The Prince of This World reading notes

I kept wavering between a straightforward but somewhat sterile « book-report » mode, and a more impressionistic, theme-focused mode of writing, without settling properly on either. I would like to do more of these, so maybe it will improve with time… In any case I hope you enjoy it.

As a relative newcomer to the field of political theology (and theology more broadly), I really enjoyed reading this, if only for the basic knowledge it allowed me to learn/consolidate. I will not try here to provide a full-fledged account of the whole book, but rather touch on some points I found relevant.

Framework/methodology

In the introduction, Kotsko places his project within a well-worn trinity of references : Nietzsche’s Genealogy, Schmitt’s political-theological paradigm, and Agamben’s archeology.  His first move, which informs the rest of the book, is to criticize as unduly teleological the methods of usual intellectual history, « where one starts from the earliest ‘precursors’ of one’s chosen topic and gives an account of the gradual accrual of ideas and themes around it until it arrives in its familiar form (…) this method can never allow them to answer the deeper and more urgent question of why such ideas emerged and developed in the way they did » (p.9). By contrast with such historicist blindness, we must see that « the current forms of any idea, practice or institution do not stem from a logical or organic development but instead are the result of an ongoing power struggle » (p.10) ; further « from a genealogical method, it is not enough to follow the reasoning in a text ; one must understand the tensions that made the particular approach of this text appear necessary, the forces that converge to render certain types of evidence and certain logical leaps acceptable and convincing ; in short, one must learn to read texts as strategies, as interventions in a power struggle ; it means accepting, with Foucault, that knowledge is not separate from power or even a mere tool of power but a form of power — and a particularly powerful one at that » (p.11).

This orientation, I think, is advanced as specifically relevant to the theme of the theme of the book : when dealing with the problem of evil, it makes sense to insist on the drive behind political-theological thinking, that is, to provide a coherent framework to account for a certain kind of moral experience in a certain historical context, rather than the exercise of sophisticated speculative thinking as such. For instance, the tools of jewish apocalyptic thinking were forged in a specific context, that of what Kotsko calls « minority monotheism », and more specifically, of Jewish diaspora under hostile rulers ; on the other hand, the historically contingent, dramatic shift caused by the conversion of Constantine and the Roman Empire to Christianity requires a drastically distinct framework in order for Christian doctrine to remain functional, since the foremost representative of evil, the Empire, has at that point come to the side of righteousness. This attention to the moral and political impetus behind theological or metaphysical thinking is, I found, one of the most refreshing aspects of the book, as it provides some blood to rather ethereal conceptual discussions without reducing them to mere tools of ideology. This concern is best expressed when Kotsko takes aim at Agamben’s Kingdom and Glory : « what is missing in Agamben’s account is an awareness that the experience of evil and suffering is the ultimate root of the doctrine of providence, and is what gives it baroque theological apparatus its existential pull. » (p. 165)

This nietzschean twist to the schmittian formula complicates slightly the relationship between the theological and the political : we have become used at looking, in the usual genealogical manner, from the present political categories to their inception within classical medieval or ancient theological thinking, as a means for explaining their articulation. Whatever « secularization » ends up meaning (and its meaning can certainly be debated at lengths), in the schmittian equation, we usually end up  positing, when we use it, an originary dependency relationship between the contemporary political categories and their subterreanean, pre-secular, roots, and try to work from there, whilst putting to the side the often instrinsically political nature of these « originary » theological concepts, which makes sense insofar as the political-theological approach has a historically determinist, as well as intellectualist, bend. While I agree it might be somewhat trivial to be reminded that theology is always-already political (notwhithstanding a strikingly reductionist attitude with regards to theology as a theoretical enterprise), I find Kotsko’s method useful, because, rather than either political reductionism or theoretical fatalism, it points towards a non-deterministic, interdependency relationship between « the political » and « the theological », as two qualitatively indispensable (if necessarily historical) aspects of collective human experience. What we need to think together, from this point of view, is the structural pull that our inherited concepts exert on our concepts, the degree to which these concepts are amenable to change, revision, or weaponization (either consciously or unwittingly), when their context of inception has faded through time, and the way in which the conceptual weight of a given framework constrains the forms which such concept-changes can take.

The Origins of the Devil

Jewish theology is described as intrinsically  theologico-political, since it happens on the stage of the relationship between God and Its people ; Christianity, on the other hand, might lay claims to an « ontology of peace » (Milbank) that dispenses with a politically-expressed Alliance, is tied, by its reliance on the jewish Apocalyptic paradigm (see below) to the theologico-political.

The first part of the book chooses to locate the figure of the Devil in the various Adversaries encountered by Judaism in its history. This implies a contextual, anti-teleological, reading of the Old Testament, which is quite refreshing, as it (convincingly, in my opinion) sidelines traditional instances of the Devil (the Snake in Eden, the Accuser/Ha-Satan in Job) as creative but anachronistic rereadings, which do not give justice to the actual wrestling of Jewish thought with the problem of evil, which is « always posed in terms of the concret narrative of God’s special relationship with the nation of Israel » (p.7). In this context, the first part of the book is devoted to delineating the historical unfolding of a series of discrete political-theological paradigms for dealing with the problem of evil ; these paradigms provide a conceptual grounding whereby God’s legitimacy is reinforced, rather than shaken, by historical calamities, since « the unaccountable, uncontrollable events of life — disease, famine, natural disaster, and most of all the vagaries of imperial politics — are part of the plan… They become apparatuses for integrating what is outside human control, and using it to shore up the credibility of the inside » (p. 43). They are :

  • The Deuteronomistic paradigm, where the Enemy is Pharaoh, which is set up as a potential rival to God ; God takes direct responsibility for certain calamities and frames them as punishment for disobedience, spurring Israelites to establish a self-ruled state where rulers would be intermediaries between God and Its chosen people, God being the ultimate ruler ;
  • After the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians, this paradigm becomes unsustainable, and gives rise to a second stage, the Prophetic paradigm : under a recently established unjust ruler, prophets reframe their historical calamities as God’s plan to punish the Israelites to incite them to purify themselves for a restoration of the state to come. The ruler himself is now viewed as an unwitting tool of the will of God for Its people, and the people are driven to accept suffering as necessary for purification
  • Using the agressive persecution of Jews under Antiochus (and his subsequent divine punishment) as a turning point, the prophetic paradigm gives way to a more radical alternative to explain unjust and inexplicable deaths, the Apocalyptic paradigm, where « the vagaries of geopolitics are transformed into a cosmic drama culminating in a final confrontation between the head of God’s heavenly host and God’s earthly rival » (p. 41) : unjust suffering is posited as somehow necessary in order for a moral reversal of the world to come to being, according to the divine plan, which is laid out as a promise rather than a prophecy : « suffering becomes meaningful even as it is denied any concrete present meaning » (p. 45). On the other hand, God’s earthly enemy, becomes a knowing adversary, both incurably evil, necessarily evil (as part of God’s plan), and yet freely evil (lest God be responsible for his wickedness), setting up the stage for the Devil to emerge

The Apocalyptic paradigm, with its renewed interpretation of history and suffering is crucial : when traditional order breaks down, it becomes a very efficient, if unsustainable, resource for spiritual mobilization. The next few chapters trace the transition from Judaism to early Christianity, and then to the classical medieval theology, as attempts to stabilize the constitutively apocalyptic bents of Christianity, with the ambiguities of apocalypticism with regards to the nature of evil and of earthly rulers slowly transforming into a tool for persecution, where Gods takes up more and more attributes of the Adversary through the affirmation of Its all-powerfulness, God being the ultimate source of suffering and of evil itself, and the Devil, a pure puppet taking the blame for the suffering resulting from God’s plan.

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(les trois paradigmes dans la tradition biblique juive)

The rest of the book’s first part delineates this transition, with the emergence of the Patristic paradigm being a turning point in this history : the earthly rulers having converted to Christianity, the Devil is now being relegated to the role of tempter or subterranean adversary rather than a political one, and the drive to vanquish it is repurposed against minorities within the new religious-political order (Jews, pagans, heretics). Another paradigm, the monastic, is formed within Christianity, as a dissidence from the Patristic, which depoliticizes the apocalyptic categories and makes the body and its urges the prime site for the presence of evil (thus formulating an equation that will later be used for the persecution of women as witches). The main takeaway of this history, is the internalization of an external positing of evil and suffering, where « an apparatus for demanding and sacralizing suffering » (p. 110) gradually emerges out of the tensions present in political-theological thinking.

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(more paradigms ! paradigms everywhere)

This series of paradigms was the most memorable part of the book in my opinion, as it instantiates clearly the use of the genealogical method introduced earlier ; while it might seem a little too neat in some respects, I found such a reconstruction extremely useful as a tool for identifying the various strategies that have historically developed. Kotsko does not use them in the perspective of some crypto-Hegelian, organic unfolding of history :

« It was in the milieu of apocalyptic thought that Christianity arose, and centuries later, the early Islamic community would renew the spirit of apocalyptic protest in an age when Christianity had become all too comfortable in this world. Hence it would be no exaggeration to call the birth of apocalyptic thought one of the most decisive developments in world history. And it all came about because of the shortsighted cultural-religious policies of Antiochus Epiphanes, an all-but forgotten king who ruled just over a decade during the turbulent period between Alexander the Great’s conquest and the rise of the Roman empire » (p. 39)

« Who could have predicted that reflections on the relationship between Israel and its God could have produced the conceptual space for something like the devil, or that the figure of the devil would ultimately be taken up most enthusiastically by a group claiming to supersede the Jewish covenant with God ? And who would have guessed that the Christian God would increasingly take on the characteristics of his cosmic opponent or that a series of attempts to explain the problem of suffering would evolve into an apparatus for demanding and sacralizing suffering ? » (pp. 109-110)

Accordingly, the relationship between the paradigm is far from mechanistic or deductive, but rather shows well how a set of conceptual commitments can come to be transformed, when either its internal consistency, or its external believability are shaken over time : in such contexts a space opens up for a partial revision of its tenets, which are, however, constrained by the historical unlikelihood of an ex nihilo emergence of an entirely new doctrine, which entails a certain degree of continuity. We could here apply a religious/existential version of the Duhem-Quine thesis, that theological models of thought face the tribunal of historical experience as a whole, and are therefore subject to revision if a substantial enough pressure is applied to them. For instance, Augustine’s theology (p.110s) certainly pushes Christian doctrine into an uncomfortable space, as his doctrine of salvation heavily relies on an extreme form of predestination that would seem to make God strongly responsible for the reality of evil, with subsequent systematic theologians trying to retroactively square God’s omnipotence and predestination with a modicum of metaphysical responsibility given to finite creatures ; on the other hand, Augustine essentially dramatizes the problem of predestination that was « lying in plain sight in throughout the patristic era » (p. 111), and therefore can be read as creatively exploiting an available if latent resource in early Christian theology for the sake of defending a powerful account of religious salvation : « the premises of divine omnipotence and creaturely autonomous will are at least incipiently in conflict ; while the demands of logical consistency were not enough to force the issue, Augustine’s profound religious experience, at least for the Latin West, was » (p. 112).

Infernal politics

In reconstituting this long history, Kotsko’s aim seems to be twofold : first, a demonstration that any account of theology from the sole point of God (or, in other words, of the Sovereign), is incurably lacking in relevance for thinking from the creaturely standpoint, which is that of suffering and oppression (and therefore, for thinking emancipation) ; second, and conversely, that the main benefit of the « demonic » route he takes, is to strongly repoliticize theological categories on an explicit level (rather than the purely implicit, structural level usually mobilized) in order to see them as effectively operating on our thinking. This is evident from a number of playful allusions, such as talking of God’s domestic/foreign policy, his executive branch, or of the Devil as God’s patsy, but also of more substantial passages in which Kotsko underlines the various structural analogies between traditional theology and concrete political thinking, either of classical nature (such as social contract theory, p. 81s) or more contemporary (such as the link between demonization and racialization, see Intro and p. 127s). Indeed, if we observe that « the Devil’s role has grown more and more marginal in mainstream churches » (p. 195) while being extremely present in secular culture, then we might be tempted to see the Devil as « the prime conduit for the secularization of theological categories into political ones » (ibid.), and, indeed, the very symbol of secularization.

In that spirit, what I found most interesting in the later developments of the book is the extent to which theologically revendicative claims (linked to hope and an exigence of justice) can be reversed into tools of culpabilization and persecution, once a given framework starts to enjoy hegemony as opposed to a minority status, as how a God of justice vindicating its followers start to slowly become a tyrant requiring absolute obedience not for the good of its creature, but in order to selfishly take pride in the glory of its creation. Here are put to trial both the Apocalyptic drive behind Christian thinking and its eschatology, which can only sustain itself through acrobatic systematic theology and internal scape-goating, and the mentality of minority monotheism, which metabolizes over time into a harsh doctrine of the saved and the damned, which in turn becomes a tool for advocating obedience of the faithful and demonizing the marginal.

The final element I found notable in the book is its insistence that the framework of the free subject is irreducibly tied to demonology, with the disobedient angel as the model for the self-determining subject, and the fallen demon, eternally tortured in hell, as a model for the always-already-determined subject, so that freedom is both absolute and always ends up in damnation. This « trap of freedom » is clearly nietzschean in inspiration, with freedom as a predicate granted to creatures in order to generate blameworthiness. This works in establishing rightful, praiseworthy action as complete unquestioning obedience to divine will, such that any exertion or even assertion of personal will is defined as a self-affirmation that is tantamount to a refusal or a revolt against God. In the modern, post-secularization context, freedom and obedience’s moral polarities are reversed, with self-assertion being viewed as the pinnacle of goodness ; however, the relationship between freedom and blameworthiness is still present, insofar as freedom generates an infinite responsibility : « what initially appears as an opening to the infinite horizon of creative self-determination collapses into an endlessly tautologous justification for the way things are… [since we are free], we have no one but ourselves to blame. Like the medieval freedom it secularizes, modern freedom still operates through a logic of retroactive responsibility — whatever is, must be what we have collectively willed (or at least willed not to change) » (p. 200). In this space, the insistence on freedom as a fundamental value is intrinsically generative of the « infernal nature » (Agamben) of both eternal government and earthly politics that is what is to be resisted : « the apparatus of freedom can only punish and control — hell is the truth of heaven. Such an apparatus finally cannot control everything ; conversely, there is no pure spontaneity that finally escapes all control —even the devil is shaped by the divine order he rejects » (pp. 202-4). In this space, it is within the deviations from received historical theological legacy (such as Gregory of Nyssa’s suggestion that the devil could be redeemed) and an attention to minoritarian doctrines, that Kotsko locates potentially fruitful alternatives.

There are other elements worthy of discussion in the book, of course, but I limited myself to summing up the more acute elements rather than the whole detail of its very stimulating readings of the tradition (such as the political reading of the respective organisations of Heaven and Hell, and the mechanics of the Fall, which I found quite engrossing)


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