In this chapter, Daniel Barber exposes the logic of what could be called “universalizing supersessionism,” a logic at work in the construction of Christianity in relation to Judaism and other “religions”, and then again at work in the construction of secularism in relation to religion. Barber describes the way the logic works this way:
In each case, what is at stake is the construction not only of a position of judgment, but also of a plane of reality in which such a position becomes normative. In other words, it a matter not only of asserting the dominance of a particular position—whether Christianity or secular—but of involving this position within a broader plane of reality, such that the dominance of this particular position is mediated by its full congruence with the plane itself. (100-101).
In a quotation from Gil Anidjar in which this logic is connected with the construction of “white” as the universal, supersessionist position in the category of race, Anidjar calls “white” the “unmarked race” (111). The reference to the “unmarked” position in the category of race offers us a way to understand in other terms the nature of the logic that Barber is describing. The logic of universalizing supersessionism is deeply embedded within the very structure of language itself. The linguist Roman Jakobson introduced the distinction between marked and unmarked terms as constitutive of semantic categories. For example, in the following binarisms, the first term is unmarked, the second marked: “high/low,” “wide/narrow,” “hot/cold,” “man/woman.” Before explaining what the distinction means, note something very interesting: in naming the category in each case, we create a universal concept that is derived from the name of the unmarked term: “height,” “width,” “heat,” “man” (when English casually used to employ the term “man” as equivalent of “humanity”). The unmarked term is the dominant term that serves as the paradigmatic position for the entire category. There is a judgment at work in these binarisms, not merely a neutral division of a category into two classes or kinds. Barber’s logic of unversalizing supersessionism precisely parallels the linguistic structure of marked and unmarked terms. Christianity is to religion as high is to height, as hot is to heat, as man is to woman, and (Anidjar’s case) as white is to race. Of course, the category and the unmarked/marked binarism arise at the same time: the universal concept and its paradigmatic expression are inextricably bound up together.
One can put it this way, using Hegelian terminology: the universal is concretized only in the unmarked term. The Hegelian dialectic works by exposing the way that the marked term (slave in relation to master, for example) can come to occupy the unmarked position and in so doing call for a new universality. Barber shows that Christianity constructs itself as the paradigmatic (unmarked) term within the new category of religion. If we use the word “faith” instead of “religion,” the logic is perfectly visible: Christianity is a faith, but it is also the faith, the only true faith. Barber argues, following Boyarin, that Christianity also creates Judaism as a faith, or religion. Barber notes that Christianity does more in constructing itself than differentiate itself from Judaism. Heresies are not given the right by orthodoxy to be called religions of their own, but rather perversions of the true faith. While the way that Christianity constructs itself as the paradigmatic instance of the category of religion or faith is therefore somewhat complicated, the logic of universalizing supersessionism is clearly at work.
And the logic is also at work in the way that secularism constructs itself as the paradigmatic instance of its new category. Barber argues that the new category is one in which the binarism is given as follows: the West (the unmarked term) and the rest (the marked term(s).) Barber clearly argues that in one way or another, the new category in which secularism positions itself as the unmarked term is a combination of race and territory (Aryan Europe versus all racial others within its borders and without). Barber doesn’t put it this way, but it would be compatible with what he says to put the universalizing logic of secularism this way: secularism constructs itself as the unmarked term in the category of “civilization,” where “civilization” is white, European, progressive, etc. (Timothy Fitzgerald’s Discourse on Civility and Barbarity nicely complements Barber’s analysis of secularism and makes this point about the modern construction of secularism/relgion binarism.) Within the category of civilization, “world religions” are ranked higher than all others, and world religions among themselves are ranked in relation to the ideal world religion of (Protestant) Christianity whose civilizing (morally uplifting) power is aligned with the imperial dominance of European humanity. Secularism, however, trumps world religion by bringing the pure essence of Christianity to expression (“civilizing” morality). This is the point that both Masuzawa’s Invention of World Religions and Fitgerald’s Discourse on Civility and Barbarity agree upon: secularism constructs its other, religion, within the larger category of Europe, whether understood racially (Aryan) or as the telos of a civilizing process. Barber develops this insight about the logic of secularism within his larger point about the working of the logic of universalist supersessionism that begins with Christianity’s construction of itself as the one true faith within the category of faith (religion). This takes us to Barber’s claim about how to break with this logic in favor of a logic of immanence and diaspora, the topic of the last section of his chapter, “Differential Antagonism.”
To understand what Barber intends with his logic of immanence and diaspora, a return to the linguistic structure of marked and unmarked terms may be helpful. What would it look like to reject an understanding of, say, “width” as it is constructed through the binarism of “wide” and “narrow”? Instead of speaking about width as measuring two kinds of things, wide things primarily and narrow things as falling short of attaining the full measure of the wide things, we would talk rather about a force of extension that pushes outward from a center to the periphery. This force would not itself be measured in any finite width, but would rather operate within a differential field of extended objects, each occupying a certain width or span of space by virtue of the force pushing outward from its center to its peripheries. The expansive force would only be able to fill a certain region of space through these differential relations, and no single size or width would be identifiable as the defining or dominant center of the region. Nor is any single region of space the measure of the expansive force. Rather, the force grows greater by virtue of the multiplicity of the center-periphery divisions within the region, with new folds upon folds, proliferating within the topographic space. With Barber, one could say that there is no “measure of unity” within this differential space, but rather an “immeasureability of immanent surplus” (98) of expansive force. This immeasureable force is always expressed in a particular topography but it is also able to reconfigure every given topography. With greater differentiation comes a greater intensity of the force. What would this look like if we apply it to the Christianity/religion/secularism field? Barber suggests that the logic of diasporic immanence would seize upon the differential relations among the three terms and, rather than attempt to construct some higher synthesis at higher plane, it would rather multiply and intensify the particularities within and between the three categories. Barber calls for a sort of Babelizing of the categories (98). Babel is an apt image for the effect of diasporic immanence. Babel names the condition of possibility of translation (interparticularity as Barber calls it), of dispersion that disrupts the human effort to construct an all-embracing universal “name” to cover the earth. Presumably, the “name” that humanity sought to construct for itself was in competition with the “name” of God, the name that refuses to be instrumentalized (“I AM”), the only name of immeasureable and unnameable immanence that the Hebrew Bible is willing to give to God. But if “human” (adam) is one of the fictive significations of this name (the Bible would say, adam is created in the image of God), is it necessarily wrong to think of it as one name, as a universal name? Is the attempt by humanity to replace its name for God’s name necessarily flawed, so that only particularity remains? Is there no place for the concept of the oneness of humanity? This takes me to my final remarks:
I want to return to the case that informs this chapter and also earlier chapters: Christianity’s supersessionist construction of Judaism as a religion. While this may look like a case that only is important for the beginning of the story that Barber tells in this chapter, it also is important for secularism’s supersession of Christianity. In the work of Bruno Bauer that Marx made famous, On the Jewish Question, Bauer precisely sees the question facing the Germany nation to be tied to the question of the place of the Jews in the nation. For Bauer, if the Jews ask for rights, they cannot be granted rights. The Jews, so long as they ask for rights as a particular group, fail to understand that the modern, secular nation state only grants rights to individuals qua individuals. This point has been understood by Protestant Christians, says Bauer, who have agreed to make their religion a matter of private confession rather than part of their public, social identity. So, Bauer is constructing the state as the universal that supersedes religion within the category of the human. The citizen within the state, he says, is the paradigmatic instance of the universal category of humanity. It happens that Christianity is the religion most adapted to this universal category, Bauer argues, because it is most adapted to the freedom of religion that the state guarantees its citizens as individuals under the law. Jews, however, when they seek to have recognition by the state as equals under the law, do not understand that when they ask for equal rights as Jews they are only showing how little prepared they are for life in the state: they must ask simply for equal rights as humans, which means they must stop identifying themselves as Jews. (This is precisely the same argument we often hear today in Europe, raised against the alleged inability of Muslims to be participants in a liberal nation state.) We know what Marx responds to Bauer. He says: you think that the state, insofar as it guarantees equality to citizens as individuals under the law, is neutral in respect of religion. But this so-called neutral (secular) state has only brought Christianity to its formal perfection by creating a transcendent identity beyond all empirical (social) differences, the transcendent identity of the citizen. And, in the actual social life of the state where individuals are thrown into their empirical differences (as members of this or that profession, or as workers, soldiers, etc.), you are not free from religion either. You have only brought Judaism to its formal perfection, since Judaism is based on the abstract difference between God (as owner and producer) and the world (as product). So, the privatized social realm of economic competition is Jewish, and the universal realm of the law is Christian.
I take Marx to be making a polemical point against Bauer when he seems to disparage Judaism as the religion that, in its form if not its content, is perfectly adapted to capitalism (Jews worship Mamon). I think that Marx is attempting to uncover the logic of universalist supersessionism at work in Bauer’s defense of the liberal state. I therefore think that Barber’s analysis of secularism’s relation to Christianity can profitably be read against the background of Marx’s critique of Bauer. But Marx does not want to dispense with the category of the universal, humanity. This is what I find important and what I want to connect with my question about Babel and its aftermath. Marx disputes the identification of the human as such with the citizen of the liberal state, but his criticism of Bauer’s universalist supersessionism is expressed in the name of the oneness of (classless) humanity. Now unlike Marx, it seems that Barber wants to dispense with the category of the universal “humanity” altogether, since it is inevitably tied to the plane of reality that is (falsely, ideologically) transcendent. Barber rightfully charges the logic of universalist supersessionism with always constructing a dominant instance within the category that seeks to legitimize itself as the paradigmatic particular that embodies the universal. In place of the universal, Barber wants us to imagine a differential, interparticular immanence. And I am very sympathetic with this call to transcend transcendence, so to speak. But here is my worry: Could Jews have won equal rights in Germany under a regime of diasporic interparticularity? Marx, while criticizing the logic of universalist supersessionism at work in Bauer, in fact said that in the liberal state it is pure social prejudice that stands in the way of equal rights for Jews. Under the law, Jews and Christians should be treated equally, he argued. One should not require Jews to first become “Christians” (to sever their ties to the people and accept their identity as a private confession) in order to enter the state. Marx saw that the universal principle of equality before the law had emancipatory potential, but he did not think it was the end-point of emancipation. What drove Marx’s emancipatory claims was a conviction that humanity was not always only a contestation of classes or parties. I am not arguing for Marxian humanism, but I am worried about abandoning the idea (as a sort of Kantian Idea) of humanity (not reducible to our species, so perhaps we ought to find another name, or leave it as I-AM-FICTIVE-SIGNIFIERS, IAFS for short?). I think that Marx understood something that we, perhaps, take for granted: that the law, as a form of universality in which claims for recognition can be articulated by unrecognized (or “marked”) groups, has a powerful force for emancipating difference. Of course, it can also homogenize difference, but this is when the content of the word “citizen” is given one fixed definition. If we combine Barber’s call for diasporic interparticularity with an acknowledgment of the universality of the category of “human” as comprising those who can say “I AM” before the law and thus articulate (signify) a claim for equal recognition, could we not perhaps find a place for this one universal, so long as it is never concretized in a single unmarked term, but always open? And wouldn’t this be a way to secure a place for the law within immanence? How can Christianity evade supersessionism so long as it only turns its back on the law? This is not a criticism of Barber, but a call for reflection about the possibility of a universalism beyond transcendence.