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Opening Hours Mon-Thu: Fri: A prerequisite for a safe and secure environment is regular and active participation in safety work by all staff and students. Department of Culture and Aesthetics.

Plenary 2: "Political Theology, Civilization, and Ideology"

To submenu. Welcome to two lectures by Professor Victoria Kahn. Victoria Kahn. Rhetoric and Law in Early Modern Europe , ed. John Najemy Cambridge University Press, , In recent years my work has been on seventeenth-century English literature especially Milton , the literature of the European Renaissance, and early modern political theory.


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My book Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, Princeton, explores the emergence of contract theory in the literature and political thought of mid seventeenth-century England. It argues that contract theory should be seen as part of the linguistic turn of early modern thought, when government was imagined in terms of the poetic power to bring new artifacts into existence. Contract theory should thus be seen not simply as the forerunner of liberalism but as anticipating the eighteenth-century discipline of aesthetics.

My current book project is based on the Clarendon lectures in English literature, which I gave at Oxford in , and is entitled "The Trouble with Literature. As I noted in the introduction, Schmitt's antiliberal definition of the political targeted the Jew as the internal enemy of the Nazi state. Pace Schmitt's defenders, this anti-Semitism was not merely occasional: it found vitriolic expression throughout his work and persisted until his death.

Consistent with his early modern genealogy of the crisis of the Weimar state, Schmitt traced the origins of liberalism to Spinoza, who makes a disturbing cameo appearance in the work on Hobbes as "the Jew" who fully realized the liberal implications of Leviathan.

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I will discuss Schmitt's view of Spinoza and its relevance to the Jewish Question more fully in chapter 4. For now, I wish only to stress that the rise of aesthetics and the vitiation of "the political" discussed below were for Schmitt inseparable from what he clearly saw as the Jewish dimension of liberalism. It's in this light, I argue, that Schmitt's argument about Hamlet can be read as defending Schmitt's own response to the Jewish Question during the Nazi period.


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  • Schmitt saw the emergence of aesthetics as part of the increasing rationalization of politics and the increasing dominance of technology in all spheres of life. In an important essay entitled "The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations" , Schmitt charted the historical process of Western secularization, depoliticization, and "aestheticization" from the sixteenth century to the present. By depoliticization, Schmitt meant the creation of a neutral sphere—initially modeled on the natural sciences instead of theology—in which parties could reach agreement through discussion and consensus.

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    This process of depoliticization involved four steps: "from the theological to the metaphysical sphere, from there to the humanitarian-moral and finally to the economic sphere. That is, the aesthetic was "an intermediary stage" between eighteenth-century moralism and nineteenth-century economism, "a transition which precipitated the aestheticization of all intellectual spheres.

    For Schmitt, the irrationalism of the aesthetic—its resistance to conceptual formulation—was the underside of the ostensibly rational mechanisms of economic production. As Schmitt wrote in Roman Catholicism and Political Form , revised : "Modern technology easily becomes the servant of this or that want and need. In modern economy, a completely irrational consumption conforms to a totally rationalized production.

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    A marvelously rational mechanism serves one or another demand, always with the same earnestness and precision, be it for a silk blouse or poison gas or anything whatsoever" RC , 14— In Schmitt's account of the historical development of capitalism, the indifference of technological production to its material—whether "a silk blouse or poison gas"—found an analogue in the indifference of aesthetics to ethics and politics, or at least in the aesthete's inability to come to a decision about any concrete course of political action.

    The political equivalent of such indecision was liberalism, with its doctrine of formal equality before the law, and its preference for parliamentary debate or discussion over any concrete course of action. In Schmitt's diagnosis, the modern age of technology, liberalism, and aesthetics was antithetical to any genuine conception of "the political," which he defined as a state of crisis and existential confrontation that is beyond—or before—positive law. The genuinely political involves a decision about an exceptional state of affairs, and sovereignty must accordingly be defined as the power to decide the exception.

    As numerous critics have remarked, in his critique of liberalism Schmitt himself fell victim to the aestheticism he criticized. In Political Romanticism Schmitt condemned the "occasionalism" and "subjectivism" of romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel, for whom there were no longer any objective religious or ethical norms. With the secularization of modern society, according to Schmitt, the church becomes a theater; the artist takes over the function of the priest, and "instead of God, the romantic subject occupies the central position.

    Like the romantics, Schmitt in his decisionism negated "every commitment to norm. More recently, Richard Wolin has extended these insights by noting that "in Political Theology , Schmitt attempts to justify his exaltation of the exception in terms explicitly culled from the vitalist aesthetics of suddenness or rupture. In the following pages, I want to take a different tack toward the aesthetic dimension of Schmitt's work.

    Instead of deconstructing Schmitt's own unwitting aesthetic ideology, I want to explore Schmitt's reading of two foundational texts of the early modern period—Hobbes's Leviathan and Shakespeare's Hamlet —that were crucial to his account of political theology, as well as to his genealogy of liberalism and the aesthetic. As we saw in the introduction, for Schmitt the aesthetic is part and parcel of a liberal notion of culture, according to which individuals form themselves just as they artificially create the state.