Theoscopy: Transparency, omnipotence, and modernity

Stefanos Geroulanos

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    To be forever seen without seeing back is to succumb to a mercy and grace carved in religious force, to walk in fear and faith of a tremendous power one cannot face. It is to live a paranoid existence of nakedness before a God who is all-seeing, hence omniscient and omnipotent, and who accordingly metes out a social experience and a knowledge of oneself and one's history that is based on this awareness of being seen. I will name this condition theoscopy. Widespread from patristic texts to contemporary media artifacts and works of social theory, theoscopy involves the establishment of a site of perfect vision in the political, a site endowed with transcendental, theological power, which then turns into the sovereign structuring principle of the theologico-political.1 Reconstructing the world around an axis in which visual, theological, and political problematics intermesh, theoscopy orients knowledge and history to an ethics and a social ideal of transparency before this gaze. Because it radicalizes constant imbalance between seeing and being seen into an absolute difference in which every man becomes entirely visible to what watches him, theoscopy enforces a political theology of the gaze that survives proclamations of a death of God in modernity. The religious tradition itself offers a long series of considerations and interpretations of theoscopy. Citing Paul's letter to the Hebrews, for example, Augustine writes: "Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is naked. What could be hidden within me, even if I were unwilling to confess it to you? I would be hiding from myself, not myself from you."2 Augustine compares this penetrative divine gaze (which, a propos, sees through sin) to his own torment over the indiscernability of the shape and materiality of God-God who sees him, but who is visible, recognizable, and present to him only insofar as He remains perpetually unseen and insufficiently imagined by him.3 More recently, in an attempt to explain why the invisible and unavailable Creator-God served, in the Middle Ages, as a guarantor of truth and necessity against the potentially debilitating force of contingency in human affairs, Niklas Luhmann imputes to Him (whom he describes as no more than a "Judeo-Christian invention") the status of quintessential second-order observer, one who can create and observe without being affected by His creation: God is the quintessential observer who created everything, who continually re-creates⋯ everything in the form of the creatio continua, who sees everything and knows everything⋯. The attribution of personality and power serve to establish Him as the observer of the entire world⋯. In this process God provides us the chance to observe Him, even though only as "Deus absconditus," as an unobservable God.4 Referencing Nicholas of Cusa, Luhmann treats divine observation as an explanation of medieval man's limited capacity to observe and create. Because of God's unobservable observation, His ability to create and to know the world is of an entirely other order than man's. What appears to man as contingent is in fact a necessity imposed by God, the observer for whom there are no limitations and no necessity. If Luhmann's concept of observation corroborates a creative God, what happens once the Deus absconditus becomes evidence of God's inexistence rather than of His creativity? How does the structure of spectatorship change, and how does it continue to affect the theologico-political once society and social theory have done away with the centrality and authority of God? First, a series of texts crucial to the history of secularization maintained the premise of the self's construction through its relation to an imputed yet ever-present spectator.5 In maintaining the ideality of this spectator and the failure of the seen subject to fill the void left behind by God's death, these texts treat the site of seeing as sovereign over the subject, as at once human and superhuman. Similarly, the transparency of the subject, once intimately connected in Catholicism with the purity of the soul before God (and thus with confession), survives as a social and ethical ideal of citizenship and community, reinforcing the dependency of the self on its visibility.6 Recent nonreligious theories of society and subjectivity have once again brought up this connection between optics and theology.7 In the present essay I will trace the force of theoscopy in two such theories-the accounts of vision and modern power in Michel Foucault and Guy Debord.8 As I will show, these two thinkers treat the modern economies of spectatorship and force in mutually constitutive terms on the basis of an analogy with older, theologically based forms of sociopolitical organization.9 I will focus on their responses to two problems: (1) the emergence of modernity out of a religious and theologically conceived past; and (2) the significance of visually coded interpersonal relationships as bearers of that past. In these responses we will see how and why a theologically inflected concept of vision returns to organize modern everyday life, how theoscopy is reconstructed in a society devoid of God.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationPolitical Theologies
    Subtitle of host publicationPublic Religions in a Post-Secular World
    PublisherFordham University Press
    Number of pages19
    ISBN (Print)0823226441, 9780823226443
    StatePublished - Nov 2006

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Arts and Humanities


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