A Secular Age:

What Taylor misses

posted by Vincent Lloyd

The heft of a book would seem proportional to its exhaustiveness. It is no surprise that Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is criticized for failing to be exhaustive, for missing important components of the story it purports to tell. Taylor responds: the book should have been longer. But this criticism and response both depend on a certain ambition—a certain desire for completeness, a certain will to truth—that author and critics themselves find problematic.

There are “others” whose voices must be heard, so the criticism goes. Taylor constructs “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic” as entities that are internally homogeneous with unproblematic boundaries. But what about Jews? What about Muslims? What about colonial encounters? What about the complex religious terrain of America? Don’t these differences call into question the exhaustiveness of Taylor’s historical narrative, and of the terms out of which it is constructed? How would Taylor deal with the non-believers, neither secular nor church-goers, of, say, rural eighteenth-century America (as Jon Butler queries)?

But this line of questioning is symptomatic of a certain ambivalence, a tension between purported intellectual commitments and the performance of scholarship. The line of questioning is animated by a desire for completeness, by the fantasy that, once all of the data is accounted for, we can rest assured that we will get the world right. Yet many of these critics, and certainly Taylor himself, would reject just such a desire; he is offering a story, one among many. The way this ambivalence is often dealt with is by speaking of complexity rather than completeness, of nuance that additional data will encourage. Instead of constructing monolithic entities, Taylor ought to allow many voices, many contours, many folds, to show forth—even more than he already does.

I cannot help but think that this is just a new guise of the will to truth, the desire for completeness put in hipper language (in religious studies there is a vogue for “polythetic” definitions, supposed to strip concepts like “sacrifice,” “ritual,” and “religion” itself of their Protestant heritage, animated by much the same desire). But it is the desire that matters, not the particular guise that it takes in one generation or the next, or at one conference or the next. It matters because it is problematic philosophically, politically, and pragmatically. It purports to clarify but actually obscures.

A more persuasive defense of the limits of A Secular Age, one that Taylor sometimes embraces, sees scholarship as rhetoric—or, more modestly, sees rhetoric as a legitimate tool of scholarship. The goal of a work is to persuade an audience. To that end, it adopts the conventions of a genre recognizable to its audience and adopts the conceptual vocabulary embraced by that audience. Taylor’s audience buys into a particular understanding of secularism; Taylor’s goal is to displace that understanding with another, not to provide an exhaustive or maximally complex account of what secularism is. The understanding he seeks to displace is about the world of “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic,” so those are the terms that he adopts. A rhetorician never succeeds by attempting to persuade her audience to change all of its members’ beliefs at once.

The problem with this response, as Saba Mahmood points out in “Can Secularism Be Other-wise?” is that it ignores the political implications of adopting a certain idiom—even if that idiom is adopted in order to make the idiom itself kinder and gentler. Pursuing justice pragmatically, through rhetoric, may make one complicit in injustice. The most pressing political issues of our day, argues Mahmood, center on the meaning of “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic,” and any work that organizes itself around such concepts is complicit in injustice.

Such criticism requires careful judgment. “Piety” might be redeemable in a way that “terrorism” is not. Presumably, American Studies is not to be dismissed outright as a politically indefensible discipline because it employs, even as it nuances and critiques, the concept of America. It would be much easier to agree that Afrikaner Studies, during apartheid, was unavoidably implicated in injustice. The differences between these two examples, and the criteria for judgment, are not limited to the degree to which the offending concept is implicated in politically problematic actions; they also include the concepts’ distance from us. To abandon, rather than reconfigure, a concept close to who we are carries with it all of the ill effects of repression: the silenced concept continues to exercise its power, but now invisibly, its power thus all the more firmly entrenched. Taylor’s readers and interlocutors are part of the same post-Christian milieu he describes, whether they are in Paris or Cairo or Berkeley or Islamabad (of course each is a misfit in this milieu in a slightly different way), so the judgment prerequisite for Mahmood’s critique is a difficult one.

I wonder whether the political indictment of Taylor’s work, without careful judgment of the political calculus involved, is motivated by an incomplete adoption of the rhetorical perspective—by vestiges of the purportedly abandoned will to truth. Mahmood at times puts the will to truth under double erasure, making its object wear two masks: she asks if it might be possible to tolerate Islamic fundamentalism, and then she asks whether toleration itself might be implicated in problematic power dynamics. Adding complexity and respect for plurality is no longer desired; it is mourned. And this mourning is without end; it is melancholic. Mahmood’s essay poses question after question without offering answers. The desire that cannot be let go is to escape (under erasure) the difficult, dirty world where power pervades—to escape by endlessly mourning the impossibility of escape. The effect of this desire is to avoid judgment, to avoid serious consideration of our own necessary implication in violence, to avoid the complications of the mundane world in which we live when we are not theorizing.

Simon During, in “Completing Secularism: The Mundane in a Neoliberal Age,” charges that Taylor makes this same mistake. Taylor’s oppositions of religion vs. secularism, enchantment vs. disenchantment, and transcendence vs. immanence elide the mundane. While Taylor writes of the “ordinary,” he portrays it as always already colonized by a social imaginary. I am skeptical of much that During writes, but the possibility that what Taylor misses isn’t additional data but something else entirely, something which we are all familiar with and which goes under the radar of a social imaginary, seems quite right. Taylor’s notion of a social imaginary binds together social practices, the images ordinary people have of how those practices fit together, and the ideas and theories that elites create that authorize those practices. These components all function in complex relationships with each other, supporting each other but also having the potential to shift the others. But something is missing.

Suppose we distinguish practices, norms, and supporting ideas (i.e., ideas of elites justifying those norms). I would argue, as a way of fleshing out During’s claim, that social imaginaries bind together the second and third with the ligature of imagination, but Taylor wants them to bind together all three. In other words, practices never exactly follow norms. People never do exactly what they ought to do (Judith Butler’s work has wonderfully illustrated this). And everyone, everywhere, except perhaps academics, realizes this. People joke about norms, they make fun of those who take them too seriously, they use them strategically to advance their own interests, they subvert them, they face tragic choices between them—but they never act independently of them. This tension between practices and norms is ever present, regardless of the particular social imaginary of an age. Norms change, but the way people relate to them doesn’t. This tension is visible at the level of the mundane, invisible from the perspective of a social imaginary. And this is how the mundane involves judgment: life doesn’t just consist in following the rules, in doing what one is supposed to do.

During makes a stronger claim: the mundane is suppressed by theory, by the will to truth. This seems to me quite right, but too theoretical. My suspicion is that certain social imaginaries—in particular, our present immanent frame—suppress awareness of the mundane. My further suspicion is that this has particularly to do with the expansion of the bourgeoisie, and with it, the prevalence of a particularly bourgeois attitude about following the rules; the academy, as home to theory, is obscenely bourgeois. More cynically, learning to recognize the mundane is what growing up means, that the parent’s word is no longer the word of law, that the normative world is complicated and conflicting and requires judgment. Our secular age is infantilizing, and universities all the more so; theorists never grow up.

What During commends is wallowing in the mundane, which he describes as pre- and post-theoretical, but which he argues is today always already caught up in neo-liberalism. But if we, pace During, see the mundane as a place where the distance between practices and norms becomes visible, a place of contestation and judgment and tragedy, of laughter and frustration and tears, a place where faith—secular faith—is necessary to survive, perhaps the mundane can become a place that humbles rather than abandons theory. Corollary to my suspicion that the mundane is invisible to the bourgeoisie, or at least that it is invisible from that place where a bourgeois stance towards norms is ubiquitous—the academy—is a suspicion that the proletariat cannot ignore the mundane. The proletariat still exists—it has just been abandoned by academics too busy shopping for organic produce and going to yoga classes to notice. The experiences of the poor ought to humble theorists and to hold them accountable, but it is just these experiences that Taylor’s weighty tome and its commentators ignore.

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