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  • Politics Is a Mushroom: Worldly Sources of Rule and Exception in Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin
  • Kam Shapiro (bio)

Life is not a mushroom growing out of death.

—Carl Schmitt, The Visibility of the Church

To isolate death from life, not leaving the one intimately woven in the other, and each one entering into the other’s midst—this is what one must never do.

—Jean-Luc Nancy, L’intrus1

Carl Schmitt’s theory of the exception was bound up with a thoroughgoing critique of philosophies of immanence, materialism, and “atheism,” which he treated as interchangeable. In his early writings, he adopted the Christian perspective according to which postlapsarian nature cannot by itself yield a juridical order, or in his poetic phrase, “life is not a mushroom growing out of death.” Yet—in accord with Catholic doctrine—he also found sources of life, or law, in this world. While he repudiated theories of collective self-legislation, he embraced a popular sovereign empowered to impose form on a chaotic society. In Political Theology (1922), he compared the form-giving power of the sovereign to an act of divine intervention. Law, he argued, can only function in a lawful or “normal” situation that precedes formalization, and the sovereign “produces and guarantees the situation in its totality” [13]. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) Schmitt retained his theological terms: “A scientific study of democracy must begin with a particular aspect that I have called political theology” [32]. In the modern age, democratic constituent power (pouvoir constituant) replaces the will of God as the transcendent source of a substantial order, namely democratic homogeneity. Democratic will-formation thereby becomes an act prior to its subject, or as Schmitt wrote, “[. . .] only political power, which should come from the people’s will, can form the people’s will in the first place” [Crisis 28]. A variety of democratic theorists dwell on the paradoxical character of democratic sovereignty, sometimes tracing it back to Rousseau’s well-known formulations [see esp. Connolly and Honig]. They highlight the gap between a transcendent (ideal or fictive) will in whose name political power acts, and the bounded, material consensus it forms, ostensibly rendering the latter vulnerable to challenge. As I argue, however, a closer look at Rousseau’s discussion of democratic founding in On the Social Contract reveals instead a dynamic relay between dispersed substantial or immanent sources of affiliation, on the one hand, and various agents and techniques of political power that draw on and combine them in a collective will, on the other, or what I call the virtual and the virtuosic.2 After briefly exploring this dynamic in Rousseau’s [End Page 121] On the Social Contract, I will highlight similar dynamics at work in Schmitt’s Weimar writings, examining three instances: the complexio oppositorum (1923), national myth (1923), and the polemical opposition of friend and enemy (1927), focusing especially on the first. Contrary to familiar readings of Schmitt’s metaphysical “exceptionalism,” I argue that for Schmitt, as for Rousseau, political power does not create a normative order from a vacuum, and the apparent transcendence of sovereign authority has a variety of worldly sources.3 Finally, I consider what I call “democratic virtuosity,” or virtuosity from below, focusing on Walter Benjamin’s repudiation of sovereign acts of lawmaking or law preserving in favor of ongoing collective habit-formation. As I argue, Benjamin returns spiritual force to the material world not only to shatter human authorities, but also to democratize creation.

Rousseau—Anticipating the People

In the Social Contract, Rousseau formulated the paradox of democratic founding to which so many, including Schmitt, would return. “In order for an emerging people to appreciate the healthy maxims of politics, and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be the result of the institution, would have to preside over the founding of the institution itself; and men would have to be prior to laws what they ought to become by means of laws” [Rousseau 69]. As Rousseau argues, a constitution can form a general will only if it commands the loyalty of the people, that is, if there is...