Political Theology or Theological Politics? 

Political Theology or Theological Politics? Hugo Ball, Early Christian Hagiography, and a New Vision for Society

by Sebastian P. Klinger

A contribution to modernist studies and the history of political ideas, this article examines the unlikely intellectual dialogue between Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) and the former Dadaist Hugo Ball (1886–1927), a dialogue that frames the formative scene of politico-theological discourse in the twentieth century. Based on close readings of Ball’s aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical exchanges with Schmitt, the essay offers insights into the peculiar case of a Catholic intervention into political theology.

The essay begins:

For more than a century, political philosophers and cultural critics have grappled with the problem of political theology, whose resurgence seems to align with the crises of liberal democracy. Defined in general terms as the reassertion of religion’s place within the putatively secularized public sphere, political theology has sparked extensive scholarly debates in the past two decades, driven by the work of social, legal, and political theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Claude Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, Paul Kahn, and Eric Santner. At the center of these debates is the conceptual legacy of the right-wing jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). In his influential book Political Theology (1922), Schmitt postulates that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” and links this claim to a theory of sovereignty that invests power with transcendent authority. To finesse and further the understanding of the founding scene of political theology, the present essay rereads Schmitt’s dialogue with the artist Hugo Ball (1886–1927), which paralleled the publication of Political Theology in 1922. Bonding over Catholic values, Ball and Schmitt studied each other’s writings, exchanged letters, met in person, and discussed their book projects. But the elective affinity between the Dadaist-turned-oblate and the prospective “Crown Jurist” of the Third Reich ground to a halt after Ball published the first-ever examination of Schmitt’s thought. The study at hand analyzes how Schmitt and Ball begin from Catholic principles but then move apart as they seek to define political theology.

Ball’s contribution to political theology has been mostly overlooked in the wider scholarly debate for three reasons: the historic encounter of Ball and Schmitt seems unlikely; the texts in which Ball’s critique unfolds are hermetic and difficult to access; and the thrust of his argument points in a direction different from more recent studies on economic-political theology. Today, Ball remains best known for his flamboyant involvement with the Zurich art movement Dada, in particular, for his legendary performance as a “magical bishop”; for his friendships with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; and for an antiwar activism that expanded into a thorough intellectual critique of German militarism. But in the aftermath of the Great War, the former Dadaist broke with his left-wing past and returned to the Catholicism of his childhood, searching for a form of life that negated the violent turn of Western culture. It was then that he entered into dialogue with Schmitt, whom Ball initially perceived as a new Catholic philosopher, “great and expansive like a scholastic.” Between 1919 and 1925, they discussed what political theology could mean—an urgent question in the face of the historically unprecedented opportunity to rethink Germany’s social order from scratch after the November Revolution of 1918–19 had unseated the emperor and launched the country on its ill-fated and crisis-ridden experiment with parliamentary democracy.

Ball and Schmitt shared many concerns, but their dialogue revealed fundamental divergences on political theology. Near the end of their exchange, Ball noted: “In my experience, reaching an understanding with someone else is a thorny and delicate matter. For this reason one has to write books.” In direct response to the appearance of Schmitt’s seminal Political Theology, Ball published two texts of his own that are entwined with his turbulent exchange with Schmitt. One of these texts bears in an obvious way on the dialogue: Ball’s essay “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology” (1924) combines a magisterial command of Schmitt’s thought with a subtle but scathing intellectual critique of his interlocutor. It points out the shortcomings of political theology with regard to the nature of the zoon politikon, the concept of politics, and the notion of sovereignty. Concurrently, Ball laid out his own political vision in a strange book entitled Byzantine Christianity: The Lives of Three Saints (1923). This book focuses on the form of life developed by John Climacus, a monk and hermit of the seventh century; Dionysius the Areopagite, a late fifth- to early sixth-century Christian theologian and philosopher; and Saint Simeon Stylites, a fourth-century anchorite. Although Ball’s startling turn to hagiography seems to stand out as a departure from pressing questions of politics, Byzantine Christianity contains, paradoxically, a new vision for German society. Why, though, did Ball choose the genre of hagiography to convey his ideas? In what follows I will argue that these two texts work together as an intervention into political theology.

Approaches to the later work of Ball tend to fall into two camps: that of his “Catholic quietude” and that of a “sacralization of power.” Yet Ball’s association and interaction with Schmitt complicates both of these arguments. My argument differs from the quietude thesis, as it shows that Ball strives to deactivate the distinction between friend and enemy as the “specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced.” And it differs from the “sacralization-of-power thesis,” as Ball’s theological politics seeks to establish the transcendent law as an “institution” that “can never come into direct relation with the state.” For Ball, the church becomes an institution only in its suspension; what legitimizes it is resistance to a government gone rogue. Basing my argument on close readings of Ball’s Byzantine Christianity and “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology,” I contend that such theological politics must be conceived as a critique of Schmitt’s thought. If Schmitt legitimizes political authority with a transcendent source, Ball delegitimizes it; if Schmitt glorifies the sovereign, Ball champions the saint; if Schmitt does away with human rights, Ball declares “opposition” to the violation of human rights as “the highest duty.” I develop my argument in two steps: I begin with a discussion of Ball’s political vision in Byzantine Christianity, paying close attention to the aesthetic form of the book and its place in history. I then examine Ball’s “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology” and bring out his critique of Schmitt. Continue reading …

SEBASTIAN P. KLINGER is a PhD candidate in the Department of German at Princeton University. His research investigates sleep experiments in literature, science, and society, 1899–1929.

 

Weird Scholarship Meets Weird Studies

Literally. We just found out that Phil Ford, one of the authors in our just-released Weird Scholarship virtual issue, is also the co-host of the podcast Weird Studies, whose most recent show is “On Ishmael Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo,’ or, Why We Need More Magical Thinking.”

For more on our virtual issue (available free for a limited time), visit Representations at UC Press. And check out the the full roster of episodes from Phil Ford and co-host, J. F. Martel, at Weird Studies.

Weird Scholarship

Read Representations’ new special virtual issue, “Weird Scholarship: From Curious to Rare,” free for a limited time.

Of the many cross-disciplinary and topical strands that have emerged from nearly forty years of Representations in print, one stands out: a kind of research that perhaps originated in the journal’s pages and remains difficult to find elsewhere–what might fondly be called “weird scholarship.” We invite you to dip into a virtual issue featuring some of the most representative examples in this vein, available free of charge for a limited time.

The essays selected for this virtual issue highlight examples from the early years of Representations, by which the contours of New Historicism became known, and many examples from more recent issues, which show how the conversation among disparate discourses has born strange and wonderful fruit.

Weird Scholarship: From Curious to Rare

Table of Contents

Introduction

Terry Castle. The Female Thermometer, no. 17, 1987

István Rév. In Mendacio Veritas (In Lies There Lies the Truth), no. 35, 1991

Nathaniel Mackey. Other: From Noun to Verb, no. 39, 1992

Elaine Scarry. On Vivacity: The Difference Between Daydreaming and Imagining Under-Authorial-Instruction, no. 52, 1995

Michel Zink. Nerval in the Library, or The Archives of the Soul, no. 56, 1996

Jessica Riskin. Eighteenth-Century Wetware, no. 83, 2003

Sue Waterman. Collecting the Nineteenth Century, no. 90, 2005

Phil Ford. Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica, no. 103, 2008

Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. Negative-Positive Truths, no. 113, 2011

Carolyn Steedman. Cries Unheard, Sights Unseen: Writing the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, no. 118, 2012

D. Vance Smith. Fallacy: Close Reading and the Beginning of Philosophy, no. 140, 2017

A Spectacle in New Spain

The Sultan Hernán Cortés: The Double Staging of The Conquest of Jerusalem

by Nicole T. Hughes

In 1541, the Franciscan friar Motolinía sent to Spain an account of the Tlaxcalan people performing the religious drama The Conquest of Jerusalem in Tlaxcala, New Spain. Previous scholars have read his festival account to reflect only local political interests. In this essay Nicole Hughes argues that the account is a palimpsest, describing both the Tlaxcalans’ ambitious diplomatic strategy, expressed in their performance, and Motolinía’s own efforts to steer Castile’s policies in the Americas and the greater Mediterranean.

The essay begins:

The very idea of a “New World” conveys a sense of rupture. Yet the culture of sixteenth-century New Spain is rich in interwoven historical imaginaries. Hall-of-mirrors effects were particularly complex in theatrical spectacles based on Mediterranean battles that featured as characters Turks, Moors, and Catholic knights. It is often assumed that European actors always depicted Catholic forces destined for victory while all indigenous participants played Muslims doomed to defeat. This conforms to the false expectation that, after the conquest, there were only triumphant Europeans and defeated “Indians” in Mesoamerica.

Yet when the Tlaxcalans, the conquistadors’ most famous indigenous allies, performed the drama The Conquest of Jerusalem for the feast of Corpus Christi in 1539, they played many roles. These included Moors and Turks as well as soldiers from Italy and Germany, “Indians” from Peru and Santo Domingo, and the pope. More strikingly still, one of the play’s central characters was neither exclusively Muslim nor Christian, neither wholly defeated nor resoundingly victorious. This is because he is a double character. The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, also known as Motolinía, introduces him as follows in his account of the feast: “[The Spanish army] marched in good order straight upon Jerusalem, and as the Sultan, the Marquis of the Valley, Don Hernando Cortés saw them come, he ordered his people to go out into battle.” Motolinía describes a figure that condenses Hernán Cortés, the Catholic conquistador who led the Siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521, and an Islamic sultan who defends and ultimately surrenders Jerusalem in the drama. The sultan’s paradoxical identity challenges the scholarly expectation of clean-cut opposition, not only between European and indigenous figures in the Americas, but also between figures of Muslims and Christians in the “Old World.”

This article reveals the full complexity of the “Sultan Hernán Cortés” by first focusing on the doubled audience of The Conquest of Jerusalem: the one in Tlaxcala, where this auto, or short religious drama, was performed, and the other in Spain, where Motolinía’s account of it would be delivered to his patron, who was tied to the Spanish court. The sultan himself, and the textual and historical complexities of his character, will reveal the stakes of Motolinía’s text within contemporary debates concerning royal policy in New Spain. Continue reading …

NICOLE T. HUGHES is Assistant Professor of Brazilian and Mexican Literature and Culture in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Stages of History: New Spain, Brazil, and the Theater of the World in the Sixteenth Century.