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.