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On Styx and the Secular

Posted in: General,Practices by Tom Beaudoin on October 24, 2012

I’m still thinking about the work of anthropologist Talal Asad on religion and secularity.

There is at least one particular theological field through which to engage Asad: practical theology. This is so due to Asad’s relentless attention to practices, whether on the level of the “materiality” of modern secularity, or of theories about modern secular life that, as he regularly argues, “articulate” (by which I take him to mean both delimit and express) changes in practice.

Practical theology, after all, since the great philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 18th/19th centuries, has taken the management of Christian — and particularly ecclesial — practice as its specialty. Such a practical-theological engagement with Asad seems more than warranted when Asad, as he so often does, puts on the table fragments of a theory of modern practice, such as in:

” ‘Cultures’ are indeed fragmented and interdependent, as critics never tire of reminding us. But cultures are also unequally displaced practices. Whether cultural displacement is a means of ensuring political domination or merely its effect, whether it is a necessary stage in the growth of universal humanity or an instance of cultural takeover, is not the point here. What I want to stress is that cultures may be conceived not only in visual terms (‘clearly bounded,’ ‘interlaced,’ ‘fragmented,’ and so forth) but also in terms of the temporalities of power by which—rightly or wrongly—practices constituting particular forms of life are displaced, outlawed, and penalized, and by which conditions are created for the cultivation of different kinds of human.” (Asad, Formations of the Secular, pp. 153-154)

Asad is concerned about inequalities in power as manifest in the practices intrinsic to modern (“liberal”) subjectivity. To get hold of how these inequalities came to be, Asad works in a writing style dense, elaborate, and precise, even ornate; he uses references erudite and exceedingly broad (from theology, history, sociology, anthropology, law, performance studies, psychology, economics); and his thematic is at once singular and sprawling: singular in an attempt — most familiar now as “postcolonial” — to archive the cultural exclusions that helped produce our modern achievements and assumed Western categories (like the “secular” itself), and sprawling in his multiple ways of delimiting the topic through indirect investigations, feeling his way multidisciplinarily not for what the secular “is” or “means,” but for “formations of the secular.”

Listening to Asad as I read, I overheard Styx’s song “Man in the Wilderness.” Here is the song, with lyrics:

YouTube Preview Image

I overheard it because Asad argues that secular experience is a particular form of license for violent practice, untethered from the wisdom of older religious traditions like Islam and Christianity, which understood that intentional discipline, ritual, practice and performance were ingredient to building humans. The leading secularizing nations are the ones that, through the legal


Somatica Divina 31: Styx, “Crystal Ball”

Posted in: General,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on October 22, 2009