Critique of Purity

At the time of this writing, the partial government shutdown, now the longest in U.S

By Jeremy Biles|January 24, 2019

At the time of this writing, the partial government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, is entering its fifth week. President Trump once declared he would “proudly” take responsibility (bear the “mantle”) for the shutdown. But in characteristic fashion, he has shifted his rhetoric and altered his stated position, now blaming Democrats for the shutdown and indulging in a petty tit-for-tat retributive game with Nancy Pelosi, while continuing to accuse them of neglecting national security and advocating for “open borders.” 

Leading up to the midterms Trump had conjured a caravan of “invaders” at the Mexican border and declared in his recent address from the Oval Office that the failure to control immigration constitutes a “crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul” that can only be redressed by—of course—the erection of a border wall. 

This shutdown and the presidential address came in the wake of Trump briefly backing away from his insistence on the wall. But in a craven bow to conservative commentators and inveterate hatemongers like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, Trump now declares he will not compromise on the wall. He is determined to have his wall: the demand for $5.7 billion will be extracted from one source or another, the welfare of furloughed government employees and the nation—not to mention the will of the American majority who oppose the wall—be damned.

Trump has threatened to invoke his power to declare a “state of emergency” that would allow him to divert millions of dollars from military construction projects in order to erect the wall. Although, as of this writing, Trump appears to be retreating from this possibility—who can say for sure?—the gesture nonetheless raises questions and indicates problems that go beyond this specific case. 

The legality of declaring a state of emergency, like so many other moments in Trump’s career as a businessman and politician, is in question. In threatening to declare a state of emergency, Trump is operating at the outer limits of executive authority, raising the question—here as elsewhere—of whether the president is, as his lawyer Rudy Giuliani has intimated, necessarily beyond the law by virtue of being president. Is it even possible for the president to break the law? Or does he enjoy a godlike position of ultimate authority and exemption from legal constraint?

This line of inquiry calls to mind the work of conservative legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt, perhaps best known for his concept of “political theology.” By Schmitt’s account, political theology means that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” A key aspect of Schmitt’s thinking of political theology is his formulation of sovereignty. 

Sovereignty, as Schmitt sees it, is fundamental to the legal authority structure that upholds the state. The sovereign figure—the president, in this case—is he who can declare “Ausnahmezustand.” Though generally translated as a “state of exception,” Schmitt’s original German term is perhaps more accurately rendered “state of emergency.” In any case, the sovereign, who stands beyond the law as the constitutive agent of the law, may declare or decide the state of emergency, even if doing so negates the will of the majority—not unlike the case with the border wall. 

As Schmitt notes in an oft-cited passage, “If the constitution of a state is democratic, then every exceptional negation of democratic principles, every exercise of state power independent of the approval of the majority, can be called dictatorship.” Thus—as with so many of Trump’s actions, and as borne out by his insistent and blatant vying for unrestricted executive power—declaring a state of emergency would make of him, if not a dictator, then something ever more closely verging on one.

And as tends to be the case with dictatorial personalities, Trump’s authoritarian, law-and-order, nationalist, exceptionalist-exclusivist stance is driven by a complex of underlying (and sometimes explicit) phobic dispositions. If on other fronts Trump has displayed homo- and transphobia, misogyny, and racism, with regard to the wall he and, it would seem, a constitutive core of his base appear to be driven also by xenophobia: fear of the foreign, of the other, of that which threatens one’s self-conception as autonomous, integral, and pure, free of corruptive otherness. Trump’s xenophobia is American individualism at the level of the state, and it is one correlative of his proudly proclaimed “America-first” nationalism.

I take it as symptomatic on this point that Trump is a self-professed germophobe, anxiously preoccupied with cleanliness of a sort (a matter with troubling historical resonances). Indeed, to extend (and blithely mix) my medical metaphors, Trump envisions the so-called invasion at America’s southern border as a kind of enervating toxin, or as a swarm of “foreign bodies” threatening further to corrupt the already compromised purity and power of “America” as it exists in the right-wing political imaginary.

That Trump’s extremely dubious history of business dealings, his suspicious relations with Russia (including the intense secrecy concerning conversations with Putin that the Washington Post has just brought to light), and his continuing, astounding profusion of lies are themselves sources of corruption only intensifies the tragic irony of this situation. Trump’s conception of America, like his self-conception, is one of mutually constitutive purity and power, operating on a logic of exclusion. 

Incorruptibility, cleanliness, purity, exclusion: these are attributes often associated with sacred rituals and rhetorics. And if Schmitt is correct that political authority is theological authority under a secular guise, then in the sovereign figure of Trump we find this aspect of the sacred embodied in a will to “purity,” conceived along national (and racial) lines.

But as many scholars of religion have recognized, the sacred is profoundly ambivalent. The “right” pole of the sacred—corresponding to purity, law, order, authority, and boundary maintenance—is opposed by the “left” pole of the sacred—that aspect of the sacred whose distinctive power corresponds to impurity, transgression, openness, ecstatic excess, and creative disorder. The right sacred is essentially conservative, enclosing a community on the basis of homogeneity and maintenance of the status quo; the left sacred underwrites communal intimacy through an affirmation of change, heterogeneity, openness to otherness: flux and influx.

The political valences of these designations—“right” and “left”—are hardly incidental. Drawing upon Schmitt’s insights, we can say that Trump embodies the “right” aspect of sacred authority—subject to no law but instituting the law as if by divine fiat. Thus Trump’s is a dictatorial sovereignty, one that, to acknowledge what has become a truism, overturns and inverts presidential politics as usual.

But much as the profane can “pivot” into the sacred, as anthropologist Arnold van Gennep famously puts it, the sacred can pivot or oscillate internally, from one pole to the other. If that is the case, what would it mean to realize a conception of a “left” sacred sovereignty that would disrupt and invert—pivot—that of Trumpist authoritarian discourse, not in order to reinstate a prior state of affairs, but to instigate liberating change?

Theorist of religion Georges Bataille (d. 1962) observes that sovereignty, as traditionally understood, tends toward the consolidation of power in the fascist leader. And extrapolating from Freud (who informs Bataille’s thought), the upholding of national identity under the fascist leader occurs in part by spreading the “contagion” of fear through the populace. 

Trump’s phobic symptoms thus both confirm and conjure the sometimes latent and sometimes manifest fears in his base, who, exhibiting a “passion for authority,” identify with him “by means of the symptom” (Freud). And they do so specifically in the name of national security—security predicated on various forms of exclusionary purity. Hence the right’s anxious desire for the wall. 

On the other hand, as against sovereignty traditionally understood, the (counter-)sovereignty advocated by Bataille is not constituted in imperative authority exercised over the other, but rather enacted in a liberating will to exposure before the other. If Trump’s xenophobia attempts to exclude toxic foreign bodies by spreading the contagion of fear of contact, Bataillean sovereignty, by contrast, realizes freedom through openness and even vulnerability before the other. 

This sovereignty is lived out in the ecstatic experience of walls breached and boundaries made porous—specifically the walls that keep us narcissistically self-enclosed, cut off from others, from the world beyond the self: not a condensation of authority in a dictatorial leader, but the spread of an intoxicating, transgressive force through the individuals comprising the demos. One name for this impure, infectious power is Eros, or love.

I do not expect political theology reconceived on the basis of the left sacred to resolve the crisis of America’s soul or bring “unity” to a deeply divided nation. But perhaps unity—which may too closely connote the integrality, individuality, purity, and exclusivism that characterize the right sacred—is not the best metaphor by which to conceptualize the desideratum of liberty. Perhaps our religio-political imagination can conceive a union without unity, animated by sacred flux and influx, in which sovereignty exceeds the enclosure of the isolated individual. 

Image: Mexican children peering through the US-Mexico border wall in the San Diego-Tijuana border zone. (Photo: ProtoplasmaKid | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BYSA 4.0)

7d0d8676-ce4e-4d3f-9eb9-b3c5f92d42a5.jpeJeremy Biles (PhD’04), a former editor of Sightings, is an Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of the book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007) and co-editor, with Kent Brintnall, of Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Fordham University Press, 2015). His thinking in this article has been stimulated in part by forthcoming work by J. Kameron Carter (Indiana University) on a “poetics of the sacred.” 

References and for further reading:

Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess | The Accursed Share, Volume III: Sovereignty | Theory of Religion

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.