Sunday, February 15, 2009

Asad, Formations INTRO

Asad, Talad. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2003


SUMMARY: Asad begins by criticizing the view, as stated by Charles Taylor, that secularism and the “free society” of which secularism is a central principle, function effectively because small groups are self-motivated to reach with all the other groups of a nation a consensus that transcends the identities of each small group. However, Asad says, in reality, citizens’ self-motivation is not truly necessary for the functioning of a “secular”/”free” society; what is needed is a “sense of prosperity.” In addition, there is a weakening link between the electorate and the government which is the result of 1) small pressure groups that have disproportionate influence and 2) the mass media, controlled by small groups and the government, which shapes how people think about society—the result is: “There is no space in which all citizens can negotiate freely and equally with one another.” Therefore, the definitions of “the secular” and “the religious” are mediated and biased, not static absolutes or the result of national consensus. In fact, these mediated ideas of secularism contain various degrees of “religious” viewpoints (gives examples of US and India). Goal for book is to look at the politics/anthropology of secularism, which includes looking at how the body is represented and the other assumptions about human reality.

1-The “resurgence of religion” has shown us “that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid?”

-“Secularism as political doctrine arose in modern Euro-America”, it’s not just separating religious from secular institutions; “What is distinctive about (2) ‘secularism’ is that it presupposes new concepts of ‘religion,’ ‘ethics,’ and ‘politics’ and new imperatives associated with them.”

2-“…many people have sense this novelty and reacted to it in a variety of ways”: opponents “have rejected it as specific to the West” though advocates say it still has global relevance; Charles Taylor is in the latter camp, he “takes it for granted that the emergence of secularism is closely connected to the rise of the modern nation-state” and secularism legitimized it in 2 ways: 1) with an attempt to find a lowest common denominator among doctrines of different religious sects and 2) “the attempt to define a political ethic independent of religious convictions altogether”—“It is this latter model that is applicable throughout the world today, but only after we have adapted to it the Rawlsian idea of an overlapping consensus, which proceeds on the assumption that there can be no universally agreed basis, whether secular or religious, for the political principles accepted in a modern, heterogeneous society.”, (3) and therefore a democratic/free society is one in which people must have “a certain degree of self-enforcement”

3-But, Asad says, “The distinctive feature of modern liberal governance…is neither compulsion (force) nor negotiation (consent) but the statecraft that uses ‘self-discipline’ and ‘participation,’ ‘law’ and ‘economy’ as elements of political strategy,” and the system isn’t in danger when there’s lack of self-enforcement by citizens, it’s only in danger “when the general population ceases to enjoy any sense of prosperity”—(4) good policing and an economy that doesn’t treat certain groups too bad are more important than self-discipline

4-plus there is an increasing weakening of a “direct link between the electorate and its parliamentary representatives” and this loss is not compensated in “extra-parliamentary institutions connected to governance”; in fact the opposite is true—pressure groups’ influence on government is usually far greater than “the proportion of the electorate whose interests they directly promote”

-also the ”mass media, increasingly owned by conglomerates and often cooperating with the state, mediate the political reactions of the public and its sense of guarantee and threat”, “Thus in crucial ways this is not a direct-access society. There is no space in which all citizens can negotiate freely and equally with one another. The existence of negotiation in public life is confined to such elites as party bosses, bureaucratic administrators, parliamentary legislators, and business leader. The ordinary citizen does not participate in the process of formulating policy options as these elites do—his or her participation in periodic elections does not even guarantee that the policies voted for will be adhered to.”

5-“…the media are not simply the means through with individuals simultaneously imagine their national community; they mediate that imagination, construct the sensibilities that underpin it.”

*-and the idea that a national mediated identity must transcend conflicting perspectives (eg class, gender, religion) is, “In an important sense,” what secularism is; beyond being an intellectual way of dealing with the world, secularism “is an enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion. In contrast, the process of mediation enacted in ‘premodern’ societies includes ways in which the state mediates local identities without aiming at transcendence.”

-the forms of mediation in medieval Christianity and Islam were indeed different than those used today, but it’s not simply that they were “religious” and modern governments aren’t. eg British government’s connection to the Established Church and the US’s largely religious population (each modern country has different mediation and imaginary)

6-Asad criticizes Taylor’s theory on consensus—that different groups work out short term solutions for each issue—because it ends up being that the weaker groups has no choice, plus the state regulates its views through violence, so (7) violence in the modern West is “closely connected with the rise of a system of capitalist nation-states,” with groups and states “grossly unequal in power and personality” and therefore the mediation in each state is different

7-eg in the US after 9/11 “spokespersons” tried to define the US “as ‘good’ in opposition to its ‘evil’ enemies at home and abroad.” Which works b/c the US has religious roots and a continues high level of religious faith as well as the belief that “America is the world’s last best hope of liberty” and this has also led to oppression and intolerance of “foreign” elements (something which has been going on in the US since the late 18th c); “the repeated explosions of intolerance in American history—however understandable they may be—they are entirely compatible (indeed intertwined) with secularism in a highly modern society”

8-another example is India which has a secular constitution and “an outstanding record as a functioning liberal democracy”, yet there are frequent “communal riots” (between religious groups); notes P. Chatterjee and others who agree that “the publicly recognizable personality of the nation is strongly mediated by representations of a reconstructed high-caste Hinduism” putting “religious minorities” in a defensive position

-“A secular state does not guarantee toleration; it puts into play different structures of ambition and fear. The law never seeks to eliminate violence since its object is always to regulate violence.”

-it is difficult to differentiate between private reason and public principle (“the secular”). Gives several examples: (9) “literature”, which has a secular connotation, can be applied to the bible and still read in a “religious way; the popular idea of “Islamic roots of violence” is taken as a given, though (10) violence does not need to be justified by the Qur’an”—there is also an idea that the Qur’an (11) forces Muslims to use violence while “Christians and Jews are free to interpret the Bible as they please”; determining if something has a “religious motive”, does it have to be a sincere expression? Or, as Freud assumes, is there always an unconscious motive for religious motives, rendering all motives secular? And this means that there must be an authority that determines what is secular and what is religious, and this is done through mediating agencies (12) like law courts, the national media, parliamentary forums; another example: Are actors “secular” when they work with “religious” actors (eg CIA helping Muslim fighters)?

13-the idea that modernity has given reality “new experiences of space and time, or cruelty and health, of consumption and knowledge” and that “these experiences constitute ‘disenchantment’—implying a direct access to reality, a stripping away of myth, magic, and the sacred—is a salient feature of the modern epoch. It is, arguably, a product of nineteenth-century romanticism, partly linked to (14) the growing habit of reading imaginative literature—being enclosed within and by it—so that images of a ‘pre-modern’ past acquire in retrospect a quality of enchantment.”

14-his interest is in looking at “the attempt to construct categories of the secular and the religious in terms of which modern living is required to take place, and nonmodern peoples are invited to assess their adequacy” because representations of “the secular” and “the religious” “mediate people’s identities, help shape their sensibilities, and guarantee their experiences.”

-Asad Does not agree with the idea of the end of (Hegelian) History with the end of communism, he believes the US’ values have now become dominant (15) spread with the OECD, IMF, World Bank and other institutions; and the American model is not just economic, but moral and political too—and includes secularism

-we should therefore look at the politics of how views are spread of the American (and other binary-style, “good” v. “evil”) ideal as well those of the ideal of multiplicity

16-Asad is influenced by Foucault and Nietzsche, but does not rigidly follow them

17-“What is distinctive about modern anthropology is the comparison of embedded concepts (representations) between societies differently located in time and space” and an anthropology of secularism asks “How do attitudes to the human body (to pain, physical damage, decay, and death, to physical integrity, bodily growth, and sexual enjoyment) differ in various forms of life? What structures of the senses…do these attitudes depend on? In what ways does the law define and regulate practices and doctrines on the grounds that they are ‘truly human’? What discursive space does this work of definition and regulation open up for grammars of ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’? How do these sensibilities, attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors come together to support or undermine the doctrine of secularism?”

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