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Mika Ojakangas “On the Pauline Roots of Biopolitics”

January 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Ojakangas, Mika 2010. On the Pauline Roots of Biopolitics: Apostle Paul in Company with Foucault and Agamben. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 11(1): 92-110.

Pauline  theology  seems  to  be  the  origin  of  two significant  tendencies  in  modern  biopolitical  societies:  1)  profanation  and instrumentalization of the law and 2) the demand of the liberation of bare life and its affirmation as the highest value. (92)

[…] the primary concern of both the Judeo-Christian pastoral power and biopower is the life of the herd/population. The aim of this power is  to promote  life:  “Pastoral power is  a power of care,” the  shepherd being someone who provides subsistence to the flock by taking  care of each one’s particular needs. Likewise, the role of biopower is to “ensure, sustain,  and improve” life, not only of the population in general but of each individual in particular. (93)

According to Foucault, the shepherd constantly watches over his flock, but in the Pauline ecclesia  there  is  no  such  shepherd.  Rather,  everybody is  everybody  else’s shepherd: “Encourage one another and build up each other” (I Thess. 5:11). Control  is  horizontal  as  well:  “My  friends,  if  anyone  is  detected  in  a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a  spirit  of  gentleness” (Gal.  6:1).  Does  this  egalitarian or  “democratic”  care then  mean  that  Pauline  theology  would  offer  a  point of  resistance  againstpastoral  power  and  thereby,  against  biopolitical  governmentality,  as  John Milbank  suggests  in  his  recent  article  entitled  “Paul  Against  Biopolitics”? This does not necessarily follow and in the next section I shall explain why. (95)

[…] within the biopolitical order the law becomes a mere tool. It has  only  instrumental significance.  Yet  it  is  precisely  this  theme  that  links Pauline  theology  to  the  modern  biopolitical  constellation  depicted  by Foucault.  With  Paul,  both  the  Mosaic  and  natural law are  reduced  to  mere tactics the aim of which is to arrange things in such a way that such and such ends may be achieved. (96)

The law, both the Mosaic and the law written in the heart,  awakens  the  sense  of  guilt:  “The  law  brings  wrath”  (Rom.  4:15); “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).  The end of law means,  consequently, the  end of the  knowledge of sinand  guilt. Therefore, neither  the  Mosaic  nor  natural  law  can  be  in  force  when  we  live  in  Christ. Christ  has  discharged  us  from  the  law  and  with  it  from  its  logic  of  debt through redemption, literally by ransoming (dia tês apolutrôseôs), which is in him (Rom. 3:24). When Paul criticizes the law, whichis a curse and a power of sin, he means the whole law—including the law of the heart. (97)

Agamben holds that the Pauline critique of the law includes a double operation of sorts. According to him, Paul first “renders inoperative” the law through the act of  katargêsis in which the law becomes unobservable. This amounts, in Agamben’s view, to what he calls the (sovereign) state of exception in which the law is in force without signification, as he explains elsewhere. Yet Paul does not stop here. Agamben  maintains that the  katargêsis of the law is  merely the condition of possibility for the authentic and, in fact, only possible relationship between human  life  and  the  law  after  the  resurrection  of  Christ  (in  the  “messianic time,” as Agamben puts it). This relationship is characterized by the  free use of  the  law.  By  “rendering  the  word  of  law  inoperative,”  Agamben  writes, Paul makes the law “freely available for use.” (98)

The  Pauline  Aufhebung of  the  law  rendered  inoperative  in  the “messianic time” means that the law also becomes an object of free use: “It is obvious  that  for  Paul  grace”  (grace  is,  for  Agamben,  one  of  the  Pauline figures  of  absolute  katargêsis)  “cannot  constitute  a  separate  realm  that  is alongside that of obligation and law. Rather, grace  entails nothing more than the  ability  to  use  the  sphere  of  social  determinations  and  services  in  its totality.” (99; Agamben, „The Time that Remains”)

Indeed, given the fact that the law means, for Paul, not only the Mosaic Law, but also tradition and natural law— freedom from the law signifies absolute freedom. For  a  person  liberated  by  Christ  from  the  law,  “everything  is  permitted (exesti)”  (1  Cor.  6:12). On  the  other  hand,  as  Paul  immediately  adds, “everything  is  not  useful  (symphoros).”  For  the  one  who  lives  in  Christ, everything  is  permitted  but  not  useful—  to  the  extent  that  all  other determinations and measures are cancelled in the operation of katargêsis, it is precisely  usefulness  itself  that  becomes  the  ultimate measure  of  mundane life. (100)

Even though Paul writes once in the Romans that the law is holy (hagios), it is nevertheless  the  holiness  of  the  law,  I  argue,  that  Paul  wants  to  render inoperative by the  katargêsis. Why? Because: if the law is sacred, it is out of reach  and  untouchable.  It  cannot  be  used  but  merely worshipped  and obeyed. Hence, by rendering the sacred law inoperative, Paul operationalizes it, restoring it to profane use. (100)

Thus, even though I fully agree with Agamben that the aim of Paul’s critique of the law is to make law freely usable, I do not subscribe to Agamben’s view that  the  Pauline  messianism  surpasses the  biopolitical  constellation  of  late modernity.  In  my  opinion,  on  the contrary,  by  rendering  the  law  and  the worldly  conditions  inoperative  as  a  whole,  and  thus making  them  freely available for use, Paul inadvertently gives a perfectarticulation to what both Milbank  and  Badiou  call  contemporary  “nihilism”  (utilitarianism, instrumentality, biopolitics, and so on). (101-102)

As  we  have  seen,  Foucault  posits  life at  the  core  of  both pastoral power and biopolitics. So does Paul in his epistles. For him, Christ himself is  zôêand  zôêis Christ: “For to me to live is Christ” (emoi gar to zên christos)  (Philip.  1:21).  We  could  cite  dozens  of  passages,  but  that  is unnecessary  as  the  fact  is  well  established,  and  it  suffices  for  one  to  read certain  passages  in  Romans  (2:7,  5:10,  5:21-22,  6:5,  6:22-23)  to  become convinced  of  it.  Foucault  also  argues  that  biopower  is  characterized  by  a certain “disqualification of death.” What else is Paul’s Christ but a figure of such  disqualification?  Indeed,  christos-zôê signifies,  for  Paul,  an  absolute disqualification of death: “The last enemy to be destroyed (katargeô) is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). With Christ, life is without death. It is eternal (zôê aiônios). (102)

Through the law, God takes life, whereas through grace, he lets live. He does not take care of life like a shepherd but judges it like  the  sovereign.  The  same  applies  to  Christ:  “It  is  the  Lord  (kyrios)  who judges (anakrinô) me” (1 Cor. 4:4). For Paul, in other words, both God and  Christ,  Father  and  Son,  are  lords,  sovereigns,  and  judges—not  shepherds. (102)

In his [Agamben’s] view both  the  juridico-institutional  and  biopolitical  forms  of  power  have  a common  (although  hidden)  foundation  in  the  notion  of  bare  life:  “The production of bare life is the originary activity ofsovereignty.” What then is bare life? In Agamben’s definition, bare life is characterized solely by the fact that it can be killed. Bare life is thus a sort of un-dead life that has no other form or content than being “exposed to death.” (104)

Moreover,  Paul  also  urges  his  addressees  to become  lowly  and “despicable:” “Let you become lowly together” (tois tapeinois synapagomenoi) (Rom. 12:16); thus, suggesting that instead of pursuing the good form of life (eu zên), those who live in Christ should now abandon it andbecome humble slaves,  representatives  of  the  mere  zôê exposed  to  the  continuous  threat  of death: “The messianic life,” as Agamben calls the lifeof the Pauline person living in Christ, means the “revocation of every bios.” (105)

Although Paul  identifies  flesh with vice and sin, the most fundamental characteristic of the flesh is that  it entails death. Indeed, for Paul, flesh meansdeath, whereas spirit meanslife: “To set the mind (phronêma) on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life” (Rom. 8:6). Whereas Aristotle and the Greeks  thought that vices (the Pauline  works of  the flesh)  entail shame, while virtues (the Pauline fruit of the spirit) entail glory and good reputation, Paul maintains instead that they entail  life  and  death:  zôê and  thanatos. (105)

Indeed,  the  Pauline  christos appears  to  occupy  a  place  on  both sides  of biopolitical rationality: first as a sovereign judge of  zôê, then as a liberator of zôê.  The  first  figure  is  the  son  of  a  wrathful  father-God (and  more conventionally, the father-God himself) who confines his subjects within the law  (“before  faith  came,  we  were  imprisoned  and  guarded  under  the  law” Gal. 3:23) that has no other function than to discloseone’s guilt and to subject one  to  what  Agamben  calls  the  “sovereign  ban.” The  second  figure  is  the son of the redeemer-God whose grace redeems us from thelaw and hence, from  death:  “[All]  are  now  justified  by  his  grace  as a  gift,  through  the redemption  that  is  in  Christ  Jesus”  (Rom.  3:24).  Thus,  this  second  figure (kyrios  christos as  the  son  of  the  redeemer-God)  renders,  as  it  were, inoperative  the  first  figure,  rendering  simultaneously  inoperative  the sovereign biopolitics in order that a new form of biopolitics (democratic and revolutionary) could  emerge—a biopolitics that  vindicates  and liberates the zôê of  the  entire  humankind  from  under  the  yoke  of  law and  death, transforming  the  law  to  a  mere  instrument  and  abolishing  death.  (Is  it  not precisely through a successful sovereign biopoliticaloperation, the slaying of Christ,  that  this  biopolitical  liberation  of  zôê became  possible  in  the  first place? God is the subject of violence through the sacred law and the subject of  liberation  through  Christ,  but  is  He  not  the  latter  because  He  is  the former?) (106)

In sum, if my analysis is correct, both the modern techno-instrumental view of the law and the world and the revolutionary (democratic) biopolitics find their  common  home  in  the  Pauline  epistles.  Contrary  to  Agamben,  who  in Homo Sacer  argues that this revolutionary biopolitics is the other side of the contemporary biopolitical constellation, however, I  would like to emphasize that  distinguishing these even as  two sides of the samecoin is increasingly difficult  today,  if  not  entirely  impossible.  Contemporary  biotechnology,  for instance,  is  not  only  a  paradigmatic  case  of  techno-instrumental  biopower (taking care of each and everyone, not like a good shepherd, but rather on the basis of a cost-benefit calculus developed for the sake  of the bare life of the late  modern  democratic  sovereign:  the  taxpayer),  but  also  a  revolutionary endeavor to redeem life, not only from the moral law (Milbank’s ius naturale) but also from death—its most fanciful dream still being the same as it was for Paul: the ultimate eradication (katargeô) of death. (109)