Friday, January 26, 2007

From The Long 18th

I wanted to thank Dave Mazella of the group blog >The Long Eighteenth for taking up issues related to my book in a recent post. That post is here.

Dave actually posted this more than a week ago.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Putting the "Literary" in "Secularism"

[Cross-posted on The Valve]

Getting my dissertation to book form was a tortuously difficult process. I had been given some suggestions from my committee at the time of my defense, but it seemed impossible to follow their advice for one reason or another. It didn’t help that my topic was secularism in modern fiction, an unconventional subject where there aren't really many preexisting critical templates.

There has been a great deal of interesting social theory on the topic of secularism in particular published in recent years –- Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, William Connelly, Charles Taylor, Bruce Robbins, Edward Said, and Gauri Viswanathan have all had interesting things to say about secularism and secularization in their work. But even people who teach literature (Said, Viswanathan, Robbins), when they address secularism, are addressing a broader concept of secularity -– one that is oriented more to the idea of the intellectual in society than it is to literary form. Said's famous idea of "secular criticism," for instance, is an ethic of critical detachment, not in itself a critique of religious orthodoxies or institutions per se (that critique is left as presumed -- too obvious to bother with, perhaps).

My dissertation consisted of a series of thematic readings and historical contexts I had worked hard on, but the conceptual rubric that tied those readings together had always seemed weak. I had never been able to satisfactorily answer a basic, and therefore glaring, question: why secularism in literature? What is it about the idea of literature (and the novel in particular) that makes it a unique space in which to chart the transition from an experience of the world shaped by religious belief to one in which human-derived concepts are central? The question of the role of literary form was the most urgent one I had to address as I reworked the dissertation, and for nearly three years I was effectively stalled.

Then, sometime in the summer of 2004, I came across James Wood’s book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and while the various essays in the book weren’t historically grounded enough to offer a comprehensive answer (most of the essays were initially published as book reviews), Wood gave me the conceptual jump-start I needed to reframe the project and identify a trajectory that led to a more finished text.

One key passage for me was the following:

Nevertheless, the reality of fiction must also draw its power from the reality of the world. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of discretionary magic: it is a magic whose existence it is up to us, as readers, to validate and confirm. It is for this reason that many readers dislike actual magic or fantasy in novels. . . . Fiction demands belief from us, and that is demanding partly because we can choose not to believe. However, magic – improbably occurrences, ghosts, coincidences—dismantles belief, forcing on us miracles which, because they are beyond belief, we cannot choose not to believe. This is why almost all fiction is not magical, and why the great writers of magical tales are so densely realistic.

(As a quick aside, that last assertion seems quite arguable if not wrong, but it’s in keeping with Wood’s strong dislike for magic realism. He goes after Toni Morrison, but remains silent on Salman Rushdie.) To continue:

The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving. Joyce requests that we believe that Mick Lacy could sing the tune better than Stephen's father. Joseph Roth requests that we believe him when he remarks that Onufrij was a real person, not the character in a bad book. It is a belief that is requested, that we can refuse at any time, that is under our constant surveillance. This is surely the true secularism of fiction—why, despite its being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity. Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief “as if.” Our belief is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief. (xi-xii)

The directness of Wood’s claim makes it quite helpful, even if upon close inspection much of what he says turns out to be arguable.

The claim that modern fiction is the “enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity” sounds grand, but does it hold up? Even if we discount avowedly religious novelists (like C.S. Lewis), and crypto-religious writers (like Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien), there are still many works of serious literature written in the realist mode that leave the reader in a state of ambiguity about the value of religion and spirituality, and some that actively argue the positive value of the religious life (an example of the latter kind of novel might be Iris Murdoch’s The Bell). Still, it remains surprisingly consistent that the kinds of people who take up careers as novelists, producing "literary" fiction oriented to adults, tend to be highly secular in outlook. It could be a simple matter of cultural expectations about writing as a vocation, or it could be that the novel itself –- both as a cultural-historical artifact and as a form (with a given array of internal properties and structural limitations) is normatively secular, as Wood says.

The more directly applicable claim here is more exclusively formal: the status of the reader’s belief in the world of a realistic novel has a certain innate refusability. It is helpful, specifically, as a way of seeing the interaction between the text and the reader. The novelist is in control of the world she or he has created in the text, but not absolutely, and the limitations there are extremely important. (Rushdie comments on this a number of times via meta-narrative asides in The Satanic Verses, and the novelist’s struggle with control is a commonplace in other postmodernist metafiction.) It might also be that the ubiquity of doubt and the prerogative of refusal is in some sense infectious: because the reader need not believe, it might be that characters within a novel can’t sustain absolute beliefs (religious or ideological) either. Even Daniel Deronda, a novel about the discovery of a belief-system, doesn’t consider religious belief a viable end in itself; rather, Daniel Deronda’s goal, after he discovers his Jewish lineage and commits himself to publicly identify himself as a Jew, is to go out and build a nation for the Jews.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to argue that the novel by itself produces a culture of secularization. That would be another variation of what Amanda Anderson calls “aggrandized agency.” In fact, it seems better to suggest that the novel’s secularity is a rough correlative to the general rise of secularism as a legible concept within a given society (the concept need not necessarily be universally embraced to be legible). Some postcolonial critics have actually argued that the concept of “secularism” can’t really be applied to societies outside of Europe and North America because of its Christian/Protestant provenance, but the presence of a body of fiction in which secularism is hotly contested can help to refute those arguments. Insofar as Rabindranath Tagore’s novels are mimetic of a certain secularized cultural milieu in Bengali society in the early 20th century, they show that society translating, adapting, and assimilating the “foreign” concept of secularism. It’s an available discourse in Indian society, though far from a hegemonic one, in Tagore’s time or even today.

One other thing: Wood’s strong statements on the "true secularism of fiction" are belied in many ways by his own novel, The Book Against God, which is very much structured as a dysfunctional atheist’s painful discovery that he actually believes in God. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but the point is that the ambiguities of Wood’s own fiction seem to cloud the directness of his central argument in The Broken Estate. And such ambiguities are widely seen, even in the novels of publicly committed atheists like Joyce and Rushdie. The discourse of theology continues to have a powerful pull for their main characters; Stephen Dedalus’s rejection of the Priesthood is so intense that the "vocation" seems to define him even as he rejects it.

In the end, the “-ism” in my title (Literary Secularism) is still probably a bit misleading. There is a secular ethic in modern literature, but it’s not quite as strong or forthright as an –ism would suggest. A fundamental quality of the literary in the modern era is ambiguity, and literature that thematizes the struggle for secularization is no different. So “literary secularism” is perhaps better understood as indicating my exploration of a historical phenomenon via close reading rather than as the advocacy of a polemically “secularist” mode of reading.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Secularism and Reverse-Engineering

[Cross-posted from Sepia Mutiny]

The debates about secularism we’ve had over the months I’ve been on Sepia Mutiny have sometimes gotten stuck due to differences in terminology. People have different ideas of what “secularism” means, and not simply because one party is “right” and the others are “wrong.”

In fact, there is some slipperiness in the way many people use the term on a day-to-day basis. Some people think of secularism as a cultural attribute, indicating the opposite of religiosity. A society where people are not very religious might be termed secular, and under this terminology, Europe would be very “secular,” while the U.S. would be less so, even if (and Razib has often pointed this out) there is actually more religion taught in public schools in most northern European countries than is allowed in the U.S. system. India is a society that is also very non-secular by this definition, partly because the overwhelming majority of its citizens would identify themselves as belonging to one or another religious community. Moroever, one of the unique features of life in the Indian subcontinent is the fact that a person’s religious identity is often publicly visible to others –- it’s built into one’s name, as well as various kinds of bodily markings and religiously-coded attire. A Bindi might mark a woman as a Hindu; a turban and beard might mark a man as a Sikh; and any number of identifying marks are possible for Muslims. (Christians and Buddhists, interestingly, are less visibly marked.)

The problem with the cultural definition of secularism is that it seems very difficult to think of changing anything. If the people in a given society are seen as religious, one could claim that there’s no need for a legal or political system that requires separation of church and state. Nor need there be any particular incentive to reform aspects of a traditional culture that are incompatible with the idea of civil rights. Also out the window are specific protections for religious minorities, as well as vigilance about protecting individuals (as in, women) from religious coercion. If a woman (or even, as is often the case, a girl) is being pressured by her family to accept a marriage she doesn’t want, under the culturalist definition of secularism there isn’t really justification to help her: that’s simply the culture, one could say.

A better way of defining secularism is more strictly political: for me, "secularist" refers to a political system where the government derives its authority without reference to any religious institutions (as a shorthand, we can call this "separation of church and state"). Under this definition, you can disentangle ideas of "modernity" and "democracy" from "secularity" -– very modernized and even democratic nations might choose not to follow the path of secularism, and very secular nations might end up as non-democracies. As many people have pointed out over the years, Iran has elements of a democratic system of government, but that government has to be legitimated by the "Supreme Leader" who is always a religious cleric. It is procedurally "democratic" (there are regular elections) without being "secular."

Similarly, it’s equally possible to have coercive state secularism where democracy and civil rights are absent. Turkey is certainly more free now than it was, say, 30 years ago -– when the automatic imprisonment of both Communists and Islamists was a regular fact of life. But even now -– with a nominally Islamist party running the government -– there are questions about how democratic the country is, as writers continue to get in hot water with the government over things they write.

In the political definition, some of the positive value of secularism is lost, and the concept becomes a bit more technical. And admittedly, secularism is not always used in the most intelligent way even by secularists. It can also be pushed too far -– and actually work against the interest of individual rights. Turkey has sometimes gone in this direction, as has (arguably) France, with the recent Hijab ban.

But such excessive applications are relatively rare. On balance, political secularism in most nations seems to be a good thing –- especially when those nations are pluri-religious (most are, these days), have serious internal sectarian divides (Iraq, Afghanistan), or other major cultural differences (as in, between urban and culturally secular people and rural societies that are more religious). Secularism as a political term, in short, need not be understood as "opposed" to religion.

And political secularism can be a good thing even if the term ("secularism") itself may be foreign to a given society, and even though the term has a "Christian" genealogy (in the sense that the word "secular" comes from the Latin "saeculum," and came into European languages through Christian theology). But the idea that "secularism" is an extension of colonialism -– an imposition of the west -– doesn’t really hold water, and I disagree with people who have used that argument (such as Ashis Nandy; see this post from the early days of my blog).

Secularism is a legible concept pretty much everywhere -– it’s been successfully translated to multiple cultural frameworks, and most societies are capable of adapting and incorporating political ideas like this one without any trouble. (Another term that has high translatability might be "democracy.") Secularism can be "reverse engineered" to be compatible with, say, predominantly Hindu societies like India and Nepal, or predominantly Muslim societies in the Middle East, North Africa, or Southeast Asia. Even if there aren’t strong philosophical or historical justifications for doing this, there are, in nearly every case, very good pragmatic ones. That is to say, it is quite clear that many countries would fall into civil war if political secularism were abandoned. And secondly, the civil rights of dissenters, atheists, and members of small religious minorities would likely be trampled without some protection from the state.

In an essay called “Modes of Secularism” (in Rajeev Bhargava’s collection, Secularism and its Critics), the philosopher Charles Taylor has worked out a way of thinking about how what I am calling the reverse engineering of secularism might work. Taylor uses the term “overlapping consensus,” coined by John Rawls, to describe how different groups can agree upon a common political framework (secularism) even if they might do so from dramatically different points of view:

I want to use this term [overlapping consensus], even while I have some difficulties with its detailed working out in Rawls' theory. I will come to these below. For the moment, I just want to describe this approach in general terms. The problem with the historical common ground approach is that it assumes that everyone shares some religious grounds for the norms regulating the public sphere, even if these are rather general: non-denominational Christianity, or only Biblical theism, or perhaps only some mode of post-Enlightenment Deism. But even this latter is asking too much of today's diversified societies. The only thing we can hope to share is a purely political ethic, not its embedding in some religious view. But its problem is that it too demands not only the sharing of the ethic but also of its foundation--in this case, one supposedly independent of religion.

The property of the overlapping consensus view is just that it lifts the requirement of a commonly held foundation. It aims only at universal acceptance of certain political principles (this is hard enough to attain). But it recognizes from the outset that there cannot be a universally agreed basis for these, independent or religious. (Charles Taylor)

In the U.S. context, overlapping consensus is what allowed dissenting Protestants (who were extremely religious, but also extremely individualistic) and Deist/humanist types like Thomas Jefferson to agree on a governing framework. The Protestant dissenters of Virginia didn’t want to have to say an oath or pay a tax that would benefit an established (Anglican) church, and Jefferson had the strong conviction that religion and politics should be kept separate. The two parties agreed on a system of government (in Virginia) that incorporated their quite different beliefs, even if they came to that agreement for different reasons.

With large numbers of immigrants who adhere to non-western faiths now in the U.S., it’s also become acutely clear that overlapping consensus can allow, say, a conservative Muslim immigrant (someone who trusts the Quran more than Thomas Jefferson or John Locke) to agree on a common governing principle with a secularist like Andrew Sullivan, even if they disagree on how to adjudicate specific issues, and even if they don’t even base their understanding of secularism on the same philosophical principles. Secularism, according to people like Taylor (and by extension, Rawls), is a political system that can work just fine without its philosophical foundation.

(A bit more on the idea of overlapping consensus can be found here)

In India, the story is a bit different. But it’s undeniably the case that the Indian constitution was written with a clear awareness that a country with significant populations of people belonging to eight different religions (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism), as well as serious caste issues, had to have an expedient way of keeping the society together. The principle of secularism wasn’t named originally, though it was clearly indicated in Articles 15-18 of the Indian constitution (in a subsequent emendation of the preamble to the constitution, the word "secular" was in fact added). There are other unique features of the Indian system (and yes, flaws), and I’ve addressed some of them here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Literary Secularism: Introduction to the blog

This blog is in support of my book, Literary Secularism, which was published by Cambridge Scholars Press. The book is a significantly revised version of my Ph.D. dissertation, which was completed in May of 2001.

The book can be purchased from here. ships to the U.S. with a pretty reasonable postage charge.

The book can also be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Press. The price is about the same.

In the days and weeks to come I will be adding material describing some of the key arguments of the book. I might also have abbreviated discussions of some of the important issues and texts discussed in the book.

It is, quite obviously, a bit too expensive for most people to buy, but major university libraries usually pay for cloth-bound books that cost about this much. Faculty and graduate student requests for new acquisitions are often approved (at most universities, few people take advantage of their ability to suggest books for the library to buy). So my hope is that interested readers will ask their respective libraries to buy it.

Table of Contents

Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction

by Amardeep Singh

Table of Contents

Chapter 1- The Critical Tradition and the Modern Novel: From Daniel Defoe to James Wood

Chapter 2: British Secularism, Jewish Assimilation: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Chapter 3: Holy Water, Fluid Modernity – Rabindranath Tagore and Hindu Reform

Chapter 4: Diasporas and Promised Lands: Ireland, Israel, and Joyce's Ulysses

Chapter 5: The Elusive Ideal of Secular Writing: V.S. Naipaul and Literary Secularism in India

Chapter 6: The Ambiguous Relationship Between Men and Angels: Rushdie's Daemonic Secularism

Chapter 7: The Myriad Failures of Religious Law: Indian Feminism and the Uniform Civil Code

Chapter 8: Literary Secularism After 9/11: Orhan Pamuk and Philip Roth

Works Cited



Literary Secularism: A Short Abstract

Short Abstract

Though it has been fiercely debated in the social sciences in recent years, the topic of secularization has rarely been investigated in modern literature. Most modern writers are presumed to be straightforwardly secular – the interest in religion is either “personal” or it is absent entirely. In some cases the issue of secularism has been discussed, as one particular theme in single-author studies. Quite a number of critics have explored the interest of individual authors in religious textuality -- as in James Joyce and Judaism, for instance. But most of these studies are author-specific, religion-specific, or culture-specific. Moreover, they tend to suggest a secondary – merely thematic – status for the subject. Earlier generations of scholars did consider the issue on occasion, as in M.H. Abrams in Natural Surpernaturalism (1977), or T.S. Eliot, in his early essays on literary criticism. But these critics by and large limited themselves exclusively to English literature, and mainly poetry at that. Literary Secularism, by contrast, explores the theme of secularization as a general process at work in the modern novel, defined along cross-cultural and cross-religious lines. Secularization is often contradictory and ambiguous, especially as it is represented as an embodied problematic, but it is nevertheless a process that is centrally connected to the aims of several great modernist and postcolonial novels.

James Wood recently argued in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief that the modern novel is the “enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity,” a position that gives the novel clear marching orders. In my close readings of novels by writers like George Eliot, Rabindranath Tagore, James Joyce, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie, I attempt to develop a more nuanced picture. To begin with, these novelists, insofar as their work is mimetic of existing social realities, represent a world in which religious communities and institutions continue to have great power and influence. It is no longer the determining or the only available world-view, but all of these writers suggest that religion is a force that is, in George Eliot's words (from Daniel Deronda), “still throbbing” in modern life. The second source of complication is more structural: the profound debate over secularism and religion inhabits the form of the narratives themselves. This need not be a straightforward matter of following (and deviating from) the shape of religious scriptures; in Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for instance, a seemingly conventional heterosexual marriage plot between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda is diverted by the latter's discovery of his connection to Judaism. In contrast, the scriptural influence on the form of the novel is much more direct in Rushdie's Satanic Verses, in the “dream” chapters that emulate the episodic and visionary form of the Quran. The third point of interaction between the secular and the religious is essentially thematic: one sees the continued reference to religious scriptures, narratives, and metaphors in all of these works, even as the authors seem to be transforming classical religious icons (such as the Hindu image of “Sita,” the devoted wife) through modern recontextualizations. Of particular importance thematically are figurations of the religiously-marked body – as a site of identity, desire, and the unconscious – which figures centrally in all of my various close readings. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through their assertion of creative will as literary authors, novelists assert a measure of power over religious scriptures, producing texts of human rather than divine provenance. To readers conversant with the logic of religious fundamentalism, the final point might seem obvious – imaginative works by named human authors are always in some sense “secular” by virtue of the fact that they are not divine. But the question of the location of authorship is a core problem, whose resolution is by no means obvious, in Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.

Modern writers engage secularism and secularization following a consistent set of representative strategies, despite their different experiences of religion as well as the ethno-linguistic and cultural differences one finds among the authors named. To a great extent the commonalities in the “literary secularism” of the authors in this study is a feature of the rapid exchanges of ideas and interests that is characteristic of the modern era in literature in general. But it is also a function of the global, universal appeal of the word “secularism” itself, which is currently in wide circulation around the world, even in societies like Iran, which does not accept it legally, or India, where the word itself ("secularism") is directly inscribed in the Indian constitution -- albeit under premises that differ from the western conception of the Separation of Church and State. Secularism in India in particular has proven to be a hotly contested problem, both in literature and in cultural politics; I explore some of the central issues in a chapter entitled “The Myriad Failures of Religious Law: The Uniform Civil Code Debate and Indian Feminism.” This chapter explores the controversy over laws pertaining to religious community norms regarding marriage, divorce, and human rights for women, with reference to novels by Taslima Nasrin (Shame) and Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days). Though the progressive wing of Indian politics has often favored laws that favor the Muslim community, feminists have sometimes found themselves in an uneasy alliance with conservative and nationalist political parties, who argue for the need for a “uniform civil code.” Despite its historical and contextual variations and the continuing contest over its precise social and political meaning, I argue that secularism remains a central part of the universal struggle for modernity.

Through my close readings of novels like Rabindranath Tagore's Gora, James Joyce's Ulysses, and V.S. Naipaul’s Finding the Center, I unpack the ambiguity of secularism in particular historical and cultural contexts. The ambiguity is expressed through the affective and embodied experience of the protagonists of these works, whose private subjectivity (which it is impossible to fully express publicly and symbolically) often conflicts with their public identities. For Daniel Deronda the site of this conflict is inscribed on his face, which Eliot defines as specifically ethnically unmarked (his nose is, in a strange novelistic joke, decidedly not Jewish), though at two important instances Deronda's face “speaks” his Jewish heritage through blushes that occur, involuntarily, of course, at moments where his ethno-religious identity is publicly challenged. Tagore’s troubled hero Gora faces a similar dilemma, as he struggles to reconcile the goals of an incipient anti-colonial nationalism with his religious commitments and unstable caste status. And Naipaul, for his part, struggles in a number semi-autobiographical writings with the implications of his strong sense of social (as opposed to theological) identity as a Hindu. While the particular experiences of the various narratives I encounter are somewhat different from one another, they all depict an image of secularity that no sociological or political formula can fully describe. Correspondingly, it is important to state that while works of literature are certainly artifacts expressing defining moments in the history of secularization, literature by itself doesn't produce secularism in either the cultural or the political context. In arguing for a limited social function for the literary, Literary Secularism differs from a book like Gauri Viswanathan's Outside the Fold, which is interested in scenes of religious conversion in literature as a mode of political subversion. In Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction, the issue of secularism in literature is not primarily a political point, but – as my title indicates – a literary one.