I just came out of a really excellent lecture given by J. Kameron Carter here on campus, whose visit was orchestrated by our very own Andrew Prevot along with one other colleague, Steven Battin. The title of the paper he presented was “An Unlikely Convergence: W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man.” Even with quite a few sections edited out for time, the lecture ran a full 90 minutes and spanned a massive range of material, so there’s no way to say everything again. Still, I thought a few of you would find a brief summary interesting.
The point of the paper, as the title indicates, is to identify a substantial if oblique alliance between W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Barth with respect to a certain diagnosis of the post-WWI political situation. Both of those thinkers were concerned to perform a theological diagnosis of the modern west—that is to say, a diagnosis of the problem of the modern west as a theological problem. More specifically, Carter wanted to say that they both diagnosed the problem of the modern west to be located at the level of a kind of “theopolitical anthropology,”* with the west bearing at its heart an image of an imperial man (for DuBois, an imperial white man) that gets identified with the God-man.
The opening section of the paper lays out a kind of theoretical framework, dependent especially (as he was in Race) on Etienne Balibar, that could explain the idea and function of a theopolitical anthropology in the formation of the nation-state. This was a thick and fascinating section—too thick, really, for me to have captured all the nuance that makes it work for him, especially not knowing Balibar. The basic idea was that at the heart of the national personality, the national Geist, that produces a people and binds it together as a singular nation, is an idea of the ideal citizen, a concrete universal citizen, a persona ficta that must be imitated and even integrated into oneself in order to count as a real member of the polity. The bulk of the process of nation formation, according to Carter, happens at the level of the political unconscious, in the realm of what he was calling imagination or fantasy. So nation-formation is not something that only happens through institutions and laws; it happens within the individual subject. So too this persona ficta has to be taken within oneself, not only imitated (though certainly that) but also embodied in the process of nationalization. Balibar apparently identifies this whole process as analogous to the process of conversion to Christianity and integration into the church, and Carter plays on that analogy quite a bit: the persona ficta becomes the imago Dei of the nation, who is to be imitated as Christ and even “eaten” as in the Eucharist. In fact, he says, religious and national formation aren’t merely analogous; they are “a singular Janus-faced social process.” Thus the possibility of a theopolitical anthropology that mediates national unity.
The second section, which Carter worked through very quickly, tries to show these processes at work in post-WWI Germany, above all, to give context for Barth and a picture of the 20th-c. west. He summarized the changing contours of the German nation in that period, whose persona ficta is a virile, racially white, bourgeois missionary-warrior—in short, a Germanized Christopher Columbus (who becomes the subject of a great deal of cultural activity in 19th-c. Germany, apparently) or, more proximately, von Humboldt. (There were some really interesting hints here about the way gender played into Germany’s self-understanding, with the loss of its colonies experienced as “feminizing,” but Carter didn’t have a chance to spend much time on that.)
That stage set, he tries to show it as a necessary backdrop to Barth’s early work, focusing on the Römerbrief. He argues that Barth’s concern from the beginning was with the way that German piety had taken its nation-form within itself and vice versa, so that his main task was to demystify the “de-formed Christian world” shrouded in German self-perception. This is the lens through which one has to read Barth’s critique of the “anthropologization” of theology—which, he thinks, is secretly enthroning western, imperial man in place of the God-man—and of abrogating the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity—which he thinks is a way of making Europe the byway and the end goal of history, making Europe its own salvation and its own eschaton. In Carter’s terms, Barth is diagnosing the ways that the process of nation-formation has been co-implicated in religious formation, with the consequence of perverting Christianity and absolutizing the German imperial form.
DuBois accomplishes much the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, except that he’s able to see farther than Barth to the global and racial dimensions of the modern, western, imperial man. DuBois too thought that a failure of Christianity lay at the heart of the western project: Carter quoted him talking about “the religion of whiteness on the shores of our time,” and saying that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, amen.” The analysis focused mostly on DuBois’s book Darkwater, the structural center of which is a short story entitled “Jesus Christ in Texas.” Carter’s argument was that DuBois’s Christ, like Barth’s, constituted an interruption that directly challenged the nation’s persona ficta. So in DuBois’s case, that meant (among other things) that Christ is depicted as racially ambiguous (though dressed in Jewish cloth) and non-conquering.
This spun out, at the very end, into the beginnings of a constructive Christology that built on this idea of interrupting the nation’s mediating personality, but too much time had left us at this point and we got only the most general of gestures. It was interesting to hear, in the (very brief) Q&A that followed, just how Barthian he takes himself to be. On the constructive side, he seemed ready to follow Barth a great deal of the way—wanting to add, of course, quite a bit onto the end about the things DuBois saw that Barth never did.
So there’s a summary—long, I know, but so was the talk. Carter certainly proved himself as one to keep an eye on.
* I can’t remember if Carter actually used that phrase, theopolitical anthropology, but it’s the kind of thing he would say, I think. It’s possible that he just talked about a theological anthropology that grounds the political order.