Is critique secular? This is the question posed by Chris Nealon on this blog, and by the panel at Berkeley that he mentions in his post. For all its succinctness, this is a wonderful question. One reason that it’s such a good question, I think, is that it captures a certain background anxiety, one that won’t go away however we choose to answer the question. I speculate that this is because once we’ve felt the need to pose the question, we’ve acknowledged—however reluctantly—that there’s been some shift in what Charles Taylor calls “background conditions.”

Perhaps we can get a sense of this anxiety by observing that both “secular” and “critique” are frequently defined negatively, in terms of what they are not: the secular is not the religious, while critique is the opposite of enchantment.

Secularism in some common-sense definitions means policing the bounds of the religious. Thus we see images of division and containment—the “wall of separation” between church and state, the idea that religion is private and governance public, and so on. Much of the most interesting contemporary thinking about secularism has contested this conception, of course—or at any rate contested its neutrality. Thus Talal Asad, to take one example, shows how secularism has its own interests, powers, and so on. But even if one were to assert (as Asad emphatically does not) that these interests and powers are beneficial, such secularism is not exactly something one consciously signs up for—it’s just not a first-person sort of thing. Secularism on this definition is like what Foucault calls “governmentality,” and governmentality is not the kind of thing that someone sets out to do; it’s just something that gets done. And so from a first-person perspective secularism might seem rather empty.

And critique, too, is often defined negatively. “Critique,” as Kant understood the term, involved the disciplined reigning-in of the temptation of speculative metaphysics. To be sure, there is a positive project here: philosophically, in the focus on “conditions of possibility;” dispositionally, in the development of a stance or practice of critique, something that we live into and that carries with it its own forms of discipline and agency. There are also forms of critical negativity such as those developed by Adorno. In his Aesthetic Theory, for example, Adorno does hold out the possibility of what he calls “reconciliation,” but this can only be conceptualized, he argues, through an artwork that renounces the possibility of reconciliation in the present and thus casts the possibility forward into an infinitely deferred future. This may be intellectually exciting, but it is also very severe, and by design remains a minority position. How many of us will resist the siren song of (even specious) reconciliation in the here and now in favor of its possible realization somewhere down the line?

So I think there is a phenomenological affinity between secularism and critique, a kind of shared “feel”. The anxiety that I am speculating lurks behind the question “is critique secular?” has its source here, in the worry that the “feel” of critique, the “feel” of the secular, leaves out something important. And without that something, whatever it is, neither critique nor secularism is going to be able to attract and hold people.

Consider, in this regard, a recent interview with Michael Hardt, speaking about his books Empire and Multitude, which he co-wrote with Antonio Negri:

One thing I have been interested in, in the last few years is the reaction of theological scholars to my and Toni’s work…. Toni and I are both always focused on the possibility of a project, and what I think I’ve understood as a frustration of many theological scholars with much of the political theorizing is its inability to or refusal to pose a political project. I mean, it’s closure at critique let’s say, that that seems unsatisfactory, and that in some ways people who work in preaching or people who work in all other forms of theological enterprise require that transformative moment, and I think that that is the real point of contact … the need for a collective and human moment of transformation. [my emphasis]

I am less interested in the accuracy of Hardt’s diagnosis than I am in the terms in which that diagnosis is cast: “closure at critique” vs. a “transformative moment.” As I read Hardt, the first of these is understood as formal, perhaps empty, certainly closed—perhaps rather bloodless and severe. The second is understood as having content, being full, invested in the messiness of human life, and as projecting a possible future. It’s as if Hardt is saying: “Yes, critique is secular, and that’s precisely the problem. People, even intellectuals, are hungry for more.”

Now I think this opposition is simplistic. It would have a hard time with more expansive notions of secular critique embedded in what Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” or with the Spinozist immanence about which Beth Hurd and Lars Tønder have written on this blog. Indeed, Hardt seems to have narrowed his conception of “critique” so much that even his own Spinoza-inspired political philosophy can enter only under the sign of the “theological.” But why divide things up this way? Surely the truth of the matter is that religious and theological traditions have critical dimensions, and critical traditions make room for transformative projects. From this perspective, the precondition of Hardt’s admiration for religion is in fact his secularism (as Asad understands the term), which accords religion a good deal of respect but in doing so defines it as a distinct area of human endeavor, cut off from such activities as “critique.”

At the same time, however, I think the very secularism of the quotation captures a pre-reflective sensibility regarding the intellectual field, perhaps a kind of mirror-image of the “left-secular structure of feeling” that Chris Nealon blogged about recently on this site. The most basic and depressingly familiar form of this pre-reflective sensibility is the not-infrequent accusation that intellectuals are habitually “too critical,” that they suck all the joy out of things. As a literature professor, I am from time to time accused by my students of “ruining” a poem by “over-analyzing” it. The smarter ones quote Wordsworth back to me: I am “murdering to dissect,” they tell me. More seriously, those intellectuals who proposed that we look to American imperial adventuring as a cause of 9/11 were accused of “blaming America first.” In such cases, it seems, to be committed to critique is not, somehow, to be committed to enough—and if you’ve got to explain why it is that critique is so important, why it can be a value in its own right, you’ve already lost the battle. Analogously, when the French government decides that it needs to teach secularism, it is of course true (as Saba Mahmood and others have argued) that governments have been “teaching” secularism all along through the practices and subjectivities that they authorize and legitimate. At the same time, it seems to me that something has happened, some important Rubicon has been crossed, when the necessity of teaching secularism, and the necessity of explaining critique, has been brought to consciousness. It’s the anxiety attendant upon that crossing that I’ve tried to point to here.