The Northern Theory School in conjunction with the Journal for Cultural Research and the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University is pleased to announce a one-day research symposium on Political Theology and Modernity: The Legacy of Carl Schmitt. It will take place on Monday 9th June 2014 at Lancaster University and the keynote speaker will be Professor William Rasch (Indiana University). This event is particularly aimed at academics and postgraduate students interested in the legacy of Carl Schmitt.
Political Theology, as Carl Schmitt originally formulated it, is meant to serve as an analytical tool. The core definition of this ‘sociology of concepts’ is not the one usually cited – ‘All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts’ – but rather this: ‘The metaphysical image of the world that a particular epoch makes for itself, has the same structure as that which immediately appears to it as the form of its political organization [Das metaphysische Bild, das sich ein bestimmtes Zeitalter von der Welt macht, hat die selbe Struktur wie das, was ihr als Form ihrer politischen Organisation ohne weiteres einleuchtet]’.
We can elaborate: within a well-defined epoch – the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, modernity, to use conventional markers – the intellectual class of a society constructs a metaphysical understanding of the world it inhabits. Upon reflection, we see that political organization conforms to the expectations produced by the metaphysics of the day. Put in a ‘post-metaphysical’ way: for the articulation of political form to be understood, it must be enunciated within the prevalent discursive field of the times. In other words, the cosmic and social orders are homologous because each speaks the same language.
What is sociological for Schmitt, then, is not a (‘dialectically’ mediated) causal link between material base and ideological superstructure, but rather the systematic conceptual coherence of the superstructure itself; or, as Schmitt puts it, the discovery and comparison of ‘two spiritual [geistig] but at the same time substantial identities’ that commune with one another in the same structural language. Thus, whereas in a theistic age, political sovereignty and the state of exception have their correlates in the belief in an omnipotent God and that God’s ability to suspend the laws of nature to produce miracles, under the sign of enlightenment deism or modern secular atheism, the thoroughly rationalized ‘machine runs by itself’.
The question we ask is the following: Is Schmitt’s ‘sociology of concepts’, his ‘political theology’, worth exploring as a possible tool for investigating the nature and genealogy of the modernity we think we inhabit? If so, does Schmitt’s tool need to be sharpened or blunted for it to work better? We ask as example: is it possible to articulate the foundations of our most cherished political beliefs without recourse to past or present theological concepts? For instance, is, as some believe (e.g. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Steven D. Smith), the concept of human rights incoherent or nonsensical without reference to biblical theism? If so, where would such a foundational story lead us? Or on the contrary, as Richard Rorty taught us, are such genealogical searches for foundations themselves evidence of the proverbial nonsense on stilts; and what would be the consequences of such willful repression of inquiry?
William Rasch is Professor in the Department of Germanic Studies at Indiana University. He is the author and editor of many books including Niklas Luhmann’s Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation (Stanford UP, 2000) and Sovereignty and its Discontents: On the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political (Birkbeck Law Press, 2004). Professor Rasch will be a Visiting Professor at Lancaster University in June 2014.