Ambivalence, avoidance, hedging, delay—these are but some of my responses to Michael Warner’s richly rendered provocation and response to my book Secularism in Antebellum America.
Indeed, was antebellum America secular?
To answer his title question definitively, yes or no, is to commit oneself to a vision of the present in which religion recedes into oblivion, or flowers, or does battle with its secular other. Definitive answers, moreover, serve a politics of normativity for they help determine the ideas, objects, and persons to be jettisoned, not to mention what views of the world become authoritative, which moral feelings count, and which ones become unaccounted for and forgotten.
Warner engages crucial work on secularity even as he considers the dissolution of the entrenched differential of the religious and the secular. Consequently, Warner’s essay is also incitement for a renewed interrogation of the history of the difference between the religious and the secular and how that difference makes a difference in the lives of individuals—no less for historical actors than for the scholars who study them.
Such interrogations must be rigorous and responsible to the archive but also, at the same time, be deft and willing to account for the precipitous declining ground of secular analysis. Such interrogations, I would add, portend nothing less than a reorientation of historical inquiry.
So although the question of whether antebellum America was secular cannot and should not be taken at face value, it and other similar queries have done much to establish the taken-for-granted status of the differential in many arenas of American life—jurisprudence, corporate culture, mass media, religious institutions, academic environs. What happens, Warner asks, when the categorical difference between the religious and the secular is shown to be historically contingent, politically expedient, and, most perversely, a product of the very era and imaginary this differential is now called upon to analyze? What happens when we possess insight into the making of religion in all of its varied registers yet inhabit a world in which that making has structured the very possibility of our recognition? What happens, as the stowaway Pip so slyly asks, when you unscrew your navel, when the boundary between self and world begins to become undone?
The question of the secular, as I take Warner to suggest, is not merely dizzying. It is, at some level, incomprehensible. And I agree, although I suspect that we have different spins on what incomprehension portends and what the stakes are for analysis.
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Warner commends Secularism in Antebellum America for the way in which it illuminates a tension between “analytic distance and normative involvement.” He remains wary, however, of my “Derridean pathos” and flattening of “the complex relations among secularity (constituting the real in a social imaginary and establishing religion as a category), political secularism (a project for regulating religion so conceived), and various forms of ethical secularism.” This is a fair concern (although I would insist that my pathos is Benjaminian) and one that I will not so much counter as qualify with a series of normative claims.
I welcome Warner’s call to distinguish between the background noise from which conceptual patterns of religion take shape, political projects that seek to create these patterns, and the living out and through these patterns. These three analytical distinctions are (and will be) immensely helpful in thinking about a range of contradictions endemic to the secular age and, in particular, the cultivation of selves within discourse and the maintenance of privacy amidst a swirl of conceptual demands. And as Warner himself notes, I, too, have these distinctions in mind.
But I have to admit that analytical differentiation was not my primary concern while writing Secularism. Instead, I sought to tell a story that conjured the dense experiential measures of a secular imaginary circa 1851. Rather than distinguish between the moods and motivations, the institutional directives, and the conceptual atmosphere, I focused on the relationality of concepts across cultural fields—remarkable moments in which abstract workings of discourse channeled through frail human beings.
My book is full of moments in which people experience intensity without an identifiable cause, an affect that is quickly given emotional shape and linguistic form. My narrative strategy was to highlight the experience of agencies from beyond and without as a way to tell a story of how the buffering of selves was achieved by way of one’s vulnerability (and response) to discourse. These are moments, I argued, that secularism got under the skin—not as some dominant force that invades and snatches the body away from you but rather, a moment in which neither the self nor the world was in charge. Or to put this another way, a moment when the self became the self through its exposure to discourse, an exposure that did not boil down to seamless incorporation but generated a complex process in which submission was accompanied by swerve, structuration by negotiation.
In the end, I was interested in framing the particularity of secularism’s excess. Background conditions that were not merely contextual but were agents in a distributive field. For to study secularism is to study those forces that originate in a human world but nonetheless assume an inhuman intensity.
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Secularism is about the conditions and processes that generate religion. These conditions are not immediately present to consciousness and these processes structure more than matters of religious adherence. The “location” of these conditions—perhaps even their ontology and mechanics—is a matter of contention (informed as it is by disciplinary location).
In Secularism in Antebellum America I asked a set of questions about these conditions and these processes as they related to a range of Protestant subcultures in the northeast, circa 1851. How did they convince themselves that they were religious or not or somewhere in between? According to what criteria and why? What were the effects of their conviction, for themselves, for others, and for us?
The truth (and falsity) of religion was forged in relation with slaves, Mormons, immigrants, Catholics, and native populations. Violence—real and imagined—against these populations was integral to the making of the secular imaginary I sought to account for, as were internal divisions within the orbits of Anglo-Protestantism. I did not emphasize these conflicts as much as I might have because I was more interested in demonstrating the epiphenomenal nature of conflict—by which I mean the way in which particular conflicts, bloody and real, were effects as much as causes of secularism.
So, for example, those who took violent issue with Joseph Smith’s revelations assumed that some religions were true and some were absolutely not. While Mormonism may have emerged out of the fires of revivalism, antipathy toward Mormons served to consolidate an evangelical public sphere even as the resulting authority of evangelical truth served to naturalize anti-Mormonism beyond evangelical precincts. In taking issue with the truth of Smith’s religion (the excess of his free choice, his literalism applied to a supplemental scripture, the hints of ecstasy and erotics that simmered beneath his pious stance) Mormon haters in Carthage, Illinois participated in the same discursive field in and through which Smith experienced his First Vision in 1820. That spring, in the woods of Manchester, New York, Smith was stuck in the dilemma of voluntarism. As he pondered the question of which church he should join, the golden plates were revealed to him.
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Upon examination of different geographic sites, different epistemic registers and social arenas, different language games and institutions, I concluded that the making of religion in antebellum America was a massively normalizing phenomenon. Perhaps even more so than had been previously acknowledged.
I was animated, for example, by the multiplicity of sites where spirituality was being made, encouraged, diagnosed, and promulgated. Spirituality and its advocacy could be found across all manner of sites—from the American Tract Society headquarters on Nassau Street to the colporteur knock on the hinterland door, from the dexterous phrenologist with his calipers to Unitarian sermons, trance lectures, penny presses and etiquette advice manuals, from spirit communiqués and ethnographic encounters to the dreams of prison reformers and their wards, and the burgeoning discipline of moral science. Much went into the making of spirituality as a self-evident faculty of the human. Spirituality, as theorized at mid-century, served to instantiate a sense of potential immunity. Indeed, the “most spiritual man” was “the one most quickened with potential life” according to Universalists [E.F., “Spirituality,” The Universalist Quarterly IX (July 1852)]. Moreover, the conceptual terrain of spirituality fueled all manner of political projects directed at cultivating selves that were porous to the degree that the traffic between self and world was ideally and naturally a matter of self-regulation. Spirituality, in other words, did not so much allow individuals to deny porosity as much as forget it, strategically, in relentless acts of self-cultivation.
Here I witnessed a particular making and deployment of what, according to Charles Taylor, is the defining mark of the secular age—a buffered self. A buffered self is a discrete entity. A buffered self is smart in the brain and free in the person. A buffered self can, therefore, stand at distance from the religious to the degree that religiosity is one choice among many. For Taylor, the buffer is that which cuts across whatever distinction one would like to posit between the religious and the secular. Once located, this buffer “will demand from myself the highest attainable perfection in all things; and will apply negatively, —that I avoid all injury by self-control; and also positively, —that I secure all practicable improvement by self-culture.” The buffer, as a mechanism of self, serves to differentiate between 1) a western world in which individuals choose vis-à-vis the religious and 2) the “the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in” and oftentimes chose for the individuals in question.
But how did this kind of self emerge as a default setting across the religious-secular continuum? What kinds of desire and force were at play in the making of a buffered situation—a self thinking about itself thinking about the world, from a distance, and a social environment that guaranteed the ability of that self to think, securely, across that distance? What about the constraints that enable the buffer?
Whereas Taylor places a definitive value upon the buffered self and its potential to stave off the world long enough so as to seek what he calls a state of fullness, I am skeptical of the concept of a buffered self—both then and now. I am suspicious of the way in which it feels so damn good, how it makes everyone an artist, how it offers an ironic defense against the algorithms that incessantly call upon us. For it is the buffered self that bolsters a bit too much and gives tremendous advantage as one seeks tactics and subtle strategies of resistance.
So I can appreciate the political freedoms instantiated by all manner of buffering formations: the social contract, provisions against pick-pocketing and leg-breaking, my mortgage, my life insurance, my Amazon wish list, my hyperlinked name at the top of this post, the MRI machines that resonate with my hydrogen nuclei (and erase my credit cards in the process), the designer drugs tailored perfectly to my taste for elliptical perception. But these formations do not resolve my porosity into a bounded commodity to manage and exchange. Their authority depends upon the persistence of my porosity and not its resolution.
And vice versa.
For the buffered self, I contend, is an advertisement, more of a social ritual than ontology. Earnest celebrations of the buffer make it incredibly difficult to sustain conversations about the ways in which the self is subject to the agencies of the object-world, to history, to strangers and expertly branded institutions, to forces that do not announce themselves as such. There is fullness and pleasure to be had in such relays, for better or for worse. As an advertisement that has been wildly successful, the buffered self occludes from consideration the complex conditions of its own possibility. And finally, theoretically, a buffered self leaves little room for the experience of dread, insights into the plurality of worlds we inhabit together, and consideration of the range of agents within those worlds.
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Disenchantment is bound up in theses of secularization—a description of feeling and style within modernity as much as a prescription for thinking. Disenchantment is linked, of course, to Max Weber’s classic statement of the diffusion of instrumental rationality. As Weber made clear in “Science as Vocation,” a will to and dependence upon calculation had become a reigning principle, perhaps even an ethical imperative. In a lecture so sharp in its bleakness, Weber diagnoses an acute condition of reason—marked not by certainty per se but by the expectation of certainty. Passionate belief, in other words, is at the heart of disenchantment, namely, the belief in the human ability to rid the world of forces that, if they were to resist calculation, would effect us in incalculable ways. An abiding sense of incomprehension would serve the interests of neither State nor science nor sustained hierarchy.
Under the sign of disenchantment, the world at-large, and especially human being, become subject to efficient calculation to such a degree that the world and the human become means to the ends of organization and systematicity. As a generalization, Weber’s is generally true. But what is most interesting about Weber’s claim, and most in need of elaboration vis-à-vis secularism, is an analysis of the conditions that make such means possible and such ends desirable. For when such critical work is undertaken, we begin to sense that disenchantment is an apt moniker for neither the phenomenological nor sociological registers of modernity. Like the buffered self, disenchantment is a fiercely defended wish, often fulfilled but not a fait accompli.
This point is bound up in my interest in spiritualism as a complex of ritual practice, ideas, and affect. At mid-century evangelicals were horrified by spiritualism which they saw as an irrational and dangerous affirmation of an enchanted world. Spiritualists, in turn, insisted that séances and trance lectures would loosen evangelicals up, curing them of their unhappiness and their insanity. As one spiritualist journal suggested, it was precisely the accounting for ghosts that was the mark of a true best reasonable self—“the influence of Spiritualist teachings not only does not tend to produce insanity, but has a positively counteracting tendency” [The Spiritual Telegraph 1 (1853)].
In the myriad ways in which ghosts were named at mid-century, one can witness the strange play of enchantment and disenchantment that I argue is indicative of the secularity of a long nineteenth century. On one hand, we find throughout the spiritualist archive moments in which individuals sense that their very being was located elsewhere, on the horizon, outside of themselves. In these moments they sensed themselves in the throes of mediation, shot through with something ill defined, that nonetheless determined their present and future states of being. These moments, as strictly defined by the terms of secular modernity, were enchanted. Yet, on the other hand, these moments were indices of future certainty and fodder for ever more elaborate schemes of calculation.
The mid-century metaphysician Andrew Jackson Davis illustrates something about this distant yet effective backdrop of a secular imaginary, against which choices were encountered and decisions were made. Despite the fact that a spirit had instructed Davis that “the Whole System is a volume which even the highest seraph has not altogether read,” Davis nevertheless offered detailed maps of the Whole. For even if mapping of the spirit-world was ever incomplete, it was the assumption that there was a “Whole” to be mapped that informed spiritualist practice and identity. To paraphrase Alex Owen’s description of British occultism at the fin de siècle, Davis did not recognize the relativism of his own self-reflexivity and could therefore assume his rightful place as lord of the universe.
Davis, like an American Tract Society official or individuals performing a phrenological exam on themselves, held a belief, and that is what it surely is, in the capacity to measure that which was essential, forever and ever, amen. The rendering of the entire universe, visible and invisible, as effectively compatible was also an instance of incredible discursive investment. Everything and everything, according to Davis, could and should be mapped. It was not the instantiation of systematicity as much as it was the promotion of it as an object of worship.
Warner suggests that one implication of my work is that the “literal hauntings of spiritualism were at root the realization of the metaphorical haunting [ ] in technological society.” I would qualify this by saying that it was not simply technology but the discourse of secularism (in and through which machines and mechanical metaphors assumed their strength) that was intensely felt yet never exactly present.
To appreciate the strange ontology of discourse I drew from the testimony of historical actors. I took seriously their visions of haunted terrains and the invisible mechanics of body, mind, and much else. For when alone, at rest “a sweet sense of estrangement begins to creep over me. In such a case, it is truly most delightful to see how sweetly what is left behind insinuates its presence. The walk, the solitary chamber even, are haunted unawares by a feeling which must be called social . . . which is, in fact, a very present presence.” On one level, encounters with “very present” presences were enchanting in the Charles Taylor (and Edward Burnett Tylor) sense—a survival of what we imagine to be primitive proclivities. On another level, such encounters followed a Weberian script of disenchantment in which wonder and dread were evacuated in the name of measured explanation. When incomprehension began to set in, so, too, did the work of parrying it. Yet on still another level, such encounters were not encounters at all. They were matters of enchantment in which the self did not simply experience an inert object world but found oneself in relation to it, mediated by it, and in some weak sense, determined by it.
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So Warner is right to point out that bloody, violent religious dissent is largely missing from my story—for there were indeed robust and deeply-felt antagonisms that I do not discuss at any length. My interest in the saturated phenomena of secularism led to different questions concerning how antagonistic positions can serve larger historical trajectories. There was, indeed, a politics to all this spirit-seeing—exclusions and closures that were real yet did not always leave a mark.
For ways of knowing and unknowing, of overcoming the limits of the visible with nothing but the promise of disenchantment, of keeping the incomprehensible at bay through a relentless desire to calculate—bore directly on the management of various populations and the lives within. Rather than a flattening I would like to think of my chronicle of antebellum epistemics as staging the consequential turns in which selves are affected in ordinary ways by the conceptual terrain of the religious even as they deploy these concepts well beyond their immediate interests. Within the political projects forwarded by John Edmonds and Eliza Farnham (prison reform at Sing Sing State Penitentiary) and Lewis Henry Morgan (anthropology and Indian removal), the art of governance was suffused with existential navigations, ethical binds, as well as the imagination of racial difference. In each of these situations, whiteness reigned. Racial difference was an epiphenomenon of secularism, namely a common sense linkage of true religion with right morality with an essential humanity with whiteness. This linkage was manifest in the cat o’ nine tails at Sing Sing and the legal seizures of native lands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, proving, perhaps, that people can bleed and die by the force of the epiphenomenal.
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As one studies the making of the religious/secular continuum and the exclusions that support its normativity, one can quickly find oneself writing from a position of pious skepticism. Secularization theses, and more specifically, the secular and the breadth and scope of its truth claims become foreboding in their immanence, in the ways in which they seem to structure so much of one’s analytical choice with so little fanfare. One, therefore, cannot be shy, methodologically or theoretically, when approaching such a theologico-politico-social scheme.
The study of secularism, among other things, gives lie to the old differential saws of structure and agency, cognition and culture. It forces us, among other things, to reconsider the very suppositions of critique as secular.
So I plead guilty to Warner’s charge of standing in awe, of seeking to appreciate (and conjure) something that escapes my analytical frame. But does such pathos, as Warner suggests, “project[ ] from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic”? Well, yes and no.
Secularism does not exist wholly beyond the feelings, principles, and practices it authorizes. However, some part of its logic escapes our sensory orbit, out-imagining our capacity to imagine it, to name it, to grasp in its immensity. This kind of strange ontology cannot be exposed like a garden-variety object of Enlightenment critique. It can be neither cut up nor quarantined nor assayed after dutiful collection.
Herman Melville suggested that such tragic appreciation had its reasons and was the mark of our supple humanity. For Melville, original sin was a condition of permanent enchantment, a condition that could not be overcome as much as continually assessed. (Melville’s perspective was an affirmation of the “pasts” of Edwardsian Calvinism, primitivism, and Catholicism that so many Americans were in the process of defining themselves against at mid-century). As a matter of metaphysics and writerly conceit, Melville assumed that people were, in part, constituted by powers beyond their epistemic purview—“infinite socialities” that demanded that humans struggle to do the impossible: move beyond mere humanism. “There lies the knot with which we choke ourselves,” wrote Melville. “As soon as you say Me, a God, a Nature, so soon you jump off from your stool and hang from the beam.”
These lines served as my own writerly conceit in Secularism. Indeed, they reminded me of my own failure to grasp the socialities within me, eliciting both suspicion and sympathy for those who claimed otherwise. If grasping for the precision of system is endemic to a secular age, I sought, instead, to provide a diagnosis, and on more illusory, manic days, an anecdote to what Brian Massumi calls the “preconversion of surprise into cognitive confidence.” For what I wanted to conjure was how secularity, political secularism, and ethical secularism swirl together in a seemingly unfathomable mix, which is to say at the level of the historical actor and historian alike.
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There is no outside from which to objectify and to take the measure of secularity. No single inquiry can gain definitive leverage uponthe massive yet intricate mechanics of how religion—as faculty, phenomenon, mood, and category—gets real. A range of perspectives is required. Consequently, I see a necessary (but not exclusive) role for genealogical approaches to the secular age. The “entangled and confused parchments” must be given their due even as one seeks analytic purchase upon different layers and different moments of the secular age. In tacking back and forth between an appreciation for the excess of systems and the necessary work of systemization, there is a productive (and dialectical) tension to be had in all of this subterranean earnestness.
Perhaps this dialectic is a disciplinary inheritance of religious studies, ever inhabiting what Leigh Schmidt has referred to as the charged space between suspicion and sympathy, itself a product of the intellectual environs of nineteenth-century America. So perhaps it comes down not to an individual choice between suspicion or sympathy, but rather an embrace of both under the canopy of a future field.
As Warner’s provocation makes clear, scholarship on secularity must offer a sustained engagement with the complexity of the situation and its complicity in that complexity. Such immanent criticism “pursues the logic of its aporias, the insolubility of the task itself.” If future critics of secularity were to follow this melody laid down by Theodor Adorno—own up to it boys and girls!—they would seek the impossible: to draw from the inheritance of secular critique while simultaneously resisting its allure.
According to Adorno, “A successful work [of] immanent criticism is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure. Confronted with this kind of work, the verdict ‘mere ideology’ loses its meaning. At the same time, however, immanent criticism holds in evidence that the mind has always been under a spell. On its own it is unable to resolve the contradictions under which it labours. Even the most radical reflection of the mind on its own failure is limited by the fact that it remains a reflection, without altering the existence of which its failure bears witness.”
In light of this inevitable failure to grasp, from within, the making of an immanent frame, how to continue to write without buying into the reality of belief or the buffer between you and me, me and the archive, you and the archive? What kinds of sentences might yet achieve a hint of leverage—not upon the thicket, the blur, this secularism—but rather in light of it?