Social Text 18.3 (2000) 1-27
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World Secularisms at the Millennium:
Janet R. Jakobsen with Ann Pellegrini
Critical theory encourages us to look closely at the binaries that construct meaning and to consider the interrelations of pairs that supposedly name oppositions. Investigating and potentially destabilizing the religion/secularism opposition, however, has proven to be a tricky proposition in an academy that is often leery of any appeal to things religious. Part of the reason for this skepticism is that the religion/secularism opposition is fundamentally implicated in claims about reason. Specifically, secularism represents the Enlightenment reason that overcomes religious dogmatism. Accordingly, to set critical pressure on the religion/secularism binary is to shift further the already shifting grounds of the intellectual enterprise, including the Left's intellectual enterprise. Moreover, for many on the Left, the secular is seen as a bulwark against the irrational, regressive aspects of religion. (When you're facing the Christian Right, secularism can look pretty good.)
Nonetheless, this secularism--posed against religion and for reason--has imperatives other than simply those of freedom from dogmatism. Modern secularism in its promises, at least, provides a broad emancipation. As Weber observes, secularism's freedom from religion was also freedom for the market. This market freedom was not fully secular but was, in fact, tied to a specific form of religious activity--reformed Protestantism--and the practice of "worldly asceticism." 1 By worldly asceticism, we mean those processes of body regulation, what we might call (with Foucault) bodily disciplines, that emerged in modernity. Because worldly asceticism in its market form was only indirectly related to the religious (one practiced it not to gain salvation but merely to demonstrate an already achieved salvation promised in Calvinist predestination), it could form a practice at once secular and religious.
Secularism and religion were in this sense co-implicated. Recognizing the co-origination of secularism and market-reformed Protestantism unmasks the national and religious particularities that have come to pass as a universal "secular." This secularism was linked at its origins to a particular religion and a particular location, and it was maintained through a particular set of practices. [End Page 1]
These novel, specifically modern disciplines of the body have served to connect the laboring body at once to new forms/practices of capital and new forms/practices of religious life and, importantly, to do so in ways that naturalize the disciplined body, the market as secular site of freedom, and religion as morality. Body regulation has thus been a crucial pivot in the religion/secularism relation. The newly secularized state enforced specifically religious ideas about, for example, "natural" versus "unnatural" sexual acts and appetites, precisely through enforcing body regulation. However, the state did so no longer in the name of religion, but rather in the name of morality. Although secular in name, these body regulations are religious in form, and thus allow for the continuation of the co-implicated religion and secularism described by Weber. Indeed, as Rob Baird makes clear in his essay in this issue, one of the most striking transformations effected post-Enlightenment was the invention of religion as morality.
The body's pivotal place in the religion/secularism couple helps to illuminate just why and how some bodies cannot win (women, for example, or homosexuals), no matter which "side" of the religion/secularism divide they come to occupy. We will come back to this point.
In light of the implication of the religious in the secular, and vice versa, has there ever been anything that could accurately be called "secularism"? And is "secularism" only one thing? If, as Edward Said has suggested, secularism can be a habitual majority practice or a willed minority practice, then learning to distinguish among secularisms, rather than simply distinguishing the secular from the religious, could be crucial to new political configurations. 2 What difference does willed minority practice make to majority habits? If secularization is an uneven process producing something akin to "scattered hegemonies," 3 what exactly does uneven process mean? What kinds of connections can be...