Art of Politics

Art of Politics March 30, 2016

In his reflections on Carl Schmitt, Paul W. Kahn (Political Theology) contrasts Enlightenment political rationalism to Schmitt’s political voluntarism. Kant stands as the representative of the rationalist tradition:

“For Kant, the question of freedom was that of how a subject could determine his own action in a causally determined world. The free subject, he thought, must give himself the principle of his action. He must be self-governing rather than governed from without. As a rational agent, moreover, his act cannot be arbitrary. He must act according to a rule and the rule must express his nature as a rational agent. In the end, the free agent is determined in his actions by the very form of rationality,” which is the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” or “What if everyone did?” (126).

Freedom for Kant is thus action in accord with rational demands. This doesn’t involve personality or subjectivity, always problematic for moralistic political theories like Kant’s, since subjectivity cannot be grounded rationally: “Individual character is as irrelevant to morality as is the uniqueness of the body” (126-7).

Schmitt’s model of free action is aesthetic rather than rational. It cannot be either arbitrary nor determined. It has to have “some relationship to norms, or else it would be arbitrary.” But it cannot be simply determined by any norm, since that would rob the act of its free character. Kant’s categorical imperative does not underwrite freedom, but destroys it, since the acting subject disappears from the picture. For Schmitt the “free act is ‘not without reason,’ although it does not follow from any prior reason.” It is an act of the will, but since it is related to norms, it is not sheer wilfulness (127).

Artistic creation provides a model of how will, norms, and reason work together in all human action. There is “no formal or physical necessity to aesthetic creation,” but this doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary. Though “it cannot be explained by reason or interest alone,” the two standard explanatory devices of liberal theory. Nor can it be explained “by both together.” In artistic creation, particular and universal are bound together like the poles of a conversation: “A conversation is a reciprocal series of responsive surprises. The aesthetic creation is exactly the same. It is always a new beginning, but one that is responsive to what has come before. Absent the element of response, it would be arbitrary. Absent surprise, it would be a mechanical reproduction” (128).

No artist “applies a universal,” since “there is nothing to apply until a meaning is set in the free act of creation.” Artistic creation is an “interpretive performance” that necessarily enlists the response of the audience: “Artist and audience are equally creative, which is why the artist may be no better at explaining his work than a critic. We speak of artists as seized by a creative daimon or directed by a muse. What we mean is that they literally do not know how it is that they do what they do. They do not know because the imagination is not an expression of reason but of a free will” (129). Art works are sites “of contested interpretations, each of which has the capacity to lead us into an entire worldview” (129).

Kahn discerns the theological roots of this understanding of will and action: “The Judeo-Christian God freely creates the world because he has will, the faculty by which the imagined moves from the possible to the actual. Thus, when God looks at his creation and judges it ‘good,’ he is reflecting on his work as an act of will informed by imagination. He is not merely executing an abstract plan. If God creates man in his image, meaning with imagination and will, then man too is characterized by access to the possible” (130).

From this perspective, we can recognize the true character of political sovereignty, which is about will and not reason. For Schmitt, the sovereign “wills the nation into existence, just as the sovereign god willed the cosmos into existence, and just as the artist wills the aesthetic object into existence. In all these cases, we don’t start from a position in which we see the actor and then discover the products of his free acts. . . . We start from a perception of the product and infer the presence of the free subject.” Between subject and object is imagination. In this sense, politics is “a performance of freedom” (131).


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