Is There a Politics Beyond Biopolitics? On Mårten Björk’s “The … – lareviewofbooks

THE SUBTITLE of Mårten Björk’s 2022 book The Politics of Immortality in Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg: Theology and Resistance Between 1914–1945, combined with the first noun in its title, “politics,” implicitly poses a question: resistance to what? The timeframe suggests that the answer would be something like “fascism.” Indeed, an in-depth inquiry into how at least two of the three theologians named in the title, Karl Barth and Oskar Goldberg, sought to counter fascism from the mid-1920s through the end of World War II would be a welcome addition to the voluminous literature about the first as well as the scanty scholarship about the second. Such a study would probably have less to say about the third theologian, Franz Rosenzweig, who fell ill in the early 1920s and died before the end of the decade. Yet an inquiry of this kind would have little to do with The Politics of Immortality, for the “resistance” in question does not consist in opposition to fascism, nor to any other political movement. Against what, then, do the three theologians—two Jewish, one Christian—together resist?

A clue to the answer can be found in the most striking word in the title: “immortality.” Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg do not resist mortality per se; in some sense, at least one of them may affirm it. Together, they resist any form of politics that derives its force from a vision of life as a perpetual struggle, such that only the physically stronger survive, and not for very long. Björk identifies this vision with “Darwinism” and situates his study within an intellectual-historical context defined, on the one hand, by Hans Blumenberg’s reflections on the “legitimacy of the modern age” and, on the other, by the emergence in the early 20th century of political theories that were straightforwardly biological. Darwinism, for its part, is less a description of an evolving physical theory than a broad outlook seemingly sanctioned by the authority of modern science, in which all life is said to be implicated in a “violent economy” made so because no form of life can escape a basic biological condition, namely perpetual scarcity. Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg, then, resist this outlook: they see life as something other than a struggle for survival, and are able to do so because they discover a counter-economy of potential abundance that occludes the apparent authority of the Darwinian viewpoint.

A great merit of Björk’s book lies in its concise and consistently incisive presentations of Rosenzweig, Barth, and Goldberg, each of whom receives a chapter of his own, with minimal cross-reference to the others. Regardless of a reader’s prior familiarity with their work, there is much to be gained by following Björk in his search for a common front of resistance against forms of politics that equate life with a set of biologically determined traits and reduce the idea of life-after-death to the perpetuity of certain groups or the memorialization of a few exalted individuals.

With respect to Rosenzweig and especially Barth, huge bodies of scholarship have accumulated around their work, and in both cases, Björk expertly guides the reader through major works as well as significant lines of interpretation. Goldberg is a different matter. Without the work of Manfred Voigts, Goldberg would probably remain ensconced in the obscurity into which his work had fallen. None of the major works produced by Goldberg, or those who formed his “circle,” has been translated into English. Bruce Rosenstock’s Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination (2017) performed an invaluable service to the English-speaking world by providing a spirited defense of Goldberg and Erich Unger, one of the key members of this circle. Even as Björk remains indebted to the groundbreaking work that informs Transfinite Life, he expands its range by emphasizing the contribution made by another key member, Adolph Caspary, who added an important social-economic element to the theological-political vision that Goldberg develops most thoroughly in Die Wirklichkeit der Hebräer (“The Reality of the Hebrews,” 1925), which unfortunately has never been translated into English.

It is fitting that Björk saves the Goldberg circle for last. In the preceding chapters on Rosenzweig and Barth, Björk procures the elements of his argument; he also locates significant contradictions in each of the two famous theologians. The element that emerges from Rosenzweig’s work is rest, sometimes known as “Sabbath,” which is not only outside the sphere of labor for the sake of gain, but is also the image of a life that has departed from the struggle for survival to which it is otherwise committed. In the system that Rosenzweig produced in his own magnum opus, Der Stern der Erlösung (The Star of Redemption, 1921), this image corresponds to the place occupied by the Jews, who, as an “eternal people,” retreat from both state-building and art-formation. They live, instead, outside of history, guided by their ever-recurrent liturgy.

As Björk emphasizes, however, Judaism, in this schema, cannot do what it does by itself; its withdrawal from history corresponds to the movement of its universalizing complement, namely Christianity, which “radiates” redemption, thereby making history. Radiation is a theological concept that corresponds to what is otherwise called “imperialism.” It takes shape as a struggle against the kind of authentic “paganism” that Rosenzweig affirms as life in itself—which is to say, as the life of the creature, who, in the absence of revelation, can know no other. As for all religions other than these three—Judaism, Christianity, ancient Greek “paganism”—they are neither eternal nor fully historical nor authentic life-without-revelation.

Among the most impressive aspects of Björk’s treatment of Rosenzweig’s work lies in its demonstration of its continuity. However, this continuity generates a contradiction. In the writings Rosenzweig produced before the insight that set him to work on The Star of Redemption, he was a rather typical German conservative, who saw occidental civilization as centered in Mitteleuropa, and who produced political programs in favor of imperialist policies. The trace of these programs is evident in the basic division of religions that underlies the architecture of his magnum opus, as Rosenzweig himself comes close to admitting, when he momentarily sees that the eternality around which his system revolves represents an “almost Buddhist end of the karmic cycle of life.”

After quoting this passage, Björk poses a very good question: “[D]oes Rosenzweig’s messianic theory contradict his imperialistic defence of the West?” However this may be decided—and Björk seems inclined to say that the answer is “yes”—there can be no doubt that Rosenzweig’s form of resistance is not without some Darwinian-inflected features that justify the West as the eventual winner.

As for Barth, his works add the second element in Björk’s argument: the theorem of abundance. Life in Paradise, according to Barth, was abundant; after the Fall, it is replete with scarcity, thus generating Darwinian struggles. By virtue of the Resurrection, however, abundance is restored. In relation to the resulting politics, Björk is notably reticent, despite his repeated reference to Barth’s lifelong support for social democracy as well as his public opposition to Nazism. This reticence is evident in the title he gives to the final section on the chapter on the Protestant theologian, “Political Thanatology.” It is even more evident, however, in the contradiction that traverses this section. Björk introduces the idea of political thanatology because the politics that follow from the Resurrection is not only not a struggle for life; it is not even seen as a struggle against death. For death, too, is one of “God’s creatures,” as Barth claimed in 1914.

At the time, this claim willy-nilly implied certain political imperatives: do not resist universal conscription; acquiesce to military expansionism. At the other end of the book’s timeframe, namely 1945, death turns out to be something against which an agent must struggle, after all. The agent is not a creature but, rather, the Creator:

Barth clearly understood that faith in God is not a simple refutation of death, and to proclaim that in a period when the lives of millions were sacrificed on the altars of the nation and state would in the end be a proclamation of ideological nonsense. War, extreme poverty, Nazism, fascism, the atom bomb and the Holocaust did not move Barth to abandon his political thanatology—for him these horrors could only be succumbed by the hope that death would be conquered by God.

Björk proceeds to describe the “mad joy” that purportedly arises from leaving the “Darwinian” struggle, but the vanity of this hope is what remains—not because a life of struggles is hopeless but because death, at least in 1914, was not supposed to be something that had to be conquered at all.

With Goldberg, by contrast, the contradictions that Björk identifies in the work of the two previous theologians is nowhere to be found. What’s more, the members of the Goldberg circle are the only theologically inclined scholars under consideration who show any sign of engaging with the ups and downs of Darwinian theory during a period in which its scientific fate, so to speak, was far from certain. The proximate aim of the Goldberg circle did not lie so much in discovering ways to demonstrate a certain kind of embodied immortality as it did in finding timely ways to depart from expansive yet also sedentary civilization. The model for such movement is Abraham, who is said to have left one of the preeminent states of the late Bronze Age without the slightest intention of founding a new state that would secure its place on earth by successfully struggling against the older ones. Instead of founding a state or erecting a civilization, the movement in question forms a “people” that is stateless by virtue of its metaphysical and therefore also its psychophysical constitution.

Obtaining even a brief glimpse of Goldberg’s overall vision involves a struggle. Björk, though, is largely successful. He begins with its metaphysical foundation and corresponding modal-logical calculus: what is called “God” involves the sum of all possibilities, and possibility is necessarily richer than reality, since the latter is always in some sense fixed. Indeed, that’s the reassuring thing about reality: it’s always “there” in its fixedness. The “reality of the Hebrews”—which Goldberg associates with the ancestor “Eber” (“crossing-over,” hence “bridge”)—lies, by contrast, in a meticulous limitation of possibilities that paradoxically aims to emphasize the infinite abundance of other ones. With this in mind, readers of Björk’s book can see something of the Goldbergian vision, whose temporal horizons encompass the last five millennia:

The technology of modern machinery binds humans to the world that closes itself off from the domain of the possible and the abundance that it implies. It creates the world of fixation which is ruled by scarcity. In contrast, the gods of myth seek to alter a specific part of nature whereas the Elohim IHWH wants to disrupt the entropic processes that the 5,000-year-old world system can only stabilize.

Myth, for the members of the Goldberg circle, is better than modern technology, for it involves a greater openness to possibility: the normal cycle of life can always be interrupted by a people’s god that re-forms the people through this very interruption. Even better than myth, though, is the set of rites preserved in the Torah, which altogether transcend technology, insofar as they are consciously instituted to stabilize the embodied existence of the God of gods, thereby guaranteeing that life on earth will not be subject to the catastrophic normality of stationary-expansive civilizations in their persistent clashes with one another. Under the conditions defined by these clashes, newer technologies will forever be needed as stopgap measures against the prospect of ever-greater disasters. Until, that is, the stopgap measures no longer work.

In the 1920s, the Goldbergian vision captured the imagination of a small number of writers and thinkers, most prominently perhaps Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin, who mined its richness in very different ways. For Mann, it eventually became the source of a protofascist character in his post–World War II novel Doktor Faustus (1947) who gives a disturbingly well-reasoned argument for an all-out assault on civilization. For Benjamin, it informs his reflections on capitalism as a cultic religion and intersects with his theory of technology.

Before his untimely death at the beginning of this year, Bruce Rosenstock sought to launch a Goldberg renaissance, beginning with his book, on the one hand, and his plans for English translations of several major works of the Goldberg circle, on the other. This was probably not Björk’s goal. Nevertheless, it may very well be the effect of his book. Readers will doubtless notice that the Goldberg circle prevails over two monumental figures in 20th-century German theology in their collective struggle to elucidate a consistent “politics of immortality,” one that does not shade into imperialism, thanatology, or the like.


Peter Fenves, the Joan and Sarepta Harrison Chair in Literature at Northwestern University, is the author of several books, including Late Kant: Towards Another Law of the Earth (2003) and The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (2010).

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