Detranscendentalizing the Secular
How one answers the question “Is Critique Secular?” determines substantially how one engages with secularism, how one comes to defend it, repudiate it, or reconceptualize it. My answer to this question is unequivocal: Yes, critique is secular, and, to go even further, if the secular imagination ceases to seek and to enact critique, it ceases to be secular.
Before I elaborate, let me reflect briefly on the two terms involved. The root term of critique, the Greek krisis, carries a rather instructive multivalence. At a primary level of meaning, it pertains to the practice of distinction and the choice involved — in other words, the decision to pronounce difference or even the decision to differ, to dispute. In this very basic sense, krisis is always a political act. In legal or philosophical usage, it is thus linked to judgment and indeed to the fact that judgment cannot be neutral (which we still see nowadays in the commonplace negative meaning of critique as rejection). In this sense, krisis, as judgment, distinguishes and exposes an injustice. As an extension of this meaning, we also find in the ancient usage the notion of outcome, of finality — again in the sense of the finality of decision.
In this light, whatever might be the modern weight of ethical language on the meaning of critique, its groundwork remains political. Decisions have to be made, and to make them is to be accountable for them, to be judged on their basis. The act of differing, even if addressed to an array of neutral objects, can never be disengaged from the subject position; the one who differentiates is also the one who differs, if I may put it this way. As no subject position in the ancient Greek world was conceivable outside the polis, the work of the discerning mind, the mind that makes and acts on a decision, is engaged in political matters. Indeed, this might be a way to elucidate the rather conventional notion that, especially in the democratic polis, reflexivity and interrogation directed toward all established truths was an expected political duty. Because the one who differentiates is also the one who differs, the interrogation cannot be limited to the objective realm alone; it is, at once, also self-interrogation, which is why critique falters if it is not simultaneously self-critique (this is elementary dialectics). The authorization of critique cannot be assumed to exist in any a priori position but must be interminably submitted to (self-)critique.
If not positioned in relation to the historical terms (secularization, secularism) that grant it meaning, the use of the term secular as a substantive is — like all such adjectival perversions by the rules of the English language — open to misleading essentialism. The two historical terms should also be distinguished. Secularization is a historical process. It names the activity of working on and thus transforming an object — in this case, a prevalent theological social imaginary. As process, it must be understood to be unfinished by definition. Those who claim secularization’s finality are as misguided as those who claim that secularization (in the West) is nothing but a continuation of Christianity by other means. Even Carl Schmitt’s celebrated phrase “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” falls short, because it does not account for the work of the participle secularized.1 For something to be secularized cannot possibly mean that it remains as it was before. Whatever the theological traces in modern states, a transformation of the meaning of the theological — at the very least — has taken place. Transformation does not mean annihilation of the object, but it also does not mean mere dissimulation or renaming of the object. In fact, precisely because the transformation of the object alters the terms of relation to it, secularization is a process whose theological object, in some partial way, evades it, thereby ever renewing its pursuit. Thus, whatever its ideologically proclaimed teleology by secularists of all kinds, secularization remains unfinished. This is its greatest power.
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In October 2007 the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) launched a collective blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere. Edited by SSRC research fellow Jonathan VanAntwerpen, The Immanent Frame (www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame) hosts an extensive and ongoing discussion of Charles Taylor’s major new work, A Secular Age (2007). VanAntwerpen and his colleagues have also organized a lively debate on Mark Lilla’s Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007), along with short series of posts on a variety of other topics, from the debate over head scarves in Turkey to Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film, Youth without Youth. Contributors to the blog have included Talal Asad, Robert Bellah, Akeel Bilgrami, Wendy Brown, Craig Calhoun, José Casanova, Nilüfer Göle, Joan Wallach Scott, Charles Taylor, Mark C. Taylor, and dozens more. Following a symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, that asked, “Is Critique Secular?” The Immanent Frame initiated a series of posts on the question of secular criticism, including the following pieces by Stathis Gourgouris and Saba Mahmood.
- Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 36.