  The former nails above the suffering body of Jesus a sign, The King of the Jews, in sovereign ridicule of the messianic promise; the latter inspires a long history of struggles for the basileia theou, the kingdom of the least, the parody of power. (55)

Keller follows this with a brief genealogy of messianic weakness.  She begins with Ernst Bloch’s linking of messianism to Marxist revolutions in Atheism in Christianity, followed by Bloch’s influence on José Esteban Muñoz’s “queering of hope” in Cruising Utopia (56).  Muñoz suggests the use of utopias of presence to counter Anglo and heteronormativity, resisting any “queer exceptionalism” and thus joining in amorous agonism. Keller writes, “Similarly, process theology fosters a political pluralism of interconnected differences” (178).

Keller goes on to discuss Bloch in relation to Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hopedescribing a hazardous hope that does not have either an optimistic or a pessimistic outcome in mind.  This temporality, she believes, is indicative of condensed kairotic temporalty in St. Paul’s (and Paul Tillich’s) work, the “gathered together” sunestalemnos (3).  She calls this “hazardous hope,” meaning to critique standard liberal progress narratives: “So then, not in trust of any progress but by insistence on just process, might we strengthen, radicalize, even socialize democracy?” (63).

But Keller is pessimistic about political movements of leaders like Bernie Sanders who claim a political revolution, instead predicting a different generational trend: “Democratic Party dogmatism will not galvanize the youthful public that supported Bernie Sanders; they would rather drop out than sell out,” and “no broad enough U.S. public will ever yield to socialist orthodoxy” (165).  It is, rather, in the “apophatic darkening” and the contradictions that she says her political theology of the earth is to be formulated.

In another recent genealogy of weak messianism, Aryeh Botwinick makes a more explicit defense of the benefits of liberal democracy.  Botwinick’s “The Good of Liberalism: Weak Messianism” appears in the Fall 2017 issue of the journal, Telos, which has spent considerable amounts of ink on the issue of political theology. Botwinick traces a longer genealogy than Keller, going back as far as Maimonides to trace a link between weak messianism and skepticism fundamental to liberalism in thinkers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke.

At root for Botwinick’s reading of liberalism is a skeptical philosophical framework.  He says, “It is the very contradictoriness of the skepticism that lies in the background to Western liberal political formulation that paradoxically highlights an important sense in which liberalism constitutes a ‘weak messianism’” (168).  Skepticism may dislodge ideas of God or redemption, but it operates in an “affirmative ontological status equal” between belief and non-belief, and that interchangeability “constitutes a significant way of making sense of Benjamin’s ‘weak messianism’ as applied to liberal political theory” (169). Skepticism and infinity become the great equalizers of modernity.

In an interesting political-theological statement, Botwinick writes: “In an age of competitive frenzied and violent messianisms, it is important to spell out that there is an alternative religious messianic vision that lies at the heart of liberalism that sustains human hope in a climate of proactive, ameliorative waiting.”  He sees this hope in liberal skepticism’s “limited access to truth” and in the nominalism present in Hobbes, Locke, and Hume.  This leads Botwinick to, slightly anachronistically, describe an “agnosticism ” present in liberalism: “A generalized agnosticism lends urgency to the idea of the next generation as retrospectively conferring reality upon the current generation’s hypothesis and conjectures by criticizing, confirming, or abandoning them. This is another connection to ‘weak messianism’ in relation to liberal society” (173).

Put briefly, the conservative (I am not writing about Republicans here) impulse in liberalism is rooted in the idea that only the next generation will prove one set of ideas “correct,” and so one must wait and see what the next generation will do rather than giving up on or disrupting the procedural functioning of liberalism itself.   This non-religious impulse is mirrored by a theological one that says, “As long as we have a sustained and sustainable world, the messiah can appear at any moment. A generalized agnosticism provides the infrastructure for a literally conceived messiah.”  This “waiting” element underwrites an anti-revolutionary impulse in classical liberalism echoed in Keller.

Interestingly, Botwinick sees a parallel impulse in the post-holocaust, twentieth-century philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.  Quoting a passage from “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” from Sean Hand’s Levinas Reader: “In Emmanuel Levinas’s arresting formulation, ‘The awaiting messiah is the duration of time itself.’  Hobbes and Hume cement the link between a negative constituted political society and generalized agnosticism” (175).

This conservative, or at least passive, impulse grounds, for Botwinick, a resistance to apocalyptic struggle and revolution (177), but I am not sure of this rather sudden connection he makes between Hobbes, Hume, and Levinas.  Aligning Levinas with classical liberals seems both overstated and anachronistic in my reading.  I will expand on this issue when I turn to Sarah Pessin in my next post, but before moving on to her work — which I think qualifies a different take than either Botwinick or Keller — let me finish summarizing Botwinick’s genealogy.

After the brief citation of Levinas, Botwinick continues his genealogical analysis of liberalism by reaching back to Machiavelli’s “radical openness to an unknown future,” and Maimonides’ conception of a dead King Messiah who is “succeeded by a post-messianic historical age” (178).  He then says, in a Habermasian fashion, “The weak messianism of the classical liberals translates [my italics] into the twentieth-century theorizing of liberalism by John Rawls” (179).  In the post-messianic history, liberalism celebrates a kind of circularity that resists the forward-marching impulses of either the revolutionary or the individual decision-maker.

These observations lead to Botwinick’s argumentative thrust: “The upshot of my argument is that weak messianism with its supporting metaphysical background is compatible with political radicalism, political liberalism, as well as political conservatism, and it is up to the political process to determine which side prevails — and for how long” (184).  He situates the political as a kind of “horizontal transcendence” whereby the “liberal state is structured in a way as to ensure endless deferral of final solution of such issues as sovereignty, truth, and justice” (185).  This enables a “prospect of successive presents endlessly available.”

Again here, I see the intersection with both liberalism and Christendom’s “infinite” space, even when appealing to Jewish philosophers.

Botwinick’s genealogy of “weak messianism” — though wider in scope — appears to be in line with Keller’s second conception of charisma, a weak messianism that resists impulses to charismatic sovereignty.  His concept of the political potential here would, I believe, also align with Chandra Russo’s argument that solidarity witnessing, though affective in nature and not always achieving tangible results, is a way of subtly introducing change to the realm of the political as a “horizontal transcendence.”

Thus, it would appear that all three thinkers would tend to agree with Keller’s description of a ‘political theology of the earth’, though Russo and Botwinick seem more directly concerned with the efficaciousness of a political process to depose the wrong kind of charismatic leader.

Amorous agonism, in this description, would code a structure of delay with respect to decisionism that celebrates the capaciousness of liberalism.  Indeed, Keller describes something similar in her discussion of Muñoz and Queerness, an idea that I see in consonance with Judith Butler’s famous essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.”  And while I am in agreement on one level with structures of delay, as Kathryn Bond Stockton has articulated them within poststructural resistances to liberalism in her conception of “growing sideways” and her discussion on “Kid Orientalism, ” I still remain ambivalent with respect to complimentary readings of Levinas and a classical liberal tradition, just as I am ambivalent about the hope that large publics who are busy watching Game of Thrones possess the ability to take environmental crises seriously, even when they may consider themselves to be environmentally conscious.

In other words, a conception of weak messianism that is equivalent to the idea that the only answer to liberal crises is more liberalism is not sufficient for me, if we are trying to describe a political theology of the earth. That said, I believe Keller is certainly on the right track in a general sense. Coupled with Sarah Pessin’s work on Levinas I think we might find a less-celebratory conception of more liberalism — which so easily translates into more neoliberalism — as a possible orientation that allows the kind of agonism necessary for such a project.

With respect to agonism, Sarah Pessin has articulated a nuanced reading between William Connolly’s “respectful agonism” and Emmanuel Levinas’s responsibility to the other in an essay titled “From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity.”  I will return to this article in my next post as I try to situate more concretely the problems I see in Keller and Botwinick’s reliance on weak messianism to defend liberalism’s potential, particularly for a project that seeks to be a political theology of the earth.

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.



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