Modern Summer of Love: On Secularism in Antebellum America, Part IV of VI

Editor's Note: Continuing on with our series on Secularism in Antebellum America, today's contribution comes from Kathryn Lofton, newly tenured Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History, and Divinity at Yale University. Previously we featured responses by Chip CallahanFinbarr Curtis, Chad Seales, and an introduction by Amy Koehlinger.  

Kathryn Lofton

for a Panel at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion:

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

phrenology calipers and bust, circa 1825 []
There is a transaction that occurs in nearly every teen movie or cinematic mob solicitation.  Our heroine, usually somewhat on the margins of social acceptability, receives a Siren call to join the outsider fun.  Maybe it’s playing hooky, or getting into a tricked-out Oldsmobile, or maybe it’s participation in an international criminal conspiracy. Whatever the situation, the soliciting inquiry is the same: Are you in or are you out?
This question defines anyone’s inaugural encounter with the work of John Lardas Modern.  I first met John through this chapter when it was published in a preliminary form in a 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion as “Ghosts of Sing Sing, or the Metaphysics of Secularism.” That journal article begins:

Secularism is more than an ideology. It is a moral force, a connective tissue, a widely shared and massively intricate set of political and epistemological assumptions. And like anything in excess of ideology, secularism defies logic, particularly its own (Durkheim 1995). In antebellum America, for example, secularism structured the institutions of commerce, consumerism, and journalistic objectivity even as it affected the ways of church governance and the means of missionary outreach. (Modern 2007: 615)

This passage includes two hallmarks of Modern’s work. The first is the positioning of the secular within the religious, as Modern does when suggests secularism structured church governance and missionary work.  In a recent essay, Modern reiterates that “secularism [is] my shorthand for the discursive phenomena that go into making up the conceptual terrain of religion (and its antitheses).” (Modern 2012: 447) The latter may seem to be old hat in U.S. religious history, but it’s only recently accomplished, and Modern has been a central contributor to its argument, forcing scholars of religion in America to acknowledge the ways secular logics influenced the development and dissemination of American religions. You’re either in or you’re out: you either see that the secular constructs the religious, or you don’t.

The second Lardas Modern component—subtle here but preponderant throughout Secularism in Antebellum America, is the upending of common language games to disorient analytical presumptions.  Here I point you to the phrase that begins the third sentence of the above opener, when Modern writes, “And like anything in excess of ideology…” Modern’s writing is filled with these kinds of phrases, phrases which you might correct as a usage error (how can something be in excess of ideology?) in an undergraduate essay.  But if you made such a choice with Modern, you would be left behind as the Oldsmobile car squealed off.  You’re either in or you’re out: you either understand that nouns are newly definable, or you don’t.

To read the work of John Modern in this particular historical moment in scholarship is to find yourself maddened, annoyed, engaged, and willfully ignored. He is writing to your experiences, but he doesn’t seem to be thinking much about you as he does so.  Consider, for example, the questions that Modern suggests orient his chapter:

To what degree was spiritualism an extension of the “systematic benevolence” of evangelicals in pursuit of a divinely sanctioned republicanism? What was the relationship between the self-conscious sacralization of the State and the state of everyday life? What do practices that ascribed spectral presence to other bodies—organic and social—have to do with the rhythms of the secular age?

Each of these questions requires agreement with its components before coming to the inquiry itself. One must agree, for example, that evangelicals pursued divinely sanctioned republicanism before one can agree that Spiritualism is an extension of that project; one must agree that the State was self-consciously sacralized before thinking about a relationship between it and everyday life; one must agree that certain practices ascribed spectral presence to other bodies, that bodies are organic and social, that the secular age has rhythms, before one can tackle the final inquiry.  To be clear: I can agree with most of the assumptions in these components.  I agree because of things Modern demonstrated in earlier chapters, and I agree because I tend to like the poetry Modern presses into nouns.  But this is not something Modern can assume about his readers. There is something, therefore, willfully not pedagogical about Modern’s prose.

This is not a criticism as much as a description.  Ezra Pound didn’t exactly take your hand through his Cantos; instead he suggested (in the absence of such hand-holding) that its difficulty was in part the relationship the reader ought to have to the text.  And there is ample evidence in Secularism in Antebellum America that Modern wants you to work harder to achieve better thinking.  He implicitly encourages you, like Neo in The Matrix, to wake up. To read with an expansive spirit. To consider every seam worthy of un-stitching. To be present, finally, to the making of this history. 

What would be the result of such awakening? To know “the political unconscious of the academic study of American religion.” (Modern 2012: 445) Modern sees all stories of American religion plotted around a certain stock self that is formatted in service to a stock narrative of revelation amid a stock civilizing reformation. “Too often scholarship in American religion is couched as an evidentiary refutation of secularization theorized as independent rationality doing battle with the collective hallucination of religion, the consignment of primitive survivals to the dustbin of history, and the securitization of the biological subject and body politic,” Modern has written, with reference to the works of Gil Anidjar. (442) Modern perceives “a particular kind of human” that is “at the center of any narrative about religion, a secular subject who must take a stand vis-à-vis religion, who chooses, with the capacity of free will, to believe in their belief, unbelief, or even their indifference. (444) Modern begins his work in American religion with a worry about the work that has come before—about how its heroes have been cast, and in what political positions they have been automatically situated.

One could therefore call Modern an expert in the deceptions of narrative control.  What he does, over and over, is show us the story beneath the surface of presumptions that has predominated the history of American religions (really, American Christianity, but his point holds as an imperial one): presumptive kinds of humans, presumptive kinds of governance, presumptive secularization. In this chapter, for example, Modern examines what he calls the “interplay of evangelicalism, occultism and ideologies of the state in antebellum America.” (278) How does Modern observe the interplay of these abstractions—how do we see the interplay of concepts, movements, and ideologies? Modern will not offer a systematic reply to that or any question; he is resistant to ordered argument in part because he is a student of systems, in part because doing so might cramp the narrative pulse of his allurements. So he is observing the way certain surfaces sustain themselves (like state authority) through the private experiences of their perpetuators. But is he also arguing that there is a corollary between certain state regimes and certain spiritual ideas? I would say yes, though nowhere in the text is this directly argued. Indeed time and again direct argument is eschewed in favor of inference.

Thus the story of this chapter is one into which you either throw yourself into nods at its inferences or from which you will remain lamely alienated. If you throw yourself in, you’ll quickly find yourself in two narratives, argued to be intertwined by Modern.  First, there is a story of a man feeling a thigh-pulse of something; second, there is a story of a woman bent on improving the antebellum penal system. The payoff is seeing the connection between these two stories—between the story of a spiritual electrification and the story of a surveillance reformation—seeing how Spiritualist feelings connect to plots for penal uplift.

In Secularism in Antebellum America, everyone is a reformer not wholly in control of their reformations, and everyone is a conjunction, spilling over with identities and interests.  Everyone is in excess of themselves—the treasurer of the American Bible Society forms the Boston Prison Discipline Society (Reverend Louis Dwight), and the matron of a woman’s prison is a phrenologist with literary ambitions (Eliza Farnham). All of these multi-hyphenate figures are simultaneously administrators of state power and administrators of spiritual power. This simultaneity in his human subjects allows for Modern to identify a connection—a relationship between spiritual and political “intercourse”—in the sheer fact of his casting. (240)

Modern’s selected subjects believe that this relationship is a modernizing one, that
“spiritualism…was nothing less than a vehicle for modernizing the psyche and reforming the body politic.” (240) If the United States was to “assume the economic and industrial lead” in the global world, then individual citizens must submit to a new authority. (242) The “freedom to submit” defined the difference between the Old World and the New: here you could decide what authority would be yours. And Spiritualism encouraged that the final authority, the final subject, would be you. Here Modern portrays the reflexivity that prisons encouraged:

Rather than leave the criminal in total physical isolation, reformers attempted to create the conditions in which the criminal felt himself to be alone with his God within a group setting. During the day each workshop was surrounded by a hidden gallery from which guards closely monitored the actions of each prisoner. The goal was to maintain constant and anonymous surveillance of the criminal in order to allow him to become more aware of what exactly was being surveyed, that is, his sinful body.” (257)

The job of the prison was to make prisoners look at themselves as subjects, for the prisoners to understand themselves as prisoners, for the prisoners to know that their entrapment was their opportunity to analyze how they acted, felt, believed, and behaved. This is not an irreligious analysis, Modern argues, since its arc was distinctly evangelical and its hermeneutic distinctly spiritual.  Whether in the penitentiary or the séance parlor, the “liberal concept of spirituality” guided the explorations in which the individual was to peruse the self:

Within the penitentiary, the explicit management of opinion was a matter of gaining knowledge of the prisoner’s conscience in order to direct it (opinion here signifying the vitality of collective rationality within a closed context). Outside the penitentiary, too, the cultivation of the categories through which individuals thought about themselves thinking about the world was a looming process. For in both cases there is a coming together, enacted by no one in particular yet felt at once by everyone. (254)

This last sentence is a perfect example of the ways Modern is analytically elusive. How can something be enacted by nobody but felt by everybody? It sounds to be a poetic truth—nobody is to blame for our pervasive discomfort at x or y—yet it is hard to track as an academic observation. How is the inside of the penitentiary like the outside, again? In both, Modern suggests that ascendant modes of self-scrutiny were both liberating and entrapping. In the penitentiary, Eliza Farnham, under the encouragement of John W. Edmonds, deployed phrenology, “the science of reforming the body by knowing the behavioral categories of the mind.” (244) Outside the penitentiary, Spiritualists like Edmonds accessed deeper recesses of their mind through erotic experiences that they interpreted as penetrating inquiry. “Edmonds could not ignore what he felt to be a passionate desire to communicate with him, to apply its knowledge in the consummation of his character, and to incorporate him into its system.” (241) If you think Edmonds sounds cool and free, then Modern wants you to see this thigh-pulse as something more invasive, mechanical, diagnosing; if you think Farnham sounds like a bureaucratizing liberal, she wants you to see his phrenological ventures as also exploratory, expansive, and inciting of creativity among the otherwise marginalized inmates.

Modern is drawn to penetrative image and draws strong conclusion from its appearance in personal talk and mechanical description. Exacting thought and pressing touches, confined bodies and investigative ruminations—Modern gathers these into an evidence pool for “how secularism made its way under the skin.” (252)

Inmates supposedly learned how to “to exact a nurturing force upon themselves,” but this learning is never documented by Modern through prisoners’ accounts or even a detailed penal curriculum that might indicate how this force of self-analysis came to be. (268) To be sure, Modern makes clear that Farnham’s phrenological applications couldn’t have been that successful, since she resigned in 1848 and her reform programs were rescinded, so it’s possible to imagine that this chapter could be successful without any social history to endorse its reformers’ aspirations.  It is a chapter on talk of penetration more than the penetrated.

This is, in the world of Modern, a minor quibble. Why worry about effects when all this phrenological dreaming and evangelical diagnosis is in the offing? Modern believes he has found a key link between our contemporary habit of personalizing the sinner while also caging the prisoner in privatized bureaucratic hellholes. “The disciplinary model that [Farnham] put into practice would continue to resonate, both politically and personally,” says Modern. (270) These resonances, Modern argues, are the messy alliance and overlap between the metaphysics of spirituality and those of evangelicalism. Farnham here becomes an icon of American religious history, someone who jettisoned those “dry evangelical books” (262) and instead developed her own “eclectic array” of moral observations (262) that she systematically applied to others while retaining principles of evangelical reform.

Farnham was an evangelical at heart, and a Spiritualist in body, missionizing and systematizing with vigor while claiming expansiveness of interest, taste, and attention. And this, Modern suggests, is nothing more or less than the systematic now we inhabit in which we feel endless option (this app, that app) yet actually occupy a monopoly of federal and corporate matrices.

To conclude, then, the analysis of this chapter, I would ask John to explore with us two simple questions.  First, what is the consequence of focusing on the source material provided by Farnham and Edmonds? How much does he believe we can know through the readings of the incarcerator? Second, if we know the relationship between Spiritualism and evangelicalism that he seeks to demonstrate, what do we know? My assumption is that his answers will be restatements from his consciously-crafted text; yet I welcome them since I think they are worth more elaborate authorial argument.

Discovering John Modern was like listening to Radiohead for the first time.  I wasn’t entirely sure I nodded with everything he said, but I knew for sure I thought it was pretty badass how he said it.  Nobody in American religious history even approximates his vivacity, his creativity, or his pugnacious certainty that what you suppose deserves rethinking.  So, I want into that Oldsmobile.  Not because it promises any kind of easy awesome  (because let’s be frank: there is more risk in getting in than staying out), but because it feels like life.  And I think that deserves several rounds of applause.


E. Ingersoll at: June 17, 2013 at 7:25 AM said...

This is a lovely review and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I admit that I have preferred to read Perry Miller and Carl Becker over so much of what is currently on offer in American Religious History. There is a broad curiosity and even vulnerability to Dr. Modern's work. I think he really gets that the spirit of Foucault is not a pseudo scholasticism--about terms like biopower, biopolitics-- it is a rejection of polemics, a rejection of scoring easy points, of dick waving, or in assuming that you can actually stand outside of the forces that you criticise. To accept that last point is to accept that we, in the words of Paul, see in a mirror darkly, and you can't write about reality in the simple declaratives of CSR

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