A Secular Age:

Circling the line

posted by Jason Bivins
Of all the silly nonsense, this is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to in my life.
Alice in Wonderland

I was asked after the 2008 Presidential election to make some loose predictions about the future of conservative political religions in the United States. As any handicapper would, I’ve kept tabs as the Town Halls grew first loud and then armed, as cries of outrage were heard in legislatures, as conspiracies once the province of Lyndon LaRouche were given a national airing, and as tea parties were held. I’m not surprised, of course, having written two books about the recrudescence of religious antiliberalism. But I found it very interesting that Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Agea wonderfully rich collection of reflections on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—should appear in the thick of revived public panics regarding the perceived value of secularism. As bumper sticker-length slogans are hurled like grenades from various corners—celebrating the “divinely-inspired” vision of the Founders or defending their cautions against religious presence in public life—it seems obvious that secularisms are precisely what we should be scrutinizing. Right?

The very prospect of assessing the future vitality of particular religiosities, plotting a moment when they may become more anomalous, seems intimately linked to a long-standing dream in Religious Studies: the ability to name the differential quality, to draw a bright line isolating some special property that makes the things we call “religious” religious. John Milbank writes, in fact, that behind Taylor’s thesis about secularism is a story about the emergence of “religion as such,” of that same bright line’s use in demarcating those spheres central to the modern social imaginary, each containing things “fitting” and things “anomalous.” I found this parallel—between my field’s methodological itch and the historical narrative debated by Taylor’s interlocutors—fascinating to hold in mind as I read these pieces.

Taylor’s evocative narrative describes how the world we live in—but which he claims we recognize and understand imperfectly—came to be, and the ways in which it is characterized by complexities still emerging. His generous, tough-minded interlocutors have pushed Taylor, and readers, to think not only about omissions in his narrative but beyond it, to consider how religious and non-religious identities are generated and articulated inside secular formations. Certainly, as several authors have already noted on this blog, there are expressions of religiosity all around us that seem to demand we reassess Taylor’s contribution. Yet, as we take stock of what Akeel Bilgrami describes as the “distinctive anxieties” of modern life, or the rupturing power of apparent anomalies, what seems to be at stake is not just the continued vitality of religions, despite erstwhile modernist confidences about the compartmentalization of pious identities. Rather, beyond speculations about future faiths, about the place of religions in public space or argumentation, what seems also to be at stake is a kind of relationality and epistemology made possible by the secular, but made urgent, made wrathful, by supplemental forces in an age that is also hyper, excessive, and fearful.

The clangor and intensities of the contemporary United States reveal the textures of Taylor’s argument, suggesting that the long fetch of secularisms in the West continues to deposit new things on our shores. While it is not news that even religions are informed by unspoken and deeply rooted assumptions about persons, politics, and culture that derive from “the secular,” or that secularisms are lived from multiple positions, both explicit and unknowing, what seems to me radical about Taylor’s conceptualization is the way his formulations of living in a secular age—whether accepted or debated in all of its varied resonances—invite us to think imaginatively, not simply about his frame, but about frames as such, what they crop out, make room for, or place dead center.

Colin Jager writes vividly of philosophy’s “shadow” song, whose tune isn’t transcribed in Taylor’s historical composition. So too perhaps do things hidden, unexpected, or “anomalous” continue to echo in our thinking about the relational qualities of things we name “religious” and things we name differently. Anomalies of my own imagination continually intruded on my reading of this volume during the first fractious months of 2010. I found myself preoccupied with two images: one of a horse, the other of tears. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Turin near the end of his life, threw his hands around the neck of a horse he had spotted being whipped, collapsing thereafter into madness. Bellicose Fox News personality Glenn Beck, apparently so impassioned about his country’s proximity to the maw of the beast, has wept frequently on camera over the past year. Both images seem to demand that they be read as anomalous, perhaps because they appear outrageous, or perhaps because their truth has been disputed (the Nietzsche anecdote remains apocryphal, while Beck has apparently been caught applying Vick’s Vapo-Rub to enable his sorrows). Yet, just as the horse-hugging seems to capture something about Nietzsche whether or not it occurred as told (perhaps the violence and vulnerability he had long seen in modern notions of reason and respect), Glenn Beck’s tears seem not only to capture something of the strangeness of the way discourses of religion and secularism get articulated, but also the importance of simulacra and affect.

These images—and others like them, from Alice’s looking glass words to the President endlessly photo-shopped (as crisp a metaphor for secular epistemologies as we could dream up)—seemed surely to underscore the urgency of reconsidering secularisms. Yet they also bid us to look elsewhere, to change the subject. These essays thus had a clarifying effect for me, one which pointed to the limits of the very project of interrogating secularisms, a project that wrestles within its own frame by inviting us to think beyond it. Several contributors claim rightly that “religion” as category and as practice can exceed—through intensities, elusiveness, or sheer surplus of power—or flow beyond the frame of Taylor’s social imaginary. Even though religions may be unknowingly shaped by the rules of the game—as options among many, rather than the obligations or ubiquities of the past—the rules also permit, even necessitate their violations. So religions (especially the volatile political religions of the United States, as with Beck’s tears and tea party shouts) compel us to reconsider the implications of the very frame which alerts us to religious presence as such.

Certainly, this holds true for the ways religions have contested the developments Taylor describes. The obviousness of widespread religiosity in the United States and elsewhere is one factor in accounting for the antagonisms that flourish amid what Wendy Brown calls the “phenomenology of secularism” and its “peculiar way of being in the world.” Yet, precisely because the “secular”—no less than the religious—calls attention to its limits as experience and as category, I found it provocative to think about the ways in which the related phenomena of this season—Tea Parties, the varied expressions of conspiracy thinking (e.g. birthers), Texas curriculum controversies, and the ever-predictable claims that Speaker Pelosi or President Obama are hellspawn—were more than simply secularism’s “remainders” (to use Bonnie Honig’s term). That is, beyond the antagonisms that help constitute the secular, there are further implications for thinking and talking about public, political religions, and their expressions in a neoliberal order.

These “anomalous,” “othered” religious experiences, which thinkers past may simply have dubbed reactionary, unable but to proclaim their defiance of the secular, are, in perhaps less obvious ways, its most perfect expression. Their most abundant quality seems to be the desire for their own prolonging, to sound out their own existence in culture’s resonance chambers and to proclaim triumph on hearing the echoes. But why are such soundings ever more prevalent? Is it simply because religious citizens grow less comfortable with the frame’s dimensions? As the boundaries separating the spheres of market, state, and private life—so central to the liberal-constitutional social imaginary—grow ever fainter or more porous, we must think not simply of the ongoing Fort/Da between things named secular and things named religious, but about additional, perhaps more salient qualities of our secular: the epistemology, speed, and emotional resonance by which secular modes of being become ours in a hypertrophy of sentiment and simulacra.

While Brown writes that there is no “global outside” of capitalism, the acceleration of what Jodi Dean has elsewhere called “communicative capitalism” subsists in its endless communications loop, which accelerates the circulation of the affects, intensities, and simulations that seem more than anything else to characterize the space, time, and relational density of our secular. We see this in the way that informational density somehow reduces the possibility of dialogue between secularisms and religions, which instead are buoyed along in shared isolation by the communicative roil of endlessly streaming text, updates, links, and errata. Because everything now resonates in the same endless, edgeless context, there may be nothing particularly special about religious voices or identities aside from the attributions given to them (to wax Tavesian for a moment). The intimacy between the flow of data and emotional catharsis is such that no space, whether public “square” or social media, is free from collective self-disclosure, whether in Beckian tears and dreams of revolutionary gravitas or in their opposites, the jumpy liberal terror that fundamental freedoms are at risk and the impulse to psychologize (even the customarily sanguine Alan Wolfe recently suggested that Tea Partiers need a shrink).

The secular makes possible, perhaps even demands, such fantastic imaginings of the other, those self-satisfied dismissals that always follow recognition. And yet it is precisely the point that such fantasy is no longer fantastic, and such sensible nonsense is now our personal reason. Rather than being troubled or changed by the other, and the doubts it may engender, the outraged selves given life by our secular acknowledge what is other to them—a horse, a liberal, a fact—as a necessary stage of the endless return to authenticity and validation that is the telos of our politics. The velocity of the communicative context—whether one experiences it as “religious” or not—collapses epistemology into emotion, where we acknowledge as true that which fits our experience.

The maximization of choice in our relentlessly commercialized everyday now extends to epistemology, with every fact available for every use no matter how urgently we insist on the singularity and non-contingency of our truths.

Instead of the fussiness and lack of closure in doubt, or drab realpolitik, we reassure ourselves that we are on “journeys” made meaningful either by historic assaults on our very being or by the transcendent pleasures of seeing our selves mirrored everywhere. Religion matters, in the way Taylor suggests and according to his interlocutors, but what matters equally is that public life is now shaped by the sheer volume of voices and the range of outrages that confirm an overwhelming desire for selves to mean something in the world historical sense—to matter like the founding generation, for every blog rant to constitute revolution. This is perhaps as important to understanding agonistic religions as is their relation to the secular.

It strikes me that this desire manifests what Jean-Francois Lyotard described, in The Differend, as “maximum performativity,” which turns away from reasoned reflection not because it is seen as threatening—a potential quashing of the anomalous—but because it “is ‘good for nothing,’ it is not good for gaining time. For success is gaining time.” The powerful expressions of public religion in our midst—inescapable, urgent, foreboding—cannot be understood simply as antagonisms, or as anomalous “nonsense,” as Alice said of her tea party. One of the most surreal and chilling moments in Lewis Carroll’s tale comes when we learn that the Mad Hatter has actually been punished by time, which remained ever fixed at the same hour. In our own racing performativity, eager to gain time in its successful conquest of pleasures, we certainly might see Alice throwing up her hands at the nonsense surrounding her. But we might also see, beyond our attempts to locate the differential, a Mad Hatter tucked away somewhere inside the frame, no longer trying to contain excess and spillage, but instead redrawing the faded line between “secular” and “religious.” But now as a circle.

I can imagine no image more apt when considering our own tea time, when political stasis dons the mask of engagement and we too seem fixed at the same hour, a continual apocalyptic that can be known, not only by its relation with secularisms, but by a fragile epistemology made in velocity and emotional abundance. So what we see peeking from behind Glenn Beck’s tears, beneath the masks of the Hutaree, or at the fingertips of the indignant leftist blogger is in some sense our own complicity in the transformations of a politics increasingly defined by the languages of domination and humiliation (sustained in part by cell phone photos of epic fails, taunting bumper sticker art, those entertainments that Nicolas Lehmann calls “humiliation TV”). This, too, is the secular that produces us and our relations, all absorbed into its swarm of discourses.

So our challenge is to think not only about how identities are categorized according to their genus—“secular” or “religious”—or simply about their mutual imbrications and/or antagonisms (as if that told the tale). Whatever we say about the relations among things religious or secular, this politics—its mood, its ways of knowing, its velocity—saturates the frame. Taylor and his interlocutors urge us to think about framing and its excesses, and to rescope questions about secularisms, not because they are wrong or unsuggestive, but because they are vaster than we thought. As we shuttle continually beyond the moment, desperate to gain time, we live not in the measured pace of contemplative modernities, but inside an experiential velocity that seeks to outrun its own stasis. Its failure to do so is what binds us all in, and to, the secular as surely as it spawns our fantasies of ourselves and our others. And it is here that we might see not just beyond Taylor’s frame, but deeper into it.

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One Response to “Circling the line”

  1. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    Thank you for this admirably written and presented set of ideas.

    Bivins summarizes that for “relations among things religious or secular, this politics—its mood, its ways of knowing, its velocity—saturates the frame.” I cannot yet tell which I shall remember the longer: Bivins’s noting of the varieties of epistemologies employed, his observations about the projectiles of time and speed on our social imaginary, or his comments about the degree to which combative rhetoric saturates the once pedantic debates of secularism and religion?

    My initial awareness of the last of those came with first watching the host of a late night local television talk show for Orange County, California, in the early 1980s. Wally used his control as host to dominate and ridicule his guests in front of a small live audience, who behaved as if they were at a wrestling match. Professional wrestling, for all its phoniness, may be the secular equivalent of scholastic debates over dogma, certainly approaching religion in its financial consequences and its fanatical audience.

    But an epistemology to satisfy any taste? Philosopher Nelson Goodman has written coherently about the consequences of data sizes on theoretical adequacy. Size matters. Indeterminacy increases exponentially. Former sureties are exposed as correct only for confined and even arbitrary selections of data.

    Add to that our short attention spans that reward superficial reports of superficial research, and our age of information becomes an age of misinformation. Pop science is just another commodity with short shelf life.

    What about the pride of the scientific method? We all know the commonplace that each new question leads to a new search that promises a new discovery. When it greets us with a centerless and shapeless universe composed of dark matter and dark energy, we understand the ancient maps marked, “Here be monsters.” Or at least the other of what and who we are, all of us. Amid the latest massive failure of technology, thousands of barrels of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico, and epitomized in climate change, we get an echo of the warning from religion, about human dependency and the perils of arrogance, in the secular version, “Don’t fool with mother nature.”

    The prophetic poetry of pop artists in the 1960s aroused by imperial war, a new awareness of the oppression of women and minorities, seems not to have taught the next generations. The audience for radical political change shrank, aided by a repeat of the Gilded Age attitude of leadership from Reagan right up to the present time.

    Those were also a time when politics morphed from a contest to open warfare and of business no longer as competition that stimulates innovation but as monopoly to produce profits for robber barons. Is it to the credit of mainline Protestantism that this has also been a time of recession? Maybe a distillation process whereby the clubbies find somewhere else to peddle their wares? I hope to live long enough to find out.

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