Modern Summer of Love: On Secularism in Antebellum America -- the Finale

Editor's Note: Today concludes our week-long series on John Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America, including responses from five scholars given at last year's American Academy of Religion, and today with John's consideration of those responses. Thanks to all the participants! 

 Confessions of a genealogist
John Lardas Modern
11.19.12 [delivered]
American Academy of Religion * Chicago, IL

 Thank you for the avalanche of assessment, this heap of hard-nosed questioning. Chad, Finbarr, Katie, Chip, and Paul—I am lucky to have such attentive and capacious readers. There is no higher honor than having your book read and read well and read with such a generous spirit of critical engagement.  It is more, much more, than I could have ever hoped for.

Apologies from the get go—It is impossible to do justice to the whole of each of these critiques but I will try to address as many points and questions as I can—some directly, some indirectly. Given how many of the questions are questions of style, I thought it would be good to frame my response around the genre of storytelling known as genealogy. So here it goes.

Moby Dick, the Carnival Ride
The predicament of modernity as wholly immanent is an issue that has been explored by a variety of thinkers. One of the more outrageous and lovely takes can be found in Guy Debord’s 1967 manifesto Society of the Spectacle. Debord understood the spectacle in pejorative terms as arising from, but not identical to, the “deliberate distortion of the visual world” and “by the mass dissemination of images.” More specifically, the spectacle was “a social relationship between people that was mediated by images” that emerged in the 1920s with the confluence of the sound film, television, and the perfection of Fascist propaganda. According to Debord, the interpersonal within the “society of the spectacle,” was replaced with abstraction; one’s senses were overwhelmed and prohibited from critically appraising his or her social environment. The perception of diversity and contrast was simply the manifestation of false consciousness, an illusion of otherness and plurality that was only “an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise.”

Although offering insights into the ways images function within culture, Debord’s case, given its manifesto quality, is, by necessity, overstated, particularly his assumption that clear, wholly rational evaluations of self and society took place in the time before the mass production of images. Indeed, in his distinction between surface and depth, reality and representation, Debord’s reasoning is a product of the problem he identifies. He is trapped within a “[worldview] that has been actualized, translated into the material realm—a world view transformed into an objective force.” In the end, Debord can’t help but believe in the spectacle and succumbs to the totality of the modernity he is diagnosing. He is nostalgic in an Ahab kind of way.

Secularism in Antebellum America, flirts with the outrageous and totalizing perspective that a worldview circa 1851 became an objective force. During this affair I entertained its will to encompass, which I argue is analytically appropriate and necessary for a story that seeks to portray the allure of systematicity and the glamorama of fitting snuggly into a network that surpasses your ability to understand or comprehend it. This was the problem I was grappling with, what Talal Asad calls the “homogenizing thrust of modernity.” I was trying to understand this thrust, to figure it out, to fit it into a narrative tradition of American religious history (and Religious Studies more broadly). In the process of writing this book I came to understand how seamlessly a worldview could, in fact, become, in an impressive range of examples, an objective force. As I wrote and rewrote, I recognized my enchantment, as if for the first time.

So I must admit, here at the beginning, that I am much taken with the conceits of secularism. Like many of us here this morning, I, too, feel god without believing in him. But out of a sense of decorum and discretion, let us just say that I enjoyed my dalliance with the overwhelming force of secularism, because I decided, early on, that I could not do otherwise.

This is my confession, the confession of a genealogist.

I would like to offer four points that make up my genealogical creed in hopes of addressing some of the questions and cautions offered by my colleagues.

1. Genealogy seeks to provide a history of the present.
For the genealogist believes there can be no other kind of history. There can be stories of the past, to be sure. Important stories with footnotes. Documentation. Narrative unfolding. Rigorous attention to detail. To paraphrase one my mentors, Peter Williams, “one god damned fact after another.” And mine is one of those stories. But is also, simultaneously, a story that seeks to appreciate the conditions of its telling and to build into its documentation a process of reflection.

I began writing my dissertation on a reception history of Moby-Dick (which, for the most part, remains unpublished and unpublishable) in the summer of 2001—ensconced in a blue LA-Z-BOY in a teeny-tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. Before the terror, before the kids, before the real lives that awaited us, my partner Libby and I had set up a tri-pod with a video camera in our living room. We aimed it at the TV from about five feet back and turned it on periodically to capture, what, I’m not sure, but something to do with the spirit of our time.

Perhaps we thought we could escape, or get off the boat, or reach a kind clarity denied to us by our more immediate world. Perhaps it was our desire for immunity from that spirit. Whatever the reason, in early September of that year, I decided it was imperative to read Moby-Dick just one more time, to become just a little more expert in a text that, I must admit, still has the power to perplex me. So I began, again, to read—etymology, extracts, and loomings and Queequeg and the sermon scenes and the words and words that seek to turn an overwhelming situation into a living proposition. Here, again, was Melville’s writerly world that was at once a reflection of the abyss before him but also one that came with buttons and gizmos and a costume box and stories of moral degradation and little Polaroids that captured the beauty of the blur.
still from The Sea Beast (1926), Moby-Dick adapted to the screen by Bess Meredyth
On the morning of September 11th Libby and I awoke to our NPR alarm with news of the twin towers burning. We got up and turned on the TV and, instinctively, turned on the video camera aimed at the TV.  With our TV on and our video camera on we watched in stunned silence and I, frankly, began to freak out a little bit for all the obvious reasons. It was just too much. I looked for ways to shield myself, to protect and secure. Instead of watching the news that evening we watched the video from that morning and held each other tight. And I confess to you that upon that night of unbelievable suffering, I shamefully took comfort in the moment in “Loomings” in which Ishmael is confronted by a handbill whose signs encompass him, that capture his past, present, and future, simultaneously. In this moment, Providence was no longer a transcendent affair. It was no longer about the promise of a world elsewhere but, on the contrary, about the mutual imbrication of all possible worlds. As the handbill read:

            ‘Grand Contested election for the Presidency of the United States.

Afterwards, like most of us here, I was depressed, disturbed in a way which had no referent. And it continued as I remained horrified by the unfolding and seemingly ceaseless war on terror. And, like many scholars at the time, I was struck by the deployment of religion by the United States, its government, its punditry, and even some its academics in the service of consolidating American power and much else besides. This deployment of religion, moreover, was, in part, the legacy of empire, common sensical, evangelical, neo-liberal, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, spectacular, laborious, secular, consumerist, scientific, etc. It was encompassing, or at least seemed to me at the time. I felt extremely ill-at-ease and still do. And it was the massiveness of this normalizing project that did not make much sense to me in the terms that I had then adopted or in the stories I was then telling about American religious history.

So when Paul asks me why 1851, it is a conceit but also something I want to defend analytically as having to do with the chance encounters of life as it is lived by the genealogist. Those encounters shaped my choices, my interest and analytical desire. I would also want to insist that the story that I told is very 1851 and very, very Moby-Dick. (and by the way, Paul, you MUST write a book on 1871—one that would be differently tragic, differently inflected, global in a way my story is not attune). It is not just that I really love Melville’s book. Nor do I really believe that modernity began with its publication. But more importantly, and I want to state this unequivocally, I believe that Moby-Dick is a work of revelation, of prophecy, a work whose mad genius stems from the way it addresses the slipping away of sturdy, dependable sense that could be collectively made of the world, the way in which it dramatizes the incomprehensibility of the everyday not as an existential problem but as an opportunity to tell stories that are at once empirical and metaphysical.

So when Melville writes that Moby-Dick was the “gospels of the nineteenth century” and attributes its writing to the fact that “infinite socialities are within me,” I see him offering an oblique theory of secularization—marking a difference not so much with religion, per se, but a difference that pertains to both the feel of everyday life and the intensification of media circulation. 

2. As a genealogist I approached secularism as a diverse network of forces rather than as an essence.

Secularism is the name I chose to designate this formation, this complex, this limit situation, this phantasm beyond which no other term like nationalism or capitalism lies in waiting to be revealed. This was an American God circa 1851, produced, in part, by evangelical media practices, but only in part. It was, and remains, an incomprehensible structure that enabled many to ignore their attachment to it and convince themselves that they, themselves, were utterly comprehensible. I argue that secularism conditioned the possibility for two seemingly opposed deployments of the religious—1) religion as set apart from the secular world in the deep recesses of the interior as in the making of spirituality 2) religion as continuous with the secular as in the case with evangelical secularism. The evidence I gather from the antebellum archive to demonstrate the mechanics of this making do not point to the presence of secularism. They are part of its reality. In that sense I use the term secularism not as a “solving name” but rather as an invitation to think about the emergence of a series of interlinked ideas, people, moods, machines, styles of reasoning, commodities, institutions, practices, techniques, a vast network whose nodes are connected by the common vector of systematic treatment—of the religious, to be sure but also a systematic treatment enacted by humans, on humans, and in the name of the human (so yes, Finbarr, you do understand me correctly on this point of Common Sense sway).

So to Paul’s question about my disciplinary imperialism, secularism is that which I cannot name, that which encompasses with its hue of indeterminacy. Secularism is the white whale of my story. It is unfathomable in its relationality—in my book, of course, but also, I insist outside. It does not connect everything to everything, but it is, as Finbarr notes, an epistemic glue whose stickiness brings together what are often seen as oppositional—liberal and conservative Protestantism, capitalism, nationalism, romanticism, psychology and social science.

To say as much also begins to grapple with Katie’s historical question about the payoff of seeing the interplay of evangelicalism, occultism and ideologies of the state under the banner of secularism. For in offering secularism as both analytic horizon and an emergent horizon of power I seek to highlight the intensification of media, the increasing virtuality of Leviathan, and the way in which the study of religion might offer resources for understanding this “profusion of entangled events.” Indeed, occult, liberal and evangelical Protestantisms shared much more in common that has often been appreciated, including the impulse to define true religion into private epistemic affair that would, in turn, emancipate the public from itself. This, perhaps, is my version of what Charles Taylor calls the nova effect. A perfect storm in which a diversity of opinions battled even as they assumed the very same metaphysical scheme.

I am biased, of course, but I see the religious history I provide to be fundamental for understanding the intensification of mediation at mid-century, a mediation that was accompanied by a decreased willingness to account for it. The co-constitution of the religious and the secular is at the heart of imperial power, the conceits of the free market, power of science, the affect of nationalism, all that knowing and unknowing across the din of denominational squabble. For me the conceptual constellation of religion, generated as it is against a backdrop of that which is incomprehensible in our world in and in ourselves, provides fodder for a story about antebellum America that is more dynamic than, say, one with economics at its center or a rational agent or neural circuitry.

Chip’s concern that I may overdetermine Protestantism in my story of secularism is legitimate. Indeed, my book dwells within the processes of overdetermination and seeks to discern the mechanics of the cursed ship we are on—its floorboards and tilt, its captain and its crew, the way psyches are intertwined and how those entanglements are bound up with the winds and the gales and the weather above.

This non-specific Protestantism, to use Tracy Fessenden’s phrase, was marked not simply by normalization but also by what Foucault calls the “normalization of the power of normalization.”

So mine is a story of exclusionary processes that takes hold abstractly, within the recesses of consciousness. This taking hold does not happen apart from its effects or what this consciousness is attempting to immunize itself from. The individual and collective lives that I chronicle are marked by their exclusionary practices, haunted I claim by a violence often performed at a distance but re-enacted upon themselves in various strategies to define, once and for all, their own humanity, which, if we read our Melville, is perhaps the consummate act of dehumanization. The intensity of these lives, then, their moods and maneuvers, the processes of closure that are being acted upon themselves, are not unrelated to their will to spiritualize Native Americans, Catholic immigrants, African Americans, those unimaginable Chinese in China, and, of course, the dead.

3. As a genealogist I insist upon the nature of enchantment.
The self is always, already haunted and impure. To acknowledge enchantment, from the beginning, is to expand what counts as agentive and to appreciate the dense measures of human experience.

My insistence upon enchantment calls into question Charles Taylor’s notion of a buffered self—so whereas your garden variety tract society official or Lewis Henry Morgan or Eliza Farnham may have convinced themselves of their own buffered state, it was precisely such conviction that I sought to historicize, prise open, and to ironize.

Disenchantment has been one of the key terms in and through which secularity has been theorized and described; linked, of course, to Weber’s classic statement about the diffusion of instrumental rationality. Rationalization, for Weber, becomes intensified within modernity, subjecting the world at-large and especially human being to calculation to such a degree that the world and the human become means to the ends of systematicity. What is most interesting about Weber’s claim is how it opens up an analysis of the desires that made such means possible and the conditions that made such ends desirable.

Jeremy Bentham’s preserved corpse and wax head,
on display at University College, London
Is it any surprise, for example, that Jeremy Bentham, who figured into my story as a prison architect but also as exemplar of American spirituality, was dreadfully anxious about ghosts, those specters that could not be contained and reformed? Bentham, like many antebellum Americans, doubled down on their anxiety. The sheer amount of overlap between spiritualists and prison reformers in antebellum America, I argue, was not a coincidence. For spiritualism tamed in the face of the untameable, domesticated amidst the acknowledgement of the unruly, and made sense of a world that was increasingly being revealed to make no sense at all. To say as much might speak to the appeal of spiritualism on a global stage, the way it allowed individuals subject to the storms of modernity to negotiate technological innovation and its claims of universality. The Brazil case would offer a different mechanics of negotiation, a different kind of haunting, and perhaps, a different mode of domestication. I am interested in how one could or would make the case for spiritism as a site where the secular was happening and a secular imaginary was being shaped and made.

From the default position of enchantment, the captors’ “talk” of penetration is itself a form of penetration, their deployments outward ever coming home to roost. So my argument is that the framing of prisoners’ lives and the incentives offered to them had an effect—not so much on them—but on those doing the framing and upon the norms of a secular age.

As you suggest Katie, a buried question in my chapter on Sing Sing is—what is the process by which inmates learn to desire the discipline, to welcome it as nice, nurturing, and comfortable? On that question I have only anecdotes and speculations about the secularism's therapeutic promise to overcome despair with flourishing. There is the prisoner who shrieked for two days after seeing a ghost of her mother before being calmed by Farnham. And then there is the inmate Phoebe Squires, convicted for manslaughter, alone in a room with Farnham’s supervisors: “We received instruction . . . Several have been taught to read. We had slates and arithmetic tables; and Mrs. Farnham has lectured to us; and she has attempted to make us comfortable . . .” There is Lucy Price, attesting to the changes Farnham instituted--"She treats them all with kindness, and makes them see that she is interested in their welfare, not only whilst in prison, but after they leave the prison. The result is, that most of the convicts look upon her as their friend, and her wishes are law with them.” And, finally, there is Eliza Hunt, "We now have books, which we read and have opportunities allowed us of talking together, in relation to what we have read.” Perhaps Sing Sing is part of a pre-history of the Oprah bookclub?

4. The genealogist is a storyteller and not a scientist.
So I drop science, as Finbarr suggests, like Galileo dropped his orange, by which I do not mean I drop a commitment to the empirical world or the space of contested readings. The archive matters. Transparency matters when you select and exhibit pieces of the archive. And you must read the archive in a way that does justice to its unfathomablity by inviting counter readings of that same material.

I confess, I was selective in the archive but who amongst us is not selective? Who amongst us stands above the fray of history, or for that matter, above the fray of their own consciousness? My goal is not merely to report the facts, to provide the definitive account, to claim some kind archival intuition, to review the history of 1851 or even to construct air-tight arguments about secularism. I am not the captain.
I sought, instead, to write across a secular imaginary, turning its words, its expectations and templates against themselves.

So, to Chad; I think Durkheim was right. He was right about the co-constitution of the individual and the social and the social formation of the categories that we come to breathe in and live by. Indeed, my writing is driven by a simple Durkheimian lament—that possibilities for thinking about the “obscure yet intimate relations” between subjectivity and the social have become increasingly difficult in this long nineteenth century of the self.

Also, if I were a betting man or on some kind of quiz show I would say that there is a hint of irony in Weber and Tocqueville. For they were projecting irony onto others, which is a rather easy thing to do. And I would want to give those evangelicals I am talking about the benefit of the doubt—that they meant what they said for the most part. Just as it is pretty easy to be ironic in one’s speech or dress, for example. It is quite another thing to understand oneself ironically.

So to claim that the evangelical situation I chronicle was ironic is to claim that evangelicals were integral in helping to build a world that outpaced and would actively work against their capacity for understanding. They, indeed, conjured a God that would give the lie to their epistemological claims of immediacy and transparency. But I invite them to join the club. For I am pretty sure that the world I live in outpaces and actively works against my understanding. This is my sincere belief, despite the fact that I have become damn good at pretending that I do, in fact, know what is going on—in the past, on the news, in front of my students, with my colleagues, in front of you talking about a book whose own performance of systematicity is meant to caution us against the exaggerated premise of any systematic assessment.

Within the study of American religions, much lip but little service has been given to Niebuhr’s insight that the “recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.” Now this is what I am talking about, this kind of self-consciousness about the inevitable sway of history, how sociality has not simply made its way in, influencing this category or that analytical move. IT WAS ALREADY THERE BEFORE YOU BEGAN.

alternate cover art for Devo’s Duty Now for the Future
(Warner Bros., 1979)
So, at the end of the day, “when the sun goes down,” my sense of irony is, tragic, Kerouacian—“and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.” In other words, my ironic mode is one that calls attention to the paucity of our language to encompass the really real of the past. I seek to catalyze doubt in my reader, doubt not simply in the authority of my characterization but the limits of historical characterization in general. This is my hope and the possibility I seek to present—the stakes involved in narration—for I am pointing out not the real meaning of what really happened but rather a story of who we are and who we could be.

As Reinhold Niebuhr asked, “is the discernment of an ironic element in the history of the American nation or of modern culture merely the fruit of a capricious imagination? Is the pattern of irony superimposed upon the historical data which are so various that they would be tolerant of almost any pattern, which the observer might care to impose?” Tough questions for the sole scholar in the archive in which every tattered document, every missive, speaks with the potential to speak directly to you. And so I am partial to Niebuhr’s advice “in answering such questions” that “one must admit the subjective element in historical judgments, but also insist upon the distinction between purely arbitrary judgments and those which throw real light upon the variegated events of history.”

I am utterly open to other readings of the past. I expect my work to be written against, across, and over as opposed to being simply extended. I say this not because my readings of the antebellum archive are arbitrary or do violence to the facts. On the contrary, I say this because my reading of things will, I hope, become part of the archive, part of the narrative blur whose remainder is a solitary demand. And the demand is this: that the blur be acknowledged from the beginning. 


I recognize that copy of Moby Dick.

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