Do you remember “the clash of civilizations” thesis? Does anybody? Think back. Return to those simpler, new-millennial days of American imperial misadventure that were the early aughts, when the commentariat turned with sudden and eager interest to the arguments of a Harvard professor of political science, one Samuel P. Huntington.

Debuting his thesis at the vaunted American Enterprise Institute in 1993 and following it up with a 1996 book, Huntington proposed that the most endangering global threat to the post-Communist earth lay not in, say, escalating inequality, or environmental collapse, or cataclysmic resource shortage, or in any of the calamities proper to a newly-unchecked über-class of venturesome capitalists. No. The salient matter was not to be material but distinctively cultural—i.e., civilizational—and the largest menace to a secure global order was to be, as you may remember, those extremer versions of “radical Islam” challenging the insufficiently stable hegemonies of places in Africa and the Middle East. Five years later, September 11 secured Huntington’s great ascent.

If, from our post-2008 perspective, this dematerialization of global conflict seems the wishfullest of fantasies—and the clinging partisans of such theses now seem to inhabit only the more trollish precincts of internet political commentary—still, Huntington’s line of contention has had enduring afterlives. Back in 2003, in the pages of Foreign Policy, in what would prove to be an especially hard-to-dislodge turn of argument, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggested that what Huntington named a “clash of civilizations” was in fact “more to do with eros than demos.” This was because the worrying “gap in values” “between the West and the Muslim world” was, for them, most deeply entailed in commitments to “gender equality and sexual liberalization.” Both of these—as they would go on to argue in their book Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World—were, of course, the happy offspring of secularization, that great gift of disenchantment bestowed upon the world by the munificent empire of liberalism.

This narrative has by now a ready familiarity: In the name of women’s rights, as Sara Farris puts it in her new book of that title, Western pundits, conservative politicians, and the neoliberal state—as well as some Western feminisms—assail the backwardness of an unenlightened (and sweepingly homogenized) “Muslim world” and figure that world’s putatively uninflected cruelty to women as a function of its failure to be secular. Lila Abu-Lughod, in Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, calls this the “new common sense about global women’s rights and saving Muslim women in particular.” As Abu-Lughod makes plain, these are, quite precisely, redemption narratives, at the center of which is a fantasy figure supersaturated with gendered and racial meaning: the brown woman ensnared in and by credulity, superstition, and bad belief (to ring a slight change on Gayatri Spivak’s paradigmatic formulation). Secularism, in this telling, has a body: liberal, rights-bearing, enjoying a right to choose belief. (Though that right, as Saba Mahmood has painstakingly shown, is never more credible to Western observation than when exercised to choose disbelief.) It is, in these polemics, the body these belief-imprisoned women desire, do not yet have, but might, through the imperial beneficence of Western intervention, at last acquire.1

What, then, does a feminist critique of secularism and its imperial geopolitics look like? What are the terms in which it proceeds? These are a just a few of the orchestrating questions that act as a kind of through line between new books by Farris and Joan Wallach Scott, both of which are committed, we could say, to an astringent debunking of the tenacious vision of, in Scott’s words, “secularism as the guarantor of equality between women and men.” These disruptive counterreadings, and the histories they bring to bear on them, are welcome and invigorating.

But part of what is remarkable about these books, too, individually and as a pair, is the breadth and, especially, the variability of the analytic frameworks they mobilize for the task of mounting a feminist political critique of liberal secularism. That conceptual multiplicitousness does a good deal, I think, to remind us of the knotted recalcitrance, the resistance to any offhand or commonsensical rendering, of the object itself. “Feminism,” as Mahmood long ago instructed us, is an especially volatile sign in the mobile epistemologies of secular legitimation. These two books help us to see how and why this is so.

In Sex and Secularism, Scott takes up the thread from the work of Mahmood and others, offering a thick, interwoven history of the trajectories of secularism over several centuries and across several national terrains. (Her exemplifying cases are France, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt.) Tracing these distinct though rhyming histories of secularism as a political discourse, Scott observes what we might call the gendered privatization of belief. She pays close attention to the ways that, even in these seemingly disparate cases, centered respectively around Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, the secular privatization of religion burdens women in particular, as women, with the task of representing all that is potentially unstable in religiosity itself, and so in need of coercive discipline. But the work of the book then takes an especially startling turn.

Arguing with and alongside Claude Lefort, Scott notes that with the ultimate fall of the gods—with the recession of divine authorization for political power—comes a distinctive crisis in legitimacy. (Democracy, Lefort remarks, “is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty. It inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basic of power, law and knowledge.”) In Scott’s ingenious repurposing of Lacanian frameworks, the fundamental unknowability of sex—the impossibility of fixing “the ultimate meaning of the difference of sex”—is absolutely crucial for secular legitimacy. For that unknowability becomes both a figure for democracy’s own foundational indeterminacy and, more crucially, a vehicle for its overcoming. “[N]otions of difference based on sex were fundamental to the conceptualization of political modernity, and . . . secular subjects,” Scott argues, precisely insofar as they

sought to resolve what Lefort referred to as the indeterminacy of democracy—its abstractions (the individual, rights, nations, representation)—by grounding them in a seemingly concrete referent: the visible, sexed bodies of women and men.

It may be, as Scott avers, that gender—that is, “the attribution of meaning to sexed bodies”—“is the implementation of the always imperfect attempt at discipline.” And yet, it is on precisely this terrain that the aspiring discourses of science and natural reason—secularism’s footsoldiers in the task of Weberian disenchantment—come sweeping on to the scene. These discourses promise to stabilize that chaotic indeterminacy and to solidify, as maximally natural, what they produce as the most self-evident of human facts: the difference between the sexes. Secular science, as Scott refigures it, is the discourse that speaks the holy truth of sexual difference, and so of political legitimacy. Thus, for Scott, gender inequality, far from being a merely vestigial or unexpurgated holdover haunting secular regimes, has in this way been hardwired into the politics of secularism. It is, as the young people say, feature, not bug.

And this speaks at a telling angle alongside Farris’s work in In the Name of Women’s Rights. Farris’s book is an exacting exploration of the “peculiar encounter between anti-Islam agendas and the emancipatory languages of women’s rights” as they are pursued by seemingly disparate political actors: “right-wing nationalists, certain feminists and women’s equality agencies, and neoliberals.” Following especially closely from Jasbir Puar’s work on “homonationalism,” Farris names the discursive coherence of this seemingly improbable constellation of interests “femonationalism.”

For Farris, though, femonationalism is a phenomenon whose stakes and operations come clearest in the terms of political economy. In Farris’s account, the brown woman in Europe is to be “saved” not least because she is urgently needed. Or, rather, her discounted, precarious, infinitely exploitable labor is required by the new shape of European economies, with their gendered stratifications and ranks of middle-class and better-off women entering into the workforce as two-earner incomes have become more and more the demanded norm. With this shift, Farris shows the gendered labor of social reproduction has gone, hugely and disproportionately, to brown women.

Farris’s work details how non-Western migrant women “have been systematically directed toward a handful of job types: hotel cleaning, housekeeping, child minding, and caregiving for the elderly and/or disabled.” So, the immigrant woman putatively imprisoned by cultures of backward belief is to be saved not in order to rescue her from her cruel sequestration in the private sphere of the home, the domestic, the private, whatever the discourse of femonationalism may insist. On the contrary, Farris shows she is to be saved precisely for the labor of social reproduction. Hence, the neoliberal emphasis on a redemptive “economic integration,” “while being presented as an instrument through which migrant (and Muslim) women should be enabled to undo gender, instead produces and intensifies both the conditions for racial discrimination and for doing and perpetuating gender roles.” This is the gendered racialization of social reproduction that stands, for Farris, at the heart of the rise of femonationalism, and gives shape to its disingenuous promises of rescue.

Such are the books’ arguments, which, as I have said, are welcome and invigorating in their refusal of the self-congratulatory stories—especially about gender liberation—that secular liberalism most likes to tell about itself. But I think the pairing of these two differently-inflected books is salutary for other and, we might say, metacritical reasons as well.

Though Scott is a historian tuned to genealogical critique and Farris a Marxist sociologist, they agree very widely on premises and first principles: secularism is an environing alibi for hegemonic liberalism and its imperatives; secularism, as a redemptive politics, has a body; the fragility of liberal political economy, in the midst of an extended season of downturn and secular stagnation, gives special force to the exploitation of precarious women in a global marketplace. And from these premises they build out their different models of political analysis, setting themselves in colloquy with decolonial theory, queer of color critique, Marxist feminism, deconstruction, psychoanalytically-inflected political theory, and antiracist critique. This plurality, I want to suggest, matters.

Ours is, after all, a moment in which so many of our discursive platforms conduce toward a kind of boundary-policing squad formation, in which the first move, again and again, seems to be self-legitimizing delegitimation. (There it is, every day, on academic Twitter, and then, eventually, in critical discourse itself: “a turn to the biopolitical always bespeaks an insufficient attention to the economically material!”; “conventional political economy simplifies the unsignifiable aspects of capitalist totality!”; etc.) In that context, where so much of the lingua franca of political critique entails a self-ratifying dismissiveness, it is especially good to be reminded of the ample possibilities for, let us say, synthesis.

The combined agreement and methodological multiplicitousness of Scott’s and Farris’s work makes this winningly clear, and we might think too of other heartening examples from the past year. There is Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim, where she thinks of the new strategies for the biopolitical optimization of life in the context of mass populations marked out as racialized surplus, unconvertable to conventional forms of laboring productivity. There is Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling, which thinks through the formation of “gender” in the teeth of imperial biopolitics, and so as a zone of capture and securitization, mistaken again and again for a line of flight to liberation.

Across all this work, as in Scott’s and Farris’s, we find what I think of as a pervasive interrogative nondismissiveness: a generous tuning of a given style of critique toward idioms adjacent, though not identical, to itself. This is a hard kind of conceptual labor, requiring as it does a fine-tuned, veritably alchemical balancing of experimentation and discipline, patience and critique. In this metacritical sense, I find a great deal to be not just edified but inspired by in these new books. It is work that proceeds in the conviction that the conjunctions of the present—so many of them monstrous, fascistic, a bewildering assemblage of old and new—demands at least that much in the way of openness and dexterity. And probably more.

  1. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 66-111.