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  • Woolf’s Secular Imaginary
  • David Sherman (bio)

But the religious question is far more serious than the economic, Sir Dighton had said, which she thought extraordinarily interesting, from a man like Sir Dighton.

—Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street”

But the religious question long asked in modernist studies—what does modernism have to say about religion in a secularizing age—hinges on a more awkward question, the question that pushes the background of this question about religion into the foreground: what does modernism have to say about secularization? How have these writers imagined the emergence of secular social spheres and practices, and what have they taken these to be? What resources does modernism provide for the difficult, ongoing task of conceptualizing the secular as a distinctive cultural formation? In the modernizing West, the religious question is inseparable from the problem of the secular, yet in many fields of cultural analysis the secular frequently has been taken as an unproblematic norm against which to evaluate religion as the complex, aberrant, or fascinating cultural phenomenon in need of explanation. Much as whiteness once held the position among many in North America and Europe of an unremarkable racial category, or even a non-racial category, against which all others were considered remarkable, the secular too often has been taken in academic inquiry as qualitatively neutral, a condition that does not bear mentioning because it is itself unconditioned.1 As Talal Asad acknowledges at the beginning of his influential anthropological investigation of the secular, “because [it] is so much part of our modern life, it is not easy to grasp it directly. I think it is best pursued through its shadows, as it were.”2 Modernism, as a [End Page 711] space of cultural shadowing, carries traces of the extraordinary conflicts that established secular ways of life, and reminds us that these ways of life were no less complex and strange than those organized primarily by ecclesiastical institutions and principles. A denaturalization of the secular in modernist studies, along the lines of Asad’s effort to “question . . . its self-evident character while asserting at the same time that it nevertheless marks something real,” opens new questions about modernism’s role in the era’s resignification of religious signs, reorganization of the sacred, and reconstruction of political identity in the context of shifting public and private spheres (Formations of the Secular, 16).3 Modernist writing, in all the ways it engages these issues, was a significant part of the age’s attempt to imagine itself as secular and to grasp the nature of secular experience.

The questions I have posed are not about “culture after the death of God”—modernism as the articulation of a post-Christian existential crisis—but about a cultural birth, about the creation of collective meanings and compelling authorities to some degree unprecedented in religious communities. This birth had been going on for a long time before modernism, and modernism is far from the only literary response to secularization, but modernism did develop distinctive techniques for representing the secular as more and other than the mere subtraction of religion from political and economic institutions or daily life. Asad’s genealogy of the secular depends upon such a shift away from negative definitions of it, away from a reduction of secularization to religion’s decline or disappearance:

over time a variety of concepts, practices, and sensibilities have come together to form “the secular.” . . . An anthropology of secularism should thus start with a curiosity about the doctrine and practice of secularism regardless of where they have originated, and it would ask: How do attitudes to the human body (to pain, physical damage, decay, and death, to physical integrity, bodily growth, and sexual enjoyment) differ in various forms of life? What structures of the senses—hearing, seeing, touching—do these attitudes depend on? In what ways does the law define and regulate practices and doctrines on the grounds that they are “truly human”? What discursive spaces does this work of definition and regulation open up for grammars of “the secular” and “the religious”? How do all these sensibilities, attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors come together to support or undermine the doctrine of secularism?



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