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  • The Miracle of MetaphorRethinking the State of Exception with Rosenzweig and Schmitt
  • Bonnie Honig (bio)

For the word is mere inception until it finds reception in an ear and response in a mouth.

—Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption

The legal anthropologist Carol Greenhouse opens her book on time, A Moment’s Notice, with a story recorded by Goethe, who, when traveling through Italy, observed a trial and took note of its peculiar timekeeping practices. A man seated at a desk held in his hand a glass sand bottle, a timepiece. It was not immediately clear what his purpose was. But Goethe soon noticed that as the prosecutor spoke the man kept the bottle lying on its side, its sands inert, and whenever the defense began to speak the man would turn the bottle upright and restart its sand flow. When the state spoke, time stopped. The defense, however, was subject to time.

The story accords well with the views of state sovereignty propounded by Carl Schmitt, who identifies sovereignty as such with the power to legally suspend law for a time by declaring a state of exception. For Schmitt, as for Giorgio Agamben, who works in his wake, the state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power. The ensuing condition is one in which we—or, rather, sovereign powers—are neither subject to law nor free of it but rather both, since the state of exception is itself a legal condition of alegality. Grounded in paradox—the legal suspension of law—and seeming well positioned to explain elements of the current political landscape that liberal and deliberative democratic theorists only criticize, Schmitt’s “state of exception,” I think it is fair to say, has captured the imagination of contemporary political theory.

I seek to loosen its hold on our imagination by pluralizing the particular political theology on which Schmitt’s account is based and from which it draws sustenance. And I do so with the intent of highlighting the dependence of the so-called state of exception upon democratic energies and its vulnerability, therefore, to democratic action and resistance.

I begin by devoting sustained attention to Schmitt’s metaphor for the state of exception—the miracle, noting that we may accept his metaphorization and yet be drawn by it to very different conclusions. Alternative conceptions of miracle, as we shall see, point not to singular sovereign ruptural power but rather to receptivity, popular power, and the importance of orientation in everyday life to divinity or sovereignty. For this alternative, I turn to Franz Rosenzweig’s theology. Another implication of the work begun here is to lay the groundwork for questioning contemporary identifications of action with event and politics with singularity. I ask whether the metaphor of miracle, normally taken to mark extraordinary, ruptural, or inaugurative politics (as, for example, by Hannah Arendt), might not license instead a turn to the ordinary, away from rupture to the everyday, from transcendence to immanence (though, as William Connolly points out, the immanent can also be ruptural [Pluralism] and, as Eric Santner points out, the rupture sought by Rosenzweig’s new thinking is one that would return us to a different ordinary [On the [End Page 78] Psychotheology of Everyday Life and “Miracles Happen”]). Motivating this exploration is an intuition: that contemporary political theory’s debates about whether political action is best seen as ordinary or extraordinary, ruptural or rule-governed, may be a reiteration of earlier debates in political theology about the status of the extraordinary—god and miracle or divine agency—in the ordinary human world. Mindful of that reiteration, and with the help of Rosenzweig’s “new theology,” we may rechart our course and see opportunities to rethink emergency politics in the state of exception in more democratic terms.

A Secret Conversation?

In Political Theology, Carl Schmitt, the soon-to-be-lapsed Catholic legal thinker who would later become jurist to the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, claimed that all significant political concepts are reinhabitations of theological concepts and should be treated as such. In The Enemy, an intellectual biography of Schmitt, Gopal Balakrishnan points out this is an overstatement...