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  • The Writing Dump
  • Michael Marder (bio)

Sacred writing is for us an indecipherable hieroglyph. It remains inscrutable throughout our insistence on composing fresh homilies and sermons (something that often indirectly happens in the name of moral or environmental philosophy), reverence of certain texts as in Abrahamic religions, or successful interpretation of scripts from Sumerian, Mesoamerican, or ancient Chinese civilizations. In theocratic regimes, so long as a holy text coexists with smartphones or the internet, however censored, sacred writing becomes a thing of the past. The secular mode of inscription is the ultimate horizon both for those societies that embrace it and for those that vehemently reject, but are effectively ensnared by, it.

The roots of writing are steeped in sacrality. This is the case not only because its earliest object or objective is divine veneration but because its medium and the message alike are highly selective. It is set apart from the rest of everyday life and reserved for special occasions, such as setting down the law, to name one. Entrusted to a durable, costly, time- and labor-intensive substratum (stone tablets, treated animal skin, papyrus), the sacred inscription is an exception from ordinary reality, its meaning only accessible to the select few who possess the skills required to read and interpret it.

As it undergoes secularization, writing surrenders to the power of literature. The literary paradigm makes it possible to classify any text based on its genre, so that ancient epics, hymns, sutras, sermons, epistles, scriptures, and codices are all organized under the banner of religious literature. Within this paradigm, sacred writing is incomprehensible unless we box it in the appropriate category according to the law of genre. The very act of slotting sacred writing into an overarching classificatory system reduces it to a part in a larger whole, negates its absoluteness, and dilutes its sacredness. Literature's preferred paper substratum is, moreover, easier to produce and to destroy. Less selective literary writing encompasses a broad array of topics and, given rising literacy rates, is available to a growing public. Though tied to the civil religion of nation- and identity-building, and though initially riven between "high" and "low" cultures, secular (literary) writing readily lends itself to democratization as far as its content, materiality, and circle of reception are concerned.

To complicate our otherwise plain-sailing story a little, we may transpose the deconstructive approach to speech and writing onto sacred and secular kinds of writing. What if, just as writing was before speech for Derrida, so secular writing is "first" with respect to the sacred? It would be easy to account for the priority of secular vis-à-vis nonsecular texts. As the negative form suggests, the nonsecular pledges a return to the sacred after the secular. In another shorthand, this detour charts the path of postsecularism. But that is not what I mean; my claim is, rather, that the secular precedes the sacred, not the nonsecular. How so?

Let's mull over the word secular for a brief moment. It speaks of the world, a place or a network of places that, in their habituality, are separate from the uninhabitable separateness of the sacred. It also speaks of time, of the generation or the age, saeculum, an epochal stretch of the here-and-now. Secular writing is worldly and temporal, the wrinkles of its age carved deep into its skin (or does its skin form and grow around the wrinkles?). It is the writing of the world and of the age, a set of multiple and uneven imprints of space and time at their most banal. In turn, sacred writing that claims the beginning for itself must sever its connection, indeed its lifeline, to its not yet formalized secular counterpart. Styling itself as unworldly, otherworldly, timeless, ageless (sans age; hence, universally applicable, proper to every age and time), it pushes off from that which will come after it, from the secular before the secular. Secularization, then, is not a forward-oriented movement but one that recaptures the debris theology and metaphysics, the one as the other, have discarded in the process of their institution.

In the standard version and in the heterodox variation I have just hinted at...