Scattered thoughts that will probably get me in trouble, but here goes. In preparation for the three-part GCAS course on Atheology I’ll be teaching in the coming months, I’ve found myself reading Schmitt’s Political Theology. One of the things I hope to do with this course is show how theism is far more pervasive in thought than figures like the work of the vulgar new atheists would suggest. This is a point I’ve made for a long time, beginning with my first published article “The Politics of the Virtual”, throughout my work on masculine sexuation in Lacan’s graph of sexuation, and in my discussion of flat ontology in the final chapter of The Democracy of Objects. “Flat ontology” is basically synonymous with “atheism”, “naturalism”, and “materialism”. The point is that theism is not simply the thesis that a divine, supernatural being exists, but is rather a structure of thought that can come in both religious and secular variants. For example, despite his avoid atheism, I take it that Laplace’s thought is a variant of theistic structure due to the position he grants to the observer in his imaginary thought experiment designed to defend determinism. In imagining a completely deterministic universe, Laplace invites us to imagine an ideal observer that is above and outside of all being and that knows the trajectory, velocity, and position of every particle that composes existence.
Structurally this is identical to the position of God in traditional theisms, such that we can assert an isomorphism between Laplace’s thought and these theisms. In short, Laplace presents us with a secular theology. In this regard, it follows that a thoroughgoing atheism– and I would argue that the work of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris are all secular theologies –has to do much more than show the non-existence of a divine, supernatural being. A thoroughgoing atheology would have to diagnose and overcome a particular theistic fractal pattern, a koch curve, that is pervasive throughout both religious and secular ontological, epistemological, political, and ethical thought. Here, then, we see the relevance of Schmitt, perhaps, who has attempted to show how many of the concepts surrounding the modern understanding of sovereignty are, in fact, secularized theological concepts. Part of the project of atheology would thus involve overcoming a certain framework of sovereignty, thereby producing an anarchistic and communistic social framework. The structural isomorphism here is between the sovereign and God, where the sovereign, like God, “decides the exception”. Insofar as the decision of the sovereign– a decision that both decides what circumstances are exceptional and decides whether or not to count the exceptional as belonging –is without ground or ultimate justification, it has the form of a secularized miracle.
There are a number of moves the atheologist can make here and I’m not at all sure which is the way to go. One strategy would be to abolish the place or site (remember we’re talking about structure, not content) of sovereignty altogether. However, it’s difficult to know what social relations without a moment of sovereignty could possibly look like. That said, the fact that something is difficult to think ought not bar it from being a live option worth pursuing. It’s difficult to think the stability of dictionary meaning without imagining a big Other that functions as the authority grounding meanings, yet that’s really how it is with linguistic meaning: There is no big Other grounding them. Another option would be to argue that the concept of sovereignty is only theistic when it is restricted to the hands of a monarch or a dictator; an individual person or figure that decides the exception. A de-theologization of the concept of sovereignty would involve placing sovereignty not in the hands of a monarch or dictator, but in the hands of the multitude. That is the basic idea of both communism and anarchism. It is the common or the community that both possesses and exercises sovereignty. In this regard, “an-archy” doesn’t mean “without law”, but “without ultimate or transcendent authority deciding the law.” The norms– always provisional and subject to abandonment and revision –arise from the common, not the whim of a monarch.
But why retain the concept of sovereignty at all? If there is something attractive in aspects of Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty, then, I think, it lies in the direction of the concepts of exception and decision. Here we get into some pretty obscure and difficult questions about the relationship between ontology, epistemology, and politics. From one vantage, everything comes down to whether or not we’re committed to the Parmenidean thesis that thought and being are identical. Enlightenment secularists took this route. God could safely be abandoned in the political arena because there are universal, natural norms that could serve as the foundation of the public law. In short, reason here is treated as capable of knowing in advance a set of norms that will cover every possible case because thought and being are identical. Another way of saying this would be to say that the Enlightenment framework advocated an onto-epistemology without anything like the Lacanian Real. In both the political and natural register being was conceived as a fully consistent system without knots, exceptions, or any form of incompleteness.
For a variety of formal reasons ranging from Goedel’s incompleteness theorems to Russell’s and Cantor’s paradoxes, this framework has increasingly become untenable. However, it’s problematic nature can also be seen at the level of concrete, lived politics. Whether we’re talking about colonialist forms of brutality that simultaneously spoke of universal human rights while treating non-European native populations as lower than animals, or certain socialist movements that claimed to be pursuing universal suffrage while nonetheless treating only industrial workers as genuine subjects, thereby excluding women and minorities, or the manner in which gay theory and political struggle often excludes other queer orientations, again and again we see a “pan-logicism” (identification of thought and being in a pre-existent norm/s) that claims to count everyone, while nonetheless being based on a set of constitutive exclusions.
What we need– and many have already been working on something like this (Ranciere, Badiou, Laclau and Mouffe) –is something like an “anomalous communism or anarchism”. Like anomalous materialism that begins from the premise that all being is composed of matter without knowing what matter ultimately is, anomalous communism would begin with the premise that the place of the political subject is necessarily open, without identity, void, mobile, and empty and that it is always thus and so. In this anomalous anarchism, there would indeed be a place of the collective political subject, but many different contents could come to fill this place depending on the structure of the world or situation. The first point here would be that the place or site of politics (and ethics, cf. my article “The Ethics of the Event” in Nunn and Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics) would not be the place of the norm or the rule, of that which is already counted, but would rather be the exception, that which is not counted, that for which there is no norm; or, of what I call in Onto-Cartography, a “dim object”. Similar to Ranciere’s part-of-no-part, and structurally identical to Lacan’s Real, this element would be something that exists in a situation without having being in a situation (here I’m working on the assumption that being relates to discursive meaning such that it is a set smaller than the set composed of existence).
Here my thought begins to peter out, but this site of real exception would, in turn, be related to pure decision– the political act par excellence –where the work of thought and practice emerges deciding to count the exception and reconfigure the entire world based on that exception. For example, in counting the exception of the trans-person as among the sexual beings, it’s not simply that one new entity that existed without being has been included in the world of sexuality, but rather that sexuality itself also becomes something other and different than what it was in the prior field of being. Heterosexuality itself becomes queer, rather than functioning as the norm defining all other identities. How to cash that out and make it a lived reality is part of the work of genuine politics. At base, however, the premise is that we never know who or what the subject of politics is; or rather that that subject is perpetually open and filled by a variety of different actors in different worlds or political configurations. Indeed, contra Ranciere, we cannot even conclude that the subject of politics is always human– a problematic term to say the least –for we increasingly see that the subject of politics is also sometimes animal, mineral, and gaseous… And literally so. These political subjects, in their turn, transform the very meaning of “man” or the “human”.