“Jail Was Heat”; Or, From the Empty Space of the Secular to the Generic Time of Suffering: A Response to Alex Dubilet (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Alex’s focus on the question of the secular that runs throughout Ecologies of Thought brings out a question of the relationship between naturalism and secularism. To get at that I want to spend a little time engaging with the work of Christian critics of the secular, before I lay out the framework from which a fuller exposition of the generic secular would have to arise. Even when I had more sympathy for John Milbank’s project I was always stuck with the theocentric misanthropy (and assuredly this involves a kind of misogyny) present in the opening to Theology & Social Theory: “Once, there was no ‘secular’. And the secular was not latent, waiting to fill more space with the steam of the ‘purely human’, when the pressure of the sacred was relaxed.” You may not see it, but I remember when I first read this passage I couldn’t help but think, upon first reading in 2005, of “the steam of the purely human” alongside of Agent Smith’s remarks about the stink of human beings. Later on, when I began to give more attention to theories that attended to anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles, I began to think of the human steam as the pressure cookers that are prison cells or the open cages before the sun on Guantanamo or the holds of ships that human beings hide in when trying to escape one space for another or the tiny apartments that the poor throughout the world cram themselves into after working too many hours on too many days.

Milbank’s point here is elaborated in the next few sentences when he writes, “Instead there was the single community of Christendom, with its dual aspects of sacerdotium and regnum. The saeculum, in the medieval era, was not a space, a domain, but a time – the interval between fall and eschaton where coercive justice, private property and impaired natural reason must make shift to cope with the unredeemed effects of sinful humanity.” Setting aside the deeply disturbing hallucination that at any time in history there was a single community of Christendom, those familiar with critiques of the secular and secularism will see here how much of that critique focuses on the confusion of space and time, where time is spatialized and where the secular comes to be a domain and dominion. My rejection of Milbank’s work is not a rejection of the entire argument put forward here and though I have always wondered why Talal Asad appears to count Milbank as a theoretical ally in Formations of the Secular, like Asad I see there is some truth in this critique of the secular. So where I differ comes down to this negative valuation of “the steam of the purely human” or, in other words, what I reject is the way in which Milbank misdirects attention away from suffering. The way he holds his nose at the stench of bodies broken by the World or thinks them into nothingness through the complicity with the World that comes out of “foggy” analogical thinking (as an aside I remember a paper that Thomas Lynch gave where he compared Milbank’s attempt at a pastoral that detailed his driving along the River Trent in Nottinghamshire with Thomas’s own walk in the City Centre to his then job as a worker in a homeless shelter. Is it any surprise that the theologian of the cuts lives in a village (often the English equivalent of the suburbs)?

The kind of generic secular I begin to put forth in Ecologies of Thought agrees that the secular is constructed. It also seeks to think something beyond the hallucinated empty space of the secular, the scientistic notion that we can be freed from tradition or come from nowhere is a fantasy as infantile as any Creationist’s. I turn my attention to this question of tradition and thinkers like MacIntyre in a forthcoming article entitled “Against Tradition to Liberate Tradition: Weaponized Apophaticism and Gnostic Refusal“. I make that case much better there than I cold here and so I offer this, somewhat annoyingly, as my response to Marika’s question of where this secular I speak of “is” (the better question of how it is lived) and as a supplement to my already too long response here. However, my project refuses to call, as Milbank does, this construction of the secular “an artificial space which was sheer dominium, or the sphere of the arbitrary”. Milbank and other critics of the secular move too quickly here in their criticism to see the problems inherent in their conceptions of nature and the natural. To the motto of belonging that so many have passed around for nearly two decades now (“Once there was no secular”) can we not simply respond, “Yeah… so, what?” That things arise that once where not (and that they arise out of things that were so that they are not sui generis) is not a problem unless one’s sense of nature is still unecological. And in doing this these critics miss another vector of criticism of the secular; that is, it’s being tied into a very poor philosophy of nature that serves not nature, but the interests of power. Stated in more concrete terms, the secular is often presented in terms of a “subtraction narrative”, as Charles Taylor calls this narrative, or one that Paul de Man and Walter Benjamin present as following the logic of tragedy that is imbued with a kind of naturalism. So, one form this subtraction narrative takes is to assume a kind of pure nature outside the realm of belief, a nature that is the domain of pure facts, the pure “that’s how it is” of the “natural”.

If we wanted a secular myth of this nature we can pull to mind the figure of the seemingly unstoppable criminal. What comes to mind may be scenes with Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in the film) flipping coins to see what will happen to his victims, to which we will return, or perhaps a particularly poignant scene with Marlo Stanfield (played by Jaime Hector) from fourth season of The Wire who, after losing a poker game, goes to a local grocery store and brazenly steals a lollipop in full view of the security guard. The security guard recognizes Stanfield as the leader of a drug gang and presumably knows of his particularly brutal reputation. The conversation that takes place as the security guard confronts Stanfield is remembered by viewers for being particularly chilling:

Security Guard: The fuck? You think I dream of coming to work up in this shit on a Sunday morning? Tell all my friends what a good job I got? I’m working to support a family, man.
[Marlo looks away]
Security Guard: Pretend I ain’t talking to you. Pretend like I ain’t even on this earth. I know what you are. Now, I ain’t stepping to, but I am a man. And you just clip that shit and act like you don’t even know I’m there.
Marlo Stanfield: I don’t.
[unwraps a stolen lollipop, throws wrapper on the ground]
Security Guard: I’m here.
[Marlo moves closer to him]
Security Guard: Look, I told you I ain’t stepping to. I ain’t disrespecting you, son.
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: What?
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: Man, I don’t want it to be —
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: [losing temper] Man, stop —
[pulls himself together]
Security Guard: Stop saying that.
Marlo Stanfield: But it’s the other way.

Later in the episode Stanfield’s enforcers murder the security guard on Stanfield’s orders for talking back to him. Here nature, in the guise of the unstoppable criminal, shows no regard for the social order. There is no regard for the symbol of authority, the security guard, a kind of ersatz-police officer lacking any real authority, but a kind of low-level avatar for the meaningfulness of order. The security guard knows that the theft is beyond petty, it barely deserves mentioning, and we also know as viewers that there is a certain disingenuousness to Stanfield’s claim to not see the security guard as this very act of theft was occasioned by the diminishing of his power during the poker game (we will return to this in our discussion of the postsecular), but still it is hard not to believe when faced with the coldness of Stanfield’s declaration, “You want it to be one way […] But it’s the other way.” The process of secularization is often presented as the diminishing of the effect of a fantasy, a fantasy that one may transcend the assumed meaninglessness of nature, a fantasy that is seen by many secularists as constitutive of religion itself. But, the secularist tells us, it’s the other way — how tragic. But, is it the other way?

To answer that question let’s stay with our myth of the unstoppable criminal as persona for the homologous nature that stands outside of belief, outside tradition, and which the secular constructs. Instead of a deeper discussion of that myth, though, let’s consider the counter-myth already carried in some narratives of the unstoppable criminal. There is, as we already mentioned, the fact that as viewers we can see that Stanfield does in fact see the security guard and that is shown in his not simply ignoring him but having him killed. But that counter-myth is too passive, let’s instead look to the counter-myth we find in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (adapted for film by the Coen Brothers in a remarkably faithful way). The novel’s unstoppable criminal, Chigurh, stands for the randomness of nature as throughout the story he menaces his victims by flipping a coin to decide if he is going to kill them. In so doing McCarthy is quite clearly making a connection between the randomness of Chigurh and the randomness of nature. A nature that, in its secular guise, just is regardless of human belief or human meaning. After Llewellyn Moss, the closest thing to a protagonist in the novel, is killed (though not ultimately by Chigurh), his wife (Carla Jean) is tracked down by Chigurh fulfilling a promise he made to Llewellyn that he could turn over money found at the site of a botched drug deal to Chigurh and Chigurh would only kill him. If he did not turn over the money he would still kill Llewellyn but he would also kill Carla Jean.

The scene that plays out as Carla Jean enters her mother’s house after her funeral to find Chigurh waiting for her presents to us a personification of the postsecular counter-myth. For Chigurh sits before Carla Jean, who begins by protesting that she doesn’t have the money. Chigurh explains that this is not about the money and that her husband could have saved her. She protests that he does not have to do this. Chigurh finds this funny, ‘People always say the same thing. ‘ ‘What do they say?’, she asks. ‘They say, “You don’t have to do this”.’ He then says the best he can do is to flip a coin. This is one of the scenes where the film differs somewhat significantly from the novel where the novel presents a perhaps more realistic portrait of a woman who is fearful facing her death, in the film Carla Jean is more resolute in her refusal. While in the novel she too protests that the coin is, in reality, just him at the end of the day she does call it (incorrectly) and is killed. In the film this is the truncated discussion:

Carla Jean: I knowed you was crazy when I saw you settin there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.
Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean: No. I ain’t gonna call it
[More insistent] Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.
Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did.

In the same way that Chigurh’s violence is disavowed through recourse to the coin flip, so too does conjugated secularism (the philosophical project and the political project) disavow its own violence as it was enacted during the period of European imperialism. The postsecular event names the refusal of the colonized to allow the colonizers to hide behind this myth any longer. Like Carla Jean such a refusal was often still met with death but the postsecular event was the global refusal of secularisms naturalization, its self-presentation as simply serving what just is. However, even Chigurh’s seeming valorization of the pure homogeneity of chance — a kind of pure secular — by proclaiming that he came to be just as the coin did carries with it its own doing. In the same way that the coin was contingent, so is the violence of the strong over the weak that is so seemingly unstoppable, so too is the naturalized violence of the colonizer over the colonized contingent and able to be overcome.

I am referring to the colonizer/colonized relationship because we may understand postsecularism, not as a historical epoch, but rather as the name for an event which may allow for different subjects to exist in the light of their relationship or reaction to that event. Here I am drawing on the philosophy of Alain Badiou whose idea of “the event” may be useful as a heuristic device to think through the relationship between the secular and the postsecular. The reason we may need a different theoretical framework for understanding this relationship is because the two are heterogeneous to one another. Even in their names we see that difference: secularism names a political project, it names something coherent and a kind of established power in the world, while the postsecular names an opening, it is an antagonism towards that power. This is my answer to the question of “whither” that Alex’s poses to me. We are getting the fuck out of here. Jail was heat; the now is liberty.

Thus when considering the postsecular event we have to consider the way secularism as an epistemological framework and a political system is challenged as a naturalizing process, as I attempted to do in Ecologies of Thought, but also turn to the subjects formed or deformed by this event. What does post secularism mean beyond the challenge it poses to secularism? What matters about the postsecular event, perhaps as with all events, is that new ways of relating to the world are formed by the event. If the postsecular event is related to the relation or non-relation of traditions, their translatability or untranslatability, as many of its theorists claim, then it is also a call to the creation of something beyond translation. In other words, if the secular is always attempting to defer itself through translations of society into nature and of nature into society, the postsecular is the refusal echoing Carla Jean’s refusal: ‘The coin ain’t have no say. It’s just you.” Manav Ratti captures this well writing, ‘The postsecular is the sign of not just the limits of translation […] but of also of untranslatability itself. […] The postsecular is the sign of a call for a new form of interpretation, one which does not recode prior interpretative systems, and one which does not attempt a convergence of systems where it knows there can be none.”

So, to conclude, the generic secular comes out of a new kind of theory of nature in an attempt not to save secularism, but to speak to the lived reality of something common to creatures: the generic time of suffering. When thinking of any kind of secularity that comes after the postmodern, the postsecular, and the postcolonial (as Basit rightly directs Continental philosophy of religion towards) we have to give attention, make an icon of, the steam of the human. I am dropping the modifier purely, because the steam of the human points towards the trauma of being. The stench that comes out of Job’s mouth is the stench of the human body, it speaks to the “pollution” of his body. When we begin to think human pollution within the ecosystem not as space, but in terms of its time, we may begin to correct our attention.

4 Responses to ““Jail Was Heat”; Or, From the Empty Space of the Secular to the Generic Time of Suffering: A Response to Alex Dubilet (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You think the security guard knows who Marlo is? I assumed he thought Marlo was just some punk kid — and the lack of recognition would further humiliate Marlo (hence the exaggerated response of killing him for talking back).

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Yeah, I think that’s why he says “I know what you are” and emphasizes that he isn’t trying to disrespect him. And also why he hesitates to confront him.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That does make sense now that I reread the dialogue.

    I’m proud that I zeroed in on the most profound point you were making.

  4. alexdubilet Says:

    Anthony thanks for this response – as always, it is incredibly stimulating (and a pleasure!) to think alongside with you.
    I am going to read your article in the next few days, but in the meantime: I appreciate the way you talk about the “the steam of the purely human” because I think you are right that a critique of secularism must be a way to paying attention to the suffering and the bodily, psychic and affective emiseration that secularism both produces and makes invisible, rather than simply a way to make it all doubly invisibly by exalting a theocentric pastness. In calling it the post-secular an event and a call for a new interpretation I take you to be articulating a third possibility foreclosed by the false binary that would be otherwise imposed on thought – between a secularism as an ideology and a political reality, and a theological post-secularism, which is but an even more violent nostalgia. The task instead seems to think, make visible, dwell with and affirming the material reality, the lived of what is common to the creatures, the suffering of what is barred radically by both sides of that equation – by the (secular) World no more than by a (nostalgic) God. In both formations, the element of this material suffering, the forced and perhaps structural exclusions are rendered invisible. What I find most productive in this such a vector for post-secularism is that it does not simply stop at an immanent critique of secularism itself (which has been my frustration from Asad’s line of thinking – whatever else I have gained from it).
    And yes, if the event of the post-secularism is an attempt to struggle against and rearticulate the power relations of the World, then the direction is getting out of here. But, would this mean that we are thinking from Real in order to get out, at all costs, from the hallucinations (and material realities that those hallucinations produce) of the World that forecloses on that very lived reality and materiality of the creatures? And I always wonder to what extent the ‘now’ is a directionality, rather than a resistance to such directionality (and I say this as someone clearly who is deeply on the side of the immanence, ungroundedness, and the subversion of transcendent teleologies).

    Also: You don’t say this explicitly (but come quite close to it), but the fact that, as you mention, Stanfield does not simply ignore the security guard, but in the end has him killed, does demonstrates powerfully how secularism itself is production of power relation that must be violent enforced in order to appear natural in the first place. Here the natural is merely equated with the given insofar as the given always dissimulates the violence that is necessary to make it appear as natural and given in the first place.

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