Simon During is a professor at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, having previously taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Melbourne, and elsewhere. In addition to editing The Cultural Studies Reader, now in its third edition, he is the author of several books, including Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Harvard, 2002) and Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity (Routledge, 2010). In both, he brings questions of the secular to bear on historical, literary sources both obscure and revelatory. His Compulsory Democracy: towards a literary history is forthcoming.
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NS: Why is capitalism the focal point of your recent book? And what about capitalism is “postsecular”?
SD: Can I begin with the “postsecular”? It’s a rather confusing term. Mainly it points to a ceasefire—or, anyway, a slowdown—in the long battle between secular reason and religion. That’s ultimately what it implies in the recent work of Habermas, for instance. And that’s also what it means in the kind of intellectual history that uncovers the religious prehistory of secular concepts. But I suspect such work can usually be understood as secularism proceeding under the flag of its own decease. I am more interested in two other possibilities that occur when we think about a zone that is neither secular nor non-secular. The first appears when the limits of the (secular) world become apparent in everyday or mundane life, outside of religion. The second appears when we are compelled to radical leaps of faith—again, outside religion.
Both of these have a direct relation to democratic state capitalism. That’s because democracy and capitalism have each become compulsory and fundamental. They ground everything we do, including religious practice—so we can only get outside them through the kind of postsecular leap of faith that I am talking about. That realization is one of the things that is important about Alain Badiou’s thought. Such leaps may also be relevant to situations in which we encounter secularism’s limits—when secularism can’t contain the ethical and epistemological demands we make of it.
NS: Why can’t secularism itself contain leaps of faith? Why do we need to move past it, to the postsecular?
SD: Of course, there are all kinds of secular leaps of faith. But the will to get outside democratic state capitalism requires something else. It’s true that secular reason is useful in adjudicating upon the current system. You can at least attempt to measure its benefits—the joys, capacities, wealth, and opportunities that it does indeed provide us, and the way that it makes so much seem “interesting,” for instance—against the insecurities, inequalities, restrictions, and controls that it also imposes.
NS: Why should we want to get outside secular, democratic state capitalism in the first place?
SD: It falls way short, and for two reasons. The first is simply that democratic state capitalism is now the only fully legitimated social system; for that very reason, it has become a limit. Second, and more importantly, we have no rational and secular means of adjudicating the possibility—often adduced in the lead-up to modernity—that we live in a regime of relative experiential poverty. We can’t compare the qualities of past lifeworlds to present ones; we just don’t know whether they’re better or worse. But we do know that the system we have is not as good—I prefer to say not as “perfect”—as we can imagine a society to be. To align oneself with that idea of perfection, and to acknowledge the poverty of contemporary experience, implies a postsecular leap of faith.
NS: What do you mean by “interesting,” specifically in the context in which you used it before?
SD: “Interesting” is a criterion of value that is important historically because it smoothed the path towards democracy and secularism. It first appears as a category early in the eighteenth century alongside sentimentalism and the notion that sympathy is a social tool, and basically being interesting ends up by swamping its rival criteria of value. We all still use interestingness as a category of judgment. But it’s a peculiarly undemanding category.
NS: How is it that an undemanding category like this—one used so casually and so habitually—leads the way to social change?
SD: It has so much power precisely because it is so casual. It’s the ideological air we breathe. And the great thing about interestingness is that it is so democratic: anything at all can be interesting, anyone at all can be interested. But that kind of indifference to distinction is also corrosive of experience.
NS: You suggest that humanities departments may be sites for developing alternatives to the capitalist order. But how can they do that while forced to justify their existence in universities increasingly defined by that order?
SD: Good question—I don’t know. I am now working in Australia, where the process you refer to is much more advanced than in the States. Universities here appear to be servants of the state, which, at its best, seeks merely to protect capitalism from itself. I suspect that we in the humanities have to try to detach our thought from the institutions that nurture us. More challenging, we have to return in a new spirit and with new tools to the conservatism—not to be confused with contemporary right-wing politics—that is the humanities’ default position, whatever the post-1968 generation (including me) came to believe. It is actually the orthodox churches, born before capitalism and democracy, and before the modern nation-state, that—potentially, at least—store the most social power against democratic state capitalism.
NS: What about digital spaces? Can they offer a route around what you call “endgame capitalism”? Or have they already been too thoroughly colonized by it?
SD: No, I don’t think digital spaces offer routes around endgame capitalism. On the contrary, they help expand and integrate the system. They may, however, occasion new paratactic associations that don’t fit the models of collectivity that our formal political categories—like democracy and liberty—depend upon. Freedom is easier in cyberspace, for instance, but only to the degree that it has less content there—although, admittedly, the Wikileaks affair, ongoing as we talk, does indeed show that the internet enables new possibilities for calling state power out.
NS: Why do you think the victory of the neoliberal order coincided with recent religious revivals—from the religious right in the US to militant Islamists?
SD: Islam and the American religious right have very different purposes and constituencies. They certainly don’t like each other. Islam, probably more than the other religions that predate modernity, stands outside the democratic state capitalism of which the US is the primary global missionary power. It appeals to those who most cleanly reject the dominant secular order, often because that order damages them. Why otherwise would Islam be the fastest growing religion among Australian aborigines? As to the rest of the question: why Islamic violence on top of belonging and faith? I’d guess that it’s mainly a matter of opportunity. Violence may be chosen according to a banal rational logic when its benefits seem to outweigh its costs. Political groups routinely take to terror in the face of their enemy’s overwhelming power. Perhaps militancy can also become a way of life for some.
NS: But what about the logic of religion? Is it really fair to say, as you do, that revealed religion is, “under modern truth regimes, false, unverifiable, or unproven”? What accounts, then, for its social force today?
SD: I don’t think there’s a close relation between what is true in the sense I intend and what has social force. It isn’t true that there is an internal sea in the middle of Australia, or that Jews are inferior to Aryans, or that monarchs are God’s emissaries on earth, or that Jesus is the son of God, or that there’s a life after death, or that sacrificing three oxen to Zeus helps assure safe passage on a sea journey, or that America is in Asia, or that hoarding gold makes a country more prosperous—but all these beliefs have had real social consequences, even though they traffic in untruth.
NS: If religion really does “traffic in untruth,” where does it stand with respect to literary fiction?
SD: Literary fiction has always been at home where the borders of the secular can be breached in ordinary life, outside of any supernaturalism—that is, in the postsecular. This breaching often happens when imagined characters have moments of rupture from the secular order. As a randomly chosen example, let me point to that passage in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time when Nick, the narrator, suddenly realizes that the run-down military accommodation in Cabourg where he is lodged at the height of World War II is the very hotel where Marcel holidayed during his affair with Albertine in Proust’s novel. It’s a dizzying moment in which the frontiers between the real and imaginary, the ordinary and the exceptional, are broken in a way that can’t be accommodated by a non-secular lexicon. It’s not sublime, or an epiphany, or a visitation of grace. But it carries its own ecstatic and unworldly charge.
NS: Can this kind of “charge” have anything like the social force of religious ideas? Can it compete with them, or even replace them?
SD: I don’t believe so. The example I have chosen is literary, and only a tiny (and declining) sector of the population is open to literature’s postsecular intensities. Of course, somewhat equivalent intensities can happen in other cultural domains, like art and film and dance and theater and video. None of these offers what Christianity and Islam can: the possibility of a collective life organized around the promise of salvation. But, of course, to be educated into modernity is, by and large, to lose the ability to believe in salvation.
NS: And—to turn to your earlier book, Modern Enchantments—where does religion stand with respect to magic?
SD: Secular magic, which is more or less equivalent to entertainment magic, is a popular instrument of secularization. It is spiritualism’s antagonist—and religion’s as well, if less so. Real magic is not secular at all, obviously. In general, religion and magic have to be thought of as opposed to one another, even if religion sometimes engages in magic too.
NS: The early nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologists and sociologists of religion were especially anxious to distinguish the two. But that’s not a concern one comes across much anymore. Why is that?
SD: Could it be because in the nineteenth century they still took religion seriously? They could not, or did not, write from a position of total unbelief. Since Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, until very recently, that position of unbelief has been required of social scientists. The interest in magic’s relation to religion might thus be considered a stage in the social sciences’ perhaps merely provisional march to secularity.
NS: Does magic offer another alternative space to the mechanics of capitalism? Or, perhaps, is capitalism itself a kind of magic?
SD: No. Magic offers no alternative to capitalism. And capitalism is not a form of magic. It’s only too unmagical—although it is true that the extension of secular magic depends on the development of commodified leisure markets. And it’s a bit true that in capitalism, as in some magic tricks, “all that is solid melts into air.” But not capitalism itself—it doesn’t vanish.