We cannot accept in our country women who are imprisoned behind a grid, cut off from society and deprived of any identity. (Nicolas Sarkozy, 2009)
The gate isn’t manned, except during services and holidays; it has an intercom box, but no one ever answers it, and the overall impression it makes on visitors is one of implacable, silent exclusion. It shares these features with other Jewish facilities in the city. The Jewish school, for example, sports an enormous high-security fence, a towering affair with a sliding gate and a crown of razor wire. (Andrew Buckser)
Trying to make some sense of it all/ But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor,/ ‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right,/ Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. (Stealer’s Wheel, 1972)
Can we imagine, for the sake of argument—recognizing that France is not Denmark, that the niqab is not razor wire, and all the rest—former French president Sarkozy using the word “Jews” in the place of “women”? You Jews must not wall yourselves off from the rest of society; your sense of identity must be ours. You cannot be allowed to live like that. We wish you to be free. Freedom is a right and not a threat. There is nothing to fear, so take down your eruvim in whatever forms they assume. Or perhaps, to be more accurate in terms of the audience being addressed, since the president’s colorful image was not meant to persuade one public but to mobilize another, we ought to say: they must not wall themselves off, for they must have no claims to identity other than nation, gender, and a lonely, unique face on an ID photo. They must not advertise their distinctness; or rather, group distinctiveness below the national level works at cross-purposes with individual distinctiveness and spoils the possibility of claiming a true and proper sort of identity. It is worth remembering that not too long ago, precisely these kinds of demands were made of the Jews of France in existentially threatening ways; not too long ago the absence of such displays made no difference at all, for they were deported and murdered regardless of how they managed their identities. More recently still their ability to advertise their distinctiveness in some small, symbolic ways was challenged along with that of the Muslim women who cover their hair in public. C’est la vie.
Surely this was not how most of its philosophers wanted liberalism or pluralism to turn out: a world in which steel gates have to be thrown up to protect life and property, and clothing torn off to protect both its wearers and its witnesses. When John Rawls wrote about how to construct political institutions and values able to reconcile social order with “the fact of pluralism,” he counseled us to derive our approach to political justice and fairness from dispositions implicit in everyday interaction rather than from grand theological or philosophical schemes. Only by elevating “fundamental intuitive ideas” of fair play, social cooperation, and common sense to the level of organizing political principles could we avoid either endless bloody strife or—what seemed to him nearly as bad—a mere modus vivendi, a tense and always temporary stalemate in which balances of group and self-interest kept people from each others’ throats while they waited for their own to reclaim the upper hand.
Rawls thought about pluralism as a matter of clashing arguments over what constitutes the good, “opposing religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines” that represented “shared conception[s] of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life.” Communities are defined by the sharing of these comprehensive conceptions. The kind of overlapping consensus he sought was not based on a pluralism of identities conceived in any way other than as mental images of the ideal self within the context of comprehensive understandings of ultimate religious or philosophical questions. Difference meant difference in ultimate theological or philosophical stance. Difference as gender, difference as ethnicity or group loyalty, difference as racial attribution, difference as class stratification, difference as sexual orientation, difference as dislocation; none of these are communities in terms of which he thought about how an overlapping consensus on the commonsense enterprise of public life might help us deal with the fact of pluralism.
It might be argued that “the forms of reasoning available to common sense” which were to structure such a stable overlapping consensus turn out to be the very mechanisms through which conflict is heightened and around which controversies form. From an anthropological perspective, both common sense and “public reason” must be connected to practical problem-solving, to the evidence of the senses, and to the real social outlines of the world. Descriptions of public reason have to be descriptions of the way people actually reason publicly, and since reasoning is a shared, public, symbolic activity, the symbols and contexts in which it is carried out have their own contributions to make to the discussion.
In the cases here from Guatemala, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Denmark, for example, shared understandings of the significance of physical and metaphorical space—agreement not on the specific meanings of such space, but on the idea that space is something to be concerned about—help drive the apprehensions and interactions between people who identify with one or another religious group. Whether we fill that space with buildings, with billboards, with crowds and processions of people swathed in particular kinds of cloth, or with amplified taped or broadcast sermons, the publicness of space has claims and counterclaims made on it by people competing and collaborating to fashion sight lines, to gather time, to create visual, aural, and olfactory saturation, to influence the nature and reactions of the “public.”
Clearly the idea of “public” is a blunt instrument. It refers to nothing very clear, in part because of the semiotic potential of the word itself, in part because any public is the result rather than the source of social process. As these papers show in such fine detail, creating, contesting, and dissolving various kinds of publics is the result of collaborative effort to demarcate, divide, and distinguish, even if this is done in any given instance in the name of unity and sharing. As we saw above, what is most often shared are assumptions about what is worth arguing over, and the arguments take place through appeals to the senses. How do we understand the meaning of a locked gate, a wire suspended above a street, a particular arrangement of English and Yiddish on a computer screen? How do we feel when we encounter history in the form of spectacle, experiencing a story that “cannot merely be told; it must be felt. What was it like to see the door [of the Ark] close? To hear the fierce storm outside?. . .To see the rainbow and be the center of God’s saving grace?” How do we navigate between the seductive power of the short skirt and the partly exposed thigh of the harlot beckoning to Noah? If “secularism” is centrally concerned with sexuality, then isn’t the same true of Nigerian Christians and Muslims, who are agreed about the evils of homosexuality as it indexes a degenerate West, proving moral steadfastness, authenticity, and honor “in terms that are redolent of colonial morality,” while providing an opportunity to outmaneuver one’s confessional rivals locally? When our Protestant elders command us inside to avoid witnessing the elaborate velacion of images of Christ through the streets of Cobán, is this not an acknowledgment rather than a rejection of its seductive power (an acknowledgement confirmed in Kentucky by the evangelical engineers of the Ark Encounter)?
Efforts to control shared public space are also about controlling the means through which public reasoning takes place, an observation underscored by Andrew Buckser, who makes us think both about the symbolic as well as the physical qualities of barriers and the multiple kinds of demarcations they accomplish. “Media,” as Tom Boylston writes, “help build the sensory territory of people’s immediate lived environment, but also enable the connections that produce publics beyond the direct range of the senses.” Indexed by language and by gender as well as by broader sorts of demarcation, the potentially invisible networks aided by electronic communications technology become associated with different potentials for expression and world-building. Ayala Fader notes that fragments of a community who might be “at risk” of leaving might leave socially and geographically, or may remain in place as “double-lifers,” those “who questioned or ceased to believe in. . .tenets of faith, yet remained in their communities and continued to practice” the customs of their families and neighbors.
What kind of public is this, then? How are loyalties, beliefs, and senses of self distributed across the multiple frameworks of meaning available to people? Clearly one of the problems with a Rawlsian theory of pluralism is its implication that complex human groups can be sorted in a reasonably straightforward way into communities of meaning who mutually strive to create mid-level values and practices of political intercourse. In such a world, amity is achieved by agreeing to leave some issues off the table, to define some issues as too divisive and thus unsuitable for discussion in the public sphere. The irony is that the easier it is to participate in those public spheres, the more likely it is that the better-left-unspoken will become precisely what people are told it is most vital to discuss. But the more important point is that there are no such simple Rawlsian groups, and no matter how we draw the borders, “internal” differences are often more problematic than “inter-group” ones.
Publics are simultaneously the contexts, the results, and the media of particular kinds of collaboration. Collaboration might be defined in terms of people who share some interests, but who have broadly different senses of motivation, investment, and responsibility, cooperating to achieve or to explore some goal or project or idea. That exploration itself, even if temporary, was one of the things Rawls wanted to accomplish. But the kinds of collaboration that are possible in various times and places, and thus the sorts of publics that can be created, are highly sensitive to enduring social structures as well as to ongoing political contests. Compare, for example, Erica Lehrer’s story of Christian entrepreneurs recreating “an increasingly elaborate Jewish public sphere” in Cracow, with the controversy that recently met Mohammed Dajani of al-Quds University in Jerusalem after he took his students to Auschwitz. Each project is, in its own way, unthinkable, and each one raises the question of what kind of project its entrepreneurs are engaged in. Who are the publics to whom such projects are addressed, and what are the implications of the methods and locations of collaboration? If we think in terms of Peter Stromberg’s global “shared culture of entertainment,” what is the difference between a public and an audience? Between an audience and a client? Between a client and a protected group? Between a protected group and a dependent one? Between the dependent and the subaltern? Between the subaltern and the victim? How do we think about the various ways in which “sharing” in a culture—witnessing the public procession, buying a ticket to see the Ark, blogging—is an entry into highly stratified rather than egalitarian relationships?
Practices of public reason are oriented toward taking lessons from the world, attending to its appearance and textures, its possibilities and its restrictions, the multiple kinds of symbolic environments from which we can draw. The collaboration of entertainment, spectacle, debate, and so on, rely on traditions of common sense—every one of the authors here might add the word “embodied” to that phrase—which draw particular kinds of boundaries for particular purposes. Contrary to Rawls, one might think about public reason not as a mechanism to protect diversity, but as a means of creating it, continuously drawing new lines of division and fields of contrast. The comprehensive philosophical systems he wanted to protect in order to preserve “the fact of pluralism,” are not objects that generate ways of experiencing and acting. Instead, they are themselves ungainly structures built up over generations out of embodied dispositions, mid-level values and common sense judgments, always in motion, shaped and articulated through multiple levels of casuistry. They are the epiphenomena of pluralism rather than its substance.
One of the things this means for scholarship is that we might want to see a refocusing or reformulation of the scale at which we address ideas like “pluralism,” “public,” “liberalism,” “the secular,” and so on, ideas against which we so often set the apparently contrasting term “religion” for the purpose of organizing inquiry both conceptually and practically (“Religion and Pluralism,” for example, or “Religion and its Publics,” as we might see in any number of conference titles). These have been such important topics of discussion in contemporary social theory, including here on The Immanent Frame. Selby and Fernando’s insight at the beginning of their paper about the French/Québécois obsession with sexualization—that it is an issue of the investment of meaning rather than a phenomenological element of some ill-defined “secular body”—frees us from pursuing what I think is a conceptual dead end. Despite their collective eligibility for the label “secular,” it is hard to think about what sort of sensoria or embodied dispositions might be shared by Nikolas Sarkozy as he addresses a crowd; by the bored policemen guarding Sabbath services in Copenhagen, by Daniel Dennett at his computer in Medford, by the future St. Augustine of Hippo as he stole fruit from the orchard of his neighbor, or by the average Chinese People’s Army conscript as he breaks up demonstrations by Buddhist monks in Tibet.
Some strands of contemporary social theory discuss constructs such as “secularism” and “liberalism” far too blithely. Despite verbal qualifications to the contrary, many theorists treat them as objects every bit as solid and certain as the complex social, psychological, artistic, and cultural complexes of “totemism” and “animism,” which were taken so much for granted by many early twentieth-century anthropologists. I would imagine that both “liberalism” and “the secular” as objects of analysis will eventually go the way totemism, victims of their overtheorization.
One of the many distinctions of the papers in this collection is that they avoid the sins of inflated scale and misplaced concreteness. They discuss people rather than philosophy, focusing not on comprehensive intellectual systems as the primary elements of “pluralism,” but instead on practical perceptions and judgments, a middle level of values and collaborative practices that Rawls thought of as a solution to larger questions of conflict and cooperation, but which might better be seen as the actual substance of those questions.