A Secular Age:

Politics of misrecognition

posted by Jimmy Casas Klausen

What would secularity look like if we approached it through the perhaps vague rubric of “indigenous ‘religions’”? (The diacritics will hereafter be taken as understood.) Will we ever know? Most considerations of secularity, secularism, and secularization take the Abrahamic religions and, in the South Asian context, Buddhism and Hinduism as their objects, and much discussion in the wake of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has continued this trend. Whether implicitly or explicitly, secularity is usually understood as a “civilizational” condition, and Taylor seems to confirm this by relying on Karl Jaspers’s notion of an “axial age” to mark a major civilizational transformation in thought that took place in China, India, and the Mediterranean world in the last centuries BCE. Hence, one variety of secularism, or one consequence of the varieties of secularism, might be that the practices and “myths” of indigenous religions will constantly defy availability to knowledge. Taking cues from some of the essays collected in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I want to use this category of indigenous religions to think through the absences in and limitations of Taylor’s book—specifically, its misrecognition of indigenous religions. As I want to suggest, the very secularity of indigenous religions may involve a flight from recognition, perhaps the self-evacuation of the category itself. Indigenous religions’ secular modern powers may derive from the mutual unintelligibility that arises between them and mainstream formations of the secular.

One of the major exceptions to the common elision of indigenous religions is Talal Asad’s more, as it were, catholic approach to the study of secularity in his Formations of the Secular. Yet, as the editors’ introduction to Varieties of Secularism notes, Asad and other critical theorists of secularity (Saba Mahmood, Tomoko Masuzawa) are curiously absent from Taylor’s book. In my view, the absence of this critical theoretical approach to secularism generates lacunae that undermine Taylor’s endeavor. Let’s start with the phenomena collectively referred to as shamanism. Asad briefly identifies the encounter with shamanism in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century western Europe as precipitating two features of secularity: first, the shaman seems to serve as a transitional object in the development of an areligious, dechristianized conception of “inspiration”; second, shamanic practical knowledge of health and pain was contrasted with scientific knowledge and emergent biomedical practice. Consequently, shamanism came to be seen in terms of art rather than science. Moreover, it was a kind of folk art at that, since shamanic performance did not qualify as one of the “higher” arts of civilized peoples, even if some Romantic poets’ self-fashioning might be parasitical on shaman-like inspiration.

In contrast to Asad’s emphasis on power-traversed encounters between societies, Taylor situates shamanism in a temporal schema under the rubric of “early” or “pre-axial” religion.  Post-axial religions’ continuous reformation produced “disembedded” belief, while pre-axial religion remains socially and cosmologically “embedded.” Thus, even as shamanism may persist in parts of the world today, it stands “beyond the range of most people in our modern civilization,” Taylor suggests, because the inner dynamic of post-axial religion generated our modern, “buffered selves,” alienating us from a prior subjectivity porous to cosmic forces.

While Taylor’s “porous self” tends toward passivity, it becomes clear from accounts of South American shamanism by Michael Taussig and Pierre Clastres that shamanism is actually quite active. Both Taussig and Clastres emphasize that the shaman is not a sedentary self forcibly transported to other realms, but rather a seasoned traveler whose healing powers depend upon actively seeking out invisible forces. Thus, anyone but the shaman would count as porous in these societies, because a good shaman has achieved relative invulnerability—has, we might say, actively buffered herself against supersensible powers (so as to manipulate her porosity strategically). The shamans described by Clastres or Taussig, then, are buffered, yet not what Taylor calls “excarnated”; they adapt a “pre-axial religion” to a late-modern situation of constant, unequal interaction with the contemporary capitalist, national, statist societies surrounding them, and so they embody “religion” under secular conditions. One sign of this secularity is that they share some of their spiritual knowledge (for example, of hallucinogenic substances) with strangers, and yet the specific content of other knowledges they may be quite content to lose in translation. In saying this, I of course assume that these indigenous societies do not positively refuse to engage in any contact with neighboring large-scale state societies, but this is far from certain in Amazonia, Zomia, and beyond. Hence, we should note not one but two axes of distortion in A Secular Age’s “politics of recognition”:  recognizability is rendered fundamentally problematic in terms of, first, knowledge and epistemology, and second, politics and power.  (These two axes are bound up with each other, as we shall see.)

Essays by Saba Mahmood, Nilüfer Göle, John Milbank, and Colin Jager in Varieties of Secularism gesture in different ways toward the first problem. The civilizationist episteme that supports Taylor’s use of Jaspers comes under fire from the first three. Milbank endorses Taylor’s reliance on the axial age as a marker of religious development but would push Taylor to complicate Christianity’s location within it, while Göle focuses on debates around Islam’s place in French laïcité and Turkish laiklik to trouble Taylor’s primarily “mono-civilizational” understanding of the secular.  Mahmood is most critical of all, underlining that Taylor rejects “Christianity’s overidentification with its civilizational mission” but nonetheless invokes what amounts to a civilizational-developmentalist schema in his pre- versus post-axial designations. Mahmood’s “Can Secularism Be Other-wise?” is particularly persuasive on how the normative subjectivity behind Taylor’s account distances itself in subtle ways from religious others. Thus, by schematizing indigenous religions as “pre-axial,” Taylor cannot help but relegate them to a time and place other than “our modern civilization.”

Taylor performs these subtle exclusions conceptually and epistemologically; and yet, in regard to language and presentation, he wants to be as inclusive as possible: “What I tried to do,” he says of A Secular Age, “is to lay out a picture of the scene in which we are all involved, a scene that people could agree on even if they are coming from different positions. . . . I think everyone who is really open and honest will acknowledge that this is our scene, or our common situation.” He wants to develop an “overlapping consensus” on how to talk about “fullness” among the multiplicity of positions in our secular age, and he expressly employs this Rawlsian term in the afterword to Varieties of Secularism. Here, though, we must inquire about the status of language in such a move. In order to construct such an overlapping consensus, Taylor calls on the Herderian power of Einfühlung. As Jager beautifully makes clear, Einfühlung involves a complicated self-reflexive act of “feeling one’s way in” to other positions. It is clear how much Taylor strives to engage in Einfühlung in respecting the mutual opacity of other positions.  This presumption of respect for others’ opacity is a remarkable and consistent feature of his work of the past two decades and, moreover, the gist of the position he espoused in the important essay “Politics of Recognition” (1994)—feeling one’s way into another culture is indispensible to an effective “fusion of horizons” among some cultures.  (I suspend here all the critical questions one could direct at the conception of “culture”—also ultimately civilizationist—operative in that famous essay.)

Yet, in constructing his overlapping consensus so as to find an account of fullness that we can all agree on in this secular age, Taylor has to rely on an assumption about language that conflicts with his respect for the opacity of other cultures.  He must assume that language can serve as a neutral, transparent, constative medium, rather than as performative or, worse, as itself an ontological substance. The latter possibilities—language as performative and as ontological—trouble the fusion of horizons, or the development of an overlapping consensus, in different ways.

First, even when used as constatives, words have performative power, and so the speech-actor’s situation will always leave its trace, even in straightforwardly descriptive statements. Jager reveals one consequence: Taylor’s first-personhood limits the third-person accounts available to him; a tension thus arises between the particular situatedness of the storyteller and the radical, transcendent reflexivity that Taylor wishes to achieve. I would go further than Jager and agree with Mahmood: “Perhaps what is most surprising is Taylor’s consistent movement (or slippage?) throughout the book from the particularity of Christianity to its universal transcendence.” Even while Taylor wishes to achieve a fusion of horizons that transcends the discrete horizon-lines of particular positions on fullness, he nonetheless does so from a situated point of view. The very act of describing a universal scene we can all agree on, much less participating in that communicative scene, will thus always involve truth-effects that can discredit or domesticate others. Indeed, one of the dangers of recognition in such a scene is that it domesticates others’ opacity in order to render them transparent for the scene (not least by chastising insufficient openness and honesty).

Yet some language simply resists transparent rendition—and this poses a second problem:  for certain shamans, language is itself an ontological substance—not transparently, representationally descriptive, but rather a fluid matter, like blood. Speech, breath, song can wash over, adhere to, and flow through an ailing person (hence, the different meaning of “inspiration” to which Asad’s account alludes). Language as some shamans employ it doesn’t so much involve an instrumental-practical question of “how to do things with words” as it does a question of an entirely different order: how to confront, coax, and tap into this autonomous pharmaceutical power than can cure or kill.  How can such material-spiritual language be translated? And into whose tongue, after all? Sometimes two or more languages, two or more worlds, simply cannot be made commensurate or mutually transparent.

By insisting on commensurability, Taylor may end up installing the domestication of minority societies as the endpoint of the struggle for recognition. Interestingly, the essay by Wendy Brown on the lingering Hegelianism in Feuerbach and Marx (especially in regard to Marx’s mutual constitution of material and ideal, sacred and profane) does not pursue a sustained comparison of Taylor, Feuerbach, and Marx specifically as readers of Hegel on recognition. Yet what several of the essays in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age reveal is how central the politics of recognition continues to be in Taylor’s late work, even though the very framing of recognizability increases the odds of fundamental misrecognition.

The foregoing thoughts on the powers and risks of misrecognition of course assume (again) that indigenous societies avail themselves to external recognizability in the first place. What happens, then, when indigenous societies prove politically unruly and refuse contact? What if indigenous societies empower themselves to reject outright and flee the systematic misrecognition that our overlapping consensus produces? Although Mahmood means in the following quotation to describe unruly subjects in dominant religions, “such as the fundamentalist, the evangelical, the religious extremist,” it strikes me that her point nevertheless applies as well to the unruliness of self-isolating indigenous societies: “The ‘otherness’ of these subjectivities is not only a product of their unruly actions but also an effect of how secular power establishes its claim to truth and normativity.” It is after all the structural violences of our secular truths that some indigenous societies will not abide.

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