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  • World-Making and Grammatical Impasse
  • Daniel Colucciello Barber (bio)

Not least from its ability to stand at times for both the earth itself and for what is on the earth or indeed in the purview of one individual, the concept of the world has always had a great deal of latitude: it can be at once geographical and intellectual.

[T]here is a long tradition of equating the concept of the world with the idea of Europe.

Sean Gaston, The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida1

[T]he slave’s inhabitation of the earth precedes and exceeds any prior relation to land—landlessness. And selflessness is the correlate. No ground for identity, no ground to stand (on).

Jared Sexton, “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign”2

The Field of the World

To speak of the secular is to speak of the world. Or, more precisely, it is to speak of the age of the world, which for Christianity marked a time between the Christ’s advent and return, and which for the secular modern came to mark a time in which “religion” would be superseded. However one goes about parsing the continuities and/or discontinuities of Christianity and the secular,3 one ends up with [End Page 179] the fact—the evident doing and making—of the world. This is to say that the world demonstrates an immense staying power, namely, the power to decide what stays (and what does not).

The world survives.4 It certainly survives its Christian formation, but if it does so through an apparent identification with the secular, it may nonetheless survive the critique of the secular. More essential than the question of whether the post-secular (as that which follows from the critique of the secular) diverges from the secular is the question of whether the post-secular (or the critique of the secular) diverges from the world. The survival of the world, after all, is a matter of reproduction, of a development and futurity that—even (or especially) when emergent in the guise of crisis or threat—manages to extend itself in ever more supple and micro-calibrated degrees.

Is the critique of the secular a critique of the world? It is certainly the case that the critique of the secular, understood in its broadest or most inclusive sense, calls attention to the fact that the secular does not succeed in fulfilling its claims. This failure of fulfillment is often oriented around historical prognostication (the secularization thesis), but the more pressing issue—in my mind—concerns the ethical or political. Along these lines, the failure of the secular to fulfill its claims concerns the division and concomitant gap between, on one hand, the claimed capacity of the secular to establish a condition of equality and, on the other, the evident perpetuation of inequality—that is, Western domination—in the name of the secular.

What is the relation between the discourse of the secular and the discourse that critiques it? When critique addresses the gap between the claims made by the secular and the resoundingly repetitive evidence that contravenes such claims, to whom, or to what end, is such critique addressed? Is the point of critique (1) to call the secular to account for failing to live up to its claims, such that the secular would, at some future occasion, supersede its failures in order to (finally) fulfill such claims? Is the point, on the contrary, (2) to argue that the claims of the secular find their truth in their failures, such that these last reveal an essence of the secular otherwise concealed by (investment in) its claims? Or is the point—more modestly, but with a hesitance that can obscure the finality of a decree—(3) to trouble the certainties of both sides (whether that of the recommencement or [End Page 180] of the refusal of the secular) by remaining within the tensional gap between claim and failure?

The differences between the trajectories set forth by these points of critique are significant. Yet more significant, I contend, is the field to which all three trajectories belong (and contribute). This field is constituted by the polarity between secular...


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pp. 179-206
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