Sunday, February 15, 2009

Asad, Formations CH 1

Asad, Formations of the Secular

CHAPTER 1 “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?”

SUMMARY: Examines genealogy of “secularism” and “secular.” “Secularism” doesn’t appear in English until the 1850s, and is as opposed to “atheist,” to avoid dividing people over religion when it came to government policies that no longer used God as the referent (23-24). “Secular” is a term that develops in relation to other terms. For example, the term “myth” was not used by the Greeks in the same sense as we use it today (26-29, 52-53), and the terms “sacred” and “inspiration” have also changed over time, and both were influenced by developments in anthropology (30-36, 45-51). “Secular” was also influenced by a new kind of reading of the Bible (37-44). Asad ends by discussing the problems of the secular myths in the modern world (57-61) and the different views of what it is (62-64).

21-the debate on secularism is over two views: “Is ‘secularism’ a colonial imposition, an entire world view that gives precedence to the material over the spiritual, a modern culture of alienation and unrestrained pleasure? Or is it necessary to universal humanism, a rational principle that calls for the suppression—or at any rate, the restraint—of religious passion so that a dangerous source of intolerance and delusion can be controlled, and political unity, peace, and progress secured?”

22-anthropology rarely looks at secularism, though study of religion in anthropology is pervasive; Tussing revealed that secularism is connected to state violence

23-asad wants to “trace practical consequences of its [myth’s] uses in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in order to investigate some of the ways the secular was constituted. For the world ‘myth’ that moderns ‘have inherited from antiquity feeds into a number of familiar oppositions—belief and knowledge, reason and imagination, history and fiction, symbol and allegory, natural and supernatural, sacred and profane—binaries that pervade modern secular discourse, especially in its polemical mode.”

-“The terms ‘secularism’ and ‘secularist’ were introduced into English by freethinkers in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to avoid the charge of their being ‘atheists’ and ‘infidels,’ terms that carried suggestions of immorality in a still largely Christian society.”

-note #6: “The word ‘secularism’ was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. ‘Secularism was intended to differentiate Holyoake’s anti-theistic position from Bradlaugh’s atheistic pronouncements, and, although Bradlough, Charles Watts, G. W. Foote, and other atheists were identified with the secular movement, Holyoake always endeavoured to make it possible that the social, political, and ethical aims of secularism should not necessitate subscription to atheistic belief, in the hope that liberal-minded theists might without prejudice to their theism, join in promoting these ends—an attitude to which he persisted in clinging, despite the small success which it achieved.’ Eric S. Waterhouse, ‘Secularism,’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. II, ed. James Hastings, p. 348.”

24-the “freethinkers” wanted to avoid epithets of “atheist” and “infidel” because they wanted to separate all religious connotations from the emerging “social reform in a rapidly industrializing society”—at the same time, “A critical rearticulation was being negotiated between state law and personal morality”—(note #8: there was a “gradual withdrawal of legal jurisdiction over what comes retrospectively to be seen as the domain of private ethics from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century,” cf Stephen A History of the Criminal Law of England 1883, vol. 2, ch. 25 “Offenses Against Religions”)

-“This shift presupposed the new idea of society as a total population of individuals enjoying not only subjective rights and immunities, and endowed with moral agency, but also possessing the capacity to elect their political representatives…” which happened at once in France and slowly in England; “The extension of universal suffrage was in turn linked—as Foucault has pointed out—to new methods of government based on new styles of classification and calculation, and new forms of subjecthood.”

-“These principles of government are secular in the sense that they deal solely with a worldly disposition, an arrangement that is quite different from the medieval conception of a social body of Christian souls each of whom is endowed with equal dignity—members at once of the city of God and of divinely created human society. The discursive move in the nineteenth century from thinking of a fixed ‘human nature’ to regarding humans in terms of a constituted ‘normality’ facilitated the secular idea of moral progress defined and directed by autonomous human agency. In short, secularism as a political and governmental doctrine that has its origin in nineteenth century liberal society seems easier to grasp than the secular. And yet the two are interdependent.”

25-this chapter looks at “epistemological assumptions of the secular”; “The secular, I argue, is neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred.) I take the secular to be a concept that brings together certain behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities in modern life. To appreciate this…It is a matter of showing how contingencies relate to changes in the grammar of practices.” [a la Wittgenstein] “In my view the secular is neither singular in origin nor stable in its historical identity, although it works through a series of particular oppositions.”; “I try to understand the secular, the way it has been constituted, made real, connected to, and detached from particular historical conditions.”

-“…there is nothing essentially religious, nor any universal essence that defines ‘sacred language’ or ‘sacred experience.’ But I also assume that there were breaks between Christian and secular life in which words and practices were rearranged, and new discursive grammars replaced previous ones.”, (26) “…the sacred and secular depend on each other. I dwell briefly on how religious myth contributed to the formation of modern historical knowledge and modern poetic sensibility…but…this did not make history or poetry essentially ‘religious.’”

26-“West European languages acquired the word ‘myth’ from the Greek, and stories about Greek gods were paradigmatic objects of critical reflection when mythology became a discipline in early modernity.”

-refers to Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth: Hesiod “associates the speech of mythos with truth (alethea) and the speech of logos with lies and dissimulation. Mythos is powerful speech, the speech of heroes accustomed to prevail. In Homer…logos refers to speech that is usually designed to placate someone and aimed at dissuading warriors from combat.
“In the context of political assemblies mythoi are of two kinds—‘straight’ and ‘crooked.’ Mythoi function in the context of law much as in public, with a full attention to every detail.’, It never means a symbolic story that has to be deciphered—or for that matter, a false one. In the Odyssey, Odysseus praises poetry—asserting that it is truthful, that it affects the emotions of its audience, that it is able to reconcile differences—and he concludes his poetic narration by declaring that he has ‘recounted a mythos.’
“At first, poets tended to authorize their speech by calling it mythos—an inspiration from the gods…later, the Sophists taught that all speech originated within humans.’”

27-for Christians, god is separate from the world, but for Greeks, gods were “directly involved in natural and social processes” [direct quote from Bremmer Greek Religion], and the idea of “nature” is also different for Greeks—“For the representation of the Christian God as being sited quite apart in the ‘supernatural’ world signals the construction of a secular space that begins to emerge in early modernity. Such a space permits ‘nature’ to be reconceived as manipulatable material, determinate, homogeneous, and subject to mechanical laws.” And anything beyond that was (28) “peopled by irrational events and imagined beings. This transformation had a significant effect on the meaning of ‘myth.’”

28-The Sophists say the mythoi of poets are lies (in concerning gods), though they can improve people’s morals; then Plato said that “philosophers and not poets were primarily responsible for moral improvement…Plato changed the sense of myth: it now comes to signify a socially useful lie.”

-“Enlightenment founders of mythology, such as Fontelle, took this view of the beliefs of antiquity about its gods.”

-“But in the Enlightenment epoch as a whole myths were never only objects of ‘belief’ and of ‘rational investigation.’ As elements of high culture in early modern Europe they were integral to its characteristic sensibility: a cultivated capacity for delicate feeling—especially for sympathy—and an ability to be moved by the pathetic in art and literature.”, (29) knowledge of greek stories “was a necessary part of an upper-class education.” And “Myths allowed writers and artists to represent contemporary events and feelings in what we moderns call a fictional mode…And this in turn facilitated a form of satire that aimed to unmask or literalize. Ecclesiastical authority could thus be attacked in an indirect fashion, without immediately risking the charge of blasphemy. In general, the literary assault on mythic figures and events demonstrated a preference for a sensible life of happiness as opposed to the heroic ideal that was coming to be regarded as less and less reasonable in a bourgeois society.”; though in seventeenth and eighteenth century tragedies and dramas, “myths provided the material though which the psychology of human passions could be explored.”

29-for them, “Myth was not really a (mis)representation of the real. It was the material for shaping the possibilities and limits of action.” And it did this “by feeding the desire to display the actual”

30-In Rome, “sacer referred to anything that was owned by a deity, having been ‘taken out of the region of the profanum by the action of the State, and passed into that of the sacrum.’ [Direct quote from Fowler in Roman Essays and Interpretations] However, even then there was an intriguing exception: the term homo sacer was used for someone who, as the result of a curse (sacer esto), became an outlaw liable to be killed by anyone with impunity. Thus while the sacredness of property dedicated to a god made it inviolable, the sacredness of homo sacer made him eminently subject to violence.”

31-the Oxford English Dictionary says “’sacred’ in early modern English usage generally referred to individual things, persons, and occasions that were set and entitled to veneration.”, but for all things that are called sacred (eg a ‘sacred memory,’ sacred rights, sacred fruit), “it is virtually impossible to identify the setting apart or the venerating as being the same act in all cases.”, “It was late nineteenth century anthropological and theological thought that rendered a variety of overlapping social usages rooted in changing and heterogeneous forms of life into a single immutable essence, and claimed it to be the object of a universal human experience called ‘religious.’ The supposedly universal opposition between (32) ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ finds no place in premodern writing. In medieval theology, the overriding antinomy was between ‘the divine’ and ‘the satanic’ (both of them transcendent powers) or ‘the spiritual’ and ‘the temporal’ (both of them worldly institutions), not between a supernatural sacred and a natural profane.”

32-sacre wasn’t used by ordinary people in France even in early modern times, they used saintete, “a beneficent quality of certain persons and their relics, closely connected to the common people and their ordinary world.”, sacre started being used at time of the French Revolution and is connected with “secular power”’ eg “The Preamble to the Declaration des Droits de l’homme (1789) speaks of ‘droits naturels, inalienable et sacres.’ The right to property is qualified sacre in article 17. ‘L’amour sacre de la partie’ is a common nineteenth century expression.”; sacre “was now part of the discourse integral to functions and aspirations of the modern, secular state, in which the sacralization of individual citizen and collective people expresses a form of naturalized power.”

33-Isambert, in Le sens du sacre, shows that the Durkheimian school, using Robertson Smith’s idea of “taboo” , came up with “the scholarly concept of ‘the sacred’ as a universal essence. The sacred came to refer to everything of social interest—collective states, traditions, sentiments…The sacred, constituted first by anthropologists and then taken over by theologians, became a universal quality hidden in things and an objective limit to mundane action. The sacred was at once a transcendent force that imposed itself on the subject and a space that must never, under threat of dire consequence, be violated—that is profaned. In brief, ‘the sacred’ came to be constituted as a mysterious, mythic thing, the focus of moral and administrative disciplines.
“It was in the context of an emerging discipline of comparative religion that anthropology developed a transcendent notion of the sacred.”, eg it’s used that way by R. R. Marret

-Marret said all religions have sacraments and sacraments are sacred and have “spiritual authority”, (34) “But it stands in marked contrast, for example, to the medieval Christian concept of the sacrament.”; Asad gives example of 12th century Hugo of St. Victor who defined sacrament as “a sign of a sacred thing” that has “by sanctification some invisible and spiritual grace”—so sacrality depends on a network of signifiers, and so is not naturally endowed with supernatural authority

35-Asad believes this essentialization of “the sacred” was “connected with European encounters with the non-European world, in the enlightened space and time that witnessed the construction of ‘religion’ and ‘nature’ as universal categories.”, first non-Christians were seen to have fetishes/taboos/survivals/superstitions—“objects and relations falsely given truth status, wrongly endowed with virtuous power”—“It may therefore be suggested that ‘profanation’ is a kind of forcible emancipation from error and despotism. Reason requires that false things be proscribed and eliminated, or transcribed and re-sited as objects to be seen, heard and touched by the properly educated senses. By successfully unmasking pretended power (profaning it) universal reason displays (36) its own status as legitimate power…So the ‘sacred right to property’ was made universal after church estates and common lands were freed. And the ‘sanctity of conscience’ was constituted a universal principle in opposition to ecclesiastical authority and the rules of casuistry authorized. At the very moment of becoming secular, these claims were transcendentalized, and they set in motion legal and moral disciplines to protect themselves (with violence where necessary) as universal.”

36-note #41: “It is of some interest that attempts to introduce a unified concept of ‘the sacred’ into non-European languages have met with revealing problems of translation.” Eg Arabic has several different words, each conveying ‘sacredness’ in different senses

37-prior to German Higher Criticism, the bible—written and spoken—was seen as the result of divine experiences and that’s what the body discipline (eg for monks reading it) shaped, (38) but Higher Criticism “rendered the materiality of scriptural sounds and marks into a spiritual poem whose effect was generated inside the subject as believer independent of the senses.”

42-during Enlightenment, “Christian doubt and anxiety” over historical accuracy of bible—not, as others may think, “an already constituted discipline of secular history”—“drove biblical scholars to develop textual techniques that have since become part of the foundation of modern, secular historiography.”, though note #53 says there were some earlier movements; (43) there was a growing split between ecclesiastical and “secular history,” and this split “shaped the modern understanding of ‘myth,’ ‘sacred discourse,’ and ‘symbolism.’…The rereading of the scriptures through the grid of myth has not only separated the sacred from the secular, it has helped to constitute the secular as the epistemological domain which history exists as history—and as anthropology.”

43-“In the mythic rereading of the scriptures, Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection could still be represented as foundational. But in the course of this reconstruction, Christian faith sought a reconsideration of the question of inspiration. God might not have literally dictated to the Old Testament prophets and to the apostles of the New, but the faithful Christian sought some sense in which they would still be said to be ‘inspired’—that is, literally breathed into by the Holy Spirit, but it was his follower Eichhorn who applied this thought systematically…Prophets, Eichhorn proposed disarmingly, were inspired artists. But what appears to have gone largely unnoticed was that while prophets were called, artists were not.”

-“Given that inspiration was no longer to be thought of as direct divine communication romantic poets identified it in a way that could be accepted by skeptics and believers alike…(44) “fragmented states” could be accessed by “radically different kinds of experience”, [eg (43) “Coleridge used sleep, waking dream, and opium”]—(44) “According to Coleridge’s theory of imagination, poetic vision presupposed the alteration of ordinary perception, regardless of how it might be attained…’imagination’ now acquired some of reason’s functions, and stood in contrast to ‘fancy.’”, Coleridge thought prophets were “creative poets who expressed a vision of their community’s past”

45-“An accumulating ethnography of shamans in the eighteenth century contributed to the recrafting of the idea of ‘inspiration’ in secular terms. (46) This involved not only the shifting of all causation from outside the world of material bodies entirely into the world, but also an ‘inside’ that had to be progressively redefined. That shift also served to separate healthy from unhealthy states of mind and behavior, and led—in the thought of Enlightenment rationalism—to the doctrine that morality be based on medical science rather than the other way around, as the older Christian view had it.”

46-from beginning of European encounters with aboriginal peoples, Christians and skeptics usually described shamans as charlatans, quacks, and the shamanic séance as “grotesque attempts at deception” like the priests and soothsayers of antiquity

-people were also skeptical of shamans’ curative abilities, (47) because pain was less and less connected with punishment from god and the (48) growth f experimentation meant the view of physician was less of healer and comforter to more of investigator; (49) “the concept of ‘experience’ that had from early on had the sense of putting something to the test was now being used to identify and internal state through an external manipulation (‘experiment’).” Eg Haller did early experiments (pain in animals; cf Dear Discipline and Experience for more on idea of “experiment”)

50-in 18th century, shaman was seen as a “poet, myth-recounter, and performing artist”—they use “flowery and unclear language”—verbal arts were connected with healing art and inspiration (like poets)—so “If shamanic rhetoric and behavior were to be viewed as art, some artists could be viewed as shamans.”

-also idea of genius evolved in 18th century drawing on classical of Orpheus and ethnographic descriptions of shamans—ecstasy was a sign now of artistic genius, Mozart was seen as having healing and “civilizing” powers acquired through inspiration, though (51) some said genius was a physical trait, kant said it was the faculty to exercise cognitive ability without being taught: those with more of these faculties (52) are smarter than those with few

52-myth was seen by romantics “as the original way of apprehending spiritual truth”—ancient prophets used to get it and now modern geniuses can—faith is not necessary, just sincerity in representing one’s feelings, and poets like Browning tried to harmonize science with religious feelings—and (53) Browning first outlined the dominant 20th century view of poetry, that it does this, and people recognize it, and James Joyce, TS Eliot and others also did it, “myth is invoked explicitly as a fictional grounding for secular values that are sensed to be ultimately without foundation.”

57-Margaret Canovan says that “The central principles of liberalism…rest on assumptions about the nature of mankind and the nature of society that are frequently questioned: ‘all men are created equal,’ ‘everyone possesses human rights,’ and so on. But no dispassionate observer of the human condition would find these descriptive propositions unproblematic, says Canovan.”

-she says when liberal ideas were formed in 18th century they “were attached to a distinctive conception of nature as deep reality.”—natural rights—and they did this “simply because in their though the idea of ‘nature’ served to explain and justify things.”, but saying that social inequality was “unnatural” was “in effect to invoke an alternative world—a mythical world…But over time their assumptions about the nature of ‘man’ exposed liberals to uncomfortable criticism” especially with early 19th century rise of sociological realism and a new view that nature was essentially violent, but liberal ideals were resurrected by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, (38) and it is now again subject to criticism. “For when nature is interpreted positivistically in terms of statistical norms, then different norms of behavior and sentiment can claim to be equally natural. The result, we are informed, is a crippling relativism”, so you can’t defend it by just making more abstract arguments that are based on Plato’s view in the Republic: that the person and city-state have 3 parts/social class—“in a just person’s soul the upper part, reason, ensures harmony and stability, and in a just city the upper class, philosophers trained in mathematics, will impose order in a well-ordered society” and the emotions of the low class should be kept out of business of self control

58-Canovan thinks for liberalism to work you need to be open about its myth status, (59) and try to build that ideal world—everyone agrees on a myth (therefore everyone believes in a modernized myth of redemption, as opposed to a Christian version) and (59) violence is necessary to do this

61-liberal democracy has 2 conflicting secular myths: “the Enlightenment myth of politics as a discourse of public reason whose bond with knowledge enables the elite to direct the education of mankind, and the revolutionary myth of universal suffrage, a politics of large numbers in which the representation of ‘collective will’ is sought by quantifying the opinion and fantasy of individual citizen-electors…on the one hand elite liberal clarity seeks to contain religious passion, on the other hand democratic numbers allow majorities to dominate minorities even if both are religiously formed.”

62-“Secular views of the secular aren’t all the same”, eg (63) de Mans thinks secular is the “real” as exposed by science, while (64) Walter Benjamin sees the world now as “secular” because the world “must be lived in uncertainty, without the fixed moorings even for the believer…”

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