What’s so bad about heteronomous thinking, anyway? Stathis Gourgouris has used the term in several posts here on The Immanent Frame. He says that Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is an example of heteronomous thinking, and he also thinks that Saba Mahmood’s post on secularism and critique exemplifies it. Though Gourgouris doesn’t define “heteronomous thinking,” he seems to mean something like “thinking that depends at some crucial point on something outside itself.” He thinks this kind of thinking is pretty bad—though it’s less clear exactly why he thinks so.

It could be that heteronomous thinking is bad because it leads to unpleasant things. This would be a kind of consequentialist argument and would therefore live or die on the empirical evidence. This is Christopher Hitchens territory. Rightly recognizing that this is not where he wants to go, Gourgouris opts for the other kind of answer, which is to insist that heteronomous thinking is problematic in itself—a kind of formal argument. But at some point any argument along these lines will beg the question, for it will need to assert that thinking for oneself is a good in itself. And that assertion can’t in turn be justified without appealing—heteronomously, if you will—to some scheme of values outside the mode of thinking in question.

At stake here is a certain kind of intellectual posture. In his debate with Mahmood, Gourgouris bases his argument on two suppositions that Mahmood wants to question. Those suppositions are that enlightened reason (“secular criticism”) can be purged of its own heteronomous tendencies, and that religion is an archetypal example of heteronomous thinking. If this description is right, then the dispute is really over the Enlightenment and its legacies—a point that Charles Taylor alludes to in his post in this thread. Like his enlightened forbears, Gourgouris thinks that the critique of religion is the archetype of critique as such, and he thinks that the critical project, while itself at constant risk of becoming arrogant or disconnected, can correct itself from the inside so long as we exercise sufficient care. Mahmood has a different understanding of what “critique” entails. Her more Foucaultian approach involves asking questions about how particular assumptions (that the veil is a symbol, for example) produce particular kinds of subjects, enable and dis-enable certain kinds of work, and so on.

Must we choose sides? Gourgouris apparently wants sides to be chosen. Mahmood wants to question the drive to choose sides. But I would rather try to inflect these choices differently by reading them through a category that has not received enough attention in the debate about secularism. That category is the literary.


If we follow Gourgouris and assume for the sake of argument that heteronomy/autonomy is the best scale we have for thinking about the question of critique (though I’m not sure it is), we can see immediately that a certain picture of the intellectual life follows naturally. In this picture, intellectual activity at its best involves the rigorous guarding against the temptation toward heteronomy. If we relax our guard, it seems, we’re going to find ourselves mired in some appeal to external authority. In this way certain values are brought into rough equivalence: reflexivity, critique, and the secular (in its proper, non-doctrinal, form).

This picture of the intellectual life as a rigorous guarding against the temptation toward heteronomy is what Chris Nealon in the initial post on this thread called “a left-secular structure of feeling.” And its dynamics should be pretty familiar. It is striking, for instance, that this picture is formally very much like the Christian life as it is imagined by St. Paul (“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”) and by Augustine. Both of these thinkers call their flocks to vigilance against patterns of worldly thought and behavior understood to be always just around the bend. Worldly criticism reverses the poles (where before the picture was of people pulled away from divinity and toward the world, now the picture is of people pulled away from the world and toward divinity) but it doesn’t alter the basic pattern. To note this similarity is not to say that secularity is “like” religion. It’s just to remark on our widely shared picture of what the intellectual life looks like: we’re on a hair-trigger, concerned above all never to relax our guard.

But we do relax our guard, or take a nap, or just get distracted for a while. Reflexivity is exhausting, after all. And so things sneak in: unexamined presuppositions, various essentialisms, historical blindspots, moments of “heteronomy.” We trust in authorities when we shouldn’t; take things on faith because we’re too tired or busy to run all the background checks that we might. And then we startle awake, and realize what’s happened. This may, in turn, inspire us to build better defenses and bigger data-bases. But we might also be led to reflect on the inevitability of such moments, and to confront the fact that despite our best intentions we will always betray the rigorous demands of our calling. This is the melancholy of criticism—let me say, melodramatically, of criticism in the aftermath of Enlightenment.

No one practiced this critical melancholy with more effect than Paul de Man. Consider two brief examples from his 1969 essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” which was for a time perhaps the single most influential essay in literary studies. Discussing the romantic symbol as an attempt to resolve the split between subject and object introduced by Enlightenment reason, de Man dissents from the humanist critics who came before him. Following some hints in Coleridge and elsewhere, those critics had proposed that the symbol repairs the breach between subject and object. De Man, on the other hand, says that subject/object is the wrong problem; the real problem is that we can never escape from time, but by focusing on the pseudo-problem of subject and object the romantic symbol simply encourages us to deny our “authentically temporal destiny” (ie., death) and flee into timeless universals. The symbol, he says, is thus “a temptation that has to be overcome.” Then, later in the essay, having produced an impressive comparison between allegory and irony, de Man writes that “this conclusion is dangerously satisfying….Things cannot be left to rest at the point we have reached.” These are two examples of the kinds of critical restlessness for which de Man is famous. The act of reading itself is the purest form of that restlessness; throughout his critical oeuvre reading appears as dreadful, as painful, as adding up to nothing. The only thing worse than reading, for de Man, is not reading, for that would mean giving in to temptations like that of the symbol, whose “dangerously satisfying conclusions” encourage us to forget about our temporal predicament.

Note that this is not criticism undertaken in the name of liberation. As de Man pictures it, all that reading can do is tie us ever more intimately to the object of our critique. Having seen through the “dangerous satisfactions” that emerge when we stop reading, the critic cannot then take refuge in those satisfactions without bad faith. But having also recognized that the pull of such satisfactions is so great that no amount of criticism will ever fully emancipate him, the critic finds himself plunged ever more deeply into a condition both intolerable and necessary. The only way to resist the temptation to stop reading is to keep reading, but the reading simply reconfirms the power of the temptation to stop. Loving what you hate; hating what you love: this melancholy predicament becomes the critic’s professional identity.


De Man was not especially interested in religion or in the secular, though he did assume that modernization meant secularization, and he wrote of religion as a typical example of the “dangerously satisfying” conclusions against which he set his critical project. So in that way he was a secular thinker, though I think he understood pretty well that criticizing something is not the same thing as leaving it behind. Indeed, one might read most of his writing as a continual rediscovery of the stubborn fact that the thing you most want to leave behind is also the thing you can’t leave behind—like St. Paul, who cannot do what he wants to do, but instead does the thing he hates to do.

For de Man–and for many of the literary critics writing in his wake—this kind of vexed melancholia simply was the literary experience. It is a secular experience, but of a tragic kind. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the picture painted by Edward Said, in his “Secular Criticism” essay, of the heroic worldly intellectual, resolutely suspicious of anything that might entice him to rest. Said’s metaphors in that essay, as throughout much of his work, contrast the “the quasi-religious authority of being comfortably at home” with the exile and homelessness that is for him the mark of the critic. Because he is not at home, the critic is able to take the measure of modernity and its loss of filiation: “because of that perspective, which introduces circumstance and distinction where there had only been conformity and belonging, there is distance, or what we might also call criticism,” Said writes. The critic is permanently homeless in this conception—and once again there’s an interesting inversion of the Christian imaginary here, something of which Said was very much aware.

Said’s more programmatic statements may lack the melancholy quality often found in de Man, but Said’s own body of work attests in manifold ways to his deep attachment to the very objects whose siren call he must nevertheless resist. And in this way Said’s secular criticism, like de Man’s version of deconstruction, foregrounds the relationship between secularism and the literary without ever quite saying so. To be sure, Said makes it clear that by “criticism” he means more than simply “literary criticism.” Yet it is also evident that he is modeling habits of critical attention upon the forms of attentiveness solicited by literary writing. “Obviously I’m not suggesting that everybody has to become a literary critic,” he once noted in an interview. “[T]hat’s a silly idea. But one does have to give a certain attention to the rather dense fabric of secular life….” Note the elective affinity among secularism, criticism and literary “attention.” And of course, the importance of literature to Said’s image of criticism has been further reinforced by the fact that many of those currently writing under Said’s influence are located in departments of literature.


Gil Anidjar’s recent book, Semites, pushes this line of thinking as far as I’ve seen anyone take it. One project of the book is to mediate between the positions of Talal Asad and Edward Said. (This is one of the things at stake in the Mahmood-Gourgouris debate. In the background, meanwhile, stands the legacy of Foucault and Said’s own critical use of Foucault.) So we get an interpretation of Orientalism in which it emerges that Said’s real target in that book was secularism. I don’t have room here to go into the complexities of Anidjar’s counter-intuitive argument, and in any case what’s relevant to my discussion here is the shape of the book rather than its local engagements. What is that shape? The first half of the book traces, in genealogical fashion, the complicated histories of the categories of Jew and Arab, Semite and Aryan. Having established how fraught and entangled those histories are, Anidjar turns in the second half of the book to “Literature.” The publisher’s description on the back of the book, in fact, says that the book “turns to the literary imagination as the site of a fragile and tenuous alternative, the promise of something like a ‘Semitic perspective’.”

As I understand it, the political resonance of that last phrase is found in the book’s historical argument that “Jew” and “Arab” where once jointly “Semitic,” so that a “Semitic perspective” would be an important alternative to prevailing contemporary narratives of “Jew vs. Arab.” The stakes, then, could not be higher: the “literary imagination” holds out something like the promise of reconciliation, in the sense of which Said spoke of it (see the essays collected in The End of the Peace Process). As Anidjar writes, “I attend to the way in which the texts of Arabic and Jewish literatures undo the narrow limits to which they are confined by the topological imagination and by the disciplines.” And later: “throughout and against history, literature resists.”

What the book largely offers, however, are discussions of that confinement—by the discipline of comparative literature, for example—rather than of literary resistance to it. I confess that I’m still trying to follow Anidjar’s argument, so maybe I’ve got this wrong, but it seems to me that in the places where we might expect discussion of literary texts, we are given instead a resonant picture of the kind of critical brooding I have been discussing. That is, it is the critic’s relation to his object—anguished, anxious, treasonous—that interests Anidjar. The idea is that any such relationship will betray the most important thing about literature, indeed the only thing that matters about it, namely its resistance to history. The critic, who is institutionally located and bound by networks of affiliation she can never quite escape, can only ever be a representative of history, and of the disciplines, can therefore even at her generous best—again with the largest stakes in mind—only imagine a “two-state” (that is, institutionally and historically determined) solution to such intractable questions as that of Palestine. The one-state solution for which Said advocated and which he turned sometimes to literature in order to imagine—that is destined to remain out of reach, though not out of mind for the critic aware enough of her own failings.

It is Paul de Man who becomes the guiding figure in Anidjar’s account. Riffing on de Man, Anidjar writes of “The [critic’s] treason, which is also an active joining (a treacherous obedience), a belonging without allegiance, perhaps.” This, he concludes enigmatically, “is the promise, no more than a promise and, equally, the threat of another future, if not of another modernity.” What I take this to mean is that the critic’s treason is the promise of another future because it holds out the possibility of breaking definitively with the past. But this promise is also a threat, because any true break will throw all cherished categories out of the window. And this will be true not only for our illiberal/facist/fundamentalist opponents but for us too, no matter how progressive, generous, and reflexive we imagine ourselves to be.

But this is for the future. What does critique looks like now, in the aftermath of enlightenment? For de Man and Anidjar (and possibly Said) it seems to be a reflexivity so crosscut with humility and tragedy that it keeps generating, as if in compensation, a concept of literariness that is always just around the bend. I think it is not accidental that de Man’s own critical career continued to circle around those texts loosely termed “romantic”—the works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that were striving to come to terms with the secular horizons opened up by the Enlightenment, and striving to find a voice for ways of being that those secular horizons were unable or unwilling to recognize. What I think de Man sensed in those texts and writers is what Anidjar senses in de Man. If we had to label it, we could call it “non-heteronomous critique.” Or, we could just call it “literature.”