Like most people I know, I have been thinking a lot, over these garishly awful sixteen months or so, about Prince.
As with so much of our thought about what is irremediably lost to us, most of it goes nowhere. Or rather: it rides out eddying little drifts of spirit, circles around some confoundment or other—How would Prince do antifascism?—and dissipates.
How many hours can you spend disappearing yourself into the textures and surfaces, the hidden corners and sonic cul-de-sacs, of Sign o’ the Times, a record now thirty years old? Turns out: a very great many.
Can it be that he’s still dead? my mind thinks, and then, through the speakers, out in front of a clacking skeletal beat, there comes his voice.
OH YEAH, he says.
And then, half-incredulous, a little ominously, Times!
Turns out: the month, the season, the year—all of it is gravely fucking ill.
* * *
Let us start with a hypothesis. Let us grant for the sake of efficiency that “secularism” names not the climate of belief that results from a historical process called “secularization,” that much-advertised swing from benighted credulity to disenchanted skepticism, fanaticism to rationality, orthodoxy to tolerance, and all the rest of it. Let us say that “secularism” names the ideology that, in an occluded way, operates the secularization thesis itself: marks, that is, the governing interlinked conceptual presumptions and grounding points that make plausible in the first instance the story of modernity as a sweep from atavism to enlightenment. Secularism is, in this respect, not the condition of life and belief proper to a world that has accomplished the diminishment of religion in public life. It is, rather, a normative sociality, an immanent frame, the set of inaugural cleavings—of reason from unreason, skepticism from credulity, belief from fanaticism—that allows us to know anything at all as “religious” and to know the “secular” as the thing that it is not. Secularism is in other words a discipline, one that points less to the dissolution of religion in modern public life than to the disciplined accommodation of patterns of belief and devotion to the premises of liberal rationality, its polities, its arrangements of life, its bodies. Let us say that “secularism” names at base the enforced accommodation of practices of belief to the order of a hegemonic liberalism, such that the salient division, under the conditions of secularism, is not between the religious and the nonreligious but between religion and bad belief: a divide between those styles of spirit-practice that comport themselves in accordance with the dictates of liberalism (and so get to count as religion) and those that, because they do not, figure instead as species of zealotry, fanaticism, backwardness, or (in the familiar and always-racializing idiom of bigots nationwide) fundamentalism or radical fundamentalism.
Let us concede in sum that secularism—as a disciplinary sociality, a biopolitical machinery, liberalism’s enveloping atmosphere—is in these ways one of the lasting signatures of this, our fractured, bloodied, long-running modernity.
This is a song you will, I imagine, have heard.1
So then: when, with a rapidity that few appear to have fully foreseen, the already nominal, un-universal, ill-distributed protections and promises of that hegemonic liberalism begin to fall away one after another, where do we find ourselves?
Implicit in the account above is, to put this mildly, a critique of liberalism: an effort to refute its terms and forms of order, despite the entangling fact that liberalism is, as it were, what we have to think with. Secular liberalism is not, in the above story, the cure for orthodoxy so much as it is a vastly environing orthodoxy of its own, imperialism’s alibi, deathcult capitalism’s sententious story about itself. And this, if it does nothing else at all, might remind us of the grievously limited wisdom of responding to the scaled-up erosion of any number of liberal institutions with the plaintive cry, More liberalism! As though growing back outward the charmed circle of those sheltered in the ambit of liberal munificence—some re-rescuing of middle-class American white people from the rising tides precarity, say—were itself a politics. And not, rather, an abdication.
Where, then, do we find ourselves?
Times! is what the headphones say. Times!
* * *
At the hazy edges of the regime of secularism—in its gutters and back-alleys, its dancehalls and bars—there has always been the replenishing intimation that this world is not conclusion (as one early postsecular theorist put it), that liberalism is not, despite what we keep hearing and keep being told, the sum of all that is. For a lot of us, I would venture, that fast-flashing glimpse of counterpossibility has come not from church, or from prayer, or even from things we found in school. (Which is not a claim against any of these things.) For a good many of us, they have arrived, these galvanizing transactions of grace, in the most everyday of ways: through the wire (as Kanye might have it), in the riots of sound singing through your headphones. We know them as swift passages of joy: as captivation, enchantment, a wordless lifting of heart.
What else keeps the headphones clapped to my ears, hour after drifting hour? Some say man ain’t happy truly, is what I hear, til man truly dies, and on and on it goes, until all the gathered force of that half-glimpsed otherwise, the inrushing sense of cracked-open expansiveness that goes along with it, comes boomeranging back upon me.
Or, or, or: it did. Because here, now, as I write in the dismal high summer of 2017, there is a wrenching sort of awfulness to it. That, anyway, is what keeps visiting and revisting me, as I try once more to salve sorrow with another deep dive into 1987, the inexhaustible back catalog.
Increasingly, I find myself fumbling at the gadget, dialing into other tracks, other records, and finally other voices altogether.
It is not just that Prince is, as my mind keeps saying to me, still dead, though that is awfulness enough. I think it is rather that otherwise, the not-yet, counterpossibility: all this feels a queasy sort of different now, something nearer to blighted. I suppose I am just thinking of the way each new day seems to make realer and realer the cold possibility that what comes after the enclosing regime of liberalism is likely to be no prying-open or breaking-out, or for that matter some history-rupturing coalition of the downtrodden and despised (though this is no kind of reason not to labor and to march and to organize toward one). What seems likelier now is a vast and arid destitution. A wreckage quite entirely off the scales of liberal rationality. And, with it, a kind ghost-liberalism, a liberalism made functional to and for the planetary one percent and no one besides. But battened upon us still as an ideal, the horizon of possibility.
This is a lot of the feeling, for me at least, of these grinding, ugly days.
And yet here I am still, like I imagine a lot of you, headphones on, fumbling with the goddamn dial. Angling, even still, for some fugitive grace.
Today, a voice that does not belong to Prince sang into my ears, and it stopped me cold. What it said was, God loves everybody / Don’t remind me.
That, for the moment, seemed just about right. Counterpossibility, the ungrasped, all the unexpended promise of the yet-to-be-materialized: don’t remind me.
* * *
Secularism, I have been trying to suggest, might usefully be apprehended (in the most compressed of terms) as the racialized theodicy of hegemonic liberalism. But that hegemony is strange. Turns out: it is a thing collapsing and solidified, corroding and calcifying in one encompassing, helixlike movement. It is all at once itself and its own ghost, and somehow more itself as its own ghost.
On bad days—and I do not have to tell you how many of these there are—the feeling is not that there is no otherwise, no next. It is, rather, that those left to encounter it will be few, few, few indeed. And none of them likely to be our comrades, our lovers, our friends.
The archive summarized here is expansive, and growing. Among the names we might list there are Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Joan Wallach Scott, Tracy Fessenden, Molly McGarry, Vincent Lloyd, Jared Hickman, Josef Sorett, Kathryn Lofton, John Lardas Modern.↩