The President’s Two Bodies: “We the People” and Donald Trump

The infantile, imbecilic, morally degenerate, or simply very ordinary individual can be a monarch as the office itself has a life of its own which the mere mortal marks. Though he or she may suffer complete dementia, his or her body animates and localizes what was often presumed to be an eternal order of law and power. This power is precisely carnal – of the flesh – as opposed to the realm of the spirit.  It is a biopolitical power in that it depends upon and makes itself evident in the carnal dimension. Thus, the king cannot break the law as he embodies the law. He is not subject to the law but creates subjects in both a political and physical/personal sense.  The royal power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess, is, by definition, physical. It is pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power. Royal power does not just depend on physical spectacle, it is this spectacle marked out in the realm of the flesh: the more spectacular the more powerful. The question is what happens to this pure power of the law, connected to the royal body, in a democratic society? Where the people are collectively sovereign can the rule of law be dispersed in the corporate body or does the sublime royal body tend to protrude through some individual – an “organ” of state?[1]

The question does not simply pertain to the status of this organ or individual but to the nature of the corporate body (we) of which he might be an appendage. The question is if we can identify the principle or power in and through which we are in danger of generating or participating in evil? I would argue that our tendency to disassociate ourselves from the process is the very means by which it works. Our ability to disassociate ourselves from the head of state – the law – or the presumed source of power (the phallus in Freudian psychology) and evil is precisely the way in which it is constituted – individually and corporately.  Further, I would suggest that the workings of this political body is along the lines of the individual body. In brief, the castration complex or self-disempowerment gives life to the excess of flesh through which we find a perverse enjoyment – jouissance.  It is not just a question of vicariously enjoying the sexual exploits of our Kennedys and Trumps.  The constitution of “we the people” – the body of the state is on the basis of an originary exclusion (the not “we”).  There is an economy of sacrifice at work in the political body conjoined to every body.

This sacrificial economy, life traded for death, describes Paul’s depiction of the “body of death” or “body of sin” which describes a Subject engaged in a struggle for life which kills. Paul seems to not be referring to only the physical body but to the Subject, with sin and death describing the orientation or existential reality of the Subject.  But this Subject need not be limited to the individual.  The very possibility of subjectivity – corporate or individual, private or political, follows the same “law” of the body. Paul’s argument is not simply to trace the workings of private alienation but to show that the corporate body of Jews and Gentiles manipulate the law in the same way.  The private realm, traced in Rom. 7, is simply a case in point of this universal human experience.

James Dunn argues that body or sῶma, for Paul, denotes not only the physical body but the full reality which comes with embodiment: “It is man embodied in a particular environment, the body being that which constitutes him a social being, a being who relates to and communicates with his environment. It is as an embodied entity that he can act upon and be acted upon by his environment.”[2] Man is always embodied in a political, corporate body which precedes and mediates his relation to his immediate bodily environment.  His interior dynamic is no more private than his language – he is constituted in a corporate environment which enables his interior dialectic.

Bultmann emphasizes that what is included in the term sῶma, in addition to the body, is a capacity to objectify or split the self (to reflect on the self), witnessed most often (particularly in its negative or fallen state) in the capacity for self-estrangement or self-alienation. He describes the resulting self-relation as an experience between the “I” and the “not-I” and this dynamic of alienation constitutes the body.

It is not simply the king who has two bodies, as subjectivity per se requires the immortal or symbolic (the superego or the law) and its mortal servant.  Every “we” is grounded in that which is excluded: be it native Americans, slaves, or the mortal body. As the constraints of the law bind more securely the suffering intensifies.  The killing fields, incarcerated black bodies, or intensified suffering establishes the law more firmly. The law inscribes itself in the flesh – until, as indicated in Paul’s anguished cry (“Who will rescue me from this body of death?”) the suffering becomes unbearable.

As Paul states it, “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7.20). The disassociation of the self from the self is the means by which evil functions. This “body of death” (Rom. 7.24) may be perceived or experienced as the physical body getting “out of hand” or out of control, but Bultmann’s point is that it is the self in its experience of the self that is out of control.[3] Being out of control is precisely how one is constituted as a Subject. The relinquishment of control to the law, the king, the body politic, is the disassociation or gap animating or empowering subjectivity. The notion that one has a body rather than that one is a body is the inherent alienation not only of “I” but of “we the people.” A gap is posited between the law of the mind (the monarch, the president, the father, or simply the symbolic authority of language) and the capacities of the body.

“I” or “we” begins with the primordial lie of preceding and surpassing the body.  This fundamental fantasy is captured in witnessing one’s own conception: for example, the inscription of “we the people” in the constitution. The document which constitutes this we is authored by this we.  We are our own father.  What we would proceed to do is then sacrifice ourselves to the father which we have created – be it the state, god, or the letter of the law. The Subject arises from the self-negating activity of sacrifice (castration or passage through the Oedipus complex).  “Sacrifice is a guarantee that “the Other exists”: that there is an Other who can be appeased by means of the sacrifice” (Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom, 56).  In other words, there is an inherent hostility towards the Other of the law (the symbolic or superego) as this Other demands continual service and sacrifice. At the same time, there is the necessity of this obscene Other as the sacrifice he elicits establishes the self. I do not do what I want and this is the basis on which I have myself.

The ultimate obscenity is to serve this punishing embodiment of the law – what Paul calls sin – as if it or he is God ordained. The attempt to gain life through the law (7.7ff) or to establish through one’s own power the Kingdom of God or to become the father (God) is a necessary passage described by Freud and Lacan. For Paul it is a rejection of God as father and entails hostility towards God (8.7). For Lacan and Žižek the human Subject’s subjection to the law (passage through the Oedipus conflict) is identical to the founding moment of the dynamic of being a Subject. Every authority is simply one more permutation of the ever-present drive to establish the self.  “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law” (Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: Selection, 74).

Whether the father’s name is Caesar, Henry, or Donald, the drive is to create a symbolic meaning from scratch – to establish and furnish our own kingdom. Lacan recognizes the structure he is posing is the equivalent of sin, though he offers no resolution to this sin but instead sees it as sustaining the Subject. “The father, the name-of-the-father, sustains the structure of the law” (Seminar XI, 34). The more obscene and primal his demands the more firmly we are established as his subjects.  To equate this with the rescue enacted by God in Christ is to mistake evil for good and it is to confuse sin with salvation.

[1] It is the status of the king’s subjectivity that is most ambiguous and it is in describing the split between the royal body and the mere mortal body that Ernst Kantorowicz proposes the notion of two bodies.  The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, and is subject to mortal limitations; but the king’s other body transcends earthly finitude as it bears the divine right of rule. This other body does not escape the force of the law but is completely identified with it.  It is not that the king has a body and a spirit.  He has an ordinary body – his mortal body – which gives corporeal substance to the other, eternal body. I am building on or perhaps twisting both Kantorowicz and Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains.

[2] James Dunn, Romans, 320.

[3] Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament: Volume I , 194-197.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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