Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism


Colin Jager, Rutgers University

In this introduction to the volume, Jager argues that secularism has remained an obscure topic within romantic studies. Noting that 'a genealogy of romantic secularism has yet to be written,' Jager sketches some aspects of such a genealogy by noting the persistence of romantic thinking—about the symbol, for example—in secular thinking. Cosmopolitanism, he notes, has been more widely considered alongside romanticism, but here again the relationship of secularism to 'romantic cosmopolitanism' has tended to remain invisible. Is cosmopolitanism part of a secular project? Or do the conditions of postmodernity in fact make possible a religious cosmopolitanism of a kind anticipated by some romantic texts? This essay appears in _Secularism, Cosmopolitanism, and Romanticism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. This volume of Romantic Circles is devoted to the constitutive relationships among the three words of its title. Of late "Cosmopolitanism" has gotten a certain amount of attention. Following the lead of our colleagues in Victorian Studies and elsewhere, students of the romantic era have begun to speculate about romanticism's own cosmopolitan investments and tendencies. "Romantic Cosmopolitanism," indeed, was the theme of the 2004 NASSR meeting, followed up by a special issue of European Romantic Review in 2005. In contrast, the various analyses of secularism originating in anthropology, political theory, sociology, and religious studies over the past decade have had little impact on romantic studies (nor, for that matter, upon literary studies in general—though that is slowly changing). Perhaps this is because secularism itself—its modes of operation, its institutional inflection, the questions it legitimates—is usually taken for granted in literary study.

  2. Romanticism, moreover, may prove particularly resistant to an analysis of secularism because of the still-powerful influence of the secularization thesis—the idea that religion declines as societies modernize. Though studies of romanticism that depended centrally upon that thesis, like M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism (1971), have been subjected to sustained critique, the version of secularization upon which they relied has not necessarily been abandoned. We need to distinguish analytically between secularization (the description of a historical process) and secularism (whether understood as a doctrine or as a lived ethic). At the same time, the continued influence of the former has tended to obscure the latter as an object of study.[1] One task that this volume undertakes, therefore, is to make secularism visible as an object of study, to call it back from the invisibility to which it aspires. Two subsequent claims follow: 1. Cosmopolitanism is itself intimately interwoven with secularism; 2. A romanticism newly attuned to this intimacy can advance our understandings of both of these interwoven terms.

  3. We might begin with some words written more than a quarter-century ago now. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson, detailing the "corrosive and tradition-annihilating effects" of modernity, draws a line from the revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century through the advent of a market economy and the rise of nationalism and ends finally with what he calls "that great ideological rivalry between capitalism and communism, which, no less passionate and obsessive than that which, at the dawn of modern times, seethed through the wars of religion, marks the final tension of our now global village" (80).

  4. What ought to strike us about that sentence now is how partial its understanding of modernity was. This is not to deny, of course, the important influence and continuing salience of The Political Unconscious, which remains one of the great books of literary criticism and theory. Yet the intervening 25 years have demonstrated just how easily Jameson's "final tension" between communism and capitalism can be transformed into postmodern versions of those very "wars of religion" that his analysis relegates to the distant past. The single word "Afghanistan," in fact, tells that very story. This is an irony, indeed, for a critic and a book most readily associated with the command to "always historicize!" And that irony doubles when we recall the central place that medieval hermeneutics holds in Jameson's influential rendering of allegory in The Political Unconscious. Once we identify the secularizing, modernizing narrative built into Jameson's comments above, however, it is perhaps less surprising that a critic even of his acuity would assume that medieval allegory could be rewritten as historical materialism.[2]

  5. The publication date of The Political Unconscious, 1981, is relevant here, for the early 1980s were also the years that historicism was entering the critical lexicon of romanticism, thanks in large part to a series of articles by Jerome McGann. When McGann clarified the methodological stakes on his project in The Romantic Ideology (1983), the reference to Marx and Engels's German Ideology made it clear that historicist literary studies departed markedly from the kind of spiritualized humanism associated with critics like Abrams. Where Abrams had sought in romanticism a cure for modernity, McGann revealed romanticism as a textual and historical moment marked by difference and ideological contestation. Rather than give us a restorative or therapeutic romanticism, McGann offered a romanticism whose connection to us came through tension, conflict, and the sheer fact of historical difference. Alienation thus extended even to the critic, who was emphatically not a spiritual guide. Recall, for example, the closing words of Marjorie Levinson's famous 1986 essay on "Tintern Abbey": "After all, the prolific contraries of Romantic poetry and criticism," writes Levinson, "are not our family of conflicts, which is to say, they are not prolific for us. To pretend otherwise is to forget ourselves through a facile sympathy, and to lose our enabling, alienated purchase on the poems we study" (57). It is hard to imagine a more thorough repudiation of the restoration project that Abrams had announced in his 1965 essay "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric," which also turns, in a very different way, on the notion of alienation: "The pervasive sense of estrangement, of a lost and isolated existence in an alien world," wrote Abrams then, "is not peculiar to our own age of anxiety, but was a commonplace of Romantic philosophy" (96). For Levinson, our alienation from romanticism is an index of our modernity and hence our critical agency; for Abrams, alienation is the very thing that links us to romanticism, for it identifies romanticism's relevance to our own modernity and therefore enables our critical agency.

  6. McGann, Levinson, and Jameson cannot simply be equated, of course. But from our vantage-point now, what is perhaps most remarkable is that the materialist and historicizing impulse with which they are all associated arrived on the scene alongside what has turned out to be perhaps the most notable conflict of the past quarter-century. I refer to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which announced to the West, if it had not been paying attention before, that certain of its cherished pieties, such as the separation of religion and politics, were neither universally desired nor (though this was harder to see) constitutive of modernity. Arguably, we are still living with the aftershocks of that revolution.

  7. In his remarkable book Public Religions in the Modern World, Jose Casanova remarks that "[w]hat was new and unexpected in the 1980s" was "the revitalization and the assumption of public roles by precisely those religious traditions which . . . theories of secularization . . . had assumed were becoming ever more marginal and irrelevant in the modern world." "Religious traditions throughout the world," he continues, "are refusing to accept the marginal and privatized role which theories of modernity as well as theories of secularization had reserved for them."[3] Here Casanova refers to modernization theory, more specifically what is sometimes called a "convergence theory of modernization," which proposes that other nations and cultures will modernize according to the Western European model. The so-called "secularization thesis," meanwhile, held that religion declines as cultures modernize. Thus modernization and secularization were intimately bound together: both were inevitable, and would follow the pattern marked out by Western Europe.

  8. In the past quarter-century the picture has become less clear. Western-style modernity, it turns out, is not a universal aspiration. Moreover, as writers associated with such phrases as "multiple modernities" and "alternative modernities" have helped us to see, convergence theories of modernization gave scant analytic attention to the force of local culture and its ability to take up and transform such aspects of modernity as the market society (Goankar). Finally, the limitations of modernization theory have cast doubt on the explanatory power of the secularization thesis: if modernization is a complex, dialectical, and culturally-specific affair, it seems that we need a much more nuanced and flexible notion of what secularization entails. Perhaps the concept needs to be abandoned altogether.[4]

  9. These intellectual developments, of course, might have been read off from the event of Iranian revolution—and, incidentally, from Jerry Falwell's founding of the Moral Majority in the United States, which also happened in 1979—but for the most part they were not. Perhaps this is in part because of a common picture of the intellectual stance in which religion is always already surpassed by the very act of thinking itself.[5] This is what allows Jameson to acknowledge the interpretive power of medieval hermeneutics with one hand, and with the other transpose that power onto the conflict between communism and capitalism, as if religious conflict is by definition a thing of the past. In this picture, thinking becomes critical thinking at the moment that it leverages itself out of religion; the intellectual stance is counterposed to the religious stance, simultaneously its critic and its successor.

  10. And yet, as Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated, intellectuals are typically blind to the social determinants of their own intellectual posture (64). Although Jameson is clear-eyed about the corrosive effects of modernity, his methodology nevertheless seemed to require his allegiance to secularization and to convergence theories of modernization; moreover, the acuity and insight of the readings produced by this methodology served to justify that faith a posteriori. More generally, the humanistic disciplines are rooted both historically and conceptually in modernity, with its powerful yoking of human autonomy, the critique of religion, and the development of the nation-state. Can humanistic inquiry be adapted to a radically different world, whose various transformations are imperfectly captured by the catch-all term "globalization," and one moreover that has witnessed the uncoupling of modernization and secularization?

  11. David Leiwei Li puts the problem quite elegantly in his introduction to a special issue of the journal Comparative Literature dedicated to "Globablization and the Humanities." He wonders about the fate of the humanities in contemporary culture, and poses his concerns in the form of two rhetorical questions. Here is the first: "If the humanities has evolved as historical reactions to theist orders, how does it approach that part of our humanity still steeped in a submission to religious precepts, hierarchical conceptions of social order, and resistance to secularism?" And here is the second rhetorical question: "If the humanities are social technologies that engineer autonomous individuals in modernity and sovereign subjects of the nation-state, what is its raison d'etre in a world where finance capital and televisual media crisscross national borders in the inculcation of global consumers?" (276-7). Here Li positions the humanities as a modern phenomenon, poised between the traditional and the postmodern, and therefore giving voice to the aspirations of a class of citizens fast disappearing. But this description also trades in a symptomatic blindness that continues to hamstring analyses of religion and secularism, for not unlike Jameson, Li pictures religion as anti-modern, as the words "submission" and "hierarchy" in his first question indicate. By contrast, Li's description of postmodern globalization in his second question abandons the discussion of religion in favor of transnational capitalism and media saturation.

  12. Yet if we have learned one thing in the aftermath of 9/11, it is surely that religious traditionalism and postmodern globalization cannot be separated in this fashion: the same implicit faith in modernization theory that allows Li to position the humanities as a modern hinge between traditional religion and postmodern globalization blinds him to what scholars of religion are increasingly understanding as a globalized, mediatized, and decentered religious world, in which such postmodern structures as the "cell" and the "network" must be considered alongside the traditional hierarchies.[6] Arguably, the persistence of such thinking, particularly evident in the apparent inability to understand global fundamentalism as a thoroughly modern and even post-modern phenomenon, has proven the most serious conceptual barrier in the so-called "war on terror."

  13. The genealogy of romantic secularism has yet to be written. At a minimum, such a genealogy would need to take in Kant and a variety of post-Kantian German intellectuals and artists, Coleridge and the Coleridgeans who followed in his wake, and the heavily romanticized philosophies of religion produced in the twentieth century by such thinkers as Rudolph Otto and Paul Tillich. A more comprehensive survey would also need to include the discourses of nationalism, imperial expansion, and comparative religion. Among other things, such a survey would show that Abrams's influential turn to romantic natural supernaturalism as a cure for modern anomie was part of a relatively continuous, trans-disciplinary critique of modernity as soul-destroying and alienating, a critique dedicated to finding ways to repair a damaged culture without resorting to the particularism of religion. And this is why, although Abrams's own solution (rendered largely in terms of overcoming subject/object dualism) perhaps seems dated now, the general orientation of his romanticism remains appealing.

  14. Consider, as evidence for this claim, Karen Armstrong's best-selling 1993 book A History of God. In Armstrong's four pages on British Romanticism, which cover Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, only one critic appears: Abrams (mis-identified as "M. R. Abrams") and only one critical concept: natural supernaturalism (347). Thus alerted, the reader notes other (unattributed) romantic threads in the book: a Blakean reading of Paradise Lost, for example: "it is significant that the true hero of [Milton's] masterpiece . . . is Satan rather than the God whose actions he intended to justify to man" (308). And a definition of symbol clearly indebted to Coleridge's famous description in The Statesman's Manual. "A symbol," writes Armstrong, "can be defined as an object or a notion that we can perceive with our senses or grasp with our minds but in which we see something other than itself. Reason alone will not enable us to perceive the special, the universal, or the eternal in a particular, temporal object" (234). This idea does a great deal of work for Armstrong, for she links it, again in a quasi-Coleridgean manner, with imagination: "The only way we can conceive of God, who remains imperceptible to the senses and to logical proof, is by means of symbols which it is the chief function of the imaginative mind to interpret" (233). In turn, this link between symbol, imagination, and God grounds the basic premise of Armstrong's study, namely that religion is a culturally specific expression of an underlying quest for meaning shared by humans across time and space. Put like that, Armstrong's book starts to look like a sophomoric extension of Abrams's own more nuanced thesis that romantic natural supernaturalism both diagnoses and overcomes the spiritual anomie of modernity. We might consider, then, what Armstrong's sales figures tell us about the continuing salience and appeal of the project of romantic idealism among western middlebrow audiences. Though her scholarship is sometimes shoddy and her analyses simplistic (or perhaps because of these things) Armstrong has the kind of audience that academics only dream about: each of her dozen books is a bestseller, she has been translated into forty languages, hosted three television series, and been a tireless speaker and commentator on religious affairs. Romanticism understood as natural supernaturalism provides intellectual ammunition for the temperament demanded by such a public role, which seeks and holds to a resolutely middle ground: it goes beyond enlightenment critique by granting religion legitimacy as an expression of what it means to be human, but manages to do this without granting any particular or exclusive ontological and metaphysical claims.[7]

  15. Here I am not interested in Armstrong so much as what she represents: an approach to religion intellectual but accessible, spiritual but not doctrinaire. My claim is that this is terrain first marked out by Romanticism—which is to say, marked out by some aspects of some romantic texts and then emphasized by a critical tradition that had one eye on the romantic era and the other on its own. My second claim is that within this configuration, Romanticism's apparent spiritual affinities are precisely what make it an important, perhaps paradigmatic, instance of secularism. This claim may seem counter-intuitive: isn't a spiritualizing tendency proof that romanticism remains too much under the sway of religion? Many critics have thought so, to be sure. But that thought depends, once again, upon theories of modernization and secularization that assumed a single model of development toward rationality and demystification (in which romanticism appeared therefore appeared as backward-looking, anti-modern, nostalgic, and so on). In fact, secularism is best understood not as the disappearance of religion but as the management of religion, a way to grant it some legitimacy while also containing it in its own distinct domain. In this regard, secularism itself could be said to produce the very opposition between "the secular" and "the religious."

  16. In a frequently cited article, Charles Taylor distinguishes between two models of European secularism. Modern secularism begins, in Taylor's account, with the European wars of religion, and the felt need for "a ground of coexistence for Christians of different confessional persuasions" (32). One solution to this need is what Taylor calls the "common ground strategy," which aimed to "establish a certain ethic of peaceful coexistence, which . . . was based on those doctrines which were common to all Christian sects, or even all theists" (33). Taylor cites Pufendorf, Locke, Leibniz, and deism as examples. The second strategy is to make secularism "an independent political ethic" rather than a lowest common denominator. This strategy, associated particularly with Grotius, asks us to abstract from our religious beliefs altogether in the name of identifying norms that would be binding even supposing that God did not exist. In the first strategy, secularism is what remains after warring beliefs have been removed; in the second, secularism is a space distinct from warring beliefs. Taylor goes on to observe that these different approaches to secularism lead to different understandings of the state's role in regard to religion: in the first approach, the state aims to be evenhanded in its treatment of religion, never favoring one denomination or sect over another; in the second, the state upholds no religious goods and may in fact actively police religion in the name of protecting secularism's independent ethic.

  17. Each model has its problems. The common ground approach, forged among disagreeing Christians, may not be able to handle the expanded range of metaphysical commitments offered by the modern world. The independent ethic, while it may be better able to handle religious diversity, probably cannot be stretched far enough to include atheism, since for atheism, as Taylor points out, the idea that certain norms would be binding even if God did not exist is not a thought experiment but the basis of a lived ethic (36). Both models, moreover, are the products of a specifically Euro-American history: it is not clear that they travel well, as the examples of India and Turkey suggest. Faced with these difficulties, Taylor proposes a third model, based on an idea of "overlapping consensus" adapted from John Rawls. Taylor takes it as a given that there can be no overarching or shared ethic in the modern world, with its huge variety of goods. But, he writes, we can agree upon principles for different and even mutually contradictory reasons. Thus one person might support secularism because it protects religious minorities, and another because it limits religion's impact on public policy. In Taylor's understanding, then, we don't all have to agree on what the good is, just that our various and incompatible goods are best protected and enhanced by secularism. In this sense, he proposes, secularism is not a normative value in its own right.

  18. This is an appealing proposal, in part because it seems less weighty than the other two models. It does not demand the arduous and largely hopeless task of identifying common ground among metaphysical commitments, nor does it place the burden of maintaining secularism entirely in the hands of the state. This last point, however, may be somewhat trickier than Taylor implies. Because his analysis presupposes the modern nation state, one must ask whether the state can observe the kind of purely formal or adjudicatory role that Taylor imagines. It is difficult to square Taylor's vision of the state, for example, with that offered in Michel Foucault's essay "Governmentality." And we don't have to go all the way with Foucault to recognize that the state has its own interests and consequently invests its resources in the production of certain kinds of subjects. Moreover, wherever the state is involved, the threat of force is always in the background (that is what makes a state a state: a monopoly on force). And nothing tends to attract a clash between state power and subjectivity the way religion does. When the French government recently barred children from wearing religious symbols to school, for example, Muslim and Christian students experienced state power not as a formal entity but as a coercive one.

  19. Of late, the anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have offered the most sustained analyses of the relationships among state power, religion, and secularism. Asad's 2003 book Formations of the Secular is centrally concerned with the power—over mind, body, and disposition—released and disabled by secularism. And Mahmood's recent discussion of a United States government program called "Muslim World Outreach" shows how secularism in its state-sanctioned form aims to "produce[] a particular kind of religious subject who is compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule" (344).[8] In these analyses, secularism is a technology of state power, and when that technology looks abroad, it becomes a driving force behind imperial expansion.

  20. For the political theorist William Connolly, by contrast, secularism is not so much a sinister technology as it is an intellectually bankrupt concept. Connolly's 1999 book Why I Am Not a Secularist argues that modern secularism, at least as a political doctrine, ignores or disparages what he calls the "visceral register" or the "layered density of political thinking and judgment." "It does so," writes Connolly, "in the name of a public sphere in which reason, morality, and tolerance flourish. By doing so it forfeits some of the very resources needed to foster generous pluralism" (3). Connolly is here drawing in part on the critiques of liberalism made by feminists and communitarians over the past decades: that it ignores the embedded, the particular, and the embodied in the name of thin and abstract models of reason and judgment. Beyond this, however, Connolly's model of a pluralism that can legitimately admire a diversity of metaphysical perspectives (rather than simply tolerate them) looks rather like an agonistic version of Taylor's overlapping consensus. That is, while Connolly holds on to Taylor's vision of a plurality of goods and principles, he abandons the idea of overlap itself and the picture of the state as its guarantor, substituting instead a deconstructive absent center that is the result of epistemic modesty and the never-ending project of subject-formation: "The key," Connolly writes, "is to acknowledge the comparative contestability of the fundamental perspectives you bring into public engagements" (8; emphasis in original). This is compelling in part because it is grounded in the empirical fact of pluralism itself: even the fundamentalist, for example, must acknowledge that there are other creeds in the world. However, Connolly does not explain why the fundamentalist would wish to enter this epistemically modest space rather than, say, convert it. What is the anthropology governing Connolly's recommendation, and how could it be fostered?[9]

  21. It may be here that romanticism can begin to play a part. Romantic thinking about subjectivity might provide Connolly with some resources for grounding the revisionist models of self that characterize his call for the "comparative contestability of fundamental perspectives." As attested to in recent books by Paul Hamilton and Leon Chai, romantic reflexivity seems to be experiencing a bit of a critical renaissance.[10] Hamilton's own analysis of romantic conversation in this volume expands one line of thought from his book Metaromanticism into the domain of what he here calls the "nonsecular." As his contribution makes clear, romanticism's historical positioning is key, for it is well-placed to take account of the legacy of enlightenment, and particularly that enlightenment form of secularism known as tolerance (Taylor's "common ground"). Mark Canuel's exploration of romantic fear, meanwhile, pushes the relationship between romanticism and tolerance, first developed in his book Religion, Toleration, and British Writing, in the direction of a more specific analysis of how fear was authorized and placed within a secular institutional framework. And my own contribution on Byron and Occidentalism dwells at length on the norm of reflexivity as an index of a modern, secular reaction to religious orthodoxy. Thus all three essays attest to the Janus-faced nature of romanticism's engagement with religion. On the one hand, romanticism will always seem like a continuation of religion by other means—the secular reception and transformation of "religion" over the past 200 years have guaranteed this. On the other hand, romanticism's restless critical and institutional energies find ways to disrupt its own susceptibility to spiritualization—and in those disruptions one may read a critique of the secularism for which spiritualization is a primary way of containing the religious.

  22. Secularism has always been a cosmopolitan project, as the various careers of early modern philosopher-diplomats suggest. Thus Lord Herbert of Cherbury, often credited with inventing deism, developed a "common ground" approach to secularism while ambassador to King Louis XIII of France. Herbert was trying to keep the French from jumping into the Thirty Years War on the Catholic side. He failed, but bequeathed to early modern Europe an influential formulation of religious tolerance that strove to honor both Baconian inductive reasoning and the diversity of world religions as he understood them (Ward 52-60). On the French side, Montaigne's skepticism and Descartes's dualism both seek to preserve "true religion" as a common meeting point while dispensing with such epiphenomena as doctrine and ritual. Notably, too, for Montaigne, Descartes, and—a bit later—John Locke, the idea of the Netherlands as a locus of cosmopolitan tolerance played an important role. Leibniz, meanwhile, pursued a different and rather idiosyncratic vision of the common ground: as opposed to tolerance of different denominations, Leibniz wanted to undo the Protestant Reformation and reunite the various churches around the shared principle of reason. Yet his extensive correspondence with, responses to, and disagreements with figures as various as Pierre Bayle, Samuel Clarke, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and members of the house of Hanover during the years of its meteoric rise, help to round out the picture of an early modern cosmopolitan secularism that linked Paris, London, and Amsterdam through a network of courtiers, diplomats, philosophers and elite men of letters.

  23. In many ways this picture remains, mutatis mutandis, our dominant picture of cosmopolitanism today. What Peter Berger calls a "globalized elite culture" of secular intellectuals (11) is our version of that European network of the early modern period, with the model of secularism switched from "common ground" to "independent ethic" in order to accommodate a wider array of metaphysical orientations. The advent of international human rights advocates, experts on transitional justice, and other transnational intellectual actors, for example, raises important questions about the relationship between Western human rights discourse and the indigenous, local, and often religious traditions it encounters on the ground. Perhaps the most well-known example is the active debate about the discourse of "reconciliation" in South Africa, and whether it can, or should, be abstracted from its largely Christian context and "internationalized." The cosmopolitan secularism at work in such an arena, it bears repeating, is not explicitly anti-religious; rather, it seeks both to respect religion and to sequester it.

  24. According to Amanda Anderson, such exclusionary and relatively elite cosmopolitanism has historically been in tension with a more inclusive version. "In exclusionary cosmopolitanism," Anderson writes, "little to no weight is given to exploration of disparate cultures: all value lies in an abstract or 'cosmic' universalism. In inclusionary cosmopolitanism, by contrast, universalism finds expression through sympathetic imagination and intercultural exchange" (73). Most contemporary iterations of cosmopolitanism, Anderson finds, try to produce a dialectic between these poles, counting on both the normative pressure of universalism and "an emphasis on tact, sensibility, and judgment, which seems fundamental to the cosmopolitan's reconfigured relationship to universality" (80).

  25. Could a move towards "inclusionary cosmopolitanism," then, serve also to de-secularize it? Anderson herself addresses this question obliquely when she defends a picture of the intellectual life based on "ethos" or "character." Her argument aims to defend Habermasian discourse ethics against the criticism that it short-changes the embedded, situated, and affiliated aspects of identity—the places, in short, where people actually live out their daily lives. Against this criticism, Anderson argues that "intellectual and aesthetic postures are always also lived practices" (7). This bracing and persuasive account echoes other descriptions of the intellectual life; one thinks for example of Edward Said's description of intellectuals and their love of "process" and "vital exchange." Yet can the distance between theory and practice be closed so neatly? Might there not be "lived practices" that certain "intellectual postures" find antithetical? And might not religion be one such practice? When it comes to religion, in other words, the ethos of the intellectual stance that Anderson celebrates may run up against its limits. We might note, for instance, that Connolly's critique of secularism proceeds in part via a critique of Habermas, while Anderson's defense of cosmopolitanism proceeds in part via a defense of Habermas. It does seem unlikely that a Habermasian cosmopolitianism, no matter how supplemented and thickened, is going to be able to open itself to forms of ethos and character that come from religious traditions.

  26. We know that cosmopolitanism and secularism are historical fellow-travelers. Anderson's argument raises the question of whether they are theoretical fellow travelers as well. Does criticizing secularism necessarily entail criticizing cosmopolitanism, even "inclusionary cosmopolitanism," and so falling back, however warily, upon the modes of group identity and affiliation ("tribalism," in neo-liberal parlance) that dominate the discourses of globalization?

  27. We need to dwell on this point for a moment, for the question of the relationship between globalization and cosmopolitanism becomes especially live when we turn to the issue of religious globalization, and specifically the globalization of Christianity. Both cosmopolitanism and secularism bear a special relationship to Christian history in part because of the way that Christianity has spread around the globe. First, the Christian Bible after the early modern period has generally been experienced, read, and absorbed in translation. The end of the thousand-year reign of the Latin Vulgate unleashed a flood of vernacular translations of the Christian Bible that continues to this day. Second, the influence of Western European modernization is massive, deep, and ongoing. That flood of translations has made the Bible a global carrier not only of post-Reformation Christianity but also of the "values" that seem to attend it: self-determination, a market economy, instrumental rationality.

  28. An understanding of the ongoing globalization of Christianity, therefore, is central for any analysis of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and secularism. In The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins makes this point dramatically and polemically. Considering the argument that Christianity will sink into irrelevance unless it updates its thinking about sex and gender, Jenkins comments:

    Viewed from Cambridge or Amsterdam, such pleas may make excellent sense, but in the context of global Christianity, this kind of liberalism looks distinctly dated. It would not be easy to convince a congregation in Seoul or Nairobi that Christianity is dying, when their main concern is building a worship facility big enough for the 10,000 or 20,000 members they have gained over the past few years. (9)
  29. Are the churches, or church members, of the global South cosmopolitan? They are cultural hybrids, to be sure, combining indigenous traditions with Christian theology in manifold ways. And many of these churches operate outside of the usual bounds of the nation state: they perform the social services that the state cannot or will not provide, and they seem less bound by affiliations of nation than those of creed and region. Could such modes of group identity, prolifically combining the global and the local, serve as one basis for constructing a "cosmopolitanism from below"?

  30. Let me here contrast two volumes of collected essays that take up precisely this question—though, symptomatically, they largely ignore global religion: Cosmopolitics, a 1998 volume edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins and originating with the Social Text collective; and Cosmopolitanism, a 2002 volume associated with the journal Public Culture and the Society for Transnational Cultural Studies. Both volumes could be said to embrace the "new cosmopolitanism" in that they are critical of any cosmopolitanism content with a detached view from nowhere or a merely aesthetic appreciation of cultural difference. Both acknowledge the importance of treating cosmopolitanism in the plural, as a local, situated, practice. Yet the volumes differ in how far they wish to go in this direction, and that difference can help us see how and in what manner secularism intersects the discourse of cosmopolitanism.

  31. As Bruce Robbins writes in his introduction to Cosmopolitics, "something has happened to cosmopolitanism. It has a new cast of characters." And he goes on to note the following shift: cosmopolitanism no longer means, or only means, a "detachment from the bonds, commitments, and affiliations that constrain ordinary nation-bound lives"; rather, it now extends "to transnational experiences that are particular rather than universal and that are unprivileged—indeed, often coerced" (1). Many of the contributors to the volume, however, are ambivalent about this development, or at any rate about what they perceive as its potential excesses—an ambivalence raised in some cases to the level of a methodology, as the volume's concluding essays by Rob Wilson and James Clifford make especially clear. Pheng Cheah, for his part, offers this skeptical account: "The world is undoubtedly interconnected, and transnational mobility is clearly on the rise. However, one should not automatically take this to imply that popular forms of cosmopolitanism already exist" (36). According to Cheah, cosmopolitanism cannot be simply folded into globalization; it remains at least in part an ideal.

  32. The Public Culture volume, meanwhile, dispenses with such ambivalence and fully, even breathlessly, embraces a reading of cosmopolitanism as that which precisely does already exist. "Cosmopolitans today are often the victims of modernity, failed by capitalism's upward mobility, and bereft of those comforts and customs of national belonging," write the editors. "Refugees, peoples of the diaspora, and migrants and exiles represent the spirit of the cosmopolitical community." A "minoritarian modernity," they conclude, is "a source for contemporary cosmopolitical thinking" (7).

  33. At this point we note the following distinction. The Social Text volume is committed, in both its theoretical articulation of cosmopolitanism and its methodological ambivalence about varieties of "new" cosmopolitanism, to moving dialectically between the poles of universal and particular, theory and practice, philosophy and anthropology. The volume strives to give voice to universalism's normative pressure and to acknowledge the importance of particularism. The Public Culture volume, by contrast, deliberately unmoors itself from the universalist or philosophical pole, insisting that cosmopolitanism can be understood only as a lived process. "Cosmopolitanism," write the editors, "is not just—or perhaps not at all—an idea. Cosmopolitanism is infinite ways of being" (12). For them, cosmopolitanism's normative power derives solely from what Anderson calls an "anthropological ethics" (82): that is, from the ethical claims exerted by the mere presence of the marginal and coerced.[11]

  34. What does this distinction have to do with secularism? Consider how Pheng Cheah expresses his skepticism about the Public Culture version of cosmopolitanism: "The globality of the everyday," he writes, "does not necessarily engender an existing popular global consciousness" (31). And: "it is doubtful whether transnational migrant communities can be characterized as examples of cosmopolitanism in the robust sense. . . . It is unclear how many of these migrants feel that they belong to a world" (37). Here I wish to draw attention to Cheah's emphasis on consciousness. In order to be a cosmopolitan, a given subject has to understand herself as one. The drama here is the very modern one of self-recognition; or, to put the matter another way, the norm driving Cheah's conception of cosmopolitanism is the norm of reflexivity. As such, his cosmopolitical thinking is grounded in the kind of modern subject formation that Saba Mahmood calls "normative secularity." What Mahmood identifies as the U.S. project of fostering reform movements within Islam by encouraging Muslims to read sacred texts symbolically can thus be understood, with Cheah's formulation in mind, as an effort to liberalize Islam by encouraging Muslims to understand themselves as citizens of the world. The emphasis on self-recognition and reflexivity—an ability to distance oneself from one's own formative discourses that is modeled and made possible by certain modes of "literary" reading—is what ties this vision of cosmopolitanism to secularism.

  35. The Public Culture volume, on the other hand, seems less interested in locating a cosmopolitan consciousness and more interested in cosmopolitanism as a practice that we engage in willy-nilly, whether we choose to or not. We are always already cosmopolitans. In turn, this makes possible a more decisive break with modernity: "What the new archives, geographies, and practices of different historical cosmopolitanisms might reveal is precisely a cultural illogic for modernity that makes perfectly good nonmodern sense" (12). Cosmopolitanism within the context of globalization is not continuous with the modern project but sits decisively athwart it.[12]

  36. To return, then, to my question above: are the Christian churches of the global South cosmopolitan? For the Social Text volume I think the answer would be "no," because those churches do not by and large recognize themselves as global actors (although in groups like the worldwide Anglican Communion this seems to be changing). For the Public Culture volume I think the answer would be "yes," because those churches are largely populated by people for whom the promises of global modernity have not materialized. From these different answers I draw a further conclusion. A cosmopolitanism oriented by varieties of cultural practice in a globalized world makes theoretical room for a critique of secularism, or more specifically allows us to parochialize secular theoretical assumptions, whereas a cosmopolitanism organized by a dialectic of the universal and the particular remains within a modern problematic that tends to validate secular theoretical assumptions.[13]

  37. This is not to say that we should prefer one to the other. Indeed, my own response is asymmetrical: I am drawn to the critique of secularism offered for instance by Mahmood, but I find the picture of cosmopolitanism offered by the Public Culture volume rather breezy and analytically imprecise. When it comes to cosmopolitanism I am drawn to the dialectical model of the Social Text volume, but the way that collection relies on secular dramas of self-recognition strikes me as a problem for any discourse that hopes to keep up with a world situation in which religion plays an increasingly central role. If nothing else, this asymmetrical response suggests the challenge of thinking through the relationship between the secular and the cosmopolitan. For if secularism and cosmopolitanism were largely coterminous in the early modern period, when Locke and Leibniz tried to imagine how to repair a war-torn Europe, they are now discourses that diverge and converge, overlap and separate, across an expanding, global array of norms and practices.

    Secularism / Cosmopolitanism / Romanticism

  38. The essays collected here invoke in various ways a transnational reality, marking in turn both the production of nationalist paranoia and the possibilities of cosmopolitan mentalities. Mark Canuel's contribution provocatively takes the mobilization of fear, commonly associated with nationalist fear of the foreign, and re-writes it as a "formal accompaniment" of a newly secular disposition toward the fact of multiple and competing beliefs. My own essay on Byron's Eastern Tales plays the figure of the Islamic fundamentalist off against the reflexive capacities of the putatively modern subject, figured here by the Byronic hero and by New Critical celebrations of literary paradox. And Paul Hamilton identifies a nonsecular cosmopolitanism variously anticipated and enacted by romantic models of conversation. Yet as Bruce Robbins notes in his response to the three essays, cosmopolitanism remains for the most part a background figure against which secularism and romanticism are variously positioned. I think that this is more than a simple register of the difficulty of keeping all three terms in play (though it is that, too). The asymmetry between secularism and cosmopolitanism runs deeper than that. Cosmopolitans have generally been happy to identify themselves as such; cosmopolitanism names a mostly honorable aspiration, however much one may quibble over details. The same cannot be said for secularism, which generally strives for invisibility, nor for secularists, who outside a few safe enclaves generally keep their mouths shut. Depending on one's perspective, this makes secularism either more tenuous or more sinister than cosmopolitanism. Despite the historical and conceptual intertwining of the cosmopolitan and the secular, then, it simply takes a lot of effort to render the latter term visible as an object of analysis. Romanticism can help in this process, but only once we understand how the traditional picture of romanticism has distorted the landscape. For curiously enough, romantic literature has too often seemed unrelated to either secularism or cosmopolitanism: it has seemed too spiritual to be properly secular, and too nationalist to be properly cosmopolitan. At the very least, I hope this volume demonstrates how much more complicated the reality is.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric." The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. New York: Norton, 1984. 76-108.

Anderson, Amanda. The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: the 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

---. Interview with Brian Lamb, September 22, 2000. Accessed July 24, 2006.

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic J. D. Wacquant. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Berger, Peter L, ed. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999.

Brown, Bill. "The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory)." PMLA 120.3 (May 2005): 734-750.

Bruce, Steve. Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Canuel, Mark. Religion, Toleration, and British Writing, 1790-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Casanova, Jose. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Chai, Leon. Romantic Theory: Forms of Reflexivity in the Revolutionary Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2006.

Cheah, Pheng and Bruce Robbins, eds. Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Connolly, William E. Why I Am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. London: Routledge, 2002.

De Vries, Hent and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Foucault, Michel. "Governmentality." The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Graham Burchell et. al., eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 87-104.

Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar, ed. Alternative Modernities. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.

Hadden, Jeffrey K. "Toward Desacralizing Secularization Theory." Social Forces 65.3 (1987): 587-611.

Hamilton, Paul. Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Jager, Colin. "After the Secular: The Subject of Romanticism." Public Culture 18:2 (Spring 2006): 301-322.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Li, David Leiwei. "Introduction: Globalization and the Humanities." Comparative Literature 53:4 (2001): 275-282.

Levinson, Marjorie. "Insight and oversight: reading 'Tintern Abbey.'" Wordsworth's Great Period Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 14-57.

Mahmood, Saba. "Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation." Public Culture 18:2 (Spring 2006): 323-347.

Pecora, Vincent. Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, eds. Cosmopolitanism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Random House, description of Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation. Accessed July 24, 2006.

Smith, Christian. "Introduction: Rethinking the Secularization of American Public Life." The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Christian Smith, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 1-96.

Stanton, Domna C. "Presidential Address 2005: On Rooted Cosmopolitanism." PMLA 121.3 (May 2006): 627-640.

Stark, Rodney. "Secularization, R.I.P." Sociology of Religion 60.3 (1999): 249-273.

Taylor, Charles. "Modes of Secularism." Secularism and its Critics. Rajeev Bhargava, ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998. 31-53.

Ward, Graham. True Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.


1. Pecora argues that the opposite is also true; the ideal of secularism is incoherent, he writes, because we have not attended sufficiently to the history of secularization.

2. For an elegant extension of this idea see Brown. Among his many salient points: "however tempting it is to depict (that is, to transcode) the religiosity of resistance, insurgence, and attack as the sacralization of proper (economic) politics, that depiction cannot escape from becoming a parochial account that depends on an a priori distinction between religion and politics and on the separation of church and state" (747).

3. Casanova 5. For related claims see the essays in Berger.

4. For contrasting assessments, see Stark and Bruce. A less polemical account can be found in Hadden.

5. For this claim see Smith. See also Pecora, Secularization, and Berger, Desecularization.

6. On mediatization and religion see de Vries.

7. Armstrong herself is quite clear that she views religion as a cultural expression of an underlying, cross-cultural truth: "The religious experience of humanity has been remarkably unanimous. And that I find very endorsing, because instead of seeing your own tradition as one lonely little quest, idosyncratically crying in the darkness, you can see it as part of a giant, human search for meaning and value in a flawed and tragic world" (Lamb). This universalist thrust remains on display in Armstrong's most recent book, The Great Transformation (2006), a study of the Axial Age. The publisher's blurb calls the book "[a] revelation of humankind's early shared imperatives, yearnings and inspired solutions" (Random House).

8. See also Asad's critique of Taylor, pp. 2-8.

9. It is important to note that Asad, Mahmood, and Connolly write as non-theists and self-identified members of the cultural left. Their various critiques of secularism, then, link up intriguingly with explicitly religious critiques of secularism, such as those offered by the so-called Radical Orthodox theologians.

10. For an attempt to bring Hamilton and Connolly together, see Jager.

11. I do not mean to imply that either volume speaks in a single voice. Indeed, both speak in multiple voices; that is their point. I am calling attention, rather, to a significant tonal distinction between the volumes.

12. One might wonder, however, why "modernity" needs to be defined so narrowly. An appeal to "multiple modernities" might have made more sense here.

13. See "On Rooted Cosmopolitanism," Domna C. Stanton's 2005 Presidential Adress to the MLA: "I join those who would exclude religious transnationalism-Christian, Jewish, or Islamic-from cosmopolitanism, which, in my view, should strive to be secular and nondogmatic, provisional and subject to revision" (632). For a similar, though more nuanced, claim that religion and globalization are fundamentally at odds, see Derrida.

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