De-transcendentalizing the secular

The Immanent Frame

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 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’s 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 – as are 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 upon 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”) fails in its incapacity to account for the work of the participle “secularized.” 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 – this at the very least – has taken place. Transformation does not mean annihilation of the object, but nor does it 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 might be its ideologically proclaimed teleology by secularists of all kinds, secularization remains unfinished. This is its greatest power.

Secularism, to the contrary, is an institutional term that pertains less to a process than a reproduction of a set of definitions, indeed even a set of commands that encounter history as a project. The distinction is crucial. While secularization could be understood as a process that seeks to de-transcendentalize the social-imaginary (if I may put it this way), secularism has always been, historically speaking, vulnerable to a re-transcendentalizing process. One can thus speak of secularism’s own metaphysics, in the sense that, as a set of principles that posit themselves a priori of historical reality, secularism operates according to its own transcendental commands. However, even here, to equate secularism’s metaphysics with Christianity’s metaphysics would be a crucial error, whose gravest danger (among many) would be to consider the West as a continuous unalterable entity, the very thing that avid Eurocentrists claim. Incidentally, I should add the obvious: insofar as secularism becomes dogma, it assumes that secularization has ended.

In relation to these two, the “secular” is a term whose conceptual terrain is conditional, in the sense that it finds various historical expressions, each of which needs to be evaluated in its own terms even if the impetus is to generalize. The secular is not given once and for all and thus cannot be totalized and bounded; it has a differential history. In this respect, it is a precarious term as a substantive because it is non-substantial. (For this same reason, I avoid the term “secularity,” which denotes a substantial condition – even if historically determined – that neutralizes its conditionality.) It is by reconsidering the secular as conditional, as (self-) critical – which is what I mean by “de-transcendentalizing the secular” – that we can do the double work of criticizing the metaphysics of secularism and anti-secularism at once.

I agree that a critique of secularism should begin with de-Christianizing or perhaps even de-Westernizing its content, but to assume an anti-secularist position in the process of this critique would ultimately uphold this content as the demon opposite. I certainly concur with Wendy Brown’s assessment of “secularism as an instrument of empire,” nonetheless my interest is counter-posed to her stated one. The challenge for me is to understand how the secular can work against empire, even against the history of secularism’s complicity with colonialist and imperialist practices. For this reason, the many politics of anti-secularism, whatever point might they be coming from, need to be deconstructed specifically at the point where they converge. I can only restate Simon During’s astute observation that “the structural link between European conservative political theology and post-colonial anti-secularism makes for strange encounters.” Saba Mahmood’s claim for the “normative impetus internal to secularism,” which Talal Asad approvingly reiterates, would be exemplary of this peculiar encounter. If indeed secularization takes at some point a normative track (whereby the law of God becomes automatically reconfigured to Law as such – Law as God, one might say) and therefore secularism emerges as a new metaphysics, the response is surely not to subscribe to an allegedly liberational space of ‘native-religious’ sentiment suppressed by colonial or imperial power, but rather, to unpeel the layers of normativity from secularist assumptions and reconceptualize the domain of the secular. At the very least, the alleged normative impetus of secularism ought to be contested no less than the normative impetus of x or y religion or science. In all cases, it is absurd to speak of the internal axiomatically. Instead, what is internalized under specific political conditions should be the impetus of such interrogation.

Mahmood’s position stands at the forefront of an alarming conservative trend that takes the critical edge out of post-colonial thinking by turning it into generic identity politics. One wonders why the critique against Western domination has to be anti-secularist. Why it has to be. From a basic standpoint, it is the easiest gesture, the most facile response, but in this haste it commits two consubstantial errors: 1) it equates the West and all its excesses to the excess of secularism; 2) it forgets that much of what establishes the West (and its excesses) is and continues to be anti-secularist. The latter problem is presumably outmaneuvered by Gil Anidjar’s equation of secularism with Christianity, but to the extent that this remains an equation, a tautological collapse that disavows the transformative process of secularization, it merely reverts to the first category. Even if we assume that, at the very least, secularization registers a mutation of the Christian imaginary, our attention yields most if focused on the transformative elements that signify a mutation. Even if we were to underline the theological remnants in secular metaphysics (“In God we trust” etc.), our attention yields most if focused on them as remnants of meaning in a new configuration of meaning. Even if we imagine the relation between Christianity and secularism within a Hegelian Aufhebung sort of rubric, whereby the sublated element is somehow preserved, what really challenges our attention is indeed the meaning of preservation in the larger signifying context that includes abolition, augmentation, dissolution, suspension, etc. – the full singificational range of Aufhebung. The disregard of discontinuity within secularization not only reproduces the hegemonic image of the “continuous West” but occludes the complication of the politics of modernity, the very core of the dialectic of Enlightenment argument.

The problem with naïve anti-secularist anti-Westernism is not so much categorizing the enemy; no more no less than “Islam,” the “West” is a useless categorization and false in anything but rhetorical fashion. The problem lies in presuming the secular to be the dissimulated core identity of the enemy. Post-colonial repudiations of the secular – at least those waged from the convenient position of the “secular West” – should at least consider the political consequences of their de facto alliance with right-wing American Christianity and fellow warmongers of Empire, whose avowed enemies, next to the evils of Islam, are the secular humanists who threaten American integrity. (For the most recent such example, see Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech at the George Bush Presidential Library.)

Moreover, we have to be equally careful with ascribing to secularism a religious quality in a straightforward sense (this is what Romney does explicitly, but this is also the outcome of many of secularism’s critics). To obliterate the difference between the religious and the secular is to deal oneself a hand where the cards are all the same despite their different colors – in effect, to render oneself colorblind. The task is to liberate the secular conceptually from its determinant opposition by the religious. It’s one thing to speak of the metaphysics of secularism and another to equate secularism with religion. The embattled terrain emerges precisely because of this difference, and the most interesting question this terrain produces is: can a secular worldview overcome its metaphysical (or transcendentalist) propensity? Or even more, can we imagine a non-theomorphic world? And what sort of social-imaginary would give meaning to this process?

These questions, which might be said to frame the disjunction between the Christian and the secular, must be grounded in the fact of the “failure” of secularization, as the incompleteness of secularization is oftentimes falsely named. But the point would not be to explore in what ways secularization can be completed; the radical alteration of the social-imaginary that this would require is, in the present world, inconceivable – hardly useful. Something more modest is at stake. Secularization itself is of consequence precisely as a disruption of the Christian apocalyptic trajectory. It makes possible the emancipatory realization of the tragic finitude of every one life (mortality) against the redemptive total finitude of all (rapture). Or, if you will, it underscores the infinite possibility of the human imagination to create out of chaos against the restricted condition of creation by the totality of the All-Signifying God. This is what marks the difference between a worldly and an otherworldly reality of life, a difference whose significance, again, is not ethical or philosophical, but political.

In the same vein I would add the historical exigency of differentiating the worldliness of Christianity since the Early-Modern era from secular worldliness, if the secular (as I have been considering it) consists in recognizing the ubiquity of finitude, thereby placing the possibility of transcendence continually into question. Such worldliness must be configured in terms of the body and all its murky relations to unstable matter, to be differentiated therefore from the supposed worldliness of rationalist metaphysics or of the transcendental Ego. It is there we might locate the ground of secularism’s metaphysics, and it is there – in this metaphysics – where secularism’s complicity in the history of colonialist and imperialist domination may be found. Whatever worldliness is supposedly signified by the transcendental rationality of Descartes, for example, is by my account measured in terms of its obvious affinity with Christian theological forms. Cartesian autonomy exists via a theological epistemē, specifically according to the monotheistic identity principle. Formally speaking at least, the epistemological underpinning of “I think therefore I am” is the absolute identitarean monism of “I am that I am”. The fact that Descartes can prove by mathematical logic the existence of God or the immortality of the soul does not make him a materialist thinker. Indeed, the mathematical prowess of the Cartesian imaginary serves as the epitome of heteronomous veiling, because it authorizes and legitimates with the power of reason humanity’s willful submission to oblivion regarding its capacity to make God exist.

The discrepancy between the material and the non-material is precisely where the problem of transcendence needs to be posed. An act of de-spiritualization – should we choose to limit the secular in this way (I’m taking the crudest secularist line, to which I obviously don’t subscribe) – does not obliterate the non-material; it simply puts it in an antagonistic situation whereby its signification becomes mutable according to whatever social-historical forces are at play. In simple terms, it deprives the non-material of a priori determination; it politicizes the non-material – which does not mean producing a politics out of some transcendental vision, but to the contrary, submitting the transcendental vision to political interrogation and critique. The transcendental a priori (whether Cartesian or Kantian) bars even consideration of the fact that meaning is mutable and that signification is consistently enigmatic beneath whatever determinations. And as far as it pertains to an Ego construction (the rational mind, the ethical subject, etc.), to even just articulate transcendence in language – even if in the very wish for transcendence, in the seductive fantasy of its possibility – means to have already suspended one’s own enigmatic condition, the aporia of oneself inhabiting an enigma. In the sense that the enigmatic is what refuses to be closed (to be self-enclosed), strictly speaking, the actual articulation of transcendence – in any theoretical system, theological or rationalist – is impossible except as its own demise.

Yet, transcendence is professed all over the place, often quite gratuitously and with the certainty that it is somehow intrinsically understood, all the while laboring and succeeding, as Adorno would put it, to keep secretive the signifying mode, the language, that possesses it – that possesses us. Even the so-called secular “end of religion” by virtue of Christianity does not consist, as Marcel Gauchet claims (and Taylor concurs, though with different aim), in the abolition of transcendence by a production of immanence. Instead, it signifies the internalization of transcendence, which deactivates in turn the immanent creative capacity for self-alteration that, to my mind, marks the terrain of autonomously confronting one’s own enigma. This internalization is precisely at work in Kantian rationalist morality, considered by many the epitome of secularist morality. The provenance of Kantian morality is not due to shifting a Christian moral command model from the agency of God to the agency of the subject, but the reverse: putting the subject in God’s place, creating a transcendental moral subject against which all human praxis is measured. The metaphysics of Kant’s rationalism is thus a problem not as cause but as symptom. Reason becomes theological because the architectural frame of morality remains religious (Christian), not because reason is in some inherent way theological or metaphysical.

Let me conclude by returning to the framework I set up in the outset. Critique and interrogation – as autonomous, self-altering practices – are the persistent conditions of the secular, even if the precise content of how they are conducted is itself conditioned by pertinent social-historical realities. There is nothing more misguided than identifying the critical-in-the-secular with the rational. I, for one, am baffled with the claim that secularism obliterates the visceral element in human mindfulness (this is in part William Connolly’s claim in Why I am Not a Secularist). To the extent that it is predicated on (self-) critique, secular praxis cannot obliterate antagonism in favor of a set value structure, and cannot claim to reside beyond the murky vicissitudes of affect in order to uphold the crystal symmetry of an a priori validating order. If we take seriously the etymology of the word (saeculum in Latin being roughly equivalent to the Greek derived epoch), what resides at its core is the notion of time – indeed, even the notion of the spirit of the times, the era of things. Saeculum is an archaic rendering of what in modernity we denote as Zeitgeist, without at all troubling ourselves with the fact that the spirit is subjected to the order of time or that it gains its power because of the order of time – not the other way around. From this standpoint, the secular is in a very direct and simple sense the historical, and in that respect the worldly: namely, the domain which human beings define by means of their action in their finite life. Thus, in the same direct and simple sense, any rejection of the secular is a rejection of history, of the (self-) making and unmaking of human life.

This line of argument would recognize that the denial of the secular, even if in the most otherworldly terms, is part of the domain of the secular insofar as it aims to effect or alter the real conditions of human life. This is why I find the classic antinomy between the secular and the religious inaccurate. Insofar as religion is a social practice – a mode of ritual communal binding, as its own etymology suggests – its significance is a secular matter, and theological concerns (like philosophical ones), from this standpoint, belong to the necessary practices by which humanity encounters the enigma of its existence. This is why I argue, bluntly, that the ultimate point is not merely to disrupt the antinomial complicity between the religious and the secular, but to take away from the religious the agency of determining what is secular.

I understand how one could protest that this position is already rigged by taking for granted the secularist explanation of the world, in which, according to the standard thesis, the very separation between the secular and the religious, the worldly and the otherworldly, is made possible. I understand the explanation that this separation is produced historically by conditions recognized to belong to the ‘Christian West’ (thus hardly natural), which leads to the advent and, later, imposition of secularism as an institutional framework of social existence: secularism representing the globalized expansion of an institutional ideology. I don’t dispute such arguments. No doubt, secular institutions emerge as part of the history of the Christian West and, certainly, secularism has been very much part of the ‘civilizing mission’ of the colonialist project. And one can surely charge that this historically produced separation between religious and secular realms presupposes my argument. Yet, on the other hand, I have not seen a cogent epistemological argument for what usefulness the undifferentiated complicity between these two realms might provide. History shows that what precedes this acknowledged separation between the religious and the secular – at least, in the monotheistic world (this is a huge matter and deserves a whole other piece) – is a condition whereby the religious occupies the totality of social meaning. This condition, in my terms, simply marks the incapacity of society to articulate the obvious: that social meaning is always a historical creation by men and women under specific living conditions, and that in this respect, even theocracy is a worldly regime – it takes place in history; indeed, it produces history.

The work that engages with the nebulous epistemology of worldly practices is the work of secular criticism, as Edward Said has argued consistently from the earliest phases of his thinking. Though Said never theorized this notion outside a specific literary domain, a careful reading of his multifarious oeuvre demonstrates that secular criticism marks a terrain of thought and action that, as open-ended interrogative encounter with the world, not only disdains, but uncompromisingly subverts, battles, and outdoes any sort of transcendentalist condition for resolving social and historical problems. In the most direct sense, secular criticism purports to unmask social historical situations where authority is assumed to emerge from elsewhere. This includes the metaphysics of secularism. (It is precisely where it insists on an equation between secularism and secular criticism that Gil Anidjar’s otherwise adept reading of Said goes astray.) At this point in time, where the disparate variants of anti-secularist thinking converge in yet another mode of heteronomous politics, de-transcendentalizing the secular is, as far as I’m concerned, the most urgent task of secular criticism.

Questions and Comments

  • John Whitelaw 14 years ago

    You write:

    The challenge for me is to understand how the secular can work against empire, even against the history of secularism’s complicity with colonialist and imperialist practices.


    In the most direct sense, secular criticism purports to unmask social historical situations where authority is assumed to emerge from elsewhere.

    Those are very general remarks, and I have been wondering how they might be applied to a current issue.

    To wit: It is clear that the American “secular imagination” has fixed on the sectarian aspect of violence in Iraq (violence between religious groups) as a distinguishing characteristic the violence there, and on the other side of the coin there seems to be an idea that American troops (the “secular” power) cannot leave in the foreseeable future, partly because their presence moderates the violence, and their departure risks exascerbating it. This underlying “imagination” is at least partly to blame for the lack of pressure for withdrawal. It seems a pretty straightforward case of “secularism’s complicity…” to use your phrase.

    What I can’t quite make out is where your secular critique of the secular imagination would take you. Would it merely be content to say “it’s about the oil etcetera”? Or to put it the other way around, would your approach to critique have anything to say about possible meeting of the minds between between the “secular” and the islamic sides? Or would you consider that “anti-secularist thinking”?

    I am curious how you would propose to go about making “the secular work against empire” in this case.


    Robin Leslie 14 years ago

    Before we start talking, in any meaningful way about secularism and the secular, we ought to, at least, clarify the terms we are using instead of simply plunging into the thicket of the banalities and corruptions of neo-liberalism, which is too frequently cited as the only form of secularism. I would agree that neo-liberalism is an extremist form of secularism with its preoccupation with this world on earth, this planet and an ethnocentric presumption. The debate about secularism is more enlightening and lucid among theologians and some philosophers today, than it is among sociologists who bother to entertain a discourse on religion.

    The secular was conceived at the Enlightenment as distinct from the sacred, and conceptually dichotomised in subsequent discourse up to the late twentieth century, when more critical questions about the actual, practical organics of the sacred-secular relationship began to asked. In fact the debate among interdisciplinary theologians, philosophers and ecologists deals with secular and transcendental (sacred/spiritual) realities in a more nuanced and dramatic way than the rather pointless necrophilic debate among sociologists of religion and the apologists of secularism. Western neo-liberal beliefs in Progress, technology, rationality and political control are now going out of various discourses and being supplanted by more recent interdisciplinary debates which revive some of the medieval conceptions whilst developing these in a new context.


    Stathis Gourgouris 14 years ago

    To John Whitelaw:

    Thank you very much for this question. You understand, that I don’t buy the official American position on Iraq as a secularist position. It’s an imperial(ist) position, plain and simple. An imperialist position can be established, authorized, and defended either by ‘secular’ imaginaries or by ‘religious’ imaginaries. It’s still imperialist. (Remember, in the early Bush years, work in Iraq was justified in terms of a new Crusade. Why is this position a secularist one? Because it comes from the American government? That’s not enough.)

    As such, imperialist practices will of course disguise themselves. There will not be explicit admission — “we’re there to control the oil”; “we’re establishing a military base for Middle East operations” etc. In response to this disguise (which some people call secularist politics), the anti-secularist position regarding Iraq does not give us any ground for anti-imperialist action, except a naive and surely nativist notion of self-determination.

    But here my position is uncompromising. There cannot be self-determination by recourse to authority that exists outside this self. OK, philosophical language, but in essence political. I’m the last to decry the role that a kind of transcendental slavation played as galvaninzing force in various struggles — even revolutionary ones — against colonialist etc. oppression. It’s real and valid. But it has never produced real self-determination in the post-colonial sphere, and this Frantz Fanon had seen with incredible clarity even within the time-frame of anti-colonial struggle.

    So, the question is not what role is Islam playing, as revolutionary authority in the course of insurgency, but what role is it to play as an imaginary of post-insurgency, or victory, if you will — of emancipation and self-determination. I have real doubts that it can. If it will, I will acknowledge it.

    To Robin Leslie:

    I’m not certain I understand the spirit of your remarks as something that challenges my position and that I need to respond. This is why I did make a distinction between the various terms — and my general outlook suggests exactly what you are saying, about the need to consider the matter in more philosophical terms than sociological ones. In both cases, however, historical factors are key.