The following is the first part of a transcript of one of our ongoing “Critical Conversations” with distinguished British political philosopher Arthur Bradley. The conversation took place on March 10, 2022. The second part can be found here. The discussion centers around his recent book Unbearable Life: A Genealogy of Political Erasure.
Carl Raschke: Hello, welcome to critical conversations I’m Carl Raschke. I’m the editor of the New Polis and I am also here with Roger Green who is a contributing editor to the New Polis. We will be meeting today, Arthur Bradley, who is a distinguished political philosopher, political theologian. I know he wears a number of hats. But he’s very well-known at Lancaster University in the UK, and he’s been so gracious to join us to talk about his book. Which is entitled Unbearable Life, which is on the topic of political erasure. Which is especially relevant, given what’s been going on the last two weeks with the Russian Invasion of Ukraine and some of the ideological rhetoric about erasing Ukraine which has been in the news a lot, so we’re not going to just talk about Ukraine. But we’re going to try to look at this whole question of political erasure which, in terms of the academic literature, or the philosophical literature on sovereignty is kind of a unique contribution that Arthur makes in the book.
I’m going to turn it over to Arthur in just a minute, I want to say that for variety of reasons we’re going to have a shift at the end of the first hour. I will be leading or I guess you say provoking Arthur for the first hour, this is the Arthur show. Roger will be taking over for the Q and A the second hour because I have to leave for a university assignment. That being said, we’re really glad to have you, Arthur. If you want to you know about his bio which I don’t think we have to say a lot about, it’s fairly extensive that you can go on our website, TheNewPolis.com and read about it. So, that being said we’ll get started.
I do need to make one comment that this session is being recorded. And it will be put live at some point, so if you have any objections to being recorded or being part of a session that is recorded, you will probably have to sign off now, we don’t encourage that, but if you really feel strongly about that, you know, I think that it is an option. At the same time, if you don’t ask a question or say anything, you won’t be recorded, you won’t appear on the final recording.
So, that’s your way out, too, you can listen, but just don’t say anything but we assume that your participation in this two-hour seminar is implicit consent to be recorded. That being said we’ll get started here so Arthur I think we set this up quite a while back before the war in Ukraine and the current global crisis became manifest in the way it did on February 24. And that wasn’t the intent but, in many ways, there are some very interesting parallels between the theme that you develop in your book Unbearable Life and what is happening right now. So could you kind of start off and explain what that is.
Arthur Bradley: Okay, firstly thank you so much Carl, thank you Roger, thank you to everyone at The New Polis and thanks to everyone for coming as well it’s great to see some familiar faces and also some new ones and I’m very happy and honored to be here to be able to talk to you about my work, and I know really help with it, we can have a fruitful and interesting conversation. I think you’re absolutely right Carl, and this is a particularly timely moment to be talking about this topic.
I read an article in the Guardian newspaper in the UK the other day, which contains the following quotation from President Zelensky of the Ukraine and he was referring specifically to Russia’s attack on Babyn Yar, which was the site of a second world war massacre of Jews by German occupation troops and Ukrainian auxiliaries and in response to this Zelensky said this strike proves that for many people in Russia our cave is absolutely foreign. They don’t know a thing about our history, but they all have orders to erase our history, to erase our country to erase us all.
And I thought a way into the conversation today is just to think about what exactly is meant by this thing called political or military erasure. What specifically is the difference between erasure and mere killing? Why is erasure worse than killing? Zelensky does not say “he wants to kill us all”, he says “he wants to do something even worse than killing us, he wants to erase us”. Well, I think the difference is that when you kill someone, obviously you kill them in the present and you kill them in the future- they no longer exist. But when you erase them, you also kill them in the past. It’s not that they once lived and now are dead, but they simply never existed in the first place. It’s total annihilation of life which retracts even that very minimal recognition or dignity that the act of killing bestows upon us.
To kill someone, you have to recognize that some very basic level that they are worthy of being killed. That they exist okay, even the act of killing against that minimal act of recognition, but erasure is an act of erasing, taking away, subtracting even that minimal point of recognition. And then, finally, and paradoxically, political erasure, political annihilation also annihilates itself, it erases its own act of erasure. It’s a strangely self-negating act because, if something does not exist, if you’re retroactively annihilating something, then there is no need to annihilate it in the first place.
So, I’m just unpacking here just a couple of statements or hypotheses from Zelensky’s statement. And in the book what I really try and do is tease out some of the political, philosophical and theological implications of this phenomenon of political erasure. As we know, political erasure has a long history in the 20th century, you know, we can think back to acts of proscription, acts of enforced disappearance, the political disappearance in many countries around the world, acts of censorship, what Trotsky called the Stalin school of falsification, where Stalinist Russia employed bureaucrats to retrospectively amend minutes to meetings, removing people from existence, airbrushing photographs famously, to remove people from existence. This process of political erasure has a very long history and, in fact, in the book, you know, I begin with ancient Rome and with the practice of damnasio memori, the damnation of memory, which consisted of again erasing every trace of the existence of some proscribed person.
In one way or another, removing their property knocking down or defacing their statues coins and so on, that have their faces on them. So, at one very simple level I’m trying to tell a political the political story or the history of this phenomenon called political erasure in the book. But I’m not really a political theorist. What I’m interested in is the reasons why this happens, or perhaps the world view, to put it, to put it crudely, the particular metaphysics of political erasure, what view of the world, what view of power, and what view of political power, in particular, does this act of political erasure imply? So, what I try and argue in the book, my hypothesis is that political erasure is not simply an extreme or apparent instance of sovereignty. You know it’s not simply an exception, or if it is an exception, it’s the exception in the Schmttian sense, that proves everything Schmitt famously argues that you know that the exception contains the essence of politics.
So, the second thing I want to do in the book, in addition to tracing in outline form, some of the political forms that erasure takes, is to actually explore the history of sovereignty itself. The history of the theory of sovereignty, through some key figures within its political and theological history from Augustine through Hobbes, up to Schmitt, Benjamin, and Foucault, in order to make a quite a precise you know, admittedly, provocative speculative argument.
And it’s the argument that this gesture of political erasure, as I’ve said, is not exceptional. Rather, it’s the actualization or it’s the art working of some essential possibility that’s contained within sovereignty itself; and in the introduction to the book, I formulated in this way: I say that sovereignty is not the power to make die and let live, as the ancient Romans had it. Nor is it the power to make live and let die as Michel Foucault famously had it in his work on bio politics, but rather the power to make life neither live nor die.
Life and death, do not exist as empirical phenomena, as recognizable empirical phenomena until that sovereign decision is taken, that there is a kind of originary almost ontological, political ontological state of exception, in which the subject exists until the sovereign takes the decision one way or another to let them enter the realm of existence. So, I trace this argument this phenomenon as I’ve suggested through various scenes and each chapter focuses on a particular figure of this thing that I call “unbearable life”. Life that neither lives or dies, life that was never their life, that has been annihilated, and whose own gesture of annihilation has been annihilated. I focus on the figure of Caucus in Augustine’s City of God. I focus on Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play of that name. I focus on the figure of the cutter con in Carl Schmitt. I focus on the figure of Jeffers daughter in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and I focus in, finally, on Walter Benjamin- on Walter Benjamin’s theses and the philosophy of history.
And where I focus in particular, is on what he calls the life that was never lived, there’s a very famous and obscure and much debated passage in Benjamin, where he says what we envy in the past, what we seek to return to, what we seek to re actualize is not the life that we did live, but the life that was never, that was never lived. So, in a sense, the book is a gesture of political recuperation, is trying to give these voices back, to bring these unbearable erased bodies back to let them speak, to let them articulate themselves.
And also, finally, to try and articulate a form of resistance to this act of political erasure when we all know that right now there is a very strong and courageous act of resistance going on in Ukraine to this gesture of political erasure, and what I try and do in the book is trace some of the ways in which, both in terms of philosophy and politically different figures, have sought to resist unbearable life, not simply by reasserting ever more strongly their right to exist- the fact that, yes, I am here, I am un-erasable, but even in in certain paradoxical cases to take on and to mobilize this strange state of non-existence, of existing outside life and death as a site of political possibility and revolutionary political possibility itself. So, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll stop there. Hopefully I’ve given people a general flavor of what I tried to do and what my ambitions are for the project, and I’ll hand it back to you, Carl.
Carl Raschke: Okay, great. I have quite a number of questions, and again, as we talked about prior to going live here, if we can kind of toggle back between the contemporary situation and also the theoretical matrix in which you’re presenting this argument. So, let me ask you just some questions, about the theoretical matrix. You have all these examples that include everything from Augustine to Shakespeare, and you tend to contextualize it in terms of the argument of Foucault about sovereignty. Now, of course, the question of sovereignty is really sort of the key question- it’s the overarching question within this general field that has undergone quite a revival in the last 30 years that we call political theology. And it’s out of that conversational venue that The New Polis, for example, was created and so forth. So, we don’t deal just with political theology.
I think, political theology myself is somewhat of a kind of a red herring, because it very often, it means in people’s mind “well I’m a theologian I’m going to talk about politics” and that’s, of course, not the original meaning. It was first formulated by the person who may not necessarily invented the term, but he gave it currency, and that, of course, was Carl Schmitt in his book in the 1920s called Political Theology, where he defines sovereignty As basically, we say, executive decision, suspending the rules of laws for a moment. Now, I would like to hear you, if you want to kind of talk about this kind of classical notion of sovereignty and relationship to your unique way of coming at it as the notion of political erasure and, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is Vladimir Putin, who, in some ways, seems to have suspended, you know not only the rules domestically, which he’s been doing all along, but even international law, we hear a lot of kind of chatter about Rule based international order.
And Putin is saying well you know the rules don’t apply, because this big what’s ever been going on with Ukraine and what he thinks he’s been going on Ukraine the encroachments of NATO blah blah blah is a matter of extreme exigency. It’s existential. And you know, he also, in his infamous speech, just before the invasion, or maybe was right as the invasion started, I don’t remember exactly talks about you know redrawing the map that Ukraine and Russia have always been the same people, but in some ways, this is political erasure political erasure, not only in the conceptual sense political erasure in the very real existential sense of annihilating a people and one doesn’t have to be going on a limb to say that the actions of the Russian army, particularly the bombing of civilians is now being perceived as acts of genocide.
Whether what the International Court will rule, eventually, you know we don’t know, but clearly we’re in that particular zone, so I was wondering if you could kind of look at contemporary events and maybe if you don’t want to talk about Ukraine, you could talk about other examples, you have a lot of examples in the book, but they’re all really historical examples your thematic examples from different time periods, and I realize your background is in comparative literature, so you use a lot of those kinds of references, but I was wondering if you could kind of talk about this issue of sovereignty in both the Schmittian sense and in terms of specific examples to kind of give us a real kind of lived experience of what that might mean.
Arthur Bradley: Yeah, there’s a lot there, so let me just take it stage by stage. I mean, firstly, yeah, I’m happy to call this work a work of political theology, for better or worse. I don’t think political theology is necessarily a very helpful term anymore, but it seems to be the one we’re stuck with. For me it’s really just the site of a problematic. Okay, it’s not it’s certainly not the answer to anything. I have no agenda behind it—certainly neither a political nor theological agenda. As far as Schmitt goes, and you know, Schmittian political theology, we’re still debating what that is, everyone knows that famous statement from Schmitt about “all modern concepts of the state are secularized theological concepts,” but what exactly he means by that- is it a historical claim, is it a. genealogical claim, is it a morphological kind of claim, we don’t know.
The bits that I find most helpful and fruitful from Political Theology are not so much the genealogical dimensions, but what he calls the sociology of concepts. That’s his other definition of Political Theology, and particularly his idea that every physical form of governance, any state of governance in the world will always contain within it, some kind of metaphysical worldview, and for us it’s his gambit, it’s the Christian theological one, but that it doesn’t always have to be. It could operate differently. So, all that’s a very long way of saying that, for me, political theology is really just the name of a question or a problem. Sovereignty, equally, we could have a long debate about just how useful the term sovereignty really is, how over-determined and simultaneously empty that term seems to be.
The book really the starting point from the book is a very brief moment in Foucault’s society must be defended Lectures, which, as far as I’m aware, almost nobody has ever commented on before it’s in the final lecture from 1976 and March 1976 in which he very briefly comments, and this is where we’re getting into the Foucault on bio politics, where he talks about the sovereign power of life and death, and he says, almost extemporaneously, “this is a very strange thing you know, because if you really have sovereignty over life and death life and death. Well, it can’t just be the power to kill, if you have sovereignty over life in some sense, you must be putting the subject or positioning the subject in some state before life and death. Whereupon you then take the decision that they live or that they die.”
Okay. And he just sort of leaves that out there for a moment and then disappointingly, in my opinion, just defaults immediately to the idea that sovereignty is simply the right of the sword, the right to kill. So, so I guess what I tried to do, is just actually explore what would that mean? What would sovereignty over life and death, the sovereignty that’s not just the power to kill, but the power to decide what is life, what counts of this life, what counts as bearable life, in in my understanding, (so that’s just a little bit more on the theoretical armature of the book). You ask about examples, I’m not a kind of. political scientist, so there’ll be people here, I think, that will be much more qualified to speak about this, and certainly to speak about what’s going on in Ukraine.
The only thing I would say is, I wonder whether we speak about the rule based international order and as much as it exists, I wonder whether the real exception in the history in the modern life of nations, might be this moment of the rule based international order. This is something that has existed for a relatively short period of time, and it may, we may be going through the process in which is nigh ceasing to exist. Okay, 100 years from now 50 years from and I, this is something we may look back on the international order itself as the exception to a kind of multipolar world, but that’s just my own speculation. Examples of this thing called political erasure-well, they’re all around us, aren’t they? One of the final examples I gave him the book is the phenomenon of the so called “unlawful enemy competent”. This invented legal category that was created for the Iraq war, in order for the United States of America to circumvent the Geneva Convention and the specific rights that are according to the figure of the enemy, and to place those people in Guantanamo Bay in a kind of legal equivalent of a black hole.
And there’s been quite a lot of interesting work on this phenomenon, which, although it was at the time, presented as new and exceptional and revolutionary, in a sense, was really just a continuation, perversely and ironically, of the practices of political disappearance that we all know from Latin America in the 1970s, from the Middle East in the 1970s and 80s. From my home state of Northern Ireland, I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s, political disappearance was a phenomenon there too, so I don’t think we have to look very far to find really existing examples of this phenomenon called unbearable life. I think in many ways these practices, these dispositives are kind of all around us.
To end where I started with, I guess with Ukraine is again, like this gesture, the gesture of political erasure in the field of international relations, whatever you want to call it is, it is one of the oldest ones there is- it’s the gesture of any form of settler colonialism or invasion. It’s always saying well you know, there was nobody here before we arrived, this was never anything, an independent state will just it was all just you know desert or jungle or something like that it’s the classic colonial moment or colonial gesture. Of but over erasing its own its own gestural of colonization or invasion hope that answers the question a little bit.
Carl Raschke: Yeah, that’s very good, and I want to again follow up, because I think the theoretical background is very important here. Because you can’t talk about examples, without really getting the nuances out of, what we might say for the whole discourse of sovereignty. By the way, I’m trying to clarify this in the latest book I’m working on, but you know, that’s neither here nor there. I want to go back to something that hasn’t been brought up, and again, some people here would be familiar with this argument and some people would not.
But that’s a Giorgio Agamben’s rather celebrated notion of “Bare Life”, where he defines sovereignty and that term which he also starts out the book Homo Sacer from an example from ancient Rome, so my question is even though there’s a kind of alliteration here: bear/Bare life and unbearable life, what is the relationship between the two concepts as Agamben uses it and you use it, how do you innovate, and do you have any criticisms of Agamben, or do you think you and him are on the same page?
Arthur Bradley: Yeah obviously it’s a partly a homage to Agamben, the title and I wanted the resonance of bare life to be heard there. But I think hopefully there’s also a difference. And it goes back to where we started, which is this notion that political erasure retracts the real horror of political erasure, the thing that makes it worse than an act of killing right is the fact that it retracts even the recognition that your murder gives you. A murder still bestows on you the recognition that you are something that exists, even if you exist purely in order to be killed, and this is a point that Emanuel Levinas makes in Totality And Infinity. Okay, this is not a new argument, that even the act of killing the other bestows this meager dignity of recognizing that person or that body as killable life. And that’s my difference from Agamben, because for Agamben effectively, what Bare Life does is defined in the logic of the inclusive inclusion exclusion rather that he develops in homeless soccer.
What bare life does is expose life unconditionally and define life absolutely and purely in terms of its capacity to be killed bare life is killable life, it’s nothing other than killable life. What i’m trying to do. What I think I’m trying to do in this concept of unbearable life. is to argue that well there’s a life that you know that is beneath bare life that’s beneath killable life. a life that perhaps does not need to be killed because it never is granted that minimal recognition of even being bare life in the first place. Okay, so all these gestures are gestures of what the gestures that I trace in the book are not gestures of killing paradoxically, empirically they cashed out in violence and extreme violence and all sorts of ways, but I’m trying to move beyond. Necropolitics than auto politics, all those various gestures that define bio politics in terms of killing and unconditional capacity to kill life.
I’m interested in what Foucault speaks of something called indirect murder in to which you know if you read history of madness birth of the clinic any of those books. You know these are all acts of indirect murder in direct non empirical violence thoughts of silencing marginalization exclusion, which, in some way philosophically foreclose the act of killing, killing is no longer necessary, but it’s redundant or it’s tautological, because that body is not granted the right to exist if something doesn’t exist, you can you don’t have to kill it, that would be the difference for me.
Carl Raschke: Okay and just again, to kind of nuance that a little bit, Agamben uses the example of the camp, with the concentration camp from World War II, which was, of course, related to the Holocaust, which was an effort at extermination, not just killing, but extermination of a whole race. That’s what we mean by meaning of the term genocide, with the idea of erasing from memory, the damnasio memori, that you talk about and so forth, and he also talks about the Muselman, neither alive nor dead in the camp now.
This what I’ll be honest when I was first reading your book, I had a little bit of a problem saying okay what’s different here? And you kind of explain that a lot, but because I think you take or you go where Agamben fears tread here. And we are really raising a very important issue about sovereignty – it is not just in the classic sense of the ability to kill, because when you talk about the state of exception you’re talking about you know, use the language of the current situation, you know basically suspending the rules, not just the Constitution, which is probably what Schmidt had in mind with the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and, of course, was because Germany had really been a kind of autocratic state, which kind of gestures democracy in a lot of ways that Russia has in recent years.
But he saw possibilities that were going on here that both solve the problem of the inability of parliamentary democracy to really resolve important issues, particularly when the Republic was under threat, but also, in a kind of odd way he foresaw the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, which wasn’t just about fascism, you could say Stalinism was just as totalitarian if not worse so, this question the day we don’t talk about totalitarian as we talk about autocracy. I find this a little bit specious, because you know where exactly is the line but when you talk about the camp and I’m going to use that as I know you don’t talk a lot about the camp, you didn’t reference it, but what is the relationship between the camp and the figure, however you define that, who is the figure of unbearable life?
Arthur Bradley: Yeah, I try not to talk about the camp because, again, I think it’s become this massively over determined figure within contemporary bio political theory.
Carl Raschke: It’s like the word fascism has become useless in terms of our theory.
Arthur Bradley: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think, if there’s one thing hopefully, we can all agree on is we need some new words, right? I mean, I think we should expect to talk about these things. I’m not sure totalitarianism fascism appeasement and so on, there’s always this strange lag between the conceptual or political vocabulary and the political imaginary and contemporary events. In this country, unfortunately, the country where I live, everything is still seen through the frame of the Second World War- a pre nuclear age, so we talk about people appeasing Putin and so on and so forth.
I try and avoid talking about the camp for the reasons I just suggested, except I mean I’d say there’s one or two things that I would say, which and again, you know I’m not an expert on the camp, I’m not an expert on the Holocaust, so I will defer to anyone here who will say something different, but, two moments I think, or two phenomena that I think are worth drawing attention to here, that perhaps again, speak more to my interest than to a to Agamben’s, were obviously: yes, yes it’s genocide, yes it’s holocaust- well Agamben says it isn’t Holocaust. Yes, it’s mass killing, it’s reducing people to Untermensch, and so on and so forth.
When he was announcing the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler gives a notorious speech to the upper echelons of the Nazi party, where he invites them all there to tell them what they’re going to do, and this is partly an active spreading the blame spreading the responsibility, making sure that no one can say that they’re out of the loop on this one, he names all the people in the audience there we know you know we know this as a fact. But, of course, you know what does he say, how does he describe what they’re doing to the Jews, at that moment in history? He says, “this is a glorious page in our history that will never be written. No one, no one will know about this, no one can know about this.” And that’s quite an interesting moment. Why, why is this something that that cannot be spoken about or written by even in front of the so-called pure believers?
Why does this active political annihilation have to annihilate itself, have to erase itself. So, I don’t mention that in the book. In retrospect, I wish I did, but I mean, there are other there are other touchstones here that in writing on totalitarianism that I think speak quite well to what I’m talking about when Hannah Arendt talks about theNacht und Nebel, you know “the night and fog” maneuvers which again where these undercover, the secret activities, the activities that could not could not be spoken of, and should, should not be spoken off again, these are where Nazi bio politics, Nazi thanato-politics enters into this territory I’m calling unbearable life now.
Carl Raschke: Since I’m going to have to go here in about 15 minutes, and maybe this would be a lead in to Q and A to get beyond the topic of Ukraine, and also the theoretical matrix this is kind of Roger’s area of expertise, who I’ve been holding off on it a little bit. And I don’t know Roger, if you’d like to jump in now, while we’re you know just engaging directly between the moderator and our guest on this, but you brought up settler colonialism, as an example.
And, of course, the last time we dealt with sovereignty in a Critical Conversations, it was exactly over know this. Not just settler colonialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples, which has been happening around the world, and again you’re not dealing with some kind of monster autocrat like you have in the case of Hitler or Putin, but you’re dealing with a whole process of say the X Board of political institutions and the erasure of indigenous values and rights and so forth, and even through forums like cultural expropriation.
This is Roger’s bailiwick and he may have something he really wants to comment on this, but in what degree and in what context, does this fit the whole question of colonialism and de-coloniality as Walter Mignolo talks about. We’ve had Walter Mignolo on critical conversations here before. The fact that in in some ways the whole question of indigeneity in a globalizing world becomes a question of political erasure, and you can say whatever in this general frame of reference, you want to, I’m not asking a specific question, but you brought it up so we give you the opportunity.
Arthur Bradley: Yeah, I mean I don’t I don’t have a great deal to say about this, and it’s not something that you know I want to. claim any authority over you know it’d be very in a way, I kind of prefer to listen to people like Roger on this one, you know, except to reiterate my point that I suppose that you know I think one of the classic gestures of colonialism on a settler colonialism is thought is a form of political erasure isn’t it- I mean, linguistic erasure, cultural erasure, institutional erasure. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, could you come in at this point, Roger?
Roger Green: Yeah, thank you so much for this this it’s like, very rich for me thinking about this. So, on the question just briefly of the of the camp, I’m thinking of some black feminist thought, and particularly Alexander Weheliye’s book Habius Viscus, which is another sort of avenue on this trajectory of talking about bare life—a critique of Foucault and Agamben from a black perspective.
And, in particular, one of the things, he’s not the only person to note this, but this guy Whitman, I think is his last name, Hitler’s American Model makes this point as well, that the concentration camps that the Nazis produced are produced upon an American legalistic model that is initiated by the reservation system. So the Indian reservation is the camp, and there’s the encomienda into their earlier sort of iterations of that. I’m going back to Spanish colonialism as well, but my expertise is in North America at the moment.
I’m also thinking of Theodore Allen’s two volumes study on The Invention of the White Race of these colonial gestures the invention of whiteness has to sort of come because of this relationship that develops with native people in the colonies after the discovery of the new world. And that sort of formulates itself over a few centuries into the different iterations of whiteness that we have. What I think is very useful for me, in terms of your take on unbearable life—and I really, really appreciate the distinctions with bare life and Agamben there—is that it almost feels like to me that that unbearable life is the descent of the basileia tou theou that Christianity gives, that is, the remaking over of the world in the euro-Christian image of God, that is inherently genocidal.
And I know this is controversial and provocative for me to say this, but at its heart is to wipe out the other, and so it becomes so difficult to speak of indigenous life or to speak of what you know. Sylvia Winter talks about a different notion of human than what Foucault is talking about in the earlier, the lectures on the psychoanalysis book with …forgetting the 72 lectures. So, those are the things that are kind of arriving for me, and just to bring it back to the earlier sort of discussion around political theology, I wonder what the theological residue might be for your concept of unbearable life, although we see it, of course, with Putin and, in this very concrete, realistic situation that’s not using the kind of rhetoric of religiosity in any sort of way, but I wonder, what you might make of the theological residue in a kind of euro-Christian sense.
Arthur Bradley: Great question and it’s something that I’d have to think quite a lot more about. I’ll just pick up a few sort of footnotes to what you’re saying, if you don’t mind. In Mein Kampf, Hitler actually says, “I got my inspiration from the USA, eugenics- those guys have got the right idea over there.” Some of this sort of scarier moments in Mein Kampf, the race laws and the southern states and so on. And, obviously, (and this is something I do talk about in the book) you have to see the Holocaust and genocide as the conclusion of a violent bio-political program that’s been going on for almost 10 years by that point, right upon (Roberto Esposito talks about this very well, I think), when the Nazis come to power 1933-34, they’re already doing things like compulsory sterilization of undesirable peoples.
So, they’re killing the future children and saying these people are no longer allowed to have children. And this circle of sterilization becomes wider and wider. The plan was, before it was interrupted by the Second World War was, all women over the age of 36 would be sterilized to prevent impurities in the race and this kind of thing, and again in some ways, the book is a homage Esposito here because he says, and I’m just quoting from memory, that “Yes, sovereignty is the preemptive. It’s not killing, it’s the preemptive foreclosure of existence, it’s erasing the necessity to kill. If you sterilize somebody, if you ensure that they’re unable to have children, it’s a kind of virtual, I don’t want to use the term genocide here, but you know what I mean, in the sense that it’s sort of, it’s creating an intergenerational act of violence by preventing these future people, these future children from being born.
I think you’re right on the money, that this is a kind of maybe unbearable life, maybe it is a Christian project, maybe it is a Christian political theological project. I end one of the chapters, the chapter on Macbeth by talking about the witches cauldron (in Macbeth), when they’re easy to remember, when they’re throwing all these things in there and cooking up their diabolical spells. And what are they putting in there, that you know these are still Christian witches? You know this because they put in the liver of Turk, the something, something, from the unbaptized child and this kind of thing. So, it’s this weird kind of Christian political theological mix of all these forms of life that are deemed unworthy of life or were unworthy of being lived but which can be, Frankenstein style-mixed together in order to produce this this new kind of body.
Yeah and, of course, Putin would be one example of this kind of Christian bio politics/ Christian political erasure. But as you know, as you well know, a lot of the discourse around Ukraine in this country and in France in America has been this incredibly offensive rhetoric that “they’re like us, they’re white, they’re Christian, they’re European”. It’s not like Iraq or something like that, so we must. care for them, because they are like us, so it’s that we have even the act of solidarity or defense contains its own violences.
Carl Raschke: If I could just jump in here, because I’m going to have to go for five minutes/ six minutes and I’m not going to ask questions. But I’m going to make a comment on this, because I think this is a very fruitful area discussion. Of course, this is one area where Roger and I’ve seen significant disagreement. Between mentioned the basileia tou theou, which gets translated as a kingdom of God, but actually the Greek translation means for the kingship of God and it gets basically into the Judaic monotheistic notion of the kind of unamiable God, and the power of that enable God, which, if you want to read the Old Testament, becomes genocidal, particularly when it talks about wiping out the Canaanites-what does that mean?
A lot of this lot of this discussion of being a euro-Christian project, I would say, a euro Christendom project, and the whole notion of Christendom, which gets to an important fact, part of the book that I’m working on which Roger is reading the manuscript, where I coined the term “mono-politics”, related to monotheism and how that’s different than using the word Christianity, because after all, there’s also Islam, which is even more monotheistic, at least in its origin than Christianity.
Christianity as the three code monotheistic religions is probably the least monotheistic religion, because it has this paradoxical notion of the Trinity, which Agamben makes a lot out of. But my point is, what does that have to do with erasure? Well, there are a lot of things that has to do with erasure. I mean, it’s clear that when Columbus came to the United States, the way he treated the indigenous people was because he had this idea that he was planting the flag of “Christendom” which historically comes from the idea of Romanatas which is associated with Humanitas. Mignolo makes a very strong and accurate point about this in his book The Darker Side of Western Modernity.
I would say a lot of what is used the word Christian is really a kind of mono- political Romanatas, modernist idea that has a very long genealogy to it, and it’s also behind Nazi totalitarianism and that that is basically the idea that there is this kind of ultimate moral order that is God ordained. That, and in the case of Islam, you can see that, in terms of the behavior of ISIS too, it’s there in all monotheistic traditions. Especially when you try to secularize or moralize these things. I mean, if you look at the whole Constantinian transformation, you can see how a lot of this process does that.
I just spent my course on Christianity, trying to explain this, so we’re looking at the idea of an exception, which basically says, there is one culture. It is a true culture; it is a morally grounded culture in the idea of this absolute sovereign God. Which is how you find that rhetoric in Schmitt, who was a Catholic, by the way, and Catholicism historically has been the basic carrier of this monotheistic/ this mono- political idea. So, the issue is, we’re seeing it right now. I mean some kinds of the paradoxes. I mean, everybody is behind Ukraine. Which, of course, I’m behind Ukraine. I mean, this, this is abominable, what what’s going on, but at the same time you have all these subtleties which come out, is like okay, Putin has a particular idea of mono-political, which is not the same as the Roman Catholic idea that influenced Columbus.
It’s an idea that goes, all the way back to the eighth century it’s the Orthodox idea, the third Rome, which is you know scholars have known about for a long time and he’s basically saying he’s a guarantor of Christian value, which means that this is an idea we don’t want a lot written about. This idea of the third Roman and the religious vision the way Putin essentially captured the Orthodox Church. With all the effort of political erasure under the Communist regime and his recapture that and use an idea which in many ways goes back 1000 years, to try to reorder the world.
But it’s still not the idea of Christendom, it’s a particular variation of Christendom and it’s been politicized and, of course, this mono-political idea of Christendom is always. politicized, but it has different kind of variations and it is ultimately the basis of a totalitarian gesture. It’s ultimately that simple, so you may want to respond to that. Unfortunately, I have to go now, but I wanted to get that in there.
Roger Green: Dropping the MIC and walking away. Ha, yeah, so just to acknowledge that this is a fruitful tension and intellectual disagreement that Carl and I have had, and its ongoing and since Carl and I can talk about that all the time, I’d like to sort of first allow you, Arthur, to respond to that and then carry over with Kieryn, who had a question earlier, and she has a comment in here that I’ll let her address next, and if anybody else in the meantime has questions just maybe like throw yourself that “I have a question” in the queue and then I’ll let you carry on, but this is really great.
Arthur Bradley: There’s an awful lot of food for thought here, and I’m sympathetic to Carl. I’m not going to suggest that there is one kind of Christian project or one monotheistic/mono-politics of Christianity. The gesture, or the trajectory that I pursue in the book really is in the chapter on Augustine which is, obviously, a kind of critique of Eusebian imperial Christianity, and one way or another, also a forerunner to what will become political realism. I tried to plot the tragic realisms of political theory and the 19th and 20th centuries- people like Hans Morganthau and so on. But nonetheless, I’m really interested in in in the violence of even that that kind of minimal position of Augustine, and I do a reading of just the really, incredibly shocking passages in book 19 of City of God around Augustine’s defense of torture.
Where, effectively, he anticipates every single, concedes every single argument against torture that you’ll ever come across. You know it’s wrong. It doesn’t work. You know, if you torture someone they’ll just say whatever you like, whatever they think you want to hear, in order to stop you torturing them. But, nonetheless, you still have to torture people, and you just have to hope that god’s grace will win out in the end, so it’s this. So, yeah, all I’m saying is I wouldn’t want to give that-the so-called realist wing of Christian political theology- a free pass, like, having a bad conscience about your imperial ambitions doesn’t let you off the hook, I think.