Stephanie Frank – Enchanted ‘Representation’ in Eighteenth-Century France: The Problem of the Political-Theological Analogy

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

18 September 2009

speaker_stephanie_frankStephanie Frank (University of Chicago)
Beyond Sovereignty: Political Theology and Enchanted ‘representation’ in Eighteenth-Century France

Paul Friedland’s Political Actors ventures that a shift in conceptualizations of representation (equally visible in theories of drama and of politics) was among the preconditions of the French Revolution.  His heuristic for the shift in conceptualizations of representation is that of Catholic and Protestant models of the Eucharist (i.e. between a representation of ‘being’ and a representation of ‘seeming’). That Friedland views the French Revolution as in some sense unthinkable without a transition from something like ‘believed magic’ to ‘acknowledged illusion’ highlights the extent to which the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in historiography has opened recent scholarship to subtle (re-?)permeation by secularization narratives.

Yet Friedland’s secularization narrative, like many others, turns out to be rather in tension with his own evidence.  Indeed, I find the model of representation espoused by the National Assembly—most thoroughly theorized by the Abbé Sieyès—to have a precursor (and an eerily exact rhetorical parallel) in Malebranche’s arguments vis-à-vis the Church. Just as God’s volonté générale for human salvation was theorized by the malebranchistes as being one and the same as the institution of the Church, the political volonté générale was theorized as being one and the same as the institution of the National Assembly.

Carl Schmitt’s claim, “Alle prägnanten Begriffe der modernen Staatslehre sind säkularisierte theologische Begriffe,” seems resonant here, particularly since Kelly has argued persuasively that Schmitt’s ‘twin principles of political form’ are indebted to Sieyès.  But the move to Schmitt is at least problematic, since the species of representation in question does not seem to have been ‘secularized’ in any of the many possible constructions of the word; the later case, just as much as the earlier, partakes of Friedland’s ‘representation of being.’  Nor is it particularly illuminating to think the problem in terms of the ‘transfer of sacrality’ thesis that French historians (Ozouf, Chartier) have recently espoused. Indeed, it seems more appropriate to think of the persistence of Friedland’s ‘representation of being’ as a substrate in which enchantment persists; toward revising the very premise of (to use Blumenberg’s term) ‘secularization analogy’ claims, I would ask how the meaning of this ‘enchanted representation’ changed vis-à-vis the more general landscape of legitimations of authority in France.

Since my ‘secularization analogy’ rests on representation rather than sovereignty, I would gladly raise, should it be of interest to conference participants, the question of why the discourse of ‘political theology’ has been so wrapped up with the concept of sovereignty, and whether we might not stand to gain, from a historical perspective, by expanding its purview.

Stephanie Frank’s dissertation, “Liens Spirituelles: rereading Mauss, reorienting ‘the gift’,” considers the theme of ‘the gift’ in French anthropology in light of Mauss’ theological influences and political allegiances. Increasingly, my work engages more theoretical problems: (1) how to think the permeation of purportedly secular arenas with theological paradigms; (2) the extent to which the set of changes generally referred to as ‘secularization’ can be approached as an intellectual historical issue. She works at the University of Chicago, in History of Religions.

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