The heated exchange in this forum between Stathis Gourgouris and Saba Mahmood raises a basic question about conviction through which the relationship between critique and the secular can be approached from a different angle: can we be committed to—can we believe or have faith in—a particular position, idea, religion, etc. and nonetheless be fully critical toward it?
Does commitment inexorably deteriorate to dogma, forestall debate, and shackle our intellectual capacities in the bonds of reductivism and facile binaries? Alternately, is the methodological agnosticism implied by a descriptive and genealogical project the best possible guarantor of productive scholarly engagement—indeed, of critique as such? I believe there is a case to be made for committed criticism—secular, religious, and otherwise, in all their subtle vernaculars—though making that case is not my purpose here. Instead, by interrogating the relationship between critique and conviction emergent in this discussion and, more broadly, reevaluating the role and effect of conviction in scholarly discourse, I hope to unsettle sedimented assumptions about scale and movement bound up in the concept of critique.
The constellation of terms I deploy throughout this post—conviction, commitment, belief, and faith—are not, strictly speaking, synonyms. Instead, their diverse connotations and etymologies maps a range of overlapping affective registers. More than describing a relation to content in a transparent manner, recent scholarship on the religious/secular nexus clarifies how these modes produce, demarcate, and perpetuate their own social structures and forms of knowledge. Conviction and its ilk are thus “attitudes” in the sense of that term Foucault articulates in his essay “What is Critique”: they are, “in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos.” Of the four terms, “conviction” bears most significantly upon discussions of critique. In two senses, conviction is the telos of criticism: in the juridical sense, critique (as krisis or judgment) works toward, and also defers, conviction (as sentence or declaration); as it relates to suasion, conviction as settled belief based on evidence is likewise both the goal and the process of deferral—or the figurative space in which that goal is indefinitely deferred. In both senses of conviction, a metaphorics of stasis vies with one of movement.
The crisis of stasis vs. movement was of particular importance to Walter Benjamin, who, along with the secularized Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt school, introduced continental thought to the legacy of Jewish mysticism and is thus central to any discussion of “secular” criticism. For Benjamin, the double-valence of critique and conviction as both deferral and process—with an abyss or rift between the two—yields, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and elsewhere, a sense that critique is necessarily a messianic practice. In his late work on ethics and justice, Derrida recuperates a similar approach to temporality, movement, and action under the aegis of a critical messianism. For Benjamin, the task of the critic is messianic in a very precise way, marking its paradoxical structure in terms of scale and movement: critique, in the cloak of historical materialism, must be simultaneously an individual act and an act of global scale, a process and a cessation of process, an act of violence and the deliverance from violence, an event endlessly deferred and a view of time in which “every second…[is] the straight gate through which the messiah might enter.” Benjamin’s “secular” messianic criticism rejects the spatio-temporal sensibilities that underwrite both historicism and genealogy; it is also committed to the core. As he puts it in his eighteenth thesis on the philosophy of history, the task of the critic is to seize hold of a transformative moment in which “he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.”
While for Benjamin the issue of commitment or belief appears to be a fait accompli, as Colin Jager cogently observes in his recent post, Mahmood and Gourgouris reach strikingly different conclusions on whether critique and conviction are compatible as concepts or as modes of thought. For Gourgouris, with his emphatic “yes” to the question, “is critique secular?”, the act of critique requires taking a stand, an understanding of the term compatible with what we might call the aggressive/juridical tenor of the term’s etymology as discussed by Talal Asad. Gourgouris stresses the active, decisionist, prescriptive, and discriminating aspects of critique; for him, taking a stand—itself a juridical metaphor—is the paradigmatic critical act. What differentiates a critical stand from rhetorical posturing on the one hand and mere bigotry on the other thus becomes a question of the process by which convictions are reached, the degree to which one is cognizant of the limits of any judgment, and the location from which judgment is rendered. Conviction of the type espoused by Gourgouris is, of necessity, situated (a key term in Edward Said’s description of critique as a located practice), albeit located precisely in the exilic homelessness productive of the distance and dissonance Said identifies as the paradigmatic critical condition.
The stylistic and ontological implications of this performative understanding of critique are obvious enough. Critique conceived and enacted as differential judgment presupposes and maintains subject-object and self-other distinctions while enabling, even encouraging, tête-à- tête confrontational encounters. While it may be true that Gourgouris’ posts are made “in the spirit of elaborating on [a] broader argument” about secularist metaphysics and not, as Mahmood alleges, “to undercut critical exchange and make… it impossible to offer anything but a defensive response,” the tendency toward the back-and-forth of accusation and rebuttal, for or against—and thus an imbedded concept of physical and social movement—inheres in the concept of critique. While this emphasis on the juridical sources of criticism risks fetishizing the substantive “results” of critique—which in this case become judgments (convictions), nominalizing the term’s more procedural or interrogatory valences—it does not necessarily follow that conviction yields binary thinking or stifles “critical” inquiry.
Individual arguments and positions—especially committed ones—clarify the scalar and dynamic dimensions of critique: the very back-and-forth of these exchanges and the public nature of the online forum in which they take place suggest that the locus of criticism lies not within the narrow compass of an individual’s scholarship, but within a broader intersubjective public sphere and with the ability to “move” this audience. To be sure, we often view ourselves in light of the former, individualizing mode; the atomizing practices of self-cultivation characteristic of “secular” modernity are particularly prevalent among academics in our solitary pursuits. Benjamin’s historical materialist who “remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history” is but a particularly bald instance of the trope of the critic as existential hero traced to Sartrean existentialism by Chris Nealon and, in Benjamin’s case, a potent reminder of the proximity between critique and violence. By displacing the locus of critique away from the individual and toward a broader community, we achieve a vision of critique as public action that emerges not in an individual act, but in aggregate. Without necessarily following this trail (pace Rawls and Habermas) toward discourse ethics, it seems to me that Gourgouris’ style implies that polemic and critique are closer kin than is commonly assumed.
Mahmood’s case against conviction is by and large an implicit one elicited by her rancor at Gourgouris’ rebarbitave style and by the way a declarative answer to the question “Is critique secular?” throws a shoe into the academic works: “It must be clear that we were not looking for a “yes” or a “no” answer to our question ‘Is Critique Secular?’” Mahmood writes, because “to do so would be to foreclose thought and to fail to engage a rich set of questions, [the] answers to which remain unclear.” In consequentialist terms, I fear that equating conviction-here symbolized by the declarative “yes” or “no”—with narrow-mindedness stacks the deck against people of faith (if there is a difference between professing a conviction and professing a faith). More broadly (and this is certainly not the intent of Mahmood’s compelling scholarship), the case against conviction reinscribes the division between religious and secular affects. Mahmood essentially argues that we must separate critique (understood as the asking of probing questions and achieved in the genealogical description of complex phenomena) from judgment, accusation, and verdicts. As she eloquently puts it, critique “require[s] a commitment to put some of our most cherished assumptions to scrutiny. This in turn depends upon making a distinction between the labor entailed in the analysis of a phenomenon and defending our own political commitments and preferences. The tension between the two is a productive one for the exercise of critique insomuch as it suspends the closure necessary to political action so as to allow thinking to proceed in unaccustomed ways.”
It is worth noting that the distinction between analysis and conviction upon which Mahmood insists is based on an assumed equivalence between conviction and closure or stasis. Maintaining this correspondence employs the term “critique” against its etymological grain and sets up an oppositional either/or distinction between spheres of politics and academics, action and thought. In the interest of openness and the suspension of closure, setting critique against conviction risks eulogizing the vita contemplativa Hannah Arendt memorably traces to both Aristotelian and Christian attempts to devalue active engagement in worldly affairs and assert the primacy of theory as passive contemplation of a divine cosmos. On the other hand, in taking up this banner for the academy, Mahmood echoes a similar argument made by Theodor Adorno in his essay “Resignation,” written shortly before his death, in which he defends critical theory from the charge of quietism. Contra Arendt, who only a decade earlier saw the weight of scholarly consensus settled firmly against action, Adorno advocates on behalf of a beleaguered minority: that of the “uncompromising critical thinker” who suspends programmatic action—kindred to the vision Mahmood offers of the academy as a domain of open-ended inquiry. For my purposes here, what is striking about Adorno’s compelling final paragraph in the “Resignation” essay (and Mahmood’s desire for “thinking to proceed in unaccustomed ways”) is that the adjective “critical” drops out entirely, to be replaced with “thinking” as such. “Open thinking points beyond itself,” Adorno writes, adding that “prior to all particular content, thinking is actually the force of resistance”; and in a final enigma, he posits that “thought is happiness.” Without attempting to gloss Adorno, these shifting formulations suggest that the fact that the question, “Is critique secular?” seems answerable—even invites a declarative answer—stems from something of a category mistake inclining us to debate the relevance of a property (“critique”) to a token or object (“the secular”) when what the forum ultimately strives for is something closer to Adorno’s “open thinking” conducted in a spirit very close to “happiness.”