A Secular Age:

Idealism, materialism, secularism?

posted by Wendy Brown

secular_age.jpgWhen I teach early modern political theory to undergraduates, I begin by trying to conjure a worldview and subjective experience not organized by capitalism, science, reason, secularism, and the primacy of the individual. I struggle to convey the extent to which this chasm between our time and that one pertains not merely to particular beliefs, knowledges, or forms of social order, but to an entire way of knowing and experiencing self and world. I aim, in other words, to get students to grasp the Otherness of early modern Europe in terms of the experience of being human and being in the world. This entails somehow grasping our epistemological, ontological, cosmological and theological frameworks from without, a nearly impossible physical and metaphysical feat.

Yet this is how Charles Taylor has invited us to think about secularism—not as beliefs, principles, or a mode of organizing state and society, though it certainly comprises these things (or, more accurately, these become some of secularism’s effects), but as a matter of human experience. Taylor wants us to appreciate modern Western secularism as a peculiar way of being, knowing, inhabiting the world; indeed, as a condition of being, knowing, and inhabiting the world in a particular way. By framing secularism thus, he moves quickly past quagmired politicized debates about secularism. Are we really secular? Should we aspire to secularism, and at what cost? To paraphrase Samuel Huntington, is the West still the West if it gives up its Judeo-Christian moorings and frame? Or to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, is the problem with Islam the fact that it is as yet unwashed by secularism? Not only can Taylor’s approach reveal the shallowness and indeed wrongheadedness of all such questions, it prevents our getting lost in the question of how intense religiosity and secularism can coexist in the same polity or even the same person. Taylor refounds secularism as a way of being, feeling, thinking and knowing that is as nonoptional in the contemporary West as a polytheist world view was for the ancient Greeks. He gives us, in short, the first erudite phenomenology of secularism through a story of the historical construction of secular subjectivity.

It is not difficult to find reasons to praise Taylor’s work. It is so rich, learned, careful, detailed, complex, attentive to a variety of forces at work in producing the secularism Westerners inhabit today, the secularism enshrined in the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment of the American Constitution or embodied in French laïcité, as well as the secularism many believe would neuter radical Islamicism, defuse battles among Shiites and Sunnis, relieve tensions between Hindus and Muslims, or ease the constraints on Israeli policy imposed by a minority orthodox population, especially those in the Settlements. In short, Taylor’s work attends to the secularism largely believed to yield legal protection of individual belief, civil tolerance of religious and cultural difference, and political resolution of bloody wars of faith.

Yet there are two aspects of Taylor’s massive historical account that I find deeply disturbing. First, absent from Taylor’s account is every stripe of outsider to Latin Christendom, from Jews and Muslims in Europe to colonized natives and other outsiders, as well as dissident voices, reversals and disruptions to what he calls his “story.” The missing elements make it more provincially European, monolithic, colonial, than it needs to be. Above all, they make the emergence of EuroAtlantic secularism a product of tensions within Christendom rather than, in part, a feature of Christendom’s encounter with others and especially with its constitutive outside. More than a problem of historiography or comprehensiveness, this omission has consequential politics; today, Western secularism is so relentlessly defined through its imagined opposite in Islamic theocracy that to render secularism as generated exclusively through Western Christian European history is to literally eschew the production of ourselves as secular through and against our imagined opposite. It is to be locked into Thomas Friedman’s conceit about “our” secular modernity and “their” need for it.

A second disturbing dimension of Taylor’s account pertains to its express and deliberate antimaterialism. Taylor’s “story” and the historiography structuring it aim not only to displace liberal shibboleths about secularism that equate it with value pluralism, church-state separation, and state protection of conscience, but also to challenge both Marx’s and Weber’s accounts of the process of secularization in the West. Taylor’s objection to these stories is both explicit and methodologically complex. His rejection of them is also consequential, not only for the way he tells his own story, but again, for how this story occludes the imperial face of Western secularism today. Even as Taylor is bent on explaining how secularism becomes a reigning worldview in the Euroatlantic, secularism is propelled, in his account, by epistemological conditions of belief. In contrast, I would argue that modernity features other knife-edged forces cutting through the waters of religious cosmology, including those identified by Weber as rationalization and by Marx as profanation. Today, these forces meld in neoliberalism, combining capital’s profanation of the sacred with the extension of market rationality and rationalization to all domains of existence. And neoliberalism, I would argue, is one of the key imperial forces of our time, probably more important in the long run than American military bellicosity or designs of regime change.

Let me underscore that Taylor and I share a move to diffuse and complicate the classical idealist/materialist opposition—both Taylor’s Hegelianism and my Marxism are extensively reconstructed by Foucault, and before Foucault, other post-Hegelian, post-Marxist formulations of the problem. Moreover, Taylor at times comes so close to materialism in thinking secularism—not only by posing secularism as a condition of belief rather than belief itself but also by tracking the multiple conditions of its production as a condition—that his reductionist and rejectionist approach to materialism and general eschewal of capitalism in the drama of secularization are all the more striking. What remains unquestionably idealist and antimaterialist in Taylor’s account is his commitment to tracing the production of secular consciousness within religious understanding as opposed to tracing secularization processes resulting from extrareligious forces that erode, transform, or instrumentalize a religious cosmology. The former treats consciousness as making itself through interaction with dominant ideas; the latter treats the production of conditions for religiosity and erosion or transformation of these conditions as the medium in which consciousness and dominant ideas are produced. Taylor’s approach is tricky because he speaks of conditions of belief but the conditions to which he refers are the framework and contents of intellectual and religious landscapes, and thus more closely approximate what Foucault called epistemes than what we encounter in Weber and Marx or even in the later Foucault’s appreciation of discourses and eventually, rationalities.

Moreover, Taylor’s driving question and mine are different. He wants to think about who a secularist is and what secularism achieves and sacrifices in relation to belief, and I want to think about the subtle violences of the forces that we might call secularizing. It is in this respect that I can’t quite stay with what Taylor calls “secularity 3”—this is secularity not in the sense of the state as constituted “above religion” (“secularity 1”) or in the sense of the decline of religious belief (“secularity 2”) but focused only on the making of the secular subject as one who can have religious faith without expecting others to share it. Ultimately, I think, Taylor wants to a) explain himself as “a believer” who is also a secularist; b) explain how, paradoxically, religious belief can be secured from and even by secularism; and c) explain the costs and losses attendant upon a fully secular age and consciousness. By contrast, I am interested in secularism as an instrument of empire. To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that this is all that secularism is; rather, it simply constitutes my own interest in secularism today.

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4 Responses to “Idealism, materialism, secularism?”

  1. avatar Colin Jager says:

    Great post. The point about the lack of outsiders in Taylor’s story–and Islam in particular– is especially well taken. As for Wendy’s second line of critique, I’m struck by this sentence:

    “What remains unquestionably idealist and antimaterialist in Taylor’s account is his commitment to tracing the production of secular consciousness within religious understanding as opposed to tracing secularization processes resulting from extrareligious forces that erode, transform, or instrumentalize a religious cosmology.”

    I wonder if this contrast is perhaps a little too sharply drawn? At least in the early going, there does seem to me to be a lot that’s not specifically about the production of a secular consciousness within a religious understanding. I’m thinking of the material on ritual and festival and disgust, for instance. All this is about the *conditions* of that secular consciousness, to be sure, but that’s a little different. My own sense is that book’s focus narrows a bit as it goes–we get less and less about extrareligious processes, more and more an internal story. I suppose on could say that this simply allegorizes the story that Taylor is telling.

  2. avatar Jimmy Casas Klausen says:

    One cannot help but describe Charles Taylor’s book as magisterial. Something that magisterial sometimes means is very lengthy—which A Secular Age certainly is. I cannot therefore hope to be able to do justice to it or to Wendy Brown’s thoughts on it. More important than its length, obviously, are its breadth and degree of penetration and especially the way in which it is self-conscious about these as generating its argument. That is to say that Taylor quite explicitly wants to tell the story of secularism not as a simple historical movement from presence to absence. Nor does he even tell the barely more complicated story that figures in, say, John Rawls’s second Introduction (and passim) to Political Liberalism, whereby European societies were once upon a time riven by religious wars but then the parties thereto decided upon toleration as a modus vivendi, and soon because this toleration in the main kept fatal violence at bay, toleration thus became the groundwork for liberal secular societies. (Which isn’t yet liberalism for the “right” reasons, according to Rawls—and Taylor indirectly refers to this general problematic of contemporary liberalism’s need to explain on the basis of “a single principle . . . . the myth of the single, omnicompetent code” in a passing comment in Chapter 2.)

    So Taylor, sidestepping these emphases on events as either gradually or dramatically constituting secularization, seeks instead to articulate the broad discourses that, over time, condition the experience of secularism by way of a bringing-into-being of what he calls the “buffered” self, which can (but need not always) distance or disengage itself from a world of spiritual or cosmic forces. And he looks to both ethnographically-aware early modern European historiography and anthropological theory of non-Western peoples to tell his story.

    It really is thus surprising that, especially because he limits his account more or less to Latin Christendom, Taylor does not engage with either the political and theological problems for the Papacy and Spanish Catholicism posed by the Reconquista or the conquest of America. Here I endorse Wendy Brown’s first critical point in her reading of Taylor: that “absent from Taylor’s account is every stripe of outsider to Latin Christendom, from Jews and Muslims in Europe to colonized natives and other outsiders, as well as dissident voices . . .”

    The enduring encounter between pagan aborigines in America and the holy Spanish crown in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generated something of a crisis for Latin Christendom—for both, one might say, its theological and its political wings. One need only look at the exchange between Sepulveda and Las Casas, staged by and for the King of Spain himself in 1550, to begin to understand that the encounter between Latin Christendom and (one of) its constitutive outsides was an important encounter between one kind of “porous” approach to selfhood and another altogether differently organized “porous” self. (The porous self is the analytical contrast to the buffered self that Taylor sets up.) Or else one could read the sometimes gorgeous (though always juristic) protests of Francisco de Vitoria to the American Indian policies of the Spanish crown to see the (basic but not unassailable) respect with which some jurist-theologians held the so-called savage inhabitants of America. Vitoria’s searching attempt to comprehend the natives as being subject to wholly other forms of social organization—rather than none at all—was not, of course, without its limits. However, his attempt to rein in Spanish aggression by referring to a Christian respect for even non-Christian peoples soon formed a foundational plank in a just war theory based on non-aggression.

    Rather than giving the outlines of this sub-story of Spaniards’ confrontations with aboriginal Americans, Taylor introduces the latter in a different sub-story—of civility as a discourse important to humanism in the realm of morality. Civility, especially in the sense of having an “état policé,” was lacking in savages—who were not thought to be subject to any kind of order and, consequently, therefore lacked both religion and government.

    But this is a partial story. And Taylor mentions in passing (with a reference to Montaigne as one among other “honourable exceptions”) but does not explore the point that critical social and political theories arose in Europe from opposing the interpretation of savages as lacking religion or government and arguing that they might be subjects of different sorts of religious or political organization. And, by extension, the conditions for secularism might just as much come from viewing a field of differences as from discerning presence and lack of religion or government. Or, more likely, conditions for secularism might derive in part from the continuous confrontations between and mutual modifications of the two interpretations (field of differences vis-à-vis presence/lack).

    One final note, to add to Wendy Brown’s mention of “secularism as an instrument of empire.” By an historical irony which would no doubt disturb Vitoria deeply, the presumption of no prior aggression in just war theory, when combined with the civility/savage binary, becomes crucial first to Christian and later to secular punitive militarisms. To see “barbarians” as unable to follow rules, as John Stuart Mill describes them in “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” to interpret their actions as irregular and aggressive in response to a European power’s sometimes (or often) provoking actions abroad, is already to move toward making particular forms of cultural and religious difference an object for just punishment and discipline by military state powers.

  3. avatar Andrew Gow says:

    Prof. Brown’s stimulating post suggests further issues with secularism as lived by (post-)Christian westerners: the rhythm of the (Christian) week and of (partly secularized or at least originally) Christian holidays, administrative and commercial expectations of availability according to essentially Christian schedules — e.g., no-one expects an an answer to an email on December 25th; but meetings are regularly scheduled on Eid ul-Fitr or Yom Kippur –, and even the widespread expectation that everyone will and can use electronic devices and appliances at any time embody the (post-)Christian shape of western life-worlds. Rather than living according to (imaginary) neutrally ‘secular’ rhythms, we live according to the paradigms and expectations of (formerly) Christian societies–especially in the USA and even (or perhaps especially) in France.

    In teaching early modern history to undergraduates, I have also worked with Marc Bloch’s dictum that one ought to start with the things that one finds most foreign to oneself in the past because they provide the best way into the subject matter, and have thus emphasized the foreignness and difference of both political and religious ideas and experiences to those of most contemporary westerners. But difference begs for explanation, and the one the students are pre-programmed to accept is that such differences have been swept away by progress.

    Not only is it worth challenging the Hegelian teleologies according to which secularism emerged as a ‘better’ alternative to ‘clerisy’, but we must pay close attention to whiggish efforts to locate the origins of the contemporary world (usually termed modern) in the Reformation and its sequelae–a notion that recent specialized scholarship on the Reformation and early modern Europe has destroyed. Secularism is not some Archimedean point external to ‘the religious past’, but a specific product of the Christian encounter with internal and external others, as Brown suggests. It has also been claimed to be a radical departure from religion. I find this claim extremely odd because it cannot be proven and because it seems self-evident yet no real evidence can be adduced in its support.

    Perhaps secularism is a tool of empire in the same way that Christianity was and is because secularism reproduces and reinscribes many of the same antagonisms to other ‘religions’ and/or religious practices (esp. notionally superseded ones) as traditional Christianity did. Perhaps secularism is so universal in appeal because it can be used just as Christianity was once used to produce antagonistic, even genocidal, discourses about other religions–and about Christianity (or varieties thereof) as well. Secular thought thus grew out of Christian supersessionism (as did the idea of progress, surely) while reserving the right to apply the same method to its own ‘parent’.

  4. avatar Eli Jelly-Schapiro says:

    I want to pick up here some of Wendy Brown’s crucial insights into the marginalization in A Secular Age of 1) capitalism, and 2) imperialism (and the constitutive others of Western modernity). I want to suggest that the relative lack of attention paid by Taylor to capitalist transformations and imperialist processes is enabled by Taylor’s affirmation of the “multiple modernities” thesis.

    In the introductory pages of A Secular Age, in the service of defending the West as his geographic focus, Taylor writes:

    “secularity, like other features of ‘modernity’—political structures, democratic forms, use of media, to cite a few examples—in fact find rather different expressions, and develop under the pressure of different demands and aspirations in different civilizations. We are more and more living in a world of ‘multiple modernities’. These crucial changes need to be studied in their different civilizational sites before we rush to global generalization” (Taylor 2007: 21).

    Taylor’s conceptualization of the “multiple modernities” thesis is elaborated in his essay “Modernity and Difference”; here Taylor argues that there are two ways of understanding the genesis of modernity. The “cultural” theory of modernity describes the difference between pre-modern and modern societies in terms of cultural transformation. In other words, our contemporary culture is different than the culture of feudal Europe, just as the contemporary culture of the North Atlantic world is different from that of Southern Africa; culture is differentiated across both space and time.

    The “acultural” theory uses a “culturally neutral” vocabulary to characterize the transition from traditional to modern society. In this view processes of modernization facilitate “the loss of traditional beliefs and allegiances” (Taylor 2000: 366). Urbanization, industrialization and the ascendance of scientific rationality erode old modes of belief or value systems. This is the classic “subtraction story” Taylor inveighs against throughout A Secular Age. And it is this theory which dominates contemporary discourses of modernity and ideologies of “developmentalism” in particular; through the shedding of traditional (i.e. backward) beliefs and customs all societies can and will converge at the point of modern reason and rationality, democratic governance and market capitalism. Difference, in this understanding, is confined to the past; the future is one of planetary generality.

    As Taylor makes clear, the acultural theory of modernity is unsatisfactory. If true that all societies undergo change, such changes neither emerge from nor are productive of congruent social realities. Indeed, it is the divergent starting points of difference societies that engender the “multiple modernities” of which Taylor speaks. If all societies are confronted by, for example, urbanization, the rise of secularism and institution of the bureaucratic state, they will respond and adapt to these forces in unique ways, thereby creating new cultural forms. Any viable theory of modernity, Taylor argues, must account for both “the pull to sameness and the forces making for difference” (Taylor 2000: 367).

    The theory of “multiple modernities”—and the cultural story at its core—is attractive for many reasons; it provides a counter to Eurocentric inquiries that project one normative model of modernity onto every society; and moving beyond a unidirectional understanding of modernity allows us to recognize how societal change emerges from the dialectic entanglement of a localized culture and institutions or systems of belief that arrive from without.

    That said, the “multiple modernities” thesis is not devoid of pitfalls. As David Scott has argued, implied in the “multiple modernities” approach is a confining narrative of repression and resistance, of subaltern agency and overcoming: “The view here is that these subalterns are not passive objects of a dominant civilization power, merely assimilating or mimicking Europe, but rather self-conscious actors, resisting, translating, displacing, and so on, that dominant power in the course of making their own history” (Scott 2004:114). Scott contents that the idea of “multiple modernities” “operates by constructing a normative expectation of resistance or overcoming” (Scott 2004: 114). In countering the normative tendencies of the acultural story, the “multiple modernities” narrative posits a normativity of its own.

    Another potential problem is that in “provincializing Europe” we obscure the complex ways in which the “alternative modernities” of the world have been conditioned by the imperialist logic of Western modernity. In other words, emphasizing the autonomy of “alternative modernities” diverts attention from an ever-more global (universal) capitalism, a fundamental aspect of modernity at large. As Frederic Jameson writes of the “alternative modernities” approach:

    “Everyone knows the formula by now: . . . [T]here can be a modernity for everybody which is different from the standard or hegemonic Anglo-Saxon model. Whatever you dislike about the latter, including the subaltern position it leaves you in, can be effaced by the reassuring and ‘cultural’ notion that you can fashion your own modernity differently, so that there can be a Latin-American kind, or an Indian kind or an African kind, and so on. . . . But this is to overlook the other fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself “(Jameson 2002: 12-13).

    As Talal Asad notes, in a similar vein:

    “If, as some anthropologists now put it, culture is always invented, if invention always opens up the possibilities for difference, then it should also be clear that the conditions of invention are no longer what they once were. More precisely, even if it is true that new cultural forms are being continuously invented in different societies, those societies now live in a single, shared world, a world brought into being by European conquest” (Asad 1992: 333).

    In A Secular Age, Taylor’s invocation of the “multiple modernities” thesis permits him to isolate the North Atlantic world as his bounded geographic subject without denigrating the historical experience of those “alternative modernities” that his narrative elides. Yet in doing so he de-emphasizes 1) the relationship between Western modernity and its constitutive outside and 2) the global reach of modern capitalism (as modernity). This is another way of saying that Taylor fails to account for the centrality of imperialist processes to both “the pull to sameness and forces making for difference” in the modern world.

    Asad, Talal. “Conscripts of Western Civilization,” in Christine Gailey, ed., Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992.

    Fredric Jameson. A Singular Modernity, London: Verso, 2002.

    Scott, David. Conscripts of Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

    Taylor, Charles. “Modernity and Difference,” in Gilroy, Grossberg and McRobbie, eds., Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall, London: Verso, 2000.

    — A Secular Age, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

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