Welcome to the History-Machines! On Secularism in Antebellum America, Part V of VI. Paul Johnson Responds

Editor's Note: Today is the last of our five responses to John Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America; tomorrow Modern will conclude the series with his own reflections on these responses.  Previously we featured responses by Kathryn LoftonChip CallahanFinbarr CurtisChad Seales, and an introduction by Amy Koehlinger.   Turn your radio on. 

Paul Johnson, University of Michigan
On Secularism in Antebellum America

History-Machines! Featuring the Pequod, the Nautilus, the Secularism Book, the Harrow, Mr. Spear’s Penetrator, and Other Astonishing Inventions

To gauge what this machine can do, I will try to engage its gears in various comparative tasks. I begin by lining it up alongside the same author’s earlier work of a decade prior. Modern’s first book, The Bop Apocalypse (2001), relied heavily on Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West as its prism, showing the Beat writers uses of, and responses to Spengler. Through Spengler’s text, Modern bent the Beats and the ‘50s back toward 1918, and the sentiment melancholy that followed the Great War.  That melancholy still lingered in the lives of the Beats. Their lifestyles and writing reflected a metaphysical quest created under the cloud of a different global threat, that of nuclear apocalypse and the Cold War, but one that echoed an earlier existential grip of radical contingency, namely the idea that you might cease to be, and at any time. 

Out of, and in part against that melancholy, the Beats forged an alternative vision to mainstream 1950s religion.  In place of a “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” version of 1950s American religiosity, the Beats’ practices were shambling and diverse, including at least Burrough’s Scientology, Kerouac’s Buddhism, and Ginsberg’s psychedelia—all of them “exceeding religion” in order to enact their “drama of ultimate consequences” (Modern 2001: 6). They sought and found that drama in the mundane world of life on the streets, on the back roads and in the freight yards, their eyes always scanning for new and unconventional sites and techniques of religious power.

Eventful 1851

That work foreshadowed the important present book, Secularism in Antebellum America (2011), which focuses on 1851 instead of 1950. Yet the two work together, and via a similar structure of pivoting off a key text—Decline, in one case, Moby Dick, in the other—to explore a historical juncture when “religion” was exceeded.
The volumes each describe moments of optimistic efflorescence with a certain desperation behind the clamor. Taken together, the two volumes bookend the early 20th-century’s whiff of declension and dystopia. Too, both books are haunted by our own time, by the early 21st-century’s chaos of mediations, a period when zombie films, zombie banks, zombie computers, ideas and bodies, index a world in which everything seems to commanded by powerful unseen masters, and in which humans appear as nodes of mediated transmissions arriving from elsewhere, who knows where. Modern’s genre, then, is tragedy, and it is against this contemporary mis-en-scène of renewed Spenglerian tragedy that terms like the “spiritual” and “networks” and the machined orders of the mid-19th century are conjured.

movie poster, 20,000 Leagues Under  the Sea (Disney, 1954)
Modern asks us to consider how “history” appears not as a sequence in time, but as a sea of ghost-stories, things, persons, systems, governments, songs and machines, out of which a given “moment” suddenly emerges on the surface, becomes immanent, and possesses us. “History” derives from the rare moments when we are able to see and recognize the air and water we were taking in all along. (Benjamin murmurs faintly through Modern here.) A few islands in the sea are clustered together and named “religions,” while many others aren’t.  Becoming “religious” is relatively arbitrary, one ghost-story among others, and in Modern’s work there are several ghost-stories in play. Indeed, Modern describes the co-emergence and co-constitution of multiple terms, like “true religion,” “the spiritual,” and “secularism,” all in and around 1851.
It is all-too-easy to drown in this story. When reading such a challenging book, one must find a thesis statement to cling to like a raft when the waves get rough. Here is one timber to hang on:  “The story, then, is of how religion ‘exceeded itself’—extending into therapies, media, ideas of self, social sciences, moral reforms.  The religiosity of Protestantism and the secularity of the democratic nation-state came to share an unacknowledged metaphysics. The religious and the secular became compatible” (20).

Grip that timber tightly! Once you enter the marvelous history-machine--and that is what this book is--the domains of “religion,” politics, society, law, economy, culture, senses, media, and production are all joggled.  Just so with various thought- and praxis-systems: Scottish Common Sense, Evangelicalism, Spiritualism, Secularism, and Anthropology; and likewise with things and bodies: the spirit-séance, the telegraph, the prison, the anthropologist, electricity, steam, the whale, and maps and diagrams of everything from brains to oceans.

By the time we get to the last chapter, it doesn’t shock that bodies are being penetrated by machines in order to feel spirited. It even seems inevitable.

In a book like this that is about everything, it is hard to keep one’s bearings. We might begin to get our bearings by asking whether all times are “about everything” in just the same way. Surely there are differences in the connective tissue that are worth notice—the way being “about everything” comes into being, and is a shaped, and tied together. In that spirit, the next comparative question we might pose is a temporal one: Is 1851 an “eventful” year because Modern, the historian, made it one, or because the convergences it presented were unusually consequential? Is the event of 1851 in the interpretation or “in history”? (Is it, in other words, a Marshall Sahlins-style event or a William Sewell sort of event?). 

Modern recounts how 1851 brings us the term “secularism,” Moby Dick, spiritualism, the birth of Anthropology, and the fucking machine.  What if we plug a different year into the history-machine? The year of Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651, gives us the Peace of Westphalia, the early modern system of states, the new question of civil religion, growing suspicions of ‘religious enthusiasm’ and demon-possessions, the death of Descartes, and the birth of Newton (1642). But there is more! It yields too the British conquest of Jamaica (1654), the French takeover of Saint-Domingue (1659), the Portuguese reclaiming of Brazil from the Dutch, the onset of the Atlantic slave trade as an institutional system, the arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam…  It offer even, at least perhaps, the very birth of “the modern” (or at least of one modern) via a global economy linking Africa, Europe and the Americas in a durable web of exchange. And now, imagine that we start to interweave these books, events, processes, persons and institutions: We note that Hobbe’s Leviathan depends on reports of the Americas, and the fact of his being a stockholder in the Virginia colonies, for example; or observe the medical models embedded in Descartes’ theory of humors and ‘animal spirits,’ setting him off on dizzying queries of will, motion, and “the human” that some call the inaugural modern.  Still, when we stack these up, what kind of edifice have we made? Is it a monumental “event,” or merely a very tall heap? If the former, does it reside “in history,” or only in my interpretation (which may or may not act “in history”), or in both?

cover page, French edition
The Nautilus as History-Machine
As a thought-experiment, let’s now plug in a year closer to 1851. How about in and around 1870? Here we could apply Jules Verne’s story, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as a prism through which to read the signs of the moment: Huxley’s new word, “agnosticism”; E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture with its keyword animism and (yet another) “birth of Anthropology”; Darwin’s Descent of Man; and, beyond Europe, the passage of Brazil’s Law of the Free Womb and with it the beginning of the end of slavery in one of the last slave colonies. 

It is not worth juxtaposing Moby Dick and Twenty Thousand Leagues in terms of relative literary merit, for the latter is surely no masterpiece. Yet there is much to recommend their comparison, and in fact Jules Verne invites the cross-reference when he informs the reader in the opening pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues that the mysterious monster sinking American and European ships was referred to in the press as “Moby Dick.”  Like Melville, who he clearly read, Verne was fascinated and often dismayed by 19th century marvels of enchantment and technology, like electricity and telegraphy.

Both Melville and Verne tell their sea-tale via a narrator: Ishmael mediates our knowledge of Ahab’s fight, while in Twenty Thousand leagues, Professor Arronaux reports on the mysterious Captain Nemo.  In Moby Dick, Ahab dies tied to the whale, his crew disappears into the whirlpool, and one man escapes to tell the tale. In Twenty Thousand Leagues, Nemo commits suicide by steering the Nautilus into a whirlpool and three men escape to recount the events.  Both Ahab and Nemo seek refuge on the sea, though the sea also becomes their prison. We don’t know enough about the causes of Ahab’s tortured soul, but we have clues for Nemo. In another of Verne’s texts, The Mysterious Island (1874), Nemo is depicted as having been the Indian Prince Dakkar, son of a Rajah, educated in Europe but dedicated to the fight against the colonial oppressor. Dakkar’s family was killed and his land was taken by Great Britain, a different sort of beast, a colonial behemoth.

Here we should take note, for this is a difference that makes a difference: The Nautilus (and with it Nemo) is the Leviathan, and in that respect distinct from Hobbes’ or Melville’s goliaths. As the story opens, everyone is abuzz about a strange dark being, one able to sink American and European ships at will, and without apparent reason. In this case, the monster is not a vicious and luminous whale, but rather the dusky-hulled Nautilus itself, with the cryptic genius Nemo at the helm. The ship that hunts it, the Abraham Lincoln, is a modern and well-armed steam-ship, but no match for the Nautilus, and easily vanquished.

The narrator Arronaux had embarked in the Abraham Lincoln to hunt the mysterious beast, but then, in a twist of fate, ends up aboard, in its very belly. When Professor Arronaux first meets Nemo, he calls the Captain, “The Unknown,” and he imagines him as semi-divine. “The Unknown” tells Arronaux that all secrets about the sea will be revealed. The Unknown, or Nemo, wields the power of revelation. But more, this demigod battles brute nature, be it in the form of ice or the fearsome Kraken. Nature is not the monstrous, though, rather it is humans who are monstrous, and that is the gnosis motivating Nemo’s misanthropic mission. Nemo is the redeeming defender of the oppressed, a secular crusader in his electro-magical sub.

The science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, once compared Ahab and Nemo: “So what you have are two mad captains… And two whales, written by two authors, You’ve got Ahab, the dark force, who says he will strike the sun if it moves against him. And you have Nemo, equally mad but constructive, the scientific constructiveness who says, ‘Don’t kill the whale, build the whale; inhabit the whale. Don’t kill the sun; plug into the sun…” (in Beley 2006: 151).

advertisement for Captain Nemo’s Nautilus,
from eFX collectibles
Nemo inhabits the Leviathan, his is a techno-whale and scientific mythos, yet selectively so. He can, on occasion, be anti-“progress,” as when he cuts the telegraph wires recently laid on the bottom of the sea, in an aquatic eco-warrior style, 1870s-edition. More importantly, he is overtly political, and it is this quality sets Nemo apart  from a mythic or epic hero (however flawed) like Melville’s Ahab.  No detail suggests this difference more than Ahab’s nailing a gold doubloon to the mast of the Pequod as a reward to the first man to sight the Whale, compared with Captain Farragut’s offer of $2,000 cash on the Abraham Lincoln to the first sailor to sight the Nautilus (or whale, or kraken, since its identity is unknown). The doubloon hearkens to ancient history of quest and adventure. The cash prize announces a mercenary world of what Ahab called “manufactured man.”

My point in this comparative detour is this: By shifting the prismatic text or history machine to Twenty Thousand Leagues, a book penned only two decades removed from the book Modern uses so brilliantly, the 1851 Moby Dick, the story about “spirituality” that can plausibly be told looks radically different. The story of the Nautilus is one of the enlightened secular man using nature to exact political revenge, rather than a battle of man against nature. Angst and grief kill Nemo, or so we are led to think, not a quest after God or his cretaceous stand-in.

Let me try to say this more concretely: The crew aboard the Pequod can’t see below. They must needs apply hermeneutics, divination and prognostication to gauge the abyss. By contrast, Nemo on the Nautilus sees everything below and wagers accordingly, with scientific clarity. Yet still, it does not save him. Nemo is tragic, like Ahab, but the point is that his tragedy is of a different order, and different than the one in Modern’s book too.  If anything, Nemo sees all too well. The tragic that seeps from Modern’s book, despite its humor and exuberance, is of an older kind, perhaps the venerable one of Odyssean blindness.
The (John) Modern History-Machine

In John Modern’s story, nobody can see what’s going on at all down deep. Despite the futurist optimism, the labor, the machines, they (and we) were (and are) puppets of our time. “Progress” produces new suffering; knowledge, new mystery; secularism, new forms of enchantment; “religion,” novel secularities and spiritualities that exceed it. Modern’s tragic gets at how humans are only one sort of agent, constrained by networks of things, discourses and knowledge-systems that occupy us and speak through us, mostly without our knowing. We call out “freedom,” all the while tied to a whale, going down in the roiling maw. Some things, then, like the inability to correctly understand one’s own time, don’t change much.

Thankfully, my task is but to reflect on Modern’s final chapter, and I turn to that task. Now, as to the chapter’s “fucking machines,” I’ll avoid obvious references to the popular and public expansion of auto-sexuality in our own contemporary society, or to possible cross-references between one of Modern’s favored terms, “autopoiesis,” and auto-sexuality. I will barely even note the irony of a character named Mr. Spear carrying out certain ecstatic self-impalings.  Instead, and more modestly (and chastely), I note that Mr. Spear is hardly as anomalous as he appears.

Ahab, for example, similarly loves his machine. He is, so to say, married to the whale. Melville imagined the aged whale (Leviathan) as it left his harem: “Like venerable moss-bearded Daniel Boone, he will have no one near him but Nature herself; and her he takes to wife in the wilderness of waters…”  Obviously this refers to Ahab too. Moby Dick is Ahab’s love-machine. Nemo, for his part, is practically married to the sea, and to the Nautilus, and in fact he announces his romance with both.[1]  This is hardly inevitable. His shipmate, the practical Ned Land, is different. Ned says, “the water surrounds me, but does not penetrate.” Ned remains a discrete, bounded self, still aiming his harpoon toward some distant human partner.  The two captains, Ahab and Nemo, long ago abandoned that aspiration, as did Mr. Spear. The machines they “love” express, and help to make, their porosity—to sea, whale, machine, world, spirit. Spear’s machine is, then, much more than a “fucking machine,” a phrase that to me seems far too reductive to describe his quite ambitious sensory-spiritual project.

Moby Dick is, of course, finally penetrated, and with that harpoon, and the attempt to untangle it, Ahab gets ecstatically dragged under while locked to his love. Is this a self-penetration, Ahab hunting his mirror-self and in that sense not wholly unlike Spear’s use of auto-sex, as autopoiesis?

The Nautilus ship, for its part, is not penetrated, rather it penetrates rivals like a narwhal, a mythic northern whale equipped with a unicorn horn. This narwhal pierces even iron hulls on automatic pilot. As it does, Captain Nemo doesn’t each watch, he rather bangs the pipe organ in ecstasy. No hyperbole--Verne describes him as “outside of himself” in those penetrating moments. Spear’s wasn’t the only sex machine, then. Beside it, we see Ahab’s quest toward autopoiesis through his whale, and Nemo finding it in the Nautilus.

Breaking-Up With The Machine
The romance of the machine would shortly change. It drifted from the late 19th century toward Spengler’s 1918 vision of the decline of the West. Anything like Spear’s sex-machine ecstasy becomes seemingly unlikelier by just a few decades later. To take a vivid example, consider Kafka’s 1914 short story, “In the Penal Colony.” It describes a punitive stabbing machine named “The Harrow,” and its ritual applications. The machine is supposed to penetrate the captive slowly, instilling a religious ecstasy after six hours of pain, and then transfiguration just before death, after twelve hours. In Kafka’s story, the machine goes haywire, and the Officer who sought autopoiesis and transfiguration via his own beatific suicide suffers a banal industrial snafu. Instead of hammering out the proper ritual event, the machine misfires. It stabs the Officer without mercy, and straightaway. The Officer bleeds to death without ecstasy, epiphany or transfiguration, and dies instead like a butchered pig.  No machine-magic here. And this, a story drafted before the Great War even got underway, not to mention the Second War, during which machines like The Harrow were thoroughly perfected! No wonder the Beats, the figures of John Modern’s earlier book, wrote to remind themselves, and their readers of a better time, of sunnier days of the romance of machines—the soulful machines of the open road (think Kerouac and Dean in that Cadillac), the freight train, the mind-bending chemistry labs--instead of the machines you have to strap yourself into prior to it killing you. Or, and possibly the same, the machines that we’re all strapped into now.

The point of this rather long digression inspired by Modern’s work is to pose a comparative riddle, namely the question of whether every  temporal juncture could, like 1851 in Secularism in Antebellum America, be “scaled up” to reveal Big Themes (as microhistorians like Carlo Ginsburg and anthropologists like Victor Turner argued) or whether certain conjunctures impose lasting structures[2] that endure and pose consequences in ways others simply do not.  Put more simply, could we follow an analogous method beginning from a perch of 1870, or 1918, or 1651, or does this history-machine hum so well only because of something particular to Moby Dick, and 1851?

“Spirituality” expands from the present both into the future and into the past, this we know, but it may carry different cargo depending on the point of departure. As I tried to show, even by 1870, just two decades later, the very techne and navigations of history, and their cargo, had shifted dramatically.

“America” and Encompassment
Having no doubt spent too much time aboard the Nautilus, I conclude by posing two brief further questions.  First, in addition to the issue of temporal comparison, there is the question of spatial comparison. Is this story particular to the U.S., or could one tell very similar stories in many places? (Does it matter, for example, that Twenty Thousand Leagues is a French story instead of an American one?) Here is a more concrete example of the question.  Spiritualism, Modern suggests in Secularism, was an expansion of liberal, non-specific Protestantism that seeped across the entire territory of the United States. I want to compare that story to another version:

Spiritism arrived in Brazil around 1870, via  the nom de plume of Allan Kardec. In Brazil, nothing was known of the Fox sisters or the North American origins.[3]  By 1930, Brazil became the global center of spiritism/spiritualism, which it remains today. In the Brazilian case, one might think of Spiritism as an expansion of liberal, non-specific Catholicism, and an expansion also of a whitened form of Afro-Brazilian ritual; in any case, distinctly not as a non-specific form of Protestantism.  But then, if basically the same set of practices can serve variously as an extension of popular Latin American Catholicism, or of Afro-Brazilian practices, or of U.S. Protestantism, this requires us to ask whether larger and more global forces were in play than a national transformation of the U.S., such as the mediation of religions through scientism and the age of industrial-technological marvels on a worldwide scale. If so, the “American” story told by Modern was but one chapter in a larger tale, requiring further contextualization and theorization. We might say that the bid for encompassment was spiritualism’s main trick, wherever it played out, the attempt to emplot all existing traditions into its own framework of a scientific religion. Other mid-19th century religious movements also made bids for encompassment, like Baha’i. Is this a global story of which the author has given us only the American part, or is a particularly American tale that doesn’t exist elsewhere, or is possibly both?

Finally, I would raise the question of disciplinary priority. I worry about why the “metaphysics of secularism” should be read as encompassing commerce, science, and ideology, as Modern suggests. We might imagine that a scholar with other interests and training could flip the playing field, and argue that Spiritualism demonstrated science’s encompassment of religion and metaphysics. Nationalism could serve as the encompassing rubric, or Ideology, or Anthropology, or Evolution, or Romanticism.  In other words, I am asking to what degree Modern has a stake in this particular arrangement of disciplinary encompassment. 

Modern’s book is in part about the emergence and management of “spirituality.” Thinking about his book has also been a kind of autopoietic spiritual exercise for me. The positing of theoretical circles within circles presented an arrangement of authentic “inner” and “outer” truths, of durable infrastructures and flimsy outer-structures, of blueprints and levers and belts, and screws between them. We can call this assemblage the Theory Machine. Watch it flash, and rock, and moan.

 [1] Professor Arronaux (narrator), his servant Conseil, and the expert Canadian harpooner, Ned Land.“Love” appears exactly three times in 20,000 Leagues; Nemo asserts his “love” for liberty, the sea, and the Nautilus.
[2] But what is “structure” in this case? John writes of “concepts that lend…structural integrity” (293), but I’m not sure I know quite what that means.
[3] Though Kardec was strongly influenced by two other adolescents, the Boudin sisters, whose spirit messages comprise much of his first book, The Book of Spirits.
Spiritism strongly emphasizes reincarnation, to name the most prominent difference from Spiritualism.  It seems like Spiritualism may or may not include this in its ideal of Progress.

Beley, Gene. 2006. Ray Bradbury. New York: iUniverse, Inc.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1985 [1651]. Leviathan. London: Penguin.

Lardas, John. 2001. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Verne, Jules. 1874. The Mysterious Island. Translated by W.H.G. Kingston. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co.

Verne, Jules. 1998 [1870]. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Translated by William Butcher. Oxford: Oxford University Press.           


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