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The essays in Theology and the Political—written by some of the world’s foremost theologians, philosophers, and literary critics—analyze the ethics and consequences of human action. They explore the spiritual dimensions of ontology, considering the relationship between ontology and the political in light of the thought of figures ranging from Plato to Marx, Levinas to Derrida, and Augustine to Lacan. Together, the contributors challenge the belief that meaningful action is simply the successful assertion of will, that politics is ultimately reducible to “might makes right.” From a variety of perspectives, they suggest that grounding human action and politics in materialist critique offers revolutionary possibilities that transcend the nihilism inherent in both contemporary liberal democratic theory and neoconservative ideology.

Contributors. Anthony Baker, Daniel M. Bell Jr., Phillip Blond, Simon Critchley, Conor Cunningham, Creston Davis, William Desmond, Hent de Vries, Terry Eagleton, Rocco Gangle, Philip Goodchild, Karl Hefty, Eleanor Kaufman, Tom McCarthy, John Milbank, Antonio Negri, Catherine Pickstock, Patrick Aaron Riches, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Regina Mara Schwartz, Kenneth Surin, Graham Ward, Rowan Williams, Slavoj Žižek

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen H. Webb

Theology and the Political is a helpful book because it gathers in one volume a representative sample of very serious theologians. . . .”
D. W. Congdon

“[A] collection of this caliber on such a timely subject is to be welcomed.”
Christopher Craig Brittain

“[A] patient reader will be rewarded with some intriguing perspectives and insights that take seriously the difficult challenge confronting political action in the context of global capitalism.”
Anthony Paul Smith

“[T]hat there is no majority discourse in the book is to the credit of the editors for it has increased the depth and variance of the analyses presented, allowing the book to become more fully a ‘debate.’ Though this format often leads the reader to feel as if the book is somewhat schizophrenic, this is ultimately its greatest strength and precisely why it is worth reading.”
Clayton Crockett

“The new debate referenced in this rich, lengthy, and important collection is a desperately urgent debate. . . . [T]he work itself functions as a symphony, building between and among chapters to orchestrate a complex and fruitful investigation of some of the most crucial theoretical issues we face in our contemporary world and includes some of the most influential contemporary philosophers and theologians working today.”
Stephen Webb

“This book is another ‘deliberate kick against the tide of the times.’”
Jeffrey W. Robbins

“This volume is . . . . a welcome and much-needed wake-up call— if not a call to arms, then no less radically because it is a scandal to the postmodern mind, at least a call to truth and its consequences.”
Rowan Williams

“Underlying all the very varied essays in this volume is a set of issues about how we understand human action. And what the essays have in common, I believe, is a conviction that the fundamental requirement of a politics worth the name is that we have an account of human action that decisively marks its distance from assumptions about action as the successful assertion of will. If there is no hinterland to human acting except the contest of private and momentary desire, meaningful action is successful action, an event in which a particular will has imprinted its agenda on the ‘external’ world. Or, in plainer terms, meaning is power . . . and any discourse of justice is illusory.”
From the Publisher

"Underlying all the very varied essays in this volume is a set of issues about how we understand human action. And what the essays have in common, I believe, is a conviction that the fundamental requirement of a politics worth the name is that we have an account of human action that decisively marks its distance from assumptions about action as the successful assertion of will. If there is no hinterland to human acting except the contest of private and momentary desire, meaningful action is successful action, an event in which a particular will has imprinted its agenda on the ‘external’ world. Or, in plainer terms, meaning is power . . . and any discourse of justice is illusory."--Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, from the introduction

“Underlying all the very varied essays in this volume is a set of issues about how we understand human action. And what the essays have in common, I believe, is a conviction that the fundamental requirement of a politics worth the name is that we have an account of human action that decisively marks its distance from assumptions about action as the successful assertion of will. If there is no hinterland to human acting except the contest of private and momentary desire, meaningful action is successful action, an event in which a particular will has imprinted its agenda on the ‘external’ world. Or, in plainer terms, meaning is power . . . and any discourse of justice is illusory.”—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, from the introduction
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334729
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2005
  • Series: [sic] Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Creston Davis is a doctoral candidate in philosophical theology at the University of Virginia.

John Milbank is a professor of religion, politics, and ethics at the University of Nottingham. His books include Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon and Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason.

Slavoj Žižek is a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, editor of Cogito and the Unconscious: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, and coeditor of Perversion and the Social Relation and Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, all also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Theology and the Political

The New Debate


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3472-9

Chapter One

Terry Eagleton Tragedy and Revolution

Oedipus, broken and blind, stands before Colonus. As he once gave an answer to the Sphinx, his presence now poses a question to the nearby city of Athens. Is it to gather this unclean thing to its heart, or cast it out as so much garbage? Just as Oedipus himself, solver of riddles, detected the image of humanity-itself the ultimate conundrum-in the Sphinx's portrait of a monster with four legs, two legs, and then three, so Athens is being asked to recognize the image of the human in this monstrosity at its gates. Four, two, and three in one is the enigma of identity and difference, the garblings and doublings of incest, the scrambling of subject positions, the giddy exchange of symbolic roles. Oedipus is the pharmakos at the threshold, the impossible homeopathy of poison and cure. He is both guilt and innocence, king and beggar, stranger and brother. Indeed, the very tragic theater in which he appears, according to its earliest theorist, is itself a kind of homeopathy, a catharsis in which we take a pinch of the noxious ingredients of pity and fear in order to purge ourselves of these poisons. Now, however, Oedipus must wait while Theseus, ruler of Athens, weighs the perils of excluding the sacred against thedangers of assimilating the polluted. Since the pharmakos is both in one, holy and defiled, contradiction incarnate, this is scarcely a simple choice.

Tragedy is said to be about pity and fear, and pity and fear are a question of identity and alterity. We can, it would seem, pity only what is akin to us, just as we fear what is strange. Both are political notions: pity enjoyably cements the social bond from the inside, while fear austerely reinforces it against external threats and is what we feel in the presence of authority. For another vein of aesthetics, this sadomasochistic fusion of pleasure and horror, the daunting delights of an infinite sovereignty, goes by the name of the sublime. Only if our imaginary social bonds are founded upon the Real, upon a certain horror at the heart of the social itself, will they prove sufficiently durable. Only if the Furies are installed within the city-state itself will it be secure-which is to say that only if the terrorism of the law is turned inward as well as outward, to become domesticated as hegemony as well as armed and helmeted as military might, will the social contract stand. Oedipus himself will end up as such a tutelary power, his death made fruitful for the future life of the polis, so that his death-in-life existence, once embraced by the city, will prove fertile for its flourishing. "Surely a just God's hand will raise him up again," exclaim the Chorus.

A tragedy like that of Oedipus, however, also turns Aristotle's logic of pity and fear on its head, scrambling its dichotomies by showing us that nothing is more fearful and opaque than ourselves and those akin to us, and nothing more pitiable than a humanity deformed alarmingly out of recognition. It is, indeed, only when we are "out" of recognition that we are fully "in" it. Confronted with the parricidal Oedipus, the demented Lear, or the tortured Christ, we are asked to couple these classical responses to tragedy together and come to pity what we fear. It is not just a matter of pitying whatever is still human in these poignant figures, whatever residual humanity has survived their monstrosity, but of feeling for them in that very deformity, grasping them as most human when unhuman, and hence of seeing them in the Real rather than the Imaginary. It is to perceive that what is most intimately human about them is also what is most frightful to gaze upon, and that no power can enable us to look upon them and live but an answering inhumanity in ourselves. The moment of recognition of this more-and-less-than-human in ourselves is the moment traditionally known as repentance.

These, then, are not men travestied, dehumanized, violently disfigured, but signs of the violent disfiguration that is humanity itself. In inviting the vagrant Oedipus into the city, Theseus is not simply divining a blessing within an apparent curse but recognizing in this beggarly sovereign an image of the monstrosity of himself and his city. When it comes to human affairs, the aberrant is the normative. What more graphic image of power than the powerless, since tyrant and vagrant are both beyond the law? And what could more forcefully testify to the failure of power, and so to its ironic kinship with the dispossessed, than the flayed, butchered bodies of its victims?

"I come to offer you a gift-my tortured body-a sorry sight," Oedipus tells Theseus, "But there is value in it more than beauty." Truth is unaesthetic, a mangled body; it reminds us of beauty only by negation. The cynic is the one for whom value is so much shit, whereas it is in shit-the detritus of a repressive social order-that the revolutionary finds value. The Fool is a figure who hovers somewhere between the two. Sophocles's meditation on Oedipus broods upon impossible arithmetical calculations-on incestuous paradoxes of two or more in one, of one plus one making four or more, on defacements and illegibilities at the heart of the symbolic order. Incest lays bare the guilty secret of that order, which is that all of its places must be arbitrarily interchangeable simply for it to function. Like any structure, the price it pays for working all by itself is the perpetual possibility of transgression, which is to say the possibility of not being itself at all. Incest is an abomination that confounds essential boundaries and obscenely commingles distinct categories; yet since desire itself does nothing less, the vilified, accursed Oedipus, as Freud will later instruct us, is simply representative of the way of the world, the social unconscious, the truth that transgression is our routine business. Incest is the Real of the symbolic order, to which Sophocles's art will place us in an imaginary relation.

Incest presses through the logic of the symbolic order to the point of a surreal, scandalous deconstruction, which is at once a garbling of all orthodox social relations and the unspeakable truth of them. If you are to be free to mutate the roles of, say, husband and father, then there is nothing in the structural grammar of the symbolic order itself to rule out the hybridity of being your own mother's spouse. Comedy seizes on this recognition as well, noting as it does that desire is no respecter of rank or difference and playing off our anxiety that social order will thereby be undermined against our deliciously vindictive desire for exactly that. Shakespeare's King Lear, in a way not entirely removed from Sophocles, rings changes on the tragic calculus of more, less, all, something and nothing, of ciphers, creative surpluses, and destructive superfluities, notions that resound through the poetry and the play just as they run as a riddling subtext beneath some of Shakespeare's other works.

Incest, monstrosity, is the place where exact calculations and distinctions break down, and so also is the wager of Theseus as he stands before this besmirched parody of his own kingship. Oedipus himself knows that an unspeakable power for good will flow from welcoming the immigrant, embracing the excremental remainder, assimilating into the political order the sign of its own nonidentity. To do this, however, is not to be "inclusive" (that magical postmodern word) but to encompass what that order is forced to exclude simply to be itself and thus to transform it beyond recognition. The astonishing irony of class society is that this excluded remnant is not some postmodern margin or minority, but the actual majority. This power for good, or magnificent flourishing of life, is known as sacrifice, the dialectical movement by which the very dissolution of the unclean thing becomes fertile and life-bearing. In modern political parlance, it goes by the name of revolution-the project, in Marx's words, of a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a total loss of humanity in the name of a total gain of one, and which thus represents in its very decomposition the shape of the classless future.

To acknowledge this thing of darkness as one's own, whatever name it happens to go under, is to throw the projective act of scapegoating into reverse, confessing that this savage travesty of humanity was cast out of the city not because it was alien but because it was far too familiar. A similar interplay of the alien and overintimate characterizes the act of incest. The scapegoat or pharmakos must be shifted from the metonymic to the metaphorical register-from being that fragment of the polis on which the people project their crime and guilt, driving it out and thereby disavowing it, to being the mirror in which they can recognize themselves for the monsters that they are ("Man" is the answer to the Sphinx's riddle), and by that recognition transcend their own deformity.

The scapegoat wins our compassion because it is the terrifying Real in the humanizing shape of suffering flesh and blood. But it is also suffering flesh and blood as the Real, as dehumanized and atrociously disfigured, and thus as placing so implacably anonymous a demand on our own humanity that only that within ourselves which is beyond the personal-whatever it is that lies nonsubjectively at the root of our subjectivity, rather than simply falls within its frame-can hope to answer to it at all adequately. Only the ruthless abstraction of love, which is no respecter of persons because it attends equally to the needs of any old person, could suffice to repair the ravages of a desire that is similarly indifferent to individuals in its impeccably egalitarian ambition to maim and madden them all. Only a Real that was beyond humanity, and so terrible but at the same time friendly to humanity, could prove sufficient.

Love differs in this sense from friendship, or indeed from the "romantic" version of itself, both of which are nothing if not particular. But this is not to contrast an abstract universalism with a sensuous specificity, in that hoariest of all antitheses to which the solution (we know it even before the words are out) is art. For one thing, particularism in these postmodern times is itself a full-bloodedly universal creed, just as nationalism is a thoroughly international phenomenon, and a highly parochial view of the world has come to be known as globalization. A universalized particularism is postmodernism's goal, whereas justice and charity involve that very different condition, a particularized universalism.

This is universal insofar as everyone has a claim to love and justice, but this claim is empty unless it is this or that individual's uniquely particular being that is granted recognition, and his or her irreducibly specific need attended to. Every individuality must be acknowledged, regardless of whose individuality it is. As far as that goes, any old individuality will do. When it comes to difference, one has to be grandly indifferent. This is why neither early-bourgeois abstraction nor late-bourgeois particularism will do-a traditional enough socialist case, to be sure, since socialism has insisted all along that the universal commonwealth must be constructed in and through the developed, uniquely individual powers and capacities bequeathed to us as an opulent heritage by middle-class society. One can tell the difference between a Marxist and a postmodernist by the former's unabashed admiration for the bourgeoisie.

In any case, there can surely be no genuine opening of our eyes to the particular, no grasping the situation as it actually is in all its densely determinate reality, which does not at some level implicate a kind of infinity-whether in the Christian sense that this hard-headed realism, pace the bankers and burghers, is the most difficult thing in the world and possible only by the power of grace (a novel variant on the ancient theme that virtue and knowledge have an internal bond), or simply as a kind of Kierkegaardian marveling at the fact that things are eternally given as what they are-that in purely gratuitous style God fashioned you and not someone else. In this perspective, individuality is the claim of the infinite on the finite, the mind-shaking mystery of the uniquely self-identical. To see eternity in a grain of sand is to see a grain of sand, not to see through it. Being is the way to see beings, not an entity to be seen in itself. To discern the workings of a nonsubjective Real in the subject is to see the subject as it is, constituted to its core by what is unnervingly alien to it. To understand political oppression is to grasp that this particular group of men and women is what it uniquely is exactly by virtue of its place in some more universal context. To say that those with freckles or ponytails are not oppressed as such is to say that their distinctive features can be understood well enough without recourse to such a global setting.

To return to the scapegoat: sacrifice, pace the right-thinking liberal, is not an evil to be kept to a minimum but an action that grows more beneficent the more it is universalized. For sacrifice to be general and reciprocal is just what a communist ethics urges. It is for each to find his or her life in being the means of life for others, to adapt the language of The Communist Manifesto a little. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure recognizes that a reciprocal scapegoating and condemnation can be flipped over at a stroke, with no momentous alteration of structure, into a community of forgiveness-induced, as it were, to cancel all the way through, as a futile round of tit-for-tat or moral exchange-value gives way to a mutual forbearance. Sacrifice is the authentic alternative to the bogus ruling-class conspiracy of pity and fear, by which an imaginary, endlessly circular sympathy for those identifiably of one's own kind (one that in fact depends on their abstract exchangeability) is buttressed by the intimidatory terrors of the Real.

Sacrifice, seen as the inner structure of authentic social relations, replaces fear of the death-dealing alien with the more fruitful death of the act of self-giving. Only on a universal "death" of that kind can a community of the living be durably founded. Such a death retains all the uncanny force of the Real, in contrast to the liberal humanist illusion that the social bond can be cemented by sympathy alone, but at the same time it helps to unburden the Real of its terrors. Death is now in the service of life, as the very form of an emancipated sociality, rather than life pressed into the service of a deathly annihilation. We observe the latter in the unstaunchable capitalist will, which can conceive of nothing more vigorous, dynamic and bouncily robust than itself, and which would be outraged to be informed that it is in reality a form of ascetic otherworldliness.

"Am I made a man in the hour when I cease to be?" Oedipus cries, pondering the tragic or revolutionary reversal by which genuine power can spring only from humanity's embrace of its own shitlike negativity. Only less can become more; only humanity at its nadir can be redeemed, since if what is redeemed is not the worst then it would not be a question of redemption. This is why the dispossessed are the sign of the future, a negative image of utopia. They testify to that future simply by what they are and so stay faithful to the ban on fashioning graven images of it, manufacturing blueprints, idols, and fetishes. "Nothing will come of nothing," Lear warns Cordelia, but the truth turns out to be just the opposite. In the arithmetic of redemption, two negatives make a positive: only by knowing that you are nothing, like the Fool, redoubling your negativity in ironic self-awareness, can you achieve an ironic edge over the fools who believe themselves to be boundless. Only by tracing the limits of one's finitude from the inside can one transcend it. Pace the paranoid Lear, something will come only from nothing, a founded identity spring only from an openness to death and destitution; but this truth is so terrible that it proves hard to survive it, so that Lear has no sooner passed from the illusory nothingness of "all" to a lowly but determinate "something" than he passes into nothingness once more.


Excerpted from Theology and the Political Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction / Rowan Williams 1

Part I. Revolution and Theological Difference

Tragedy and Revolution / Terry Eagleton 7

Metanoia: The Theological Praxis of Revolution / Creston Davis and Patrick Aaron Riches 22

The “Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy” / Slavoj Zizek 52

Nothing is Something Must Be: Lacan and Creation from No One / Conor Cunningham 72

Revelation and Revolution / Regina Mara Schwartz 102

Part 2. Ontology, Capital, and Kingdom

Capital and Kingdom: An Eschatological Ontology / Philip Goodchild 127

Neither Servility nor Sovereignty: Between Metaphysics and Politics / William Desmond 153

Of Chrematology: Joyce and Money / Simon Chritchley and Tom McCarthy 183

Only Jesus Saves: Toward a Theopolitical Ontology of Judgment / Daniel M. Bell Jr. 200

Part 3. Infinite Desire and the Political Subject

The Political Subject and Absolute Immanence / Antonio Negri 231

Rewriting the Ontological Script of Liberation: On the Question of Finding a New Kind of Political Subject / Kenneth Surin 240

Ecclesia: The Art of the Virtual / Anthony Baker and Rocco Gangle 267

The Univocalist Mode of Production / Catherine Pickstock 281

Part 4. Reenchanting the Political beyond Ontotheology

The Unbearable Withness of Being: On the Essentialist Blind Spot of Anit-ontotheology / Mary-Jane Rubenstein 340

“To Cut Too Deeply and Not Enough”: Violence and the Incorporeal / Elanor Kaufman 350

The Two Sources of the “Theological Machine:: Jacques Derrida and Henri Bergson on Religion, Technicity, War, and Terror / Hent de Vries 366

Part 5. Theological Materialism

Materialism and Transcendence / John Milbank 393

Truth and Peace: Theology and the Body Politic in Augustine and Hobbes / Karl Hefty 427

The Politics of the Eye: Toward a Theological Materialism / Phillip Blond 439

Notes on Contributors 463

Index 467

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