The series of posts at The Immanent Frame that have responded to the question “Is critique secular?” were initially inspired by an event that I, along with Judith Butler and Chris Nealon, organized last year at The Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley. Given the SSRC’s current focus on religion and secularism, Jonathan VanAntwerpen invited the conference organizers and participants, and a range of others, to post their reflections on this event and the question that framed it (see posts by Talal Asad, Chris Nealon, and Colin Jager—all of whom participated in the symposium). Here I would like to give a sense of the ongoing stakes some of us have in this conversation and why I think it is important to think about secularism in relation to critique given the political bent of our times.

The symposium “Is Critique Secular?” was the inaugural event for a new teaching and research unit in critical theory at UC Berkeley, plans for which had been in gestation for over a year. While the motivations for the establishment of this program were diverse, there is a group of us who are interested in opening up traditional ways of thinking about critique to recent problematizations of notions of the secular, secularity, and secularism. While it is clear that the genealogy of critique is complicated, the thread we wanted to pull involved rethinking some of the underlying assumptions about history, temporality, causality, and ethics as they have become enshrined in regnant conceptions of critique. Insomuch as the tradition of critical theory is infused with a suspicion, if not dismissal, of religion’s metaphysical and epistemological commitments, we wanted to think “critically” about this dismissal: how are epistemology and critique related within this tradition? Do distinct traditions of critique require a particular epistemology and ontological presuppositions of the subject? How might we rethink the dominant conception of time—as empty, homogenous and unbounded, one so germane to our conception of history—in light of other ways of relating to and experiencing time that also suffuse modern life? How do these other ways of inhabiting time complicate the rigid opposition between secular and sacred time so common to everyday practices of modern life? A final set of questions revolve around various disciplines of subjectivity through which a particular subject of critique is secured. What are some of the practices of self-cultivation—including practices of reading, contemplation, engagement, and sociality—internal to secular conceptions of critique? What is the morphology of these practices and how do these sit with (or differ from) other practices of ethical self-cultivation that might uphold contrastive notions of critique and criticism?

Given the nature of these questions, it must be clear that we were not looking for a “yes” or a “no” answer to our question “Is Critique Secular?” To do so would be to foreclose thought and to fail to engage a rich set of questions, answers to which remain unclear, not because of some intellectual confusion or incomplete evidence, but because these questions require a comparative dialogue across the putative divide between “Western” and “non-Western” traditions of critique and practice. Furthermore, such an engagement requires putting our most closely held assumptions to critical scrutiny, a task most suited, we thought, to a symposium devoted to critique itself. After all, one of the most cherished definitions of critique is the incessant subjection of all norms to unyielding critique. Or is it?

The conversation that has unfolded on this blog and other places following our symposium suggests that the task is more difficult. It has to do with the shrill polemic that attends current discussions about religion, and by implication secularism, today. The events of the past decade (including 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, the rise of religious politics globally) have intensified what was at one point only a latent schism between religious and secular world views. It is quite common to hear voices from all sides of the political spectrum posit an incommensurable divide between strong religious belief and a secular worldview. Despite this intense polarization, more reflective participants in this debate have tried to direct our attention to how the religious and the secular are not so much immutable essences or opposed ideologies as they are concepts that gain a particular salience with the emergence of the modern state and attendant politics-concepts that are, furthermore, interdependent and necessarily linked in their mutual transformation and historical emergence. Viewed from this perspective, as a secular rationality has come to define law, state craft, knowledge production, and economic relations in the modern world, it has also simultaneously transformed the conceptions, ideals, practices and institutions of religious life. Secularism in this scholarship is understood not simply as the doctrinal separation of church from state, but the rearticulation of religion in a manner that is commensurate with modern sensibilities and modes of governance. To rethink the religious is to also rethink the secular and its truth claims, its promise of internal and external goods.

While these analytical reflections have complicated an otherwise shrill debate about the religious and the secular, they are often challenged by those who fear that this manner of thinking forestalls effective action against the threat of “religious extremism” that haunts our world today. By historicizing the truth of secular reason and questioning its normative claims, one paves the way for religious fanaticism to take hold of our institutions and society. One enters a slippery slope of the ever present dangers of “relativism.” Our temporal frame of action requires certainty and judgment rather than critical rethinking of secular goods. This line of thought urges you to choose: either one is against secular values or one is for them. If “we” do not defend secular values and lifestyles, it is argued, “they” (often Islamic extremists) will take over our liberal freedoms and institutions. What we need is a robust defense of secularism and its goods.

This manner of conceptualizing the conflict between secular necessity and religious threat is not only intellectually problematic, I want to suggest, but poses a grave impediment to coming to terms with the religious turn in politics in a range of societies. Intellectually speaking, this dichotomous characterization depends upon a certain definition of religious extremism, often amassing together a series of practices and images that are said to threaten the secular liberal worldview: from suicide bombers, to veiled women, to angry mobs burning books, to preachers pushing “intelligent design” in schools. Needless to say, these diverse set of images and practices neither emanate from a singular religious logic nor belong sociologically to a unified political formation. Far more importantly, the point I want to stress here is that these supposed descriptions of “religious extremism” enfold a set of judgments and evaluations such that to abide by a certain description is also to uphold these judgments. Descriptions of events deemed “extremist” or “politically dangerous” are often not only reductive of the conditions they purport to describe, but more importantly, they are premised on normative conceptions of the subject, law, and language that that need to be urgently rethought if one is to get beyond the current secular-religious impasse. Any serious intellectual and political discussion today must therefore cleave apart description from judgment so as to lay bare the epistemological and ontological assumptions whose status is far more fraught in the academy than meets the eye in these polemical accounts. Such a task of course has bearing upon how one thinks about the project of critique and its various forms of practice.

But for some academics, to inquire into normative assumptions about history, temporality, or regnant language ideologies endemic to secular discourse is to commit a grave intellectual and political error, one easily dismissed as “conservative.” Consider for example Stathis Gourgouris’s post to the The Immanent Frame as part of the thread on “Is critique secular?” He answers the question categorically and unequivocally: “Yes, critique is secular,” he writes. And he goes on to declare, “If the secular imagination ceases to seek and to enact critique, it ceases to be secular.” Note how distinct this emphatic certainty is from the spirit of the symposium I described earlier and how it forestalls the set of inquiries and questions I allude to above. The substantive and rhetorical thrust of Gourgouris’s circular argument turns, not surprisingly, upon: (a) a dichotomous representation of religion and secularism (religion bad, secularism good); and (b) moral platitudes about the goods secularism offers to humanity that religion clearly does not. What I think should be noted is the way an argument about critique’s ability to overcome its own context of iteration draws its rhetorical force from the invocation of a most conventional (and problematic) conceptual repertoire. He states, for example, secularization “makes possible the emancipatory realization of the tragic finitude of every one life (mortality) against the redemptive total finitude of all (rapture). Or, if you will, it underscores the infinite possibility of the human imagination to create out of chaos against the restricted condition of creation by the totality of the All-Signifying-God. This is what makes the difference between a worldly and an otherworldly reality of life, a different whose significance, again, is not critical or philosophical, but political.” The trenchant dichotomies operative here are reminiscent of the likes of Mircea Eliade who, ironically, sought to defend religion’s (rather than secularism’s) ultimate value and truth.

An argument that starts with calls for historical specificity devolves into moves common to other triumphalist accounts of secularism wherein religion is ascribed an essence: it is “other worldly,” “transcendental,” “totalizing,” and ultimately an immature way of dealing with death and mortality. The secular, on the other hand, is essential in its own way because it is “worldly,” “emancipatory,” and reflective of the “human imagination to create” a space of complete freedom. The claim to an historical understanding of secularism is quickly abandoned for the moral superiority of secularism through recourse to the familiar Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom, human creativity, and autonomy as well as an impoverished materialist conception of history. Not only has the universalism of these notions been challenged, of course, their singularity and eminence put to scrutiny within the academy, but the vacuous notion of religion offered here (for Gourgouris, religion is a product of history that misrecongizes its own historicity) hardly captures the complexity of secular modernity itself. While these sorts of valuations might make one feel good about the superiority of “a secular worldview,” they hardly constitute a tenable analysis in light of all the recent work on the modern emergence of the categories of secularism and religion.

But I think the “feeling good” part of the secular story cannot be belittled. It should in fact be studied in all seriousness so as to apprehend the visceral force secular discourses and practices command in our world today. While it is common to ascribe passion to religion, it would behoove us to pay attention to the thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments that tie us (cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics) to what is loosely described as a secular worldview. This visceral attachment is evident in Gourgouris’s argument in several places. Most emphatically, we see this attachment in the way his rhetorical defense of secularism devolves upon a kind of liberal romantic imaginary through which we are routinely asked to recognize our most profound commitments (to autonomy, creativity, imagination, and freedom). This attachment is also evident in his reactive dismissal of the arguments I put forward—in an article initially published in Public Culture and later discussed at an SSRC colloquium on secularism—as “anti-secular,” “conservative,” and guilty of “facile identity politics.” Insomuch as these are charges rather than arguments they depend on a structure of affect in which the mere suggestion that there might be a “normative impetus internal to secularism” is to be blindly “pro-religion” and “anti-secular.” No other position is imaginable in this structure of affect, and arguments that are rather common in a variety of fields (about subject, language, law, and politics) elicit ominous warnings about their dangers when it comes to the study of religion. Moreover, the conceptual acrobatics by which Gourgouris comes to gloss my argument as facile identity politics are stunning in so much as my article builds on a body of work that has challenged the notion of identity as adequate to the analysis of a wide array of Islamic politics. The great analytical cost of Gourgouris’s “pro” versus “against” approach is apparent to anyone interested in interrogating the pious truths of secularism (and not religion alone).

This manner of thinking, I believe, has less to do with individual failures, however, and is more symptomatic of an understanding of critical reason that abjures its ethical and substantive commitments for its procedural merits. Insomuch as critique is often imagined as a constant subjection of all norms to further criticism, it is viewed as what Michael Warner calls a “negative potential,” incapable of recognizing itself as a peculiar (and parochial?) cultural form. The full force of this ideal of critical reason comes to the fore when it is juxtaposed against religious critique, imagined to be saturated with ethical and moral prejudices, and therefore not critique at all. What such a notion of critical reason remains blind to is its own disciplinary formation, its moral and structural unconsciousness. For critique, so understood, if it were to recognize this, would by its own definition have to relinquish its claims on truth and reason. But perhaps a time has come when this circularity of reason can turn the tables on itself and start by acknowledging its normative commitments and ethical presuppositions, as well as the analytical risks entailed in its rhetorical and theoretical gestures. This would certainly constitute a starting point for a dialogue with what critical reason declares to be its ultimate enemy, namely religion and religious criticism. As cosmopolitan secular academics never tire of pointing out, religionists are incapable of such self-critique. What prevents us from engaging in it? The answers may not be so pious after all.