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Is Critique Secular?

I’ve just read Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood. Asad and Mahmood make some interesting observations, but the contributions by Brown and Butler consist largely of postmodern, Foucault-genuflecting pseudoradical posturing.

A couple of interesting points that stick with me after what was largely a waste of time:

  • Asad makes a good point that the standard liberal distinction between coercion and reasoned choice is not quite so clear. His example of something in between and ambiguous is seduction. “Thus in liberal democracies the individual as consumer and as voter is subjected to a variety of allurements through appeals to greed, vanity, envy, revenge, and so on. What in other circumstances may be identified and condemned as moral failings are here essential to the functioning of a particular kind of economy and polity.” (p. 31.) Secular liberals see no problem with seduction, ridicule and so forth, including in an antireligious context such as blasphemous cartoons. Others, for example many Muslims, deeply object not only to the insult but the attempted seduction away from the faith.
  • Saba Mahmood refers to a contradiction in liberal legal traditions others have also noticed: speech is supposed to be free and everyone is equal before the law, but the law is also concerned with maintaining public order. But public order must inevitably privilege the majority culture. So European courts, for example, much more readily penalize offenses against Christian sensibilities compared to blasphemy against Islam.
  • Judith Butler takes up the cause of Muslim immigrants offended by the Danish cartoons, suggesting that somehow the cartoons did violence to Muslims. But her moral indignation in favor of immigrant minorities touches very little on the specifics of Muslim communities or the actual political ideals of Muslim protestors. They stand in for some kind of generic innocence wronged by some equally generic liberal capitalism Butler is unhappy with—their overwhelming social conservatism and typically pro-capitalist attitudes vanishes out of sight.

I don’t know what I get out of all this, other than another confirmation that postmodern humanities-types are, in effect, apologists for cultural conservatism, as long as it’s somebody else’s culture.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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