After Political Theology (After Weimar Germany)

(interior view, the Hindenburg)

What can I say? I have a soft spot for liberals. I remember talking to Jack Caputo some years after 9/11. There was an exchange during our Department reading group about something related to something in continental theory. It was probably about Zizek or something related to contemporary currents in “political theology.” With probably too much heat, I mentioned that I was looking for someone who could help get me over the George Washington Bridge in a traffic jam.  I did not like at all getting stuck on traffic on the bridges and tunnels after 9/11. It made me very nervous. Zizek and company were no help to me whatsoever. Jack wisely recommended Isaiah Berlin, which was excellent advice, and for which alone I would be forever in his debt.

As for Weimar Germany, I’m pretty much ready to jump the LZ 129 Hindenburg (Luftschiff Zeppelin #129; Registration: D-LZ 129)! Aside from Adorno and Jonas, I think they are all toxic. Benjamin, Heidegger, Kracauer, Schmitt, Strauss, Taubes. I know this is an incredibly broad brush, but I won’t help myself. It’s the combination of [1] crisis, contradiction, and predicament expressed in [2] the cold, airless register of 1920s Neuesachlichkeit, and [3] acid either/or polar opposition between one thing and another (Athens/Jerusalem, secular/sacred, fascism/communism).

I appreciate the historical context to all of this, but that’s about it. I’ve always found myself more comfortable between things than at either point of a dead-end opposition. For something less extremely flammable, I’m interested in a more irenic posture, according to which one is ready to understand that most conflicts, even the most important ones, tend to be fungible, more or less. Without a whiff of fascism or totalitarianism, my Anglo-Franco American lodestars remain Bachelard, Barthes, Berlin, Cavell, Dewey, James, Kaplan, Kazin, Wittgenstein.

What links all this stuff together, from the right and from the left, then and today, is the anti-liberal animus driving the discourse of political theology. From Benjamin to Strauss and Schmitt, and from Zizek to Milbank, I think it is all disaster prone. And this includes Buber’s The Kingship of God, a text from the early 1930s, in which the absolutism ascribed to God reflects, unwittingly, the opposite side of the absolutism ascribed by Schmitt to the state.

Those Germans were very, very impressive, but one should not be so easy to impress. I’m looking forward to reading Peter Gordon’s book on Ernst Cassirer. It is Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment that still stands out to me as one of the greatest books written on and in the spirit of the German Enlightenment. Cassirer’s study is also probably among the last sensible things written in Germany at this juncture of the 20th century.

Cassirer, by the way, cared neither for Heidegger nor “political theology.” I think he was right. Regarding the latter, it is the combination of terms strikes me as too explosive, and obscures abiding historical tensions across the world religions, including Judaism and Islam, and also Christianity, between religious and political authority. About this there needs to be serious consideration and reconsideration about “law,” and what this term might mean or might have meant in, for example, Jewish intellectual and social history.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to After Political Theology (After Weimar Germany)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    i probably agree with you more than i am able to recognize now. however, on the other hand, is there not something beautiful about the idea of the messianic, which is, after all, the ultimate alternate? even if it is a pipe dream, just the idea of “each man under his fig tree”…. a pure anarchy which is somehow harmonious? i grant that all labor towards it comes out in the form of purity and purification, purgation, a theological opening towards the final solution, but as a vision…. as a vision it is beautiful even if it is beyond human hands. i suppose that what i imagine is retaining the vision and also its critique. i am not satisfied with the results of philosophy and theology which turns its back on the messianic, but on its own it is – as you say – toxic. cannot the solution be the dialectic of redemption and its critique producing some sort of synthesis that gestures toward the messianic but refrains from “hastening” it?

    • zjb says:

      i think the rabbis in the Bavli did a pretty good job gelding it. or to switch metaphor: they boxed it up in the siddur, but in truth, they really didn’t want it, as little as they wanted “suffering or its rewards.” my thinking is very rabbinic in this way. (and by the way, were you aware of your use of the term “final solution” in your comment?). the dialectics are too complicated. i don;t think they turn out well, this playing with poison.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    i was aware… that was my point, that i recognize that this form of thinking leads there if not checked. can you elaborate more?

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