In the latest issue of Telos, I review two books by Paul Kahn of Yale Law School, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty and Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation. In both books, Kahn reads contemporary American law and politics through a framework influenced by the writings of Carl Schmitt. The theme of the issue is “After Faith” (for readers not based in a university, I’m afraid the issue is behind a pay wall).
In the review, I write that Kahn’s books “crisply document and provide a provocative theoretical account of an important feature of America’s distinctiveness: its social imaginary of ‘the political,’ particularly the conceptual, cultural, and affective place the social imaginary affords to law. In Kahn’s view, law in America is different. Most notably, law is imaginatively inextricable from the willingness of American citizens to engage in sacrificial acts of political violence. The reason for this potent union, he explains, is theological. The American nation-state—born of revolution and deriving its legitimacy from a trans-generational popular sovereign (‘we, the people’)—provides a source of ultimate meaning for its citizens analogous to religious belief. In Kahn’s analysis, that is, both the American experience of judicial review and the nation’s openness to the use of existential violence stem from a common source: the fact that ‘our political practices remain embedded in forms of belief and practice that touch upon the sacred.'”
Written last October, my review, titled “Love’s Empire,” begins with a reference to Vladimir Putin’s critique of the notion of American exceptionalism in his New York Times editorial of September 11, 2013. It concludes this way:
“Kahn’s compelling description of the American social imaginary thus would seem to raise more insistently Schmitt’s question about the capacity of societies governed by liberal normativity to survive. This question seems especially significant in the context of contemporary pessimism about trans-Atlanticism. For the past seventy years, the security of those European nations that most embody the de-politicized bourgeois liberalism that Schmitt deplored was underwritten, ironically, by a nation that Kahn convincingly describes as living entirely within the exception. Whether an increasingly centralized European Union or some future system of international law can provide similar security and stability while preserving essential domains of human freedom—including by resisting elite managerialism at home and the blandishments of authoritarians from abroad—remains an open question.”