My research can be grouped into three broad strains. The first is the investigation of pre-modern Christian thought with an eye toward what it can tell us about the genealogical roots and unacknowledged deep structures of modern secular thought. The second consists in expository and interpretive work on contemporary continental philosophy, including translation. The third comprises the interpretation of contemporary culture through television and film. Though I have pursued each strain on its own terms, I have increasingly found myself weaving all three together.
The research for my first major book belonged primarily in the first category. Published under the title Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Continuum, 2010), this study looked at the various attempts throughout Western Christian history to answer the question—which is absolutely central and yet strangely lacks a definitive “orthodox” answer—of why Christ’s death and resurrection has any saving power for others. I argued that there was an implicit social theory underlying all the major answers, which presuppose some kind of ontological connection among human beings, such that one human being (Adam) can mess things up for everyone and another (Christ) can resolve the problem at a similarly universal scale.
A surprising finding in my research was the central role of the devil in early salvation narratives, a role that was forcefully downplayed by later theologians. This sidelining of the devil corresponded with a major paradigm shift in the theory of salvation, and so I hypothesized that the devil might also serve as a kind of index or “canary in the coalmine” for other major shifts in Christian thought. That thesis guided the research that led to my most recent academic monograph, The Prince of This World (Stanford, 2016), where I use the devil’s shifting role as a way of tracing paradigm shifts on the question of how God governs the world more generally. In this history, the political and the theological are intimately interconnected, as the devil initially emerges as a symbol for oppressive earthly rulers and later, in an ironic reversal, comes to be associated with oppressed and marginalized populations within Christendom. Building on Schmitt’s concept of “political theology,” I was able to trace the sometimes unexpected roots of key modern concepts—such as the social contract, subjectivity, and racialization—to Christian theological discourse about the devil.
In both of my theological studies, I made extensive use of continental philosophy and theory. In Politics of Redemption, my approach was more eclectic and occasional, but by the time I came to write The Prince of This World, my use of these theoretical resources was much more focused and systematic. This reflects developments within my interpretive work on continental philosophy, which began in earnest with an introductory text on Žižek (Žižek and Theology, Continuum, 2008) and continued in the form of diverse essays on Žižek and other figures, appearing in popular venues like The Los Angeles Review of Books in addition to scholarly journals and anthologies. The rise of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who works extensively with Christian theological materials, provided an occasion for me to focus on my joint expertise in theology and philosophy. Especially crucial here was The Kingdom and the Glory, his massive study of the concept of divine governance, which was an indispensable point of reference for The Prince of This World but also a major object of critique. That critique comes only after considerable work understanding his project on its own terms, which took the form of translating several of his texts (six volumes published with Stanford, with another in production), composing a series of essays, and coordinating an edited volume on Agamben’s interlocutors.
My translations of Agamben’s work reflect a deep interest in language and translation. I am able to work with texts in a variety of classical and modern European languages, including Attic Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian. My translation work has primarily centered on Italian, but I recently expanded my published range with a translation of a previously untranslated essay by Nicole Loraux, a major French classical scholar who is among Agamben’s most important interlocutors in one of this recent books. I am currently at work expanding my linguistic reach beyond the European sphere to include biblical Hebrew, which I conceive as a stepping stone to eventually learning classical Arabic. This work will ultimately allow me to include more Jewish and Islamic perspectives in my research on political theology.
My interest in the genealogical roots of modern political concepts is paired with a fascination of contemporary reflections of those logics in popular culture. Upon completing my PhD (by which point I had already published my book on Žižek), I was eager to experiment with a different form of writing that had the potential to reach a broader audience. My first work in this vein was Awkwardness (Zero Books, 2010), which attempted to contextualize and interpret the rise of cringe-based “awkward” comedy in shows like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. This project ultimately grew to become a trilogy investigating what our cultural fascination with anti-social personality traits (such as the sociopathic detachment of anti-heroes like Tony Soprano or the creepiness of the Burger King mascot) can tell us about our social order. In all three works, I used the transition from the postwar Fordist paradigm to the contemporary neoliberal paradigm as my historical framework, arguing that all three of the anti-social traits studied reflect, in their own unique way, a social order that is slowly destroying its own sources of legitimacy.
This critique of neoliberalism, focused on its contemporary cultural manifestations, ultimately led me to my current research project. Entitled Neoliberalism’s Demons, it brings together my theoretical work on political theology and my genealogical work on Christian thought to argue that neoliberalism is a political-theological order that operates via the mechanism of demonization. Through a close reading of Christian narratives of the origin of the devil and his demonic hordes, I argue that God actually needs the devil to rebel and sets up a scenario where he is all but guaranteed to “freely” choose wrongly—yet still scapegoats the devil as morally blameworthy on the basis of the smallest sliver of free agency. The neoliberal discourse of choice operates similarly, as the social order grants us just enough agency to be to blame for social problems but not enough to actually fix them. I then use this political-theological perspective on neoliberalism to attempt to make sense of the right-wing reaction represented by Brexit and Trump. (My manuscript has passed peer review and been approved by Stanford’s editorial board for a final contract; I plan to submit the final manuscript in December.)
My current research extends my investigations in political theology to other phenomena of contemporary life, such as bureaucracy and governmentality. I currently plan to tackle the two topics in turn, beginning with a study that relates key modern experiences of bureaucracy—including theoretical resources ranging from Weber to Graeber as well as attention to the bureaucratic structures in the Soviet Union—with various concepts of the “church” or Christian community. My hypothesis is that something like bureaucracy emerges, predictably though perhaps not inevitably, whenever a social form arises that wants to escape from the perceived inflexibility of law—under which I would classify early Christianity as well as neoliberalism. The second is a longer-term project that would use the concept of the divine Trinity as the basis for a general theory of governance, investigating questions such as the relationship between sovereignty and law (in theological terms: the relationship between God’s absolute power and his commitment to a series of particular covenants with humanity) and between state and economy (in theological terms: God’s “direct,” visible agency in the form of the Son and his “indirect,” invisible agency in the form of the Holy Spirit).
Both of these projects would deepen my engagement with and critique of Agamben and deepen my work on neoliberalism. I also continue to pursue opportunities to think with and about popular culture, such as the phenomenon of nihilistic animated sitcoms (Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman) or the resurrection of recent cult classics like Star Trek or Twin Peaks, because experience tells me that such byways can open up productive new routes for thought.