What follows updates some excerpts from my book, A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics (Palgrave 2019). Related excerpts may also be found with respect to Walter Benjamin in The Journal For Cultural and Religious Theory.
Preparing for our Critical Conversation next week on An American Indian Critique of Sovereignty, a colleague who’s been to several of our conversations asked me what ‘political theology’ is. As this term is also being used in multiple proposals for our April conference on Decoloniality and the Disintegration of Western Cognitive Empire, I’ve decided to to review the term as it relates to my thinking.
I was fortunate to study ‘Political Theology’ in a seminar with Victoria Kahn in 2011 called Early Modern / Post Modern Political Theology. Kahn has studied the ways twentieth-century thinkers looked to the early modern period to solve political crises and discussions of liberalism. In The Future of Illusion (2014), she gives an account of a familiar liberal narrative which I cite fully here:
According to the usual story, we can trace the origins of modernity to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Europe, and its resolution of a theological-political crisis. The religious wars of this period prompted Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke to develop a religiously neutral discourse of rights that helped to found the modern liberal state on a distinctively secular foundation. If political theology refers to the theological legitimation of the state or a state founded on revelation, then political theology is the problem that the new secular language of rights was intended to solve. It did so by bracketing the question of religion in the state of nature and subordinating religion to the secular power of the sovereign once the commonwealth has been founded. Instead of being guided by religious principles, individuals according to the new, secular idiom of political theory are motivated by the desire for self-preservation. The contract that founds the state is simply a contract of protection for obedience. In suspending the question of a substantive common good or end of human action, the new state also removes the occasion for disagreement. Everyone is entitled to practice his religion in private, as long as his actions do not impinge on the liberties of others. Or, as modern parlance has it, we agree to disagree. This, we might say, is the self-congratulatory narrative of modern liberalism. (13)
Kahn’s description persists in liberal thought today, yet in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century — as liberal economies have witnessed increasing crises — this “self-congratulatory narrative” has also been challenged, particularly within the context of neoliberal trade.
Within the “self-congratulatory,” for example, much of what I’ve named ‘psychedelic aesthetics’ (and later New Age thought) signals a nostalgic “re-enchantment” to counter Max Weber’s well-known conception of modernity as the “disenchantment” of religion. This is an entirely eurochristian drama that made its a transatlantic move throughout the twentieth-century as the United became a world superpower.
In the context of the U.S., aspirations to empire are present in the American Revolution and particularly in its perceived inheritance to European “rights of discovery which have waged genocidal war on all Peoples Native to Turtle Island. Fantasies of “playing Indian” persist today through political imaginaries which attempt to create eclectic spiritualities that “naturalize” invaders’ presence and the “progress” their ‘civilization’ brings. Through aspirations to “spiritual superiority” from John Winthrop to evangelical movements to your locally self-proclaimed ayahuasca shaman, the “earnestness” of aspirations to living a good “spiritual” life mask aspirations.
This is not the past. It remains present. As Barbara Mann (Onondawaga) alluded in our December Critical Conversation, the office of POTUS, has for Seneca and Onondawaga carried the designation of ‘Town Destroyer’ from George Washington to, now, Joe Biden. Counterclaims to Max Weber’s “disenchantment thesis” are not, however, merely Romantic, though of course when we trace connections back that era, we can note that this was the same period when ‘liberal’ as a political signifier emerged.
The ideological illusion of eurochristian humanism – even amid claims to the “end” of ideology – thoroughly naturalizes what Kahn historicizes above when she says the new, secular language of rights is an attempt to solve the problem of ‘political theology’. Again, she says, “It did so by bracketing the question of religion in the state of nature and subordinating religion to the secular power of the sovereign once the commonwealth has been founded. Instead of being guided by religious principles, individuals according to the new, secular idiom of political theory are motivated by the desire for self-preservation.”
Re-enchantment in this context then names a disillusionment with a secular-liberal order, and that disillusionment is as present in evangelical attempts to “separate” religion from politics as it was in Vietnam War Protests and attempts to levitate the Pentagon. What remains important in terms of political-theology is to attend to the ways various iterations of spiritual desire persistently perform a eurochristian social movement, as Tink Tinker (Wazhazhe, Osage Nation) has described it.
How is liberalism eurochristian? Liberalism is situated in an ideology of humanism, which certainly developed within internal critiques of Christianity (Protestantism, the religious wars, the Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state). If the State is static and transcendent, it is (Protestant) Christian. In Catholicism, ‘human dignity’ reconciles humanism and Christianity (counter-Reformation) — but catholic nation-states, especially in Brazil with the resistance to free masonry, there is ambivalence toward liberalism.
This makes my analysis slightly different from Walter Mignolo’s work. Mignolo’s perspective formed in South America where, due to Catholic Imperialism, “liberalism” was (and remains in some contexts today) associated especially with a critique of Christianity. Humanism of the eurochristian “Renaissance” is an operative aesthetic impulse here.
While culminating in the “hubris of the zero point” in Kant and Hegel, Mignolo does situate the impulse in an earlier stage with the rhetoric of salvation,
focused on saving the souls through conversion to Christianity. The second stage involved the control of the souls of non-European through the civilizing mission outside Europe and the management of bodies in emerging nation-states through set techniques that Foucault analyzed as bio politics. This transformation of the rhetoric of salvation and the logic of control became prevalent during the period of the secular nation-state. (14)
Mignolo points to a third (and continuing stage) characterized by a shift toward multinational corporations. He traces some of his thinking here back to Carl Schmitt — “Secularism displaced God as the guarantor of knowledge, placing Man and Reason in God’s stead, and centralizing the Ego” (15). More explicitly, he states that
Carl Schmitt saw it clearly: political theology, said Schmitt, is not a metaphysical issue, but rather, a well-grounded structure based on the categories of knowledge, vision, and institutional configuration. The technological revolution together with the corporate values that were prioritized in Western Europe and the United States (I leave Japan in suspension for the time being) made management itself the prime center of social life and knowledge. (15)
Political theology, in my terms, is a eurochristian worldview “well-grounded” in its protean ability to “naturalize” its persistent deep framing intergenerational, even among those who would not consider themselves to be ‘Christian.’ Obsession with the eurochristian notion of ‘sovereignty’ becomes one way to track that persistence over time.
Mignolo captures a sense alluding to popular culture. “We are all in the matrix, each node is connected with all the rest, and the matrix cannot be observed and described by an observed located outside the matrix that cannot be observed — that observer will be either the God of Christian theology or the Subject of secular Reason” (16). He then builds an argument for a “decolonial option,” which is not to be confused with decolonization and especially with earlier postcolonial thinking. Instead, the option would be one among many for pluriversal communal orders, rather than a “communal global oder” (23).
American Indians such as Tink Tinker might, however, argue that we ought not to be so quick to throw up our arms against the eurochristian “matrix.” In accepting such an “immanent frame” or saturated neoliberal apparatus. In doing so, we risk erasing deeply-framed non-eurochristian worldviews, particularly American Indian ones. For these people, who continue to live and struggle amid the conditions Mignolo otherwise accurately describes, ‘decoloniality’ is not an option so much as a way of being that is further erased when we take eurochristian political theology as an inescapable matrix.
It is perhaps in different worldviews, then — and not ones that people of colonizer backgrounds can “choose” to embody — that we might become critical of our spatio-temporal differences through metaphors of matrices. For me, however, this means that I must not take an extractivist approach to understanding “Native spirituality” but that I must try to convince other eurochristians that their own worldviews, while not easily changed, continue to mask destructive presences on the world. In this sense, my interest in political theology is entirely different than unapologetic endeavors such as the academic journal, Political Theology and the efforts of The Political Theology Network — though there may be some overlap in efforts to describe current situations, especially concerning a concept like sovereignty.
To summarize, then — In western liberal democracies, with little critique of the inherently eurochristian valence of ‘sovereign’, ‘Religion’ became an idea figured within the realm of Renaissance human flourishing, yet subordinated to the political conception of sovereignty, just as eurochristian ‘man’ became the interpreter of their God’s ‘Book of Nature’.
In late twentieth-century philosophical thought, debates over postmodernism paralleled discussions as to the role of religion in the public sphere, but they were not as yet fascinated with the issue of sovereignty that we see today. Those discussions reveal just how committed many are to what Kahn calls “the self-congratulatory narrative of modern liberalism.”
As Richard Rorty, for example, ironically argued in “Religion as a Conversation-stopper,” no “uncloseted atheist” like himself is likely to get elected in the United States. This creates an atheistic resentment:
We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience – a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.
Rorty here aligns himself with Jürgen Habermas as a defender of the Enlightenment. In Jeffrey Stout’s “Rorty on Religion and Politics,” Stout takes a more inclusive approach regarding theists in “the public square” than Rorty. Stout notes that by 2010 Rorty’s views had changed a bit. However, Stout is still more willing than Rorty to engage people with faith-based positions in public dialogue.
In the early 21st century, Jürgen Habermas’s views had changed too, when he began using the term ‘postsecular’ “to describe modern societies that have to reckon with the continuing existence of religious groups and the continuing relevance of the different religious traditions, even if the societies themselves are largely secularized.” As Habermas emphasizes, his use of the term describes a change in consciousness, not society itself.
But notice that Habermas’s thinking unsurprisingly replays the self-congratulatory narrative, how he implicitly embeds the eurochristian philosophical – and I would say, Protestant-derived — turn toward subjectivity in his continuum. Mignolo’s analysis, I think, helps us to see that.
Post-World War II thought, while differently inflected in European and American discourses, implicitly challenged how the liberal formation of the modern state and the idea of Westphalian attempts to regulate ‘religion’. Of course, this occurred as ‘postcolonial’ nations “liberated” themselves from eurochristian colonialism. But the Westphalian State was already entrenched in eurochristian religious wars, and so the discussion of political theology persists.
At least part of the recent disillusionment with State politics remains entirely “white” and eurochristian-supremacist in two recognizable prongs: First, there was the lament that “non-white” (historically non-christian) others, in achieving recognizable state status – and Israel’s 1948 recognition by the U.S. becomes central here as well – this meant to the eurochristian that, somehow, the State wasn’t enough to sustain eurochristenDOMination. The white-supremacy inherent here might be figured by the ethnocentric idea that, if the “barbarians” could have States, they’re either too uncivilized to manage them or there was a problem with the idea of the State itself.
If it was a problem in the notion of the State, it might be interrogated by looking for what Habermas later called, “an awareness of what was missing”; namely, political theology. Earlier conservative critics like Carl Schmitt had already seen the crisis following World War I, and with him it manifested in a nostalgia for the departed Kaiser Wilhelm II and a eurochristian legacy of the kingly sovereign.
The Second prong would play out in various forms of liberalism and recognition of civil rights. Here, the implicit “achievements” of western civilization – democracy and the recognition of the rights of the citizen-subject – continued to accept the implicit Basileia of eurochristenDOMination through evangelism and conversion. In secular terms, this is “inclusivity” which is often advanced without critique of a embedded eurochristian “civilizing” desires. The winning over of “hearts and minds” in U.S. Cold War policy is a striking example here, but we could also include an inflection of political theology recast as “liberation theology” as well.
In liberation theology, the dignity of the human (still a eurochristian universal notion) could make manifest the “immanence” of God’s grace through community resistance to State repression. Here, eurochristian supremacy could maintain its hold by moving beyond notions racism based on skin-color and imposing a universal category of ‘human’ and ‘human rights’ onto the creatures of the globe at large. While seemingly “progressive” on the surface, in the deep structure of eurochristian thought, this was a “return” to catholic universalism, the kind that needed to be “rehabilitated” through efforts like Vatican II from which later political-theologians aligned with Johann Baptist Metz would call “liberation theology” while foregrounding notions of “hope,” “reconciliation,” “forgiveness,” etc. Christian ethicist, Miguel De La Torre has critiqued this impulse in Embracing Hopelessness (2017).
In more overtly “secular” discourse, many pointed to the rise of Islamic States since the 1970s signaled the excessive “irrational” schwarmerei, or “religious fanatic.” Thus, especially in the U.S., overt white supremacy has manifested in fear of Muslims while also being cast along the same lines of a “clash of civilizations” thesis. This is the Enlightenment-derived version of what Kahn calls the self-congratulatory narrative, which is suspicious of “re-enchantment” and challenges to the Weberian thesis.
However, in my work, I believe that attention to enchanted aspects of psychedelic aesthetics help us to see the ways we characterize state-formation (inflected by eurochristian political theology) as iterations of what Gilles Deleuze would call repetition as opposed to difference. In other words, something deeply mimetic is at work in turns toward ‘enchantment.’ Those iterations are a manifestation of secular-liberal will-to-power which conveniently mask erochristenDOMination.
Yet, rather than simply saying that nostalgia for eurochristian civilization remains latent in the deep-framing of a eurochristian unconscious, the later forms of liberalism, often called “neoliberalism,” reveal the attempt to make manifest all things considered unconscious within the realms of surveillance capitalism, which of course (as Mignolo hinted above) Michel Foucault was getting at in his work. In twenty-first century discourse on political theology, we see what’s at stake, and we also see more clearly the affective saturation by which eurochristian supremacy continues to do the work of colonizing and converting beings into rights-bearing subjects, land into property / capital – eurochristenDOMination.
So, let me turn to discourse. ‘Political theology’, as I use the term, relates both to Carl Schmitt’s book of the same title as well as to an interdisciplinary scholarly discussion developing out of the American journal, Telos, in the late 1980s. It also represents a particular tradition within Christian thinking that engages with ideas as ancient as St. Augustine’s City of God.
My focus is not Christian, except in the ways that eurochristian deep-framing acts as an underwritten ideology for western liberal thought. However, the seduction of perennialist thought and archaic revivals – including secularism, new agism, neopaganism, and neoshamanism in psychedelic aesthetics – often also manifests as a desire for an explicitly non-Christian political theology. Such “non-Christian” expression is part of an othering process long-used in Europe with respect to Jews and pagan practices as a way to advance Christian empire and governance, not to limit it. While I am sympathetic to the desire to “escape the system,” I see a process of erasure and inherent liberalism in new age / neoshamanist / archaic revivalist attempts to push a “reset button” giving people immediate access (often through psychedelics) to archaic and pre-Christian pasts.
At the same time, because secularization narratives persist in ways where ‘religion’ is presented as archaic superstition and exceeding the “bracketing off” function in the self-congratulatory narrative, those narratives also accomplish an erasure of responsibility for the destructive and consuming forces at work in both spiritual and material conquest while maintaining latent investment in them. The “return” of the discourse of religion in the public sphere here is an entirely neoliberal and colonialist move because it takes for granted that ‘religion’ is a concept like ‘nature’ that can be internally regulated by a ‘sovereign’ with the appropriate strength in both rational functioning and affective adoration.
For this reason, I am highly critical of religious studies scholarship that implicitly regards the “return” of ‘religion’ to public discourse as something to be celebrated through grant-funding initiatives, etc. Focus on Indigenous studies allows us to see how such endeavors risk perpetuating eurochristian narcissism. I am not, of course, critical of the impulse to inquiries in religious studies motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering, analyze global forced migrations, etc. But we need to see the deep framing at work, and we can begin by using discourse analysis on the term ‘political theology’ itself, as I’m doing here.
‘Political theology’ as an academic discussion in the U.S. arose in the late 1980s out of a traditionally leftist journal that was first published in the late 1960s. Traditionally aligned with a radical leftist critique of culture, the Telos journal later came to be suspicious of attempts to take a position “outside” of culture. This followed George Schwab’s translations of Schmitt and important articles in Telos, indicating what John McCormick called a “second wave” of interest in Schmitt.
In the late 1980s, Telos began to publish a number of articles studying Schmitt. As Scott G. McNall writes, because of Schmitt’s Nazism, “the very fact that the journal reviewed and discussed his work was deeply suspect, [and] Schmitt predicted the decline of federations and nation states, seeing them as inherently unstable, while Telos celebrated loose affiliations” (110). Telos founder, Paul Piccone, had been a leftist critic who rejected “managerial liberalism” and sought a turn “to authors outside the Left and on the edge of liberalism as sources [and] Carl Schmitt was the most prominent of these and the use of Schmitt was, to both perfectability liberals and statist Leftists, scandalous, because he was, in the context of their versions of the century, unambiguously a foe” (117).
The drama surrounding Telos precedes a larger academic phenomena in the 21st century where the critical impulses of the civil rights movements became status quo positions by which political power struggles were waged within existing institutions. Among the “taboos” that the Telos journal transgressed were both the serious engagement with Schmitt, an outspoken anti-Semite, and more increasingly the engagement with ‘religion’ in the public sphere. Part of this was because Schmitt wrote the book Political Theology, which remained influential on the extreme left as well as the right.
Schmitt’s 1922 book, Political Theology, famously opens by defining the sovereign as “the one who makes the decision in a state of exception” (5). It also contains the oft-quoted passage:
All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36)
Schmitt was a theorist of the exception in jurisprudence, and he linked that to notions of the theological and mythological. There is an intersection between structuralism and history in this passage that manifests in what might be characterized as the problem of twentieth-century politics: a tension between vertical, sacred time (being and essence), and horizontal, secular time (experience) – a tension powerfully, even if over-simplistically, expressed by the far-right-influenced Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane (1957).
Eliade’s influence on religious studies in the U.S. is immense. Drawing on Emile Durkheim’s socialist ideas about religion, as well as traditionalist thinkers, Eliade argued that ‘modern man’ is out of touch with “sacred” space, living in the world of the profane and forgetting the centering potential of “primitive” religious thought. He claimed, “the sacred reveals absolute reality and at the same time makes orientation possible; hence it founds the world in the sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world” (30).
While by today’s standards such binaries oversimplify the matter, Eliade’s claim also expresses European nostalgia for the pre-political Eliade’s assertion also points to the political space of the sacred in public spheres. That nostalgia for a “pre-political state of nature” remains present in New Age thought and psychedelic-inspired calls for archaic revivals and neoshamanism. It complicates the “congratulatory” description of liberalism, but its advocates are often unaware of the genealogical connections to mid-twentieth-century far-right thought. It especially occurs in eurochristian fascination with Indigenous “spiritualities,” neoshamanism, and traditional uses of peyote and ayahuasca, etc.
If “the spiritual” is invoked in the realm of politics, it is done so within deliberative rhetoric aimed at future-orientation. Secularization poses a problem in the traditionalist critiques made by both Eliade and Schmitt because both of them refuse to “bracket” religion according to the self-congratulatory narrative. Schmitt’s conservatism and his description that the sovereign is the one who decides in the state of exception desires a stronger sovereign power embodied in an individual decider.
Eliade’s interest in the “archaic techniques of ecstasy” that he name’s with an entirely eurochristian universalist tendency, “shamanism,” longs for a revolutionary upturning of the soil to let its “blood” breath. That impulse toward revolution, whether rightwing or leftwing, inherently calls into question the notion of sovereignty and its affective political power, which is why aesthetics professors like Giorgio Agamben have been fascinated with the affective qualities of glory and ceremonial power – epideictic rhetoric – in relation to politics. Concerns over the “aestheticization of politics” in Walter Benjamin of course remain relevant here, but Jonathan Fardy also addresses this in Althusser and Art. (Jonathan will join us for a New Polis discussion on this March 16, 2021).
Though the tone of Schmitt’s Political Theology from the frequently-cited passage above is certainly conservatively critical of liberalism, Schmitt also influenced the famous leftist aesthete and dabbler in mind-altering substances, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin died attempting to flee Nazis in 1940 and is posthumously associated with what has come to be called the Frankfurt School and critical theory.
In his Habilitation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, first published in 1928, Benjamin wrote that “whereas the modern concept of sovereignty amounts to a supreme executive power on the part of the prince, the baroque concept emerges from a discussion of the state of emergency, and makes it the most important function of the prince to avoid this” (65). He then claims, “the theological-juridical mode of thought, which is so characteristic of the [seventeenth] century, is an expression of the retarding effect of the over-strained transcendental impulse, which underlies all of the provocatively worldly accents of the baroque.”
For Benjamin, the focus on the prince as sovereign was the continued site of community holding the physical world and the theological world together. The prince is an axis mundi, in Eliade’s terms here. The more worldly the State, the more transcendent the leaders must be. Benjamin’s own notes to this section specifically cite Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and his description of the exception as inspiration.
As Samuel Weber writes, Benjamin personally wrote Schmitt, sending a copy of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and thanking Schmitt for thinking crucial to his aesthetic theory:
You will very quickly recognize how much my book is indebted to you for its presentation of the doctrine of sovereignty in the seventeenth century. Perhaps I may also say, in addition, that I have also derived from your later works, especially the “Diktatur,” a confirmation of my modes of research in the philosophy of art from yours in the philosophy of the state. (5)
Benjamin is largely regarded as one of the most important aesthetes in the twentieth century, and Dave Boothroyd has written explicitly of Benjamin’s interests in mind-altering substances in Culture on Drugs (2006). Through Schmitt, Benjamin was able to use political theological ideas for the basis of aesthetic criticism, which is not to reduce Benjamin’s thought to Schmitt’s influence.
The political subtext of both Benjamin’s and Schmitt’s books is the liberal crisis in the Weimar Republic during the late 1920s. After World War I, the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated power to the democratic republic, but the 1920s were unstable economic times and the government was politically contested on both the left and the right. To some, it may seem fascinating that the Jewish Benjamin would so openly align his thinking with Schmitt, who was already a conservative and who would go on to become a member of the Nazi party and outspoken anti-Semite.
The renewed interest in Schmitt in journals like Telos and diacritics in the late 1980s and early 1990s marks a moment when American intellectual thought had come to be suspicious of the possibility of critical theory in its leftist genealogies connected to Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, etc. This was, of course, happening as the movers and shakers of what we now call ‘neoliberalism’ (Thatcher and Reagan in particular) were in power, and so the discussion also incorporated figures such as Leo Strauss as well, who greatly influenced neoconservative thought in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, the journal Political Theology arose during this periods well.
These discussions also accompanied the end of the Cold War. While to its critics, Telos journal’s engagement with Nazis like Schmitt was reprehensible, to supporters the critical lens of Marxism had lost both its critical edge and its economic existence. During this same period, scholars were also making known the true extent of Martin Heidegger’s Nazism and the connections between his philosophy and politics. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu states, Heidegger’s conception of a dehistoricized philosophy as distinct from the philosopher’s biography “consists in forcing us, as a result of his ‘great blunder,’ to rethink the relationship between philosophy and politics” (268).
Even before Americans became interested in Schmitt, his influence and conflicted relationship with scholars was apparent on the continent. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, translators of Schmitt’s Political Theology II, note in their introduction that in post-1968 Germany, the rabbi and theologian Jacob Taubes invited the Russian / French thinker, Alexandre Kojève to lecture in Germany. The invitation was a political move to inspire Leftists with French thought. Kojève’s response was that the eighty-year-old Carl Schmitt was “the only person in Germany worth speaking to” (19).
When this drew obvious concern among German intellectuals in a new liberal State, Taubes interestingly used the Jewish Walter Benjamin’s correspondence with Schmitt as conciliatory evidence for Kojève’s assertion (20). Schmitt had curiously revived the discussion with the long-deceased Benjamin in his 1956 book, Hamlet or Hecuba (1956). For these Europeans on both the left and right (and Jewish and Christian), what was at stake was the relationship between aesthetics and politics.
Inherent in the revived discussion of political theology is a critique of the secularization narratives that historically parallel the development of modern nation states. “Re-enchantment” signals a disillusion with Westphalian State narratives that seek to contain ‘religion’ within a State-sovereign governmentality that manifests most extremely in the Dictator as Decider. Here, the “glory of god” is shared with the populace as a manifestation of a general will.
The Dictator maintains the glory over and above “managerial liberalism” and so neo-fascist movements in the early twentieth-century invoke a kind of nationalist retreat against cosmopolitan neoliberals who maintain a hold over a bureaucratic “elite” or “knowledge class.” The twenty-first century Dictator is both Père Ubu in his absurdist “End Game” (Beckett 1957) and the Sixties-influenced calling into question of “games” themselves. It is a self-aware performance of absurdist irony which, through tactics of hyperbole on one side and perpetual (yet simultaneously breaking down) reaction-forming iterations of neoliberal identity politics other combine in a political-theological vortex where farce and tragedy are indistinguishable. Crisis after crisis after crisis, like a bad trip.
This situation exists in U.S. popular politics partly because there will be conflicting narratives between committed liberal secularists, New Age re-enchanters, and conservative Christians with respect to the 1960s. But there’s a more profound resonance with Schmitt when we look at, say, Christopher Lasch’s 1990 “Afterward” to his 1979 bestseller, Culture of Narcissism, yet another book to frame itself as a response to varying “crises.” Lasch writes, “More than anything else, it is the coexistence of hyper-rationality and a widespread revolt against rationality that justifies the characterization of out twentieth-century way of life as culture of narcissism” (248).
He continues to lament our alienated sense of homelessness as an echo to Eliade’s assessment in The Sacred and the Profane and offers a Freudian-based antidote of “love and work,” a return to home and family that would resound with conservative family values. For me, situating ‘psychedelic aesthetics’ in this broader transatlantic history offers a way out of such narcissism by returning to contextualized history – what Lasch had done in his book – but through a different frame.
Naming ‘psychedelic aesthetics’ should be distinguished from an encultured desire for psychedelics to “liberate” our collective consciousness. Sixties performances constantly employed the rhetoric of spiritual enchantment in order to critique the State, but we miss the seriousness of the critique when we only approach the situation as liberal secularists. Using ‘political theology’ then, as a critical lens, allows me to distance my study from both the politically interest-driven accounts of the 1960s that have created a political vortex in the current U.S., as well as from the dogmatic assumption that society has been becoming more and more secular throughout time.
Of course, another way of describing the conceptual importance of ‘political theology’ to the 1960s is the convergences between emergent drug legislation and social protests. While the social aspects are relatively obvious, the theological aspects are made more oblique by adherence to a secularization narrative. Because psychedelic aesthetics gesture toward the spiritual and theological, as well as the political, a political-theological critique is helpful for articulating the cultural positions that psychedelic aesthetics employ, whether or not one “believes” in such gestures toward the theological.
In the post 9/11 world, secularist assumptions about the role of religion in the public sphere came into frequent question. So, the Italian philosopher of aesthetics, Giorgio Agamben, continuing to rely on Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, called the post 9/11 era an extended state of exception. The broader public in the U.S. is often not trained to see how the nuances of this academic argument are simultaneously responding the Post World War I situation in Europe with respect to crises in liberal democracy today because they are so saturated with American ideology of the “greatest generation” and the idea that America is a world-liberating force instead of an entirely eurochristian perpetuation of aspirations to empire.
Agamben writes in State of Exception (2005):
The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the “military order” issued by the president of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the “indefinite detention” and trial “by means of military commissions” (not to be confused with military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. (3)
Agamben argues that since 9/11 the United States has been in a state of exception where legal apparatuses are constantly suspended because the deliberative process is too slow to react to states of emergency. Carl Schmitt had an enchanted sense that the state of exception is analogous to the miracle in theology.
‘Psychedelic aesthetics’ in many ways are an active attempt to produce a miraculous “State of exception” and to harness the enchanted energy for liberal democracy. This is partly why the uncanny nature of recent far-right political protests might be deemed “psychedelic” – both because they manifest the unconscious of eurochristian social desire and, via neoliberal surveillance tactics, social-networking, etc. continue to convert everything private and unconscious into manageable data.
While Agamben’s remarks speak to an emergent crisis in liberal democracy characterized by the never-ending war on terrorism (“Enduring Freedom” / “Infinite Justice”), American political identities are very much indebted to their respective readings of the 1960s as an exceptional period, as are European philosophers dedicated to the “event(s)” of 1968.
Rational liberals, who frame their thinking around a “progressive” secularization narrative, have a hard time understanding religious “extremists.” The “why can’t we all just get along?” attitude forgets its own privilege. So much of the recent discourse on the healthy benefits of psychedelics is rooted in the idea that they give us access to a more universalized account of humanity, but even this perspective – and I am generally for all deregulation of psychedelics, by the way – forgets its own privilege. It forgets the critique of narcissism Lasch wrote of when he said, “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious,” (7) and Lasch was too secularly-driven to see the echoes of political theology at work in the 1960s, though he charges the contemporary Gnosticism of the New Age movement with its own “fundamentalism” (247).
Dogmatic libersalism in efforts to deregulate controlled substances also simultaneously risk transhistorical philosophical blunders by forgetting that the set and setting of psychedelic aesthetics in the 1960s was critical of liberalism itself. If we truly want to understand the power of psychedelics and the political impact of the aesthetics that accompany them, we must have a fuller account than a narrative that nostalgically looks back to the summer of love or 1968 in France, etc. This means taking the relationship between aesthetics and politics seriously, as Jonathan Fardy will address in our March Critical Conversation.
In specific connection to the discourse of political theology, Agamben and other intellectuals coming right out of reactions to May of 1968 have been taking a scrutinizing look at the foundations of liberal nation states in attempts to make sense of economic collapses and large-scale humanitarian problems. The place of religion in relation to politics and the public sphere is central to such discourse.
Many, like Habermas, feel that what liberal democracies need is an “awareness of what is missing” with regard to shifting views about secularization. Along with Habermas, philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, as well as a younger generation – Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchley, and Paul Kahn – have in the past decade engaged increasingly with the role of religion and ethics in the public sphere. In general, this amounts to a willingness to engage with religious thinkers in public forums.
Habermas’s discussions with Joseph Ratzinger evidenced this when he said, “Indeed, a liberal political culture can expect that the secularized citizens play their part in the endeavors to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a language that is accessible to the public as a whole” (51-52). By looking at how psychedelic aesthetics critique notions of liberal subjectivity, we can not only take up the “task to translate” that Habermas calls for. We can be critical of emergent neoliberal tendencies within that call to translate. We can also see that this task has been ongoing in aesthetic works since at least the 1950s and 1960s yet ignored because of a now outdated secularist frame, as well as philistine attitudes toward aesthetics.
In other words, we might think of ‘psychedelic aesthetics’ as the political theology of our time. At a different pitch, my colleague, Carl Raschke, has used the discourse of political theology to analyze the phenomenon in Neoliberalism and Political Theology. For me, the collapsing of subject-object distinctions, the blurring of Proud Boys and ANTIFA (really?!), the way the so-called “left” in the U.S. has become nostalgic for Law and Order politics as a “return to normalcy,” all comes from a deep disillusionment with the Westphalian state and rights-based discourse as a “solution” to the problem of ‘political theology’ described in Victoria Kahn’s passage above.
In a sense then, what is ‘psychedelic’ (literally mind-manifesting) now in politics is the inherently repressed violence of deep eurochristian framing. And neoliberalism’s attempt to make manifest all things unconscious is a different way of saying what John Lennon intuited — “We all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.” And on Yoko Ono’s side B to Lennon’s single, she sings:
Who has seen your dream?
Only you and him
But when the world gets bright and clear
You know that we were there
Oh, world, world
World, world, world
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.