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  • The Problem of the Postsecular
  • Tracy Fessenden (bio)

What are we to do with the sacred? Jonathan Freedman recently posed this as “one of the great unanswered questions of contemporary literary criticism.”1 Readers of this special issue of American Literary History might frame the question differently, or dispute the largeness with which it looms, unyielding and intractable, at the horizon of our discipline. As early Americanists Justine Murison and Jordan Alexander Stein have noted, “the ‘religious turn’ in literary studies—taking place since the late 1990s but reimagined in more urgent terms following 9/11—has made a discipline-wide fashion of what had long been one of the most bread-and-butter concerns of our field” (1). Yet as Freedman voices it, the question of the sacred seems still to bewilder and hush, as though it were a daring, even destabilizing inquiry for literary scholarship to pursue. The sense that the “religious turn,” for those who do pursue it, marks the bold trespass of a tacit ban speaks to the enduring hold of the secularization narrative on American literary studies.

The dominant narrative of secularization into which the academic study of literature in America fits its own emergence is a story of the West’s gradual but decisive emancipation from dependence on religious structures of organization, value, and meaning. In broadest outlines, the secularization story begins in the flowerings of intellection and creativity, within and against the structures of the Catholic Church, that have come to characterize the European Renaissance. The story continues in the Reformation, which upended the spiritual and political hegemony of Rome, and in the treaties that ended the so-called Wars of Religion by carving out separate domains of religious and political authority. Henceforward, the latter would be grounded in purportedly universal reason; the former, on Luther’s model, in inward, revelatory, and eventually discretionary forms of faith. This settlement lays the ground for democracy and [End Page 154] Enlightenment: warring religious factions would come peacefully to coexist on the shared ground of assent to the inviolability of inborn spiritual freedoms, and reason and imagination to flourish unfettered by religious dogma. From here, the narrative of secularization gathers the irresistible coherence of inevitability, with, say, disestablishment, Romanticism, women’s suffrage, pragmatism, psychoanalysis, Dada, and deconstruction all easily plotted into its trajectory of emancipation from religious or quasi-religious dogma and constraint. In its various iterations and emphases, the secularization narrative moves always in the direction of freedom, experimentation, and progress, with each step forward an implicit moral, political, and intellectual advance over the corresponding limitations ascribed to religion.2

A very schematic take on how this story has shaped the professional study of literature might have two parts. In the first, the inexorable waning of religious authority, of the power of doctrine to compel our assent and other-worldly phenomena to compel our devotion, leaves us with literature, Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said,” as a fit object of consecration and source of instruction. Our scholarly encounter with a literary work, then, might proceed not unlike a priest’s with sacred ritual or an exegete’s with holy writ. In this version of the secularization story of the profession, literature replaces religion as the humanities replace the study of divinity. In the second, more recent installment of this story, we gradually came to see that literary study, so configured, is likely to be flawed in all of the ways that religion is flawed—to discover the venerated literary text or reading practice to be, variously, as deaf to its own historicity, as complicit with power, as contingent in its claims to authority as any object of religious allegiance. So we decided our jobs lay elsewhere than in extolling works of literature for the erstwhile religious values they might impart or revive. In this iteration of the secularization story of the profession, literature is the god that fails. At whatever point in the two-part narrative, “a laudable change from a ‘religious’ past to a ‘secular’ present,” Michael Kaufmann suggests, “underwrites a professional identity based on progress and progressive values” (620). For all its brash teleological inevitability, its unchecked aspirations to...


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pp. 154-167
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