Nothing is more common in many intellectual circles today than laments about the rise of a certain mad king to the highest office of the land. If I interpret the idiom correctly, these plaints are suffused with a distinct distaste for the way a man with authoritarian instincts and demagogic capacities rose to the position of leader of a world that is, in its self-conception at least, both free and democratic. A recurrent feature of many such laments is an account of the rhetoric and political instincts Donald Trump shares with other leaders around the world (e.g., Viktor Orbàn, Vladimir Putin) whose style and substance are marked by a tendency toward authoritarian disregard for the rule of law. Call it the identification of global illiberalism.
There are interesting variations in how today’s illiberal leaders rose to power and consolidated their grip on their respective states. And there are useful debates to be had about what we should name the various processes that have carried world politics to this moment—the resurgence of right-wing populism and ethno-nationalism, the rise of illiberal democracy, the consolidation of authoritarianism by electoral (or party-political) means. The news provides us with near-daily reminders of the illiberal turn, as the disregard for supposedly established norms and attacks on the rule of law pile up. Hungary’s news media, largely servile to Prime Minister Orbàn, ritually attack the employees of nongovernmental organizations, independent journalists, and professors as “agents of Soros”; in a speech to the United Nations (written by White House policy adviser and immigration restrictionist Stephen Miller), President Trump seeks to awaken a supposedly long-lost notion of “sovereignty”; and—how could an essay originating in Charlottesville not mention it?—actual Nazis and avowed white supremacists march on the lawn of my university the evening before one of their cohort commits murder on the nearby town mall, shouting, among other taunts, that “Jews [whose numbers include the author of the present essay] will not replace us.”
It is the sense of foreboding produced by these moments, combined with actual harm, done by actual governments, at the direction of actual leaders, to actual human persons, that leads us toward the terminology of crisis. But a crisis of what, exactly? A crisis of global capitalism, of Pax Americana, of liberal democracy? If, as was recently argued in this journal, we are witnessing the end of the end of history,11xJay Tolson, ed., “The End of the End of History?” [theme], The Hedgehog Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2017). we should perhaps be inclined to ask which historical transformations and dislocations are emerging to constitute the end of the end.
The anxious construction of interpretations in the face of crisis has arisen from myriad positions on the political spectrum. Trepidation commingles with possibility and even hope. And the need to interpret also arrives in a more general and diffuse sense, one that does not directly track politics in the sense of party and position, but, rather, intuits a lack of intellectual light with which to illuminate the historical trajectory on which we find ourselves. We are living through a vertigo in political culture, ultimately traceable not only to the political melee in the United States but also to intellectual sources. In an intellectual register, vertigo arrives when the imperative to evaluate the present shifts from the question of how to actualize values and make effective judgments in a flawed and fallen world to the articulation of the very meaning of, and commitment to, supposedly shared visions of human worth that appear to be disintegrating before our eyes. That this disintegration may have been going on for a long time does not reduce the validity of the subjective sense of crisis. Intellectual life has its own rhythms, until certain long-term trends in culture and society attack and disrupt the settled projects of thought, arriving like an ancient dragon we both remember and forget, the accumulated mass of history burning the present with fire. In American society, we are witnessing an “unwinding,” wherein the institutions that gave structure and meaning to collective life collapse “like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.”22xGeorge Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), 3. Such a collapse demands new interpretations. And so, shadowed by tragedy yet also the possibility of greater peace and freedom, it becomes the intellectual’s responsibility to ask what the deeper significance of this mood of trepidation, and this sense of crisis, really is.
The dynamics of modernity are the ultimate source of both the current crisis and the difficulty we have in interpreting it. Modernity is a contested term, and I intend to contest it further in the present essay. We can begin with the hypothesis that the current unwinding is not only about the trajectory of economy and society since World War II, but also about those transformations of human life that have occurred during the last five hundred years. Collectively, these changes have bequeathed to us a world in which to be human is quite different from what it ever was before. Credit or blame can be attributed, variously, to such causes as the vast expansion of technological capacity (industrialization and beyond); the construction of an economic system that links together the entire globe via the market; and the emergence in our political and moral life of an essential tendency toward self-making in both individuals and communities.
Because modernity is not only a set of processes but also a mood and a form of consciousness, it may be impossible to track these protean forces of social transformation in a straightforward manner, as one follows a river on a map. Instead, we must be a bit indirect, making efforts to recover certain lost insights and tendencies of thought and break with some of our own intellectual habits, if we are to pursue a diagnosis of crisis. As in Paul Klee’s image of the angelus novus looking back helplessly (in Walter Benjamin’s view) over the mounting catastrophe of history, we find, again and again, that our theories are inadequate and ineffectual. We are overwhelmed by systems, made by humans, that seem resolutely antihuman in every possible way. We witness craven instrumentality, the use of violence, and the systematic abuse of power, and find ourselves reaching for humor as our only salve. We know that something has come unhinged, but also that what came before was worthy of our fiercest critique. How do we wrap our minds around a man who treats the American government as family patrimony? How do we, as symbol producers, help forge the solidarities necessary for a more humane and empowering economy, when the polarization of politics suggests that any such solidarity is impossible? And how do we reimagine societies—American society, democratic societies, open societies—as places of deep pluralism in how and why persons pursue the good, and as places that that hold together such that the lives of the individuals within them are not nasty, brutish, and short?
Across the political spectrum there is recognition that the growth of economic inequality in the developed countries, especially the United States, has led to the resurgence of a certain kind of populist critique of economic arrangements. This critique exists at a gut level, underneath its articulation in political rhetoric and economic theory. What is sensed is the disappearance of a certain world to which we have access today only as a contested memory subject to political manipulations. In other words, it is impossible to talk about the loss without inflecting one’s interpretations in advance. That is, after all, the effect of the “politicization of everything,” and I am not immune to it. Nonetheless, as a starting point, note the contrast between whatever you think “today” is, and a world in which George Romney’s employees at American Motors could hope to send their children to the same college his son Mitt attended, and could see themselves as less rich, but no less esteemed. In the United States, this world has been replaced by the tropes of the 2000s and 2010s: the latté and the tennis racquet as signifiers of the wealthy, secular, liberal; the emergence and bemoaning of the hipster as a white male appropriation of cool; the battle within Christian life between conservative, progressive, and neo-anabaptist political theologies.33xAs outlined in James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).
I can easily imagine subjecting these figurations of contemporary culture to the acid bath of Marxist critique, and I do not think I would be entirely wrong to do so. The emergence of the hipster is indeed linked to rusted-out factories and the decline of civil society, and the stunning narcissism of the political class is in some ways a symptom of the systematic transformation of capitalism and the financialization of profits among the American elite. If capitalism is creative destruction, the emphasis of a Marxist-inspired critique would be on destruction. An increasingly inhumane capitalism untrammeled by moral reticence and unhaunted by the specter of communism in a post-Soviet age has eaten away at the possibility of dialogic politics, and the availability to a hurried and harried population of anything like a recognition of common humanity. If I pursued this line of thought, I could conclude that the end of history was indeed a sad time, but not for the reasons Francis Fukuyama posited. Rather, the (supposed) end of history was the beginning of the great global takeoff of the 1 percent, the actualization of a long-coming environmental crisis, the emergence of the Lords of Tech, the distancing of the culture of the 20 percent from the specter (both real and imagined) of an ever-declining middle class, and the destruction of the recognition, in state and society in the liberal democracies of the West, of the humanity of the working classes.
This is somehow not all that there is to our crisis. One senses that a Marxist analysis of the relationship between economics and culture can take us only so far toward grasping what is at stake in the present moment, and only so far toward analyzing its relationship to a series of longer historical arcs. The current crisis is surely intertwined with the destructions wrought by capitalisme sauvage, but it is just as surely not reducible to them. For the orientations of action that generate, in the current moment, righteous anger in some, extreme violence by others, and lax disinterest or banal acquiescence among those on whom we rely, are not reducible to the battle over profits. The crisis has to do not only with the failure of provision but also with the failure of imagination. In this regard, it is important to remember that Joseph Schumpeter inherited the phrase “creative destruction” from Werner Sombart, who himself inherited it from the philosophy of art of Friedrich Nietzsche.44xHugo Reinert and Eric S. Reinert, “Creative Destruction in Economics: Nietzsche, Sombart, Schumpeter,” in Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844–2000: Economy and Society, ed. Jürgen Backhaus and Wolfgang Drechsler (Boston, MA: Kluwer, forthcoming).
Beyond Disenchantment and Differentiation
If the dynamics of capitalism and its cultural effects are not enough to provide the necessary interpretation of the present, where shall we turn? Our cultural theories of the modern age—in particular, those that admit an analysis of crisis in terms not only political but moral—tend to be framed in one of two ways: disenchantment and differentiation. Usefully enough, both can be traced to Max Weber, whose insights, delivered in lecture format a century ago, framed in countless ways the intersection of historical, sociological, and philosophical study in Western intellectual life.55xMax Weber, Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures, trans. Damion Searls, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon (New York, NY: New York Review Books Classics, 2019). See also Robert Zaretsky, “Max Weber Diagnosed His Time and Ours: A Political Ethic for a Disenchanted Era.” Foreign Affairs, July 24, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-europe/2019-07-24/max-weber-diagnosed-his-time-and-ours. Modernity as disenchantment: The modern is the evacuation of magical explanations from the world (or at least from “serious” intellectual life), the advent of the rationalization and optimization of everything from musical production to familial obligation, and the emergence of materialism as the lingua franca of those cultural elites tasked with interpreting the world so that someone else can change it. Modernity as differentiation: The modern human moves through myriad spheres, orientations, or value sets—law, art, science, eros, economy, politics—which are on different and often conflicting trajectories because they are not contained beneath or held together by a sacred canopy. In disenchantment, the sacred loses its power to structure our interpretations of causality; the world before us is deracinated and emptied of meaning as atoms bounce against each other; we do not ask a higher being for safety when we enter an elevator but rather trust in the scientific expertise of the elevator inspector. In differentiation, the sacred becomes one sphere among many, engaged in a series of boundary disputes (e.g., should your rabbi or your psychologist help you decide who to marry?).
These theoretical frames structured some of the most important interventions and innovations in social theory and political philosophy in the twentieth century. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Michael Walzer offered theories of civil society to explain why and how differentiated societies could somehow hold together.66xJeffrey C. Alexander, The Civil Sphere (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael Walzer, “The Civil Society Argument,” ed. Julia Stapleton, Group Rights: Perspectives Since 1900 (London, England: Bloomsbury Academic/Thoemmes Press, 1995). Insofar as societies contain a robust and widespread understanding according to which everyone in the society is engaged in horizontal relationships of equality and recognition with everyone else, this “civil sphere,” though never all-consuming, can mediate and moderate the push and pull of the market, the power seeking inherent in politics, and the appeal of particularity in the form of ethnicity and other kinds of in-group identification. The civil sphere, though not itself a modern product, can certainly serve as a counterforce to what Alexander has identified as “the dark side of modernity.”77xSee Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Dark Side of Modernity (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013). Alasdair MacIntyre’s more pessimistic view of the modern was also grounded, in part, in differentiation theory, which he called “the structures of compartmentalization.” MacIntyre argued that “within each sphere [that sphere’s] norms dictate which kinds of consideration are to be treated as relevant to decision-making and which are to be excluded.” This leads to the modern person becoming “a divided self…not only without any standpoint from which it can pass critical judgment on the standards governing its various roles…but… also [lacking] those virtues of integrity and constancy that are prerequisites for exercising the powers of moral agency.”88xAlasdair MacIntyre, “Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency,” Philosophy 74, no. 289 (July 1999): 311–29, 321, 324–325. For MacIntyre, the moral disasters of the twentieth century resulted from the way differentiation disabled the inherent capacity for moral judgment possessed by every human being.
As Alexander, Walzer, MacIntyre, and other thinkers realized, however, these core accounts of modernity, disenchantment and differentiation, tend to render secondary a series of questions that are primary to our age and our thinking: What does it mean for “the people” to be sovereign? How does the process of collective will-formation on the various stages of our political life, from the local to the national and beyond, relate to the legal securing of basic rights for individuals? And what are the bases of solidarity, social support, social control, and the pursuit of a meaningful life in a pluralistic society?99xSee the discussion of Weber’s realism as part of the “tradition of Thrasymachus” in Alexander, The Civil Sphere, 39–47. These are the questions on the tip of our tongue, and they are questions prompted by the current “unwinding.” Yet how to relate them to modernity?
The problem is that Weberian theories of modernity incorporate only with great difficulty, and then only in a secondary way, these questions about the liberal democratic republics. For example, Weber’s famous troika of types of authority—legal-rational, traditional, charismatic—does not have a lot to say about the dynamics of democratic authority, or the morality required to sustain it.1010xIn a lecture in Vienna in 1917, Weber considered a fourth type of domination, the “will of the ruled,” but abandoned what Ivan Szelenyi called “a somewhat ironic definition of democratic legitimacy.” See Ivan Szelenyi, “Weber’s Theory of Domination and Post-Communist Capitalisms,” Theory and Society 44, no. 1 (December 2015): 1–24. Weber’s insights show us the architecture of the world we are forced to deal with; they are our starting point for understanding modernity. Yet they are also profoundly limiting because their analysis of the dynamics of modernity is a product of the world of Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian bureaucracy.
The generation of German thinkers that followed Weber struggled mightily with the limitations of his vision, even as they engaged with and elaborated its essential insights. Their intellectual development was informed by the paroxysms of Weimar democracy, and this process of influence led to strange and provocative results that we today recognize as some of the sources of critical theory: Walter Benjamin’s synthesis of Marxism and Jewish mysticism; Hannah Arendt’s long-arc narrative of the destruction of public politics in Europe, making way for the flourishing of totalitarianism of the left and the right; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s analyses of the culture industry and the authoritarian personality; Erich Fromm’s analysis of the appeal of fascism as an escape from freedom.1111xSee Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration; Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). In their renderings of modernity, all of the Weimar thinkers grasped at and sought to articulate the relationship between, on the one hand, the possibilities for individual and collective liberation, and the amelioration of social relations promised by modernity and, on the other hand, the dark forces of domination that modernity unleashed. For this reason, their work has provided the intellectual basis for interpretation well beyond their own lives and times. Certainly since 2008, and especially since 2016, the return of intellectuals to Adorno and Horkheimer, to Arendt, and to the insights that come from contrasting them with each other and to others has been gaining more and more momentum.
The medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz was also a product of Weimar. But even though he was a towering figure in the historical profession and well known among scholars of the Renaissance and the early modern world, Kantorowicz is not normally included in the pantheon of critical theorists, and for good reason. Like Arendt, Fromm, Adorno, and Horkheimer, he was a Jewish émigré from Nazi Europe.1212xBenjamin’s attempt at emigration was a tragic failure. See Hannah Arendt, “Introduction,” 1–58, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968), especially 16–18. He lost his mother in Theresienstadt. But his political trajectory was very different—“from the right of Hindenburg to the left of Kennedy,”1313xRobert E. Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 5. as a recent biographer put it—and his scholarship was seemingly far afield from the concerns of his fellow travelers in what came to be known as the Frankfurt School, many of whom sought refuge in America during the Third Reich. What I propose, therefore, is something of a leap of interpretation, even of faith: that this medieval historian provides us with a framework with which to illuminate aspects of political modernity that are left in the background, or even denied, in theories of differentiation and disenchantment (and their Marxist variants). And it is precisely these illuminations that we need to better diagnose our current crisis.
The King’s Two Bodies
It is an old and recurrent human idea: The king, queen, or emperor has “two bodies,” one being the flesh and blood that will die (and thus require a succession plan), and a second, immaterial and yet also more powerful, body. The second body of the king is marked by its transcendence of the merely natural first body of the king, and the second body finds a new home (a new first body) when succession takes place. “The king is dead,” as the saying goes, “long live the king!” The king’s second body incorporates the body politic as a whole. This rather mystical power of incorporation is displayed through the distributed signification of the second body in language, event, and material culture. It suffuses social life by means both mundane, such as images of the king on coins, and sacred, such as solemn rituals of coronation and burial. Thereby, the signifiers of the second body become signifiers of the reach of sovereignty. There are, in this somewhat obscure notion of a second body, three important ideas for the history of power—ideas that, when at their most institutionalized and effective, are not so much thought as felt.
The first idea is that the second body of the king connects the monarch or leader to his or her subjects with their various different bodies, far flung in time or space. In so doing, the second body organizes and subtly directs their actions, making them part of the “body politic.” People are motivated, in some small way, to do action X instead of action Y, for “King and Crown.” Chains of power, and thus states, are constructed in this way; one can send an agent into the field and expect orders to be followed by combining the stick of threatened punishment, the carrot of promised payment, and the legitimacy of that which is royally sanctioned. This third, key element of power—the element that leans toward authority—is what is secured via the corpus mysticum of the king, the signs of the second body of the king evoke a sense of connection to sacred centrality.1414xEdward Shils and Michael Young, “The Meaning of the Coronation,” Sociological Review 1, no. 2 (December 1, 1953): 63–81, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1953.tb00953.x.
The second idea contained in the figuration of the King’s Two Bodies is that its ethereal corporality maintains a certain continuity through time, even as it travels from monarch to monarch. And so, because it touches and incorporates those individuals who are part of the political community, the second body secures the existence of the community in perpetuity. To use more precise language, the second body is not eternal in the sense of outside of time, but sempiternal—extending infinitely in time, always able to be imagined as stretching beyond the life and times of any particular, transiently existing king or subject. This sempiternity proves remarkably useful when an organization attempts (for example) to pursue yearly taxation rather than taxation in response to emergency or whim—because then, taxes are for King, for Crown, for Country, rather than for this particular leader.
The third idea that the King’s Two Bodies implies is that authoritative delegation should be experienced as if it were a sharing of bodies. All humans have some experience (usually, but not always, familial) of sharing in the bodily lives of others around them, and feeling some emotional connection to those with whom they share life in this way (and indeed, of experiencing some as having authority over others, whether in their family, their military unit, or their college dorm). In lifting this experience into metaphor, the King’s Two Bodies organizes the experience of relationships between king and council, king and subject, lord and peasant. As a trope, the King’s Two Bodies becomes a fountain of signification for imagining the sociopolitical order writ large. And this is not only imaginative but effective: The metaphorical transformation of the core human experience of sharing space, food, and touch into a rendering of the sacred, and cathected, order for a large society is an effective way to secure delegation. Through imagination, social organization can be mobilized even when bodies are not, in fact, shared in the sense of intimacy and care.
The best example of this is the state. As an organization, the state is a complex, overlapping, conflictual set of relations and regulations; but if it can be imagined as the household of the king, then perhaps some of these relations can be held together, and some of these regulations enforced, via the useful fiction of the second body of the monarch. Useful fictions enable new actions, and the performing-into-being of projects in common.
A Study of Delegation
Kantorowicz’s study of the King’s Two Bodies begins with a historical anecdote—lawyers arguing over a lease of lands made by Edward IV before he was of age. It moves from there to Shakespeare’s Richard II as a tragic tale of the separation of the King’s Two Bodies. Kantorowicz beautifully interprets the scene in which Richard demands a mirror after losing his crown: “The mirror scene is the climax of that tragedy of dual personality…when finally, at the ‘brittle glory’ of his face, Richard dashes the mirror to the ground, there shatters not only Richard’s past and present, but every aspect of a super-world.”1515xErnst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 39–40. First published 1957. Most of the book (it is a work of more than five hundred pages) is, however, about the mixing of symbols of church and state in Europe between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Kantorowicz traces instance after instance of the language of the church being used to describe the world of the king, and the language of government being used to describe the world of the church. Finally, the author arrives (to the confusion of his publisher and many of his readers) at an essay on Dante.
What is this book—which may be more cited than read—about? And how should we read it? The King’s Two Bodies is well known as a study of the rituals that surround power, and as a study of legal fictions. It is sometimes misinterpreted as a continuation of the themes of Kantorowicz’s popular biography of the thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, which he wrote as a young man under the spell of the Symbolist poet and mystic intellectual Stefan George. (In fact, as a rigorous recent biography of Kantorowicz makes clear, The King’s Two Bodies was a turn away from the nationalist nostalgia of that earlier text.)1616xLerner, Ernst Kantorowicz, 344–57. But what has perhaps not been noticed is the way in which the book is a study of delegation; The King’s Two Bodies is about principal and agent, prince and council, organizational head and lowly bureaucrat. It is a text concerned with how delegation relationships are constructed and maintained via reference to the second body of the ruler.
For example, at a certain point in the text, Kantorowicz traces the ecclesiastical sources of the king’s second body in understandings of the pope and the body of the church as the body of Christ, and he notes that under Pope Alexander III (in the twelfth century), the abbots of Leicester and Winchester were given special powers as delegate judges.1717xKantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 384ff. When one of the abbots died, the other waited for a new man to be appointed, and then the two proceeded as before—without a renegotiation of the extent of their powers, because the delegation was made to the position of abbot, which, it was understood, was sealed to the pope’s second body. This was, as it were, a very early medieval articulation of the modern concept of office.1818xAlexander, The Civil Sphere, 139–146.
Kantorowicz was thus a theorist not only of the rituals that surround power but of power itself—Weberian concerns are clear in his work. His book is an anatomy of the state-as-household, and of the relays of authority that cross various zones of activity. In this way Kantorowicz is like Franz Kafka, who also attempted to grasp a world in which fatherly authority and bureaucratic authority overlapped and intertwined. Importantly, and somewhat terrifyingly, Kafka saw many more of those intertwinings, and their enchanted second and third lives, in the modern world than did Weber.1919xWalter Benjamin writes that “there is much to indicate that the world of the officials and the world of the fathers are the same to Kafka.” Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, with introduction by Arendt (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968), 113.
Chronologically, the scholarly references in The King’s Two Bodies are never more recent than Elizabethan England. Nonetheless, ambivalently and with attention to ambiguity in symbolism, the book traces the fraught origins and earliest rumblings of “modernity.” Kantorowicz considers the increasing role of the state in governing how human beings perceive and understand time, the emergence of nationalism around the notion of a sacred body of the “people,” and the politics of marriage and the patriarchal family,2020xKantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 275–284, 302–313, 217–223. not to mention annual taxation, war, and the invention of the corporation.2121xCarly Knight, “Creatures of the State: The Cultural Origins of Corporate Personhood” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2018); David Ciepley, “Beyond Public and Private: Toward a Political Theory of the Corporation,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (2013): 139–158. Over and over again, Kantorowicz upsets our easy dismissal of the medieval past, tracing the supposedly modern to the way in which persons, places, and things were linked together through signs of the second body of the king, and thus to the medieval framework. Yet at the same time—and this is, perhaps, the crucial and underappreciated aspect of the text—Kantorowicz retains the deep sense that the myth of the state that led to the disasters of the twentieth century stands at significant social, historical, and intellectual distance from the world of the Investiture Controversy and Christ-like Kingship.2222xSee further discussions in Victoria Kahn, The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (Chicago: IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Eric L. Santner, The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Jennifer Rust, Graham Hammill, and Julia Reinhard Lupton, eds., Political Theology and Early Modernity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
The world Kantorowicz studied had no governing organizations (church or state) even faintly resembling twentieth-century states in their capacity and ambitions for control. In his own life, Kantorowicz rebelled twice against such ambitions. He refused to sign Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s loyalty oath, and then refused to sign Senator Joseph McCarthy’s loyalty oath, at significant personal risk in each case. Life under the King’s Two Bodies, we may say, was life before the Stasi. However, it is absolutely necessary to combine this epigrammatic understanding of modern state power with the realization that Kantorowicz’s book is far from a nostalgic yearning for a more organically connected world of the premodern. Readings of The King’s Two Bodies that insist on seeing it as of a piece with a simplistic romanticism about the medieval willfully ignore its author’s irony, wit, and, at times, incredulity toward the book’s very subject—that is, the idea that someone could have two bodies. Kantorowicz the medieval historian, searching in arcane academic language for the meaning of obscure objets d’art, is always leavened by Kantorowicz the ironic humanist.
And so what emerges in the difficult last chapter of the text is Kantorowicz’s own struggle to find a true humanism with which to replace the King’s Two Bodies as a way to organize social and political life. The problem as Kantorowicz saw it was to find a way to make “humanitas…the sovereign of homo.”2323xKantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 495. The searching prose of this part of the text is poignant and moving: Ceding the intellectual authority he has just spent 550 pages establishing, Kantorowicz attributes the genesis of his own ideas about the King’s Two Bodies to the originator of the European intellectual tradition—Dante. He does so to escape the figuration that he has just shown to be essential to Europe’s political life. Kantorowicz, in his own writing, actualizes the very paradox of modernity I wish to press upon here.
A Cultural Theory of Transitions to Modernity
The King’s Two Bodies is a study of what Clifford Geertz called “ideology as a cultural system,” and the specific legal fiction of the two bodies of the monarch should be seen as one particularly dense node in a larger network of signs.2424xClifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973): 193–233. That network sewed together a political mythology against the background of which certain states and empires—including the early modern state worried over by Thomas Hobbes—could be built. But there is another leap of interpretation to be taken.
The King’s Two Bodies, as a cultural trope, is enduringly useful as a way to understand the human experience of hierarchy and delegation, and as a way to talk about our judgments and interpretations of legitimate and illegitimate power. In early modern elite politics, the utility of this trope became evident even as matters got more and more contentious and violent in the Anglophone world: To “politic” was to play the game of who was, and who was not, a legitimate representative of the “King’s Interest,” who was, and was not, the proper representative of the sacred second body of the king. This was true even across the ocean, in colonial ventures such as Massachusetts Bay and Virginia.2525xLauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Isaac Ariail Reed, Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
We may then define the political culture of modernity as the result of attempts to destroy this semiotic net and put something else in its place. Political modernity, in other words, is the negative space, the affordance, created by the removal of the king’s second body as both sacred center in society’s representation of itself to itself and pragmatic tool of action and interpretation for building alliances and pursuing projects.
For Nietzsche, the concept of creative destruction was paired with the idea of eternal recurrence. With this pairing in mind, we may outline a cultural theory of transitions to modernity as the creative destruction and eternal recurrence of the King’s Two Bodies. Such transitions, I hypothesize, contain four elements:
First, an attempt is made to replace the King’s Two Bodies, and its cognates and corollaries, with some other schema as the background representation for the negotiation of relations of delegation, and the interpretation of power as legitimate or illegitimate in its execution. Organization, hierarchy, alliance building—that is, the relational, sociological dimension of politics—has its cultural basis rewritten. This rewriting has manifestations in explicit, public politics, but it also has a life of its own in the cultural substrate of interaction and imagination. It lives in the structure of feeling of a given society, and flows through it and across its supposedly differentiated spheres. (Familial relations in the United States are a good example: Children who demand that a vote be held on what to have for dinner are drawing on such a structure of feeling or ambient background, presuming that “the people” in the family have authority, one vote per person.) The tacit rules of delegation—getting someone else to do something for you—are reconfigured as a result.
This reconfiguration of the cultural background for legitimating hierarchy, making decisions, and compelling action on those decisions has tremendous consequences along multiple dimensions and in multiple spheres of social life. It is why Gordon Wood could attest to the radicalism of the American Revolution.2626x26 Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, NY: Knopf, 1992); Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). This reconfiguration also informed the development of classical social theory, despite the immense pressure on late-nineteenth-century intellectuals to jettison religion and philosophy for scientific materialism. Concern with this reconfiguration of the cultural background for action unifies Tocqueville’s two great works, Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution; it attends Émile Durkheim’s ambivalence about the decline of religious control over individual lives in Suicide; it even led Marx to see not only alienation, but also hope for human renewal, in the capitalist destruction of traditional status orders and their vast networks of loyalties and counterloyalties.
But most of all, we can see the three great revolutions of the Atlantic world in the late eighteenth century as attempts to creatively destroy the King’s Two Bodies as the cultural background for politics. We see this not only in the writing of declarations and constitutions but also in the emergence of the twinned figures of citizen-centered democracy and violent racial exclusion and exploitation in the nineteenth century. The destruction of aristocratic forms of status—bound up, in the early modern West, with the favor of the king, and thus access to his second body—and their replacement by democratic politics, and the hardening of racial caste as a mechanism for denying access to democratic politics, is the central cultural contradiction of the modern Atlantic world in the era after the King’s Two Bodies.
Insight into the relationship between liberty and race-based enslavement lies at the core of Edmund Morgan’s classic study American Slavery, American Freedom (although Morgan does not pursue the semiotic dimension as I have here). It is also the core insight contained in W.E.B. Du Bois’s multivocal concept of the wages of whiteness. In the emergent dialectic of modern republican democracy, racial exclusion instantiated a strict hierarchy whose psychological gains, for white citizens, could blunt various other experiences of inequality and thus culturally construe a world of rights, liberties, and responsibilities of the citizen to replace a status order centered on the king. The story is more than an American one, however; it is, in the end, an Atlantic story. The early postrevolutionary republics reconstructed the terms of inclusion by reconstructing how relations of delegation and domination were to be coded. In so doing, these regimes articulated, with increasing emphasis and violence as the nineteenth century wore on, a different way to signify the sharing of the body politic, a different metaphor of how hierarchy could be legitimated, and a different designation of persons to be trusted as full citizens able to get access to the levers of state power.
The repeated modern attempts to essentialize racial, ethnic, and, in a different way, gender differences, can be seen—in part—in this light. To secure delegation in a world in which every citizen is a king in his own castle, the distribution of personhood became fiercely, violently strict about its boundaries, even as it expanded in other ways—and indeed, over the long arc, expanded beyond the property-owning white male citizenry. This is the dialectic of modern political culture, and we have not seen the end of it yet. What is important to understand is the link between this dialectic and the problem of having to code power without the second body of the King.
Second, in the course of the transition to modernity, a struggle occurs over the redistribution and justification of physical violence. One of the most fraught aspects of any political culture is to whom, by whom, and on what basis violence can be done legitimately. That the prince “sheds blood without guilt” is an important feature of the sacred second body of the king being located in the first body of the king.2727xKantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 95. Insofar as this is no longer true—and insofar as Louis XVI becomes Louis Capet, citizen of France—a grand reconfiguration of violence and its interpretations takes place. In the early American republic, certain violent techniques of peasant protest, inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland, were foregone by the citizenry as it acquired the agency of the vote. Voting, it must be noted, was a new format of delegation, and its increasing prevalence came at the price of forgoing the “rough music” used by previous generations of peasants to keep grain prices down.2828xJohann N. Neem, “Freedom of Association in the Early Republic: The Republican Party, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the Philadelphia and New York Cordwainers’ Cases,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 127, no. 3 (2003): 259–290; Johann N. Neem, “Taking Modernity’s Wager: Tocqueville, Social Capital, and the American Civil War,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41, no. 4 (2011): 591–618. Simultaneously, American society was grounded in the violence of slavery, which would require a war of extraordinary proportions to overcome. In Western Europe, the democratic turns of 1848 were themselves violent, and the bourgeois Europe that emerged in their wake redistributed violence-in-rule to its colonies.
It was Albert Camus, the great twentieth-century dissenter from the French revolutionary tradition, who saw most clearly that this redistribution of violence was a matter not only of economy but also of interpretation. To destroy the king’s second body as the organizing principle of political alliance-making and the justification of violence, war, and domination is to shift the ground on which one walks. Even if war came and went for all sorts of reasons separate from the will of the individual who happened to be king, to lose the language of the “King’s Interest” was to unseat the politics of influence as it was known and practiced, and open the door to all sorts of possibilities, some ameliorative, some horrifying. Analyzing the revolutionary speeches at the trial of Louis XVI, Camus commented, “We are not dealing with law, we are dealing with theology.”2929xAlbert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (New York, NY: Vintage Random House, 1984), 119. First published 1956. What he meant was that, like it or not, we moderns cannot escape the fact that violence involves not only interpretation of the law but also interpretation of the meaning and purpose of the social order writ large. The interpretation of the relationship of the targets of violence to the perpetrators of violence is not a matter for lawyers and judges alone. Or, rather, lawyers and judges are also actors on a stage of history; they are a part of a drama of good and evil, and thus, a theology. To commit violence is to commit to one or another answer to the question of what is sacred.
Third, the phenomenon of hierarchy in human organization and its attendant problems do not disappear, but the rearticulation of what justifies hierarchy, and when such justifications apply, has real consequences for all kinds of organizations, and thus for the social order and individuals’ sense of what kind of world they live in. New notions come onto the scene. For example, insofar as “the people” are somehow imagined to be the new location of the sacred second body, the concept of office can take on important new dimensions. That persons in positions of power have some possibility of acting for the public good—an idea that political theorist David Ciepley notes is at the core of the invention of the corporation3030xDavid Ciepley, “Wayward Leviathans: How America’s Corporations Lost Their Public Purpose,” The Hedgehog Review 21, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 68–83.—is a powerful regulative ideal. But, of course, what acting in the public good entails is itself a matter of interpretation, both within and without the legal sphere. Furthermore, the people are awfully difficult to put on stage as a singular sovereign; thus the problem of representing the people’s second body comes onto the scene, when the king’s second body is no longer the ground of law that the world of sovereigns promised.
Fourth, the possibility of a widespread distribution of sacredness becomes available. With the sacred centrality of the king destroyed, social depositories of that sacredness become uncertain. This opens, on the one hand, a tremendous possibility for a certain kind of humanism. It was Émile Durkheim who recognized this possibility—although also the difficulty of its achievement—in his classic essay “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” and in his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair in France (an episode we ought to be reflecting upon anew today). Durkheim saw that the attacks on the Jewish captain derived from an anxious, extremely restrictive concept of who belonged to the body of the people (white Frenchmen and their families who could claim to be Catholic, or at least not Jewish). Against Dreyfus’s false prosecution, Durkheim called for a careful legal investigation that would hold Dreyfus the individual responsible only for what he as an individual had actually done.3131xÉmile Durkheim, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” translated by S. Lukes and J. Lukes, with an introduction by Steven Lukes. Political Studies 17 no. 1 (1969): 14–30. This can be said to be the quintessence of the liberal aspiration for the modern order.
Yet Durkheim saw that a liberal republic could exist only insofar as the collectivity could be brought to attribute sacred qualities to individual persons. (Which persons? There’s the rub…) In some articulations of critical theory, the unfinished project of modernity is a question of whether, and how, the capacities for reason implicit in human conversations can be brought to fruition in public life. The securing of basic rights, collective will-formation, and the sustaining power of constitutions are all traced to the implicit, never-fully-actualized-but-nonetheless-authoritative possibility of the ideal speech situation. Durkheim would have disagreed with this position, articulated by Jürgen Habermas decades after Durkheim died. He insisted instead that the attribution of sacrality to individuals in liberal modernity was grounded in the dramatic world of collective representations and their performance—for example, in moments of commemoration of lives well lived in pursuit of the good or of great sacrifices made (e.g., the Gettysburg Address); in compelling demands to have full personhood recognized by society and state (e.g., the civil rights march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama); in sympathetic projections of imperfect humanity in melodramatic narratives (e.g., Little Women).
For Durkheim, the abolition of feudal privileges during the French Revolution was “an act of sacrifice and abnegation,” and the Revolution—that marker of modernity—was the best evidence of “society’s ability to make itself a god or to create gods.” If we read Durkheim and Kantorowicz together, then, a certain version of modernity appears and appeals: The integrity of the individual in modern society is the result of that individual’s being imbued with the dignitas that formerly accompanied the king; the human being is, in Durkheim’s words, “conceived as being invested with that mysterious property which creates an empty space around holy objects.”3232xÉmile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen Fields (New York, NY: Free Press, 1995), 212, 215. For Durkheim, in the good society, every individual has two bodies.
Modernity as we actually know it fails at this ambition. Modern individualism had as its accompaniment a violent series of exclusions of entire categories of persons from the dignitas of having a second body, precisely because they were denied the equality with which all people, under the republican dispensation, were supposed to be endowed—by a divine creator or, later, by dint of “human nature.” And one is thus compelled to ask, at another crisis point in the arc of modernity, whether the ethereal quality to which Durkheim referred is not itself “equality,” and thus to ask further what cultural reconfigurations will be required such that this quality of individuals is indeed given power by “society”? Certainly, we need to investigate more closely the redistribution of the sacred in the era after the King’s Two Bodies. Doing so entails an understanding of established religion as a regulator of the distribution of the sacred—after all, who can deny the importance of Christianity to the mother of all American social movements, abolitionism?—but also entails a grappling with the way in which such dispensations, repeatedly occur outside of, and exceed in their resonance, churches and congregations, even to the point of opposition to religion itself.
There is, furthermore, another difficulty. Transitions to modernity also afford the attribution of personhood, or certain aspects of personhood, to nonpersons. Corporations become legal persons, cars have personalities, and information wants to be free. The fetishized commodity and the techno-utopia offer a series of oracles that dominate any simple investment of individuals with sacrality, rendering those who would ascribe such a quality to actual persons “naive” in the judgments of a cynical culture. This is not entirely unexpected. The meaning of human life has never been only about other people; it has always included the transformation of nature into tools-at-hand, and the devotion of persons to institutions and organizations. Furthermore, the attribution of secondary agency to material objects is central to the experience of art.3333xAlfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998). Finally, in the vast and varied world of consumption, personhood threatens to find its way to the machines. A fundamental tension thus emerges, between the world of systems-for-their-own-sake and the world of trusted tradition, with the modern individual stretched to the breaking point in between. Political modernity’s adventure—seeking a replacement for the king and the breaking of the second body into millions of pieces for distribution to the citizenry—takes place within and through this terrifying tension.
Unwinding the Second Body
When I started my graduate studies in 2001, I went to buy a typewriter in a tiny shop up a narrow set of stairs in New Haven, Connecticut. While completing the sale, the shop owner, an older fellow, asked me where I was from. When I told him, “North Carolina,” he intoned, “Yes…I did some work for Mr. Roosevelt down there.”
It was a startling moment, not only because of the intrusion of someone’s personal memory on my abstract understanding of the Works Progress Administration, acquired through textbooks, but also because of the way in which travel to North Carolina, and the work done there for the behemoth of the American state, was personalized in the shop owner’s recollection of having done work for “Mr. Roosevelt.” Mr. Roosevelt, the speech act implied, had delegated a task to this man, and the bond implied by that delegation was somehow sacred enough to be the first association made with my utterance of “North Carolina” in the twenty-first century.
The temptation to romanticize something like this is tempered by the thought that violent vigilantes at the southern border of the United States today might articulate a similar sacred bond to President Trump, and perhaps might remember it as sacred sixty years from now. There is no easy moral categorization of relations of delegation or of the fantasies that accompany them (or, indeed, of the New Deal). But we can ask about the implications of the cultural figurations of state and society that emerge to help secure such relations.
In academic study, these questions are asked via both radical critiques of American “political demonology” and careful affirmations of American “civil religion.”3434xRobert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96, no. 1 (1967): 1–21; Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988); Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). Both of these ways of writing have had much to say about the interpretation of presidents. This is not a coincidence. Cultural interpretation of presidents, and the vast media machinery that attends their pursuit of popularity within and without campaigning, is, in the arc of American political modernity, a key location for the creative destruction and eternal recurrence of the King’s Two Bodies.3535xJeffrey Alexander argues that in the process of campaigning for president, Obama and McCain each sought to develop a “second, immortal body” and thus enter into myth. For Alexander, this is not a question of modernity and creative destruction, but rather of a general theory of mythopoetics in politics. Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71. See also the discussion of Kantorowicz and sovereignty in Robin Wagner-Pacifici, The Art of Surrender: Decomposing Sovereignty at Conflict’s End (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Murdered and martyred, Abraham Lincoln’s second body finds its way, again and again, into movements for both change and conservation in American life. The marble signifier of Lincoln’s second body hovered over the shoulder of Martin Luther King Jr. during his most iconic speech; King’s own second body now finds its signifiers in our highways and byways, and among the millions of Americans who watch the “I Have a Dream” speech on YouTube each MLK Day.
Obsessed with the legacies of Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon sought out their furniture for the Oval Office, and a comparable legacy for his own presidency. But Nixon failed at political theology. His cronyism and penchant for conspiracy, revealed on tape, turned public opinion and elite journalistic interpretation against him. His first body had unduly profaned the second body of the president. Inversely, transcendent presidents managed, or had managed for them, through tacit agreements among the governing and media elites—the complex relationships between their second and first bodies. For example, upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ascension (recall the efforts of the Kennedy family to make JFK’s funeral resemble Lincoln’s), the libidinous appetites of his first body were, at least for a time, quietly concealed from national awareness. It is no accident that Robert Bellah’s essay on civil religion in America begins with Kennedy’s inaugural address. Kennedy was, in a certain version of American political theology at least, the savior, removed all too early from the nation’s midst.
Yet if the bodies, lives and times, and appetites of presidents have often been a location for the deployment of civil religion and political demonology, the story of American modernity was always about the insufficiency of even the most transcendent presidents in handling the challenges, domestic and international, facing state and society. The cultural politics of the United States from the Civil War to the present day has been about the programs and projects for the reconstruction of society and polity, market and church, family and school. This is to say that the sacred second body of “the people” has never been solely concentrated in the figuration of presidents and other charismatic leaders, but also diffused throughout the body politic in a way distinct to the modern era, and mirrored, around the globe, in other transitions to modernity. Ambitious collective projects, such as public education and union democracy, also came to embody “the people” as a replacement for the king. This replacement could not be reduced to presidential figures. The story of certain American twentieth-century successes—for example, the flourishing of the University of California system in the postwar era—is a story of the distribution of “sacred centrality” to institutional forms of remarkable capacity. When Kantorowicz was an adjunct instructor at Berkeley, he helped lead campus-wide resistance to signing Senator Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting loyalty oath as a condition of employment. A lifelong anticommunist, Kantorowicz nevertheless sensed in the oath an attack on the institutional basis for a free society, and he told the university president, Robert Gordon Sproul, as much.3636xLerner, Ernst Kantorowicz, 312–328. The success of the University of California as a public project for education of unprecedented scope in human history3737xChristina González, Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2011). is precisely what is unwinding in the present era. This is a matter not only of logistics but of imagination, motivation, and connection to the sacred.
The crisis, then, is in part a result of the loss of an effective replacement for the king’s second body. It is in these terms that we may interpret the signs of our times. For example, this loss explains the vituperative and vicious hatred of the post office (yes, the post office) that circulates on the Internet. We could also interpret the unwillingness of Barack Obama’s administration to create much symbolic fanfare around the 2009 stimulus package (recall those boring orange signs) as a symptom of this loss. No longer is the distribution of charisma to office, to institution, or to collective representation quite as compelling as it once was.
This is, to some degree, a crisis of the nation as the second body of the people. After all, la France was Émile Durkheim’s great hope for keeping the demons of individual human life at bay in the modern age; hence his bitter disappointment at finding the Third Republic, in which he had put so much faith, overwhelmed by a violent and exclusionary Catholic nationalism. We may add a Kantorowiczian twist to this old story of republican patriotism versus far-right nationalism in the construction of the modern political body. A widespread ideational feature of monarchical societies (variably realized) is the investment of the common people in a king or queen as their protector against the predations of the aristocracy. The peasant, immediately subject to his lord, reaches to the monarch—the ultimate location of the sacred, the place where the body politic meets the body natural—as a shield against the unfairness and violence of the world, and in particular as a shield against the exploitation of the poor by the rich. In modernity, one may hazard, it is society itself, and its complex institutional environment, that embodies this promise of protection. This was articulated and felt, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through belief in the nation in a way that is not obviously available today for those who seek an institutionally well-developed version of an open and fair society.
However, we should be clear that the crisis is not only the crisis of “the nation,” but also—and perhaps more urgently—the crisis of all of the institutional developments that replaced the image of the king as the defender of the weak against the strong, and, in their very development, made social life not only about the strong and the weak, but also about justice as fairness, and equality as the precondition for the pursuit of distinction.
Understanding how and why such commitments to fairness and equality could become compelling preconditions of action in society across different zones of modernity is the unifying purpose for a critique of political mythology as a route to understanding the crisis of liberal modernity. What were the sustaining myths that energized the pursuit of fairness, equality, natality, and pluralism, and under what conditions could new and augmented versions of those myths be introduced, so as to sustain such projects?3838xThe loss of energy and will around the pursuit of various collective projects—for example, public education—is no doubt due, in part, to the tremendous limitations on those arrangements that were designed in the aftermath of World War II. We cannot merely wish for a return to an earlier era when levels of union membership were high and elite education had a civic purpose for the select few whose fathers’ social positions allowed them access to it. That going back is not possible is what makes the response to the most disturbing developments of the current era so fraught. But there is no choice; the challenges of the twenty-first century are new.
Finding a Replacement for the Replacement
In her response to the violence in Charlottesville, the political philosopher Danielle Allen wrote the following:
What happened in Charlottesville makes everything look too simple. The fight, it would seem, is between neo-Nazis and those who resist them. And so it was Saturday. And, yes, white supremacy, racism and anti-Semitism are abhorrent ideologies. Yet the country’s struggle is new; it is not the fight of yesteryear.
The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved. We are engaged in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world. And even those who are, in principle, willing to build that world are fighting with one another, for instance, over issues such as how the compelling state interest in nondiscrimination, confirmed by the Supreme Court decades ago, interacts with rights of association and speech.3939xDanielle S. Allen, “Charlottesville Is Not the Continuation of an Old Fight. It Is Something New,” Washington Post, August 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charlottesville-is-not-the-continuation-of-an-old-fight-it-is-something-new/2017/08/13/971812f6-8029-11e7-b359-15a3617c767b_story.html.
What Allen’s astute analysis points to is the complex problem of building institutions that meet the problems of the twenty-first century. In particular, how can a differentiated society construe a republican body politic that contains and represents all bodies equally, rather than simply the bodies of a few, distinguished by wealth and ease, or by race and gender? The current crisis, then, is traceable to the urgent need to find, via creativity and solidarity, a replacement for the replacement of the King’s Two Bodies. And the stakes are high, because the pathological modern reconcretization of the King’s Two Bodies, in the form of the worship of authoritarian leaders, is on the march, and offers itself as an antidote and salve to the world that replaced the two bodies of the King.
The revolution from the far right against the current order is, in a certain sense, a distortion of nostalgia, which, given that nostalgia is itself a distortion, means that it is grounded in a distortion of a distortion: A desire for a more “recognizable” body politic (in the United States: white, male, and Christian) can be, in this view, instantiated only in a new king whose body and its various media significations manifest the qualities that those who identify with the far right see in themselves and reinvent (recall the pro-Trump stickers proclaiming “Proud to Be Deplorable”). This then becomes the basis for hostility to the liberal order and everything associated with it (learning, racial and gender diversity, science, education, cosmopolitanism, etc.), which is derisively coded as “elite.”
This returns us to the interpretation of presidents in the contemporary moment, and their place in the long arc of struggles to build political communities against a background different from that provided by the King’s Two Bodies. The failure to imagine and articulate a new replacement for the King’s Two Bodies—a failure, one might say, of the ongoing creative destruction required to sustain a republic, and to motivate the liberal metaproject, according to which all individuals have the freedom to pursue their own projects—has afforded, in the space left open thereby, the pathological combination of king worship and modern state power.
The end of the Cold War (and the supposed end of history) witnessed the emergence of a regime of interpretation in which the fleshly first body of the president came to stand for the existential terrors and highest ambitions of the country. This process was never straightforward, and went forward via highly conflictual, even polarizing interpretation. We can mark its beginnings with the tawdry investigations, conducted within the federal government itself, of President Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities. From there, the national myth became more and more focused on and concretized into the body of the president—the first body—and the narratives about that first body. In this way, presidents became increasingly culturally sovereign, though never as an aspect of consensus, but as a flashpoint of polarization. Something shifted in how the interpretation of their first bodies was connected to the understanding of their second bodies. Consider, in this regard, the importance of cowboy imagery and decisiveness to the expectation that President George W. Bush would redeem the heroic first responders to 9/11. Consider the way that, for many white liberals, Barack Obama’s presidency was imbued with religious energy, millennial expectation, and confessional emotion, all bound up with the hope that the racial sins of the country would, with his presidency, finally be washed clean. And consider how, in the vast and horrifying spread of false assertions of Obama’s communist or, alternately, Muslim inner identity, and the manufactured and sustained suspicions relating to his birth certificate, it was revealed that, for a large part of America’s white population, the mythological constitution of the country could never admit to the second body of the presidency someone with a first body—and a first family—so clearly marked as black.
All of which brings us to the remarkable performances of the current occupant of the Oval Office, and, along with them, the assertion of the theory of the unified executive, which is just another name for a theory of sovereignty. Donald Trump’s performances of vulgarity, endlessly shocking to those who remember presidents before Bill Clinton, in fact articulate for the twenty-first century an ancient aspect of Western power. The grotesque or “Ubu-esque” is, as Michel Foucault explained, “a way of giving a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.… In our society…you have the whole outrageous functioning of the despicable sovereign.”4040xMichel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975 (New York, NY: Picador, 2003), 11–13. First published 1999.
It should not entirely surprise us that this format of power has reappeared in a moment in which our political culture seems ill equipped to confront not only our deepest divisions but also the irresponsibility and indifference to democracy among certain titanic pillars of wealth. What is perhaps even more concerning is that the reconcretization of the King’s Two Bodies provides the poetry whereby the escape from freedom represented by authoritarianism can express itself. We exist at a point in history when the generation that directly witnessed the collapse of Europe into two modern, pathological versions of the King’s Two Bodies—whereby the myth of the state became something that it had never been before—has shuffled off this mortal coil. Can we recall, with sufficient urgency but also sufficient understanding, the tremendous appeal of these fleurs du mal?
Let us pause and note that the pathological modern reconcretization of the King’s Two Bodies is something that comes in many political valences. It includes, for example, what Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt called “the Jacobin dimension of modernity.”4141xShmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution: The Jacobin Dimension of Modernity (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999). In Paris in 1793, Moscow in 1917, Beijing in 1949 and 1966, and Tehran in 1979, we saw not only the quintessentially modern desire to burn society to the ground so as to rebuild it from scratch, but also a notorious ideational complicity between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries. The idea of an infallible vanguard party with incorruptible leaders emerged in close connection with violent attacks on royal sovereignty in all of its enchanted and formidable splendor. The promise made by modern Jacobins was to “the people”—a unitary sovereignty of party to replace the unitary sovereignty of king.
Today, the mystical hero worship of despicable buffoons selling race and nation as a perfect amalgam through which to secure the incorporation of the individual in the authority of the leader is on offer again. This authoritarianism offers a fantasy of total integration, and its horror should not blind us to its appeal, for it is—as I have endeavored to show herein—an ancient human tendency to imagine that in the leader is contained the community. This appeal even has a pragmatic basis, for it is an imaginary solution to the real, recurrent and unavoidable human problem of securing delegation across time and space via the use of signs. What many modern authoritarian leaders grasp intuitively is that there exists a widespread willingness in certain parts of their populations (and perhaps, in a certain way, in all humans) to fantasize about a single delegation for all times, from the homogenous demos to the modern replacement for the sovereign.
That this fantasy has become so manifest, and that it has resulted in the commandeering of modern states by those who will play the part of Ubu-roi, is the source of liberal trepidation. For this willingness to delegate on these terms opens onto that most infamous of inversions: to trade all access to the good for the pleasure of becoming a true believer, and then to recode that pleasure as the moral rectitude required to commit mass violence in the pursuit of a new world. The return of modern gnosticism—what Eric Voegelin called the political religions—is the shadow of the age.
The question for the twenty-first century, then, is this: What new replacement for the King’s Two Bodies will we offer? The experience of liberal modernity has hitherto been notoriously limited in time, space, and person—it was the strange and slightly inexplicable wonder, distributed to a small portion of the world population, of an otherwise quite violent modernity. Yet it at least alerted us to certain possibilities. It is possible for popularly elected leaders to respect the authority of reformable institutions, for open societies to meet demands for equality and fairness, and for the rule of law to find its moral grounding in an ethically pluralistic society. It is even possible—though it has not yet been tried—that every single living individual can be recognized as sacred, and understood as a flourishing, inevitably contradictory, and wonderfully human author of action. But what is the language in which these possibilities for sacred dispensation will be articulated? And how will this language come to terms with hierarchy in human organizations, the unavoidability of conflicts of interest, and the fallen unfairness of a world in which humans are all too human?
The trope of the King’s Two Bodies will never go away entirely. But the proliferation of systems of power in the modern world makes its repeated creative destruction all the more urgent. The pathological modern versions of the King’s Two Bodies emerge when this trope not only recurs but also becomes dominant culturally and attached to power and money. When this happens, the idiomatic effect on culture is a disaster, as a bizarrely compelling transvaluation of values takes place.
If we do not wish to let these modern versions of a very old trope become the dominant political myth of social life in the twenty-first century, we must ask this: How can we reconstitute the body politic in a time when nations are neither irrelevant nor meaningless but somehow less vital? How do we extend the dignitas of the king’s second body into the body of a more perfect union, defined by its innovative institutional solutions to human problems both old and new? And how do we articulate a language that grasps hierarchy in human organizations, recognizes the flawed and crooked timber that is humanity, and yet deposits the dignitas of the king in every individual as an equal participant in a common life? That is the task for a critique of political mythology in the age of crisis. The dragon is here; will the angelus novus make whole what has been smashed?