The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government
Stanford University Press, 2011
One of the most curious aspects of Christian dogma is the doctrine of the Trinity. Three divine persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—constitute a single and unique God. Ever since this Trinitarian tenet was integrated into the official Catholic creed, Christian theologians have navigated the precarious tightrope between a straightforward monotheism and a proliferating polytheism. In his seminal Homo Sacer series, Giorgio Agamben has up till now marshaled obscure concepts from Roman law to criticise the modern eclipse of principled politics by the mere management of population. In this latest installment, his equally daring mission is to show how Trinitarian conceptual acrobatics gradually mutated over the millennia into the most fundamental of our secular political concepts. Without tracing the genealogy of our ideas back to the second century, he claims, we cannot truly comprehend the gulf separating the sovereign and executive functions in modern liberal democracies, and therefore remain blind to the central role of public opinion, insofar as it is articulated by the media, in contemporary politics. Despite his insistence on the indispensability of this philological journey to our political analysis of modernity, however, it is clearly more of a scenic route than a short-cut.
The Trinitarian account of the fundamental unity of the triune God hinges on a distinction “between the being of God and his activity.” God has one being, yet has three modes of activity, and correspondingly is conceived as three different persons. Yet in positing an underlying level of “being” at which to site the unity of the three godly persons, the Trinitarians opened a dualistic breach between “divine being” and “divine action”. God as an indivisible and invisible transcendent being, the creator and sovereign of the universe, was distinguished from the immanent action of the three-personed God, embodied in the playing out of the providential plan through world history. This caused a theoretical schism which undermined both the claims of God in the world, and God not of the world. Deity and Providence diverged. It became increasingly unclear how a metaphysical being could causally influence the unfolding of history. History could only notionally be seen to embody divine will. Conversely, if God was manifest in the everyday world, He could only be, at most, a practical manifestation of something fundamentally numinous. The transcendent aspects of divinity were so mysterious and unknowable that they seemingly became irrelevant.
In order to reconcile divine being and divine action, theologians postulated a new form of relationship between Deity and Providence, under the aegis of the concept of “economy”. The most vivid illustration of this interconnection comes with the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King. Here a king wounded to the point of physical incapacity must rely on the fidelity of his court for the administration of his realm; these ministers in turn can only govern because they do so on his behalf and in his name. In a phrase, “the king rules, but does not govern”. This legend summed up the so-called “economic” relationship between God as transcendence and God as immanent providence—between Kingdom and Government. The former finds its causally effective substantiation in the latter, and the latter finds its meaning and direction by reference to the former. This was called the “economic” relationship, and it is this relationship that Agamben seeks to reveal at the heart of the modern state.
Max Weber famously defined the modern state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” As in Agamben’s painstaking genealogy, the key concepts here are uncontested legitimacy on the one hand, and physical force over a given territory on the other—sovereignty and administration, respectively, or the kingdom and the government. Just as medieval theologians sought to reconcile the Providential course of history with the transcendent deity’s will, Weber’s principal concern is to analyse the modes by which possessors of physical force can successfully claim sole legitimacy: “If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey?”
Agamben finds in the medieval solution to the theological aporia the very model of the contemporary solution to our political aporia—the reconciliation between the vanishing point of the legitimate state and the efficacious instruments of its daily action. The theological “economic” relationship between the divine plan in history as represented by the community of believers and the transcendent deity as polestar to Providence was enacted in medieval worship. The medieval Church bolstered this relationship by augmenting the emphasis on ceremony; it was through the practice of “acclamation”, the expression of faith, still preserved in many liturgies, that the otherwise worldly community could resonate with the deity’s presence. The mass became the moment when transcendent glory became immanent power and permeated the world.
For Agamben, the Church solution to this fissure is mirrored in our contemporary articulation of the fact that political power needs popular acclamation; that the possessor of might needs the legitimacy of right, and vice versa, that mere legitimacy requires the machine of government. Liberal democracy, Agamben claims, takes its cues on the reconciliation of legitimacy with power not, as we often tell ourselves, from the Athenian political model, but from medieval theological theorisations of how a God can be simultaneously transcendent to, and immanent in, the world. Specifically, our contemporary form of “acclamation”, where the mantle of legitimate sovereignty rests on the shoulders of the people, comes in the form of visible demonstrations of popular consent—from elections and opinion polls to popular protests. The media spectacle which holds our society together finds its roots not in orations in the forum but in exultations in the cathedral.
Though it is undeniable that the vocabulary of the medieval theological disputes uncannily prefigures modernity’s essential political concepts, it remains to be proved that Agamben’s excavation yields results of more than antiquarian interest. It is of course fascinating to trace in contemporary discussions the forms of the debates of prior ages. Yet it seems Agamben seeks to rouse more than mere curiosity; instead, he wishes to leverage his relentless erudition to critical ends. It is unclear, however, to what extent one requires, and can rely on, such distant historical perspective in order to articulate the malaise of our “society of spectacle”.
We can surely diagnose the logical fissures in our own contemporary concepts of public opinion without the need for distant theoretical figurations of the political. Indeed, such an analysis of the modes by which the media encode public sentiment would provide a more salient ideological critique. Agamben’s historical investigations do not seem necessary for the current moment.
In addition to being unnecessary, it is not certain that the ancient conceptual genealogy is even sufficient to identify the flaws in modern day politics: an insight into the divine economy may not apply to the contemporary liberal economy. Agamben’s assertion that key concepts in the religious and governmental spheres were named with similar words, and held analogous places in these debates, falls short of demonstrating that a conceptual victory in one of those debates translates directly into the others.
Swathed in abstruse digressions and adorned with untranslated quotations, Agamben’s style relies on an intimidating academism to impress the overall potency of his ideas. Though the mastery of deep Western culture is breathtaking, the political fervour contained within the thesis will require several stages of popularisation before breaking through to a mass audience. This study is a scholarly tour de force, but—like the Fisher King—lies politically idle.
Alexander Barker  is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.