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6 March: Paula Schwebel (Ryerson University)

“Sovereign/ creature: Neostoicism in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel and his response to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology”

Abstract:  This talk is based on a chapter of my current book project on the political theology of sovereignty. In his 1922 text, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Carl Schmitt argues that the modern concept of state sovereignty derives from the transposition of an originally theological concept into secular politics. Schmitt argues for a notion of legislative sovereignty, according to which the sovereign, who creates the law, also has the power to suspend the system of normal laws in its entirety if he deems this necessary for the common good. Schmitt contends that the sovereign’s ‘decision on the exception’ is systematically analogous to the voluntarist God’s ‘miraculous’ suspension of the laws of nature.

We find a significant response to Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty in Walter Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play (1928). In his discussion of the sovereign hero of these plays, Benjamin makes prominent reference to Schmitt’s Political Theology. Yet, as other scholars have noticed, the sovereign figure in Benjamin’s study is characteristically indecisive, and thus incapable of carrying out his sacrosanct role. Much of the secondary literature on Benjamin’s engagement with Schmitt reads this as Benjamin’s ‘subversion’ of Schmitt’s argument, perhaps so as to demonstrate the failures and breakdowns of sovereignty. However, as I argue, Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque sovereign rests on a fundamentally different metaphysical idea than Schmitt’s, and introduces a distinct set of philosophical, political, and theological considerations. Beyond simply giving a different characterization of Benjamin’s response to Schmitt, my ultimate goal is to open up an alternative genealogy of modern sovereignty, and concomitantly, a different set of political theological considerations. While Schmitt’s conception of sovereignty has had an outsized influence on contemporary discussions of sovereignty, I hope to create a place within this discussion for the different historical and conceptual possibilities that emerge from Benjamin’s study.