Modern Summer of Love: On Secularism in Antebellum America, Part II of VI. Finbarr Curtis Responds.

Continuing on with our series on the book Secularism in Antebellum America, today we feature the response by Finbarr Curtis, given at last year's AAR session dedicated to the book. Previously we've posted an introduction to the series by Amy Koehlinger, and a leadoff response by Chad Seales. 

Dropping Science like Galileo Dropped the Orange: John Modern’s Spiritual Boutique

Finbarr Curtis
Georgia Southern University

“Spirituality is just a word.”[1] So proclaims John Modern to open his chapter entitled “Toward and Genealogy of Spirituality.”  This is not to say that words are insignificant.  For a genealogist, words are never really just words.  As participants in projects of classification, words in Modern’s book mark an epistemic logic that delineates what sorts of things count as spiritual, or as religious, or as scientific.  In the Common Sense Realism that is the object of Modern’s inquiry, particular usages of words efface traces of their own history in favor of a confident representation of the world as it is.  Trying to locate the common sense of spirituality, Modern looks to antebellum America to uncover how the word spiritual has come to connote a sense of a free, creative, original, authentic and interior private experience that exists outside of institutional formations at the same time that the spiritual is called on to animate nurturing and sympathetic public space. 

In this post, I will ask questions about four interlocking words that demand special attention: secular, liberal, spiritual, and genealogy.  The first two are often run together, especially in postcolonial critiques of secular liberalism.  Modern’s book is indebted to but differs from many postcolonial scholars. 

Whereas postcolonial theorists tend to focus on classical liberal ideas about autonomy, individuality, and rights with a concomitant definition of the secular as prescribing a privatized, interior religion as a matter of individual choice, Modern looks at how liberalism brings together celebrations of individual autonomy with the production of sympathies and sentiments that foster a concern for public welfare and optimism for the reform of social institutions.  One important contribution, then, of Modern’s genealogy is in helping to track how is it that liberals persist in believing in individual freedom while seeing people as shaped by social forces.  Following Foucault, Modern casts the subject’s sense of his or her own freedom as an effect of diverse technologies of power.[2]  This is evidenced by a quick look to the index, in which we find under “Freedom (concept)” only the subheading “See also Foucault, Michel: subjectivization.”  The trick of liberalism in Modern’s account is not so much to promise emancipation from social discipline as much as to make this discipline promise liberation.

Furthermore, while postcolonial accounts understand the secular as a legitimating force that differentiates religious from political and scientific institutions, Modern sees secularism as a kind of epistemic glue that unifies secular institutional formations around underlying principles of rationality, calculability, and agency in the way that animates symmetrical principles of political citizenship, spiritual experience, and scientific practices of measurement and falsification.  Rather than look to differentiation, Modern focuses on harmony and convergence.  For this reason, he is attracted to the spiritual sciences of the mid-nineteenth century as examples of technologies of the spiritual.  As in the sources that tell of Galileo dropping his orange, spiritual sciences like phrenology advertised the empirical testability and falsifiability of claims not only as a means toward establishing scientific validity but as prophesying a new world order that promised freedom.

séance, from Andrew Jackson Davis, The Present Age and Inner Life;
A Sequel to Spiritual Intercourse.
Modern Mysteries Classified and Explained

(New York: Partridge & Brittan, 1853), 76.
In his attention to liberal harmonies between individual and social selves, Modern shows that far from a resistance to scientific rationality the rhetoric of spirituality was a hyper-scientific discourse that mapped onto liberal projects to perfect social institutions capable of cultivating individual virtue.  The spiritual allowed for an alignment between interior agency, institutional reality, and techno-scientific rationality.  For this kind of secular liberalism, social inequality was imagined as problem of disharmony, misalignment, or to put it another way, difference.  In some ways, the problem of difference haunts Modern’s own attempt to ground the diverse formations of the secular in a common epistemic unity (a point I will return to later).

As I read Modern, liberalism is always in a sense secular but not all secularism is necessarily liberal.  Really, there isn’t much, if anything, in Modern’s account that would not be secular.  To unpack how Modern uses the word secular we might look again to the index (By the way, I officially nominate this book for the coveted AAR Index of the Year award. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, See also Back of Book).  Secularism’s subheadings include “agency effect of, atmosphere of, as autopoietic system, coinage, as conditioning the religious, as effervescent phenomenon, immanent frame of, marking an intensification of mass mediation, metaphysics of, as monstrous, as non-existent, relationship to ghosts, spirit of, and subjectivity, as transcendent mediation, viral quality of.  See also Asad, Talal; Taylor, Charles.”[3]  In the face of such a list, one might consign the secular to the indexical entry for “Loomings,” which reads “See also vagueness.”
  If I understand Modern correctly (and my question for him is whether I do), secularism is not a position within the social imaginary nor is it a set of ideas that would be juxtaposed against religious belief; it is rather a baseline organizing epistemic principle of intelligibility and calculability that provides the possibility of agency.  In this sense, Modern’s account of the secular would throw a wrench in sociological discussions of secularization as well as contemporary philosophical accounts of the post-secular.  On this point, I am curious about Modern’s response to triumphal claims that classical theories of secularization have been disproved on the grounds that many people continue to identify as religious (ie., Rodney Stark). [4] Or, for that matter, what would Modern make of sociological attempts to the recover the continued viability of the secularization thesis as long as the Durkheimian core of privatization and institutional differentiation is in place (ie., Jose Casanova)?[5]  It would seem that, at least on the question of secularization, Modern offers an eccentric return to some of the prophetic theoretical apparatus of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Walter Benjamin.  In different ways, these thinkers saw modernization as a challenge to traditional modes of enchantment in favor of modern profanations brought about through new forms of economic and scientific rationality, calculability, and intelligibility.  The eccentric move I see in Modern’s book, however, is his assertion that “disenchantment, I contend, has been one of the most significant enchantments of the secular age.”[6]  In some ways, this move follows Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment with particular reference to the mad anthropology of Michael Taussig.[7] 

Rather than cast the spiritual energies coursing through fantasies of scientific calculability as evidence for a non-secular, or anti-secular, or post-secular world, Modern reads this as evidence of a hyper-secular presence.  Expanding the horizons and expanding the parameters of an underlying epistemic unity, the spiritual haunts the confidence of secular projects of classification.  On this point, I’m interested if Modern thinks it makes sense to talk of something like a “post-secular” (or whether his own book would fit that description)? It would seem that if the post-secular would have a referent it would not be a description of any process in the world as much as an academic marker for a change in scholarly perspective toward a greater reflexivity and awareness of the historical specificity and contingency of the category of the secular.  But I’m not sure.

While I have mentioned a number of scholarly interlocutors among classical theorists, there is a distinctive move in Modern’s account for which I don’t see any precedent.  This comes in Modern’s claim that spirituality “emerged from the differential tension between evangelical and liberal appropriations of Scottish Common Sense.”[8] One crude way of putting this is that the later Foucault (say, of the lectures on Security, Territory, and Population) comes in the first chapter followed by the Foucault of Order of Things in the second (and then to be followed in later chapters by the Foucault of Discipline and Punish).[9]  That is, because the evangelical secular worked at the level of a population to be surveyed, calculated, and predicted in order to produce social norms of conversion with an understanding that not everyone would be converted, it did not necessarily concern itself with the creation of alignments, harmonies, and convergences between individual and social selves in the way aspired to by romantic liberal spiritual sciences.  In a way, then, Modern’s book might point to a way to understand some persistent splits in American life over how to understand the relationship between public and private spheres.  That is, it makes a big difference whether one sees the public as a population governed by norms or whether the public produces shared goods.  Or am I reading too much into this?

Genealogy; Or, Science for any Occasion
advertisement, Kendall Manufacturing Co., n.d.
Despite this distinction between evangelical and liberal sensibilities, I think it is fair to say that Modern can be found on the far lumper side of the lumper/splitter spectrum.  Modern’s lumping/gluing instincts lead him to see an underlying epistemic logic in diverse phenomena like phrenology, liberal prison reform, spiritualism, evangelical revivalism, and early anthropology.  On this note, one important feature of this book’s methodology is how it delivers on the interdisciplinary and comparative promise that religious studies often cites as its institutional mission.   Not quite history, not quite literary criticism, not quite anthropology, it is hard to characterize the particular disciplinary home for this book apart from religious studies. 

If anything, genealogy would come closest to describing Modern’s method. 

Interestingly, genealogy itself has no index entry.  Perhaps this is because it is so pervasive it would be hard to locate within the book.  But Modern’s method does raise some important questions.  In particular, what is the relationship between history and genealogy?  I think Modern’s take on conventional history can be understood in what I could roughly call deconstructive and constructive modes.  In its deconstructive mode, Modern draws our attention to a pervasive slippage within historiographies of Evangelicalism and romantic liberalism.  In a nutshell, both bodies of historical literature tend to take Common sense Realism and individual voluntarism at face value.  That is, there is a slippage from recognizing that people have an investment in making a claim to be working within a common sense realist epistemology to asserting this is actually the way they actually relate to the world.  Ditto on the claims that autonomous individual agents in fact drove a free market of religion.  Thus, historians have fashioned narratives in such a way that, if not necessarily explicitly believing in evangelicalism, believe in the common sense realism that makes evangelical agency appear to be the natural vehicle for democratization.   In his deconstructive mode, Modern challenges historians to reflect upon their own reproduction of secular categories of intelligibility and transparency.[10]

I see the constructive dimensions of Modern’s genealogy in his attempts to chart how the interlocking concepts of spiritual, scientific, and secular came together to shape antebellum American life.  On this point, Modern does something not necessarily attempted in other postcolonial genealogies that focus on deconstructing the cultural assumptions within the category of the secular.  In some ways, developing a constructive narrative that synthesizes so many different strains of antebellum thought might be Modern’s most original move (as well as the move most subject to critique).  Furthermore, it is the kind of imaginative reconstruction that is only possible with a genealogical method that is willing to read sources against the grain of, say, authorial intention.

 But it also brings up the question of what kinds of historical evidence Modern is justified in using to do this.  That is, the historians who have been the subject of Modern’s deconstructive critiques might justifiably protest that his critiques are based on eccentric selections of material that are driven by little more than the wacky interpretive genius of Modern himself.  This is especially true if what counts as historical evidence is anything written down during this historical period that he can use to support his own thesis.  Modern’s potential critics, then, find themselves in a bind in his Foucauldian world.  If they want to cite evidence for a differing narrative, they have to have a naïve commitment to something like evidence.  The historian becomes the phrenologist postulating theorems and formulating equations that find themselves even more stuck in the self-referential epistemic glue of Modern’s secular modern.

Modern launches a kind of preemptive strike against this critique through the voluminous footnotes that point to extensive archival work.  I don’t think anyone would doubt that Modern knows his stuff, but it still leaves open the question of how to evaluate evidence.  That is, one of the challenges in telling a historical story or developing a sociological analysis is that one often has to deal with people who do not necessarily act in a way one’s own thesis might predict.  If genealogies are necessarily selective, what are the limits of these selections?  What counts as a successful and persuasive genealogy as opposed to one that is so selective it no longer represents a meaningful attempt to grapple with historical forces?  Is there anything that cannot be included (or just as importantly, excluded) in Modern’s spiritual boutique? 

One could, of course, say that that’s the way it is.  Following Hayden White, we could point out that all histories are selective emplotments and it is all selective interpretation all the way down.[11]  Maybe in answer to this, then, we could say that the question should not be framed negatively (ie., what does genealogy lack over and against history) as much as to ask the constructive question of what is successful scholarship in this genealogical mode.  That is, what does one drop when one drops science?[12]

[1] John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 119.
[2] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, trans. Colin Gordon, et. al., ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).
[3] Modern, Secularism, 311
[4] Rodney Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60/3 (1999): 249 – 273.
[5] José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
[6] Modern, 124.
[7] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, tr. Edmund Jephcott, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007 [1944]); Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).
[8] Modern, 131.
[9] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978, ed. Michel Senellart, tr. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007); Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, (New York: Vintage, 1994); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995).
[10] For a more explicit development of this point, see John Lardas Modern, “My Evangelical Conviction,” Religion 42/3 (2012): 439-457.
[11] Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
[12] Among other things, I intend this question as a play on the complex semantics of “drop” and “dropping.”


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