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The most compelling arguments in cultural criticism are those that proceed both within and without a given interpretive paradigm. “Ironic is not a bad word to use,” Edward Said wrote in The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), to describe how the cultural critic simultaneously advances and critiques a position. It is surprising, then, to learn how poorly cultural criticism has performed vis-à-vis “the secularization thesis.” As Vincent P. Pecora puts it in his excellent study of this failure, “the humanistic scholarly recourse to the putatively neutral language of secular thought in a global age implicates us in an intellectual history that we at other times would like to disavow” (1). In short, cultural criticism, as a secular venture, “comes with certain historical and religious strings attached,” strings that “are awfully hard to get rid of” (2). Pecora graciously but relentlessly exposes these, which dangle awkwardly from the work of some of the most important modern cultural critics from Arnold and Durkheim to Benjamin, Adorno, Said, and Habermas.
Pecora’s central contention is that modern cultural critics have aggressively promoted secularism while all the while remaining deeply ambivalent about what this actually means. Pecora relies on the French philosopher Jean-Claude Monod to characterize that ambivalence as entailing two contradictory positions. On the one hand, secularization signifies (in Monod’s words) “the retreat of religion as a dominant sphere and the reconstruction of institutions on a rational basis.” On the other hand, it “designates essentially a transfer” whereby “religion…continues to nourish modernity without its knowledge”: that is, a “worlding of Christianity” (qtd. in Pecora 5). Secularization as the retreat of irrational religion before the advance of reason “makes a…powerful claim on our epistemological sensibilities,” Pecora explains. Secularization, though, as the transfer of religion—i.e., the continuation of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition under a new name—“makes…irresistible claims on our ethical understanding” (6). Far, then, from the straightforward “demystifying, humanizing, materialist, and politically leveling” program that Weber described it to be (101), secularization has followed “a more circuitous, partial, and uneven path, one filled with digressions that periodically call its basic (Weberian) premises into question” (22). Pecora “creatively misuse[s]” Heidegger’s Verwindung (meaning “a going-beyond that is both an acceptance and a deepening” ) to describe “the twisting ambiguities and reversals of the secularizing process” (23), which reveal how “the society that produces Enlightenment never fully outgrows its desire for religious sources of coherence, solidarity, and historical purpose, and continually translates, or transposes, them into ever more refined and immanent, but also distorted and distorting, versions of its religious inheritance” (22).
As presented in five well-crafted chapters, the range of cultural critics who haven’t quite “outgrown” the desire for religious sources and the variety of ways in which they transpose these sources into their work, are eye-opening. In the first chapter, Pecora shows how the contemporary generation of critics who followed Foucault in turning away from the classic Enlightenment binary of reason against revelation to critique the Enlightenment itself as a disciplinary regime have been somewhat blindsided by the “return” of religion, a point also made recently by Gauri Viswanathan (466). In Pecora’s view, the fairly recent return of criticism to the question of secularization has thus far lacked nuance, tending in postcolonial studies toward the “heroic secularism” of Edward Said or the “equivocating relativism” of Talal Asad (43) and in political theory toward either the retreat of religion before the enlightening advance of “the right” in John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas or a transference of religion into “the good” in Alasdair MacIntyre. (Habermas actually appears in Pecora’s rendering as a more ambivalent figure, increasingly invested in the “semantic potentials” of the Judeo-Christian tradition ). Pecora ends this chapter and dedicates the next to theorists from the middle of the century, Hans Blumenberg and Karl Löwith, and Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, using Monod’s framework to depict Blumenberg and Kracauer as persuaded by the retreat of religion and Löwith and Benjamin by its transfer. Pecora’s argument that Benjamin models for contemporary critics how to draw upon the semantic energy of religion to dress up otherwise secular analyses with a “weak messianism” (93) is particularly interesting. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are each focused on single figures, demonstrating how the ostensibly secular programs of Emile Durkheim, Matthew Arnold, and Virginia Woolf respectively are each notably invested in concepts of a moral society colored by religious tradition. “[T]he trajectory taking us from Comte to Durkheim,” Pecora explains in a summation that could apply to Arnold and Woolf, too, “suggests that something like civic religion returns, now not in the guise of fidelity to a local deity, or even to monotheistic authority…but rather as a religion of the social itself—a political theology based on nothing more than the sacred character of social life, of society as a religious object” (116).
In Woolf’s case, for example, Pecora shows that her critique of the religious ideology of the Clapham Sect—the suburban London base of William Wilberforce and other reform-minded Evangelicals, including Woolf’s own great-grandfather and grandfather—while “prompted in part by the atheism of her father…need not be seen…as a rejection of the larger clan mentality or habitus.” Instead, “Woolf manages to recuperate the underlying structure and moral seriousness of the Clapham fellowship while ridding it of its evangelically and imperially colonizing fervor” (170). Standing upon this forgotten “Clapham-to-Bloomsbury road” (193), Pecora powerfully demonstrates in just a few paragraphs that “what MacIntyre [in After Virtue] understands as simple moral ‘emotivism’ [as exemplified in the Principia Ethica of G.E. Moore of Bloomsbury]…emerges less as the arbitrary product of modernity’s irrational self-will than…as a worldview embedded in a specific Evangelical tradition of thought” (168). That same worldview, Pecora also reveals, pervades much of Woolf’s work, including not only The Voyage Out (1915) but also To the Lighthouse (1927).
Pecora ends his book by reiterating his call that “the static and totalizing concept of secularism—connoting an already achieved and reliably reproducible intellectual standpoint—be supplanted with a dynamic understanding of secularization, that is, with a process that has remained, at least up to the present, in some ambiguous relationship with religious tradition—and here he returns to Monod’s characterization—“neither translation…nor radical overturning,” neither transfer nor retreat (208).
Pecora’s final plea is welcome, for what Secularization and Cultural Criticism shows is that virtually every figure it examines has been engaged, whatever his or her intentions, in secularizing arguments that, far from moving to some new dynamic understanding of secularization, incessantly call for either the retreat of religion (for the sake of epistemology) or for the transfer of religion (for the sake of ethics) or (in the muddled case of many) both. In this way, Pecora’s book illuminates how modern intellectuals for nearly two centuries have reduced religion entirely to, at most, a set of ethical values that can be, at best, used to supplement the rationalist program of the Enlightenment. Adorno, Blumenberg, Habermas, Benjamin: these figures and others have sought, over and over, to enhance their epistemological commitment to critical reason with various opaque appeals intended to energize their otherwise critical programs with some implicit moral purpose. Indeed, my impression at least was that after the first two chapters on such critical programs Pecora himself seems quite happy to turn away from these theorists so that he can write in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 not about thin “semantic energies” in the rhetoric of neo-Kantian and Marxist intellectuals but rather about the thick “habitus” (170) and “social effervescence” (164) and even “political theology” (159) in the writings of Durkheim, Arnold, and Woolf, all of whom in Pecora’s account turn to religious tradition to describe social goods.
Moving as his book does from the epistemological programs of Habermas and Benjamin to the ethical programs of Durkheim and Woolf, does Pecora himself end up taking sides in, or in any case reducing secularization to, this familiar divide—the epistemological and the ethical—which contemporary intellectuals excel at finding everywhere? Stanley Fish’s haste to announce “religion!” in response to a reporter’s query after Derrida’s death about “what would succeed high theory” (“I answered like a shot”) suggests that academics may indeed be tempted to simply jam the topics of secularism and religion into the same old paradigm that has gotten so much use over the last few decades (n. pag.). It’s not hard, in other words, to imagine “either secularism or religion” joining those other unquestioned binaries so habitually important to contemporary critics: epistemology or ethics, the right or the good, the universal or the particular, the liberal or the communitarian, and the cosmopolis or the nation.
Pecora’s reading of Matthew Arnold has this reductive character, I think. For all of his qualifiers, Pecora seems determined to read Arnold’s proposed syncretism of the Hebrew and the Hellene as in fact an unintentional but undeniable call for a Hellenism that nefariously draws upon the semantic potentials of a racist Christianity. Arnold’s secular program in Culture and Anarchy (1869), Pecora wants to show, depends on a notion of culture rooted in race theories which are outlined in On the Study of Celtic Literature (1866). Thus while Arnold writes explicitly that he wants to advance both the Hebraic and the Hellenic in Culture and Anarchy (qtd. in Pecora 136), what Arnold really wants to do—Pecora drives us to conclude after twenty pages of reading Arnold in an unfailingly polite but exceedingly ungenerous light—is advance the Hellenic (which in Pecora’s reading is ultimately a Christian humanism) at the cost of the Hebraic (which is really just Judaism) (156). Pecora ultimately seems most interested in using his critique of Arnold to mount a similar one of our own pious use of “ethnicity” today; that use, Pecora contends, rests upon unexamined ethnological assumptions—which are even marked like Arnold’s by “the same back-and-forth shuttle of meanings between an arbitrarily transmitted custom and a racial inheritance” (152)—and thus underneath our own loud calls for the retreat of religion we sound a sotto voce call for the transfer of religious energy into faith in ethnic differences (152-53). This may be true, and it is certainly provocative, but it is not clear why Arnold had to be reduced yet again to a caricature to make this point. Indeed, Arnold’s program might have served Pecora instead as a new point of departure for a different narrative about modern secularism, one marked by syncretism rather than Monod’s ambivalence.
Much more often, though, Pecora resists such simplifications, and his thought-provoking book is a model of the ironic mode Said recommends, taking a knowing and important step away from “the static and totalizing concept of secularism” and toward a new “dynamic understanding” of the same.
Daniel S. Malachuk teaches courses in the humanities at Western Illinois University-Quad Cities. He is the author of Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism (Palgrave 2005).
- Fish, Stanley. “One University Under God?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 Jan. 2005. 17 June 2008. <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2005/01/2005010701c.htm>.
- Viswanathan, Gauri. “Secularism in the Framework of Heterodoxy.” PMLA 123.2 (March 2008): 466-476.