- Fleshing out Political Theology:Santner's The Royal Remains
Eric Santner's book is an engaging tour-de-force through the vestiges of divinely authorized royal authority in our allegedly secular, and post-monarchical, modern democratic culture. Skillfully combining insights from political theology, psychoanalysis, literary criticism and biopolitics, Santner suggests that, despite conventional wisdom, the royal remains in the new bearer of sovereignty: the people. At stake in Santner's account is the "flesh" that fattens monarchical authority, a type of excessive vibrant materiality that supplements and sustains the kingly body, and whose horizontal redistribution among citizens in a polity, furthered by democratic revolutions, becomes the object of a new science of the flesh. Santner finds sketches of this new science in biopolitics, particularly in the works by Michel Foucault and Roberto Esposito, but he offers startling contributions of his own.
Key to Santner's original account of the shift from monarchical power to popular sovereignty is Ernst Kantorowicz's idea of the king's two bodies. According to Kantorowicz's well-known argument, in medieval and early modern Europe the king was conceived as having a double body: a mortal, human body subject to illness, aging and decay; and a subtle, immaterial or mystical body, unaffected by time and mortality, that secures royal succession. Santner's insightful contribution is to read the mystical body of the king as evidence of a "too muchness" (30) of "sublime somatic materiality" (4) intrinsic to the king's constitutive role in the symbolic structure of a body politic. According to Santner, the "fleshy excess" (26) secreted by royal authority persists after, and is redistributed by, the advent of popular sovereignty, generating novel pressures and excitations on every individual bearer of sovereign power. Santner's idiosyncratic take on the shift from monarchy to biocracy productively challenges our conventional wisdom on what political modernity means, and sheds new light on the implications of processes of destitution—royal or other.
Unlike standard accounts of secularization of Kantian and Weberian inspiration, Santner's path to modernity is not driven by moral progress, rationality or disenchantment. Rather, the strength of Santner's argument lies in mapping the metamorphosis and displacement of an enchanted royal materiality that, despite its elusiveness, is held to inform the very structure of our political life. Santner attunes us to this elusive materiality by reminding us that there is "more political theology in everyday life than we might have ever thought" (46). His suggestion is compelling. If we are persuaded by it there is no room for a gradual and incremental departure from a theologically inspired world. If the royal remains, political theology remains with it.
Santner can therefore be read as agreeing with Carl Schmitt and Claude Lefort on the permanence of the theologicopolitical, even if he departs from them in crucial ways. Unlike Schmitt, Santner does not concentrate on the fleshy excess in the figure of the sovereign representative, whose decision on the exception is analogous to a miracle, but tracks its redistribution among every single member of the polity—who now bears a specific (and excessive) political weight. Unlike Lefort, in turn, the shift from monarchy to biocracy does not produce an empty space of power, a kind of constitutive lack in the realm of political representation. Instead, a formless excess of "'biopolitical' substance" (59) is produced, and gives shape to forms of creaturely life. Santner defines creaturely life as a dimension of ontological vulnerability produced by our "exposure to the radical contingency of the forms of life that constitute the space of meaning within which human life unfolds" (5, 6). The response to this exposure is a paradoxical overreaction: the attempt to immunize ourselves from vulnerability leads to a double exposure, and therefore to a fattening of the "flesh of creaturely life" (6). Thus, Santner's account of the demise of royal political authority is marked by a surplus or excess of somatic materiality, not (or not merely) by a...