Von Balthasar and the eclipse of humor. by Gerardo Muñoz


Some will surely remember the figure of the painter Tirtorelli in Kafka’s The Trial who executes portraits of monotone and serious judges and magistrates on demand. The aura of these portraits is of absolute austereness and seriousness, as if Kafka wanted to capture the lackluster liturgy of the empire of judges and their repetitive exercise of legal adjudication. This seriousness, however, must be contrasted to the comic dimension of bureaucracy, that is known to anyone who might have glimpsed at the administrative processes that control even the tiniest details of daily life (the literary and cultural objects are too many to even reference them). The comic and the serious are also visual tones in the exhibition of modern public powers. If the empire of judges is gray and inexpressive, the bureaucratic agencies have been rendered as playful even if they repeatedly yield tragic effects on anyone entrapped in the legal construction of the “case”.

I recall this, because if today we are in the rise of an administrative state, this fundamentally entails a collapse of the bureaucratic comedy and the judge’s seriousness. The joining of the two spheres implies not only a transformation of the legal culture in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but also a confusion regarding both the comic and serious that now form an integral techno-political unit. As humor eclipses, comedy becomes controlled, assessed, and weighted against what must be free-standing seriousness each and every time. This integralist institutional imagination, at first sight, could be taken as a return of theology of sorts; but, according to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, it is quite the contrary: the integralist suture is so alien to Catholic theology and the mystery that it only deserves to be taken as a distance from the divine. As Von Balthasar writes in Il Complesso antiromano (1974):

“For humor is a mysterious but unmistakable charism inseparable from Catholic faith, and neither the “progressives” nor the “integralists” seem to possess it—the latter even less than the former. Both of these tend to be faultfinders, malicious satirists, grumblers, carping critics, full of bitter scorn, know-it-alls who think they have the monopoly of infallible judgment; they are self-legitimizing prophets—in short, fanatics.” [1] 

And Von Balthsar reminds us that fanatic is a word that comes from fanum – “holy place” – which alludes to the site that the guardian must guard to keep the divinity at bay. In the same way today, the fanatic is the nexus that organizes the administrative process that covers all spheres of human activity and purpose. If this is the case, then one could say that our current society is “fanatical” not because of the new religious factions or outnumbering of social cults, but rather because new legal administrators exert their control in the guise of priests that speak the rhetoric of a social intelligible common good. This is, indeed, the ultimate comic aspiration of a very seriousness legal process (it impacts literally every living species) in which the precondition to safeguards the “good” must be exerted as to keep everyone away from the irreducibility of what is good, beautiful, and just.

The seriousness of the administrative agents is transformed into a perpetual laughter that secures a social bond where no transgression and sensation is possible. Against this backdrop, we see how Gianni Carchia was correct when suggesting that the passage from comedy to enjoyment (divertimento) renders impossible the laughter of redemption in a life that ceases to be eventful [2]. In this way, comedy mutates into a mere socialization of laughter. And the impossibility of entering in contact with the comic initiates the commencement of the social parody.

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Notes 

1. Hars Von Balthasar. Il Complesso antiromano. Come integrare il papato nella chiesa universale (Queriniana, 1974), 304.

2. Gianni Carchia. “Lo cómico absoluto y lo sublime invertido”, en Retórica de lo sublime (Tecnos, 1990), 153.

De Maistre’s modern politonomy. by Gerardo Muñoz

The conservative Spanish political theorist Jesus Fueyo used to say that given that politics is not strictly a science, it always requires an attitude to vest the political. This holds true especially for the reactionary tradition given their sharp and distinctive rhetorical style, which at times it can outweigh the substantive orientation of its principles, doctrines, and immediate commitments. The attitude towards the political defines and frames the energy of the political, and it helps to define a politonomy, or the laws of its political conception. This is particularly relevant in Joseph De Maistre’s work, who doctrinally was a monarchist, legitimist, and, if we are to take Isaiah Berlin’s words, also a dogmatic precursor of fascism [1]. For a classical liberal like Berlin, De Maistre’s critique of liberalism all things considered (contractualism, deism, separation of powers, public deliberation, and individual civil liberties) amounted to a fascist threat. This reading crosses the line towards doctrinal and substance but it says little about its politonomy. On the contrary, what surprises (even today, as I was rereading some of his works) about De Maistre is the recurrent emphases on political autonomy, which automatically puts him in the modernist camp against doctrinal theologians and otherworldly moralists who do not truly classify as counterrevolutionaries. But insofar as the counterrevolution presupposes the revolutionary event, we are inhabiting the modern epoch. Furthermore, and as Francis Oakley has shown, even De Maistre’s classical ultramontane book The Pope (1819) emphases the authority of the pope against history, tradition, and the conciliarist structure of the Church [2]. In this sense, De Maistre taken politonomically is no different from Hamilton’s energetic executive or the sovereign decisionism that put an end to the confessional state.

In fact, De Maistre’ conception of politics measures itself against a “metaphysics of politics” which he links to German universality of the modern subject and Protestantism. Against all ideal types, for De Maistre politics is always best understood as politonomy; that is, a second order political authority that validates itself against the insecurity, unpredictability, and radical disorder of the modern revolutionary times [3]. For the counterrevolutionary position to take hold, the volatile modern reality of the political needs first to be accepted as well as the positivist emergence of modern constitutionalism. Indeed, De Maistre’s critique of written constitutions in the “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions” is leveled against the assumption that text is all there is to preserve order and institutional arrangement.

De Maistre argues that there is also an unwritten dimension that functions to preserve authority and genealogical force of the political regarding who has the last word in all matters of public decisions (something not too strange in contemporary jurisprudence). Of course the function of the unwritten for De Maistre has a divine origine but its assignment is to control the proliferation of discussion that weakens institutional authority, thus pouring a war over the meaning of words (this was the same problem that Hobbes confronted regarding interpretation). De Maistre’s attack against textualism and incredulity of the written text of positive law was exerted in the name of a defense of a sovereign transcendence as the sole guardian of the institutional stability [4]. This is why De Maistre defends a combination of traditional unwritten Common Law with sovereign rule guarding institutional continuity. The politonomic condition elucidates that institutional arrangement is proper to a concrete order, and not doctrinally about the Church regarding secular temporal matters. This is why the Pope enjoys sovereign immunity from the doctrinal production of the Church that allows for the emerge of politonomy.

In a way this becomes even more obvious from what at first appears as De Maistre’s most controversial and antimodern treatise Letters on the Spanish Inquisition, where he takes neither the role of the theologian nor of Hispanic monarchic providence, but rather that of modern autonomy of the political conditioned by civil power: “…any great political disorder – any attack against the body of the state – be prevented or repelled by the adoption of energetic means” [5]. Notwithstanding the different ends, this is not very different from The Federalist’s conception of executive power as energetic for second order of institutional threats. What’s more, emptying all christological substances of the Inquisition, De Maistre defines its practice from a politonomical viewpoint: “The Inquisition in its origin was an institution demanded and reestablished by the King of Spain, under very difficult and extraordinary circumstances…under control, not of the priesthood, but of the civil and royal authority” [6]. For De Maistre even a religious and clearly antimodern institution like the Inquisition was a first a political institution that was required to obey the “lawful and written will of the Sovereign” [7].

This polarity also attests to De Maistre’s politonomy: in a context where positive sola scriptura triumphed, he recommended the internal genealogical control and sovereign decisionism; whereas in monarchical Spain where no revolution had taken place, the Inquisition had to respond to norms, written laws, and civil power. This could explain at least two things: on the one hand, why De Maistre’s political philosophy was discarded and regarded with suspicious by Hispanic royalists and Carlists; and secondly, why De Maistre understood political economy in his text on commerce and state regulation regarding grain trade in Geneva [8]. Here one can see how the structure of politonomy aims at regulating the constant friction of norm and the exception in a specific institutional arrangements. To return to our starting point: the reactive attitude towards subjective politics was also modern insofar as it breaks radically with the classical view of politics that understood itself as oriented towards the good, the virtuous, and equity balancing (epikeia). If modern politics opens as an abyssal fracture, then politonomy is always the management of a catastrophic, fallen, and demonic dimension of politics. Thoroughly consistent with the dialectic of the modern epoch and its oppositorum, politics becomes destiny precisely because religious sacrifice has ceased to guarantee social order in the temporal kingdom. Politonomy emergences as the formal science of the second-best; that is, an effective way, by all means necessary, of administrating aversion given that “sovereignty is always taken and never given” [9].

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Notes

1. Isaiah Berlin. “Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism”, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Princeton U Press, 1990), 91.

2. Francis Oakley. The Conciliarist Tradition Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church (Oxford U Press, 2003). 201. 

3. Joseph De Maistre. “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and Other Human Institutions”, in Major Works, Vol.1 (Imperium Press, 2021). 4. 

4. Ibid., 42-43. 

5. Joseph De Maistre. On the Spanish Inquisition (Imperium Press, 2022). 6

6. Ibid., 18.

7. Ibid., 49.

8. Joseph de Maistre. “Report on the commerce of grain between Carauge and Geneva”, in The More Moderate Side of Joseph de Maistre (McGill Queen U Press, 2005), 230. 

9. Joseph de Maistre. St. Petersburg Dialogues (McGill Queen U Press, 1993), 263.

Production as a total religion of man: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VII). by Gerardo Muñoz

In an important moment of Notebook 7, Antonio Gramsci writes that production in the age of industrialization amounts to a “new religion of the common man”. This thesis conditions many aspects of Gramsci’s thought and fully exposes his thinking as determined by the epoch of industrialization. If so, this means that his thinking is fundamentally insufficient for our historical present as defined by stagnation and the end of growth. First of all, the condition of industrialization allows for the famous “war of position”, which is exerted as a moralization of politics (hegemony). It is important to note that the concept of hegemony is introduced only “after” the historical reduction to industrial productivity is rendered as the unity of all historical time. In an explicit Hegelian fashion, Gramsci argues that: “The process of historical development is a unity in time, which is why the present contains the whole of the past and what is “essential” of the past realizes itself in the present, without any “unknowable” residue that would constitute its real “essence”. Whatever is lost….it pertained to chronicle not History, a superficial episode and, in the final analysis, negligible” (175). This is at the core of Gramsci’s thinking, not at the margins.

So, the Hegelian absolute movement of the philosophy of history as coterminous with the flattening of the “rational is the real” is the metaphysical ground in which Gramsci not only operates but the venue through which he offers us a “new religion of the common man”. A few sections later (§. 35), Gramsci confesses that “hegemony was also a great “metaphysical event”. Of course, one could suppose that Gramsci was delivering a new God within the gigantomachy of the age of production. The irony is, of course, that this strict “political theology” is only justified by the industrial regime that it seeks to overturn. Therefore, the question that the so-called contemporary Gramscians (or anyone taking up Gramsci today, say from the 1970s to the present) should respond is: how can the analytical conditions of Gramsci’s thought illuminate post-Fordism in the wake of the exhaustion of growth? 

If according to Jason E. Smith’s important new book Smart Machines and Service Work (2020) since the 1980s we are witnessing an ever-expanding service sector (in the US and the UK drifting well above the 80% of the GDP) as a compensatory for growth stagnation in the age of technological innovation, how could the Gramscian “new religion” on industry mobilize a horizon of emancipation, or even minimal transformation from said regime of exploitation? On the contrary, it seems (as I tried to argue recently here) that if we take Gramsci’s insight about the material conditions of “production” in any given epoch, the work of hegemony today can only open to a demand for exploitation as subjected to servant domination in the stagnant regime. In other words, if we accept Gramsci’s own analytical conditions (industrial production), this necessarily entails that we must move beyond hegemonic domination. To think otherwise – say, believing that a “temporal form of dictatorship” or “populist takeover”, now in ruins – amounts to a solution oblivious to the historical conditions, which can only blindly accept the “command” of a hegemonic principle. It is not a surprise that only the new nationalist right in the United States today can be properly labeled “Gramscian”, since they want to recoil political form to industrialization, organic community flourishing, and national “delinking” from globalization decomposition of the regime of total equivalence. But this is only a “storytelling” (a bad one, indeed) in times of stagnation.

More broadly, this speaks to the divergence between Gramsci’s faith in industrialization and Protestantism, as he defends it in section 47 of the Notebook. While glossing Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, Gramsci notes that only the “spirt of the Reform” can produce reciprocal positions vis-à-vis grace and “good works”; whereas in Catholicism, activity and human action is not bounded by labor form, but by corporativism. On the surface this links Gramsci’s thesis with that of Max Weber’s; however, given the conditions explained above, it also shows that Gramsci’s thinking is really at odds with a commitment to thinking reform within the concrete conditions of a historical epoch. In other words, the political categories of Gramscianism (war of position, hegemony, production) are undeniably more on the side of reaction rather than in the production of new reforms. Of course, his position is not even a Catholic reaction; since, as Carl Schmitt observed in Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923), at least the Church offered formal institutionality as a response to the total electrification of the world, whether in the hands of the Soviets or the American financial elite. But, as we know, the theory of hegemony is also oblivious to the problem of institution and the concrete order. 

On Jesuit militancy: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (IV). by Gerardo Muñoz

As I continue the systematic reading of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one can finally provide substance to the thesis that gramscianism amounts to a sort of new priesthood of the political. The question here is about the specific substance and form of the theological. Most definitely, Gramsci is pursuing a strong theological position that is not reducible to monasticism, nor his he interested in subscribing a counter-modern Christian ethos against the modern “gentleman”. In this sense, Gramsci is a modernist tout court. Now, it seems to me that underneath the secularization of his political subjectivation is Jesuitism. This makes sense for at least two reasons. First, Jesuitism is a modern attempt of deification in this world through discipline. But, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Jesuitism is a practice that serves to expand the energy of political militancy. As Alberto Moreiras suggested a while ago in an essay on the onto-theology of militancy, the reduction of the subjection into action has an important point of inflection in the Jesuitical practice.

So, what would happen if we read Gramsci when he claims that he prefers a politician that “knows everything” and that is the most “knowledgeable” not as a Machiavellian strategy, but rather as a Jesuitical exercise? Leaving aside the paradoxical instrumentalization of Machiavelli’s political lesson (paradoxical because if political virtue is about keeping the arcana of power at a distance, then why reveal it?), one could very well say that Jesuitism is not just about the management of contingent events, but rather about the administration of habits and practices of the subject in order to reduce any interference of the event. Jesuitism, then, is an instrument to block and reduce all exterior turbulence vis-à-vis the very capture of the heteronomic intrusion. This capture accomplishes two things at once: from the outside it initiates a process of controlling the irruption of heterogeneity; from the inside, it is a technique of subjective militant discipline. It seems to me that Gramsci was not unaware of this theological apparatus when, in the third notebook, he writes the following: 

“New orders which have grown up since then have very little religious significance but a great “disciplinary” significance for the mass of the faithful. They are, or have become, ramifications and tentacles of the Society of Jesus, instruments of “resistance” to preserve political positions that have been gained, not forces of renovation and development. Catholicism has become “Jesuitism”. Modernism has not created “religious orders”, but a political party – Christian Democracy”.  (332)

Now we are in a better position to state that Gramsci’s political theology is compartmentalized in the specificity of Jesuitism. Indeed, he himself reads the transformation of the Church into Jesuitical practice of resistance as parallel to the bourgeois Christian democratic party formation. Does not Gramscianism amount to the same, that is, a combination of party formation and disciplinary militant form? Indeed, Jesuitical practice contains the production of form. Here we see the dimension of Gramsci’s anti-populism, since the main strategy is not to “construct a people”, but rather to build an army of militant community of believers. Any study of Gramscian political theology has to begin by displacing the veneer of political Machiavellism to the concrete practices propelled by theological Jesuitism.

Thus, the gestalt of the “new priest” is profoundly Jesuitical. As Walter Benjamin noted in the fragment “Zu Ignatius von Loyola” (1920), the practice of “consciousness transformation” becomes the way to submit to the spiritual authority. This mechanic domestication of habits becomes the sacrament that regulates the interior life of the militant. A question emerges from all of this: is there a counter-figure to sacramental militancy?