In this forum prompted by Emily Ogden’s Credulity, Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things, Pamela Klassen’s The Story of Radio Mind, and Graham Jones’s Magic’s Reason, the secular becomes a co-constituting contact sheet with its previously considered opposites such as superstition, vitalism, magic, the uncanny, mesmerism, ecstatic forms, animism, and chicanery.1 Instead of letting thought rest in sheer categories and shaky ontological distinctions, these books and this forum think through the prolific, heavily-voiced qualities, rhythms, forces, relations, and lifespans of story and experience. Secularism and its others become modes of thought-in-the-act generated by the struggle to both exorcise and return to the “something more” at the heart of a dynamic world. In what Isabelle Stengers calls thinking from the middle, a concept is a “prism, a crystal of space-time (that) acts on (what) surrounds it . . . extracting various vibrations, or decompositions or projections, or transformations.” These books conceptualize their objects of analysis by moving with, and in the manner of, their dynamics. They model an improvisatory conceptuality initiated in the process of contradictions, shifts, and emergent connections between seemingly opposed or frictious tendencies.

Here I focus on the four most recent essays in this forum by Lepselter, Ogden, Jones, and Klassen. Each essay builds on the brilliant labors of the other books, making a new concept of its own through a swerve, a swell, a change of trend, a further distribution of thought across new points of contact. These reconceptualizations adopt a method of digressing into the singularities of stories, events, and connections taking place in their objects of thought taken as modes of conceptualization in themselves.

In “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Susan Lepselter foregrounds the visceral mimesis of the struggle between occult and enlightenment. Debunking is all-of-a-piece with humbuggery; seemingly opposing ends resonate with and confront their others in the materiality of co-composition, like a snake eating its tail. Unheimlich is irreducibly lodged in Heimlich; a circuit of action and reaction gestures and aims at the other that is also itself. The subject itself becomes a fractious multiplicity, its iterations made weird and intensified by its own strange and continuous efforts to emerge in some form.

Mimesis is a rough game. Using smoke and mirrors to reveal and discipline a sleight of hand only makes you a method actor in the other’s game. Extreme trajectories of this dynamic stand out in modes like ecstatic religion, conspiracy theory, mesmerism, or what we call codependence. Try to release your own anxiety by stabilizing the effects of a loved one’s problems with an emergency payment to the pawnshop and you may well find yourself in the habit of repeating this frantic gesture over and over, feeling it as a disturbance in the self. Situations take on energetic dynamics that compel or repulse or become something to be in or next to for a while. Lepselter shows us the density and weight of these contact zones: desire is a crackling charge; energies inhabiting forms can be unpredictably re-loosed. Marjoe, a child evangelical preacher-performer whose performance of strutting and breathy space breaks was already modeled on Mick Jagger anyway, then seamlessly adds secular conventions to his repertoire, his capacities for genred expressivity carrying him back and forth over the line on cadences, rhythms, and tunes. Far from a process reducible to a concept of religious chicanery or the like, this is the nimble, driven capacity of the multiplicitous subject in situ disturbed and propelled by relations of accretion, dismissal, hoarding, or recursive reiteration.

Emily Ogden’s “Modernity’s residues” theorizes modernity’s internal dynamic as a resonance so full of cadence and timbre it resounds as if from a close distance. Sticky with the material residue of debunking itself (and also, presumably, other circuits of reaction it inspires), it becomes almost gelatinous or glutinous. Modernity’s frictions produce a landscape heavy with the weight of sensory impressions and disjecta membra, memorializing its own irradicable internal struggle. Enchantments, disenchantments, and other by-products circulate broadly, working at the very constitution of a real in which modernity and secularism easily transmogrify into magic, faith, the poetics of literature, and an open-ended series of other leaps including conspiracy theory, therapeutic regimes, and the proliferation of little worlds out of illnesses, interests, or warring sides of a problem. Ogden shows us how modernity is made strange and compelling as it lays out patterns across fields, emerges, swollen, from a saturated ground, and ventures forth on a tune touching down on multiple registers from the aesthetic to the material. Religions and the secular become both tough and sensitive in the very effort to contain, replace, or join forces with their proliferating others. Ogden points out that states of suspended disbelief, such as poetic faith, become a ground for secularity only because they are pitch-perfect repetitions of the secular-religious dynamic.

In “Abduction as abduction” Graham Jones identifies Lepselter’s close and unrelenting contact with American weirdness as a writerly propulsive enactment of the something more before, or beyond, the reduction of things to the categorical. Lepselter’s own writerliness exemplifies the compositionality of what Graham Harman calls weird realism in which things exist in a denaturalized state of energetic surfaces and remainders that withdraw from phenomenological and representational efforts at reduction and paraphrase. In the everyday life writerliness of others who, like Lepselter, become captivated by the strange systemic registering of potentiality in what can’t be accounted for, anything can pull into view.

Pamela Klassen’s “Revelations in method” ruminates on how paired academic and worldly compositions generate new ideas that resonate. Readers and composers of books or stories are provoked not only to see things anew but also to hone their skills in attending to and attuning to what happens or what could happen. Practices like pattern recognition, or forms of voicing such as a writerly attempt to conjoin the analytical, the personal, and the fictional into a something else, or a storyteller’s capacity to method act with her characters, are risky engagements with what comes to you or summons you to veer off. Every story or detail conjured is a node producing its own associations and relations. A digressive logic hones in not on the end points of truths but on the prismatic structure of experience intensified by active composition. What is unveiled is not just out there but an arrival at a point of contact with the weight and wild hairs of what surrounds. With all this going on, we can no longer think of the self, the world, agency, and forms of belief as fixed entities. They’re wholly implicated compositions in a gift relation of critical-creative connection.

In all of these books, the grand categories of the secular and its others are drawn to the verge, the verve, the atmospheric infusion, the suspension and accrual of thought in reversals, psychic transmissions, chambers of surprise, sticky residues, abductions, analogies, a visceral mimesis, a partial resonance, or a set of labors. Thought is brought to an energetic tipping point that opens onto and disturbs. Even skepticism’s labor is a tending-toward-and-away-from, not unlike the Christian conversion state of coming under conviction. Elsewheres, elsewhens, and otherwises are not just “still” around but continuously producing a circuit of reactions, a structure of capacities and worn seams. Being on the verge of an assemblage in suspension generates strange and unpredictable condensations, digressions, shadowings, glitches,2 and heightened states. The fantasy of a clear end point on a solid ground of thought and experience, or the dream of a sphere of life distinctly nameable as modernity or its others becomes a side-effect of the dynamic of tendencies held together, initiating each other. We end up in spitting distance to both a “more than” and a hard-grounded pragmatism headed back to the fundamentals of shore. A shift into belief or disbelief is a labor with problems of its own; it can be too much, too single-minded, or worn thin by an attachment to a wavering horizon. Subjects are surprised by their embeddedness, spurred on by what is already wrought, and caught up in the energetic relations of shift, surge, friction, and torque. These books pull into view the dynamic and generative life of the secular, the modern, and all the continuously preproducing “others” they resound with. As such, and through their exemplary methods of thought, they create dynamic possibilities for academic thought as well.

  1. See Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds (Duke University Press, 2019) and Jason Pine, “Last Chance Incorporated.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2 (2016): 297–318.

  2. Marina Peterson. Atmospheric Noise. Duke University Press, forthcoming.