06 November 2015

The Political Sublime

Schmitt, witches and the sublime?

‘Political Sublime. Heterodoxy and Jurisdiction at the Origin of Modernity’ by P.G.Monateri states 
The aim of this paper is to show the demonological origin of modernity, which entails a "sublime" aspect of the political exceeding the words by which we try to capture its nature.
My paper proceeds using the lexicon of the Italian Theory (Agamben and Esposito) to analyse the parallel between King James I and Jean Bodin. Both authors developed the modern conceptions of political sovereignty and both were engaged in witch-trials, writing extensive treatises on the matter. This parallel locates the question of heterodoxy/orthodoxy in the very threshold of modernity.
My tentative conclusion is the possibility of a link between the politicization of the magic world and the genealogy of modernity, reversing, in a way, the standard approach of political theology in favour of a demonological archeology of modern European concepts of law and politics. 
Monateri refers to “the strange interconnections between the rise of the modern concept of sovereignty and the political, and the Jurisdiction over the magic and witchcraft, especially in two different but parallel figures as king James I of England and Jean Bodin in France”, going on to comment
Both authors have indeed written extensively on withcraft, the former in his Demonolgie and the latter in his Demonomanie, and both, as it is well known, have crafted, by practice and in theory, key features of the modern purely political concept of sovereignty.
As such this work is part of an ongoing project of rethinking the origin of modernity and its genealogy pointing at the the sublime aspects of the political. From this standpoint I use what is now labeled as "Italian Theory" and its lexicon to push it into a contingent but different aspect, targeting the "ineffable" of the political.
According to this recent intellectual path, here I use the term political as the English translation of the German term "Das Politisch", to designate the concept of what is political beyond the standard reference denoted by words as politics or policies.
Secondly for "sublime" I mean to make reference to those features of human sensibility re-discovered by Edmund Burke, pointing to what is "beyond words" and probably beyond explicit and clear thought. So everything which is at the same time terrific but attractive, hazardous but seducing, too large or too huge but unescapable, is "sublime". To capture the idea it is enough for the moment to remember that from the standpoint of Burke's aesthetics the sunny mediterranean in daylight is a piece of beauty, but the stormy north sea swaddled in darkness is sublime.
My investigation is then about the dark side of the genealogy of the modern political which happened to be denied by rationalism and to fall into latency, but that persists as a remnant, a residue, exceeding our capacity to verbalise thoroughly what politics is at national and international level.
What, then does it lie at the heart of our political conceptions? What is exactly defeating rationalism in the domain of politics? What is the existential nature of political decisions? Which kind of ghosts are still dominating a globalized world, and isn't the West, after all, one of the most exotic places in this world today?
Of course, having to do with witchcraft and the romantic sublime my theory copes with the place of heterodoxy within the transformations which moulded the surface of European rationalism, as a standard for global orthodoxy, in the scientific appraisal of the political and legal domain. I would like to stress the use of these categories instead of the more common divide between rationalism and irrationalism.
Those who had to do with witches weren't irrationalist at all, they simply had a social ontology different from ours, whereas it is true that many of them, as Bodin, have been condemned as heterodox by the Church.
Also Burke was certainly not an irrational politician, but a very thoughtful and practical one, even if romanticism and its aesthetics raised as a form of heterodoxy in the field of aesthetics and in definition of beauty.
Having to do with witchcraft and the sublime my research tries also to supersede the theory of political theology as an historical account on the genealogy of modernity following the plot of the fall: once there were theological concepts moulding our understanding of the world and the law; these concepts decayed into pure political and legal conceptions, and, as a consequence, modern political orders are but broken pieces of a fallen theology, haunted by its memory.
According to me, these accounts, as long as they follow this plot, are themselves a form of self-improving theological understanding of our political tradition, implying a sense of nostalgia for the pre-politcal world. From this standpoint they can be labeled as "orthodox" as they still believe in a lost paradise of theological ontology surviving under the surface of modernity. On the contrary I think that the birth of the political represented a major fracture in the history of the West, and that its origins were much more heterodox than expected.
My main claim is, indeed, that of a demonological origin of modernity, which lies also at the heart of the romantic aesthetics of the sublime, reversing Schmitt's paradigm, as long as it entails a condemnation of political romanticism, seeing it as a form of eternal discussion avoiding the central point of decision.
At the opposite my project is to show how the pure political element in Western thought emerged from the heterodoxy of magic, and that its "ineffable" dimension was a major concern of romantic aesthetics. In this way my project, following what has recently be labeled as an "aesthetic turn in political thought", will be developed here only in its premises, and, henceforth, my present attempt will focus only on just two main works: James's Demonologie and Bodin's Demonomanie.
Following this path, in the second paragraph I shall present the evolution of the English legislation on magic, to see how it started, at the threshold of modernity, transforming witchcraft into a felony, a political crime of high treason, performing a strong politicization of it. In the third paragraph I shall discuss King James's conceptions about witchcraft and the arcana imperii, the mysteries of prerogative royal. Then in the fourth paragraph I shall cope with the book of Jean Bodin on the Demonomanie and his reflections on the Republic, which led him to his famous definition of sovereignty. My main point will be to remember that the Church condemned the books of Bodin as heterodox, precisely because they offered a political theory of magic.
On this basis I shall formulate my first tentative conclusions in the fifth paragraph, linking, as I said, demonology, heterodoxy and the aesthetics of the sublime.