A Q&A with Insurrections Series Editor Jeffrey Robbins

Radical Democracy and Political Theology

This week we are featuring the Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture series, edited by Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, Jeffrey Robbins, and Slavoj Zizek. Also check out Insurrections on Pinterest!

Today, we have a Q & A with Professor Jeffrey Robbins, in which he discusses some of the essential components of the Insurrections series and their importance today.

Question: Clayton Crockett wrote that insurrectionist theology is not politically neutral and is critical of corporate capitalism. Can you elaborate on the insurrectionist critique of contemporary corporatism?
 
Jeffrey Robbins: Perhaps it is important to distinguish between insurrectionist theology as named and employed by Crockett (together with myself, Creston Davis, and Ward Blanton), and the Insurrections series.  An insurrectionist theology, as we conceive it, is a materialist political theology that takes seriously the emancipatory potential of religion.  Instead of relying on the concept of transcendence or the notion of a transcendent God, it accepts Wittgenstein’s maxim that “the world is all that is the case,” and thus expresses itself in the form of an immanent critique. 
 
Beginning from this point, we can say of the insurrectionist critique that contemporary corporatism is today’s undeniable hegemon.  Consider the story from today’s New York Times:  After protests erupted in Cyprus over the European Union’s planned austerity measures that would seize funds from individual Cypriot savings accounts, Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth, offered its own private bailout to rescue the Cyprus economy.  As the story puts it, “The fate of this proposal is uncertain. . . But it illustrates how a sprawling, wealthy company so deeply entwined with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that it is often called a state within a state is willing to seize an opportunity and exploit weaknesses and divisions within Europe to cement its position and power.”
 
While certain corporations operate as a state within a state (consider here, as well, an entity such as the company formerly known as Blackwater whose CEO admitted it worked as a “virtual extension of the CIA”), marshaling the mechanisms of the state for its own private gain, there are others operating as transnational corporations without respect to national boundaries.  At a minimum, this suggests a new, alternative form of political sovereignty.  Further, when the flow of capital is not only global, but instantaneous, this demands new forms of political organization and new means of political resistance.  And finally, contemporary corporatism’s reign can be considered complete when it becomes the logic—or better, the rubric—by which we determine even educational and philanthropic success.


 
So with this critique of corporate capitalism, our aim is not merely a rehabilitation of the left.  But this is by necessity a theoretical—and theological!—endeavor.  Is it possible that we can simultaneously accept that there is no outside to capitalism (as our series co-editor Slavoj Žižek is fond of saying, which he borrows from Frederick Jameson, why is that today it is easier for Hollywood to imagine the earth being attacked by aliens than it is for us to imagine an alternative to global capitalism?), and at the same time, imagine and develop new habits, forms, and concepts of/for thought? 
 
What makes this a theological endeavor is that it is concerned with where we place our ultimate value.  If we concede the point that the triumph of global capital is so absolute that the world cannot be otherwise, then we have fallen victim to theological despair.  But if we attend to the surplus of values and the surplus of thoughts generated by and within corporate capitalism itself, not only might we draw attention to already existing resistant movements, but also give birth to the various worlds within the world—and thus, give truth to the lie that corporate capitalism’s reign is complete and final.
 
This theology is insurrectionist in contrast to being evolutionary, revolutionary, or resurrectionist.  That is to say, in contrast to much evolutionary theory ours is a new materialism that aims to be non-reductionist.  In addition, it is neither developmental nor teleological.  It is not revolutionary, properly speaking, because it is committed to generating new concepts of thought and new forms of resistance.  And it is not resurrectionist because it refuses to accept the necessity of death for life; instead, it means to affirm the already existing life forms that might rise up out of life for the sake of this world.
 
While the articulation of this insurrectionist theology is still a project in the making, we believe that the Insurrections series has already established itself as a leading venue for the publication of critical works in religious theory that have a palpable political edge.  This is most clearly exemplified in Hermeneutic Communism, by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala.  In this work, Vattimo and Zabala accomplish the nearly unthinkable task:  not only taking on the mantle of Heidegger for their entirely original and sorely needed articulation of the meaning of the politics of hermeneutics, but convincingly demonstrating that a truly Heideggerian politics would be communist, not fascist.  In so doing, they redefine and redirect philosophical hermeneutics by making it abundantly clear that interpretation is a political act.  And by philosophically reflecting on the nature of interpretation, a particular, if not certain, politics is bequeathed: a reinvigorated communism severed from its metaphysical foundations, an antifoundationalist and postmetaphysical politics that eschews violence, a weak Marxism that by its “South American alternative” aims to dissolve the Euro-American death grip on geopolitics.
 
Vattimo and Zabala are not writing an insurrectionist theology, but just as we are seeking to explore the ways theological thinkng can develop into, and become a part of, a meaningful political critique of contemporary corporatism, so too have they invested hermeneutics with a real political commitment to giving articulation to what they call “the thought of the weak” and in solidarity with those they term “the discharge of capitalism.”  Add to this works by the likes of Alain Badiou, Peter Sloterdijk, and Richard Kearney, and it should be clear that we are not striving for doctrinal purity or even a school of thought. 
 
Q: The death of God and the postsecularism of contemporary society is an essential component of this new theology. What is the ‘death of God’ and how does it work into postsecularism?
 
JR: I think the best answer we can give to this question comes from the first book from our series, After the Death of God, with John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo. That book explored how the postmetaphysical, deconstructive philosophies of Caputo and Vattimo respectively provide alternative forms of postmodern faith.  In so doing, it links Caputo’s weak theology with Vattimo’s weak ontology, postmodernism with postsecularism, and not without some irony, the death of God with the so-called return of religion. 
 
Series co-editor Slavoj Žižek has directly engaged this Caputo-Vattimo exchange in his book with John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ.  Žižek expresses sympathy for Caputo, but still nevertheless insists on a stronger return to death-of-God theology.  He invokes the work of Thomas Altizer to contrasts his Hegelian, metaphysical reading of the death of God with the post-metaphysical readings of Caputo and Vattimo.  Where Caputo and Vattimo affirm the weakness of God, Žižek accuses them of a “soft” postmodern theology that obscures the traumatic truth of Christianity.
 
If Žižek is pushing Caputo and Vattimo to be more radical, then on the other side we have Richard Kearney insisting on the return to God after God.  Kearney has been one of Caputo’s most sympathetic and fiercest interlocutors.  And at times he has expressed the concern that Caputo is dangerously close to falling off the rails, that by Caputo’s epistemological undecidability he has left himself utterly incapable of distinguishing between gods and monsters, or in a particularly rich image, between Mary impregnated by the Word of God and Ellen Ripley impregnated by the extraterrestrial in Alien Resurrection.
 
Here again, by this live debate over the meaning of the death of God, our series does not intend a rigidly defined, doctrinaire position.  Our aim is to open up theological and contemporary religious discourse, to be secular in the sense of operating without any ecclesiastical restraints.

Q: What implications does political theology have for modern democracy?
 
JR: This is the subject of my Radical Democracy and Political Theology and Clayton Crockett’s Radical Political Theology.  In short, we both argue in different ways that with the passing of old, modern, liberal norms with respect to its strict secularist ideal and more generally with respect to its assumption of the viability of the separation of powers, political theology is now situated as a necessary supplement to rethinking the conceptual basis of democracy itself. 

Connecting up with the previous question posed, my thesis has been that democracy is the political instantiation of the death of God.  I show this by an interrogation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America wherein he confesses to his own form of what he calls a religious terror.  Namely, once the people occupy the place once occupied by God by virtue of the notion of the popular sovereign, then it is as if God has willed God’s own annihilation.  At the same time, Tocqueville marvels at the vitality of religious life in America.  So we might say, even after the death of God, religion remains.  Or even more forcefully, in the modern democratic age, the death of God is the condition of possibility for religion. 

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