Will the Cat Above the Precipice Fall Down?

by Slavoj Zizek [Copyright free. Share as you like. Apparently the disinterest of more mainstream media has relegated this piece to the underworld of bloggery.]

When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew; in a couple of hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although there were street fights going on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game is over. Is something similar going on now?

There are many versions of the events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. – a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism. They are counteracted by skeptics who think that Ahmadinejad really won: he is the voice of the majority, while the support of Mousavi comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. In short: let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad: Mousavi also wants to continue the atomic energy program, he is against recognizing Israel, plus he enjoyed the full support of Khomeini as a prime minister in the years of the war with Iraq.

Finally, the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad: what is really at stake for them is Iranian independence. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed elite corruption and used oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority – this is, so we are told, the true Ahmadinejad beneath the Western-media image of a holocaust-denying fanatic. According to this view, what is effectively going on now in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a West-financed coup against the legitimate president. This view not only ignores facts: the high electoral participation – up from the usual 55% to 85% – can only be explained as a protest vote. It also displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough – they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left.

Opposed as they are, all these versions read the Iranian protests along the axis of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists, which is why they find it so difficult to locate Mousavi: is he a Western-backed reformer who wants more personal freedom and market economy, or a member of the cleric establishment whose eventual victory would not affect in any serious way the nature of the regime? Such extreme oscillations demonstrate that they all miss the true nature of the protests.

The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

There are a couple of crucial consequences to be drawn from this insight. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. His demagogic distributing of crumbs to the poor should not deceive us: behind him are not only organs of police repression and a very Westernized PR apparatus, but also a strong new rich class, the result of the regime’s corruption (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not a working class militia, but a mega-corporation, the strongest center of wealth in the country).

Second, one should draw a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

And, last but not least, what this means is that there is a genuine liberating potential in Islam – to find a “good” Islam, one doesn’t have to go back to the 10th century, we have it right here, in front of our eyes.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

h/t A.U.F.S.

free market as religion :: economics as theology

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.

 

__________________

All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

varieties of secularism :: comments (2) Taylor as apologist

Series Index

There is a tension latent in Taylor’s work that becomes apparent when one attempts to situate his thought relative to secularization. Is A Secular Age advocating or critiquing secularity? Is reading A Secular Age likely to make a person more or less “secular?” No matter one’s inclination in reply to these questions, plainly the meticulous restraint of Taylor’s argument and his attentive and generous reading of every text mentioned will bear no facile, partisan answer. Taylor’s narratival argument cannot be flattened to platitude nor transformed into the endorsement of one simple trajectory. Secularization is the complex expression of a host of diverse forces before it is either “progress” or “disaster.” No one can inhabit faith naïvely in a secular age, nor can anyone credibly reduce religious belief to the persistence of delusion.

To be sure, the greatest part of Taylor’s project is to describe secularization with richly convincing detail; nevertheless, he is no disinterested party in the matter. Locating the poles of the tension in his argument will be instructive in expressing the value that I find in Taylor’s latest work.

In his paper, John Milbank argued that A Secular Age is a profoundly anti-sociological book that adds plausibility to faith by means of a profound historical and cultural apologetic. In his concluding comments, Taylor did not disagree with Milbank’s assessment, though he enumerated several ways in which his text is much more than simply an apologetic—for reasons I will discuss momentarily. Taylor’s text is only indirectly apologetic.

Taylor reserves his sharpest polemic comments for advocates of what he calls the “subtraction account.” He has little patience for those who see secularization as the stripping away of all the metaphysical dross that taints and obscures what is essentially human, some rational or natural core that underlies the confused visage of even religious people. And rightly so—positing secularization as the outcome of some inexorable progress (be it scientific, political, social, or economic) ignores the extent to which secularization is the expression of a whole network of contingent historical events and thought patterns, played out across large segments of society. When that context is left out of the picture, secularization conceals its own genealogy and purports an intimidating inevitability (by which its strongest proponents are especially seduced) that recasts religious allegiance as something parochial and antique.

Insofar as Taylor’s work exposes the clandestine sources of the secularizing impulses that reside within each of our minds, he tells a story that empowers believers to “see through” the forces that undermine faith. Secularization is the expression of cultural impulses—not the will of the Weltgeist. Genuine Christian faith (or any other form of religion) is no less inherently plausible than other culturally-bound expressions of the meaning and purpose of human life, including the convoluted and parasitic value system of reductive materialism. And insofar as many reductive modes of thinking remain—in one way or another—parasitic on religiously grounded worldviews for their ethical motivation, Taylor stands opposed to ideological secularism because it undermines the self-understandings that provide moral orientation and social coherence. On this level, Taylor’s project is a critique of secularization that deflates its pretensions of inevitability and thus, functions apologetically on behalf of believers. 

[This post outgrew its own britches, and thus, is continued in another installment]

varieties of secularism :: keynote address

Series Index

Below are my notes from Charles Taylor’s presentation at the end of the conference a little more than a week ago. I’ve put a bit more effort into filling in the gaps of these notes to make them more intelligible than the notes from the previous sessions. Hopefully that effort pays off in increased understanding. [Why am I posting notes?]

VARIETIES OF SECULARISM IN A SECULAR AGE

Apologies for an “incomplete” book. [!] It’s unapologetically a master narrative—an attempt to tell the whole story. Master narratives are unavoidable because we all live within them. We all tell the story of our world (in however proscribed a manner) in order to “place” our lives in context. The only way to beat a bad master narrative is with a slightly better one. This book is an attempt to trace the master narrative of secularization, the book is introduced at a time when the old narratives were crumbling. Forty years ago many people expected us to have progressed beyond religion altogether. The more a society develops, so the story goes, the more secular (in the sense of atheistic) it becomes.

What was wrong with the “old” narratives of secularization is that they were subtraction stories. Once inhibitions to “secularity” (like superstition, disbelief in science, parochialism) are gotten rid of, then the secular simply comes to the surface, secularity is taken as “basic” or “natural” for humanity in a question begging way. In other words, the presumption of many people is that “rational” or “natural” human beings have no religious commitments; religious commitments are something added to humanity, an unnecessary accretion.

Against this kind of story Taylor asserts that we all “construct” a way of being in the world. What distinguishes modernity is not only what we have lost, but what we have created. Secularity is not the result of getting rid of the impediments to secularity, but rather is one way of constructing human social patterns among many.

The enchantment which was “un-done” by modernity (i.e. “disenchantment”) is not the same as the enchantment which is being reasserted in the present. Taylor is attempting to look back through history to find the “boundaries” at which we began to see things differently. We cannot go back. If by “re-enchantment” we intend to restore the possibility of naïve or unreflective belief in the transcendent comparable to what we imagine to be the case for people of the past, we will only be disappointed. Re-enchantment of that sort is a project that cannot be attained because we cannot simply change the way that we see the world; we have crossed a boundary which enables (and forces) us to see in a new way.

It is not totally clear what the boundary is between the spiritual and personal. In an enchanted world, the self is porous, and includes the possibility of things like possession by spirits. In our “self-understanding,” our “selves” are simply not porous in this way. We have buffered selves, and in that we have lost a sensibility and a sensitivity toward the transcendent in our daily operations. The difference lies not in ideas, the difference lies in (at least) two ways of experiencing the world.

The immanent frame:

What is a “social imaginary”: an attempt to describe the way in which a whole society or group understands what is acceptable, meaningful, and worthwhile. It is the understanding we share about society. It is what people have to have a grip on in order to make sense of their own actions. [This seems quite similar to what Taylor calls elsewhere the “background.”]

An example of a shift in social imaginary: 17th c. revolutions were justified by looking backwards—they were efforts at restoration. The American Revolution starts this way (the violated rights of English-folk rather than the dream of a glorious “land of the free”). But the Declaration justifies a revolution on the basis of a forward-looking stance. Revolutions today can only be justified publicly by articulating what they will accomplish; they are forward looking events. Our conception of “what justifies a revolution” has shifted. When did those shifts take place and what were the underlying logical steps that led to the shift?

Taylor’s use of the word “fullness” has been widely misinterpreted. Taylor only means to signify a quality of life that we all seek to attain. Our distinction between “higher” and “lower” points in our life (and our attendant desire to have more of the “higher” and less of the “lower”) points to what Taylor means by “fullness.” We all make these distinctions and make our life choices in these terms, regardless of what we have in mind when we think of something analogous to “fullness.” We fail to understand other people (especially Other people) when we fail to understand their particular notion of a motivating life-intensity (i.e. “fullness”).

The main thesis:
Reform Master Narrative (in Christendom): the attempt to bring the masses up to the ideal, real, best, most authentic, expression of Christianity. The first seeds of the RMN show up in the high medieval period. The RMN came to be seen as genuinely plausible. The RMN is the first seed of secularization in the N. Atlantic world. Attempting to bring everyone “up” to the higher expression of the faith changed the perception of the faith to those who were preached to. It made a distinction between “the way things are down here” and the way that they should be “up there” (in the higher, ideal sense). All of this leads to the immanent frame. What we think of as the Lower, (the way things are) is something can be understood on its own terms (and must be in order to be brought “up”). In the “old” world understanding things within our immanent frame simply would not have made sense.

Conditions of Belief:

The galloping multiplication of the “options” of belief. The presence of a multiplicity of plausible identity and belief structures makes living within any single account feel narrow, cramped, or implausible. In other words, it makes believing anything difficult.

Taylor writes as a Catholic, but he is trying to start a conversation with everyone. He is trying “explain” in a larger sense. Taylor’s kind of Catholic has a calling to understand very different perspectives, and especially the concept of fullness within those other perspectives.

We don’t understand ourselves until we drop the crutches of narratives that paint the other perspectives in negative terms. Until we cease to regard people who view the world in ways very different from our own as “irrational” or “unnatural” then we don’t authentically understand the degree to which our own views of rationality and naturalness are equally contextual. There are better and worse ways of seeing the world and we should talk about these, but our own views don’t actually grow any more plausible simply by denigrating the views of others without making at least minimal efforts to understand where they are coming from.

It is possible to build friendship across these boundaries, based on a sense of what motivates the other. Taylor is not looking for an “average” position that is somehow more foundational than distinct traditions (by means of transcending them—this is the myth of modernity). But an “agonistic” friendship across the boundaries is a worthwhile goal. “Agonistic” not because conversation ought to tend toward battle, but because we all come to the table thoroughly owning our own positions and intent on both understanding and being understood across difference (rather than around it…) A reconciliation across differences.

Is the book an apologetic? It can be read that way. And Taylor is speaking to his co-religionists along with many, many others. He’s not a big fan of “Catholicism from high places.” But the book is also bigger than an apologetic project for the faithful, it’s a book for all of us. We need enough people who have a gut sense that there is something valuable in the Other that merits an understanding across the boundaries of difference.

varieties of secularism :: session five

Series Index

In the fifth session of the conference last weekend, Nilüfer Göle and Courtney Bender offered papers with sharper criticism of Taylor and Taylor’s method than any of the previous presenters. Unfortunately, I did not get very good notes from Bender’s presentation, so I’ve omitted the fragments rather than posting them. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**Nilüfer Göle – SECULAR SPACES OF THE REPUBLIC

“Law” has been banning the access of Islam in public spaces, so giving this presentation in a Law school is a bit odd.

Islam has an odd undesirability and invisibility. Islam is entering the conversation here in the penultimate session, where all three panelists are women. Here come a number of hidden and marginalized groups.

What does it mean for a Muslim to live in secular European spaces.

The immanent frame seems “given” and “natural” we are captive to the “picture” that we have, so it is difficult to see around or outside this frame.

It is more difficult to question the secular from a Muslim perspective.
This is first of all because the two seem radically inimical, contradictory.
Muslim secularity, then, is often a paltry imitation of Western models, cf. Derrida’s “iterations.” Turkey’s secularism is modeled on France’s

What would a non-Western secularism look like?

What Göle wants to do is displace the conversation by looking at secularism from the perspective of a Muslim in Europe, and from Turkey (a secular Muslim nation).

Where Muslims bring their religious identity into public space in Europe they become identified as “Muslim migrants” and are differentiated from “European Natives”

Watch Pope Benedict mention Islam (uproar). Watch R. Williams mention Sharia law (uproar). The religious dialogue of these two important figures becomes “unpure” when they offer comments on Islam and scandal erupts. Islam is an uneasy figure within European identity. Intercultural conversation de-centers traditional identity.

Turkey and France – Two Secular Republics

Thinking about these two can help us move beyond the immigrant/native divide.

Thinking about these two can also help us transcend colonial/post-colonial polemics and helps us think secularity from the inside.

The ban of the headscarf in both countries has been the center of the conversation in both countries.

We can understand French Muslim secularity through understanding the Turkish variety.

1. Secularism as a universal claim
2. Secularism as way of life, result of didactic efforts, “discipline.”
3. Women’s visibility as a marker of secularity in their sexual corporality—women as the markers of embodied secularism. Photographs of unveiled, athletic, corporate women are symbols of secularity. Where are head-scarved women allowed and where are they not? Which spaces are secular? When markedly religious people enter these spaces and act, performative events take place which unsettle the status quo.

Islam can function as a new form of religiosity, for migrants, practicing Islam can be a way to distance oneself from national identities. Sometimes those national identities are sources of embarrassment, where Islam allows people to identify themselves in other ways.

varieties of secularism :: session four

Series Index

The fourth session of the conference was by far my favorite, both José Casanova and John Milbank’s papers were excellent, thought-provoking, and close to my own area of interest in Taylor’s work. As an added bonus, Milbank included the line, “Humanism without a party no longer obtains.” Enjoy. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**José Casanova – Georgetown University – A SECULAR AGE: DAWN OR TWILIGHT?

We live “esti deus non daretur.” Self-sufficient and self-contained attempts toward fulfillment.

Modern unbelief requires the perfect tense. “We have overcome belief.” Implicit in unbelief is the narrative of “having been” a part of a believing culture that now sees other options.

All analytical and phenomenological accounts of modernity are always grand narratives. They are genealogy and they tell us who we are by giving us something of a lineage by which we can trace out our own figure against the background of those who came before us.

4 genealogical accounts of modernity:

1. Emancipation. The narrative of “progress.” Taylor does not dispute the positive claims of this account, but critiques the extent to which it thinks that it has “moved beyond” and not grown out of Christianity and faith. He also distances himself from any assertion of progress being a series of necessary changes (from “progress” as eschatology).

2. Intellectual deviation. Modernity is a problem and a significant going-astray. At some point things went off the rails and now we are stuck with the cultural morass that is modernity

3. Modernity equals Protestantism.

4. Modernity is the bastard child of Christianity. The seed conditions of secularity are present in Christianity and it thus grows out of the faith (before it turns to attack it).

[Interesting to try to place Taylor’s account in this scheme. Casanova may have made a suggestion, but it was subtle enough that I didn’t catch it. I would argue that Taylor’s retellings of modernity in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age combine elements of both the second and the fourth type.]

Two Questions to raise:

1. How are we to understand the explicit aims of Taylor’s “summa,” but also its unintended consequences? Will he be remembered as the prophet of exclusive humanism?

2. How is one to account for the radical secularity of European society, and the persistence of religious belief in a widespread way in the United States? Both sides of the Atlantic live within the immanent frame, and we are all humanists. So what accounts for the difference?

a. Perhaps the religious persistence in the states can be explained by the fact that there was no church establishment to “overcome.”

b. For this reason, American politics and American civic consciousness has rarely, if ever, had the anti-Christian edge that it has carried in Europe.

c. The “age of authenticity” came early to America because of the predominance of dissident believers and marginalized pietists. Thus the “imperative to authenticity” did not drive Americans away from belief in the way that it drove Europeans away.

How does globalization affect a secular age?

Can the immanent frame and secularity take root in places with alternate cultural backgrounds? Or will it be recognized only as a Western force growing out of Christianity (and thus as some odd extension of colonialism).

Dichotomies and mediation. Repeated attempts to eliminate the gap between the immanent and transcendent. Attempts to overcome the secular space, turning the secular religious.

Two patterns of secularism, two different patterns of modernity. Will we discover other modernities and other secularities “under” or “out of” other religions? Casanova aims at something like a “global denominationalism” where we recognize the “otherness” of various other bodies and the parochiality of our own perspective.

Race and religion are the two ways of organizing identity in America—from the first boats in the beginning to the present. Notice the difference between Senegalese immigrant communities in Paris and in the Bronx. The latter maintain their religious identity while those in Paris are often stripped.

**John Milbank – University of Nottingham
 — WHAT IS ORDINARY LIFE? TAYLOR, CATHOLICISM AND MODERNITY

A Secular Age could only have been written by a North American. Any European would not have been able to balance the German, British, and French strands of thinking and would have come off as a partisan.

When a new book comes out, often the big idea is so big that no one is able to recognize it for some time. Taylor’s book is anti-sociological in a radical way, and no one has yet recognized it. Anyone who cannot see Ivan Illich as the hero of the book hasn’t understood it.

Impersonal order. This book, astoundingly, says that we only live in an impersonal order because Christianity has betrayed itself. Chrisitianity is supposed to be incarnational, and yet has produced the most excarnational culture in history.

Why is this book anti-sociological:

Sociological accounts talk about “putting religion in its place.” Taylor respects sociology, but refuses its marginalization of religion as an inhabited (and inhabitable) perspective. Non-sociologically, Taylor claims that secularization is an entirely contingent event, one that can only be explained by a historical narrative that points toward its happening-to-us. The heroes of the book are historians and not social theorists (because the of the extent to which the latter press a prefabricated and ossified notion of “society” upon us).

Religious people are both wildly Dionysiac (in touch with crazy transcendent realities) and Puritanical (extremely well-behaved). Sex and violence both lie close to religion because both deal with wild energy. There is a reflection on ethics running throughout Taylor’s book and he is right to pay attention to both sex and violence.

What happens when we lose the “pre-ethical” religious framework behind ethics? A founding of a “tame” in the “wild.” The tameness of ethics is best grounded in the wilds of religion. Yet we’ve lost the wild energy (religion) that holds the tame (ethics) together, and so our wildness takes on a religious air—it’s where we look for meaning.

Ivan Illich—attempts to institutionalize and “tame” love. We’re trying to do without the mystical roots that make sense of and hold together our ethics. All we’ve got left is codes of civility, order-producing, bland, value-less bureaucracy. Many of us then blame this on a (rule-making) God, when in fact; it is the distance from religion that makes secularity so insipid.

Right at the end of the book, Taylor connects “reform meta-narratives” with “intellectual deviation” story of modernity. Med. Fransciscan theologians became suspicious of Greek elements, separated reason and faith, and flattened the world.

It is a certain type of piety that wants to “disenchant” the world. The animation of the world is idolatry. Anti-celebratory anti-festive sorts of religion (Calvinism, certain sorts of Evangelicalism, Wahabism, etc) are actually furthering the progress of secularity and disenchantment.

The instability of liberalism. The thinness and inadequacy of liberalism. Liberalism does not stop torture—we can see that now. Have we moved beyond the age where the driving narrative of secular humanism functions?

A link between the ethical and the festive is necessary. Humanism without a party no longer obtains. It has no way of believing in human beings, trees, or ordinary things. Religious believers are once again holding the “common-sense” vision against the “rational economic male” or the buffered self. The stance of suspended neutrality is fading away.

My question for Milbank (connecting back to his question at the end of session two):
Does the attempt to detach ethics from ontology, end up speaking of a different kind of love. A love that knows only total self-emptying (a total loss of self, rather than utter obedience)? Does making love bureaucratic and “taming it” also lead to a loss of hope? Is the best model of Christian love really utter self-emptying, or is that an appropriation of modern thinking? Would it be better to speak about committed obedience?

varieties of secularism :: session three

Series Index

The third session of this weekend’s conference featured papers by Rajeev BahrJava and Simon During; Michael Warner offered a response. (why am I posting my notes?).

**Rajeev Bahrjava – Center for the Study of Developing Societies – RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR IDENTITIES IN A SECULAR AGE

Taylor is committed to a multiplicity of identity in two ways:

Either multiple identities (Xn, Hindu, brick-layer)
Or multiple forms of identity (the way an identity is held—categorically, etc.)

Thesis: Taylor talks about multiple identities in both of these senses; he we would favor not a categorical identity, nor a non-categorical identity, but rather an identity with a “categorical flavor.”

For Taylor, identity is linked to strong distinctions, evaluative decisions and an orientation to “the good” held within a certain framework. “Who I am” is linked to my conception of what a “higher” or “lower” form of life would be.

Can there be ways of inhabiting a secular identity (a variety of secularism) which has more in common with a way of inhabiting religious identity than with certain other ways of inhabiting secular identities (i.e. rabidly and reductively).

There are various ways of relating to the good (of operating with strong evaluations):

  • All goods are subordinated (or even abandoned) for the sake of a hyper-good. He calls this a “categorical” identity.
  • One holds various goods and negotiates between them as to what the best ordering of those goods might be. A negotiated identity.
  • A third way of holding one’s identity holds to a governing hyper-good, but still attempting to negotiate with other goods. The hyper-good accompanies and orders them. This is the identity with “categorical flavor.” Identity is oriented around a single good, but other goods are not negated or denied.

Secularization is not the story of the inexorable march of atheism. Secularity three is not “the age of unbelievers” nor the age of “the domination of the unbelievers over society.” Rather, secularization issues forth in an age where every person experiences an expanding multiplicity of possible identities for themselves. Subsequently the possibility of inhabiting anyone of those identities (and the simultaneous plausibility of all of them) causes angst for people who carry (or half-carry) any identity.

A South Asian example of identity with “categorical flavor”:

19th c. Punjabis worshiped Hindu idols in the morning, and recited Sikh scriptures in the evening. These people are stirred by two religions at once, by two religious identities. In Punjabi culture there are several simultaneous allegiances. These people are living within two frameworks

Their religious identities are dynamic. People are moving between faiths. They are hybrid or amalgamated.

Choice does not mean leaving one faith and joining another. Choice is between one faith and many. Change is not a replacement of one faith with another, but of moving along in a journey and finding new guiding lights.

By the end of the 19th c. this multiplicity of identity in India was dying out and more and more people were drawn into categorical identities.

Secularization can be understood as the production and re-production of categorical identities which are mutually opposed. Taylor invokes a new religious hunger, a search. Might we come to a period of increasing and inspired belief which holds identity in a more fluid and less-categorical fashion?

**Simon During – English @ Johns Hopkins – COMPLETING SECULARISM: MUNDANE LIFE UNDER NEO-LIBERALISM

[During’s lecture was admittedly difficult to follow; it was delivered very quickly and heavy-laden with technical terms]

Short summary: The process of secularization has issued forth in a world where all hope has been lost in the flattening of existence under “end-game democratic capitalism.” Because there are no coherent alternative political visions, the world is without hope. During invoked the “mundane” as a way of seeing the world that stands outside both the religious and the secular. At times the world breaks in on our experience (something like grace/agapé, totally undeserved) and seems to carry great weight, even as it resists any “meaning” imposed upon it. In Taylor’s terms, this seems to be simply a strong re-affirmation of ordinary life against both instrumentalizing tendencies and attempts to posit transcendent meaning to objects and events.

The infusion of literary criticism with philosophy,

Taylor is one of the only scholars writing conjectural history today. (!?)

Taylor’s argument is Burkean in structure, but not in content. Taylor is close to Romantic conservatives like Burke and Novalis.

**Michael Warner: English @ Yale

@ Rajeev Bahrjava:

If the problem is the polarity between religious and non-religious identities, then the solution is identities held in fluid, hybrid, loose, etc. ways.

But perhaps we ought to ask why “identity” is the best lens to ask religious questions anyway? Are we looking for coherence and singularity (something to “be”) where it is not proper to do so? There is a continuity of practice across things that seem like they should be different “identity.” This is a basic notion within queer theory. Identity is a strikingly inadequate category to talk about being human. Even salvation is not really about identity in many frameworks, neither is piety.

 

varieties of secularism :: session two

Here are my notes (lightly edited) from the second session of the conference this weekend (why am I posting my notes?). Papers were given by Jon Butler and Colin Jager. A response was offered by Craig Calhoun. John Milbank asked a particularly provocative question. 

** Jon Butler – GSAS Yale – PEOPLE, HISTORIANS, AND THE PHILOSOPHY PROBLEM

Historical vs. Philosophical. [A methodological quibble?] Butler is going to argue that history is primary to Taylor’s argument, even the philosophical parts.

The Philosophy problem:
The world is moved by ideas. Taylor seems to argue that ideas, and almost ideas alone seem to drive history. Taylor does a better job of doing history than merely doing intellectual history.

Historians (Butler included) will find the argument “too philosophical.”

Around 1500 the rupture occurred that will set “modernity” against everything that came before.

Belief and unbelief are “neat” philosophical terms that don’t always jive well with what happens on the ground in history.

Religion and History:

The distinguishing features of secularity is not unbelief but choice.

Taylor washes over too much differences in belief and unbelief. Who was calling who an “unbeliever?” And who was believing in which God, for what reasons, and to what end? Who is the “God” that is being believed in or disbelieved. Where did accusations of heresy come from?

Is the inconstancy of belief before 1500 as rare as Taylor seems to argue. In what way is the nature of the world’s medieval “enchantment” a slippery term? Does Taylor presume a total Christianization of Europe that history cannot bear?

Taylor’s argument against subtractive theories of secularization is valuable, but is perhaps correct only because subtraction implies a substance to begin with. Butler is not sure just how Christian the West ever was.

Butler thinks that Taylor over stresses the late modern, post-industrial age, and overstresses the role of ideas in moving Western society toward secularism. He understresses the role of environmental factors, social factors, economic factors. These economic changes had more to do with secularization than the ideas did. Taylor seems to argue for secularization without industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, etc.

The persistence of religious faith in America is a very significant event. What is new in our time is simple indifference toward religion.

** Colin Jager – English @ Rutgers – CHARLES TAYLOR’S ROMANTICISM

What would a non-transcendent enchantment of the world look like? What would it mean to experience the world that way? Secular spirituality.

Taylor’s method of telling the story of history is phenomenological. Taylor is really interested in a first-person perspective and moves periodically from first to third. Taylor’s method is Herderian, he is always trying to “feel his way in” to other ways of experiencing the world.

What is the place of literature in the argument about secularization. What is the changing role of literature? What happens when people are encouraged to read scriptures as “literature.”

Romanticism:
A period in which “literature” replaces religion. (but telling the story this way, while partly helpful assumes “literature” as an already-formed object waiting for “religion” to get out of the way).

Taylor’s contribution is not to be found in the plot, but in the details. A Secular Age is a book which cannot be summarized, but must be read. It must be lived through. In that sense, his book is “literary.”

Relationship between Literature and the Secular: Reading the Bible as Literature

Herder:

  • Primary Romantic figure. “Feel yourself into everything.”
  • Primary proponent of reading the bible as literature. Reading the bible as a literary text is a crucial aspect of the new understanding of literature in the late eighteenth century. Reading the OT as inspired poetry—by reading through a “feeling” hermeneutic, one can be united with the spirit in which it was written.
  • Hebrew poetry: Herder notes the centrality of Verbs
  • Lack of vowels: writing the inessential; omitting the essential (the breath, the spirit).

Spiritualization of literature and the expressivist turn.

Wasserman—the loss of a public poetry. The lack of a “background” that we all share out of which deeper metaphor and meaning can be drawn. On this count, the Romantic poets have to invent a new language in order to describe reality. In this “restructuring” a space is opened up that feels “neutral” or “free” in a way that foments disenchantment, even secularization. Seeing the world in one way and not another becomes a choice, something that one selects. The posture of selection is one of standing back at a distance, in open/neutral space. Romantic poetry starts, from a certain perspective, starts to look like trying to live without ontological commitments, something that starts looking more sinister more dubious to Taylor.

There is a tension between Taylor’s humanism and a genealogical imperative (to discover the roots, history, and context of all).

Nietzsche’s anti-humanism that feels the imperative for genealogy would be a very helpful point for Taylor to hang on to, while the Romantic humanism might actually undercut his position.

Literalism and Literature:

Wordsworth vs. Boyle: counter-accusations of idolatry.

Wordsworth wants to pen a “philosophic song” – tell the story of the world wrought with meaning. Describe the world in such a way as to bring life and depth to what seems, superficially, dead.

Boyle thinks that attributing anthropocentric qualities to inanimate objects (i.e. meaning!) is the source of idolatry.

Jager argues that Taylor is trying to fill the world with meaning—to write a philosophic song.

** Craig Calhoun – President SSRC

Taylor’s book performs what it speaks about. By placing opposing views in juxtaposition he often undermines their claim to objectivity; he subjects them to “secularizing” forces (in the sense of a surfeit of options).

Taylor’s way of doing philosophy depends on a narrative. This is neither a history of philosophy, nor a history (as such).

Critique: Along with Butler, Calhoun thinks that Taylor is too much reliant on a top-down model and places too great a weight on ideas as the prime movers of history. Butler’s main point is that “variety” cannot do the work that Taylor’s ascribes to it because there has been variety of belief-patterns all along (therefore variety itself is not inherently secularizing).

Taylor’s historical narrative hinges on providential Deism and the notion of an impersonal order. By impersonal, we might understand purposeless.

Reform movements encourage a sharpening of positions and a policing of boundaries, as well as an emphasis on the internal integrity and coherence of a movement.

Putting our story within a narrative.

** John Milbank:

Why did Christianity largely back mechanism against vitalism? Something like Boyle’s argument—that “meanings” had accreted to inanimate objects that was something like idolatry. In this Christianity is attempting to purge itself of its own ineluctable pagan parts (and feeding secularization in the process). 

Charles Taylor :: secularization conference

Tomorrow morning Carolyn and I are going to drive over to New Haven in order to spend a few days listening to people interact with Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. Taylor has become something of a hero to both of us in the last year or so, and we are both looking forward to meeting him there. In particular, Taylor (along with Alasdair MacIntyre) has helped me to articulate the instincts and patterns of thinking that foment doubt. Situating those patterns of thought historically and culturally  does not make them go away, but it strips them of any claim to absolute objectivity—and in so doing, increases the plausability of faith (which nonetheless always remains a “leap”). This is not the place to go into the exact shape of my doubts, but by “patterns of thought” I am referring to fairly common tendencies in our culture; a penchant for reductive explanation, instrumentalizing and pragmatist thought, and the critiques of characters like Feuerbach and Freud.  Taylor did not set out to write an apologetic in either Sources of the Self or A Secular Age. Nonetheless, both of these books have allowed me to see through my own doubts in fairly significant ways—which is something I count as a great gift. 

In the next few days, I intend to post basic outlines/notes from a few of the sessions at the conference (a schedule is available here). I am not sure whether we will have internet access in New Haven, but regardless postings will appear soon. Your thoughts and comments are not only welcome but solicited. 

To start things off, I’ll offer a few quotes that adumbrate the basic argument behind Taylor’s attempt to tell the story of secularization in a new way in A Secular Age:  

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even through they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true…

“Now in this regard, there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naively’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.”

For Taylor, the story of secularization is not primarily the story of the removal of religious figures from positions of political power (the disestablishment of churches and the separation of church and state), nor is it the story of the decline of religious belief and practice (however that may be measured), rather the story of secularization is the story of the plurality of plausible interpretations for human experience, and the inability to reach a perspective where one can finally and decisively inhabit one interpretation or another. As such, Taylor is arguing that secularization is not the result of the inevitable march of scientific knowledge or changes in political and economic structures; rather, it arises as the result of the surfeit of plausible self-understandings, some of which have no recourse to any transcendence.

The thesis of the text, (which will likely need some unpacking in the next few posts) is this:

“I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense [the third “story” in the paragraph above] has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”

__________________________
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 12, 18.