Formations of the Secular

Talal Asad has produced some interesting books, his 2003 book "Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity" is somewhat less powerful as a collective narrative since it draws on previously published materials (as opposed to a narrative that is linked throughout), nonetheless some interesting ideas from two decades past:

"What is the connection between "the secular" as an epistemic category and "secularism" as a political doctrine? Can they be objects of anthropological inquiry? What might an anthropology of secularism look like? This book attempts, in a preliminary way, to address these questions." (p. 1)

"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. These epithets mattered not because the freethinkers were concerned about their personal safety, but because they sought to direct an emerging mass politics of social reform in a rapidly industrializing society. Long-standing habits of indifferences, disbelief, or hostility among individuals toward Christian rituals and authorities were now becoming entangled with projects of total social reconstruction by means of legislation." (p. 23-24)

"In fact liberal democracy here expresses the two secular myths that are, notoriously, at odds with each other: 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. The secular theory of state toleration is based on these contradictory foundations: 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." (p. 61) 

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Secular Translations

A couple of notes from Talal Asad's "Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self and Calculative Reason" (2018):

  • "Today an important failure is our inability to create a form of collective life on this planet radically different from the liberal capitalist states in which we live. The failure seems to be due not to any lack of imagination or will: there are many highly intelligent and determined people who have presented visions of an attractive future. It has in great measure to do with inherited languages that disallow us form understanding our own institutional and psychological blockages and the resolution they call for. Of course we can recognize and describe instances of cruelty and kindness, of betrayal and self-sacrifice, of suffering and happiness. But we don't have a language to speak adequately about the changes occurring in our collective life resulting from where we have gone wrong, and the things of value we may be losing irretrievably." (p. 157)
  • "When I referred in the past to Islamic traditions like amr bi-l-ma'ruf (which implies that mutual responsibility among friends includes persuading one another to do what is right and avoid what is wrong), I did so mainly to try and unthink our language of sovereign power, with its calculative, logical obsessions and the race to progress that that language invites us to join." (p. 158)
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