In a recent symposium held by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, the Social Science Research Council and the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook University, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West came together to discuss the project of “rethinking secularism.” Today we are posting audio and a transcript of the discussion that took place between Butler and West, moderated by Eduardo Mendieta, in which the political theorist and the prophetic pulpitarian exchange thoughts on the ethics and limitations of citizenship, as well as temporality, memory, and the problematics of progress. (Listen to the paper presentations that preceded this discussion here and add your own voice to the discussion here.)
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MENDIETA: Judith, this situation, the exilic situation or condition—can we translate that into an ethics for a U.S. citizen? How would we translate that into an ethics of citizenship in our present context? Or is it only applicable to Jews?
BUTLER: Eduardo, I guess I want to say that I think we have to start with the distinction between the citizen and the non-citizen, because we also have a politics which involves refusing to grant citizenship to a vast domain of the population, who nevertheless work here, constitute who we are—we might even say have become indigenous or have acquired indigenous status, because they are not entitled and not enfranchised. I worry very much about using citizenship as the framework without actually thinking about how that distinction between citizen and non-citizen is also imposed here. I worry that a lot of our own notions of pluralism and even our ideas about communitarianism assume already enfranchised communities, or already visible communities. But how do those communities actually get constituted through the production and erasure of non-public and disenfranchised communities? So it’s that relationship that I would like to think about. What breaks through? What are the moments in which the population without working papers or the population without citizenship nevertheless appears? I think the singing of the national anthem in public in Los Angeles by a number of undocumented workers was a kind of astonishing moment, where the anthem was sung in Spanish and in English both. But I think there are other ways in which the amnesiac surface of our everyday politics has to be broken, so that we actually see who the workers are on whom we depend and to whom we extend no rights; who are the populations that are living here fearful of getting ill because there is no possibility of health insurance, there is no clear guarantee that they will even be accepted into hospitals. So perhaps we have our own dispossessed and we are haunted by the dispossessed, or we fail to be haunted by the dispossessed, and we need to think about what an ethics would be that would help us rethink the relationship between the citizen and the non-citizen now.
MENDIETA: One more question. In terms of this ethics of memory—won’t that make us, perhaps, overly nostalgic, always looking backwards? Then we might lose sight of how to gauge progress. How do we start thinking about progress if we are always thinking from the standpoint of an ethics of memory, of memorization?
BUTLER: I think it’s not so much an ethics of memory or memorization. Maybe “remembrance” in Benjamin’s terms is a little different. It’s not that we turn to the past and lose ourselves in the past. It’s rather that the past flashes up in what he calls “the time of the now,” the Jetztzeit. What actually happens is that something about our present experience is interrupted by what he calls an image of the past, but I think we could translate that in several different ways. Some undocumented or un-archived history of oppression emerges within our contemporary life and makes us rethink the histories we have told about how we got from one place in history to the present. It also, I think, has the effect of producing converging temporalities in the present, which allows us to reorient ourselves in non-identitarian ways so that we’re not just looking out for our own history or our own people, but our history turns out to be interrupted fundamentally by an effaced history. I think Cornel’s example of the effacement of the genocide against native peoples in this country is exactly such a moment. Do we allow that amnesia to continue? What are the public moments in which that amnesia is broken apart? I think it not only recalls us to a past—or, rather, let’s the past into the present—but it reorients us towards a broader, more capacious idea of social justice. So I’m not sure about progress. I guess I’m maybe too much with Benjamin and Kafka in this way.
WEST: And you juxtapose the last line of Adorno’s great essay on progress, where he defined it as resistance against the mainstream, where the alternative is capitulation—you juxtapose that line with the first line from Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: “All Utopian thought is predicated on some memory of plenitude.” That’s Marcuse’s romantic tie to Schiller. Adorno—much more dialectically dark. Put it that way. But it’s a fascinating tension. Adorno, like Benjamin, is calling into question progress, because progress constitutes catastrophe, and the best we do—the dialectic is at a standstill—you put your foot on the brake to stop the elite from just looting everything. That’s what the Obama election was about. He was just putting the brakes on capitalist civilization gone mad—short-term thinking, ecological crisis, climate warming, and so forth. How long do you think you can go? Put the brakes on. Here comes Obama with charisma, wonderful rhetoric. He looks pleasant. We know if he looked like the late, great Isaac Hayes, he would not have won that election. But we love our brother, we love our brother. But you have to put the brake on. That was Benjamin-like, in a certain sense. That’s part of Utopian interruption. Stop the madness that is oftentimes at work when it comes to treatment of poor working people.
BUTLER: I think moving forward has to be distinguished from progress. One reason that progress is linked to catastrophe is that it produces debris that it cannot assimilate into its own narrative structure, so that debris keeps on piling up. What can not be brought forward? What is left behind? There’s always something left behind, especially in, in particular, aggressive notions of progress that hold out the promise of a kind of final redemption.
MENDIETA: We are linking progress to secularization, which is an instance of modernization. The question was also a way to ask you, how do we uncouple modernization progress from secularization? You have demonstrated how we have all of these incredible resources in very Jewish philosophers, and if we’re going to move forward, we would have to give up that.
BUTLER: I do worry that some of the conceptual frameworks we have for linking secularization with modernization actually assume certain kinds of religions as the relevant ones. Which religion got secularized? Which set of religions are left behind—which now, as Thomas Friedman would say about Islam, represent the pre-modern? So I’m not sure secularization has brought all religions with it. We might actually think a little bit about whether there is a kind of presumptive Christian presupposition there and whether it’s also a Christianity that is, in some sense, divided from Judaism—which is, of course, not what Cornel does—and whether all of the other religions that have remained unspeakable here today even count as part of that story. I guess I’m way back there. I haven’t arrived yet in this narrative.
WEST: I think there are two senses of secularization that are important. One, I think it’s very important to acknowledge the moral and political breakthrough of liberalism against the kings, because when you provide that space for rights and liberties across the board, especially if it’s broad in its empathy and imagination—all-inclusive in that sense—that is a breakthrough. At the same time, it’s clear that the Weberian thesis about the disenchantment of the world resulting in fewer cognitive commitments to God-talk—that’s not true. It was never true in the United States, but it’s certainly not true around the world now. So we’ve got to hold onto the liberal political-moral breakthrough and try to make the breakthrough on the economic level, in terms of democratizing, but also acknowledge that Durkheim was actually more right than Weber. Durkheim talked in The Elementary Forms—think about page 431—he says, there’s something eternal: individual worship and faith. And if you shift from God-talk, you end up worshipping the market or its accompaniments and accoutrements. You can end up worshipping a lot of things. It’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You are going to treasure something. What is it? Is it Kurtz and the ivory? That’s Conrad, 1899, the critique of idolatry. Christians like myself say you must forever be vigilant in critiques of idolatry. Why? Because idolatry is shot through all of us. But you’re going to treasure something. If you treasure something that pulls you out of yourself and makes you love more and sacrifice for justice, that’s going to be better than the next Lexus that you get. There’s no escape from the fiduciary dimension of being human.
BUTLER: May I ask Cornel a question? Cornel, talk to us about treasuring something, valuing something, and worshipping something. Are they interchangeable in your vocabulary?
WEST: I would just say “treasure.” Let’s just say “treasure.”
BUTLER: Let’s just say “treasure”?
BUTLER: You’re stepping back.
WEST: In your mind, what’s the difference?
BUTLER: I don’t know. It’s interesting, because on the one hand, you talk about worshipping and you talk about being vigilant against idolatry. For many people, worshipping is idolatry. You are actually offering us a distinction, so I was just making an opening for you.
WEST: I’ve got to decide whether to walk through that opening or not.
MENDIETA: Here’s another question, while you think on that one. This is a question inspired by Habermas’s work. Don’t you think that perhaps our state hasn’t been secularized enough? This is from the other side. You called us to accept and understand the plurality of religious beliefs. But there’s one thing that brings a knot to my throat, and that’s when the President always has to invoke, “God bless America,” as though we are ordering God. On the other side, you as a prophetic citizen, how do you feel about that, when the President invokes this God?
WEST: I don’t like it. I do not like it. It’s like Caesar saying, “Jesus, I really do like you, but you’ve got to go.” There is a line there, but it’s part of the rhetoric of the thing. But I don’t take it that seriously. It’s like, every January, the President says, “There is no problem we cannot solve because we are Americans.” That’s just the religion of possibility. It’s part of the American self-understanding. It’s a lie. There are problems Americans cannot solve. But it’s that sense of strenuous mood-generating energy and so forth. I would say this, though, in regard to the point you made to Professor Habermas: Secularization is one thing; for me, the priority is a democratization of the state, which has to do with the substantive accountability and answerability of corporate elites and financial oligarchs, who are running amok in terms of might, status, and reshaping the nation, and much of the world, in their image. That’s very dangerous. It is very dangerous. It is as dangerous as kings and queens running amok in the 17th and 18th centuries—unaccountable elites. And the histories of democracies are of the dēmos awakening and trying to impose some kinds of regulations, some kinds of controls on them for the public good. It’s clear that, for the most part, they have the public interest and the common good as tertiary in their calculations.
MENDIETA: When you talked about prophetic interruptions and of Utopian interruptions, I was thinking immediately of Ernst Bloch, and not just The Principle of Hope, but his book on atheism in Christianity. And there he begins by saying that the true Christian must be an atheist and the atheist is the Christian. This is a relationship to anti-fetishism, anti-idolatry; and, while remaining profoundly Christian, how do we live up to that challenge of Bloch?
WEST: I think we have to live that tension. We have to live that tension. What that means is that we are forever aspiring and then falling short, but calling into question the ways in which we become deferential to idols or the ways in which we become not empathetic enough, not imaginative enough, not courageous enough, and so on. But I think that that kind of creative tension is part and parcel of what it is, partly, just to be human, in terms of having ideals and reality. Like John Dewey—okay, you don’t want to engage in God-talk. There’s always the gap between your ideals and what is real. That gap is where you have to live. There’s going to be a tension. Of course, for religious persons, it’s tied to not just God, but all the various stories that try to keep us honest and keep us candid about how we’re falling short and when we’re making some breakthroughs. But that’s another reason why certain revolutionary moments—it could be Badiou’s 1968 in Paris and the event that means so much to him, it could be Martin King, it could be the Stoner rebellion, it could be the workers’ movement in 1892—these moments at which this unbelievable courage of fellow human beings emerged, and they were willing to put everything on the line. I would say, in relation to the struggle against fascism, I’m in solidarity with Churchill—that’s a rare thing. He’s fighting fascism. He believes that black people are sub-human, in colonialism in India and Africa, but he’s fighting Hitler. I’m in his army, because I’m fighting Hitler, too. I’ve just got some other white-supremacist matters to attend to once the war is over. Does that make sense?
MENDIETA: Absolutely, absolutely.
BUTLER: It’s interesting, because it’s the reverse of loving your own people first. You’ve got to love your own people first, but sometimes the political principle is, you have to put other people first and then you have to come back to your own. It’s interesting.
WEST: That’s true. That’s a wonderful way of putting it.
This transcript has been edited for grammar and clarity.—ed.