The Act of Criticism and the Secular

By Daniel Colucciello BarberAugust 14, 2014

Lessons in Secular Criticism by Stathis Gourgouris

THE NOTION OF THE SECULAR was once taken for granted — if not by the entire world, then at least by the academy. The secularization thesis, which proposed a direct correlation between modernization and secularization (as modernization and its technology advanced, the theory went, so would secularization), was widely accepted. Today, the failure of that thesis is plain to see: even as modernization and its technologies have exponentially increased, religion has not disappeared — if anything, religion has become more visible. Consequently, the academy finds itself talking less about the advance of secularization, and more about the so-called “return of religion.” And with that return, the secular has come under critique. Once taken as the inevitable product of history, secularization is now being questioned from multiple angles and schools of thought.

Once we get beyond the agreed-upon failure of the secularization thesis, we find a wide variety of reasons motivating the act of criticism. For some, the secular must be challenged due to its implication in, or support of, colonial, imperial, and racial modes of power. This challenge sometimes extends to the very ideals of the secular, but it is more directly posed against the historical actions of the secular. For others — who often overlap with those just mentioned — the secular must be challenged because it is the continuation of Christianity by other means. Such critics focus on how the secular, which promises to advance beyond religion, actually reformulates and perpetuates Christian ideals. For still others, this focus on continuity between Christianity and the secular is maintained, but evaluated differently — they challenge the secular not because it continues Christianity, but rather because it does not sufficiently appreciate the positive contribution made by its Christian inheritance. Yet no matter how the challenge is expressed, what consistently emerges is awareness of how the secular cannot function as an unproblematic point of reference. It was once possible, when describing something as secular, to expect a unified response. The secular ended questioning and provided agreement. All that can be agreed upon now is that the secular must be questioned, especially when it is used in the name of agreement.

There is a fundamental divide in these contemporary challenges to the secular: some seek to undermine the unquestioned status of the secular, while others take issue with the notion of the secular as such. It is one thing to claim that the secular has become uncritically presupposed, and that it thus needs to be imbued, even revived, with the critical energy that the act of questioning provides; it is a very different thing to claim that the problem stems from the fact that we are attached — whether critically or uncritically — to the secular at all. The title of Stathis Gourgouris’s recent book, Lessons in Secular Criticism, indicates his position on this dilemma: no matter how intense the challenge to the secular may or must become, to refuse the secular in a radical manner is to abandon the capacity to articulate this challenge. For Gourgouris, the value of the secular ultimately resides in its critical power, and so to utterly refuse the secular is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The limits of the secular ought to be challenged, but it is precisely the secular ­— understood in its “nonsubstantial” critical enactment — that enables this challenge.

Gourgouris, a Professor at Columbia University, has authored a wide range of work — most notably, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece and Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era — that is marked by a diversity of concerns. While it may be classified within the field of literary studies or comparative literature, Gourgouris’s simultaneous attentiveness to questions surrounding radical democracy and postcolonial theory gives his work a significant degree of complexity. Lessons in Secular Criticism emerges out of his ongoing concern with these questions, as well as with the legacy of Edward Said, who coined the term “secular criticism.” In fact, we can understand the present book — which is a “prelude and distillation of work” that will appear in his forthcoming books, The Perils of the One and Nothing Sacred — as Gourgouris’s attempt to elaborate and advance this contested term by means of intervention into contemporary challenges to the secular.

Gourgouris’s intervention affirms both the act of criticism and the secular. This double affirmation is simultaneously a dialectic and a bond: the secular and the act of criticism are able to turn against one another, but even in doing so they remain fundamentally connected. To see how this works, we can consider instances of criticism that stem from a religious (rather than a secular) basis: Christianity, in the name of Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek, provides the basis for criticism of US military practices; Muslim piety, to refer to a highly mediatized instance, provides the basis for criticizing a law prohibiting the public wearing of the veil. Gourgouris would certainly affirm these criticisms, but he would just as certainly refuse their religious basis. Criticism rightly turns against US military practices or state-directed prohibitions on wearing the veil. When it does so, however, it must proceed not in the name of religion, but in the name of the secular — to which criticism, Gourgouris contends, is ultimately bound.

This raises a central question: if criticism is not religious but instead secular, then how can Gourgouris affirm these criticisms — which are, after all, directed against secular power? Gourgouris resolves this question by proceeding dialectically. These criticisms call the secular to account for its implication in colonial, imperial, and racial modes of power — and rightly so. His point, however, is that what is being criticized is not the secular but rather secularism. In this sense, Gourgouris is in agreement with those who radically challenge the secular as a mode of domination. Yet he defines this mode of domination as secularism, which is distinct from the secular. Secularism “is an institutional term that pertains less to a process than a reproduction of a set of definitions, indeed, even a set of commands, that encounter history as a project of power.” Gourgouris’s distinction is decisive: it allows him to define what is rightly criticized in terms of secularism (“a project of power”); it also allows him to define what does the criticizing (“a process”) in terms of the secular. This means that when the secular participates in domination, it ought to be relentlessly criticized. Yet that last word, “criticized,” shows the necessity of the secular — for criticism is, on Gourgouris’s definition, a secular act. Consequently, it is not just that criticism is against secularism (rather than against the secular). It is also that such criticism proceeds by way of the secular.

It is at this point that the dialectic of “criticism” and “the secular” reveals the bond between its terms. Criticism is essential, but it must always be secularized; the secular is essential, but precisely as criticism. The dialectical digressions brought about by these two claims may be miniscule or immense, and the exact directions these digressions can or should take may be questioned. However, for Gourgouris, what cannot be questioned is the bond between criticism and the secular, which is to say that “secular criticism,” even if it remains complex and mutable, even if it remains the subject of “lessons” — as the book’s title indicates — is something that must be defended.

In putting Gourgouris’s argument in this way, I am suggesting that he implicitly grants his own account of secular criticism a quality that he has explicitly attributed to his opponents: the quality of having-to-be. I will come back to this point; for now, I want to follow the development of his argument, beginning with the context in which Gourgouris makes this explicit attribution.

Responding to “fashionable antisecularist positions” — that is, positions for which the secular is inseparable from Western domination — Gourgouris remarks: “One wonders why the critique against Western domination has to be antisecularist. Why it has to be.” Yes, he admits, there is no doubt that Western domination has used the secular as a means of establishing itself, but to take this association as an indication of the essence of the secular is to lose the critical capacity of the secular — the very capacity on which critique of Western domination depends. Criticism should negate secularism, but if this criticism is expressed by religion, then religion must still be negated by the secular. Gourgouris’s task, then, is to affirm criticism of Western domination, including criticism of the secular’s involvement in such domination, while avoiding a conflation between this domination and the secular as such; it is to conceive the secular in such a way that it is not reducible to, and in fact is critical of, its conflation with domination. Gourgouris’s distinction between secularism and the secular thus allows him to agree with the antisecularists about secularism, but also to keep the secular unaffected by their critique.

A fuller understanding of what this means requires consideration of Gourgouris’s notion of heteronomy — for the ultimate problem with secularism, and what distinguishes it from properly secular criticism, is that it becomes what he claims religion already is, namely heteronomous. In fact, this account of heteronomy can be seen as the center — both theoretically and compositionally — of the book. In the first few chapters, Gourgouris is concerned with articulating his account of and position within debates over the secular: Chapter 1, “The Poiein of Secular Criticism,” links his theory of poetics (which I will later discuss) to his understanding of secular criticism; Chapter 2, “Detranscendentalizing the Secular,” addresses his distinction between the secular and secularism; and Chapter 3, “Why I Am Not a Post-securalist,” polemically brings this distinction to bear on the notion of post-secularism. The logic of heteronomy — against which Gourgouris has argued throughout Chapters 1-3 — is then explicitly elaborated in Chapter 4, “Confronting Heteronomy.” This chapter, in which Gourgouris advances his theory of poetics by drawing on Cornelius Castoriadis’s discussion of self-alteration, chaos, and creation, serves as a fulcrum for what follows. In Chapter 5, “The Void Occupied Unconcealed,” Gourgouris draws on Claude Lefort’s discussion of the groundlessness of democracy in order to imagine the construction of a mode of governance that, due to its autonomous practice of self-criticism, would remain radically democratic. He then pursues this proposal by assaying — in the final chapter, “Responding to the Deregulation of the Political” — the various political events that mark our contemporary conjuncture, including Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the riots in Greece.

The entirety of the argument — whether as opposition to post-secularism or as construction of autonomy — thus turns on the criticism of heteronomy, which names any reference to, or law proceeding from, the transcendent. Any command understood as coming from beyond, or from the other, is heteronomous. Importantly, however, heteronomy is produced not by the other, but rather by the self. Heteronomy is “self-instituted,” which is to say that I have made the other, and then acted according to the assumption that the other is real. Yet there is no other, only the other made by my self; if the law appears as coming from the other, then this is an appearance produced not by a really existing other but rather by oneself. The self has “conferred on law an otherness that comes to seem intrinsic to it or, even more, to be a source of it.” Heteronomy, then, names the logic by which the self cuts itself off from its capacity to direct itself. The self’s very real capacity to change — that is, the self’s “project of autonomy,” its critical power — is undermined by its obedience to an other that is not real, but that prevents the self from a process of really becoming different. Simply put, heteronomy is not only the alienation from one’s own power; it is also, and more so, the “repression of self-alienation and the displacement of one’s own alterity onto an external figure.”

The problem with secularism, then, is that it becomes heteronomous — it is made into a law coming from the other. This is a betrayal of the secular’s practice of criticism, and so secularism must be subjected to critique. Just as secular criticism turns against religion, so it must turn against secularism. In fact, secular criticism turns against all the “external figures” of heteronomy, religious or otherwise: “not only God, but the Nation, the Ancestors, the Father, the People, or any Right or Reason, any Constitution or Legislator, and so on — any Law — that exists in some transcendental categorical Elsewhere.” Gourgouris’s willingness to extend criticism to both religion and secularism gives an appearance of symmetry.

Yet the supposed symmetry — according to which secular criticism applies equally to secularism and religion — depends upon a more fundamental asymmetry. Consider, for instance, his remark that “the secular is in a direct and simple sense the historical and in that respect the worldly: simply, the domain that human beings define by means of their action in their finite life.” It is the secular alone — “in a direct and simple sense” — that lays claim to this history, world, and power of criticism. There may be symmetry between secularism and religion as objects of the critical act, but the critical act as such is asymmetrical: it is never religious and always secular, because it is necessarily defined as secular. The term “religion” takes place once (as object of critique), whereas the term secular takes place twice (as object of critique and as critical act). Religion never possesses the capacity for self-criticism, whereas the secular always possesses this capacity — any criticism at all, and any worldly, historical existence imaginable, “has to be” secular.

The challenge to the secular is also a challenge to the habits that enabled the secular to be taken for granted. Gourgouris presents an incredibly intelligent means by which the secular can address this challenge without ultimately disturbing its own enabling habits. In Gourgouris’s proposal, the secular survives merely — but definitively — as the habit of asserting itself as co-extensive with the world. Consequently, the survival of the world entails the survival of the secular. This habit of surviving through an apparent willingness to take seriously the challenges that are issued against oneself is strikingly resonant with certain Christian habits.[1] Consider, for instance, how the claim that the secular (or secular criticism) cannot be identified with secularism mimes the theological claim that true Christianity cannot be identified with Christendom, or that Jesus cannot be identified with the Church. The secular, like Christianity’s habit of confession, knows how to defend itself from the threat of critique by criticizing itself, and by furthermore claiming that the capacity to critique is something that it uniquely possesses.

Not only does this make the secular survive, it also makes the very notion of history into the story of this survival. In Christianity this was called salvation history, namely the time between Christ’s initial securing of salvation and his return, when salvation would be fulfilled. This meant that whatever happened in between these times was not history as such, but rather the process of Christianization, or history-as-Christianization. Similarly, Gourgouris’s account of secularization, as the process by which secular criticism becomes heteronomously enclosed in secularism but then turns against this enclosure and opens up the historical process, again and again, promotes history-as-secularization. He remarks, “secularization is a historical process” — the historical could be nothing else, given its identification with the secular — that “must be understood to be unfinished by definition.” One can break with secularism, but not with secularization. Even history as such cannot be finished with secularization, for secularization is a historical process that survives, that can never be finished: “whatever its ideologically proclaimed teleology by secularists of all kinds, secularization remains unfinished, perhaps even unfinishable. This is its greatest power.”

Yet it is precisely this “greatest power” that the challenge to the secular ought to disrupt. Such a challenge can be indicated by a series of (perhaps overly blunt) questions: Why does history have to be secularization, rather than history as such? Or why does secularization have to be unfinished — is it not possible to imagine history in excess of the process of secularization? And if criticism is to be made of both religion and secularism, then why is it that criticism has to be secular? Why can’t criticism just be criticism?

Gourgouris actually calls for, and sketches the outlines of, exactly these sorts of questions. He does so, however, not with his notion of secular criticism, but with his notion of poetics. Gourgouris’s poetics in fact amount to an unacknowledged critique of his secular criticism. He articulates this poetics not in the narrow terms of a “skill, such as rhetoric,” but in much broader, unlimited terms: “the infinitive verb of a practice (poiein), whose precise skills are voluminous and indefinite […] and indeed never immune to the transformational process of the practice.” In this sense, poetics amounts to making, which is itself inseparable from forming and altering, or from a change so transformative that it changes the order that would evaluate the change. “The energy of poiein is dramatic: Literally, to form is to make form happen, to change form (including one’s own).” Such poetics should be understood less as adding to the world and more as changing the very nature of the world. Poetics thus names the making of “things that may indeed appear to be impossible in the present time — at this moment in history in which the drama is conducted — but cannot be said to be generically impossible, impossible for all time.”

Poetics, the making of things that appear impossible to the present order — such a practice enacts a force that would only be blunted when it is defined by, or based upon, the secular. To say that poetics is given as secular criticism is to make poetics responsible for presently given conditions of possibility, rather than to free poetics to make what appears to be impossible. While poetics “takes place in history,” Gourgouris makes clear that it does so through the act of “unprecedented radical creation” — which is to say that poetics “makes history anew.” Yet if this is the case, then why cannot poetics make history without secularization? Furthermore, when Gourgouris adds that such creation does not take place “without destroying, in some form or another, what exists,” we can ask, once again: would it not be consistent with this creation to destroy the existence of both the name of religion and the name of the secular? In fact, poetics, taken in its autonomous rigor, would refuse every name on which the world’s existence is based. Precisely because it baselessly makes the world, poetics has no investment in its survival.


[1] The possibility of such a resonance is something that Gourgouris briefly notes — by way of reference to Gil Anidjar’s thesis that the secular is a Christian project — but does not seriously pursue.


Daniel Colucciello Barber is the author of Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh UP, 2014) and On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Cascade, 2011).

LARB Contributor

Daniel Colucciello Barber is the author of Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh UP, 2014) and On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Cascade, 2011), as well as a co-author (with Alexander Galloway, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker) of Dark Nights of the Universe ([NAME], 2013). His work — which has appeared in various journals — concerns the intersections between continental philosophy, race, religion, queer theory, and secularism. He received his PhD from Duke University, where he worked in Religious Studies and the Program in Literature, and has taught at New York University, Marymount Manhattan College, and The City University of New York.



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