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Detranscendentalizing the Secular


Stathis Gourgouris

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
involvedin 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 finalityagain in the sense of the
finality of decision.
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 Taylors major new work, A Secular Age (2007). VanAntwerpen and his colleagues have also organized a lively debate on Mark Lillas 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 Coppolas latest film, Youth without Youth. Contributors
to the blog have included Talal Asad, Robert Bellah, Akeel Bilgrami, Wendy Brown, Craig Calhoun,
Jos Casanova, Nilfer Gle, 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.
Public Culture 20:3

doi

10.1215/08992363-2008-003

Copyright 2008 by Duke University Press

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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 inter
minably 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 islike all such
adjectival perversions by the rules of the English languageopen 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 objectin this case, a prevalent theological social imaginary. As process,
it must be understood to be unfinished by definition. Those who claim secularizations 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
Schmitts 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 theologicalat the very
leasthas 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
1. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George
Schwab (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 36.
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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 to 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 detranscendentalize the social
imaginary (if I may put it this way), secularism has always been, historically
speaking, vulnerable to a retranscendentalizing process. One can thus speak of
secularisms own metaphysics in the sense that, as a set of principles that posit
themselves independently of historical reality, secularism operates according to
its own transcendental commands. Even here, however, to equate secularisms
metaphysics with Christianitys metaphysics would be a crucial error, whose gravest danger (among many) would be to consider the West 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, 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 on 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 nonsubstantial. (For this same reason, I avoid the term secularity,
which denotes a substantial conditioneven if historically determinedthat
neutralizes its conditionality.) It is by reconsidering the secular as conditional,
as (self-)criticalwhich is what I mean by detranscendentalizing the secularthat we can do the double work of criticizing the metaphysics of secularism
and antisecularism 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 antisecularist position
in the process of this critique would ultimately uphold this content as the demon
opposite. I certainly concur with Wendy Browns assessment of secularism as an
instrument of empire; nonetheless, my interest is counterposed to her stated one.2
The challenge for me is to understand how the secular can work against empire,
even against the history of secularisms complicity with colonialist and imperialist practices. For this reason, the many politics of antisecularism, whatever
2. See Wendy Brown, Idealism, Materialism, Secularism? www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent
_frame/2007/10/22/idealism-materialism-secularism (accessed April 14, 2008).
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point they might come from, need to be deconstructed specifically at the point
where they converge. I can only restate Simon Durings astute observation that
the structural link between European conservative political theology and postcolonial anti-secularism makes for strange encounters.3 Saba Mahmoods claim
for the normative impetus internal to secularism, which Talal Asad approvingly
reiterates, would be exemplary of this peculiar encounter.4 If indeed secularization
takes at some point a normative track (whereby the law of God becomes automatically reconfigured to Law as suchLaw 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.
Mahmoods position stands at the forefront of an alarming conservative trend
that takes the critical edge out of postcolonial thinking by turning it into generic
identity politics. One wonders why the critique against Western domination has
to be antisecularist. 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: it equates the West and all its excesses to the excess of secularism, and it
forgets that much of what establishes the West (and its excesses) is and continues
to be antisecularist. The latter problem is arguably outmaneuvered by Gil Anidjars 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.5 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 meta3. See Simon During, The Mundane against the Secular, www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent
_frame/2007/11/10/the-mundane-against-the-secular (accessed April 14, 2008).
4. Saba Mahmood, Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation, Public Culture 18 (2006): 328. See Talal Asad, Secularism, Hegemony, and Fullness, www
.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2007/11/17/secularism-hegemony-and-fullness (accessed April 14,
2008).
5. See Gil Anidjar, Secularism, in Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 3966.
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physics (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 in a Hegelian Aufhebung, 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, and so forththe full significational range of Aufhebung. The disregard of discontinuity in 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 naive antisecularist anti-Westernism is not so much categorizing the enemy; no more or 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. Postcolonial repudiations of the secularat least those waged from the convenient position of the
secular Westshould 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. (The most recent example is Mitt Romneys
Faith in America speech, given at the George Bush Presidential Library on
December 6, 2007.)
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 secularisms critics). To obliterate the difference between the religious and the secular is to deal oneself a hand in which the
cards are all the same despite their different colorsin effect, to render oneself colorblind. It is one thing to speak of the metaphysics of secularism and
another to equate secularism with religion. (Indeed, the task is even to liberate
the secular conceptually from its determinant opposition by the religious.) 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
nontheomorphic 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 often falsely named. But the
point would not be to explore how secularization can be completed; the radical
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alteration of the social imaginary that this would require is, in the present world,
inconceivablehardly 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 single 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 that
we might locate the ground of secularisms metaphysics, and it is therein this
metaphysicsthat secularisms complicity in the history of colonialist and imperialist domination may be found. Whatever worldliness is supposedly signified by
the transcendental rationality of Ren Descartes, for example, is by my account
measured in terms of its obvious affinity with Christian theological forms. Cartesian autonomy exists via a theological episte me, specifically according to the
monotheistic identity principle. Formally speaking, at least, the epistemological
underpinning of I think; therefore I am is the absolute identitarian monism of
I am that I am. 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 humanitys willful submission to oblivion regarding its capacity
to make God exist.
The discrepancy between the material and the nonmaterial is precisely
where the problem of transcendence needs to be posed. An act of despiritualizationshould we choose to limit the secular in this way (I am taking the crudest
secularist line, to which I obviously do not subscribe)does not obliterate the
nonmaterial; it simply puts it in an antagonistic situation whereby its signification
becomes mutable according to whatever social-historical forces are at play. In

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simple terms, it deprives the nonmaterial of a priori determination; it politicizes


the nonmaterialwhich means not 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 considering 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.), even to articulate
transcendence in languageeven if in the very wish for transcendence, in the
seductive fantasy of its possibilitymeans to have already suspended ones 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 transcendencein any theoretical system, theological
or rationalistis impossible except as its own demise.
Yet transcendence is professed all over the place, often gratuitously and with
the certainty that it is somehow intrinsically understood, all the while successfully laboring, as Theodor W. Adorno would put it, to keep secretive the signifying mode, the language, that possesses itthat possesses us.6 Even the socalled secular end of religion by virtue of Christianity does not consist, as Marcel
Gauchet claims (and Charles Taylor concurs, though with a different aim), in
the abolition of transcendence by a production of immanence.7 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 ones 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 due not to shifting a Christian
moral command model from the agency of God to the agency of the subject but
to the reverse: putting the subject in Gods place, creating a transcendental moral
subject against which all human praxis is measured. The metaphysics of Kants
rationalism is thus a problem not as a cause but as a symptom. Reason becomes
theological because the architectural frame of morality remains religious (Christian), not because reason is inherently theological or metaphysical.
Let me conclude by returning to the framework I set up in the outset. Critique
and interrogationas autonomous, self-altering practicesare the persistent
6. Theodor W. Adorno, Lyric Poetry and Society, in Notes to Literature, ed. Rolf Tiedemann,
trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 3754.
7. See Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans.
Oscar Burge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University 1997); and Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
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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 by the claim that secularism obliterates the visceral element in human
mindfulness (this is in part William E. Connollys claim in Why I Am Not a Secularist).8 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 timeindeed, 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 that the spirit is subjected
to the order of time or that it gains its power because of the order of timenot the
other way around. From this standpoint, the secular is in a direct and simple sense
the historical and in that respect the worldly: namely, the domain that 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 affect 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 practicea mode of ritual communal binding, as its own etymology suggestsits 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 antinomic 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 because
it takes 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
8. William E. Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1999).
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the Christian West (thus hardly natural), which leads to the advent and, later,
the imposition of secularism as an institutional framework of social existence:
secularism representing the globalized expansion of an institutional ideology. I do
not 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 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 secularat least, in the monotheistic world (this is
a huge matter and deserves an essay all its own)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 regimeit 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 W. 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 body of work demonstrates that secular criticism marks a terrain of thought and action that, as an
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 Anidjars otherwise adept reading of Said goes astray.) At this point in time,
where the disparate variants of antisecularist thinking converge in yet another
mode of heteronomous politics, detranscendentalizing the secular is, as far as I
am concerned, the most urgent task of secular criticism.

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