cut to the chase: pini ifergan on blumenberg and schmitt

In 2009, very little had been said in English on the Schmitt/Blumenberg correspondence.  Standing on the opposite shore of 2011, we have a superabundance of scholarship about this unique intellectual relationship. A newish article in New German Critique adds to our understanding of the correspondence with the assertion that Blumenberg and Schmitt somehow needed each other to flesh out the normative dimensions of one anothers’ work. Thus, Pini Ifergan writes:

Blumenberg’s inclination to extricate and distance himself from the “absolute” stands in stark contradistinction to Schmitt’s unremitting desire to locate and reinforce the presence of that same “absolute.” Hence it appears that Blumenberg and Schmitt needed one another to activate the normative dimension that both were inclined to obfuscate—each in his own way—as part of a conscious effort to assume the role of the singular “outsider” within the framework of a discussion they were expected to take part in. Just as Schmitt accomplished this objective through the discussion on theology, Blumenberg did so in the philosophical discourse on modernity. In my estimation, the correspondence between Schmitt and Blumenberg indeed repositioned each participant in the coveted role of “outsider” or, at least, a unique thinker.

Ifergan says that Schmitt needed Blumenberg to draw out his reticence about whether political theology was a descriptive or normative concept. And Blumenberg needed Schmitt to highlight the provisional nature of his thought.

Schmitt formulated political theology’s principal argument: “All the quintessential concepts of the theory of the modern state are secularized theological concepts.”1 From a normative standpoint, this statement can be interpreted as a neutral observation. In other words, rather than make a principled judgment, Schmitt merely points to a conceptual analogy or resemblance between the underlying theoretical principles of the modern state and those of Christian theology. That said, this succinct sentence can just as easily be read as a normative observation on the question of modernity’s liberation from the legacy of theological thought. In fact, this statement—and political theology in general—has drawn criticism from both adherents of theological worldviews and those committed to the tenets of modernity. The former lash out at the attempts to eviscerate political thought of what they believe to be its rudimentary theological content, whereas the standard-bearers of modernity bemoan the absence of a political theory that is radical enough to completely extricate itself from the grips of the religious worldview. Schmitt is chiefly responsible for the ambiguity over political theology’s fundamental position, as he persistently refrained from spelling out his motives.

Ifergan really throws me for a loop with this paragraph. Schmitt is just about the least reticent guy out there. What does Ifregan want him to do? Write a book about Catholic politics? Join the Nazis? I think Schmitt covered all those bases. There is no reticence in Schmitt’s continuing evisceration of liberal politics and no doubt that he means his critique of modernity as a normative attempt to anchor political legitimacy in theological categories.

Ifergan is seduced by what he himself calls Schmitt’s “self-induced naïveté.” Are we really meant to believe that the whole project of political theology can be summed up by appeals to the specific context of tradition of

the theory of state and law according to which the transition between its first and second phases, which are based on the Catholic Church’s interpretation of this theory and Ius Publicum Europeum (the international European law or order), respectively, entail the secularization of one stage in the terms of the other. Schmitt assumed that this shift pertains to the rewriting of the international rules of war and constituted the primary historical venue in which the coming of the new era played itself out. In other words, the transition to modernity released humanity from the theological context in which these laws were previously understood

Well, yes. Sort of. For Schmitt, the transition isn’t so humdrum as Gentili telling the theologians to stay within their narrow field. Far from small scale academic politics, it’s something like large scale politics of total war. Why?

The answer lies in the theological conception of what came before the Ius Publicum Europeum. The concept of Katechon gets employed by Schmitt to showcase the totalizing attitude towards history of the Christian empire. Briefly, the argument runs that we are living on borrowed time. To quote Nomos of the Earth, “the Christian empire was not eternal” but “it was capable of being a historical power.” This capability springs from “the historical power to restrain the appearance of the antichrist.” Couple this with Goethe’s famous statement that “no one can stand against a god unless he is a god himself” and we have a fairly Manichean theory of modernity. For Schmitt, modernity constitutes an intensification of the previous idea of the Katechon rather than a discrete and independent historical consciousness. Living under the nuclear, environmental and other swords of Damocles as we sometimes feel we are, we can sympathize with this hemming in of modernity within eschatological parameters.

We can understand why Blumenberg’s alternative diagnosis would so enervate Schmitt that he could write

This book positions the nonabsolute as an absolute and undertakes to scientifically negate every political theology. The negation is understood to be scientific only from the standpoint of a scientific term that is free of all remnants of continued influence, or “reoccupation,” on the part of the redemption gospel, which, for its part, is valid only within a religion that positions itself as absolute. That same “reoccupation,” which preserved a link to that same theology, is perceived by him [Blumenberg] as merely a “tragic debt” to eras past. The tireless efforts to cancel that same “debt” are attributed to the worldliness of the new age, which was eviscerated theologically, and it remains the ongoing critical mission of modernity.

Blumenberg’s attempt to open up Goethe’s aphorism by reference to the pantheism controversy can be seen as more of the same. Provisonality and openness vs. political theology.

All of this is skillfully pointed out by Ifergan in a shorter format than others have done. None of it supports his central thesis that Blumenberg and Schmitt somehow needed one another to really get to the bottom of their respective hypotheses. If anything, the hypotheses were strongly hypostatized, such that each could see the other as the “antichrist” or “gnostic” in the story of all of modernity. There is also an inaccuracy in the piece, when Ifergan claims that “Blumenberg cast doubt on the existence of anything that may be characterized as ‘absolute.’” Anyone familiar with Blumenberg’s oeuvre will realize that the whole point of rhetoric is to distance us from “the absolutism of reality” which suffocates human existence and renders everything else provisional. This is symptomatic of a lack of engagement with Blumenberg’s philosophical anthropology. But I think that such an engagement might be too much synoptic work to ask of such a short piece. Additionally, I would have liked to see Ifergan engage with the people, Joe Kroll especially, whose work he seems to overlap with. Still, “Cutting to the Chase provides a valuable service. It faithfully renders the crux of the Blumenberg/Schmitt debate and does so in a high level forum. Ifergan clearly gets the rhetorical strategies of these slippery interlocutors and understands the centrality of seemingly tangential debates about things like Goethe’s aphorism.

With the wealth of literature on the Schmitt/Blumenberg debate, it may behoove us to start asking who was right. I hope Ifergan serves as a final butressing of the scholarly latticework needed to begin this important (and yes, normative) conversation. Let’s take his advice and cut to the chase.

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2 Responses to cut to the chase: pini ifergan on blumenberg and schmitt

  1. Joe says:

    I don’t want to go too far into a critique of Ifergan’s essay here, but two general points should be considered: 1) Schmitt’s constant protestations that his arguments (about pretty much anything, but about secularization in particular) are disingenuous in the extreme. 2) Schmitt constantly undermined his “self-induced naïveté” in thought, word and deed. There can be no doubt that his loathing of modernity was comprehensive, and the furthest one could go in arguing for its somehow esoteric character is that its elements are spread out over a lifetime of work and that it requires reading across several texts for all its elements to fall into place.

    But I would agree with Ifergan, on the other hand, that Schmitt put Blumenberg on the spot in their correspondence. Schmitt was, in a sense, looking for a fight, for an enemy, and he detected in Blumenberg a radicalism with which Blumenberg himself was uncomfortable and which he buried in history and melancholy. Schmitt was astute in detecting enemies, in which his habit of making stark, binary distinctions served him well. That Blumenberg failed to rise to the bait – particularly with regard to the Katechon – is equally characteristic.

    I would further agree with you, Josh, that an awareness of Blumenberg’s philosophical anthropology would help to take this discussion further. Or rather: An awareness of the fundamental differences between his anthropology and the Menschenbild which Schmitt claimed to be absolute, based on the notion of human evil (if you prefer, original sin). Whatever turns Blumenberg’s anthropology may have taken, to take a moral claim of this kind as an apriori is irreconcilable with his own approach, unltimately derived from phenomenology. To consider Blumenberg-Schmitt debate without understanding this premiss would be to lose sight of its stakes.

  2. As someone who sees Blumenberg as an elephant and Schmitt as a gnat, I can’t really see much of an interdependence, as the provisionality of Blumenberg’s project seems apparent even in Paradigms for a Metaphorology, even if it became *more* provisional (methodologically speaking, at least) as time went on. Compared to Cassirer there’s a clear lack of what Blumenberg terms the terminus ad quem.

    I’d say your para here sums it up quite well:

    “Schmitt is just about the least reticent guy out there. What does Ifregan want him to do? Write a book about Catholic politics? Join the Nazis? I think Schmitt covered all those bases. There is no reticence in Schmitt’s continuing evisceration of liberal politics and no doubt that he means his critique of modernity as a normative attempt to anchor political legitimacy in theological categories.”

    Where does Lowith fit into all of this? I find his more historicist analysis to be more palatable than Schmitt’s.

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