The exception rules, or why postmodern theology needs to think the impossible

A number of years ago when I was a department chair I asked a certain administrator at my institution why he had not followed the rules in granting certain privileges to a certain faculty member that seemed to go against the very rules he himself had laid down.

The response was classic, and since the impact of his decision was entirely favorable, though not perhaps for those who had followed the rules diligently in the past.

“There are rules,” he said quite confidently and dryly, but “there are exceptions to the rules.” To put it succinctly, when the rules are suspended, it is the exception that rules. And whoever stipulates the exception, in effect, “rules” by violating the rules, which creates its own kind of precedent or rule.

This “aporia”, as a philosopher such as Jacques Derrida would put it, has profound consequences – whether they be esthetic, moral, political, or theological. And it is no coincidence that what I would term the rule of deciding against the rule is perhaps the quintessential theme of all postmodern philosophy, which I will get to shortly. It is a theme, I would argue, that has not been apprehended, let alone comprehended by those who fancy themselves “postmodern” thinkers.

The exception is often the rule

Let us consider art. It is almost a truism among both art historians and art teachers that an accomplished artist has to first learn the rules before breaking them. However, it is not following the rules that constitute successful, not to mention great, art; rather, it is through acts of boldness in transgressing certain artistic rules that one can show they have already mastered the rules as they were actually intended (art is about creativity, and creativity can never be eternally “normed”).

Heroes of modern art such as Vincent Van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, and of course Jackson Pollock easily come to mind here.

When it comes to ethics, we have such famous instances as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s agonizing resolve to join the plot to kill Hitler, which he declared he could not justify in any recognizable “Christian” terms, only an unqualifiable “obedience” to the inexplicable will of God.

The same strange “aporistic” situation arises when Jesus tells Peter, who has just recognized him as the messiah, that he must now go up to Jerusalem to be handed over to the authorities and to be crucified – a scenario which horrifies Peter, because it trashes even the vaguest of expectations which a Jew of that day would have assumed to be a “messianic” destiny. Again, it is a question of “faith” as the singular act of doing the divine will under “exceptional” circumstances, what Kierkegaard famously called the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

Politically speaking, a similar but less obvious set of issues converge on the problem of what is known as “exceptionalism.” Nowadays the word has come to be used as a term of condemnation and derision, though in its earlier uses it was simply a technical descriptor of the ways in which certain peoples had a peculiar habit of framing their own identities, or justifying their collective actions.

American “exceptionalism” has been a target for decades of critics of US policy, particularly in cases of wars undertaken without United Nations approval. Modern Israel’s version of “exceptionalism,” which has a different character and provenance, which is often justified in terms of Jewish persecution over the years.

Our mistrust of exceptionalism

It is clear from both history and contemporary experience that the “general opinion of mankind,” as John Stuart Mill and others have phrased it, does not look favorably on exceptionalism in any form. In the political arena we are increasingly quick to condemn any suggestion that nations, or peoples, have any “right” to make exceptions to what we consider the general rule, although nations that do not claim any exceptionalistic legacy do it all the time in accordance with the time-honored principle of raison d’etat.

The condemnation happens only if the rule of the exception to the rule is somehow made explicit. Present world powers such as China and Russia do what they want to anyway on the world stage by simply calculating the strategic costs and benefits of their actions. The “double standard”, as it is sometimes enunciated, in the tendency of countries to denounce the actions of both the United States and Israel has a lot to do with this attitude.

The belief undergirding all claims of exceptionalism is that particular historical actors are playing some special historical role, or carrying out a certain divine mandate. Such a commitment is always a formula for resistance and scorn. When Jesus tells his disciples that “you will be hated for my name sake” (Matthew 10:22), he is articulating in a very powerful manner what might be called the “exceptionalist” secret. The exceptionalist secret is at the same time the “messianic secret.

The postmodern derives from the rule of the exception

I make these broad philosophical points because they cut to the chase of what might be considered the real “postmodern condition” which affects in some way all of us. The popular view of postmodernism is that it amounts to little more than an assertion of the pure prerogative of the subject, and that it is a question of setting new truth conditions that have nothing to do with the classical subordination of the particular to the universal.

However, as Alain Badiou – and in a more cryptic way figures such as Carl Schmitt – have shown us, genuine “universality” is always the production of a singular event. This insinuation of the so-called “signifying singularity” recasts all truth conditions that eventuate from it, though it proves to be, as the Bible puts it, a “stumbling block” for those who do not have the eyes – and that is where this mysterious stance known as “faith” comes in – to discern it. That is why we respond to it only with “fear and trembling,” as Kierkegaard puts it.

Ever since Derrida revived the reputation of Schmitt in European letters about two decades ago (previously Schmitt had been dismissed as a Nazi sympathizer and crank), the aporia of the exception as the source of the universal rule has been examined closely, yet often misunderstood, by trend-setting thinkers. It is also the key to what Derrida really meant by “deconstruction.”

The moment of deconstruction comes when what we presuppose is a form of general predication in any discursive system (e.g., “Socrates is mortal”, or “Pride and Prejudice is a great work of literature”) simply carries us to the threshold of new interrogations, or the revelation of uncertainty (e.g., we are often compelled to do a sort of metaanalysis of how we arrived at that conclusion in the first place).

Schmitt himself in one of his characteristic “juristic paradoxes” posed the matter politically by saying that all political theory, or any kind of political metaanalysis that authorizes certain political forms or institutions, is ultimately “theological”, because it boils down to the riddle of sovereignty (i.e., “who decides?”) which in turn he compared to God’s unanticipated and miraculous interventions in human affairs.

Sovereignty is derived from the very declaration of the “state of exception.” But the apprehension of the meaning of the exception requires a sense of divine intentionality, which cannot be reduced to the general rule. In short, the exception is similar to the “singularity” in physics (the so-called “Big Bang” is such a singularity) , which paradoxically establishes the laws of nature but “within itself”, or prior to the temporal production of observable phenomena, the laws of nature themselves break down.

The singular as the source of the universal

The singular as the source of the universal does not constitute a particularity in the same way that my pet cat is an empirical instance of the species felis catus . All Christian theology is, and has to remain “exceptionalistic”, because all possible expressive content depends entirely on what early twentieth century theologians named the “Christ event,” which was at the same time an historical event without recognizable precedent.

For Jews throughout history it has been the call to Abraham and the uniqueness of his “seed” as the working out of a special promise, which contrasts with the progeny of Ishmael. National identities, such as the American and Israeli, are political or collective interpretations of this sense of the history of the exception.

All forms of “identity politics” are carriers of the spore of some type of exceptionalism. The notion of Chicano-Americans as la raza (“the people”) is a case in point. It assumes a special way of viewing one’s culture or role in history.

As Benedict Anderson pointed out thirty years ago in Imagined Communities, nationalistic movements could not function without some kind of spiritually constructed and operative mythos that compels loyalty and participation that go well beyond the boundaries of what historically has minimally defined the notion of a natio or an ethne, such as common language, shared historical experience, etc. The sense of “nationality” in this context springs from an awareness of an exceptionalism of the self, even if it be the outgrowth of suffering and marginalization rather than historical flourishing.

Contemporary – that is, postmodern – theologians in their impulse to buy into the latest philosophical fads, or be even more culturally “relevant”, often forget not only Jesus’ statements concerning what Bonhoeffer famously dubbed the “cost of discipleship”, but also God’s command to the ancient Israelites to resist becoming “like all the nations.”

The requirement of such resistance is actually at the very epicenter of what we mean by “postmodern” thinking. Postmodern theological thinking is actually the converse of successfully adapting what are often considered “postmodern thinkers” to standard Christian agendas, or integrating their vocabulary somehow into a certain well-honed “tradition” of discourse.

It amounts to a profound and deep intellectual fidelity to the the exceptionalism of Christian faith itself that draws its force from the experience of the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, a resurrection faith that is permanently an insurrection against every social, political, and semiotic order which we confront in our lifetimes and on a day-to-day basis.

This realization of the cosmic “exception” to all known rules is what is implied in the experience of the basileia to theou, the proper translation for which is “the rule of God.” The rule of God is always the exception, and that is what makes theological thinking exceptional in its own right.

We do not dream of messiahs any more, but embrace the full force of the messianic itself, if we can speak Derridean here, the force of God that is what mobilibzes our “theology,” the force of the always yet still “to come” that consists in the working out of the divine event, the exception that makes the “rules” of the Christian life perennially possible.

Put another (Derridean) way, it is “the impossible” through which all things become possible.

  • Seth G.

    I’m confused about what the exception is and isn’t after reading this entry. For Schmitt (and more currently, Agamben), the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception. This post, though, talks about exceptions as instances or claims to uniqueness: genre-bending art, any racial identity formation, and all forms of nationalism. Leaving aside the impossibly immense anthropological, political scientific, and historical expertise it would take to demonstrate these claims, I’m skeptical that we can identify in the same category of “exceptionalistic” an artist who transgresses boundaries, any given racial identity formation, and any nationalist myths. I gather from this analysis that anyone who bumps up against a rule or social norm, any social group with some kind of identity, and any political authority sees itself as ‘exceptionalistic.’ If true, what isn’t an ‘exception’?

    Relatedly, does conflating, for instance, exception as uniqueness (“a special way of viewing one’s culture or role in history”, “exceptionalism of the Christian faith”) with Schmitt’s take on the juridical exception make them both meaningless? This makes me think that ‘exceptional’ as unique in this post’s discussion of cultural identity/art/international relations vs. in Schmitt’s state of exception means that the varying uses of ‘exception’ are coincidental rather than essential.

    For my reading of it, these forays into Benedict Anderson and Jackson Pollack muddy the point of the entry, which I read as agreeing with Schmitt’s assessment of God-as-sovereign because He decides on the exception–and that postmodern theologians also ought to conceive of God as such. In other words, Schmitt, then, when relaying Western Christian orthodoxy’s conception of God-as-sovereign, actually didn’t know how right he was. Is this a misreading? What are the implications of agreeing with Schmitt on this point?

  • Ben S.

    Seth G. raises some good points. All of this talk of the “impossible” and the “rule of
    God as the exception” is beginning to sound like an uncritical, fideistic and
    faddish espousal of the unexceptionally voluntaristic deus absconditus. This
    simply sets up an easy oppositional binary between God’s rule and the world’s
    rule, as if there can only be either the exceptional, singular power of God as
    a kind of lightening bolt, or some rigid, deadened general rule. The dynamically
    fluid patterns of creation, the transformative movements of history and their
    material content no longer seem to be the really and intrinsically interesting
    things here, but only the formalism of an unconditional and novel decision (The
    big bang in its singular event is sublime and all, but aren’t the billions of
    years of physical, chemical, organic and social developments that have
    creatively constructed and organized worlds from it even more fascinating?). If
    one assumes that the only thing meaningful is the eternal moment of decision,
    expressed in the oppositional terms of an interruptive and alienating cut, then
    this might all be appealing. But then how do we know that this permanent
    negativity that forever resists every social, political and semiotic order is
    not simply a continuation of conservative Protestant sola fide and its polemics
    against works and knowledge, a world-denying and fearful submission to some
    imagined pure power outside every context? “Unqualifiable obedience to the
    inexplicable will of God” is pure mystifying fundamentalism, and we should
    expect better answers from daring actors. Transcending and transforming reified
    boundaries is a good thing, but it takes patient, creative and collaborative intellectual
    and material labors to see it through as something more than the blind cut of a
    hidden will and its religious mystifications.

    Besides, if this isn’t merely reactionary Protestantism, the emphasis on the formalism of
    political decision making, the notion of political sovereignty as absolute
    power, the “now” of decision, the unconditional break with order and with the
    past, that is, “the rule of deciding against the rule,” for better or for worse
    are all very modern problematics, and wallowing in their aporistic situation
    does not necessarily mean one is doing “post”modern philosophy … whatever that
    means anymore.