“At the Margins of Sovereignty: An Expansion of the Implications of Political Theology,” by Stephen Padilla

Within recent decades, the ranks of liberalism’s critics have grown considerably to include many who still subscribe to the American democratic experiment. Instead of advocating for a radical change in government or the structure of social relations, some theorists instead have thrown into question the viability of liberalism’s capacity to provide an apt description of the nature of democracy as it actually stands. Paul Kahn’s recent work, Political Theology, puts forth an alternative model to liberal political theory by analyzing the character and substance of political discourse and activity. Kahn’s work raises provocative questions about the precise machinations of a democratic society and the hidden forces that animate it. Working from Carl Schmitt’s assertion almost a century ago that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” Kahn introduces not only a conceptualization but also a methodology that displaces liberal political theories and discourses of the just exercise of the law.

Kahn argues that politics forms an experience of the sacred, though this experience has not often been named. I agree with Kahn that the notion of the sacred and our ultimate concerns are not separate from the state apparatus and the practice and exercise of law.  Kahn’s argument is compelling, illustrative, and, most importantly, opened-ended and discursive. However, although Kahn crafts a meticulous and precise rhetorical argument which allows for the production of new discourse and meaning by the interpolation of norm and exception, this equalizing dependency between norms and free acts closes the possibility of a cleavage in which free will can be exercised outside of or beneath the unity of sovereignty. By summarizing Kahn’s political theology and contrasting it with Bonnie Honig’s politics of becoming, I will suggest that political theology need not understand the sacred as embedded in the operation of the state and popular sovereignty. Both Kahn and Honig extrapolate the “co-implication of the right and the good, rather than the question of which is prior to the other.”[1] However, I believe Honig’s emphasis on agonistic politics and plural timelines will allow me to show that the role of the sacred in democracy rests not always in the idols and agency of the state and decision makers (democratic as they may be) but in another notion of exception: the enigmatic mystery of life, time and possibilities and the limitations of any human agency — what Paul Tillich referred to as Kairos. This notion I believe does not negate Kahn’s project, but offers an entry point for a contested notion of the sacred in politics for those excluded and in the liminal, marginalized spaces of social existence.

Kahn relies on Schmitt’s famous phrase: “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.” Sovereignty is not a designated product of political models; it is an existential condition that arises of its own volition and not as the product of consensus: “sovereignty is not the product of reasons. It has nothing to do with agreement.”[2] For Schmitt, the existential situation of the modern nation-state is based on the fact that the state is always concerned with and confronting the possibility of its own death and finitude. “Political authenticity, as it emerges in a study of political theology, is that experience of the unity of being and meaning that marks the presence of the sacred. It is that leap of faith in the possible that we can give up the finite and take on the infinite.”[3] While this statement may not encapsulate what Kahn deems essential in understanding the task of political theology, I believe it is evocative of both its strengths and its weaknesses. The unity of being and the taking up of the infinite which Kahn claims for the sovereign, both articulate what is valuable in political theology as well as its own rhetorical undermining, where the assumption of the infinite (which for Kahn principally takes on the form of sacrifice) in the end suggests that the exercise of sovereignty in politics is not the only model of sacral status or divinity in political culture.

Before describing in more detail Kahn’s political theology, it must first be noted that it is not intended to be ethically or morally prescriptive; rather it is descriptive: “we should begin with a kind of phenomenology of the political, which is just what political theology must be today.”[4] It might be news to theologians outside of Kahn’s project, but he posits that “theological inquiry today can only be a practice of phenomenology: to identify and describe the presence of the sacred, wherever it appears.”[5] Kahn searches to describe the emergence of the sacred in political reality, in its embedded and operative forms. Even though the parochial belief systems of western religion no longer serve as the operative theological bedrock of the state in an epoch of “no general tenor,”[6] and the church no longer has an established privilege in legal discourse, Kahn maintains that religious devotion to the sacred and humankind’s ultimate concerns are more than metaphors for the functioning of politics. This is politics. Any political order, whether in reality or only in theory, is based upon the normative understanding of the human and its place in the cosmos by those who participate or subscribe to it.[7] Kahn presumes not that particular religious notions of the sacred necessarily dominate the “social imaginary,” but rather that the sovereign and its exercise of power contain the aura of and demand the allegiance to a sacred authority. As individuals exist in a political order, the state always “remains a site of life and death; its territory remains sacred ground; its history a narrative of the self-revelation of the popular sovereign.”[8]

The rest of the article is located here.

[1] Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 2009), 45

[2] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 19

[3] Kahn, 152

[4] Ibid, 21

[5] Ibid, 25

[6] Ibid, 120

[7] Ibid, 116

[8] Ibid, 105

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