*Cont. Group Talk – Paula Schwebel (Ryerson)

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Date(s) - 15/09/2017
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

JHB 418


Talk Title: ‘The Prince is the Cartesian God’: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt on the Political Metaphysics of Sovereignty

Talk Abstract:  In 1930, Walter Benjamin wrote a short note to Carl Schmitt: He had recently completed his Habilitationschrift, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, and he got in touch to acknowledge the importance of Schmitt’s work on the seventeenth-century doctrine of sovereignty for his own discussion of the royal hero in the Baroque plays. The content of Benjamin’s letter is innocuous enough; nevertheless, it provoked a scandal when it was brought to public attention.  Schmitt had embraced Nazism during the Third Reich, while Benjamin ultimately took his own life attempting to flee Nazi-occupied France.  Since it documents the meeting of these two extremes, Jacob Taubes’ characterized Benjamin’s letter as “a ticking bomb,” which “comprehensively shatters our preconceptions regarding the intellectual history of the Weimar period.”

Recent scholarship has largely moved past the cry of scandal, but an impulse remains to save Benjamin from his association with Schmitt by demonstrating that Benjamin subtly but significantly subverts Schmitt’s ideas. While I do not dispute this conclusion, I submit that the disparities between Benjamin and Schmitt’s positions may be traced to a more fundamental difference in the way that they interpret early modern metaphysics.  While Schmitt and Benjamin draw on several early modern and modern philosophers to support their claims, I focus on their respective interpretations of Descartes. This is because, at key points in their arguments, both Schmitt and Benjamin quote the same passage from Frederick Atger’s Essai sur l’histoire des doctrines du contract social (1906). The passage reads: “The Prince develops all virtualities of the state by a kind of continuous creation. The prince is the Cartesian God transposed into the political world.”  As I argue, differences in how Schmitt and Benjamin interpret the analogy between the prince and the Cartesian God illuminate their divergent understandings of sovereignty.

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