Four glosses on Carl Schmitt’s “The Planetary Tension Between Orient and Occident”. by Gerardo Muñoz

§. Theses short glosses were originally written as a textual analysis accompanying the publication of the essay for the Le Grand ContinentArchives et Discours” section a while back, but it was never published. I am making them available here with minor changes if at all. The commentaries follow a specific fragments of Carl Schmitt’s “The Planetary Tension Between Orient and Occident and the Opposition Between Land and Sea” (Revista de Estudios Políticos 81 (1955)) and elaborate their importance in light of Schmitt’s overall work.

“Some researchers have gone so far as to recognize here an ancient conflict between word and image, one that comes down to a general conflict between hearing and sight, the acoustic and the visual, to the point of ascribing word and sound to the Orient; and image and sight to the Occident.”

(1) This seemly playful derive captures a cardinal point in Schmitt’s postwar thinking, which seeks in an array of ways to come to terms with the downfall of the Leviathan and the freestanding authority of state form. Schmitt’s postwar writing horizon will focus on the question of nomos, as the supreme legal tradition of the Western invention of ius publicum europeum. Against the rise of ideologies, which for Schmitt denote the eventual or direct annihilation of the enemy in the context of a rising civil war or war against Humanity, here iconography appears as a way to take back the arcana of the visibility of an order in the way of the Roman Catholic Church as the concrete principle of institutionality in the West. The play between image, visibility, and language thematized here goes back to his arguments of the important tract Roman Catholicism and Political Form, which lays out his theory of the complexio oppositorum of the ecclesiastical representation. The power of iconography means reverence and commandment as opposition to the fluidity of economic technicity, liberal dialogue, or moral humanism, which for Schmitt signals the very disintegration of the ius publicum europeum as principle of discrimination between state authorities. The direction mention of the acoustic element also resonates with his essay on Rome as “raum” (situated concrete space), which exemplifies Schmitt’s postwar commitments in thinking new principles of internal law and principles of aggression. Finally, the Orient (or Russia, specifically) for Schmitt was understood as the intensification of nineteenth century revolutionary politics that demanded even more so the response of a Katechon from the West, which he took himself to be the heir after the intuitions of Donoso Cortés and Tocqueville.

“In conformity with his spiritual position, he conceives the opposition between land and sea in terms of a polarity and not as a dialectical tension brought about by an irreversible historical process. The difference between a polar tension and a dialectical one is, at least for us today, decisive.”

(2) There is reference to Goethe is extremely important if not contextualized. It is also in the post-war years when Carl Schmitt enters in dialogue with one of the greatest thinkers of Germany, Hans Blumenberg, with whom he would establish a long-lasting epistolary exchange about the place of secularization of Western modernity. Whereas for Blumenberg, Goethe stood as the figure of the new myth of modern rationality as myth ‘Nemo contra Deum nisi Deus ipse’ proper to the Enlightenment; for Schmitt Goethe represented the figure (gestalt) of a Romantic Age driven by the force of the genius. As it becomes clear in his important diary Glossarium and Political Romanticism, Goethe symbolized the classical genius that will lead to the age of neutralization Against the Goethean promethean myth, Schmitt will eventually endorse the myth of a “Christian Epimetheus” vis-à-vis the little-known Catholic poet Konrad Weiß. It is Weiß who was able to execute a myth that can bring into synthesis the dialectical tension that structured Europe as a territory (land and sea nomoi) within the structure of a Christian philosophy of history of salvation. The poetic arcana embodied by Konrad Weiß, as he writes in Glossarium (14.10.55): “offers the Mount of World History as the true historical reality”.

“It created a counterweight to the terrestrial world, holding in its hands the equilibrium of the world and with it world peace in the balance. Such was the result of a concrete response to the call posed by the open sea(s). Upon this island of England, which had answered the call and had accomplished the passage to a maritime existence, there emerged in that instant the first machines.”

(3) Here we are confronted with a direct articulation of Schmitt’s tropology of modernity as a caesura between land and sea, to which he dedicated book of the same title. Here Schmitt’s political thought on imperii pertains to the Hobbesian foundation of authority and positivism, while the British Empire and the adventure of the Industrial Revolution stand for adventures of the technification of modernity. The sea as a flat surface, cannot yield “distributions and appropriations”, hence it is the space of anarchy and contestation of the nomos of earth. Indeed, the sea as the “maritime existence”, is always an ex-nomos, it is the land of the pirates, because it is outside of what for Schmitt constitutes every topoi: appropriation, distribution, and production (nemin, teilen, weiden). The adventure of the seas is always an experience of the atopos, and thus, necessarily, anomic, beyond the potentiality of being ordered by law. The critique of politics as technology, coming from the spirit of the ius publicum europeum (not from the overreaching transmission of onto-theology as for Heidegger), is precisely what initiates the conversion of the world into a “planet” as a site for production and economic neutralization. This is why, although it might seem at first sight that the sea is a challenge of an opening, it is really the exhaustion of the idea of territory that cannot be measured. As Schmitt will argue in a conference delivered in Spain, 1962, “The Order of the World after the Second World War”: “the [new] division of the earth into industrially developed regions or less developed regions, joined with the immediate question on of who accepts development aid from whom. This distribution is today the true constitution of the earth” (Schmitt 2018, 163). In other worlds, the destiny of politics becomes geopolitical containment. But the second-best option, Schmitt thought, was also offered by the Christian tradition through the figure of the Katechon. 

“Everyone says that modern technology has made our Earth ridiculously small. For this reason, we ought to seek out those new spaces that emerge from the new call on our earth and not outside it, in the cosmos. The one who succeeds in corralling unfettered technology in order to dominate and insert it into a concrete order, is the one who offers a true response to the present call, not the one who attempts to land on the Moon or Mars with the resources given to him by that unfettered technology. Taming unfettered technology would be, for example, the work of a new Hercules. It is from this direction that I await the new call, the “Challenge” of our present.

(4) In the 1950s, Carl Schmitt is no longer the adventurist jurist of the 1920s and 1930s. Defeated both politically and professionally (he has been also banned from the university), he would describe himself as a “Christian Epimetheus” and a survivalist from the mutiny of Benito Cereno’s ship. It is important to note that the figure of Epimetheus maintains a relation with the concrete order of the rule of law, which for Schmitt enters an existential crisis when the path new International Law is consolidated in the context of the Cold War. Schmitt wants to maintain a relation to a concrete order (a variation of positivism with broad prerogatives for strong decisionism) in the wake of international law. For Schmitt, the new planetary humanitarianism is a flight from the concrete world, as well as from the possibility of conflict, and ultimately from the Earth as site of human existence. In Glossarium, Schmitt confronts this crisis through another hilarious extraterrestrial fable about Mars: 

“Utopia in Mars. How beautiful is the Earth? The inhabitants of Mars are belligerent, according to a report by man. They are also addicted to fights and they are obsessed with always being correct. There are also well-known professors who endorse pacifism. This is the reason why they do not fight wars that are just…. The pacifists believe that the Earth has been in a state of perpetual peace, and that Germany is a normal case of the overall situation of the Earth” (Saralegui 2016, 60).

The utopia of Mars was, needless to say, a mere mirror image of the technical development taking place in the juridical and productive forces of the new international system oblivious to the concrete order of positive law. In his “Dialogue on New Space”, Schmitt imagines the figure of a technician ‘MacFuture” who would “rather journey the Moon and to Mars than remain on this puny planet” (Schmitt 2015, 80). The radical detachment of the human from the Earth initiates the highest phase of technical reproduction and uncontained civil war. In the end, the crisis of order and the impossibility of having an enemy (through which one can define oneself) was the essence of what Schmitt calls here the ‘unfettered technology’, which was another word for nihilism. The race for the landing of the moon between the two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, resembled a challenge for the destiny of the human as a divine specie (a creature of original sin, according to Schmitt’s assumed Augustinian principle). For Schmitt, the closing of the world meant the end of man as a sacred being capable of controlling and taming the energy of the political, since now technology can be interpreted as a destructive force of the friend-enemy distinction. As he says in a late text “On the TV-Democracy”: “The problem decisive for me, namely, that of the possibility of an enemy, ceases, is a wholly other question…. the new possibilities technology is yet more astounding than people today can image” (Schmitt 2018, 205). But the crisis of the strong notion of the political is also the crisis of the general horizon of Schmitt’s thought, as Carl Galli has argued in relation to the crisis of sovereign state form (Muñoz, 2019).

The crisis of containment of intra-worldly law today, is exacerbated by the drive of unlimited outer-space development, as Jeff Bezos’ recent interest in Moon flights brings it to bear (Financial Times, May 2019). For Bezos it is no longer interested in “landing in the moon”; what is at stake is a finite assumption of apocalypticism but without any transcendental recurse to the infinite. Hence, the new global legal humanitarianism, very much like the flight to the Moon, meant for Schmitt a continuous erosion of the sense of world as a concrete order rooted in law and containment (Katechon). Insofar as this crisis continues, Schmitt’s insights are still a challenge for our times when thinking the collapse of politics, the crisis of the authority of the rule of law, and perhaps the possibility of thinking another nomos of existing on the Earth.




Muñoz, Gerardo. “Entrevista a Carlo Galli: “Una democracia carente de centro político se encuentra a la merced de cada amenaza.”, Cuarto Poder, mayo de 2019,

Saralegui, Miguel. Carl Schmitt: pensador español. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2016.

Schmitt, Carl. The Tyranny of Values and other texts. Translated by Samuel Zeitlin. Candor: Telos Press Publishing, 2018.

________. Dialogues on Power and Space. New York: Polity, 2015. 

________. Glossarium.: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1947 bis 1958. Dunker & Humblot, 2015.

________. Ex captivitate salus: Experiences, 1945-1947. New York: Polity, 2017.

Stacey, Kiran. “Jeff Bezos launches plan for moon vehicle”. Financial Times, May 2019.

Villacañas, José Luis. “Carl Schmitt, Epimeteo Cristiano”, in Respuestas en Nuremberg. Madrid: Escolar y Mayo Editores, 2016.

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