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Lessons in Secular Criticism by Stathis Gourgouris (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 137-139 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0039

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The vexed intersections of religion, secularism, and literature have recently moved to the forefront of debates within critique. With Lessons in Secular Criticism, Stathis Gourgouris presents six essays that productively reshape these debates by tacking between the traditional formations of the secular and the religious. While many of these writings have appeared elsewhere in earlier forms, this volume significantly expands and revises them. Readers who have followed Gourgouris’s debates about secularism with Saba Mahmood or who want to see his engagement with versions of the secular from Charles Taylor or Talal Asad will be especially interested in this collection.

Based on Gourgouris’s 2012 Sydney Lectures in Philosophy and Society, the essays are inspired by Edward Said’s 1983 collection The World, the Text, and the Critic. Said opened with “Secular Criticism” and ended with a call to return critical discourse to the secular endeavor he imagined. Taking up this last task, Gourgouris not only challenges the metaphysical commitments he sees in traditional formations of secularism and religion, but he also significantly expands the potential meaning of the term “secular criticism,” which remained elusive in Said’s original presentation. For Gourgouris, secular criticism is a politics that directly engages the problem of authority. It demands “putting into question the means by which knowledge is presented as sovereign, unmarked by whatever social-historical institution actually possesses it” (xiv). That critical task relentlessly resists “heteronomy,” or the ascription of power to an other or Other outside real human conditions and agency (xiv). For Gourgouris, secular criticism is authorized by immanence and self-critique, not by transcendence or religion. He argues that his “ultimate point” is to “take away from the religious the agency of determining what is secular” (62). If secularism has indeed unconsciously modeled itself in the image and likeness of religious concepts of authority, then secular criticism can strip away the “metaphysics of secularism” (28), the “set of principles” that could “posit themselves independent of historical reality” (30). Against this temptation of transcendence, Gourgouris posits the finitude, groundlessness, and inherent incompleteness of secular criticism. Secular criticism thus resists the prime model of foundationalism, the “external, ahistorical, heteronomous authorization” that Gourgouris sees in “divine power” (50).

Following Said, Gourgouris declares secular criticism to be political. His essays consistently link theory with “radical democratic politics” (xvii), culminating in his final lecture, “Responding to the Deregulation of the Political,” which deftly covers radical movements ranging from the French Revolution to Occupy Wall Street. To frame these political interventions, Gourgouris nimbly draws from literary and theoretical antecedents. His first lecture, “The Poiein of Secular Criticism,” challenges definitions of “secular” and “secular criticism” derived from critics like Talal Asad and instead delimits the ancient concept poiesis to a secular making, an “immanent” and human “encounter with the world” (11). The enduring flux and change of that encounter means that secular criticism “cannot be defined” (12), that it exists not as theoria but as praxis, “alert to contingencies and skeptical toward whatever pretends to escape the worldly” (13).

In his second and most critically effective essay, “Detranscendentalizing the Secular,” Gourgouris brings his conception of secular criticism to bear on elements of Charles Taylor’s work, challenging the idea of secularization as possessed of a telos or end goal. Gourgouris contends that, in A Secular Age (2007), Taylor draws a priori authority from his religious politics, which moves his critique “outside secular authorization” (39). While such a broad claim against A Secular Age isn’t new, Gourgouris’s understanding of secular criticism as an inherently and necessarily incomplete critical project challenges Taylor’s understanding of secularization as a process with a “purpose and end point” (39). That is, secular criticism need not conform to a theological framework that demands some kind of final goal and transcendent horizon. Instead, it draws its authority from its own immanence. Gourgouris also rightly takes issue with Taylor’s implicit image of those without religious belief as “yearning and ultimately unfulfilled,” finding it on a par with “portraits of believers as blissed out with certainty and fulfillment” (42). These critiques are interesting and new, but they could do without rhetorical hyperbole: Gourgouris’s idea that Taylor is in “panic before the...


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