Is Critique Secular? A Symposium at UC Berkeley
The series of posts that have responded to The Immanent Frame’s question “Is Critique Secular?” were inspired by an event that I, along with Judith Butler and Chris Nealon, organized in October 2007 at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley. Given the current focus of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) on religion and secularism, Jonathan VanAntwerpen invited the conference organizers and participants, and a range of others, to post their reflections on this event and the question that framed it (see posts by Talal Asad, Chris Nealon, and Colin Jager, all of whom participated in the symposium). Here I would like to give a sense of the stakes some of us have in this conversation and why I consider it important to think about secularism in relation to critique, given the political bent of our times.
The symposium “Is Critique Secular?” was the inaugural event for a new teaching and research unit in critical theory at UC Berkeley, plans for which had been in gestation for more than a year. While the motivations for the establishment of this program were diverse, a group of us are interested in opening up traditional ways of thinking about critique to recent problematizations of notions of the secular, secularity, and secularism. While it is clear that the genealogy of critique is complicated, the thread we wanted to pull involved rethinking certain underlying assumptions about history, temporality, causality, and ethics as they have become enshrined in regnant conceptions of critique. Insofar as the tradition of critical theory is infused with a suspicion, if not a dismissal, of religion’s metaphysical and epistemological commitments, we wanted to think “critically” about this dismissal: How are epistemology and critique related in this tradition? Do distinct traditions of critique require a particular epistemology and ontological presuppositions of the subject? How might we rethink the dominant conception of time — as empty, homogeneous, and unbounded, one so germane to our conception of history — in light of other ways of relating to and experiencing time that also suffuse modern life? How do these other ways of inhabiting time complicate the rigid opposition between secular and sacred time so common to everyday practices of modern life? A final set of questions revolves around various disciplines of subjectivity through which a particular subject of critique is secured. What are some of the practices of self-cultivation — including practices of reading, contemplation, engagement, and sociality — internal to secular conceptions of critique? What is the morphology of these practices, and how do these sit with (or differ from) other practices of ethical self-cultivation that might uphold contrastive notions of critique and criticism?
Given the nature of these questions, it must be clear that we were not looking for a yes or no answer to our question, “Is Critique Secular?” To do so would be to foreclose thought and to fail to engage a rich set of questions, answers to which remain unclear not because of intellectual confusion or incomplete evidence but because these questions require a comparative dialogue across the putative divide between “Western” and “non-Western” traditions of critique and practice. Furthermore, such an engagement requires putting our most closely held assumptions to critical scrutiny, a task best suited, we thought, to a symposium devoted to critique itself. After all, one of the most cherished definitions of critique is the incessant subjection of all norms to unyielding critical examination. Or is it?
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