The Promise of Immanent Critique
US exceptionalism is a disciplinary mechanism that simultaneously reproduces the idea of America’s singularity and the burden of bearing universal values and principles.1 The “American difference” implies a kind of transcendence or separation with regard to other nation-states and populations; at the same time America’s others are supposed to emulate the United States as the global standard, measure, and telos of democracy, freedom, and human flourishing. As an exception, the United States establishes and embodies the Law while giving itself the authority to act outside the Law, to turn its exception into a kind of hidden rule.2 Following Agamben, we might say that this ability to act within and without, inside and outside, the legal order is a special case of sovereignty, a notion that overflows any rigid theological-secular binary. Consequently, if the nation-state is a secular entity, then the secular is often a re-articulation of (Christian) theological commitments. And as a disciplinary framework, this logic of the sovereign exception shapes and organizes the body politic; it is a constitutive part of the formation of American political subjectivity. This was demonstrated in late 2014 when people criticized the Obama administration for creating new relationships with Cuba—with a regime that has violated human rights—at the same that a major report was released detailing the United States’ longstanding practice of torture and other human rights violations. While this might seem ironic, the semantics of exceptionalism renders these two realities consistent. America can act outside the law because we do this in the name of health, life, and order; Departing from global rules is acceptable when this transgression is done for the sake of populations that are more valuable, more worthy of life, and closer to what we might call the sacred.
Sacvan Bercovitch reminds us that this logic of the exception is insidious; it is not always explicit and it is not always attached to conservative political projects.3 In fact, Bercovitch contends that exceptionalism has provided a common ground or consensus among conservatives and progressives, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr. For a progressive like King –following in the footsteps of Emerson—the critique of American corruption is emboldened by a commitment to the notion that America has a special responsibility to the rest of the world. The rejection of racism, greed, or empire is inspired by a gap between the ideal of America and its current reality. This gap is the result of Americans not living up to the promise of democracy, to their special onus, a burden that is both singular and universalizing. For a more recent example of a progressive use of this logic, we might think of Colin Kaepernick’s valiant, and costly, attempt to mourn black death during the national anthem ritual before NFL games. When questioned about his decision to kneel and refrain from reciting the anthem, he replied: “This country stands for liberty, justice, for everyone. And its not happening for all right now…I have family, I have friends that have fought for this country. They fight for liberty and justice, for everyone…I mean, people are dying in vain because this country is not holding its end of the bargain up as far as giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.”4 While Kaepernick’s protest is directed toward the failure to live up to certain lofty, democratic notions, the sacred quality of these notions (liberty, justice for all) is not questioned; in addition the close linkage between America and freedom, not to mention America’s capacity to strive and fight for “everyone,” is left unchallenged. The problem, Kaepernick suggests, is that the country is not “holding up its end of the bargain,” not living up to its professed ideals, especially when it comes to black people and military veterans. One can imagine another kind of interpretation that would question the intrinsic purity of these ideals, that would show how “our” freedom and justice, rather than being fought for everyone, is always intertwined with coercion, suffering, dispossession, and danger for some community.
Kaepernick’s jeremiad prompts us to ask a series of related questions. Can we simply abandon the idea of the American exception or must we work through its ambivalent legacies? Is a progressive critique of America always bound up with the proverbial idea of America, the genius and promise of America, and so forth? If not, are there traditions that offer us something different even as they get obscured by the very language of tradition? Is US exceptionalism unique or a subset of nation-state sovereignty and its paradoxical relationship to the Law? Can we understand the pernicious implications of US singularity apart from a cluster of related conditions and arrangements – settlement, property, racism, war, and empire? How does an engagement with US exceptionalism necessitate a refusal of any solid distinction between the theological and the secular, or religion and politics?
The contributors to Theologies of American Exceptionalism offer powerful responses to these kinds of questions. In particular, Constance Furey and Matthew Scherer demonstrate what an immanent critique of American exceptionalism looks like. As I take it, Furey and Scherer acknowledge the “violent kernel” of the grammar of American singularity but insist that we can read this framework against itself. In other words, we might return to key authors and texts within the tradition of American thought with the aim of discovering tensions, gaps, and unexplored possibilities. While Furey directs us to John Winthrop’s well-known “City Upon a Hill” sermon, Scherer examines Stanley Cavell’s essay “Finding as Founding.” By juxtaposing Winthrop and Cavell, the reader might expect Furey and Scherer to underscore the distinction between theology and philosophy, between the affirmation and rejection of America’s divine election. But the authors refuse this simple contrast. As they point out, “Cavell’s philosophy both inherits and transfigures Winthrop’s theological tradition, suggesting the capacity of traditions, including theological traditions for fluidity, novelty, and diversity.”5 In what follows, I want to think through this Winthrop-Cavell pairing, the promise of immanent critique, and the im/possibility of imagining an outside, or otherwise, to the American exception.
Furey’s insightful reading of Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” is inspired by the possibility that we might read this text anew. With a kind of “careful discernment,” the reader might ferret out a more critical set of possibilities in Winthrop’s sermon. Furey urges and performs a patient, nuanced reading of this early source of America’s collective self-image. She begins by invoking Bercovitch’s claim that Winthrop “reconciled worldly hierarchy and spiritual unity.”6 Even as his sermon endorses the kinds of divisions (rich and poor, kings and ministers) that exist in a fallen world, it also underscores the “all brothers in Christ” motif. In fact, we might say that the hierarchical, demonstrated by the covenantal relationship between God and human, depends on the horizontal and contractual relationships between members of a community. Or to put it differently, fulfilling the covenant obligates the members of the Puritan community to treat each other with respect, love, patience, and humility. And what is important for Furey is that Winthrop does not necessarily presuppose a coherent community; his community is contingent upon obeying God’s commandments on new land, in a New Jerusalem. Winthrop’s “shared sense of community was his aim rather than his premise”7; and this coming community does not allow hierarchical relationships to prevent intimacy between the highest and the lowest. More generally, an emphasis on a community to come, rather than a community already established, makes room for indeterminacy, novelty, and contingency.
What intrigues Furey about Winthrop’s sermon is his “covenantal theology of love.” For Winthrop, love and commerce are intertwined. A love ethic, he exhorts, should regulate lending and borrowing practices, debt forgiveness, and philanthropic activities. As Furey puts it, “By merging attention to covenantal articles with the command to love, Winthrop’s lay theology makes everything dependent on relationships—on how the members of the covenantal community feel and act in relation to one another and to God.”8 Consequently, Winthrop’s vision of being together includes a salient affective component; it involves collective delight, mourning, suffering, and exaltation. And perhaps it is here that we should introduce some questions about the language of love, affect, community, and body that make up Winthrop’s covenantal theology. For instance, what is the relationship between love and hatred, or delight and repulsion? Intense feelings of love and intimacy within a community often involve the displacement of antipathy and rancor toward internal and external others. Similarly, the very formation of community relies on the fabrication of an outside, a threatening exterior that the community defines itself over and against. Dependence and violence are not incompatible. Another way to say this is that the kinds of relationships that Winthrop’s God commands (relationships that involve varying degrees of amiability and hostility) are enabled by a tacit contrast with a set of antagonistic non-relationships. By antagonism, I am alluding to positions and populations that constitute an exception to the rule of love and charity, those who can be systemically killed or displaced without much moral outrage.9
Yet how we assess Winthrop’s theological response to these matters depends on how we read various passages in his City on the Hill sermon. For instance, when Winthrop enjoins his audience to “love the enemy” (in line with Matthew 5:44), we might wonder who the “enemy” includes. Even though the term “enemy” acknowledges an antagonistic other that the Christian is obligated to love, the enemy is still an-other that is recognized and included within the Puritan’s ethical sphere. What we have to consider are those others, or populations below the level of alterity, that the jeremiad necessarily assimilates and erases, or always already relegates to the status of nothingness. More specifically, we have to think through the indigenous communities, practices, and ways of relating to the earth that are obscured by the language of “that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.”10 The divine right to possession, combined with the ways in which Winthrop sanctifies posterity and future prosperity, is insidious. This early grammar of exceptionalism both relies on and disavows the intimacy between life and death, expansion and erasure, possession and theft, property and violence, the imagination of newness and the conversion of what already exists (but that gets in the way of a new enterprise) to non-being.
What I am trying to get at are the structural constraints to any re-reading of Winthrop’s sermon and the jeremiad tradition. Furey brilliantly redirects our attention to the covenantal grammar of love and relationality in “A Model of Christian Charity,” grammar that provides resources for internal critique and revision. At the same time, the very logic of community or the collective body that Winthrop works with—and that we inherit—puts severe constraints on our ability to reimagine love, intimacy, and being with recalcitrant others. Perhaps one way to push Winthrop on these matters is to think through the distinction between body and flesh, terms that are used throughout his sermon. Focusing more on the notion of a unified collective body, Winthrop writes:
There is no body but consists of parts and that which knits these parts together, gives the body its perfection, because it makes each part so contiguous to others as thereby they do mutually participate in with each other, both in strength and infirmity, in pleasure and pain…The several parts of this body considered a part before they were united, were as disproportionate and as much disordering as so many contrary qualities and elements, but when Christ comes, and by his spirit and love knits all these parts to himself and to other, it is become the most perfect [without spot or wrinkle] and best proportioned body in the world (Ephesians 4: 15-16).11
Here the body is associated with unity, perfection or perfectability, proportion, and order. The collective Christian body is implicitly defined in contrast to disorder, scattering, discordance, impurity, and wildness). This implies that the Puritan communal body is fabricated and formed in opposition to populations and communities that have been made to signify wildness and impurity. Hortense Spillers, an author who is thinking about another voyage across the sea, writes: “But I would make a distinction…between the “body” and “flesh” and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the “body” there is the “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse or the reflexes of iconography.”12 Flesh for Spillers indicates both the severability of captive bodies and an excess that escapes the general thrust toward transparency. An ethics of the flesh, which certainly bears a connection to Christianity, involves an intimacy with those beings, entities, desires, and energies that interrupt yearnings for coherence, settlement, etc. It entails a difficult, and wounded, vulnerability to that which is opaque, indeterminate, and exorbitant. This is in no way incompatible with love but decouples love from Winthrop’s unified sense of the corporate body.
As Scherer contends, the legacy of the exception, especially as it gets transformed by Emerson and Cavell, might be compatible with this wounded ethics. For Scherer, Cavell’s essay “Finding as Founding” represents a minor key within the American tradition and a reminder that the United States is “bound in fundamental ways to the problem of the exception.”13 In this essay by Cavell, Scherer finds an alternative notion of the American exception. He writes: “Here it is not that Americans are an exceptionally blessed, virtuous, or accomplished people. Much to the contrary, the point is that the American people must be spurred to transcend their all too compromised circumstances.”14 To take exception is not only to be offended by the ways in which American exceptionalism is “so tightly wrapped in racism, xenophobia, sexism, and outright brutality toward the most vulnerable.”15 This disposition also suggests that “people must be converted to a new set of values, a new way of life, a new world.”16 Taking exception, in other words, exists at the intersection of critique and hope, and rejection and creation. For Cavell, the issue for Americans is not so much defending our exceptional status in the world; the real burden is to “create an exception,” to produce novel ideas and possibilities, an activity that is enabled by serious thought and reflection.
According to Scherer, Cavell puts a twist on the exceptionalist tradition by playing with the language of “finding and founding.” For Cavell, we occasionally “find” ourselves looking at and over an abyss, a reminder that our practices, thoughts, and projects lack any solid foundation. This recognition of the abyss may initially be a source of trauma and despair but Cavell encourages us to find “humor where we founder” (19). And to settle with, and be unsettled by, “absence, impossibility, and failure” requires trust, vulnerability, and forms of sociality that do not yet exist. Perhaps at this point we should introduce and consider some questions and tensions regarding Cavell’s rethinking of the exception and national foundation. What possibilities open up when we think about the idea of America alongside the abyss, the bottom, etc.? Riffing on the title of Scherer’s essay, we might ask what it means to juxtapose the nation with waste, excess, dirt, and abjection.17 While the position of the sovereign nation-state both exceeds and protects the order of things, “shit” and dirt also represent that which cannot be assimilated into the social order, or that which has to be spurned for the sake of order. In fact, we might say that the nation-state and its promise of recognition is supposed to protect the recognized from being identified with formlessness, disorder, and death. Would an unapproachable America, an America imagined in terms of dirt and waste, be a recognizable community? Or would this conjunction of nationhood and filth point toward ways of being together that exceed the nation-state and the related logics of sovereignty, triumph, and settlement?
Among other important provocations, Scherer extends Furey’s insistence on immanent critique. On his reading, we are “bound to the problem of the exception” and the traditions that have inherited, passed down, and rearticulated this problem. According to Scherer, “we find ourselves very much still engaged with question of the American exception, not only because virulent waves of American exceptionalism are coursing through our politics, but also because rethinking the exception is how we go about continuing the tradition we find ourselves within.”18 As this passage suggests, we cannot simply discard US exceptionalism; it continues to shape and haunt political life and any critique of the American exception finds itself within a set of discourses that we re-animate even as we refuse and denounce them. But there is always a subtle relationship between a within and a without, the inside and the outside. In other words, by identifying the tensions, fissures, and possibilities within the tradition of the exception, one also points to an exterior, an excess, that cannot be captured by the grammar of US exceptionalism.
One way to connect the immanent to this outside is by returning to the location of Winthrop’s sermon – the sea, in between two worlds, the unstable waters. (Remember that Winthrop imagines the City on the Hill as the alternative to a shipwrecked condition.) By highlighting the in-between space of the sea, the turbulent flow of dark water, two alternative lines of flight come into view. For one, the land of America is de-centered while the flows, connections, and violent intimacies among continents emerge into the foreground.19 More specifically, the sea conjures up another history of voyages and relocations that occurred alongside the Puritan search for a new home. Dark water reminds us of the kidnapped African bodies at the bottom of the ocean; those un-mourned bodies that can never be completely folded into a national project or a redemptive sense of posterity. To think with the un-mourned, to be “suspended in the oceanic,”20 is one way to depart from commitments and investments that have made US exceptionalism so pervasive and commonsensical.
See Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 8.↩
Here I am indebted to Agamben’s reflections on sovereignty in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 15.↩
See Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 176-210.↩
Quoted from Furey and Scherer’s correspondence regarding this work.↩
Furey, this volume.↩
Here I am thinking with Denise da Silva in her magisterial text, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).↩
Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 206.↩
Scherer, this volume.↩
For an account of abjection, see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1-31.↩
Scherer, this volume.↩
See Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).↩