“Unyielding antagonism and stinging rebuke have a more abysmal source than the measured negation of thought. Galling failure and merciless prohibition require some deeper answer.”

It is not clear whether Heidegger provided the deeper answer to the question of criticism (“unyielding antagonism and stinging rebuke”) such as he describes it in this striking moment of “What is Metaphysics?” What he does provide is a name and a structure for these and related “possibilities of nihilative comportment.” For in all of them, Heidegger says, in all criticism, that is, there is a “surpassing of beings as a whole.” This surpassing Heidegger calls “die Transzendenz.” To be sure, Heidegger insists that the kind of transcendence he is thinking about itself surpasses Christianity (as well as science, in fact, which “becomes laughable when it does not take the nothing seriously”). Transcendence – unyielding antagonism and stinging rebuke directed at beings as a whole – may seem like a hyperbolic word for “critique” but it reveals, I think, a deep truth about critique as a structure, a transcendental structure. It also reveals (with no more than the appearance of paradox), the way in which “critique” (beautifully traced by Talal Asad in his post) has come to share a certain secularism with Heidegger’s transcendence.

Consider Edward Said’s reference to Hugo of St. Victor, by way of Auerbach, in his well-known appeal for “secular criticism.” Said proposes both authors as a joint model for criticism, for “philological work,” that “deals with humanity at large and transcends national boundaries.” The secular critic must be separated from his heritage “and then transcend it” in order to become effective. Like Auerbach, Hugo – a twelfth century mystic; not the most immediate illustration of worldly labor – seems to have embraced the fact that “our philological home is the earth.” As Said quotes him: “he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land [perfectus vero cui mundus totus exilium est].” This deportment toward a negated totality cannot fail to recall Heidegger’s comportment toward “beings as a whole.” Which would be why Said himself deploys the very lexicon of height and transcendence he will proceed to criticize in “theological criticism,” ultimately to invert it for the benefit of the secular critic. Is this “nihilative comportment” however? It is not, at least not enough, not for Said, who outbids Auerbach in quoting a few more of Hugo’s words, thus clarifying what love’s got to do with it: “The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

In Displacing Christian Origins, Ward Blanton has attended to Heidegger’s surpassing gesture of separation, his own partaking in processes of extinction, his “nihilative comportment,” as it were, in relation to (Christian) theology and faith. “Faith is so absolutely the mortal enemy that philosophy does not even begin to want to do battle with it.” The secular critic knows that indifference is often the outbidding of antagonism. Blanton argues persuasively that there is in this “secular critique” something like an outbidding (Derrida’s word), a “movement by which philosophy has continually attempted to abstract itself from ‘positive’ religion in order to transcend its limitations toward a pure thinking of religion as such.” With Derrida, Blanton recognizes here at once a larger and a narrower phenomenon. This movement – Hannah Arendt called it “Sputnik” – would be far from universal. It would only be common to the “secularizing critiques of Christianity” (double genitive). Ultimately, it would be a kind of “Christian-secularizing ‘machine.’”

This is (not) a critique

Heidegger did not need to point out (but he did) that God occupies a hegemonic place as the figure of transcendence that characterizes the Christian and post-Christian tradition (let us not rush too quickly to operate our own secularizing machines, global experts on world-religions that we are, to claim that other “traditions” equally partake of this particular character). But – and here is some more outbidding – God is not transcendent enough. In order to be a critical secularist, one would have to demonstrate a more unyielding antagonism, take a more radical stance (or agonizing distance), and install oneself in a more transcendent position vis-à-vis the object of one’s critique. What object? More often than not “religion” and better yet “religions.” But not only religion, of course. Still, I do not think it is fortuitous that Heidegger speaks of antagonism, indeed, of mortal enemies. For much like the criminal to the king (as Foucault demonstrated), the enemy was always structurally related to God. I have tried to argue that it was, in fact, Christianity’s peculiar and long-lasting contribution to the history of transcendence (and thus to the history of criticism, secular or not) that it comported itself with particular efficiency toward the enemy as a figure of transcendence. It identified the enemy as a privileged site of transcendental practice. Incidentally, it took some time before these enemies were granted the status of “religions” but valiant efforts ensured that they finally were. What a boon. The practice of “nihilative comportment,” secular criticism, if you will, practiced its own multifarious scales not only on God, but also on the enemy. And not just any enemy. Or enemies. Have you read Orientalism lately?

And before we rev up our outbidding machines again to claim that all cultures and all religions everywhere have practiced one form or other of secular criticism, deployed unyielding antagonism by offering various technological and administrative improvements on genocide, all the while elaborating every possible form of theological, political, legal, scientific, economic and indeed, critical justification (so as to be thereby justified by works, or faith, or both), let us engage in some more critical, comparative studies, review a few history books, and give credit where credit is due all the way to the history of the present. So is critique secular? You’re damn right it is. That’s because secular criticism – what we do for a living, we scholars – advocates equal opportunity criticism. Which means that the very same historical enemies upon which Christianity (aka Western Christendom, aka the West) showered its critical, universalist largesse continue to be the target of unyielding antagonism, to say the least, as they have in turn for centuries. And out of the best global universities in the world, no less (“this is America at its best,” as Columbia President Lee Bollinger put it). True to the principle of accommodation, Christianity was never about essence, of course. True to metaphysics, it was always more efficient in targeting others with the protean and more devastating weapon of critical essentialism. Secular, secularism, secularity (what’s next? Secularicity?) Christianity is no essence indeed. It must be understood rather as that which endures through history as the shape-shifting scourge of its enemies (all of whom remained conveniently located in the “darker” places of the world – unless some cheap labor was needed). Can it be otherwise? Sure it can. Has it become so? Seeing is believing. Or is it the other way around?

This is (not) a critique.