W Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment

Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment is among the shortest of works we have from Benjamin’s hand. We are reading it this semester among a handful of works by Benjamin in a course titled “Cultural Production in Modernity.” And for me it might provide the most concise summery of modernity found in any modern work.

20140425-193828.jpgThe problem I confront in any modern text is two-fold. First, how does this text — any text — display the world in which it is embedded. As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, this problem is neither the same as the objectivist’s problem, wherein we attempt to draw out the “objective” meaning of a cultural object, nor the same as the phenomenological approach, wherein I try “to make explicit the truth of primary experience of the social world.” This, according to P Bourdieu, is not only because so much of practice is driven by flexible “rules” that go without saying, but also because any map we are likely to develop to grasp either the “objective” meaning, or the “primary experience” of actors within a community will display a practical logic that is ours not theirs. Therefore, to explore how W Benjamin’s text, or any text, displays the world in which it is embedded, I must first, however provisionally, develop a theory of how that world is shaped and must then see whether and how far my theory of practice is validated by the text.

The second question I ask is how well the author grasps the conditions that constrain (in this case) W Benjamin’s cultural production. How well does W Benjamin grasp his own cultural production and therefore the production of his text?

Because Theologico-Political Fragment is an implicitly theological reflection, many of my students particularly here in the former Yugoslavia are inclined to prematurely dismiss its modernist credentials. Insofar as modernism aims at an “objective” if formal grasp of the world as a universal possibility, it strikes many students as inconceivable that a modernist text would invoke a Kingdom of God. Such an invocation strikes them, to the contrary, as at best romantic, particularly because of W Benjamin’s explicit invocation of the sublime.

This temptation to identify W Benjamin’s fragment with romanticism, however, risks falling back into purely formalist categories and periodizations. To avoid this risk, we need to recall that the foundation of modernism — the isolation of the sublime value form of the commodity from its material form of appearance — also shapes the tropes we tend to identify as romanticist, except that under romanticism we are inclined to draw the sublime value form back into relationship with its estranged body and therein risk the annihilation of the latter. In his fragment, W Benjamin is clearly aware of this danger and seems ready at the outset to maintain the modernist isolation of the two from one another. The Messianic order, writes Benjamin, cannot be an earthly, an historical, kingdom. It cannot be such a worldly kingdom not only because, were it to become historical, it would annihilate its body, but because, embodied, it would become a lie. This, then, is the essence of modernism: this qualitative isolation of the sublime value form of the commodity from its material form of appearance.

So too is it clear that W Benjamin recognizes the fundamental antagonism, yet interdependence, of these two mutually constitutive social forms. They each, to use K Marx’s expression, provoke one another into occupying their respective extremes.

Finally, however, in a deliberate, explicit reference to F Nietzsche, W Benjamin insists that the political task involves provoking precisely this opposition, using a method that Benjamin says “must be called nihilism.”

Obviously it would be fairly easy to identify the Kantian and neo-Kantian elements within Benjamin’s fragment, elements which he clearly shared with Ernst Bloch and which both Bloch and Georg von Lukacs might easily have cultivated in Marianne and Max Weber’s Heidelberg Sonntagskreise. But this would still miss the ways that these elements are already socially generalized and form part of generalized social subjectivity.

Was Benjamin aware of the historical and social character of his own interpretive categories? At first glance, it would appear that he was not. Indeed, at first glance it would appear that he has transhistoricized, even transcendentalized the opposition between the sublime value form of the commodity and its material form of appearance.

This would surely help us explain Benjamin’s decision not to follow his friends to Palestine. Insofar as the Messianic promise cannot by definition take an historical form, the very attempt to do so could only lead either to the destruction of the body of the state or to self-destructive deception. The only alternative for Benjamin was therefore to push the purely secular state, the state whose aim is only human happiness.

The hostility between the sublime value form and its material form of appearance appears then to establish itself firmly and eternally in Benjamin’s narrative.

In fact, it is at this point that Benjamin’s invocation of nihilism takes on added importance. For Benjamin aligns this nihilism with nature and with nature’s resistance to the eternal. Nature instead invokes for Benjamin an eternal passing, an eternal fading into nothingness; and, therefore, it is a sign of the Messianic promise. How?

Because if Benjamin had adopted the eternal isolation of the value form from its body, he would simply be repeating the neo-Kantian platitude; if, on the other hand, he had contemplated their eventual resolution, Hegel-like, this would have displayed a profound misunderstanding of the actual relationship between the sublime value form and its body, because it is together that the two compose the commodity.

Instead, Benjamin contemplates the temporality, the historicity, the eternal passing of the Messianic; that is to say, the two-fold commodity form is resolved not by erasing the hostility between its mutually constitutive elements, but by superseding the form as such; it is not the supposedly transcendental, transhistorical dimension of the Messianic that must be realized historically. Instead, Benjamin is contemplating the temporalization, the bodily limiting, the passing of the body; not its destruction, but its embodiment and so its eternal passing, not its realization.

Here Benjamin comes very close to an immanent critique of traditional Marxist theory. Such a critique would entail the realization of the Messianic, not in a victorious form, but in eternal passing. But he misses this critique if only by a hair’s breadth.


Good Friday in Bosnia and Herzegovina

There is danger under all circumstances of misreading Easter, but the danger is specially great in communities that have experienced war and genocide. If Jesus was murdered and if we identify with Jesus, then who murdered Him? If Jesus rises and if we rise with Jesus, then who or what are the powers of darkness, the powers of this world, that are vanquished in His/our resurrection?

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-04-18-07-57.pngThere is of course a purely personal, individual, and trivial way to read Easter. It was I who murdered Jesus. And mine are the dark powers vanquished in His/my resurrection with him. This of course is the reading that gained currency in the 17th and 18th centuries and that we rightly associate not only with the gospel of high industrial capitalism, but also, more recently, with the proliferation of the post-institutional, post-confessional church, in which everything revolves around my own experience, my own subjectivity, my own feelings: I am (Lukacs-like) the Subject-Object of History. This I take is not the danger of the readers of this blog.

But let us say that we take what we assume to be a purely historical reading. In this case we will focus on the Roman police state and of course on the collaborators within occupied Palestine. We will in this case be able to appreciate much better perhaps why state actors grow anxious when any movement gains sufficient power to disrupt normal state operations; and we will be able to appreciate why members of the occupied community might similarly grow annoyed when a movement risks attracting unwanted attention from the occupying force, either because the occupiers are not likely to be so discriminating in who they punish (which they never are) or because even under occupation livings have to be made which are just as likely disrupted by home grown rebels as by the occupiers. Better to leave well enough alone.

War invariably frays and often breaks the already fragile fibers that connect families to their only sources of livelihood. War invites the unwanted attention of state actors whose interests are not those of the occupied community.

By the time we come to John’s reading of the Passion, the principle actors in the story have already assumed their archetypal positions. There is the detachment of soldiers, which, it turns out, is needed because the Jesus group is armed and is ready to use its arms against the state (18:3), and which bolts into action whenever bodily violence is needed (19:34). There is Simon Peter who, as a leading member of the Jesus group, appears more than ready to take up his sword to advance the Kingdom by force of arms, but, who, when faced with the likelihood of trial and death, denies any involvement (18:10,17,25,27). There is the slave, doubly oppressed, whose ear Peter severs (18:10). There is the cock, who, better than anyone else, knows what time it is (18:27). There is the woman who guarded the gate and who evidently was a member of the Temple’s intelligence network (18:16-17). There are the slaves of the police (18:18). There is the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his father-in-law, Annas, who, wishing to mitigate violence and unrest in their community, agree that one person — evidently Jesus — should be handed over to the occupying force (18:14-28). There are the police, vigilant to make sure that the occupied community fear and obey the authorities (18:18,22). There is Pilate, who, like most occupying governors, clearly has little grasp of local politics and theology, and who perhaps is wishing that he had received an appointment anywhere else but Palestine (18:28-19:16). There are the religious zealots, the crowds, to whom Pilate turns, mistakenly it turns out, to gain leverage against the official religious hierarchy (18:38-39). There is Barabbas, who had operated on the boundaries of legality, but whose usefulness to the occupiers had run its course (18:40). There are the soldiers who crucified Jesus and who it would appear were accustomed to making a little money on the side selling the clothes of crucified criminals (19:23). There is Jesus’ mother; his mother’s sister, also Mary; and Mary Magdalene — a trinity of witnesses to whom Jesus entrusts the care of the remaining community (19:25-27). There is the sponge, dipped in wine and — in the final act of direct communication with the dying Jesus — applied to Jesus’ lips (19:29-30). There is Joseph who, on reasonably good terms with Pilate, is permitted to take Jesus’ body (19:38). There is Nicodemus, representative of the local Chevra Kaddisha, who lovingly prepares Jesus’ body for burial (18:39-40). Lastly, there are Judas and, of course, Jesus; Judas who betrayed him and Jesus, the betrayed, the accused, the mute, the crucified.

All of these clearly — including Judas and Jesus — are set types. Through them and their stories, John, the gospeler, invites us to reenact the story and to take our place within it. Is it 80 CE? Is it 90 CE? For sure, the readers are aware that the setting is now gone; the Temple, the chief priest, Pilate, Caiaphas are all gone, victims of the rage of Vespasian and weapons of Titus his son. Close to a million Jews were killed. The Temple was destroyed. Until then the Jesus group had been no more than a heterodox sect within the Jerusalem Jewish community. With the Temple’s destruction and subsequent diaspora, faithful Jews expelled from Jerusalem felt it best to uphold higher standards. Among surviving Christians, indiscriminately executed and expelled with other Jews, there was significant reluctance to join Paul’s communities since they were much more ritually lax than the Christian community in Jerusalem. Clearly, then, John is not asking us to a reenactment of events in Jerusalem.

Who are the police, the soldiers, the priests, the slaves? Who is Barabbas? Who are the Marys? Who are the politicians? Who is Judas? Who is Jesus?

We are inclined to pick and choose here. We are the Marys. We are the cock. We are the slaves. We are Joseph or Nicodemus. We are definitely not Annas or Caiaphas. We are not Pilate. We are not Barabbas. (Are we Peter?) We are not Judas or the soldiers. We are not the police. But what if we are?

Walk out your front door in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it is impossible not to stumble over evidence of these types: police and politicians, petty criminals and slaves, soldiers and priests litter the landscape. So too do those who care for the dead and dying. So, where are we and who are we here? Here is my suspicion. I suspect that John did not want us to fix on this or that type, but to take in the entire scene — the Roman oppressors and occupiers, the collaborators, the thieves, the soldiers, the police, the religious — and recognize the complexity of the scene, with Jesus, the Palestinian Jew, mute, at its center. The aim is not to lay blame on one or relieve another of complicity. The aim is to understand, to recognize, the complexity. Here we are on Good Friday and all of these characters — still — are present. They are always present. And, so, what will you do? Which role will you play? With whom do you identify?

We identify with Jesus not against any of these others; but with Jesus with all of these others. He is not pointing any fingers. He is not leveling any judgments. He is demanding the death of no one.

Money, Campaigns, and The Self-Moving Substance that is Subject

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 10.11.51 AMIn 1807, GWF Hegel published his forbiddingly dense Phenomenologie des Geistes. In it we will find the preliminary ruling in Mc­Cutch­eon v. Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, No. 12-536, the latest Supreme Court ruling to give money a seat in the United States legislature. McCutcheon overturns significant elements of Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), as well as Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 (1976), which held that campaign contributions could be limited where not doing so led to “corruption” of the electoral process. But the Court focused in particular on limitations to the First Amendment right to free speech. And here is where GWF Hegel comes into play.

Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that I agree with the Court’s overturning of Buckley, not because unlimited campaign contributions do not corrupt the process — they do — but because the remedy does not touch upon the cause for this corruption. In Buckley, at least in 1976, the Court clearly held excessive campaign donations in and of themselves corrupting. This was because one individual who possessed unlimited resources could speak louder than an individual with limited or no resources. This in turn violated the principle of one-person-one-vote. The Roberts Court by contrast rightly asks whether the Government has an interest in silencing loud mouths or providing megaphones to the meek. Can the Government limit how loudly an individual talks?

And this brings us to the threshold of the instant question surrounding money and the abridgment of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. In 1787, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention were debating this very same question, it was Rufus King (MA) and Gouverneur Morris (PE) who framed the question most clearly. The point of debate was the publication of a Report commissioned by the delegates on the question of taxation and representation.

Mr. King: wished to know what influence the vote just passed was meant have on the succeeding part of the Report, concerning the admission of slaves into the rule of Representation. He could not reconcile his mind to the article if it was to prevent objections to the latter part. The admission of slaves was a most grating circumstance to his mind, & he believed would be so to a great part of the people of America. He had not made a strenuous opposition to it heretofore because he had hoped that this concession would have produced a readiness which had not been manifested, to strengthen the Genl. Govt. and to mark a full confidence in it. The Report under consideration had by the tenor of it, put an end to all those hopes. In two great points the hands of the Legislature were absolutely tied. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited-exports could not be taxed. Is this reasonable? What are the great objects of the Genl. System? 1. defence agst. foreign invasion. 2. agst. internal sedition. Shall all the States then be bound to defend each; & shall each be at liberty to introduce a weakness which will render defence more difficult? Shall one part of the U. S. be bound to defend another part, and that other part be at liberty not only to increase its own danger, but to withhold the compensation for the burden? If slaves are to be imported shall not the exports produced by their labor, supply a revenue the better to enable the Genl. Govt. to defend their masters? -There was so much inequality & unreasonableness in all this, that the people of the Northern States could never be reconciled to it. No candid man could undertake to justify it to them. He had hoped that some accomodation wd. have taken place on this subject; that at least a time wd. have been limited for the importation of slaves. He never could agree to let them be imported without limitation & then be represented in the Natl. Legislature. Indeed he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of such a practice, that he was not sure he could assent to it under any circumstances. At all events, either slaves should not be represented, or exports should be taxable.

Before considering Gouverneur Morris’ objections, let us first be clear about the precise nature of Mr. King’s objections. These objections focus on securing and defending a federal government, which King here calls the “General System” (Genl. System) or “General Government” (Genl. Government). This General System, Mr. King accurately observes, was made necessary not simply out of fears that southern states with their own resources might not be able to successfully suppress a slave revolt, but also out of fears that northern states might not with their own resources be able to suppress a tax-payers revolt such as the rebellion let by Captain Daniel Shays in 1786 and 1787. Shays’ rebellion was the event the provoked the new Constitutional Convention to convene in 1787. The Report under consideration has seemingly ignored in its entirety the very reason for the Convention, recommending (1) that the labour market in slaves cannot be limited; and (2) that this market cannot be taxed. In other words, the Report allows the importation of a commodity — the labour of slaves — that endangers the safety of the republic, but does not provide for the resources — the taxes — the federal government would need to pay federal troops to restore public safety.

While related, Gouverneur Morris’ objections to the report lie elsewhere. He is concerned with representation without taxation:

Mr. Govr. MORRIS moved to insert “free” before the word inhabitants. Much he said would depend on this point. He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. Travel thro’ ye. whole Continent & you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance & disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave ye. E. Sts. & enter N. York, the effects of the institution become visible, passing thro’ the Jerseys & entering Pa. every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed south wdly & every step you take thro’ ye. great region of slaves presents a desert increasing, with ye. increasing proportion of these wretched beings. Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The Houses in this city [Philada.] are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina. The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice. He would add that Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution. The vassalage of the poor has ever been the favorite offspring of Aristocracy. And What is the proposed compensation to the Northern States for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity. They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the S. States; for their defence agst. those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels & seamen in case of foreign Attack. The Legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises, and duties on imports: both of which will fall heavier on them than on the Southern inhabitants; for the bohea tea used by a Northern freeman, will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag that covers his nakedness. On the other side the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack, and the difficulty of defence; nay they are to be encouraged to it by an assurance of having their votes in the Natl. Govt. increased in proportion, and are at the same time to have their exports & their slaves exempt from all contributions for the public service. Let it not be said that direct taxation is to be proportioned to representation. It is idle to suppose that the Genl. Govt. can stretch its hand directly into the pockets of the people scattered over so vast a Country. They can only do it through the medium of exports imports & excises. For what then are all these sacrifices to be made? He would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the U. States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.

Like Mr. King, Mr. Morris too is keen that his fellow delegates bear in mind the public danger entailed in maintaining a market for slave labour. But to it he adds a second consideration. The market in slave labour, he notes, threatens the integrity of republican institutions as such. This threat consists not in the risks slave rebellions or tax-payer revolts pose to the republic, but in making despotism an integral element within the federal system. For clearly his objections cover much more than slaves and tax-payers, encompassing “the vassalage of the poor” as a general category. At issue for Mr. Morris, in other words, is preserving the very essence of republicanism, the “common wealth” or “res publica” on behalf of which the delegates were meeting and proposing a new constitution. When Mr. Morris therefore faults the Report for introducing an “aristocratic countenance” into the proposed Constitution, he is accusing its authors of promoting privilege (private law) over public law, oikonomia, the laws of the private household economy over politeia, the laws governing public life. Private property is taxed. Citizens are represented. To tax citizens and represent property is to turn the republican principle on its head; or, rather, to turn it inside out. “Are [slave labourers] men? Then make them Citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?”

The relevance of this debate to McCutcheon could not be clearer. Were he alive today, Mr. Morris would no doubt want Mr. Roberts to explain to him the principle under which property has earned the right to free speech while citizens have been silenced. And Mr. King would no doubt want Mr. Roberts to explain the principle under which plutocrats can introduce a factor into the republic — the vassalage of the poor — that endangers all citizens, without the slightest obligation to mitigate the risks this factor poses to all.

To which, were he honest — which, of course, he is not — Mr. Roberts would no doubt reply, “And do you recall how the Convention resolved this debate?” End of discussion.

The Convention resolved this debate, of course, by granting property a seat in Congress in exchange for the right to tax said property. However, in this the Convention was highly selective. Only one commodity, slave labour, and even then only three fifths of its full value, would be granted a seat in Congress. No other commodity would earn such a right. And, in return, the owners of this commodity agreed to allow the federal government to overrule local and state courts, to tax states, to regulate interstate commerce, to enforce full faith and credit, to enforce contracts, and a host of other federal regulations and laws that restricted and bound the states to their federal government. This was the quid pro quo, the private property for citizens concession, lodged at the center of the US Constitution.

The Convention, of course, limited this representation of commodities to one commodity alone: to slave labour. And, yet, there was a general principle in this exception. For while non-slave males everywhere counted as full persons where representation in the House was at stake, in 1787 fully nine tenths of all voting age adults still enjoyed no right to vote for their own representatives, either because they were slaves, because they were women, because they were poor, or because they lacked property. Only gradually, state by state, did non-slave males gain the right to vote; voting rights for African Americans was spotty even after 1865 all the way up to (and beyond) 1965 and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Thus, in reply to Mr. Morris or Mr. King, Mr. Roberts would no doubt reply: the United States has a long history of silencing those who for whatever reason — race, gender, class, poverty — have not earned their right to be represented; and the United States has also long acknowledged the rights certain commodities enjoy, beginning with slave labour, to a place in Congress. Free speech has been and can still be limited by and pegged to the universal commodity, to money. So don’t lecture me about the rule of law. As I recall, Mr. Morris and Mr. King, both of you signed your names at the bottom of the original Constitution. Both of you agreed to grant commodity slave labour three-fifths a seat in the House per head. So what part of the Rule of Law do you not understand?

Which brings me back to GWF Hegel and to his Self-Moving Substance that is Subject. Already in 1787, it was this Subject, Capital, that was spreading its wings over the United States, guaranteeing itself a seat, and then several seats, and now all seats, in Congress. Already in 1787, this Substance, this Commodity Form, was brooding over the nation and the people it had created. So when Mr. Roberts validates this fact, he is doing no more and no less than endorsing this original act of Congress. At the same time, it might be well for us to remember that at least in 1787 this was far from a done deal, that the framers of the US Constitution knew full well what was at stake and that some of them felt terribly uneasy by the deal they were making with the devil. Mr. Roberts and his Court by contrast, who are spawn of the Devil if there ever was one, display no such disease or discomfort. They are perfectly happy, even gleeful, to deprive citizens their free speech and grant capital full representation in accordance with the law.

Money Rules

Look. To call this ruling anything other than a clear, unequivocal judgment against one-person-one-vote is to admit that you are constitutionally tone-deaf. We live in a plutocracy, from top to bottom. People don’t vote. Money votes. If you don’t like that, you have a choice. Brood or organize. Its that simple. Get out into the streets or shut up.