The Immanent Frame on Political Theology

The terrific blog The Immanent Frame from the Social Science Research Council is currently hosting a discussion on Paul Kahn’s new book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The discussion started with an excerpt from the introduction to the book and continued yesterday with an essay from George Shulman responding to Kahn’s arguments in the book. Shulman begins by saying:

Paul Kahn’s book offers bracing yet troubling meditations on the four chapters of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology. Because Kahn aspires “to think with rather than think about” Schmitt, he necessarily dramatizes the limitations, and not only the value, of Schmitt’s way of theorizing politics and the sacred. In what follows, I affirm that value, as Kahn understands it, to some degree, but I also try to indicate the problems in Schmitt’s argument that he both repeats and elides, and the new problems that he creates.

What, then, in Schmitt’s text is worth reiterating? First, Kahn rightly emphasizes Schmitt’s claim that secularization has not abolished the sacred but entails, rather, its remaking and relocation: “Political Theology is best thought of as an effort to discover the persistence of forms of the sacred in a world that no longer relies on god.” Kahn thus elaborates Schmitt’s theory of the state and sovereignty as a modern site of the sacred: the point of political theology is not to endorse fundamentalism or subordinate the state to “religious doctrine or church authority, but to recognize that the state creates and maintains its own sacred space and history.” Second, Kahn is also right to emphasize how Schmitt’s articulation of “the political” is a credible and still necessary critique of “liberal political thought.” In this regard, he compellingly lays out Schmitt’s view of the dimensions of “the political” that are avoided by liberal thought but undeniably present in state practices and political experiences that liberalism lacks the vocabulary to acknowledge.

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