On Making a Critical Shift

Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama

Anyone familiar with our Department at the University of Alabama may know that we have a pretty active social media presence, among which is a Facebook group devoted to our current students and graduates of our program. Apart from putting a variety of Department announcements there, such as recent posts from our blog (on everything from student writing to updates on how we’re handling the Fall 2020 semester), I occasionally put a news item there, with #inthenews as the tag, to suggest to our students that there’s considerable application of the skills that they’re learning in our classes—such as understanding groups via the way that their members classify, rank, and thereby organize themselves. That the grads who stay current with the group sometimes offer guest blog posts of their own, illustrating this very point—despite each of them working in pretty diverse careers today—confirms for me that opting for such a focus in a Department of Religious Studies was a wise choice.

Just the other morning, for example, I posted an item from that day’s New York Times concerning a just-released U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow employers to opt out of what had previously been Federally-mandated health insurance requirements—opting out based on religious grounds. As the article’s opening lines phrased it:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Trump administration regulation that lets employers with religious or moral objections limit women’s access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. As a consequence of the ruling, about 70,000 to 126,000 women could lose contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to government estimates.

As for the text that I wrote to accompany the post?

Need another reason why it’s a good idea to have someone studying the practical effects of classifying some things, claims, or people as religious?

I offer this example to make a simple but, I think, far-reaching point that sometimes seems to elude those who seem tired of work that focuses on the category religion. (It’s a weariness that surprises me, I admit, given that people are still turning out plenty of dissertations on Augustine or St. Paul, so just a couple decades’ worth of focus on “religion” itself hardly seems to have exhausted everything that there is to say about it—suggesting that claims of tedium are but a handy way to dismiss what is increasingly becoming a focus of people’s work in the field.) For the ease of assuming that “religion” innocently and properly names an obviously distinct and self-organized set of items in the world is something that we need to work against should our interests be more aligned with studying how groups of people signify, navigate, and, yes, contest their worlds. So any opportunity to provide a manageable thought experiment, where the impact of the designation itself can be considered or seen to be working in real time, isn’t something to pass up. And that Supreme Court decision—as with a host of legal rulings over the years in liberal democracies, all of which focus on the extent to which exemptions can be granted as a way to manage social discord—struck me as yet another moment where designating something as religious could be seen to have a practical effect of real consequence to people’s lives.

Whatever else this thing some now call critical religion may be, it at least strikes me as an agreement that this shift—from studying religion or religions to studying why we even call anything religious in the first place—helps us to produce new knowledge about the way our modern lives work, the way our spaces are managed, and the way that identities are created and reproduced within them. Contrary to those who study religion or religions, then, I have no interest in normalizing let alone using any given understanding of the term, something that inevitably occurs, I’d argue, when we just get on with studying religion, as some call us to do. So, with another recent but rather more international news story in mind, the goal of such work is not to decide whether the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul really ought to be understood and used as a museum (as it has been for eighty years) or, as the Turkish government today wishes, a mosque, and, should its religious identity be successfully asserted, neither is it to do a careful ethnography of what some call religion on the ground at this location; instead, it’s the contest itself that can attract our attention, as a way into studying—in this case—a long history of conflict between two modern nations, which draws on pre-national allegiances and disputes, and the manner in which these disagreements have (or have not been) been managed by that artful designation of “museum.” For the issue is not whether the building really is a Greek Orthodox cathedral or a Muslim mosque but, instead, is whether we can understand why the compromise of designating it as a museum now fails to negotiate not just these differing significations but the larger socio-political structures of which each designation is but the visible sign.

So the shift that I am recommending, and which an increasing number in the field are now exploring, opens our field to working with those across disciplines who are equally interested in such things as how identities are formed, reproduced, and contested—whether those identities are local, national, or trans-national. And, along with them, it draws us into studying the structures, whether political, economic, gendered, racial, etc., in which identification and, to put it more broadly, signification takes place. It thus invites us to take our Durkheim all the more seriously, by examining those unified systems of beliefs and practices that, insomuch as we participate in them, establish a social world in which significance can be established or undermined.

Long ago I lamented the strategy adopted by previous generations, insomuch as they sought to build an autonomous field based on the presumably unique and set apart nature of their object of study—and, along with it, the distinct methods needed for its study and the Departments that housed those doing such work. I thought that while helping to create the modern field such an approach inevitably marginalized it as well, given that such scholars lost their voice and their relevance when it came to studying anything but the supposedly ethereal and elusive thing that was once called the sacred. (By asserting that the sacred animated everything Eliade thought that he could reinstate the field’s preeminence, by the way—a claim I certainly resist.) I thought that shifting the field to studying classification, and the socio-political worlds made possible by designating things either in this or that fashion (such as sacred/secular, religious/political, private/public, religion/cult, myth/legend, or ritual/habit, etc.), would not only make good use of our skills but would also demonstrate to those outside our field—whether on or off our campus—that we had something to contribute to understanding this thing that so many of us also study: people, what they do and what they leave behind once they’re gone. Sure, we might each study it a rather specific and different site—those places we known as modern India, the Afro-Caribbean, or maybe ancient Greece—but our work is animated by a shared set of questions which we’re not the only ones asking.

And it’s that shift to broader questions, explored at discrete sites (made possible by an interest in what contestable systems of designation tell us about groups of people) that demonstrates the relevance of our work—something apparent to me last week when a grad of our undergraduate program, who has been out working in her career for 14 years, contacted me asking about some of the books that we read in a course long ago, since she was aiming to re-read some of them. Why? Well, she and her sister-in-law were discussing U.S. monuments commemorating the Civil War, what they meant, to whom they meant it, and whether they should just come down—at least here in the U.S. there’s few more prominent issues than racism demanding our attention in the daily news. While I’m not sure what conclusions they’ll reach, what seems to have been clear to that onetime student was that the sort of scholar of religion that I’m discussing here, and which was modeled for her long ago in our Department, has a surprising amount to contribute to making sense of how and why we talk about the past as we do, how we manage the many possible pasts that are all competing for our attention today, and the sorts of people that we will see ourselves and others to be by adopting this versus that way of signifying a statue.

And it’s just that shift to studying these enabling conditions, made possible by a focus on classification, that comes to mind when I think of what it means to adopt a critical religion approach to our material.

Covid19 and other machines

by Alison Jasper

A protestor wears a mask honoring Breonna Taylor in downtown Louisville, Kentucky on 1 June 2020. Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock

One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most fascinating concepts is that of the war machine (A Thousand Plateaus, 1988) or more broadly, the notion of a machine. It suggests endlessly complex and variable interrelationships between institutions, social groups, bodies, objects, movements, ideas and environments, moving and producing change in accordance with shifting and differentially weighted purposes and moods. In a machine, components are brought together or rearranged for different aims that can be anything from the nurturing of a child (involving a sucking mouth and a breast) to the way in which states and nations are made, moved or dismantled through the mobilisations and disconnections of civil and military forces in relation to environmental factors such as the weather.

Talking about the exponential growth and sophistication of medical and information technologies, Andrew Hass has already suggested that these implicate and are implicated in a great range of human processes and desires. In terms of this Deleuzian & Guattarian idea of the machine, you could perhaps describe them, in the current situation, as components of a Covid19 machine. The virus is dispersed around the world by means of human breath, speech and song, inhalation, ingestion, touch and physical contact, that have been mediated through innumerable technological, entrepreneurial and bureaucratic processes driven by human desire and anxiety. It’s a machine of human desiring but also one for the growth and spread of a living non-human organism. Humans constitute a vital vector for the virus. The machine has grown the virus wonderfully well. In that way, it’s a success story! Meantime the human hosts or victims are themselves provoked into thought, action or change by their desires in response to this disease.

I have been reading and considering these things during lock down. It is uncomfortable, to think of oneself, not simply acting but being worked or acted upon. But shifting our perspective – uncomfortable or not – does allow us to see and feel differently. So for example, this is not simply an invisible enemy whose attacks leave us feeling intensely vulnerable and frustrated. It is also a revelation of how we can trust and count on each other. And then, we start to recognise how much we are currently trusting and counting on a whole range of poorly-paid ‘unskilled’ workers – cleaners, shop assistants, drivers, farm workers, food preparers – many of whom, like NHS staff, have been forced to put their health and lives at risk for the rest of us. We see that we cannot do without those who clear away our rubbish, or cook hospital meals or help our elderly get to the toilet and dress when we are not there to do it ourselves.

Another notable effect of this shift of perspective has been the increased visibility of racism and racial violence during this time of pandemic. Far from being irrelevant or simply coincidental, I would say that racism is profoundly interconnected with Covid19’s progress. BAME people are disproportionately affected by the disease. They come to this health crisis with poorer underlying health. They are disproportionately represented in poorly paid work. They will be disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. If they are dismayed by a general contempt for what many of them do as ‘un-skilled’ workers, they are often in a poor position to change these circumstances. The racism part of this machine is itself an assemblage of multiple factors from the existence of powerful, well-funded and militarised police forces and the profile of the judiciary, to the differential availability of housing and education and the circulation in all of this of some deeply rooted stories of racial hostility and contempt. In societies dominated by forms of white masculinity, they invoke the thought that people who are not white, are not entirely – or at all – human. They frame BAME people as a threat to white lives and property and they must be controlled. These stories are ultimately, the legacy of slavery and imperial conquest, but more recent racist customs and statutes such as Jim Crow or apartheid, though long suspended, remain lodged in parts of the common imaginary as the possibility of legalized racial segregation.

Staff outside King’s College Hospital in south London join in the applause to salute NHS and care workers © Jonathan Brady/PA

Covid19 and racism achieved one very clear machinic articulation last month, when our intense involvement with technologies of information and communication brought us the video streamed death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis. George Floyd died on May 25, 2020 when four armed police officers arrested him on suspicion of having purchased something at a convenience store, using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was held in a choke-hold by a police officer for so long that he died. It was a powerful illustration of that fear and need to control; saving black lives was not the priority here. The incident has led to widespread and persistent protest – a sense that many people want things to change. But this assemblage of racist attitudes and actions can also be subject to further intersectional analysis. Another part of the Covid19 racism machine is the silencing rather than the circulation of stories. It takes considerable effort to find out the (many) stories of how black, lesbian, trans women or women with mental health issues, have been killed in similar situations to George Floyd.

Last week, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, interviewed a group of six women involved in the campaign #SayHerName! for her podcast, Intersectionality Matters. All of the women had lost sisters or daughters. Fran Garrett, the mother of Michelle Cusseaux described how her daughter was killed on 14 August 2014. In the course of following up on a mental health check, 8 armed police officers responded to Michelle, raising a hammer by shooting her dead. Maria Moore described her sister Kayla, as a trisector – a black transwoman with mental health issues. Like Michelle Cusseaux she was killed when police, as first responders, deployed forms of control in preference to de-escalation. Even more shockingly in some ways, Shelley Frey was killed by a Wallmart security guard – an off-duty sheriff. Suspecting her of shop-lifting, he shot into her car, even though he was aware there were children in it. At the time of the interview, five of the six had received nothing by the way of justice, compensation or apology. The one successful prosecution was subsequently overturned by a judge. The campaign iterates how these stories need also to be told. If no one tells these stories, how can anything change?

The Covid19 pandemic is an assemblage of parts and motivations and viewed as a machine, prompts us to recognise that human agency and desire maybe overlaid by other, less obvious purposes including those of the virus. Nevertheless, one of the features of this conceptual framework where human desire is involved, is the presence of cross-cutting stories that fuel and direct its flows and trajectories. Drawing on some of the insights of CR we can perhaps suggest that it can be fruitful to pay more critical attention to the presence and effects of these culturally freighted stories. There is a familiar feel to some of them as they express praise, thankfulness and respect for self-sacrifice reflecting a desire to save lives. But in the Covid19 machine, there are also stories whose effects produce sorting strategies for determining which human lives are, in Judith Butler’s memorable term ‘grievable’, or for limiting our view of which particular lives matter and call forth that kind of self-sacrifice (Frames of War: When is life Grievable?, 2010). Thinking courtesy of Deleuze and Guattari in this sense does not provide us with any clear rules or best options but it does encourage us to reflect in this time of pandemic; to try out shifts in our perspective and perhaps internalise tools for averting the worst dangers of ‘final solutions’.

Pan-technology in and out of Lockdown


A thinking has developed, following the Frankfurt School proponents of Critical Theory, that technology has been instrumental in “replacing” religion. Just as Walter Benjamin had famously claimed that “capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 259), so now technology, in all its ubiquity, is said to deliver the same relief. Technological advance has satisfied a multitude of concerns, and has left religious concerns obsolete or irrelevant. As Herbert Marcuse had written, already in the early 1940s, “theological dogmas no longer interfere with man’s struggle with matter” (Marcuse, 1982, p. 145); we overcome the obstacles and inhibitions placed upon us by Nature now without the need of divine intervention. This has given an inverted sense to the term Deus ex machina. God now really comes from the machine.

But the global outbreak of Covid-19 has complicated this thinking considerably. On the one hand, worry, anguish and disquiet have been raised to a new level, in relation first to the virus itself, and the devastation it has caused in so many lives, then to the political inadequacies and incompetencies seen and felt in so many supposedly developed nations, and finally to the economic fallout whose full measure we have yet to experience. Technology on these scores, except to survivors of hospitalised cases, has proven itself deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, communication and virtual mobility during lockdown have relied exclusively on screens and interconnectivity, allowing some workers to continue in their employment and the general public to hang on to the remaining threads, thin as they are, of social cohesion. Technology on these scores, except for those too impoverished to afford it (and we should not underestimate this number), has proven itself a lifeline. The question then stands: has the dissatisfaction, fueled by the heightened worry, anguish and disquiet, outweighed the satisfaction, drawn from the increased ability to share with one another our heightened worry, anguish and disquiet? Has the lack of answers to our concerns, whether shared or unshared, rekindled a need to look beyond our technological infrastructures, and the enhancements we thought we had achieved with them?

Examining the intricacies of these infrastructures might give us some insight into these questions, and show us how the pandemic has altered all of them – the questions, the infrastructures, and the nature of their intricacies. Toward this end we might say that advanced modern technology now operates on five interconnecting levels: efficiency, cohesion, diversion, acquisition, and salvation.

The form of technology operating on the first level we could call vocational technology, technology designed for the workspace of homo laborans. This form, an extension of the industrial revolution, is characterized chiefly by efficiency, whereby the occupation of our being in the process of work is expedited through time/cost savings. This level is not particularly convincing, insofar as its instrumental efficiency has proven to be viciously self-consuming: what technology frees up in our working processes is only filled up by more work, not more leisure, and this added work requires more efficiency, whose savings are then filled up by more work, in a relentless cycle of what Marx called the exploitation of surplus value. Email technology is perhaps the most widely accepted example of this phenomenon. What the lockdown of Covid-19 has brought is a palpable realization of just how vicious this cycle had become, and, perhaps, how unnecessary. All too quickly we have found we can survive very well without the perpetual need of responding immediately to all incoming work emails. The suspension of efficiency brought on by the pandemic was initially, for so many, a blessed relief.

The second form we could call social technology, a form that carries the most subscribers. If the dominant device of the form of vocational technology is the computer, the dominant device of social technology is the mobile or cellular phone. On this device, social media has its fullest and most insistent expression, and communication its widest reach. But their ubiquity is both celebrated and reviled. Perpetual connectivity has brought the world closer and transformed our understanding of social cohesion, while at the same time it never leaves us alone. Social media offers a sense of instant community, but in doing so betrays a profound unaccountability within the communal fold. During the lockdown of Covid-19, social technology in general has come into its own: the nastier side of superfluous interaction encouraged by hyper-public social media sites – those for whom “going viral” is not merely a virtue but a sanctification – has been overtaken by more privatized use, as people connect with friends, family and loved ones for their exclusive means of socialization. To many, video calls have been the only portal to life outside a hermetic existence, or solitary confinement.

The third type we could call cultural technology, and is related closely to the second type, though with this difference: rather than focus on cohesion through communication, it focuses on distraction through entertainment. The internet has opened up unprecedented access to all forms of cultural diversion, from films to television, YouTube to TikTok, music streaming to meme generating, gaming to esport spectating. The volume of cultural products in this sphere is bottomless, and so too the levels of preoccupation and separation, by which non-digital reality is often reduced to a second-best option. The coronavirus has certainly played into the strength of, and need for, these diversions, for they thrive on the isolation of the viewer looking for relief from the tedium of static existence.

The fourth form we could call consumerist technology, for it promotes and expedites the accumulation of goods. Online purchase and delivery are now available for virtually every line of product, and one company stands above the rest in creating, capturing and channeling the need for consumption: Amazon. This worldwide market regime has gained its dominance by mastering integration of the first three technological spheres – vocational, social and cultural. One cannot navigate any of these spheres without soon encountering Amazon’s presence, with its platforms to acquire all material goods for both business or personal use. Covid-19 has been a steroid for online shopping in general and for Amazon in particular. What cannot be deemed essential – and even much that can – has been obtained through clicks of the mouse and the delivery vans they trigger into motion. Economies will take a brutal beating from the global pandemic, but the likes of Amazon will be seen as the ventilators that have kept them from an altogether fatal collapse.

What operates on the final level we could call scientific technology. This is easily the most revered, the most lauded, and the most encouraged. It involves the ever-deepening examination of Nature at its extremes – the microcosmic and the macrocosmic – and the harnessing of Nature’s power to control, enhance, and direct what we call our quality of life. In the medical world, this means a greater understanding of the human body and the environmental conditions within which it lives, and leads to the alleviation of certain ills, some common, some rare, towards a longer life expectancy. The coronavirus has brought out once again a tacit assumption or expectation about scientific technology: that it will eventually triumph. Very few doubt that scientists will eventually find a vaccine for Covid-19, even if there is considerable debate about its timing, and its effectiveness against mutations. This confidence is based on our past record of discovery, and on the now global size of the scientific community working on the problem. Modern medicine will in time prevail. Amid the bleakness and tribulations of lost lives, there is a soteriological promise, however deferred. Scientific technology offers itself as a panacea, not because it can now solve or cure all medical problems, but because in our collective imagination it holds out the hope that it can.

Now, if together these forms, and their unmistakable integration with one another, serve to replace, substitute, or surrogate the domain in which our greatest anxieties were once most satisfactorily allayed, the traditional domain of religion – here as faith practices and the tenets that direct them – then the current pandemic crisis has forced us to rethink this technological redemption.

The pause in our work routines has shown us how technology set up for vocational efficiency has in fact produced a more intense and demanding work environment, where endless data and incessant communication have led to a more frenetic work day. Self-isolation and home-working have made us consider the long-term harm of these frenzied routines, as we slow the pace down, and discover that, in most cases, the working world does not implode when we refrain from an instant reply to this demand or that. Labour can no longer be the redemption of life, in Hannah Arendt’s terms – that is, it can no longer redeem us from the “predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process” (Arendt, 1958, p. 236) – when the technology employed imprisons us all the more. Lockdown has provided us the chance, once the whirr of the machine has stopped, to ask anew: “What then might redeem us?”

Self-isolation has also forced us to reconsider the nature of social cohesion. What had emerged in the general polarity of the social media dynamic was not a greater coming together of disparate peoples, ethnicities and communities, but in fact a moving apart, a divisiveness characterized not merely by discourtesy but all too often by acridity and offense. Social media, as a place of unbridled opinion, has bred unrestrained ad hominem attack and invective. Cyber-bullying has reached the level of pastime, even for heads of state. What was supposed to bring us together under a shared ethos of unregulated connectivity has in fact made us much unkinder and more disparaging towards one another, as freedom of expression expands at the same rate as impunity. But while the emergence of Covid-19 has not proven to be a social leveler, for not all are equally vulnerable, it has caused us to redirect our energies towards a different kind of engagement, as general suffering has dominated our thoughts and experiences. Since the social binding and collective representations that organized religion once provided have found no adequate substitution in social technology, as is now patently evident to even the casual user, finding modes of cohesion beyond social media is now an exigent matter. Quarantine has asked us to reconceive the technology as an instrument that no longer imposes suffering but rather helps to relieve suffering by allowing us to share the experiences of suffering, beginning with the suffering of our own isolated selves.

Cultural technology offers exponential distraction, not least from this suffering. But the coronavirus pandemic has awaked us to the fleeting, directionless, and often vacuous nature of these distractions. Digital trends, viral memes, addictive gaming, celebrity culture, the cult of sport fandom – each of these amusements carry their own elements of worship and devotion. But now, with so many no longer available or replenishable in their old form, their empty need has been exposed as what the Hebrew preacher Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes had called a “vanity of vanities”. As much as we require diversion, and in lockdown more than ever, these meaningless divertimenti no longer hold our attention. Or at least we can say this much: in the grand context of a pandemic, superficiality does not carry the same satisfactions as before; its veils are too thin, its fabric too diaphanous, to block out the glaring concerns and needs of a world in the straits of rampant affliction.

In this context, consumerist technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom of goods to arrive directly onto our doorstep, and so furnishes the essential needs threatened by crisis. But it goes beyond this, and salves the need for non-essential acquisition, which, in capitalism’s indoctrination, is vital to our understanding of personal and national prosperity. On the other hand, that very movement, as a global phenomenon, is part of the problem of infectious spread: what allows goods to travel globally around the world for consumption are the same pathways that spread a virus so quickly and extensively. The pandemic has therefore set the conditions for its own metaphorical transference: what has allowed the rapid spread of the virus, the exploits of globalization, especially as directed by and to the West, has become a virus in and of itself. Wanton consumerism attacks the well-being not only of the consumer, with its false sense of prosperity, but also of the planet and its resources. Is it accidental, or somehow indicative, that the largest online company for consumer technology is named after a region with the earth’s greatest biodiversity but also its greatest environmental spoliation? Covid-19 has provoked a re-evaluation of our values, and of our responsibility not only to each other but to the planet we inhabit. In asking so much of the earth, we have plucked a diseased fruit, and brought travail upon ourselves, and we are left asking what reparations, what expiation, we can offer.

The ensuing inflictions and infections go beyond the physical. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how little the medical industry still knows. It has not been able to give us definitive answers concerning the virus’s behaviour. It has not been able to stop all spread, or avert all casualties, even in places not yet infected. Politically, it has not been able to coordinate an effective and uniform strategy across major centres of population. And even if it eventually discovers a vaccine, it will not put at ease the general worry that a mutated strain could develop at any time, or that a future pandemic is more than likely. The soteriological narrative of scientific technology as the realm to solve the problem of human mortality – or, less ambitiously, to keep extending our quality of life – has been thrown yet further into question. We are all grateful for advances made that have kept the coronavirus under some semblance of control. But we are more conscious than ever of how our trust in scientific technology is based on assumptions and hopes that are fragile, tenuous, and ultimately unreliable, to the point where we are forced to recalculate the extent of our human limitations. And this is even more the case when we make that metaphorical leap to a viral condition beyond the physical body. What the various faith traditions have always provided is a comprehensive sense of soteriology: what is under the banner of salvation, however conceived, includes body, soul, spirit, and cosmos. We have always been integrated; movement between these levels, as taught in these traditions, has never been metaphorical. What infects one level in reality infects them all.

Common to each of these five general forms of technology – vocational, social, cultural, consumerist, and scientific – is what Marcuse had called a technical rationality, a rationality that has changed little in the last one hundred years (even if the various forms of technology have). This way of thinking is characterized chiefly by an instrumentality, or by a focus on the means to an end in which the means is so prioritized, so paramount, that the end becomes forgotten, even irrelevant. The pandemic, in all its disruption, has revived the questions of ends: to what purpose do we do the things we do, not just vocationally, socially, culturally, acquisitionally, and scientifically, but beyond these means of activity? And can now the means be justified in light of the ends? These questions have become more salient in our general consciousness.

Technical rationality is also characterized by what Lewis Mumford had called (even before Marcuse) matter-of-factness, wherein technology is the factor and we humans the factum (Mumford, 1934, p. p. 361). Here the “fact” is seen as an empirical solidity verified through measurement and quantification. It divests itself of any metaphorical element. In today’s digital parlance we might modulate this and say the human has become the datum, the quantification that fits into the larger schema of data organisation. In this sense it has fulfilled Marcuse’s prophetic announcement of the one-dimensional person (Marcuse, 1964). The pandemic, however, has challenged this reduction of the human to mere matter-of-factness, to being-data. Statistical numbers for human existence and human activity remain useful instrumentally; but when they are produced for that which threatens human existence and activity, when they capture the shift from existence to non-existence, and measure obliteration, our matter-of-fact attitudes provide less of an assurance, if they provide any assurances at all. Religion has never been contextualised within “the facts”. Rather, “the facts”, whatever they constituted, have, up until modernity, always been contextualized within religion. The question raised by Covid-19 is this: how ought we to contextualise our facts, now that technology has proven unsatisfactory in rationalising the harsh realities, the data and the numbers, in the statistics and graphs and tables we encounter on a daily basis?

We don’t expect traditional, institutionalised religion to quickly refill this context – at least, not in the West. But the question has been asked: will lockdown, self-isolation, and for many an occupational shift into neutral gear move us anew toward introspection, individual and collective? And will this introspection, having seen both the power and the limits of technology, challenge us to rethink what values and what ends we should impose upon technology, rather than what values and what means technology should impose upon us? Technology will not replace religion. But might it re-inspire religious thinking by means of its own limitations? Might we say, as once did T.S. Eliot’s magi, that “we are no longer at ease here” (Eliot, 1971, p.69), in this world of instrumentalised rationality, in this world of matter-of-factness, where disease becomes dis-ease, and we are compelled to seek a new dispensation? Might we invoke a new deus ex machina that releases us from the jammed plotlines of our own making, and frees the gods from the machines in which we have encased them?

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.
Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion [Fragment 74]”. Trans. Chad Kautzer. In The Frankfurt School on Religion. Ed. Eduardo Mendieta. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Eliot, T.S. “Journey of the Magi”. In Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”. In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continnum, 1982.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934.

Critical Race and Religion


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By Malory Nye

What does a Critical Religion approach have to do with race, and in particular in what ways should Critical Religion make central an engagement with Critical Race theory?

Tim Fitzgerald (e.g., 2008, 2012, 2015) – and others on this blog – have very clearly set out the agenda for a Critical Religion approach, much of which I strongly agree with. Thus, my own starting point for the study of religion is that this entity that gets called ‘religion’ (a thing that is not-a-thing) is bound up closely with another ideological entity that is called modernity (Asad 2003; Fitzgerald 2007). The discourse of religion is an integral part of modernity. Thus religion and secularity are conjoined; the development of modernity is in itself a product of the construction of an idea of secularity – the separating out of certain elements of power and social organisation into discourses of the non-religious.

However, the story does not end there: modernity is a much larger concept which works to produce a series of further ideological (taken-for-granted) categories. Concepts such as ‘politics’, ‘property’, and ‘markets’ have been well discussed in this respect, but I would add to this other key analytical terms such as gender, race, sexuality, and ability (along with of course religion) – these are all discourses of analysis and categories of social difference. That is, the modern world takes for granted not only certain assumed biology-derived differences between men and women, hetero- and non-hetero- sexualities (particularly homosexuality), whiteness and colour (particularly Blackness), and so on. And within such distinctions there are differences between religions – in particular, between Christocentric practice and others (in what is often called the ‘world religions paradigm’, cf. Masuzawa 2005).

In addition, modernity produces such differences – providing material advantages and privileges for those who are identified as white, male, and hetero and thus causing disadvantage (often through systemic or actual violence) to those who are considered as non-white, non-male, and non-hetero. Needless to say, these identities and discourses (and the violence that comes from them) often overlap and intersect. Violence and disadvantage is directed against Blackness, against women, and against gays, but it is also particularly focused when these categories intersect – against Black women, against Black LGBTQ, and so on. To talk of such categories and identities requires an intersectional approach (Crenshaw 1989; hooks 1987; Hill Collins and Bilge 2016) that focuses not only on the categories in themselves, but also on their intersections (or assemblages, cf. Puar 2007:212; 2014).

Again, religious identities are often implicated across and within such intersections. This is not to say that a ‘thing’ called religion can be ‘found’ in or ‘influenced’ by other categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Instead, the discourse or category of religion is very often assumed to be a significant element of differentiation. This may be in terms of long standing intra-Christian religious categories (such as Protestant or Catholic), or categories that presume racialized differences, such as between (white) Christians and (non-white) others such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Again there are layers of other categories intersecting across these categories of religion – such as, of course, the persistent gender-based ‘concerns’ about Muslim women (in particular clothing, freedom, etc.), about Muslim women’s sexuality (covering up and unveiling), and assumptions about Muslim men and violence (as ‘terrorists’, wife-abusers, and sexual predators).

Thus, it is important to think beyond the idea of each of these categories as existing separately and in themselves (as ‘sui generis’). The categories of gender, race, sexuality, and religion (and secularity) are all products of modernity, and within the context of modernity they are practised through their intersections. There is no single practice of gender – of maleness or femaleness – but instead each context also relies on the other categories: masculinity is racialized, sexualized, and religionized. This is one of the ways in which modernity works.

However, my main interest is in how the category of race works. And so, I argue in particular for a critical race and religion approach. This puts a central focus on how religion and modernity are the product of European colonialism, which is an ongoing project – what Quijano (2007) and others have labelled as the ‘colonial matrix of power’, or more simply as modernity/coloniality. Both race and religion are the grammar of this historic and present day coloniality.

This leads me to questions of how religion is racialized, or more particularly how the process of talking about religion (religionization) is in itself a form of racialization (Nye 2018, 2019). As Theodor Vial has recently argued:
‘Race and religion are conjoined twins. They are offspring of the modern world. Because they share a mutual genealogy, the category of religion is always a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion…’ (Vial 2016, 1).

The categories of both race and religion are products of modernity, and both relate to entities imagined to be ‘real’ and which are socially constructed (and hence are real). My issue is that the differentiation between these categories obfuscates more than it reveals – for example, in the extensive debates about whether Islamophobic violence against Muslims can be categorised as ‘racism’ since (as claimed) ‘Muslims are not a race’; or whether anti-semitism is about religious or racialised hatred. This is not merely an academic concern about categorisation, it obviously spills out into very real and pressing issues. And most importantly, this slippage and mutual construction between categories of race and religion is not a recent development, the study of religion has for centuries been dependent on the ambiguities of whether religious groups are racialised or vice versa. Critical religion is about the study of such racialisation.

However, discussion of race also requires acknowledgement of the ‘elephant in the room’: the ideology and identity of whiteness. That is, the racialising aspect of modernity that places white identities as the driving forces of all other aspects of modernity/coloniality. Of course, such whiteness is usually obscured and ignored, but has still dominated public and political life, as well as academic discourses (cf., Sara Ahmed, 2014 on ‘white men’). To raise the issue of whiteness is to talk about the water in which scholars and their readers swim, the air that they breathe – it is there, but not noticed. It is invisible and seen everywhere. Mills (2017) and Wekker (2016) talk of this as white ignorance and innocence, and Bhambra (2017a) talks of methodological whiteness. Of course, in the study of religion this is as simple as pointing to the centrality of issues of Christianity and white Europeans (and other people who racialise themselves as white), and the long-term use of a paradigm that classifies all others who are outside this into ‘world religions’. Thus, the analysis needs to try ‘to understand both the ways in which race, as a structural process, has organised the modern world and the impact that this has had on our ways of knowing the world’ (Bhambra 2017b). In short, the concept of religion (and more broadly the academic study of religion) serves the interests of such whiteness.

Therefore, (what gets called) religion is an important part of this colonial matrix of power, albeit ‘it’ does not stand alone or distinctly. (What gets called) religion is part of an intersecting system involving categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability. In this respect, the idea of the study of religion is a product of a very particular form of modernising theory (that is, of a distinct entity of religion, which stands out from secularity and non-religion). A critique of such theoretical and methodological whiteness suggests that this modernist study of religion needs to be reconsidered, as it is a tool of colonial power (both past and present).

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “White Men.” Feministkilljoys Blog. 2014. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/11/04/white-men/.
Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2017a. “Brexit, Trump, and ‘Methodological Whiteness’: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class.” The British Journal of Sociology 68 (November): 214–32.
———. 2017b. “Why Are the White Working Classes Still Being Held Responsible for Brexit and Trump?” LSE Blog, November 10, 2017. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/11/10/why-are-the-white-working-classes-still-being-held-responsible-for-brexit-and-trump/.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1): 139–67.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. Sheffield: Equinox.
———. (ed). 2008. “Religion Is Not a Standalone Category.” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, October 29, 2008. https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/10/29/religion-is-not-a-standalone-category/
———. 2012. “The Breadth of Critical Religion.” Critical Religion Association, November 9, 2012. https://criticalreligion.org/2012/11/09/the-breadth-of-critical-religion/.
———. 2015. “Critical Religion and Critical Research on Religion: Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Critical Research on Religion 3 (3): 303–19.
Hill Collins, Patricia, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. London: University of Chicago Press.
Mills, Charles W. 2017. “White Ignorance.” In Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nye, Malory. 2018. “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, July.
———. 2019. “Decolonizing the Study of Religion.” Open Library of Humanities 5 (1): p.43.
Puar, Jasbir K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. London: Duke University Press.
———. 2014. “Reading Religion Back into Terrorist Assemblages: Author’s Response.” Culture and Religion 15 (2): 198–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/14755610.2014.911045.
Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 168–78.
Vial, Theodore. 2016. Modern Religion, Modern Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham: Duke University Press.

Religion Under Fire

By Alison Jasper, Andrew Hass, Bashir Saade, Fiona Darroch, Zhe Gao
Critical Religion at the University of Stirling

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fragility of religion was all too evident the night of conflagration in Paris. That fragility was first and most spectacularly seen in its material form. For however we may choose to define religion, it is bound inextricably with the physical, the tangible, the sensate. And so it is susceptible to devastation as much as to decay. We may be able to fight against the decay – and the restoration project of Notre-Dame would have been perpetual – but devastation can strike any time, whether by human hands or by an act of God. As the flames ascended the wooden beams of the cathedral’s spire, onlookers watched as the materiality of religion was brought palpably home, brought flagrantly to the ground. What might have happened had the flames reached, and consumed, the famous relic of the Crown of Thorns? Here Good Friday would have come four days early. Black Friday would have become Black Monday, as the ashes floated skyward, and the charred remains were swept into the bin. Religion, so often perceived to rest upon immutable truths, was here all too transient.

Fragility was thus seen in the onlookers themselves. Damage to, or loss of, a landmark building by fire undoubtedly creates a palpable sense of grief over and reflection upon the significance of that space. Parisians, so adamant, with so much pride, in their secularized policy of Laïcité, stood in disbelief, many in tears, as their religious heritage suddenly became real to them. “I am not religious, but…”, said many on camera. That “but” spoke of what few could articulate, but many felt deep within: religion’s lingering importance, its meaningfulness, but fragile in its very inability to mean what they once thought, as set in binary opposition to secularity. The proudly secular gazed dumbfounded at the loss – the loss of the distinction, the all-too-easy classifications of public and private life into categories such as religious, political, cultural, economic, and secular, as much as the loss of their city’s “heart and soul”.

France is a country whose politicians have proudly marketed it as a place where the secular and religious occupy distinct spheres of life. This binary is a direct product of European modernist ideals of progress; the ability to section one’s religious self from one’s secular and modern self has been one of Europe’s defining symbols of civilisation. But this binary is an invention of European modernity which serves to advance, it is believed, the political, economic (and imperial) success of these nation states on the world stage.

The overwhelming response to the damage of Notre-Dame, captured in President Macron’s speech, in the prayer and hymn vigils held outside the burning building, as the flames engulfed Paris’s night sky, in the public responses captured by journalists, and emphasised most powerfully by the (so far) 800 million Euros of donations from the world’s wealthiest businesses and individuals, exposes the fragility of these classifications. For many the fire brought a cultural loss, an artistic and architectural loss, for Notre-Dame is a defining symbol of Paris’ cultural achievement. But there is no escape from the fact that Notre Dame Cathedral is a ‘religious’ building within a ‘secular’ country. The public, political and media responses to its damage are a reminder of the futility of our attempts to divide ourselves as ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ beings; it is a reminder that we are human beings who channel our relationship with the (non-material) world through our architecture, artworks, and treasured objects.

In a sense, Notre-Dame is one of the many traces of a glorious order that was fought and gradually cast out. From this fight emerged the modern yet shaky religious/secular dichotomy. The fight pitted the forming nation-state against the Catholic church. Both these types of regimes involved different kind of authoritative instances, power relations, and most importantly community imaginaries. Notre Dame was “monumentalized” in order to strip itself from its Catholic past, but in this case, instead of reaching an older past or point of origin (such as the Greek or European reclaiming of “Greek antiquity”), Notre-Dame came to represent a “secular” time, suspended with no origin and no end that was constantly displacing its “real” past. As a result, the Church had to reinvent its past over centuries, as its institutional apparatuses and political clout underwent profound change to fit the modern category of “religion”.

The confusion over the recent events stem from the fact that the physical traces carry in themselves the older order at a symbolic level. Battles over symbols are battles over meaning that push for different forms of belonging. In such situations, vows of allegiance become an urgent attempt at delineating community boundaries. It is a fight where secular (or religious) France could ask again: are the Muslims with us? The indeterminate nature of who could ask this makes the question all the more urgent. On social media, one could see that some were rejoicing at the sight of the destruction. Debates quickly unfolded on social media, some talking of a “religious outsider” conspiracy, some pointing out that the very construction of Notre-Dame is not really that “French” after all, as it draws upon an “Islamic heritage”. What are the “properties” of this French community? Are we all part of one community?

Some interesting discussions emerged in the Chinese internet world in relation to these questions. While the vast majority of Chinese people felt grief for this tragedy, some view this event as ‘karma’ (报应). In other words, the fire can be understood as one of the effects of those bad things done, especially to China, by the French. The historical background of this way of thinking is the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanming Yuan (圆明园), by the Anglo-French expedition force in 1860 during the Second Opium War, a time when China had just stepped in the so-called semi-colonial and semi-feudal era. From their narrow nationalist perspective, therefore, the Notre-Dame fire is something which embodies the principle of justice (transcendental or otherwise), if not something worth celebrating. It is not difficult to imagine why this kind of reaction would emerge. Although the Old Summer Palace has been completely destroyed, the ruins of it have been retained intentionally, in order to remind Chinese people of the colonial history of humiliation and to conduct patriotic education. Yet most Chinese people feel disgusted by this kind of theory. Their thoughts are that, in spite of the colonial history, what was ravaged is something which belongs to the common cultural heritage of all humankind. The Catholic background is not the focus of Chinese people. It seems that for them the cultural implications of the building and the event of its damage are more important than their ‘religious’ implication.

The Chinese reaction brings into relief, then, the confusion or blurring of the boundary between the material and the spiritual, the religious and the secular. In terms of critical religion, the various reactions, within and without France, go to show how the binary distinction between what are perceived as categories of religious and secular things in the world fails get to the heart of things. Where ‘religion’ is defined by self-identifying secularists in relation to institutions that foster violence or irrational belief, they will be disconcerted to see people weeping in the streets overcome with emotion at the loss of a ‘religious’ building. On the other hand, Christians may also regard these tears with a certain scepticism, wondering whether they are matched by a willingness to follow a Christian life or whether they are produced by undirected effervescence – mere mood music. In both cases, we rely on stereotypical or misleading categorisations that blind us to the fact that our world is thoroughly imbued with powerful meanings that go well beyond any calculation in literal or strictly material terms. They blind us to the fact that powerful symbolic realities can and do exist outside of conventional institutional formulations, and are found in relation to nations, economies, and civic values to places, spaces and physical constructions, and even to gendered perspectives.

In the case of Notre-Dame, the female personification – as seen in its very name – is drawn from its Christian origins, where Our Lady is Mary, conventionally, the idealised mother who is untouched by the sufferings and ecstasies of embodied sexual relations. A great danger, as feminists point out, lies in identifying with ‘her’ uncritically, as the image serves to support the objectification of women within patriarchal culture. . Nevertheless, as female personification she can also powerfully reflect the symbolic reality of the material, embodied feminine that very much sits as the beating heart of human concerns, even religious concerns, which impels and empowers us to restore what is broken.

So fragile then is religion in the modern West. For Christian Europe, it cannot sustain the numbers to fill its pews, but it cannot countenance the loss of its heritage. The American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013) had said near the end of his life that, where religion is part of human evolution, “nothing is ever lost”. These might be words of comfort as the restoration teams line up, yet again, to restore Notre-Dame to her former glory. But these words might also point to a more difficult phenomenon: if religion persists, it persists in frailty, perhaps as it always has conceptually, as it certainly has materially, and, following upon the high point of the Christian calendar being celebrated at the time within the walls of Notre-Dame de Paris, as it is featured in the Passion of Easter.

The Folly of Secularism

Dialogues on the theopolitics of the nation-state: Israel in a wider context
1 April 2019

Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and Department of Politics and International Relations, The University of Oxford

One of the gravest distortions of the discussion on the modern, liberal-democratic nation-state has been the prevalence of a secularist epistemology as the basis for this discussion. This epistemology serves the configuration of power of the nation-state by identifying it with the “secular” realm of rational politics, relegating “religion” to the realm of the irrational, private and apolitical. Doing so, the secularist discourse actively hides the theopolitical nature of the modern nation-state, justifying the violence of the state as necessary and rational, while delegitimizing others ideational claims for (political) truth as irrational and politically illegitimate.

Convened by Stanley Lewis Chair in Israel Studies at Oxford, the proposed symposium will position the Israeli case in a wider thematic context. It will tie into one event or discourse several threads emanating from this critique: A deconstruction and reconsideration of the conceptual duality of “religion and politics”; a critique of the notion of liberal secularism; and a reconsideration of the case study of Israel (and Judaism).

The symposium would be formatted as a series of public dialogues:
Session 1 (10:30am-12pm): Religion and Politics: a dialogue between William Cavanaugh (DePaul) and Timothy Fitzgerald (Stirling) on the politics and history of this conceptual duality and its current usages.
Session 2 (2pm – 3:30pm): Liberalism and Secularism: a dialogue between Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd (Northwestern) and Yolanda Jansen (Amsterdam) on the notion of the “secular,” liberal politics of the nation-state.
Session 3 (4pm-5:30pm): Israel: a dialogue between Yehouda Shenhav (Tel Aviv) and Yaacov Yadgar (Oxford) on the uses and misuses of a discourse on “Judaism” in Israel.

Sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-folly-of-secularism-dialogues-on-the-theopolitics-of-the-nation-state-israel-in-a-wider-context-tickets-57506667992?utm_term=eventurl_text

Call for Papers: “Religion as a Changing Category of Muslim Practice”


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One-day workshop on 24th May 2019 at Pembroke College, University of Oxford.

Deadline for proposals: 28th February 2019.

Organisers: Dr Alex Henley (alex.henley@theology.ox.ac.uk) and Nabeelah Jaffer (nabeelah.jaffer@pmb.ox.ac.uk).

This workshop will focus on ‘religion’ as a changing category in modern Muslim practice.  Participants are invited to share case studies from their research as a basis for discussion of the possible insights to be gained by bringing critical approaches to the category ‘religion’ to bear on our study of Islam.

The aim of the meeting is to support and encourage such fledgling studies, sharing both methods and findings in order to identify: effective methodologies; a useful conceptual vocabulary; common patterns among diverse case studies; degrees of variation across contexts; and potential new avenues for research. To this end, participation will be open both to researchers already focusing on these themes and those interested in exploring these aspects of their empirical work further.
For further details and submission guidelines, see here:


Critical Muslims

By Carool Kersten*

It is already more than thirty years ago since the late Bill Roff, emeritus professor of Islamic and Southeast Asian history at Columbia University (and proud Scotsman), wrote that– like taxidermy — taxonomy is best not performed on the living. Still, when I was studying the ways in which Muslim intellectuals engage with the Islamic tradition qua academic scholars of religion, it seemed to me that Russell McCutcheon’s distinction between theologians, phenomenologists, and critics – not caretakers, could be usefully applied to the individuals in question.

In Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (2011), I present the French-Algerian Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) as such as critic. When training as a historian, he was introduced to the Annales School. Together with philosophical phenomenology, structural linguistics, and poststructuralist discourse analysis (all refracted through the lens of Paul Ricoeur) this French school of historiography shaped what has became known as Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason. More specifically, Arkoun’s contribution consists in setting an alternative research agenda, which he calls ‘Applied Islamology’. That designation was inspired by the ‘Applied Anthropology’ of Roger Bastide, an ethnographer specializing in Afro-Brazilian religions and successor to a professorial chair at Sao Paolo University, set up by Annales School historian Fernand Braudel (which, sort of, closes the circle).

Arkoun’s contributions to the study of Islam also make him part of a group of intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds known as ‘heritage thinkers’ (turathiyyun in Arabic). Emerging in the 1970s, on the back of the widespread disenchantment affecting the Arab world after the disastrous outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and developing further in parallel with the so-called ‘Islamic Resurgence’ of the 1980s, heritage thinking provides an alternative way of thinking about Islam. Instead of reducing it to a ‘religion’, in the sense of a set of doctrinal tenets and do’s and don’ts, Islam is conceived as a civilization generating a wide range of cultural and intellectual achievements.

Also the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (1935-2010) advocated such critical engagement with the Islamic heritage, but in his case it was confined to the Arab world. Originally conceived as a trilogy, al-Jabri’s Critique of Arab Reason, consists of historical and structural analyses of Arab thought, combined with an ideology critique, later complemented with a study of ethics. Like Arkoun, al-Jabri is interested in the relationship between knowledge and power.

In The Formation of Arab Reason (1984), he analyses what he calls the ‘Era of Recording’; the formative period during which the various disciplines of traditional Islamic learning took shape. After that period, al-Jabri claims, little happened in terms of the development of new discourses. Instead, intellectual activity consisted primarily in reproducing existing knowledge. In the Structure of Arab Reason (1986), al-Jabri distinguished three Arab-Islamic regimes of knowledge (or what in Foucauldian idiom are called ‘epistemes’): Bayani thinking, exemplified by discursive theology; irfani thinking, which al-Jabri dismisses as mystical obscurantism originating in Persia; and burhani thinking, or reasoning that uses demonstrative proof. According to al-Jabri, the most impressive instance of this line of thinking is the philosophy of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), the Andalusian polymath known also as Averroes, who did most of his intellectual labours in al-Jabri’s native Morocco.

Al-Jabri’s Critique of Arab Reason is not only narrower in geographical scope than Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason, it also privileges the burhani episteme over the other two. With slogans like ‘the future can only be Averroist’ and his call for an ‘Andalusian resurgence’, al-Jabri shows himself a bit of an Arab or even Maghribian chauvinist. Arkoun, by contrast, is concerned with the repression of all ways of thinking that were excluded from what he terms the ‘Closed Text Corpus’ and thus relegated to the realm of the so-called ‘Unthought’. With the passing of time, this ‘Unthought’ is further reduced to the ‘Unthinkable’; no longer considered part of the Islamic tradition. The task of ‘Applied Islamology’ is to quarry the Islamic intellectual archive for the ‘Unthought’; consisting not only in philosophical and theological schools that were declared heresies, but also orally transmitted traditions often dismissed as ‘folk Islam’. Where Arkoun’s use of discourse analysis and the deconstruction of texts for rethinking Islam and religion shows a parallel with Derrida, al-Jabri’s concern with the formative, structural and political aspects of Arab-Islamic philosophy betrays an interest in excavating discursive formations along the lines of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge.

Other heritage thinkers appear to affirm Atalia Omer’s rhetorical question whether critics can be caretakers too. These include the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) and his erstwhile student Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010). Hanafi’s Heritage and Renewal project, consisting in a double critique of both the Islamic and Western legacies of thinking about religion, is very much geared towards a political agenda inspired by Liberation Theology and encapsulated in a manifesto Hanafi published in 1981 under the title The Islamic Left. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd became a cause célèbre, when his propositions to study the Qur’an using methods from literary criticism and semiotics, in order to understand the sacred scripture better, met with fierce opposition from Islamist activists — forcing him into exile in The Netherlands. Like Hanafi and al-Jabri, also Abu Zayd wrote mostly in Arabic, but one of his books, Critique of Religious Discourse, has now appeared in English translation.

The approaches of these heritage thinkers are considered controversial, often meeting with resistance from fellow Muslims. Ironically, their ideas have had a more welcoming reception in Indonesia, where, since the 1970s, local progressive Muslim intellectuals have prepared an intellectual climate and seedbed that is conducive to critical reflection on things Islamic.

The ideas of Arkoun and Hanafi, and later also of al-Jabri and Abu Zayd, were picked up by a younger generation of Muslim intellectuals. Young cadres of the country’s largest traditional Islamic mass organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), have used them to develop an alternative critical discourse which they call ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism’. Intimately familiar with the traditions of Islamic learning in rural Indonesia, they are equally at home in postmodern philosophy and postcolonial theory. Their counterparts on the reformist-modernist side of the spectrum have done similar things. Supported by senior leaders and intellectuals in the Muhammadiyah, they have formed a network promoting what they call ‘Transformative Islam’.

Outside of the geographical Muslim world, in the migrant communities of Europe, America, and Australia, Muslims have initiated their own projects. In the UK, the Muslim Institute is publishing a Granta-like periodical called Critical Muslim. In 2015, a group of academics from Muslim backgrounds started the scholarly journal Re-Orient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. The critical study of religion may have its origins in the Western academe, but scholars and intellectuals elsewhere are exploring their own avenues of positive critical engagement with their religious traditions.

* Carool Kersten is Reader in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London. He is the author or editor of ten books, and hast just completed another monograph on Contemporary Muslim thought. His research interests include the intellectual history of the modern Muslim world, Islam in Southeast Asia, and the study of Islam as a field of academic inquiry. He also maintains the Critical Muslims blog.

A Response to ZG:

This is Timothy Fitzgerald’s answer to ZG’s response to his post:

A demonstration of the way that modern categories tend unconsciously to reconfigure any thought experiment back into a closed circle.

I am grateful to ZG for his response to my arguments concerning modern categories and their operation. It is especially good to hear the viewpoint of a Chinese colleague. Unfortunately, as he himself admits, he has not read my published articles and I am unclear what he is himself responding to. His thoughts include some misreadings, but these also offer me the opportunity to clarify some issues, so my thanks to him for ‘reaching out’.

I would say that his misreading is itself an illustration that we live in a closed system of signs that automatically reconfigures everything back into its own self-referential mechanism of binary either-or substitutions.

When I refer to ‘modern categories’, the term ‘modern’ is itself one of those problematic categories, apparently self-evident in meaning, and, with almost automatic inevitability, triggers such equally empty terms as ‘pre-modern’. This parasitic pair can then be kept in perpetual motion by other stand-in binaries – advanced and backward, progressive and reactionary, rational and irrational, civilized and barbarous. Like everyone else, I am caught in the series of either-or binary circularities. My project is, hopefully, to unsettle them.

The problem with the idea that ‘we westerners’ are ‘modern’ is that it opens the door for a whole series of assumptions, such as that some countries are ‘pre-modern’ and backward, and need the progress and development that ‘western’ nations are assumed to have, but backward or ‘third world’ nations are lacking. We are caught in this system of automatic ideological binary substitutions. ZG is also thinking and writing within this model; he refers to the “insufficient enlightenment” of mainland China; and he says that “many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market”. It is not only China – many people in contemporary Europe and America are also still striving for this realization. My question is whether these ideals have ever been realised, whether they are what they appear to be, and whether they should be taken at face value? What actually does it mean to “strive for the realization of Enlightenment ideals”?

ZG criticises me for asserting the “falsity of democracy”, but this is not a fair criticism, and distorts my endeavour. If we mean by ‘democracy’ a system of self-governance that involves the maximum number of people in deciding what we want ‘democracy’ to mean, and how we want to realise a democratic order in our lives, then I want to be one of the people to participate. As with all these very general categories, they can mean different things in different contexts and to different people. I agree that ‘democracy’ is a category that is necessary for any radical critique of the liberal capitalist or party authoritarian status quo. My question concerns how we can take the sign ‘democracy’ out of the propaganda jurisdiction of the corporate state and its agencies, such as the mainstream media and the corrupt agencies of public relations.

I stress my agreement with ZG that Marxism, as much as liberalism, is a product of the European Enlightenment. I have argued in several publications that Marx gave us (on the one hand) a penetrating critique of liberal political economy, and the insight of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. On the other hand his thinking and the thinking of the Marxists that have followed him are captured by the myth, shared by liberals, of secular scientific progress. This includes much baggage, such as the belief that there is such a thing as ‘the economy’, outside of the self-referential discourse itself. Marxism is opposed to Liberalism at one level; however, it is simultaneously based at another level on a deeper set of common assumptions, such as the progress of humankind from lower to higher levels of rational awakening from the religious slumbers of the past. My question here is whether we can give any clear meaning to ‘secular scientific progress’. My own view is that we have substituted one set of myths and fictions for another. We have convinced ourselves that the widespread poverty, the disruption of habitats, the sweatshops that produce our clothes run on wage-slavery, the enormous problem of refugees who are homeless, incessant wars and a weapon’s industry that gains from them – we have convinced ourselves that these are all merely temporary crises through which we have to pass in order to finally emerge into the light of ‘liberty’, that is, a world of self-regulating markets, private property, and the promises of consumer paradise.

ZG guesses that I may be a Buddhist and believe in “a universal compassion”. I have never described myself as a Buddhist and nor have I attempted to reify ‘a universal compassion’ in this way. All I would say is that we humans are as capable of compassion and generosity as we are of brutality and selfishness. We are as capable of giving and sharing as we are of grabbing and hoarding. Humans are capable of the most shocking brutality – we all know this. Can we survive without cooperation and sharing? Brutality was not invented by liberal capitalists. Why would anybody think such a thing? Worse than this, the brutality is in me too, I can participate in it, and I can be an agent of brutality. I do not believe that there is any essential ‘me’; on the contrary, there are contradictory and conflicting mental formations, predispositions, and categorical assumptions that tend to operate unconsciously. I have brutal thoughts, and I can restrain myself from acting on them. I can also act from love or compassion, by which I mean a non-condescending identification with the other’s suffering. One does not have to be classed as a ‘Buddhist’ to know these things. As soon as you slot me into the category of ‘Buddhist’ with a belief in ‘a universal compassion’, you are reintroducing reifying preconceptions that create divisions (she’s a Buddhist, he’s a Christian, she’s a Muslim, he’s a liberal secularist, she’s a Chinese Communist, and so on), and from there to a tragedy of confusions which do not help anyone of us to see our common humanity clearly.

A problem with ZG’s response is that he continually reintroduces the categories that I wish to critically problematise as though they have some obvious meaning, and then attributes them to me. I do not believe in “the realization of political and economic justice”. I am asking what does it mean to talk about justice that is ‘political’ or justice that is ‘economic’? My issue is how such empty categories can appear to us as so obviously meaningful. What is it that drives our largely automatic and unconscious deployment of these terms as though it is obvious what they mean? Where do they derive their power?

Also, it is thankfully true that I have no “universal scheme” to achieve liberation from injustice. How could I know what is best for everyone? The last thing we need is very limited persons such as myself bringing forth schemes for everyone else’s benefit. That is not my project.

ZG is in my view right to question what we mean by ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’. These are relative concepts and probably cannot be usefully discussed without having an agreed idea about what kind of wealth is worth having. Do we all want to be as rich as George Soros, or the family who own Walmart, or the Koch Brothers? No doubt there are Chinese equivalents. Personally I have no desire to be wealthy in the sense of owning vast amounts of capital and private property in various forms, especially when I know that the fortune was derived from the cheap labour of others in miserable working conditions. I do not think these would make me happy! I do, however, want to have various basic necessities that I can share with others – grub first, then ethics – necessities that we all need to survive in some kind of dignity. Capitalism is not inevitable. There is nothing inconceivable about organising ourselves more equally, more democratically and on the basis of greater respect for our common humanity.

I would not like to be born into or live in a refugee camp. Some refugee camps provide better conditions for basic living than others. But why are there refugee camps at all? Why are there refugees in such vast numbers, many living in misery? Do we content ourselves by saying, with Donald Rumsfeld and a shrug of the shoulders, ‘shit happens’? How have the so-called ‘enlightenment values’ and the promises of ‘liberal political economy’ led to such vast and widespread displacement and suffering? At what point do we question the assumption that, as long as we continue as we are, then eventually ‘progress’ will emerge and markets will solve our problems of distribution and raise all boats? This is a blind belief imposed on the populations with a fanatical zeal by the propagandists of market fundamentalism, and that is then rhetorically displaced onto ‘religious extremists’.

I don’t think I described capitalism as “evil”. I think global capitalism is legitimated by a destructive and irrational system of beliefs, but I do not think I used such a term as evil to refer to what I believe about capitalism. It is a kind of category mistake. ‘Evil’ is too deeply embedded in a Christian theological context, which I also do not believe in. Liberal political economy is a doctrine with a high degree of internal logical consistency but based on metaphysical abstractions that misleadingly appear as self-evident. I am concerned with how such abstractions as ‘free markets’, ‘the economy’, ‘market equilibrium’ and individuals as inherently possessive and self-maximising appear as self-evident truth and common sense, and why questioning them leads very smart people to get so defensive.

ZG’s asserts that:

“…although modern economics claims objectivity, it never considers itself as being able to predict accurately everything in the area it concerns. Being objective cannot be identified with inerrancy which seems to be what Fitzgerald asks for.”

ZG is correct that being objective is not the same as inerrancy, but nevertheless if economic theory has no capacity for prediction it is difficult to understand how economic and fiscal policy can be determined. I am also not clear what “the area it concerns” is. Where do ‘economics’ and its ‘object’ – presumably ‘the economy’ – begin and end? When is an economic decision not also a political decision, and vice versa? And can we really be confident that the science of economics is factual and exclusive of value judgements? I believe the economy is an abstraction that might possibly have some uses as a heuristic device but does not refer to anything independent of the economist’s own thought experiments, any more than John Locke’s ‘man in the state of nature’. Liberal economists have claimed historically and explicitly that their science is only about objective facts, and that values are subjective irrelevancies. (I do not refer to Adam Smith here, as he does not write about ‘economics’). I admit that I am not a trained economist, and, like many other average citizens, I approach ‘economics’ without claiming to understand all its mysteries. However, I cannot understand what the purpose of the science of economics is, if the people who call themselves economic scientists claim no relation to prediction and predictability. What is the relation between models of ‘the economy’ and the decisions of the Federal Reserve to raise or lower interest rates, or to increase or decrease the money supply? How can predictions be excluded from these decisions?

ZG seems to believe I advocate violent revolution, which is the trap I think we should avoid at all costs. He has unwittingly imported into our conversation the assumptions that I am critically distancing myself from. It is a revolution of understanding that we need, and this must be based on self-critique and institutional critique.

I respect a Chinese intellectual’s views about Chinese history. I agree with him that the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution to which he refers were huge disasters. I am glad I did not have to live or die in them, or watch my loved ones being humiliated and torn to pieces by the party fanatics. ZG can give us a more expert analysis of these historical events than I can. I was taught in school in Britain (in the ‘50s and ‘60s) that the opium wars that had occurred in the late 19th century were a minor blip in the otherwise great British gift of civilization to ‘barbarous backward nations’ such as China. The Industrial Revolution and the extraction of surplus wealth from subjugated peoples (including the slave and sugar industries) gave Britain its great leap forward. This may have been – in an indirect but conceptual sense – the origin of Mao’s later reformulation, the myth of the Great Leap forward. The British, Americans, French and others who considered themselves to be the advance guard of progress wanted to kick-start the leap forward in backward colonies. Did Vietnam not also lead to Pol Pot?

In his final paragraph ZG presupposes the very binary constructions that I am questioning – if it isn’t capitalism, then it must be socialism; if it isn’t liberal political economy it must be Marxist political economy; if it isn’t centralized state allocation then it must be allocation through free markets; if it isn’t public property accumulation then it must be private property accumulation. Inadvertently, this kind of thinking will keep us trapped in their circular ways. I – and I believe many others – are trying to think ourselves out of them.

My thanks again to ZG for his comments and his interest, and for giving me the opportunity to give a little bit more explanation of my meaning. Not much can be said in these short exchanges, but it is helpful to hear such a response and to have the chance to elaborate a little – though hopefully my more substantial published work will supplement this short blog! It is fruitful to be in communication over the global issues that are of most concern to us, and I hope we can pursue the conversation together in the future.

Timothy Fitzgerald Abolishing Politics – A response

Timothy Fitzgerald was a founder member of CRA and his work continues to stimulate and enrich our thinking. In the linked extract he begins to develop a project following on from his more familiar discussions of the category of religion (2001, 2007, 2015). Here he begins to focus, drawing out some of the implications of his earlier publications, on ‘dominant and dominating’ categories as part of a system of representations. It is not just the problematic binary ‘religion/secular’ that is at issue here but a whole range of privileged, exclusionary terms or categories such as ‘politics’ and ‘private property’ that circulate within modern western discourse creating a series of highly unethical and dangerous inclusions and exclusions. It is very much a cris de coeur addressed, for example, to the academic community to take up its signatory role of critique. To accompany the link to Tim’s article, we include is a short reflection on the piece from a new member of CRA who writes from the perspective of China, a recently communist country.

ZG’s response

I am personally not as familiar with Fitzgerald’s work as some of my colleagues. However, this does not prevent me from putting my mind to understanding his introduction or being illuminated by his passionate and eloquent exposition. At first glance, what he endeavors to critically examine in this piece – a series of mutually parasitic categories originating from the European Enlightenment and the disastrous effects made by their dominant usage in modern Western society – do not seem relevant to the land I come from, since mainland China could be viewed by some as a “pre-modern” country where many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market.

However, this so called “insufficient enlightenment” does not indicate that the current Chinese political-economic system and its dominant ideology (Marxism) have been built upon a completely different series of categories. Marxism as a modern ideology is itself to some extent a product of the European Enlightenment as well as those binaries the latter has made between secular/state and religion, science and superstition, and progress and backwardness. In fact, in order to “control” (an integral part of the ideal of the European Enlightenment) more efficiently, Marxism in both the Soviet Union and socialist China further developed a new series of binaries such as revolutionary and reactionary (counterrevolutionary), people and enemies, (people’s) democracy and dictatorship (to enemies), proletariat and exploiters, etc., some of which are still being used in mainland China today. More than that, the “religiousness” implied in the Marxist ideology, an insight which has been raised by Karl Löwith and many others, also supports the applicability of Fitzgerald’s deconstructive examination of modern categories.

While doing his critical job, Fitzgerald is very careful to avoid falling into the binary between proletariat and capitalists, or between good (people) and evil (people) himself. This can be seen from his insistent emphasis on the universally damaging effects of this system of abstract categories on all people, whether with power and wealth or not, and in his claim that those who control our institutions are neither able to choose rationally or to be happier than the rest of us. Some may sense from this claim a universal compassion similar to Buddhist ethics based upon its understanding that all persons possess a vast potential for goodness within their fundamental awareness and at the same time suffer from transience and conditioning from which oppressors too seek escape by oppressing others. And this represents the way in which Fitzgerald tries to go beyond the consciousness of class struggle which can be found in many contemporary Marxist criticisms of capitalism.

Is this attempt successful? We must admit that while Fitzgerald explicitly argues that what needs to be critically deconstructed is “a system of signs that creates collective illusions” rather than a certain class, there is still an implicitly dualistic structure of thinking in his elaboration. This implicitly dualistic structure of thinking can be found both in his criticism of modern categories such “economics” and “democracy,” as well as his remaining to be unfolded conception of liberation.

For Fitzgerald, although no one in the Western world can escape from being manipulated by the system of abstract categories he tries to deconstruct and in some sense all are suffering from this operation, he himself keeps making a division between rich and poor, between debtors and creditors, and between white male defenders of the “sacred” right of private property in the name of “national economy” or “democracy” and those being constantly exploited by the former. There is always a minority of people who benefit from the global capitalist system, even though the price to be paid is the creation of a majority of victims. On the other hand, in terms of possible liberation from the above injustice, I do not see in his conception any universal scheme to achieve this or reconciliation between oppressors and oppressed, other than the realization of political and economic justice.

This dualistic structure of thinking can also be found in Fitzgerald’s oversimplification of the social sciences as invalid, of the falsity of democracy and of the evil of global capitalism. For example, although modern economics claims objectivity, it never considers itself as being able to predict accurately everything in the area it concerns. Being objective cannot be identified with inerrancy which seems to be what Fitzgerald asks for. And while it must be admitted that a great proportion of global movements of people is experienced by its participants as involuntary, enforced, or even miserable, he also refuses, on the basis of his personal experiences, to imagine the possibility that in addition to scattering families, a global market can also provide people with opportunities to exert initiatives and creativity within a new culture as well as to enrich and extend their lives in this process. If Fitzgerald accuses the actually rhetorical nature of categories like “economics” and “democracy” of distorting reality, he is doing the same by making oversimplified comments on them.

As an intellectual from a “socialist” country, what concerns me more than this oversimplification as such, however, is its possible outcomes. This view of current institutions in the Western world, as far as I am concerned, appears to underestimate the possibility that “it would be much worse without them,” a possibility I, as well as many other Chinese intellectuals, have learned from the modern history of China, whether in the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, or other radical political or economic movements. All of these radical movements witness the tyranny of majority, chaos and extreme inefficiency in an economy based upon public ownership, as well as millions of unnecessary deaths during merely twenty years.

It seems to me that both this oversimplification and the accompanying revolutionary agenda may derive in part from an anthropological ambivalence which can be found not only in Fitzgerald’s, but in not few Marxist critical studies of capitalism. On the one hand, they hold a rather pessimistic vision of human nature, both in its moral and epistemological dimensions. On the other hand, asking for a revolutionary (rather than a reformist) change of existing institutions implies and presupposes an equally unfounded trust in human nature. This explains also the role of prophet they sometimes play – being lonely (reflecting their lack of confidence in their peers) and radical (reflecting at least their lack of prudent consideration of possible chaos brought about by human vice during a revolutionary change) at the same time.

In short, my disagreement with some of Fitzgerald’s points of view here, does not indicate that I have problem with its underlying proposition, that is concerned with the problematic nature of a series of modern categories invented in the European Enlightenment. Rather, it concerns the presence of an ambiguously dualistic structure within its thinking, as well as Fitzgerald’s failure sufficiently to analyse critically his own presumptions about human nature. To bring this response to a close and to summarize, I suggest rewriting a whole paragraph from Fitzgerald’s piece, changing his targets into those (in italics) which have been eagerly looked forward to by many socialists in the Western world. And the rewritten paragraph can then be seen as my standpoint toward the political-economic system of China during 1956-1978:

“How is it that we are dominated by such obviously irrational systems of socialist resource allocation? How is it that the supposed equality in resource allocation promised by Marxist political economy results in such obvious inefficiencies and waste? How is it that we can continue to believe in Marxist political economy when the evidence is so obviously contradictory? And why do we persist with the obvious irrationality of public property accumulation as the dominant orthodox dogma of salvation?”