How one answers the question “Is critique secular?” determines substantially how one engages with secularism, how one comes to defend it, repudiate it, or reconceptualize it. My answer to this question is unequivocal: Yes, critique is secular, and to go even further, if the secular imagination ceases to seek and to enact critique, it ceases to be secular. [...]
Is critique secular?
In an essay entitled “Secular Criticism,” the noted literary critic Edward Said wrote that “Criticism…is always situated, it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings.” To this I would merely add three questions: First, what work does the notion “secular” do here? Does it refer to an authority or a sensibility? Second, since criticism employs judgment, since it seeks conviction – of oneself and of others – to what extent does it therefore seek to overcome skepticism? Finally, if secular criticism regards itself as confronting the powerful forces of repression, finds itself open to all “failings,” can we say that secular criticism aspires to be heroic? [...]
It seems to me that Chris Nealon and Colin Jager are onto something important when they remind us that there exists a “left-secular structure of feeling” that too easily overlooks critique’s abiding relation to religion, and not least the history of Christian, progressive critique. They’re right too, I think, to suggest that this forgetting is in the interests both of the Western religious right and of Western defenders of the secular state and public sphere (e.g. those defenders of free speech against Islamic accusations of blasphemy whom Talal Asad discusses in his paper for the Berkeley seminar that inspired this series of posts). [...]
Is critique secular? This is the question posed by Chris Nealon on this blog, and by the panel at Berkeley that he mentions in his post. For all its succinctness, this is a wonderful question. One reason that it’s such a good question, I think, is that it captures a certain background anxiety, one that won’t go away however we choose to answer the question. I speculate that this is because once we’ve felt the need to pose the question, we’ve acknowledged—however reluctantly—that there’s been some shift in what Charles Taylor calls “background conditions.”
A consequence of hinging our conversation on belief is that it tends to project “belief” in the abstract onto some believer, elsewhere. I often experience the dialog in the secular academy about religion as involving a kind of division of believing labor, if you will, in which avowed non-believers puzzle over the intricacies of religious belief, its loss, its renewal, its existentially contradictory character, without much investigation into the lived experiences and practices of the “religious.” [...]