Post-Orthodox, Post-Post Secularism

writing on wall

(Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1636)

Is the writing on the wall for religion, religious studies, post secularism and “theo-politics?” I really liked this post by Alan Brill on his blog over at the Book of Doctrines and Opinions. http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/post-orthodoxy/. It suggests what may be a pressing need to re-tool the categories through which we think these things. Or to switch metaphors, the owl of Minerva might need to wait until the demographic dusk starts to fall.

Alan covers the modern orthodox Judaism with a very active interest in popular Christianity and a strong dose of sociology of religion. His remarks on post-Orthodoxy go against old accepted wisdom re: conservative religion. It would seem that contrary to what may have been the case for an older generation, now middle aged, is no longer the case today. There’s been a lot of journalism suggesting that the right wing Evangelical Christians are having a hard time, or a harder time retaining the fidelities of a younger generation. The same might be the case in modern orthodox Judaism. Much of this has to do with popular culture and the internet on the outside seeping in, as well as ideological rigidity from within. Is the edifice of right wing religion about to crack up?

It makes me think that maybe it is time to start rethinking some of the ageing theoretical gospel in academic circles re: post-secularism. That tellers of that story sought to bury the old modernization theory according to which religion will wither away in the face of a modern society that is increasingly rationalized and fragmented. The resurgence of political religion starting with the Iranian Revolution in 1970 and the rise of the Christian Moral Majority in the U.S. as well as the rise of the Israeli right and Hindu religious nationalism in India would seem to have suggested that religions and their “sacred canopies” in the postmodern world are  robust creatures indeed.

But is that the end of the story, or is the pendulum starting to swing? To me, from my own liberal bias, it seems increasingly clear that religion in the political sphere leads to nowhere good, and that this nowhere good is not sustainable for very long, that it only lends itself to violent polarization and sectarian conflict, the kind of antinomies upon which some of the more decisionist theories out there hang their revolutionary hats.

Strange bed-fellows, left-leaning academics saw great hope in this as a zone of resistance to western neo-liberalism, but I’m not sure the results are so pretty. The evangelical right has led American Christianity into a cultural and political and theological dead-end, the religious right in Israel is going to destroy the country along with its secular basis, the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas “axis of resistance” turns against the very peoples in whose name it sought to resist Zionism and the west, and the Arab-Islamic spring, especially and most importantly in Egypt, is mired in formal and informal constitutional crises, whose only way out is “liberal” in some way or another.

I’m looking forward to the new post-post-secularism and the collapse to that sickening thing called “political theology” or “theo-politics.” I thought the writing was on the wall long ago when Talal Asad in Geneaologies of Religion defended the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I see no reason not to think that religion and politics make for a toxic mix that may not be sustainable in the long run, and that religion, while never purely private, was never really political either, and the way in which religionists sought to grab overt poltical power was only going to be a sham; and the same might be true of those theories of religion that sought to theorize these moves.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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8 Responses to Post-Orthodox, Post-Post Secularism

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    Couldn’t agree more that we need a post-post-secular vocabulary. I also want to highlight your point that the advance of PPS (great acronym–like Columbo: “Just one more thing, before I go…”), unlike the foretold advance of secularism, is unfurling in tandem with the advance of globalization and globalizing technologies.

    Contra the Enlightenment-model secularization hypothesis in which sovereign reason overwhelms superstition, PPS seems to be more about the techno-mediated convergence of a multiplicity of global perspectives redrawing the epistemological frame.

    • zjb says:

      Right! I’d add this as a friendly amendment. At issue in PPS is not the classical form of “sovereign reason.” I’m thinking of something more corrigible and less imperious, maybe “non-sovereign reason.”

      • donovanschaefer says:

        I like it. I saw Lauren Berlant give a talk at Penn a few weeks ago where she referred to the project of affect theory as “another way of thinking non-sovereign bodies.” Seems there would be a space for inserting a notion of non-sovereign reason in that frame.

  2. evanstonjew says:

    Could someone say a bit more about Berlant and her relevance to post secularism? Also I am curious why the much clearer ideas of Cavell on melodrama, hiddeness and voice are not being brought into these conversations? He’s only one degree removed from political theology.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Evanston Jew: This is all so incredibly interesting. Seems to me you’re posing the question to which you already have a lead on. Any interest in expanding these suggestions??

      • evanstonjew says:

        I am struggling with Lauren Berlant’s book “ Cruel Optimism”, but I have a way to go before I will be able to see how affect theory would work in Jewish contexts. I remember she mentioned Cavell as a precursor or maybe a fellow traveler, hence the association of the two. Many of Cavell’s themes are relevant, it’s really a question of choosing one and working through the application. For example in response to Prof. Brill’s post I suggested that the fault line is not the failure to provide serious content, but the weakness of the Modern Orthodox style as opposed to the theatricality and brilliance of charedi taste. Let me just say that it is my conviction that what keeps people attached to the very difficult lifestyles centered around halacha is the feeling that there is something in the society that is both baalabatish in the broadest sense and aristocratic in its refinement. Just as German Jews held together so many years even in America because of the positive feelings attached to their sensibility and ideals of bildung and public service, so too all groups from chassidim to marginally Orthodox are successful when they create the feeling that refinement and real community are strongest and most readily available inside their religious group. Saying it differently, successful Orthodox subcultures are like the actors in the 30’s comedies of remarriage…they have found a way to talk and share a common world that is protective and nourishing. Failing Orthodoxies as described by Brill are similar to the failures in the melodramas of the 40s, they know they have something important inside they want to share but they can’t find the right way to say it.

      • zjb says:

        Thanks so much Evanston Jew. I think you get this right on the head, about content and style, and the different kind of sub-styles that mark Haredi style. Would love to hear what you have to say about the Wayne Lawrence photographs posted in the next post here at JPP.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes, for Cavell there is passionate speech (in contrast to declarative or performative speech) that is more or less ‘staged, theatrical, and not insignificant for that. And of course for Cavell, and others, reason has been non-sovereign for decades. Good stuff to elaborate here !!

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