Romanticism, reflexivity, design: An interview with Colin Jager

posted by Nathan Schneider

Colin Jager’s reading of the British romantics places them at the center of debates about religion, secularism, and pluralism today. In The Book of God, he traces the ways in which design arguments for God’s existence—predecessors to the current Intelligent Design movement—were developed and discussed in British literature from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. His interpretation challenges those in the habit of trying to disentangle the religious and the secular, in both the past and the present.

Jager is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University and is currently at work on a second book, After Secularism: Romanticism, Literature, Religion.

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NS: What makes modern sociological terms like “secularism” and “secularization” useful for interpreting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature? Is there a danger of falling into misleading anachronism?

CJ: There’s always that danger when we use a term from one historical period to describe aspects of another one. “Secularism” first emerges in Victorian England as a self-description, a way to avoid being labeled an atheist, and it has a long history within Christianity before that, as the secular, or worldly, time before the Second Coming. “Secularization” is a bit trickier, since it aims to describe a process and to give that process the aura of scientific neutrality, like the weather. I think the danger is not so much anachronism—which, frankly, I don’t think is a bad thing anyway—but rather forgetting that terms are never merely descriptive. So, I use the term, and I try to be reflexive about it. It’s comforting for many people to see themselves as living on the far side of a secularization process, and it’s that sense of comfort that I’d like to disrupt a bit.

NS: What does it mean for you to be reflexive?

CJ: What I mean by “reflexivity” is really just a critical consciousness that whenever you invoke a term, you are also invoking its history—the conditions under which it was forged and the uses to which it has been subsequently put. At the same time, we need these terms: something has changed over the course of modernity, for instance, and I’m comfortable with calling that change “secularization,” as long as it’s defined very carefully and I know what the stakes are in a given definition. Reflexivity is just my shorthand for the process, which I take to be central to serious intellectual practice, anyway—to strike the balance between using a term or concept or idea and simultaneously being aware of what you’re doing when you use it. It’s a mental habit of disembedding from the stuff you really care about—which, appropriately enough, is a pretty good definition of the secular!

NS: If I may speak of anachronism again, is this kind of secular reflexivity foreign to the texts you’re dealing with?

CJ: Of course not. In The Book of God I discuss a remark made by one of Jane Austen’s characters—Mary Crawford is her name—who hears that prayers are no longer said in the family chapel attached to the large mansion that she’s visiting. She says, “Every age has its improvements.” What she means most immediately is that family prayers are unpleasant and boring, and in the context she’s being clever and rather arch. But, by linking her personal feelings about family prayers to a theory of history as progressive secularization, she’s also invoking a whole range of historical processes. In England at the time, “improvement” meant a certain kind of landscape design that improved the view but neutralized or buried the actual historical presence of people within that landscape: moving the tenant farmers out of sight, maybe building a fake ruin or two. Mary may think that you can just invoke historical processes to further your own agenda—in this case, she’s trying to flirt with another character—but Austen’s narrator is simultaneously telling us something else: you can’t invoke historical processes without also invoking the history that those processes claim to describe but also inevitably distort, marginalize, cover up, re-write, and so on.

This is reflexivity in action, and it’s on the page: as readers, we’re being asked to see that what Mary sees as the whole truth is only a partial truth. Her easy assumptions about historical progress cause her to miss a great deal that is going on in this scene and in the book as a whole. She knows she’s being clever, but she doesn’t realize that she’s coming off as insensitive and really kind of clueless. All this that I’ve laboriously explained happens in just one line in the novel! That’s a wonderful example of how literary experience can do all kinds of nuanced intellectual work.

NS: The design arguments for God’s existence that you address in The Book of God are typically treated by philosophers and the public as sheer abstractions, or even scientific hypotheses; why treat them instead as literary creations?

CJ: No one discipline owns the design argument and its critiques. Historically, the distinctions that people typically draw today among literature, philosophy, and theology just don’t hold up. Professional literary study, especially, has only been around for a hundred years or so. A thinker like David Hume, who is very important to the story I tell about design, did not think of himself as a philosopher but as man of letters: he wrote history, philosophy, and theology, and he served as a diplomatic secretary. This was a typical “literary” career. I try to restore some of that broad range to the topics I write about—though no diplomats have signed me up yet!

NS: What’s an example of how you, as a scholar of literature, can shed light on a philosophical debate?

CJ: In Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo, who is skeptical of design arguments, wins the battle, but Cleanthes, who supports them, wins the war. One thing Hume might be suggesting is that if you’re on Philo’s team, you’d best give up your belief that better arguments can win the day all on their own. Yes, the philosophical or conceptual idea of design seems rather abstract, but, at the same time, those arguments are lived and experienced by real people in real time. This is one thing Hume figured out—and it’s a literary point, if you want to put it that way: the rhetoric, the habits of mind, the practices of sociability that accompany what we could call the culture of design aren’t just window-dressing for some philosophical argument. Those things are the argument. That’s why the culture of design is easier to come at through literature rather than the history of philosophy—through practice rather than theory, if you will. We’ve misunderstood the way secularization works if we think that better arguments drive the discussion.

NS: How do you square the Intelligent Design movement’s design arguments today with the narrative of secularization? One often hears them described as an anomaly in a modern society, but they’d have to be a pretty gigantic anomaly, demographically speaking.

CJ: Hardly anyone signs up just for a given argument—the design argument or any other. They sign up, rather, for the worldview and value-system, along with the habits and communities in which they understand those arguments to be embedded. The fact that Intelligent Design hasn’t yet produced a single creditable scientific claim is regarded as devastating by most in the scientific community, but it’s unlikely to faze the folks who have latched onto it. What they’ve latched onto is an articulation, however poorly conceived or executed, of the kind of world in which they want to understand themselves as living, one presided over by a powerful and benevolent force. At least for some, design arguments mark a compromise between science and faith. Lots of folks who hold to some version of theistic design also benefit—especially when it comes to medicine—from sciences that take bottom-up evolution for granted. At this level, design is very much a contributor to secularization. There’s a certain pathos and poetry to being caught in what Charles Taylor calls these cross-pressures of modernity.

NS: What drew you, originally, to the study of romanticism and, with it, to the question of secularity?

CJ: Romanticism and the secular really began as two separate interests for me. My interest in romanticism goes a long way back to my undergraduate years. What excited me then, and still excites me, was the heady, ambitious mix of philosophy and literature. You don’t have to read very far in Shelley or Coleridge or the Schlegels before you realize that the most extraordinary kinds of conceptual claims are being made. I liked the idea of “literature” doing the work of “philosophy”—and doing it better, because it takes in a wider compass of the human experience. My father was a philosopher, so maybe there was a little bit of healthy oedipal competition there, too! Later, in graduate school, I read Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s book The Literary Absolute, which argues that literature completes the task that philosophy had begun but couldn’t, on its own, finish. I liked that idea—it put literature at the top of the heap!

NS: And the secular?

CJ: The secular as such came a bit later for me. I wanted to find a way to write about religion, mostly because literary critics tend to write about it so unintelligently. Eventually it dawned on me that you can’t really write about religion without writing about the background against which it appears. Religion is not a thing that you can study apart from its surroundings. Most literary scholars still are not asking about the background against which something gets to count as “religious.” And then it was reading and hearing the usual suspects—Talal Asad, Michael Warner, William Connolly, Charles Taylor—that convinced me that the secular was itself an appropriate object of study, analysis, and critique. At some level, I think I was writing about secularism before I knew it, since one of the things that always appealed to me about the romantic moment was its promise of this-worldly redemption. Why wait for heaven when you can have it now? Now, when I look at romanticism and secularism, I have a hard time telling them apart.

NS: But wasn’t romanticism at least as much a reaction against excessive this-worldliness in the kind of society that was then emerging?

CJ: That’s why, for some people, it’s way too “religious”—by which they mean Christian—because it holds onto so many redemptive tropes even as it displaces and transforms them. They believe the critique of religion learned from Feuerbach and Marx needs to be applied to romanticism, or perhaps even to literature tout court—we’re not yet secular enough. I incline to the opposite position, namely, that secularism isn’t so much a break from Christianity as a process internal to it. Romanticism is a huge part of this story because it’s the moment when writers like Herder and Coleridge try to preserve the spirit of Christianity by universalizing it. For me, the fact of romanticism as a historical phenomenon shows that you can’t separate out the religious and secular, either historically or conceptually. You’ve got to speak of them together. And it’s the “literary,” once again, that finds a way to do that.

NS: You suggest that romanticism has often been identified today with “a failure of nerve.” What do you mean by this?

CJ: One thing that “romanticism” supposedly gave us was cultural relativism. For defenders of the Enlightenment, even chastened defenders, the idea that culture goes all the way down, and that it has to be evaluated not against a universal yardstick—reason, progress, whatever—but against itself, looks like weakness. But this is hardly “relativism” of the banal “I’m OK, You’re OK” sort. At its best, it is anti-dogmatic, open to new information and new ways of seeing the world. Far from weak, it has the courage and confidence of its own convictions. It says that the way I see the world and the way the world is are probably not the same thing. By contrast, the current shouting about “Islamofascism” suggests a real fragility and lack of confidence underneath all the bluster. This doesn’t mean that an inspired romantic multiculturalism is the answer to all our problems. But part of what the writers and thinkers of the romantic era figured out was that the world was filled with lots of different people, and that secularism—whether a state-ordained policy or a theory of procedural liberalism—just wasn’t going to be able to deal with all of them non-coercively.

NS: What alternative to cries of “Islamofascism” do you think the romantics might suggest to us, in terms of the West’s encounter with others?

CJ: Once again, I would say that romanticism is valuable for us today precisely because it offers a much more complex picture of the actual situation. To be sure, for romantic writers, the Muslim is a largely exoticized, Orientalized figure—as in Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge. But even that is useful, since it tells us a great deal about the cultural depictions available today; it’s no accident that Edward Said’s Orientalism spends so much time on romanticism, nor that the recent work of Akeel Bilgrami has unearthed a romantic counter-Orientalism that ends with Gandhi. Moreover, so much romantic-era writing returns to the figure of the outsider, very often figured as some kind of Semitic other: the Jew, the Turk. And what one sees over and over again, in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, for example, or DeQuincey’s Confessions, is how intertwined are the histories of “Aryan” and “Semite,” “Christian” and “Turk” and “Jew.” They already understood that these distinctions can be made only through acts of violence.

NS: Is cross-cultural reflexivity, in this way, a discovery we owe to the romantics?

CJ: I would put it like this: when we come against our own internal limits, and we know there’s a territory beyond that limit, but we don’t have a map—the romantics give us the language for that feeling.

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