The Weight of All Flesh

On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy

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Eric Santner
Kevis Goodman
The Berkeley Tanner Lectures
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The first thing that should be remarked: Eric Santner is a marvelous reader—capacious, attentive, idiosyncratic—and his writing, for all of the fluid complexities it summons, never congeals to pedantry. That said, this book is not the best introduction to his most recent work. The Weight of All Flesh, as I discovered, is the latest evolution in Santner’s ongoing genealogy of Western political economies: one that traces the transformation of theological sovereignty from the “divine right of kings,” to the “secular” body politic, and in this book, to Karl Marx’s labor theory of value. The place to begin, if one is interested in more completely following Santner’s line of argumentation, is The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (University of Chicago Press, 2011). In that book, Santner extends Ernst Kantorowicz’s analysis of medieval political theology presented in The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton University Press, 1957) to “modern, constitutional states.” Santer argues that at the dawn of the modern era, “the king’s glorious body—the virtually real supplement to his empirical, mortal body—was in some sense dispersed into new locations as a spectral materiality,” and as a result of this dissemination “a surplus of immanence” came to “surcharge” the “life of the People” (23). In other words, the “divine” in the “divine right” doctrine that in an earlier age cloaked the wild, incestuous, and all-too-human European monarchical system in transcendental legitimacy, became the surfeit of energy that motors modern democratic activism. The Weight of All Flesh is based on several talks that Santner gave for the annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values in 2014, and includes commentaries by Bonnie Honig, Peter Gordon, and Hent de Vries. It picks up where Santner’s earlier work left off, and further theorizes the matter of contemporary subjectivity, that anxious blend of entrepreneurial narcissism and frenetic inadequacy that describes the modern condition.

Since Santner’s latest installment is a critical genealogy of Marx’s theory of value (the idea that a commodity’s value should be based on the labor required to produce it), the usual continental suspects make a dutiful appearance, so if you haven’t developed a taste for Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Lacan or Derrida, Sigmund Freud, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty —not to mention their cousins—then you’re probably going to have a difficult time digesting The Weight of All Flesh. You will, however, be missing out, because Santner does not use their theoretical appliances, as is so often the case, to admonish or correct, but to construct a new theory of the “enlightened” economic subject. Using the transubstantive term “the flesh,” he attempts to explain the “virtually real” nature of our imagined social body—and its constitutive bodies—by tracing the liturgical demonstration of divine surplus from royal coronation to our current rapacious economic activity. Santner is trying to understand how we got from polities sustained and legitimized by the divine surplus of the king’s flesh (e.g., “the king is dead; long live the king”), to polities sustained and legitimized by the surplus flesh of sovereign subjects busy with material consumption. The result is a sort of genealogy of worship. And unlike Foucault, and thinkers such as Marcel Gauchet (The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, Princeton University Press, 1997), Santer finds a continuous if not smooth transformation from the ancien régime to the App Store. For Santner, in other words, there is no radical modernist break, only the spectral shift of one transubstantiation for another.

Admirably, Santner does his best to temper the Teuto-Francophilic argot that surrounds humanistic theorizing by contextualizing his considerations with examples from Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Shakespeare, and at one point, both the British and American versions of the popular television show, The Office. This is one of the book’s great strengths. In elucidating what he means by the easily mystifiable term, “the flesh”—which he claims “is not that of the animal in its creaturely kinship with the human but, rather, of that uncanny crossbreed of sovereign and beast that the tradition dubbed Leviathan” (254)—Santner is always cognizant of the need to concretize his analysis. For example, following up on Bonnie Honig’s response, Santner analyzes Moby-Dick’s “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter in an effort to imagine ways in which “the flesh” might be untethered from the dehumanizing effects of abstract economic production. In its place, he theorizes a kind of bodily emancipation that is exemplified by the liberating (and libidinous) “collective sociality” of the Pequod’s crew: the intimacy of their bodies working the “sperm” of the whale, “squeezing their hands [together], and looking up into their eyes sentimentally” (256) sets the crew free—for a moment. A better world is literally embodied in the homoerotics of men working in concert, not towards some economic end, but in the very action of touch, in the intimacy of a reciprocated gaze. It is this willingness to advance from theory to speculative practice that leads one of his respondents, Hent de Vries, to describe Santner’s lectures as “theoretical or, perhaps, spiritual exercises in (or of) ‘ontological vulnerability’” (225). In fact, Santner believes criticism is uniquely positioned, as a genre and mode of thought, to open interstitial spaces, to create possibilities for alternate forms of thinking and living.

Santner’s practice, for all of its merits—and there are many—should be intimately familiar to any student of religion. His prescription to read “paradoxologically,” or “from the side,” as he suggests throughout the book—that is, through enigma, by riddle and excess, perhaps even counter-intuitively—in order to come to terms with a broken world, “to convert into glory and splendor those anstössig (i.e., offensive) disturbing remainders left to us,” is one of the ways we’ve been taught to read by the traditions we study. The germinal mythologies that undergird religious traditions are always “paradoxologically” rendered. History for the initiated is not what it appears. The messianic movements following Herod’s reign did not end in ignominious defeat. No, that lonely Jew on the cross was actually triumphant, and what appears to be the wooden handspike of Roman brutality was really the maypole of all creation. And in India, that emaciated Brahmin with the thousand-yard stare didn’t return to “perpetual disquiet” (dukkha) like all those before him: no, his enlightened Buddha nature suffused every infinitesimal of creation. There’s no doubt: the venal world of acquisitiveness, violence, ephemera, and carnal proclivities offends our notion of what is possible, and has done so for a very long time.

I, for one, am glad that I have colleagues who spend their careers recalibrating the liturgies that have cloaked empires for thousands of years. Santner, it seems to me, is after the same thing, a sort of secular theology that transmutes the awful history of our collective into a new possibility. Perhaps, he hopes, what is at the end of the long accumulation of bodies in labor is the possibility of an aboriginal ejaculation—the leviathan of technological wonder released momentarily from its material hell. I suppose I’m doubtful, but I’m happy to have spent time reading someone who’s working on the problem.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Travis Webb is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University. 

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric L. Santner is The Philip and Ida Romberg Distinguished Service Professor in Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago.

Kevis Goodman is is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.



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