Is critique secular?:

Resistance, critique, religion

posted by Simon During

Justin Neuman’s stimulating last post encouraged me to reread the debate asking “Is Critique Secular?” from the beginning, and in doing so I began to wonder what would happen to the discussion if we added to it the notion of “resistance”.  By resistance I simply mean the refusal to accept the social system in which one lives.  I am partly inspired by Robert Bellah’s wonderful post, which makes the case that elements within several axial religions share a single impulse with Western theoria, namely renunciation thought precisely as (a practical and/or conceptual) departure from one’s inherited social condition.  For Bellah, renunciation typically becomes institutionalized and then carries out critique from a relatively autonomous social space, in a routinizing extension which, somewhat in Charles Taylor’s spirit, he thinks contains “explosive potentialities for good and for evil.”

Let’s consider this from another angle. At least in the modern world, resistance takes both a passive or ethical form—renunciation, and an active or political form—revolution. Renunciation and revolution are conceptually twinned since neither affirms the current actual social order or seeks to reform it. Indeed, as most other non-political, non-contemplative modes of social disengagement disappear into modernization’s integrative machinery, these become the most easily imaginable modes of resistance.

But sometime after 1917 (1923? 1956? 1968? 1989?) it became clear that no major modernized, capitalist society would, in all probability, undergo a secular revolution. Perhaps rather surprisingly, the French post-1968 Maoists were those who first absorbed the implications of this for the history of religious renunciation. They did so originally in Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau’s L’ange (1975) and then, more famously, in Alain Badiou’s ongoing work.

By and large the post-Maoists have not been well received in the Anglophone world, and it is not hard to see why. Nonetheless, their’s is not just the most inventive left-wing theo-politics of our time, it’s one of the few bodies of thought that has remained loyal to thorough-going resistance.  (I say this mindful of Leo Strauss’s not wholly dissimilar right-wing irreligious theo-politics, which in the end, however, aloofly concedes to liberal capitalism.)

To simplify greatly, one post-Maoist move is to emphasize the distance between critique and resistance.  The logic runs like this: revolution has become impossible but there are good rational grounds maximally to disengage from, indeed to resist, the democratic state capitalist order. However resistance cannot be grounded just in reason since it requires a leap into another order, into the unknown. So to commit to resistance involves a Pascalian wager. We stake ourselves on a faith that the current situation is temporary and a new order can suddenly and unexpectedly appear.  Resistance demands patience, hope against hope, fidelity: indeed it will be unending since even overturned social existence will gradually become routinized, institutionalized, hierarchized.

What kind of intellectual work can help prepare for the irruption of a new order, an “event” in Badiou’s patois? Mainly not critique in the conventional sense as evidential and situated judgment on what lies to hand: Badiou rejects the “proximity of critique and violence” that Justin Neuman ascribes to Walter Benjamin. Rather, philosophy thought in Platonic (and indeed Straussian) terms as the care for truth and for universals can most help prepare us for the irruption of a future event and help preserve the shards of a past event. For Badiou (and this is a clearly a Maoist move) to live in the true is to live in resistance, while to critique is to tally with and in the system and its untruths. Thus Badiou’s recent polemic, De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, which is indeed addressed to the situation at hand, is not critique in any conventional sense but rather a denunciatory naming of the various forms and instances of untruthfulness and anti-universalism (nation, family) that have been made use of by Sarkozy (for Badiou, a Petainist rat-man stoking the politics of fear). This is combined with encouragement to a particular renunciatory ethical stance in relation to the current democratic market-state, and axioms, some philosophical, that are put forward for debate (“Love ought to be reinvented but also simply to be defended”).

In this project, maybe surprisingly, religion becomes an intellectual resource since (as Bellah reminds us too) it maintains memories of styles of comportment through which it is possible to live in resistance. Religious revelations (i.e., prophetic narrativizations of supernatural agents’ interactions with the world) are not true, but this does not detract from religion’s ethical and political commitment to resistance. Thus in Badiou’s remarkable book on St Paul, Paul is converted blindly to Christianity and, in the face of murderous state persecution bravely dedicates himself to building collectives open to anyone at all outside the legitimating forces that uphold the Roman Empire. Paul’s is an inspiring example of militant practice and virtue committed to waiting for a miraculous event, all the more so because, in truth, his trust in Christ is hypothetical or “fictional.” For that reason, his conversion and commitment are motivated by a faith (not quite a conviction) that reminds us of the distance between thought and resistance.

Where does this leave us in relation to Saba Mahmood’s and Stathis Gourgouris’s instructive disagreement?  My sense is that (leaving aside their implicit dispute about the political status of contemporary Islamic theocracies) their debate can be stripped down to an argument about whether religious or secular institutions are the more mystified in regard to their own historicity and situatedness.

From the position of the post-Maoist theo-politics, this is not a debate worth having since beyond history and critique lie domains that are neither religious nor secular (i.e., do not belong to the order of enlightened rational progress). These include what is axiomatically true (like mathematics) as well as whatever is open to total rupture and innovation—what can break with incremental or mundane temporality (e.g., falling in love, or creating a wholly new kind of artwork, or being converted to a faith).

Let me be clear: I do not write this as a committed post-Maoist myself, far from it. But I do think this body of work makes an important contribution to contemporary theory, partly because, in fidelity to the spirit of resistance and in its dismissal of the (divisive and integrative) politics of difference and identity, it asks us to approach religion subtracted from its institutionality and truth-claims and hence from the schema in which the religion versus secular debate is carried out. In doing so it asks us squarely to examine how critique helps us deal with what remains a (maybe the) crucial question of our time: should we refuse capitalism? And it does so without succumbing to the manifold lures of revelation, revolutionary expectations, transcendence, historical progress, eternal life, tradition, philosophy-as-conversation, communicative rationality, social-capital building…

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