By Joseph Trullinger
(Read Part I here)
Before further detailing how Agamben’s concepts help to explain this regressive isolationist autocracy, it helps to know that he is building upon the theory of Carl Schmitt, the foremost jurist of the Nazi party, who sets forth in his Political Theology of 1922 the claim that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts….” (Schmitt, 36). By this Schmitt is arguing that in our superficially secular age certain religious ideas persist because they speak to coherent ways of regarding political situations. Just as in theology God has supreme control over the laws of the universe, in politics a sovereign should have the latitude to operate outside existing law in order to preserve the very existence of the state and therefore the very possibility of law to begin with. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (5).
Not only must the sovereign be able to decide what to do about exceptional circumstances (imposing martial law in a crisis, say), but the sovereign must also have final say over what counts as an exception, otherwise the necessary steps will not be taken as committees and review boards and straw polls bicker amongst themselves. “The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hopes that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion. Dictatorship is the opposite of discussion” (63). Schmitt applauds the capacity of the dictator to act swiftly without compunction for the objections of others, as the nature of political reality is constant struggle, where law and order cannot be assumed as natural components of the universe but instead must be imposed on a chaos, much in the way that in Genesis God gives order ex nihilo to the formless void, without first checking to see if there is precedent for doing so.
As our political systems reflect theological systems, Schmitt thinks it is no accident that democracies arise in France and America at the same time that deism arises: both liberalism and deism assume that reality predictably operates according to rational and universal laws, like a clockwork, without much if any need for a supreme personhood to intervene or overturn these basic mechanisms (38). The Enlightenment teaches us that collective decision-making is possible on the basis of healthy debate, ignoring completely the question of who decides when a debate is over, and furthermore how to go about implementing a rule in real-life cases. Thus traditional Catholicism was onto something with its belief in miracles—the ability of God to suspend and act outside law—as this captures what the dictator has to do to carve normalcy out of chaos (36). If the parallels between Schmitt and Bannon’s right-wing Catholic traditionalism were not clear enough, bear in mind Schmitt’s approval of the Hobbesian slogan autoritas, non veritas facit legem (“authority, not truth, is what makes law”), and then consider Bannon’s aforementioned praise of the rhetorical tactics of Darth Vader and “the father of lies,” Satan (52). In such apocalypticism as Schmitt’s and Bannon’s, the “charisma of truth” is a matter of self-acclamation and its propagation—or as it is more commonly known, propaganda.
If we return to Lenny’s method of being an “invisible pope,” a sort of media blitz in reverse, we can see Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty at work. When he gives his first public address, he makes sure that there are no lights on him, so that he is nothing more than a silhouette haranguing the masses with an imperious, booming voice from a lofty balcony. Unseen but impossible to ignore, he recreates the aloofness and authoritarianism of Schmitt’s God. It is not a gentle or inviting mystery that he evokes, but a frightening and punitive one:
“What have we forgotten? What have we forgotten? We have forgotten God! You! You have forgotten God! I want to be very clear with you. You have to be closer to God than to each other. I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God. I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God. All I can do is remind them of my scorn and their wretchedness. I don’t have to prove that God exists. It is up to you to prove that he doesn’t. Are you capable of proving that God does not exist? If you aren’t able to prove it that means God does exist. God exists. And he isn’t interested in us until we become interested in him—in him exclusively. You understand what I’m saying? Exclusively! Twenty-four hours a day your hearts and minds filled only with God, there’s no room for anything else, no room for free will, no room for liberty, no room for emancipation. “Free yourself from God,” I’ve heard people say, “liberate yourself from God.” But the pain of liberation is unbearable, sharp enough to kill. Without God, you’re as good as dead: dead, abandoned strays wandering the streets.”
Aside from the fallaciousness of thinking the failure to prove God’s existence guarantees that he does exist, this speech presents us with a terrifying and inhumane either/or: godliness and community are mutually exclusive terms, rendering faith a tyrannical life of subjugation and isolation. Lest we think of that as a pseudo-life, Lenny stresses that our desire for freedom and connection with others is a modern fabrication, and that movements for liberation are actually a kind of death-in-life, or as Agamben calls it, “bare life” (Stanescu). To this mindset, the “wretchedness” of modern life is decadence, unaware of how it is rotting away from the inside and only capable of being restored to life through unquestioning obedience to a strong-willed leader who will take actions that scandalize our liberal moral sense (itself a product of shifty intellectuals). In other words, Lenny’s speech bears a family resemblance to a number of features of what Umberto Eco calls “ur-fascism.”
Eco goes on to say, “We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple” (Eco). Whereas Eco is worried about ur-fascism creeping back into our midst through a Trojan horse, what if the real danger were that authoritarianism could announce itself and intentions in simple terms—and we simply did nothing about it? What if those in charge did not mind whether the whole world is watching? What if, in fact, autocrats thrive off of making shows of power into a public spectacle? While a number of recent elections in Europe have gone in favor of politically moderate candidates, it’s undeniable that candidates can get quite far by openly advocating regressive isolationist autocracy.
If we delve into Agamben’s theory of how sovereignty requires glory, we can see why open and unapologetically authoritarian figures succeed: because they are openly and unapologetically acclaiming power. Glorification is acclamation, and by the very declaration that somebody is powerful, by their glorification, they claim power. Zeroing in on the etymology of liturgy as “public service” (leitourgeia), Agamben notes how ceremonies and hymns of praise in church give glory to a God who supposedly already has all glory, a paradox that reveals how godlike power needs glorification (Agamben, 214). This means that Schmitt’s sovereign takes on his godlike status by virtue of being glorified, which both stimulates and is stimulated by appearing glorious: through immaculate ostrich feathers, triple crowns, glittering rings, rich cloth and other finery, the pope enjoys sovereignty over the fate of souls by towering over them as something more than a mortal. It is a mistake of liberalism to think that one attains authority by first being especially virtuous or possessing sound arguments about a preexisting truth; instead, as Agamben’s intervention on Schmitt suggests, authoritarianism picks up steam simply by virtue of its own spectacle, by being eye-catching, even—or perhaps especially—by being invisible in a highly visible way, as Lenny does by showing up as a shadow, as unseen as the face of God. Agamben calls this negative space at the heart of glory an “empty throne,” from which “God reigns but he does not govern” (“Rex regnat et non gubernat”—this saying appears to have been coined by Jan Zamoyski, a Polish chancellor (1542-1605) describing how in his country the king is sovereign without involving himself in the affairs of how the state is managed). As uninvolved or “inoperative,” the divinity and the sovereign who imitates him is above the petty work of management, yet nonetheless in charge:
“At the beginning and the end of the highest power there stands, according to Christian theology, a figure not of action and government but of inoperativity. The indescribable mystery that glory, with its blinding light, must hide from the gaze of the scrutatores maiestatis is that of divine inoperativity, of what God does before creating the world and after the providential government of the world is complete. It is not the kabhod, which cannot be thought or looked upon, but the inoperative majesty that it veils with its clouds and the splendor of its insignia. Glory, both in theology and in politics, is what takes the place of that unthinkable emptiness that amounts to the inoperativity of power. And yet, precisely this unsayable vacuity is what nourishes and feeds power (or, rather, what the machine of power transforms into nourishment). That means that the center of the governmental apparatus, the threshold at which Kingdom and Government ceaselessly communicate and ceaselessly distinguish themselves from one another is, in reality, empty…. In the iconography of power, profane and religious, this central vacuity of glory, this intimacy of majesty and inoperativity, found its exemplary symbol in the hetoimasia tou thronou, that is, in the image of the empty throne” (242-243).
Turning back to what Pius V says to Lenny (Pius XIII) in The Young Pope, “power is a banal platitude” that is no less powerful for being banal, and perhaps even more so. The Young Pope may be superficial, but it is a surface so polished it appears as bottomless depth, an abyss that draws you in despite having no soul or substance at its foundation. It is glory that makes power seductive, and this is best captured in what seems to have garnered the most attention about the show: the scene where Lenny gets dressed in papal regalia to the non-diegetic sounds of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” On paper this seems like a combination that would never work, and yet somehow it does, and I think Agamben’s concept of glory explains why. Lenny selects the most ornate shoes possible, he puts on a white rochet whose lace is so fine as to be diaphanous, and he gasps in slow motion when he sees the jewel-encrusted splendor of the papal tiara. He looks glorious and he knows it, and this self-acclamation imbues him with an almost superhuman power, “the charisma of truth”—or at least the charisma of a glorified platitude.
The existence of superficial or “postmodern” pop culture in arch-conservative political movements is not half so inventive as its propagators would have us believe; instead, it is picking up on a regrettable historical tendency people have to find the glorification of power seductive. Against this charisma of “banal platitude”—the banality of evil as Arendt understands it—it is imperative that we watch out for this proclivity to pledge allegiance to imperiousness. This grants vital importance to the kind of theology that we do, and makes it important to study theology even if one is an atheist, as there is no politically neutral theology, no theology without political consequences. I argue elsewhere that identifying omnipotence as God’s most essential attribute is part and parcel of authoritarian conceptions of sovereignty. By thinking of God as Power, we tend to be power-worshippers. If we instead think of God along the lines of the Good—and of goodness in terms of self-consistent freedom that allows others to be free—then we begin to think beyond the ideology of the established order. There are some hints of this in the show, such as when Lenny teaches another character that in prayer “we reflect in the most elevated way we can, so that someone can whisper thoughts into our ears—we call that someone God.” This attitude of elevated searching without claiming to have found, without self-acclamation and self-glorification, hints at something else the show could’ve chosen to embody, something more difficult to express, the kenotic character of a Suffering Servant who embodied a kind of glory that forsakes power in order to do good (Philippians 2:1-8).
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 1985.
James Stanescu, “Animal, all too Animal: On Bare Life, part I,” Critical Animal, http://www.criticalanimal.com/2009/09/animal-all-too-animal-on-bare-life-part.html?m=1.
Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995.
Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2011.
Joseph Trullinger has been an Assistant Professor of Honors and Philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, DC since the fall of 2014. He is the author of several articles on Kant’s philosophy of religion, examining issues of the psychology of moral faith. He has also authored a few essays on Marcuse’s aesthetic sensibility and anti-productivism. His recent projects include research into the parallels between liberation theology and Kant’s ethicotheology. You can read about his ongoing thoughts on his personal blog, Between Two Untruths.