Mårten Björk’s The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg: Theology and Resistance Between 1914-1945 (Bloomsbury, 2022) is a major contribution to the ongoing discussion on theology, politics, and life in our present. Indeed, this book of unmatched originality will radically change the coordinates that have structured these debates in and beyond the academic disciplines involved. First conceived as a longer dissertation entitled Life outside life and defended at Gothenburg University in 2018 (which included an voluminous and illuminating chapter on the work of German theologian Erik Peterson, not included in the published monograph and scheduled for publication in the near future) studies three figures of the German interwar period that confronted the civilizational catastrophe of the twentieth century and the rise of the regime of mass production. Through different conceptual elaborations in Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Barth, and the Oskar Goldberg Group (it also includes thinkers such as Adolf Caspary and Erich Unger) a unified thesis emerges: these thinkers crafted a fundamental response to the collapse of the legitimacy of the modern epoch through a radical imagination of immortality and eternal life (Björk 2022, 3). From an angular perspective, Björk’s book measures to Hans Blumenberg’s groundbreaking defense of the legitimacy of modernity through “self-affirmation” of the human; a philosophical anthropology predicament that today has become fully integrated into the arts of planetary destruction, although its genesis is to be captured in the first decades of twentieth century through the dawn of a new catastrophic politics (the term is coined by Erich Unger in his Politics and Metaphysics). In Björk’s account, these thinkers took the stance against the stimmung of the epoch, its historical closure as well as the immanence of nature in order to take up a historical collapse that was civilizational in nature.
It would be a common place to remind the readers of this book that the figures of the research (with the exception of Rosenzweig who in some corners has been taken as the greatest Jewish philosopher since Maimonides) have been unwarranted buried in the monumental and political historiographies of the period and in the edifice of normative Continental philosophies of the twentieth century. However, Björk’s monograph is no simple restitution of dead old men, as this would be too accommodating to the field of the history of philosophy. Behind these figures there are multiple strategic displacements that connect the destruction of biopolitics to the reformulation of ethics of the dead, as well as the revision of Judaic theological sources to execute an effective retreat from the collapse of civilization of the last 5000 years of the human species. In this quadrant there is also a timely gesture on the complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity; a relation that the book never really solves, although it runs throughout the book flagged for possible future explorations. Methodologically, it is the field of “theology” (not of science of religions a la Weber) that returns to the center as a way to explored an unthought dimension of immortality – that Björk properly renders as life outside life, against all biopolitical saturation and ecological catastrophe of the natural world. It goes without saying that there is an untimely tone that directly speaks to our present. Indeed, it is the radical theological and cosmological presuppositions (outside the formalism of religion and the apocalyptic historical saeculum of the Church) where something like a radical new existence of what it means to live can be rethought. This is Björk’s fundamental invitation.
In “Yearning for a system: Franz Rosenzweig and the great paganism of life’, Björk offers an all-encompassing outlook to the work of the Jewish scholar whose famous Star of Redemption was also accompanied by an interest in European geopolitics of the first decades of the century. In the midst of the First World War, Rosenzweig witnessed the rise of a new paganism of the state as the acceleration of the struggle for life in the West reproducing forever war (Björk 2022, 29). For Rosenzweig modernity was not an authentic or unfinished secularization, but rather the institutionalization of a pagan order of depredatory confrontation that foreclosed the world without outside: absolute immanence now meant the subjectivation of new false gods of modern civilization ordered towards survival and struggle (Björk 2022, 25). Against this backdrop, Björk reads Rosenzweig’s Star as an original theosophy of redemption of the world that exceeds the national political counters, while offering a new planetary and universal dimension of salvation beyond the state as articulated in Globus. Furthermore, Björk notes that Rosenzweig saw himself as a sort of Jewish fighter in the defense for a new planetary community with “religion as an instrument for change” (Björk 2022, 53). Even though the language had residues of imperial imagination proper to the time, it is the theological vector that distorts the political register of the ground battle for survival. Here Judaism appears as a subtraction from conventional historicity by retreating to a prehistoric past where the ‘unity of the world’ had no nomoi, states, or borders (Björk 2022, 54). It should be noted that something similar was advocated in his 1922 booklet Die Staatslose Bildung eines Judischen Volkes about the stateless wandering of the Hebrew people, by Erich Unger who thought could show a way out of the decadence of Western civilization through the revitalization of ancient Judaism. The Jew had never been a member of the polis or a slave of the state, since the Judaic Kingdoms were ruled, as Björk explains, “by an antipolitical priesthood” or a “metapolitical priesthood and not political kingdoms” (Björk 2022, 61). The sharp contrast to the modern Judaic subtext is of importance: whereas Eric Nelson shows in The Hebrew Republic (2010), how the ancient Jewish sources influenced the constitution of the modern state theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Milton; the work of Unger and Rosenzweig centuries later, in the wake of the Weimar era, seeked to radically alienate the command of Judaic prophecy from the regulatory political and geopolitical techniques of anthropological modernity. The gap between the two, for Rosenzweig, would be the hope for eternal life against the management of survival to which modern political grammar succumbed without return (Björk 2022, 66).
But theology offers the route to imagination and vocabulary of restitution, and infinite recapitulation. To grossly synthesize Björk’s thesis: life is best understood as an endless dialogue with the dead. The second chapter “Abundance and scarcity” glosses aspects of Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s thought against the materialism of scarcity of the world and the principle of abundance proper to eternal life. By tracing Barth’s critical dialogue with Feaubach’s sociology of religion of the species-being (which radically impacted the way Marx and Marxism came to understand theology), Björk’s theology puts paradisal life at the center of the mission of salvation; a heretical notion that exceeds the predestination theology of grace deployed in the organization of the modern kakedomonic public powers of modernity (Björk 2022, 88). In this sense it is insufficient to define the capitalist religion as merely a cult without dogma or atonement; it is also, perhaps more fundamentally, an axiomatic system that accentuates the two-dimensional positionality of death and life without residue. For Barth, Björk reminds us, theology is a way out from the cultish axiomatics of the countable and measurable of the visible world: “Theology….seeks to open the believer to the belief in the invisible side of the reality of the world. Theology must become an investigation of this invisible world to which further posits that the visible world is related” (Björk 2022, 103). And Barth’s lifelong interest in the theology of resurrection was precisely a way to insist on the invisible register that conflates nature, morality, and survival of the living within the objective normativity of the world.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Barth’s theology discussed by Björk comes by way of the opposition of ethics and morality – this is elaborated as a rejection of the predicament of natural law’s imago naturae and its dependency on rationality – where the second is discarded as merely finite life unto directive command of the natural good. On the contrary, an ethics suspended by the postlapsarian stage is guided by the principle of suum cuique (Björk 2022, 114). The suum cuique (‘to each its own’), although prima facie echoes the Thomist epikeia, it is also free standing for something more: it is a limit to the irreducibility of life in relation to God, which cannot be inscribed in a system of balancing of moral principles in the hands of a sacerdotal authority. Whereas the moral principle of equity (epikeia) organizes the government of this world through principles and moral reasons for action; the suum cuique is the limit set upon our finite life and the eternal in the scope of the saeculum. Björk connects the notion of the suum cuique to the Barthian figure of the “strange saint” who “with tears and laughter provides God and in this provocation is obedient to the election that forms death into life” (Björk 2022, 116). The suum cuique, accepting the postlapsarian condition rejects the instrumentalization of original sin in order to become a “vast eon of the cosmos itself…temporal and finite but also eternalized as that which once was” (Björk 2022, 117). In this way, the suum cuique prepares the paradisal affirmation of every unlived life, an anathema to the thomist substantiation of merely personal dignity and the exceptional mechanism of individual mediation with the economy of election and grace.
The theological exploration of modality of being – this is one of Björk’s implicit lessons in the book – never truly disappears in modernity, but rather reemerges in unexpected spheres. The politics of immortality does not pretend to exhaust this problem. But it is in the last chapter on the enigmatic figure of Oskar Goldberg where this theme is best explored as the true meaning of a life outside life at the center of the book’s conceptual development. Oskar Goldberg is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Weimar era; a magnetic personality that gathered diverse personalities from all corners of the intellectual milieu. He was looked with high suspicion by Thomas Mann, who portrayed him as a mystical undemocratic thinker in Doctor Faustus, but also dismissed by Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (it only suffices to look at the correspondence collected in Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship). A scholar with strong and sedimented knowledge in the Talmud and Ancient Judaism, Goldberg developed a highly sophisticated and speculative theology of the transcendental organism, to put it in Bruce Rosenstock’s terms, which provided an original formulation of a transcendent being based on the Torah in the wake of the new biological theories of the species (the work of Driesch, Uexküll, Spemann, among others) . The biological and mystical vocabulary of Goldberg aroused immediate skepticism from the German intellectual class, but Björk convincingly shows that Golberg’s project was not an arabesque of a madman, but rather a very peculiar modal speculative system that seekd to confront the 5000 years of the civilization of fixation of the Western transition from the society of myth to the civilization of production and psychic energy imbalance (Björk 2022, 127). For Goldberg the passage from the prehistoric stage of myth to the inauguration of the religion of the state meant the sedimentation of a civilizational regimen oriented towards production, devastation, and positionality (Theophanidis recently expressed the proximity between Goldberg’s fixation and Heidegger’s Gestell, unexplored in Björk’s book). Björk is attentive to the fact that Goldberg was not just a proper name but also the constitution of a sort of ‘metapolitical university’ that gathered diverse figures, such as the economic historian and political thinker Adolf Caspary or the philosopher Erich Unger, both who developed their own critique of technological domination under the shadow of Goldberg. Thus, the critique of civilization is not to be taken as an abstract mysticism; for Björk, the concrete effects can be read in Caspary’s forgotten The Machine Utopia (1927), which criticized the utopia of machine civilization proper to both Soviet Bolshevism and Western capitalism – two social orders that shared the same the same historical horizon: reproduction and accumulation of surplus value (Björk 2022, 142).
In this framework, and against the historicist analytics of Marxism, for the Goldberg circle class antagonism and division of labor was not oriented towards emancipation, but rather towards the realization of a global total state. For the Goldberg circle to escape the civilization of the Behemoth of the industrial state required nothing short than a politics of errancy (defended by Unger in his Politics and Metaphysics of 1921) and the reversal to a modal relation with YHWH as an effective and potential dimension against the imbalance of an impoverished reality. Björk claims that for the Goldberg circle there were three possibilities of existence of coming to terms of the modern decline towards: civilizational fixation, myth, or Torah (Björk 2022, 154). And in different ways, they opted for the Torah, which implied not an identitarian reversal to a territorialized Volk but rather an infinite task of becoming immortal, given that our modes correspond to the nature of God and the world (Björk 2022, 166). The task was to depose the production of evil and suffering here and now as mobilized by the incarnation of historical progress. This infinite retreat from the materiality of the finite of the species was a way to open a new polytheism to the Ancient Hebrew metaphysics elaborated in Goldberg’s book, The Reality of the Hebrews (Die Wirklichkeit der Hebräer, 1925). In other words, to exit from the fixation of the 5000 years civilization required a passage to immortality as a way to “make us unadapted to the normal laws of evolution” and to the objective world (Björk 2022, 178).
Truth be told, immortality never disappears from modern political imagination and governmentality. Some of us still remember that one of the famous mottos of the Cuban Communist Party was: “Los hombres mueren, el Partido es Inmortal” (“Men die, but the Party is immortal”), which ultimately served to guarantee the idolatry of the state’s sacrificial principle through a continuous “lucha” (struggle) of everyday life under real-existing administrative communism. Likewise, in recent years Boris Groys has argued at length that immortality lives off in the topology of contemporary art, where archivization, spatial flexibility, and museification of the historical Vanguard stand in for the desire to become immortal . This is, indeed, what Björk calls, following Blumenberg, the moralization of immortality whose political translation resulted in truly barbaric consequences that we are still suffering (Björk 2022, 186). Against all moralization and political instrumentalization of immortality, The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg (2022) rises the theological mirror so that yet another anthropogenesis event through the “the Gnostic residue by insisting that the problem of evil could only be solved by God” (Björk 2022, 190). In other words, the problem of immortality restores the gnostic residue to its proper place beyond exceptionalism and anthropological humanism, since finitude (death) externalizes what is living, while “life” now becomes the meaning as its own otherness to the modes of God. Departing from the fourfold structure of the history of the modern error in Nietzsche’s typology, we could add a fifth: the error of conceiving the gnosis as worldly aspiration to domesticate exteriority as a forever postponed apocatastasis.
It is in the sense that Björk’s important book complements the unfinished elaboration on the gnosis undertaken by Giannia Carchia towards the end of his life: the exodus from the fiction of the subject and the person implies nothing short than the “resurrection of the human community capable of renewing the arc of history that appears so dramatically broken” . Perhaps Carchia was a bit of an optimist here: the historical arch emanating from the potstlapsarian moment is now in ruins, but the gnostic residue remains once the darwinism of human-assertion has fallen flat into pieces across our planet (Björk 2022, 197). But Mårten Björk majestically teaches us that to keep insisting on life (on absolute life, on dignified life, or the monstrous “good enough life” recently proposed in a frank instance of academic nihilism) cannot but reproduce the civilization of calamities that has put the world in the road to extinction. In the current epochal implosion all these pieces are more apparent than in any other time in history. Yet, life is elsewhere, always escaping objectivity and immanence: “it is the invisibility of the wished, the desired and the dreamt. This is what human life entails. It is related to the wide world of what could have been or what should have been” (Björk 2022, 199). The modality of eternal life is also what value cannot apprehend, and for this reason what remains undialecticized, stubbornly disjointed from every unbearable fiction of the world. The Politics of Immortality (2022) is not only an exceptional book; it moves us to look to what always remains on the side of the invisible, to the unsaved in the exterior elan of every life, our lives.
1. Bruce Rosenstock. Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination (Indiana University Press, 2017).
2. See, Boris Groys, Política de la inmortalidad (Katz editores, 2008), and “The Immortal Bodies”, Res, Vol.53-54, 2008.
3. Gianni Carchia. “Elaborazione della fine: mito, gnosi, modernità”, in L’amore del pensiero (Quodlibet, 2000), 150.