Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism
This volume begins to unpack the relationships among the three terms of its title. Despite its air of neutrality, 'secularism' is increasingly understood to have its own interests, particularly when it comes to defining and managing the 'religious.' And, thanks to its constitutive relationship to modernity, romanticism is invested in secularism, not least in those moments typically coded as 'spiritual' or 'religious.' Cosmopolitanism, too, bears a vexed relationship to a period typically associated with nationalism. Finally, secularism and cosmopolitanism are themselves related in surprising ways, both historically and conceptually. Do they pursue the same project? Do they diverge? How and when? And how does romantic writing figure such alignments?
In this introduction to the volume, Jager argues that secularism has remained an obscure topic within romantic studies. Noting that "a genealogy of romantic secularism has yet to be written," Jager sketches some aspects of such a genealogy by noting the persistence of romantic thinking—about the symbol, for example—in secular thinking. Cosmopolitanism, he notes, has been more widely considered alongside romanticism, but here again the relationship of secularism to "romantic cosmopolitanism" has tended to remain invisible. Is cosmopolitanism part of a secular project? Or do the conditions of postmodernity in fact make possible a religious cosmopolitanism of a kind anticipated by some romantic texts?
Engaging with Akeel Bilgrami's recent rehabilitation of "enchantment," Jager argues for the critical power of Byronic enchantment. Bilgrami links such critical power to what he calls "occidentalism," namely a critique of the west. Jager argues that the critical reach of Byron's occidentalism actually goes beyond Bilgrami's, for it allows the reader to glimpse the costs of enchantment.
This essay claims that Romantic secularization was an institutional rather than a mental phenomenon. While informed by arguments and debates that emerged throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Romantic arguments articulated the secular as a product of institutional toleration: not a change in beliefs but rather a new organization of beliefs. The essay argues still further that this new organization required a reorganization of the deployment of fear among political subjects. In contrast to political models in Hobbes and Hegel, which either accentuated or eliminated fear as inimical to the project of political organization, Romantic writers as diverse as Bentham and Coleridge propose an absorption and reorientation of fear within the confines of inclusive institutions. Fear becomes the formal complement of an institutional systematization and identification of crimes and avoidable penal sanctions, the constructed affective complement of systematized penality.
The equation of secularization with demystification no longer seems to work. Baldly stated, the problem is this: the cultural insult in the assumption that one culture can enlighten another overrides the idea that enlightenment is a benefit blind to cultural difference. This article addresses historical questions such as the following: Did Romanticism recover its Enlightenment sources in ways that actually resisted the contemporary colonial thinking into which it was dissolving? If it did, then could it be re-read so as to address the question of how to differ from someone in a non-coercive form of communication, instead of communicating so as coercively to efface difference? Does cosmopolitanism have to involve the colonialism of one belief-system by another? To what extent did Romanticism really engage with these paradoxes in a currently helpful manner?
Bruce Robbins notes in his response to the three essays that cosmopolitanism remains for the most part a background figure against which secularism and romanticism are variously positioned. He counts the essays in the volume as examples of the secularizing of the secular, a position which acknowledges that secularism is newly interesting to scholars not as a term of appreciation but as an object of contestation for its tendency to look like a continuation of religion by other means.