Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Enthronement of a New Emperor: Reflections on the so-called Inauguration

With the recent accession of the new President, the world watched as the new emperor ascended the throne. The praise rang out in the streets, peoples all over the empire watched as their new leader came to power. Indeed, millions around the world tuned in to watch. The festivities included many banquets, a tour symbolically re-actualizing parts of American history as Obama made his way to Washington by train. Then the grand festival took place, the former rulers gathered, the new ruler was crowned, and he proclaimed the good news of his rule, in the name of justice and mercy. Millions crowded the streets, crying, singing, with great joy at the monumental greatness of their new emperor. Songs were sung, poems were read, priests invoked the gods, and the new emperor was enthroned. Then the emperor was lead through the streets as the cheering denizens waved so they could catch a glimmer of his greatness and beauty. In the evening multitudes of banquets were held to honor the new emperor, gifts were bestowed upon him, and he was extolled.

One woman spoke of the Benefactor as follows:

In an age in which millions of Americans are financially crippled and struggling to pay their bills, we spent more than 80 million dollars for the inaugural festivities, the most expensive inauguration in American history. How is this financially responsible? How is this doing the "hard thing"? How is this change? I am very hopeful that our standing in the world will improve and some of our injustices may well recede with this new emperor, but I fail to see that this new ruler will actually change the shape of our empire in a significant way. And moreover, I am perpetually concerned that our present practices, seemingly so "secular" and "political" or "patriotic," do not have a greater significance religiously, and do not resemble with both aspects of similarity and dissimilarity the Roman Empire during the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

An imperial critical perspective of the inauguration would be sensitive, despite one's own personal stake and hope in the change of political rulers, to the praxis of the empire in these festivities. There is a fine line between where religious affections border on what appears to be simply nationalism. Can politics be bifurcated from religious affection? It was not in the ancient world, and I question whether such a distinction itself isn't an imperial construct to perpetuate the imperial religion alongside alternative religious expressions in order to appear unrelated and thereby logically consistent to hold simultaneously. Just a thought.


dallasjg said...

i think you underestimate the actual difference that policy makes in the making and remaking of power struggles within the real world. for instance, the constantinian take on the marriage of religious and civil power is completely reworked, equaling a different type of power dynamic completely in The City of God, meaning that while the powers did interact after augustine they were separate and competing powers, one sometimes having more control than the other, but different nonetheless. president obama's initial changes have been very real in reshaping the power dynamic within our setting (see:, regardless of an 80 million dollar price tag (also, how much revenue did d.c., maryland, etc generate from the inauguration?

dallasjg said...

maybe i should've put that you "misunderestimated."

Rob G. Reid said...

Dallas, your points are well taken. And frankly, I appreciate you making them. I would like to clarify several things. Firstly, while I believe the ceremonial activities are eerily similar to the Roman practice in the ancient world, I do not mean to imply that I naively "parallel" the accounts as though "this is that." Rather, my primary objective, which may or may not have been as clear in my post, was to observe the religious function of the ceremony to the average citizen, who may not critically reflect on the imperial power differentials and colonial concerns inherent in the political act. Somehow in our political process, it seems to me, the "president" has become something of a benefactor/savior figure, at least to some. Not salvific in an ontological, transcendent religious way, but in a socially grounded way--namely, similar to the modes by which Julio-Claudian Caesar's were portrayed as bestowing blessing, joy, and euaggelion at their accession, bringing peace to the world and harmony for all humanity (i.e. the Priene Calendar inscription being an amazing example of this type of move). Therefore, if I may, I would like to refocus the discussion on the **function** of the inauguration process within the socio-political atmosphere of the time. How was Obama portrayed? What did this event mean? Where, if anywhere, does the civil, nationalistic affection end and a religious affection begin with respect to Obama and his rulership?

dallasjg said...

I think, then, the question begs to be asked: is the presidency (any presidency) salvific in any way? If yes then how and why, and if no, then why? I think there are numerous AIDS victims in Africa who would think of the Bush presidency as salvific, especially in the "socially grounded way" you referenced. Then the question becomes, if yes, then can we identify a more rather than less salvific president.
If salvation in this sense, is seen in individualistic terms, than I think the some will certainly see some elements of salvation within the policy, and (especially in the recent inauguration) the public even itself.
If it is seen in communal, or larger, terms, the difference in salvation becomes larger, and the policies reflected in the management of each executive office has more importance in the discussion, I think.

Rod said...

Rob, I just wanted to say that I appreciate this post. I have been thinking and rethinking how imperialist America is, and even how in the past, people believed at one point in time, that empire building was wrong. Just look at William Jennings Bryan. Too bad he has been vilified. Keep up the good work, my friend.