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Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism

Afterword: Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism

Bruce Robbins, Columbia University

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..

  1. Other period fields have been addressing themselves recently to the suddenly value-rich term cosmopolitanism, and it was perhaps to be expected that romantic critics would follow suit. Even on the evidence of these extraordinarily insightful and well-argued essays, however, at this point the concept of cosmopolitanism does not seem crucial to romantic interpretation. If it had been, boundary disputes might have been expected with the eighteenth century, whose claim to cosmopolitanism is better established. There ought to have been some scrutiny of what romanticism clearly did contribute to the growth of nineteenth-century nationalism, which usually figures as cosmopolitanism's antithesis. And there might have been more attention to the various cosmopolitanisms, especially the so-called "new" ones, that have sought some degree of synthesis between the two.

  2. The real conceptual center of these essays is secularism. When the term cosmopolitanism does appear, it is called upon to testify in a cross-examination of the secular. To testify, in a sort of courtroom coup de théâtre, against it.

  3. Secularism is newly interesting to scholars not as a term of appreciation but as an object of contestation. This contestation makes good sense (until recently the term has gone largely unquestioned), and it makes equal sense to convene the proceedings in the romantic period. Viewed from a distance, romanticism's break with Enlightenment's break with tradition-in-the-form-of-religion looks like a continuation of religion by other means. It polemically replaces Enlightenment with concepts like culture and literature that are equally modern (hence still part of Enlightenment) yet also religiously-tinged. In other words, romanticism is a key example of the process that is usually described as secularization, with emphasis on the term's irreducible ambiguity: is it more of a break with religion or more a continuation of it? This ambiguity informs all of these essays, and one can see why. No question could be more self-defining for critics of the period, or for critics in general.

  4. By definition, the secular continuation of religion must involve at least some transformation of religion. One way to distinguish the essays gathered here is by how warmly they embrace the prospect of transformation. I will devote most of my attention to the two pieces by Colin Jager, who seems coolest toward this prospect.

  5. In his brilliant and provocative introduction, Jager traces a line from M. H. Abrams to Marjorie Levinson, suggesting (plausibly, in my opinion) that something like romantic alienation is at the origin of how contemporary criticism understands what it is and what it does. For Abrams, alienation "identifies romanticism's relevance to our own modernity and therefore enables our critical agency," while "[f]or Levinson, our alienation from romanticism is an index of our modernity and hence our critical agency." While cancelling out Abrams's version of alienation, that is, Levinson also dialectically preserves it and carries it further—fashions it, Jager implies, into the essence of modern critique in general. It is this persistently romantic sense of the critic's vocation that Jager, as I read him, is identifying as secular and therefore trying to undo. He does not spell out his alternative, but it seems to involve a lot less alienation.

  6. Cosmopolitanism, which is usually taken as a mode of alienation, is for that reason and others usually associated with secularism. But Jager finds a clever way to invoke it on the other side of this high-stakes argument. Cosmopolitanism's perspective is planetary. From a planetary rather than a Eurocentric perspective, Jager observes, there are a lot more believers than unbelievers out there, and the number of the believers is increasing by the day. Whatever you may think about the conservatism and superstition of their beliefs (Jager uses both words), you simply can't ignore the great majority of the world's population. Doesn't this non-European majority think of secularism as an alien and hostile European intervention? And isn't it finally correct to do so? There is an acute irony, of course, in the fact that these questions can only be formulated thanks to the (still recent) cosmopolitan critique of Eurocentrism, a critique which was carried out (most famously in Edward Said's Orientalism) in secularism's name. It's as if secular forces had advanced too recklessly, suddenly finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, and by those to whose cultures they had struggled (against missionary Christianity, among other forms of Eurocentric arrogance) to give equal voice. Jager prefers to attribute this new configuration of power to what he calls "the globalization of Christianity." But this causal line is just as ironic. Even Christian missionaries, once assumed to be agents of empire, are here made over into spokespersons for the world's grievances against Europe's secular rationality and its supposedly imperial designs.

  7. To point out an irony is of course not to make a conclusive argument. But arguments are there to be made. For example: Christianity's globalization does not ipso facto confer honor or credibility upon Christianity any more than the globalization of capitalism obliges us to honor capitalism. (Yes, in both cases some quantity of respect does follow—but respect of the same limited and amoral sort.) One of the questions raised by Jager's jujitsu move on cosmopolitan anti-Eurocentrism concerns the respect he accords to numbers—to the numbers of the faithful, but one might also say to actuality as such. What is this numbers game? Assuming that appeals to providential history have been successfully banished from the repertoire of secular progressivism, surely the same ban must apply to the religious thought from which progressives once unconsciously and incautiously borrowed. After what we have learned of history's unending swerves, false trails, and dead ends, it seems foolish for anyone to take the latest headlines (what Jager calls "demographic trends") as decisive evidence of which way history is heading. It seems late in the day to seize upon any (perhaps evanescent) constellation of facts on the ground as if it made a strong case that the endpoint those facts, writ large, might seem to gesture toward is desirable.

  8. It is by playing this game with "demographic trends" that Jager defines his position on cosmopolitanism. When he expresses his ambivalent approval of the brand of cosmopolitanism articulated by the journal Public Culture, which he judges more likely to make room for the multitudes of new Christians, it's on the grounds that this is cosmopolitanism as large numbers of people actually live it—cosmopolitanism as "lived process." It's worth pausing over the bland, almost redundant word "lived" in this phrase. If this word has been saved from the diligence of the copyeditor's pen, there must be some term to which it is implicitly contrasted. What is it? The only answer I can find in the text is: self-consciousness. What must be rejected, Jager declares, is a cosmopolitanism that rewards and demands self-recognition. And what can be embraced, he therefore implies, is life without self-recognition. Jager's "lived process" assumes that life is as it appears to the demographer. The demographer's "trends" do not rely on anyone's self-conscious identity. To live means never having to say who you are. This is "bare" or "naked" life, to use a currently fashionable vocabulary-life that has sunk below the threshold of reflection or ethical action. Or, to return to the lexicon of romantic criticism, you might call it uncritical life, life without alienation, immune from all normative demands. Normative demands are presumed to be unlived or unliveable, at least by the many. Cosmopolitanism is desirable only if it can be lived by the majority of the world's population, and it can be lived by the majority of the world's population only if it refuses to look at itself from without—refuses, that is, what he calls secularism.

  9. To put this issue so starkly may seem like bad faith on my part, since all critical enthusiasm for the so-called "new" cosmopolitanism, my own enthusiasm as much as Jager's, has involved some unbending toward the actual at the expense of the normative. In principle, however, this project has always tried to maintain a tension between the actual and the normative; it has not recommended that the normative dimension be allowed simply to dissolve into the actually existing. What worries me in many critics who joyfully greet the blossoming of each new diasporic cosmopolitanism is that uncomfortable demands that life be inspected and sometimes found wanting seem to have dropped out. Religion (of all things) would seem out of place hiding in this particular (non-normative) shelter. Again, the re-positioning involves a richly ironic reversal. From this angle, it is not religion but secularism that can be abruptly labeled otherworldly. Global Christianity must be accepted as cosmopolitanism, it is implied, because, unlike other versions, it demands of its believers nothing but practice. This is religion without even a pause for self-recognition. That's pretty counter-intuitive. As if trapped in the old equation of religion with the eternal sleep of tradition, Jager seems almost prepared to keep the equation while reversing its values—that is, to mobilize religion as a way of defending unselfconsciousness itself. I can't imagine that this desperately defensive understanding of faith will satisfy even those who identify themselves as post-secular.

  10. Here I am self-consciously reading against the grain. Jager explicitly presents religion as part of modernity; he aligns himself not with tradition but on the contrary with "alternative modernities." But the phrase alternative modernities of course sustains the concept of modernity as a desideratum. It's unclear to me that Jager can both claim alternative modernity and endorse (as he seems to) M. H. Abrams's description of modernity as "soul-destroying and alienating." If he repudiates self-recognition as intrusive secularism, or as self-alienation by another name, what's left in the modernity Jager says he wants that he actually seems to desire? Not much. In this venue particularly, it would be interesting to reflect on "romantic anti-capitalism," a tendency shared between self-declared Marxists and social visions that are clearly not Marxist at all that makes the advent of capitalism—the commercial spirit, the dark satanic mills, and so on—into a catastrophe so totalizing in its effects that pretty much everything associated with modernity can and must be condemned together.

  11. One of the problems with this apocalyptic all-or-nothing impulse is that it generates results that are nearly indistinguishable from their opposite. From this viewpoint (I would be happy to hear whether romanticists think it is mis-named "romantic"), the seriously consequential mistake that Said's concept of orientalism diagnosed in Western visions of the East can easily flip over into occidentalism, a blanket hostility to the West from within the West. Jager confesses himself intrigued by occidentalism. But a mistake is a mistake, whatever direction it's pointed in. By the same logic, disgust with modern disenchantment can flipflop into a strange sort of reassurance. Enchantment has not after all disappeared; on the contrary, it is everywhere. Indeed, there is no room in modernity for anything that is not religion. Jager's "Byron and Romantic Occidentalism" describes the Giaour's love for Leila as a "substitute religion." If love is a substitute religion and if love is necessary to life, then it is impossible to live without religion. Following this logic, secularism could never be a genuinely non-religious space, but only an illegitimate attempt to claim such space. Religion would be one of those interdisciplinary concepts, like language, culture, discourse, and narrative, that claim to have no outside. Turning the tables on what it sees as a hegemonic secularism, religion would thus be putting itself forward as one of the those "everything is X" terms that clearly aspire to counter-hegemony. Accordingly, we would be asked to debate not whether it is desirable to have no religion, but whether it is even possible to have no religion. If this is the question on the table, then it's clear that important differences are being erased—and as so often, erased in the name of respect for difference.

  12. It is of course not entirely unreasonable to fear that any difference from X, once allowed, will eventually turn into a claim to superiority over X. But these are risks that must be lived with (in what I might call a secular or risky sense of life) if one is to have genuine conversation (in Paul Hamilton's elegantly elaborated sense of conversation.) At any rate, it's worth saying that though Jager ambivalently exposes this troubling everything-is-religion logic, his argument is by no means shackled to it. On the contrary. The idea that the Giaour's supposed opposition to orthodoxy is just another form of orthodoxy is not presented in his essay as the truth of the poem, but as one component of a paradox. Paradox, Jager says, is a technique for avoiding religious conflict by holding two irreconcilable ideas at the same time. It is also a self-conscious shorthand for the modern concept of literature. Discussing Cleanth Brooks on Donne, love, and religion, Jager writes: "In this way, close reading displaces religious dispute." In doing this it's of course performing the primary duty usually assigned to secularism. Jager seems ambivalent to the last about this (not unprecedented) account of what literature does, but this is probably the version of secularism that comes closest to religion in its insistence on fundamental and irreducible mystery (like the paradox of the Incarnation in Donne as seen by Brooks), and it is the version he comes closest to accepting.

  13. When Paul Hamilton identifies the aesthetic with the non-secular, he makes substantially the same point, though with a different emphasis. Hamilton's non-secular is pretty much what Jager means by secular. And his imagination resembles Jager's paradox: it is the ability to hold opposing views in focus simultaneously. The ability has been praised before. The significance you will attribute to it now depends on how severely you think the conditions of our world discourage it. Imagination can be conceived as part of a revolt against modernity only if modernity is conceived as a condition or world view that would always and necessarily demand a choice of one view at the expense of the other. Are we sure that this is modernity's characteristic feature? I'm not, and I don't think Hamilton is either. When he moves away from paradox, Jager on the other hand describes imagination as a shared desire for transcendence. This is a much more ambitious description. With it Jager implies—more strongly than Hamilton—that modernity is working as hard as it can to block and undermine imagination. This seems to me empirically untrue about modern capitalist society, whatever your idea of imagination. Modern capitalism has other fish to fry. But the remorseless and systematic targeting of imagination is a convenient thing for literary critics to believe. Scarcity increases the price of our stock in trade.

  14. Hamilton sees the imagination, in the form of romantic dialogue, busily at work in the social world, where it teaches "the power to accommodate differences." For Mark Canuel, too, the faculty of imagination does not demand a total rejection or transcendence of modern society, but operates usefully and even comfortably to govern and perhaps change society from within. "Imagination names . . . the negotiation between belief and the discourses, mechanisms, and procedures in which social movements are organized." For Canuel, modernity appears to be secular in a relatively inoffensive sense. He points to writers in whom "religious belief, rather than presenting an obstacle, becomes the focus of inclusion and redirection into the facilitating schemes of secular institutions." Taking secularization as part of a broader transformation in the mode of sovereignty, one not aimed at oppressing religion in particular and one that includes the Foucaultian passage into internalized discipline, Canuel tracks those institutional changes that refashion religion rather than eliminating it. He retains some Foucaultian suspicion of modern governance, but the pressure to adapt that secularization imposes on religion seems on the whole more benign to him than not. As for Hamilton, secularism and imagination join forces in the common goal of the management of difference and conflict. To Canuel as well this goal seems more or less worthwhile, or perhaps simply inevitable.

  15. Canuel's opening allegory of The Da Vinci Code, where (as he reads it) the murder mystery genre works to defuse a potentially explosive view of Opus Dei and the Catholic Church, might be interpreted as a sign of some residual ambivalence on Canuel's part about the role of conflict management. Is the discovery of an isolated individual as murderer more of a good thing or a bad thing? This allegory might also be read as evidence of an excess in secularism, which (again like literature) never quite manages to do exactly the management it claims to do, or that is claimed for it. One of the effects of the mystery form is, by multiplying plausible suspects, to insist on the arbitrariness of the perpetrator who's eventually discovered and thus to undercut the scapegoat ritual while acting it out. This is palpable in the pleasurable confusion surrounding The Da Vinci Code, where the guilt of Opus Dei and the Catholic Church seems to remain impressed on the reader long after the discovery that they didn't actually do it. If you're counting on literature/secularism to manage those conflicts, it's better not to get overconfident.

  16. Hamilton draws an inconclusive conclusion with which I imagine the other two authors would, in their different fashions, agree: the need to secularize secularism. This paradoxical formulation forces us to ask which two senses of the secular might be implied here, what the distinction might be between the secularism that needs the work done on it and the secularism that is considered capable of doing that work. The alternatives are worth trying to hold in one's mind simultaneously. Hamilton's imperative takes us of course outside literary history narrowly conceived. In that sense it continues the argument of his essay, which presents romantic dialogue as something we began learning how to do before romanticism and have continued to do, though always with room for improvement, within modernity. It's noticeable that Hamilton and Canuel both see their positive values as emerging in rather than against the Enlightenment. The turn to Shaftsbury in Hamilton and to Helvétius in Canuel seems indicative of a generously capacious sense of romanticism. I would want to count these turns, and indeed each of these essays, as examples of the secularizing of the secular. Not that I'm sure what that is. But these essays go a long way to help us find out.


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