White on White (Malevich, 1918) | Image via Wikimedia CommonsWhen organizing this forum, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti and I hoped to start a conversation about a specter that haunts The Immanent Frame. In Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, immanentism is haunted by a longing for a lost transcendence. This is not our ghost. We have been wondering after another specter, which is legion and goes by many names: secular, monist, immanentist, humanist, antihumanist, freethinker, and atheist. These are ways of describing people who neither affirm nor long for the transcendent, and we have noticed the conspicuous absence of their self-understanding from conversations about secularism, secularity, and the secular.

Drawing on Stefanos Geroulanos’s intellectual history of twentieth-century antihumanism, I can venture an explanation for the exclusion of immanentists on their own terms. “Secular” people, for lack of a better label, can be humanists or antihumanists, and while many contributions to this site draw heavily on the latter, the former are frequent targets. Richard Dawkins’s secularism is surely Islamophobic, but what about that of Karl Marx and Gilles Deleuze?

Looking to the afro-futurism of Octavia Butler, the cyborg feminism of Donna Haraway, and the critique of racecraft by Karen and Barbara Fields, other explanations emerge. Immanentism that builds myths, creates worlds, and speaks in symbols runs counter to strains within the immanentist tradition that call for plain description and positivist explanation. With less controversy we can include the prescient agnosticism of Harriet Martineau, the novelized materialism of Fanny Wright, and the planetary humanism of Sylvia Wynter. But mystical, mythic, and poetic immanentism remain tough to digest, and literary language and Spinozan double-speak resist taxonomy.

Some exclusions are more systematic. Women and people of color have long faced harsher consequences for imagining otherwise, and in a culture that assumes supernatural religiosity, their immanentism can be a kind of double negative. Afro-pessimists and others in Black Studies have shown in immanentist terms how those excluded operate in the break or from below, inhabiting another kind of double negative.1 A full account of the immanentist tradition cannot ignore the difficult work of weaving artists and activists into its fabric. And though immanentism is often the ground on which leftist politics stands, we should remember that no politics necessarily follows from an immanentist ontology. Ayn Rand was an “objectivist” in her terms and an immanentist in the language of this forum.

By imagining a tradition that includes these disparate thinkers, we have tried to abstract a level up. At our most hopeful, we have begun the work of placing within a single tradition, and thus a single frame, the Epicureans and the Lucretians, the Spinozists and the freethinkers, the French materialists and the new materialists, the Marxists and the monists, the positivists and the Deleuzians, and the humanists and the antihumanists. Our questions are simple: Do these people participate in a tradition that we can trace across time and borders, and if so, what are the consequences?

As those contributing to this forum make plain, naming this tradition is tough. It is easy to get caught-up with terms. Most of the names we reach for reinscribe the binary of immanence and transcendence, so we need to decide how much to weigh the traces that these names bear. And though taxonomies and narration run counter to the radical leveling projects of immanentists like Deleuze, haunting and failure are inevitable unless we go silent. We write, and we assert, and it is usually worth trying.

This forum is thus an experiment in bounding and naming in order to figure out whether there is some use in calling the chains of citation and influence among these thinkers a tradition. Pushing beyond beliefs, we could also include the communities that immanentists form with like-minded others, and the rituals they create, such as funerals. In this experiment we echo William James, who asked in Pragmatism whether being a monist or a pluralist matters, and if it does, how. Again, our questions, this time rephrased: Is monism a tradition, might we call it immanentism, and is there anything to be gained from naming it?

If there are gains, then we need to show that they outweigh the losses. The risk for secularism is always that it might seem too religious, and this is also the risk for immanentism. If there is a tradition of thought, and if it predates Christianity and does not merely arise from within it, as a self-negation, as several Catholic historians have argued, then is it, like the metaphysical tradition, in a sense religious? Is it a worldview, to drag out that old term, that we can trace, and which figures politics and everyday life? Contributions to this forum raise important questions about how to name what these thinkers share, but they also do the work of sketching what the immanenist tradition might contain. Histories published elsewhere give us good reasons for pointing to a presence.

The other risk—or is it a gain?—is that the articulation of this tradition will complicate the critique of secularism that is now underway. Laura Levitt’s contribution points at this directly. If there is an immanentist tradition, and if this tradition can be a religious tradition of its own—complete with beliefs, practices, and institutions—then is immanentism necessarily opposed to religion? And if we call immanentism “secularism,” is secularism always a name for that which separates the secular from the religious? Or can it also be a name for a religious tradition that is immanentist?

Though experimental, I hope this forum has allowed us to glimpse another path forward after Talal Asad’s critique of the secular and its formations. If we should think past the division between secular and religious, and if secularism is merely the name for their separation, then secularism is badly in need of critique. But if secularism is also a name for the immanentist tradition, and if that tradition is a religious or religion-like tradition of its own, then perhaps in the sedimentary layers of its history secularism offers a way to hold in a single view both a critique of secularism as separation and an acknowledgment that much of the very tradition that produced that critique is immanentist—and thus secular.

This is a refusal of identity: not all secularism is merely Christianity in drag and not all secular people are merely disenchanted Protestants. Here is the specter of immanentism.

  1. Special thanks to Matt Harris, PhD student in Religious Studies at UCSB, for guiding me into the immanentism of Black Studies.