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  • Globalization and the Gods, or the Political Theology of "Race"
  • Jared Hickman (bio)

Modernity is getting modernized. In order to explain the world in the early twenty-first century—a transnational world from which religion shows no signs of disappearing—recent scholarship increasingly considers modernity in terms of a long history of globalization whose relativizing effects cannot be equated with "disenchantment."1 In this framework, the colonial Americas—as the bridge between Atlantic and Pacific worlds—rather than Enlightenment Europe immediately take modernity's center stage insofar as globalization, by definition, became possible only with the European "discovery" of the Americas and the momentous transformations this enabled.2 Eurocentrism takes an unprecedented hit when we trace modernity to an incipient globalization that necessarily coincides with intercultural encounter in the Americas and beyond rather than to an Enlightenment that proceeds from intracultural European self-reflection. "The history of modernity" becomes genuinely "global and conjunctural . . . not a history in which Europe alone first produces and then exports modernity to the world at large" for either consumption or critique, as one scholar puts it (Subrahmanyam 28). This most recent globalist reformulation of modernity, it must be noted, outstrips—quite self-consciously—what is for many still the reigning retheorization of modernity, Paul Gilroy's massively influential "black Atlantic." Sibylle Fischer well articulates the common critique: insofar as Gilroy "equat[es] modernity with the Eurocentric regime of racial subordination and colonial exploitation that became hegemonic in the course of the nineteenth century" and then "oppos[es] that modernity with a counterculture that grows out of suffering," he retains Europe, in some sense, as the "original" producer of modernity if not its exclusive site of production. Instead, Fischer argues, we should take "heterogeneity" as the "congenital condition of modernity, and . . . the alleged purity of European modernity [as] an a posteriori theorization [End Page 145] or perhaps even part of a strategy that aims to establish European primacy" (Fischer 37, 22). Modernity, in other words, was produced by the global cultural encounters that began most conspicuously in 1492 out of the dialogue—albeit often unequal (more on this later)—between Europeans and non-Europeans. When globality is asserted as the defining condition of modernity, any representation of modernity as a primarily European phenomenon is exposed as both tendentiously ideological and methodologically untenable.3

For our immediate purposes, the most salutary consequence of this globalization of modernity is that it can help us think our way out of the "secularization" narrative implicit in Eurocentric accounts of modernity. "Secularization," whether figured as the European Enlightenment's sloughing off of "superstition" or European Christianity's condensation into the ethical principles that give substance to the term civilization, is a self-serving Eurocentric fantasy rather than a universal teleology, many scholars now acknowledge (Casanova 11–39; cf. Berger, Desecularization of the World).4 Not only does secularization as conventionally posited misrepresent what has happened to "religion" over the course of global modernity, it minimizes religion itself as a meaningful category of analysis, treating it in weak Marxian fashion as mere ideological smokescreen.5 In sum, the secularization myth often implies that (European) modernity describes—or prescribes—a state of having seen through or gotten over religion qua religion, which can marginalize non-European perspectives often marked de facto as "religious" (more on this later) and mask the religious imperatives underlying European reason. By contrast, the premise of Stephan Palmié's Atlanticist-cum-globalist6 description of modernity is that ever since "the global historical storm conjured up in the Antilles in the sixteenth century, . . . the meanings associated with the terms Western modernity and Afro-[American] tradition"—ideologically constructed in Eurocentric discourse as the opposite poles of progressive reason and primitive religion—equally belong to the same modern world that "continues to envelop us all" (Palmié 15, 10). In the context of a radically coeval global modernity, African "fetishism" and European philosophy are not only literally happening at the same time, they are oriented toward related existential and epistemological difficulties raised in the course of global interaction. Despite their different idioms, they are equally modern responses to modern problems. Both are world-making exercises in the face [End Page 146] of...