WHAT, IF ANY, is the relation between a king’s body and a commodity? None, you might think — other than the fact that each has served as the epicenter around which societies have cohered at different times. But that’s not what Eric L. Santner thinks. In his account, royal bodies and commodities share the same peculiarly spectral materiality. The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy — which collects the Tanner Lectures on Human Value that Santner gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2014; commentaries by Bonnie Honig, Peter E. Gordon, and Hent de Vries; and a concluding response by Santner — tells the story of this specter.

How is it, Santner asks, that we come to feel libidinally invested in our ways of life? The answer lies in what Santner calls the “enigmatic jointure” of the somatic and the normative, which he believes to define human life. For Santner, our inscription within a social order, the normativity infusing our collective lives, always entails a remainder, an “unnerving materiality” that indexes the contingency, the ultimate groundlessness, of the norms in question. This remainder is the hyphenated subject-matter of his book’s title and the specter evoked in the paragraph above. Already in On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (2001) and On Creaturely Life (2006), Santner analyzed the ways in which the tensions and antagonisms that pervade our sociopolitical lives are registered in the intimacy of our bodies and psyche. The Weight of All Flesh, together with his previous book, The Royal Remains (2011), develops those concerns into a more systematic “theory of the flesh.”

While evocative of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “the flesh of the world,” Santner’s use of the term “flesh” isn’t simply continuous with it. As the book’s editor, Kevis Goodman, points out in her lucid and enormously useful introduction, while Merleau-Ponty thinks of human and nonhuman worlds together, Santner’s sees the flesh as a particularly human dimension. Hence its proximity to the Freudian notion of libido, from which it distinguishes itself, in turn, through its insistently social dimension. It is through the collective work of fantasy that the “enigmatic jointure” binds together subjects, making them feel invested in a larger polity. It aims to cover and redeem an absence, a missing foundation at the core of our lives amidst order and authority.

Santner’s story is one of changing social fantasies and the ways in which they have come to elaborate this somatic “too muchness” that unnerves the norm. It’s a process, he claims, that becomes more and more restless as we enter and make our way through modernity. In times of royal sovereignty, he argues in The Royal Remains — drawing on Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (1957) — the flesh was secured in the phantasmal second body or soma of the king. Kantorowicz argued that the king’s body was redoubled, as it were; on top of his empirical, transient body he was invested with a second sublime and immortal one. This secured the integrity and persistence of the state; the king’s second, sublime soma simply migrated from one transient incarnation to another. The king is dead — long live the king!

But what happens to this social fantasy in our supposedly disenchanted, postmonarchical societies? Far from disappearing, it migrates from the king’s body to the social body itself, where the People — this modern fantasmatic ideal with a capital P — become, at least in principle, the new bearers of sovereignty. In The Royal Remains, Santner regarded biopolitics — a mode of politics concerned, above all, with administrating the health and productivity of populations — as playing a primary role in the elaboration of this new fiction. “The dimension of the flesh,” he claimed, comes “to be assimilated to the plane of the health, fitness, and wellness of bodies and populations that must, in turn, be obsessively measured and tested — or, in the extreme, thanato-political context, exterminated.” Of course, as a politics of pure immanence concerned with measures of health and hygiene, biopolitics has no means to address the sublime dimension, conflating it instead with the biological body itself. Here we begin to sense the curious position of this virtual bit of flesh in modernity.

Its uncanny vitality might be even more prominent in our economic lives, with the fantasmatic substance “materializing” not only in the People but also in the products around us. With the advent of commodity-producing human labor, Santner argues, we move from the fetishism of persons to the fetishism of things. The king’s two bodies reappear, as it were, in the dual character of labor embodied in commodities. As such, commodities come to function as the bearer of a new kind of splendor. It is the splendor of value derived from our labor. We move, in other words, from the glorification and valorisation of the sovereign to the self-valorisation of capital; the spectral materiality of the king’s sublime soma morphs into the mystical character of the commodity. Kantorowicz meets Karl Marx.

So rather than viewing modern biopolitical administration and the endless appeal to economic growth as simply nihilistic — life for the sake of life, accumulation for the sake of accumulation — Santner sees in it the work of fantasy. More precisely, he sees the fetishistic disavowal of the gap left open by the disappearance of the king and his divinely ordained authority. A metaphysical need for the sublime body persists. Only now, Santner’s provocative story goes, it finds its object in the ostensibly disenchanted world of biopolitical governance and commodity production.

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Moving at the intersection of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and political theory, Santner’s style of argumentation attracts dissent. Peter E. Gordon, for instance, calls the link between political-theological analysis and materialist criticism — the alliance, that is, between Kantorowicz and Marx — “perturbed.” How can one sustain a materialist critique if one also identifies the idea of the (Christological) two-body doctrine as the organizing force behind social relations? Santner’s belief in a historical-ontological continuity, which allows him to argue that our political horizon is still (unconsciously) determined by ideas forged within a Christian theological discourse, is problematic. He sees constancy where other social theorists, and especially historians, see truncated lineages and heterogeneity. But Santner is not, nor does he claim to be, a historian; he is, primarily, a psychoanalytic thinker in the manner of a Slavoj Žižek. This focus results in an arguably eclectic and homogenizing reading of texts and practices, but it is a reading that yields innovative and suggestive interpretations. Santner works out an ambitious metanarrative about the dimension of human experience Freud located “beyond the pleasure principle.” “We never simply just have an entitlement or ‘office,’” Santner writes, “whether we like it not, we enjoy it, and this enjoyment is the fleshy stuff that our fantasies are made of.”

With that in mind, Santner argues — and this is perhaps the most provocative leap of the book — the increasingly frantic rhythm of our economy, its 24/7 pace, should be understood as, in part, a consequence of this fleshy remainder. An effective critique of political economy must consequently engage this irrational kernel, this “neo-liturgical” dimension of our lives. Naturally, a critique limited to conceptual analysis won’t suffice. The analogy Santner draws is to Freud’s notion of “working through,” which, in Santner’s words, is “the often difficult, sometimes comical, and always repetitive emotional, cognitive, and practical re-elaboration of the lived and embodied ways in which one participates in one’s own unfreedom.” But what does such a praxis look like in the context of our busy late-capitalist lives? Literature, Santner intimates, is especially suited to thinking through such questions. Kafka’s writings are described as “exercises in paradoxological thinking,” productive interruptions in the practices that sustain the flesh of the social bond. But can literature have effects beyond the page? That is to say, does it have a “beyond” — as the notion of “working through” would suggest? What is the relation between literary practices and ethical or political activities? For now, Santner doesn’t answer those questions.

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A recurring reference point throughout Santner’s writings is the work of Giorgio Agamben. For Agamben, “bare life” — that is, life politicized through its very exclusion from the political — is the central problem haunting Western politics. But it is a problem that only comes fully into view in modernity, where this previously excluded “natural” life becomes an ambiguous political object — exposed at once to biopolitical concerns about health and productivity as well as to sovereignty’s power of death. This account informs Santner’s own notion of “creaturely life,” which doesn’t describe simple biological life, but our inscription within political antagonisms. It is the flesh turned abject — the violent double that shadows our collective life amid norms and orders.

In support of his genealogical story coupling Kantorowicz and Marx, Santner draws on one of Agamben’s lesser-discussed works, The Kingdom and the Glory (2011). There Agamben traces the recurring pattern of economies of glory that attend the formation and sustenance of power in the West. What might at first appear to be a superstructural attribute of the system — its reliance on an economy of glorification — is, in fact, Santner takes Agamben to argue, its libidinal economic support, which shapes and sustains the flesh of the social bond. Whether it be the glorification of the king or the self-valorisation of value, what is at stake is our affective inscription in the system. There’s no power, in other words, without the “liturgical” production of glory. For Agamben, these “liturgical” operations are tools that both instrumentalize and, at the same time, mask man’s fundamental “inoperativity,” his absence of aim or purpose. To adopt Santner’s psychoanalytic frame, our ceaseless worship at the biopolitically administered temple of value amounts to nothing but the fetishistic disavowal of the absence of purpose in human life. And both Agamben and Santner urge an intervention into, or interruption of, our obsessive, compulsory, glory-producing labor. It’s in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, a much-cherished figure on the left, that they find an example of such an interruption. Combining an ambiguous radicality with a radical ambiguity, Bartleby’s famous “I would prefer not to” eludes the perpetual demand for busyness, displaying instead the pure potentiality, the inoperativity central to man.

Indeed, Santner’s (and Agamben’s) diagnosis is a provocative wake-up call. But, we might wonder, if there is no essence or purpose to man, what do we offer as an alternative to a fetishistic disavowal of senselessness? Agamben and Santner’s alternative is a world of Bartlebys, incapable of affirming anything more constructive than a preference “not to.” What comes after? Are there new ways to engage the fantasmatic substance of flesh? What is missing in Santner’s account, in other words, is a politics of the flesh — a point taken up by Bonnie Honig in her contribution to the volume.

Honig responds to Santner through a reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick as a political allegory. She takes the figures of Ahab, Starbuck, and Ishmael to personify different forms of rule: Ahab represents a Hobbesian political theology of sovereignty, Starbuck the modern political economy of the wealth of nations, and Ishmael the possibility of a future democratic politics. What is somewhat obscured in Santner’s sequencing of theology and economy is this third democratic option, the possibility of alternative, potentially more emancipatory political practices no longer in thrall to the sphere of value. By placing Ishmael alongside Bartleby, Honig emphasizes the need to complement the latter’s radical refusal of the politico-economic order with a more agentic sort of power.

In the end, this comes down to the question of sovereignty. What kind of sovereignty, if any, is worth fighting for? In a time of proliferating emergency powers in which crises become the new norm, we witness the coincidence of two different forms of sovereignty — older forms of state sovereignty are now joined by what could be called a sovereignty of debt, which has taken hold of our lives. The sovereign, in other words, is no longer simply the one who decides on the state of exception (Carl Schmitt), but also those actors of the financial markets who succeed in transforming their own risks into societal perils. One senses that this rather gloomy image of sovereignty informs Santner’s hesitancy to embrace (too quickly) anything but a preference not to. Honig, on the other hand, holds onto a belief in popular sovereignty, emphasizing its potential to resist the spell of value and to reorient our practices in more democratic ways.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Santner’s always entertaining and playful writing is a powerful example of interdisciplinary scholarship. The Weight of All Flesh is a provocative book, a compelling incitement to attend to that uncanny dimension of our existence Santner calls the flesh — a dimension that in its elusiveness only ends up all the more binding.

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Hanna Schaefer is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry at University College London.