Modern Summer of Love: Critical Interpretations of John Lardas Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America -- Introduction

A big pre-summer and pre-6th-birthday-of-this-blog treat for everyone: starting today and over the next several days we will be running a series of responses to John Modern's book Secularism in Antebellum America.We first covered the book with a review by John Turner; and over at Immanent Frame, Michael Warner had an extended and extremely lucid discussion of the bookLast year this book was the featured text for responses at the "Author Meets Critics" session of the American Academy of Religion, at the warm and cozy McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago (a locale which actually reminded me of one certain great white whale which also serves as one inspiration and guiding spirit for this book).

We'll begin with this introduction by Amy Koehlinger, Oregon State University, who presided over the session at the AAR. She will describe the entries to come later today and over the next five days.

Introduction by Amy Koehlinger

A Fabulous Rumor: Critical Interpretations of John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

The 2012 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion featured a provocative and well-attended session on John Lardas Modern’s
Secularism in Antebellum America.  While book panels are often framed as author-meets-critics, this book session was a bit different, billing itself as “an experimental panel for an experimental book.”  Since Secularism in Antebellum America moved through what John describes as a “scenic rather than synthetic” assortment of topics arranged in four chapters and an epilogue, the panel was organized to reflect the narrative scenery of the book, with each panelist focusing her or his commentary on a specific chapter. The experimental format of the panel was an attempt to create a scholarly conversation that engaged with John’s book in a usual forum (then the AAR, here our beloved Religion in American History blog) without flattening its intellectual edges or undermining the provocative way it opened new ways to think and write about the matrix of bodies and culture, technologies, imaginings and hauntings that shaped how religious people were able to know themselves and “true religion” in antebellum America.  

The entries of this series will thus proceed in the same way, as a progression of scholarly meditations on specific chapters of Secularism in Antebellum America.  With the blog as with the book, don’t be lulled by the format of partition into a perception that each entry/chapter functions as a discrete integer in a tidy mathematical description of secularism: 1+1+1+1+1=5.  Rather, as each chapter of Modern’s book is an evocation, an act of conjure that tries to draw forth for historical examination the elusive, spectral presences that haunted the antebellum American psyche, the better to understand the forces that conditioned what Modern calls “the metaphysics of the secular,” so each of the scholarly entries that follows engages with the intellectual specters from a single chapter of Modern’s book in an attempt to sharpen the clarity of otherwise elusive manifestations.

In the original panel my task as presider was to provide an overview of the central argument of Secularism in Antebellum America, situating it in a broader methodological context.  At the time, I was so enamored by the unorthodox nature of John’s style of narrative that I believed that any overview of John’s argument—any attempt to translate it back into the traditional format we all know so well—was a violation of the provocative and courageous work John had done in creating a form of writing and argument that flowed from and reflected the essence of his topic.  It was clear that the style of John’s writing and the intellectual content he was conveying were of apiece.  The way his words and ideas and chapters swirled and undulated as they emerged page-by-page was a conscious choice, a thoughtful attempt to let the subject shape the format of his book.  Rather than simply translating the past and his insights about it into the expected academic format and disciplinary lingua franca we all know so well, John had decided to let the book itself  and its “mode of storytelling” be an incarnation of his larger point, namely that secularism emerged not as a directly-articulated coherent idea but rather as a mood and a sensibility, an intuition and a paradox, a haunting, an elusive flash in the peripheral vision of the young nation whose pervasive yet elusive cultural authority was a function of the way it evaded reduction and therefore manifested indirectly, powerfully in innumerable ways. 

Given that a thesis summary seemed antithetical to the spirit and purpose of John’s book, at the conference I opted for an obtuse presentation, observing that giving a summary of the argument in Secularism in Antebellum America was like humming a few bars of Mahler’s 5th symphony as an introduction to the whole work or, better yet, capturing the experience of a Dresden Dolls show by pointing out that Amanda Palmer has really freaky eyebrows. This isn’t Taylor Swift, I observed, (with all due respect to Tay-Tay—I have 10-year old daughter, after all, and we listen to a lot of Taylor Swift in my house) and you can’t just sing the “hook” and believe you’ve adequately communicated the song. 

I paid homage to the enchanted machines of John’s final chapter by feeding the book and the papers of panelists into my own enchanted machine (less dramatically, my computer) to see what fantasms it would unleash, and offered snippets of poetry from the word clouds that the computer generated from the word processing files. 

Now year and a half since that AAR panel, I might offer something simpler, less contrived.  As Secularism in Antebellum America has settled in my mind and as I’ve found myself incorporating elements of it into how I approach thinking and writing and teaching, I am more willing to offer a word of introduction to the book—not necessarily a summary of the argument, mind you, I still believe we should recognize and respect John’s point about scholarly form.  But, like the water that I see first as it pools on top of my vegetable garden before the soil is able to absorb it, which comes back to me later in the form of the spinach and tomatoes that are nourished by the moisture of the soil, I can offer some reflections on how the Introduction of Secularism in Antebellum America has emerged in my thoughts over time, after first pooling up on top and then slowly sinking in.

The subtitle of the Introduction is “The Metaphysics of Secularism” and in this initial chapter John prepares his readers for the journey ahead by destabilizing the standard narrative of nineteenth century U.S. religious history that is dominated by tropes of revivalist enthusiasm, evangelical creativity, utopian experimentation, sectionalist and religious fragmentation, and the emergence of the market economy.  The problem is not that these historical observations are false, Modern suggests, but rather that they are insufficient.  Their finality and simplicity fails to capture a necessary quality of unstable, emergent, world-in-the-making and displaces the historical gaze toward the category of belief, bypassing the subtle cultural processes through which belief, its object(s), and human agency were authorized and naturalized as reality, and made real in the lives of Protestants in antebellum America.   More simply, the ability of Americans to increasingly link individual agency with belief—to say “I believe”— in the nineteenth century was a function of the conceptual environment shaped by the metaphysics of secularism, which Modern defines as “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense.” 

As Modern leads the reader through an initial foray into the metaphysics of secularism, he offers a series of tensions, paradoxes, and discursive loops, pairings of cultural impulses whose incommensurability accumulated over time in the mood of antebellum America: of religion disestablished but indirectly authorizing the democratic experiment, of religious horizons imagined according to a matrix of politics and epistemology that was at once symmetrical but also dizzyingly circular in its logic, of evangelicals and spiritualists manipulating technological networks while simultaneously fearing the seductive power they contained that always seemed to threaten to exceed human control, of spectral haunting and material persistence simultaneously exacting tributes to “the real.”  In giving us the confusing, elusive anatomy (always partial, John is careful to say) of the discursive formation we call secularism, he is really nudging us, cajoling us as historians to turn from work documenting historical worlds toward the more difficult task of trying to see the inchoate processes through which forms of knowing (our and those of the people we study) come to be.

Finally, it is a privilege to introduce the fine scholars whose reflections on Secularism in Antebellum America you will be enjoying in the coming days.
Chad Seales is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.  His research addresses the relationship between religion and culture in American life, as evident in the moral prescriptions of corporate managers, the social expressions of southern evangelicals, and the popular religious practices of Latino migrants.  He has published articles on corporate chaplaincy, religion and industrialization, the changing religious landscape of the American South, and the religious politics of U2's Bono.  His first book Good Blood and Honest Sweat: Material Religion in a Southern Protestant Town is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.   Chad will be discussing chapter 1 “Evangelical Secularism and the measure of Leviathan.”

Finbarr Curtis will approach chapter 2, “Toward a genealogy of spirituality.”  Finbarr studies religion and politics and teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.  He has published essays on theory and method as well as American religions in Religion, the Journal of Religion, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and the Hedgehog Review.  He is currently working on a book entitled The Economy of American Religious Freedom.

Chip Callahan will be discussing chapter 3 of John’s book, which carries the impressive title “A short biography of Henry Lewis Morgan with curious asides on the affect of spirituality on the emergence of anthropological comprehension.”  Chip is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Indiana UP 2009) and editor of New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase (University of Missouri Press 2008). He is currently working on a project exploring performances and constructions of religion in the global oceanic networks of the New England whaling industry of the nineteenth century.

Katie Lofton will be next, discussing chapter 4 “The touch of secularism” in her inimitable way.  Kathryn Lofton is the Sarai Ribicoff Associate Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University (with tenure!).  A scholar of religion and American culture, she has published histories of African American religions, religion and consumer culture, and religion in modernity, as well as studies of the office cubicle, pop star Britney Spears, Ivory soap, and media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey.

Paul Christopher Johnson will be playing center on this basketball team, discussing the epilogue “What do I love when I love a machine?”.  Paul is a Professor in History and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Paul is the author of Secrets, Gossip and Gods: the Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé (Oxford 2002), and Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa (California 2007), and editor of the forthcoming Spirited Things: The Work of "Possession" in Black Atlantic Religions (Chicago 2013).  He is currently working on a genealogy of the category, "spirit possession," as it has wended its way across multiple disciplines, and been applied to diverse sites and phenomena.

John Lardas Modern will respond to his interlocutors.  John is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. John is an editor-at-large for The Immanent Frame and co-curator (with Kathryon Lofton) of Frequencies: A Collaborative Genealogy of Spirituality. Modern’s research and teaching interests include American religious history, literature, technology, and aesthetics. In addition to Secularism in Antebellum America (University of Chicago Press, 2011), John is the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (University of Illinois Press, 2001) as well as a dormant dissertation on the reception of Moby-Dick in the twentieth century. John was recently awarded a grant from the Social Science Research Council as part of their New Directions in the Study of Prayer project. John's project is entitled Prayer Machines: Case Studies in a Secular Age. His case studies include the practice of the rosary since Vatican II, the e-meter and the auditing processes of Scientology, and the imaging machines of contemporary cognitive science.


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