Saturday, November 7, 2020

Pitching the dissertation

This post is one pass at offering an explanation of my dissertation. I've had to come up with several of these over the past two years as I moved haltingly from brainstorming to proposal to actual writing, and none of them has satisfied me. The problem only gets worse over time, as the more I revise the more I find myself arguing against previous drafts of the abstract. The single sentence abstract has remained consistent: my dissertation is about eschatological discourses in the modern liberal tradition. The current 150-word abstract looks about like this:

While the relationship of liberal political thought to theological concepts is much-discussed, existing treatments often treat "the theological" as an undifferentiated terrain to which liberalism is generally hostile. I argue that the liberal tradition, broadly understood, has not followed an unambiguously secular/secularizing trajectory, nor has it failed to respond to theological challenges. Rather, the liberal tradition has been profoundly shaped by theological challenges, particularly during modern revolutions. Theological discourses, especially eschatological ones, are pervasive in these moments: both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary actors impute cosmic significance to their political goals, invoking final judgments and Kingdoms of God. Through engagement with major theorists of three modern revolutions (Hobbes on the English Civil Wars, Bruno Bauer on the Märzrevolution, J. M. Keynes on the October Revolution), this project sketches how the liberal tradition is shaped by the interpolation of eschatological concepts across the terrains of theology, politics, and economics.

I've learned to be fine with this, but naturally it's very broad, and it leaves the thesis and the stakes a bit too vague. The usual next step up from this is an abbreviated proposal of around 9–10 pages, including bibliography (or about a third of the length of the full proposal), which I won't reproduce here. But to provide some clarity for myself, and for anyone who may be interested, I'll try to draw out the argument a bit more, splitting it into "for" and "against" components.

What I'm arguing against: The outsize influence of Carl Schmitt in the political theology literature (as evidenced by the fact that we call it "the political theology literature") has led to an unfortunately common acceptance of what I call the "depoliticization thesis:" that liberalism, by relegating theology to private life and divvying up the prerogatives of the sovereign, has hollowed out "the political" and reduced it to a procedural shell. Schmitt describes this as "castrating a once-vital Leviathan (einen lebenskr√§ftigen Leviathan zu verschneiden)," identifying Hobbes as the last authentic theorist of the state before the secularizing influence of Spinoza and Mendelssohn fully set in. The normative objections here are obvious—Schmitt is an authoritarian in the most charitable interpretations, and particularly in the 1930s, he treats "secularization" and "Judaization" (Verjudung) as synonyms. But it also doesn't really work as a descriptive account, which is why most "post-Marxist" adaptations of Schmitt, which selectively borrow from his theoretical approach while inverting some of its value judgments, don't satisfy me either. They usually reflect, as Adam Kotsko has argued, a "bias against the economic," a reflexive belief that the modern transition from sovereign prerogative to governmental administration somehow renders politics inauthentic or the state incoherent.

What I'm arguing for: Liberalism is characterized not by an excision of theology from politics, or a simple displacement of political matters onto the economic terrain. The liberal tradition is shaped by sustained negotiation about the boundaries of the political, economic, and theological. We can see this very acutely in modern revolutionary periods, often apprehended as eschatological crises, with millenarian hopes on the part of revolutionaries and apocalyptic fears on the part of reaction. Liberalism is neither inherently revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary. Rather, liberals construct a counter-eschatology that aims to quantify the risks and rewards of a given revolutionary moment. The equation of revolution and apocalypse ("secularized" as social collapse) still obtains for liberals, but this does not foreclose the possibility that some revolutionary collapses are worth it. In making these assessments, liberals default to a Whiggish, "providential" view of historical time as an homogeneous medium, in which there is deviation from the norm but rarely a complete break. The liberal tradition is not premised on a rejection of eschatology, in sum; it aims to sublimate apocalyptic ruptures within a providential continuity.

This is still a weak summary. It's cluttered, and it relies heavily on concepts that are not explained and references that are not made explicit. The writing and re-writing of abstracts and abridged proposals will continue to leave me frustrated and unsatisfied, but here, for the record, is one pass at laying out the argument at the core of the project.

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