“Posthumanism and Postsecular History” Panel Presentation

Webinar Panel. Posthumanism Research Institute. Brock University. March 8, 2021.


Hello Everyone,

Thanks very much for having me on this panel. For my contribution to our discussion of posthumanism and spirituality I am going to say a bit about my forthcoming book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time. Among other things, the book approaches the main themes of this panel by focusing on what it means to be ‘post’ in the first instance, and then by examining religious and theological ways that the prefix ‘post’ is configured and used. The book is primarily concerned with the specific prefix ‘post’ that precedes the term ‘postsecular,’ but I hope that my critique of postsecular thinking can also be relevant to the conversation on posthumanism, and I will make some of those connections in tentative ways at the end of this presentation.

In short, my book project advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, I am concerned with how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, I am concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – specifically how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are each used in value-laden ways.

My book undertakes a critique of theopolitical periodization and focuses on how the prefix ‘post’ that precedes the postsecular implies certain problematic relationships with what it precedes. Specifically, I want to challenge uses of the term ‘postsecular’ where the prefix ‘post’ is used to imply possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality.

Some uses of the term ‘postsecular’ imply that to be postsecular means to possess or fix upon the secular in order to surpass it. Some other uses of the term ‘postsecular’ imply that to be postsecular is to newly succeed the secular in a linear and progressive way, such that the secular age would be surpassed by some novel time or new era. Other uses of the term ‘postsecular’ imply that to be postsecular means to finally be free of secularity. And still other uses of the term ‘postsecular’ take up and use the prefix ‘post’ instrumentally as both a conceptual and technical means toward normative ends.

Over the course of six chapters, while covering a variety of thinkers in and around political theology, I attempt to dispute and question the idea that the ‘postsecular’ can be honestly or helpfully conceived of in these ways. Rather than relations of possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality, I argue that the prefix ‘post’ is best used to name complex and contextual mediations between historical and temporal terms.

Possession

Over the course of the book, I try to both analyze and point beyond these limited ways of thinking about the postsecular. In the first chapter I extend my thesis that periodizations of time and history are best characterized as theopolitical economizations that apportion meaning and value to certain terms at certain times, for example, making some things present and relegating other things to the past. At the same time, I attempt to resist thinking that any ‘post’ term could really fix upon or possess its object enough to definitively surpass or overcome it.

Novelty

After that, I look to the implicit claim of novelty in the prefix ‘post’ that precedes the postsecular. Rather than thinking that the postsecular entanglements of religion and secularity we experience are fundamentally new, I look back to a group called the “Collegiants” who met in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century and challenged distinctions between spiritualism and rationalism. By looking back at the Dutch Golden Age and its bloom of civic sociability at the beginning of the western public sphere, I aim to challenge the notion that our current conflicts of values between secularity and religiosity are as new as modern thinking would suggest.

Freedom

Then, in Chapter 3, I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot fully perform a radical break that would free itself from what it precedes. Drawing on the work of Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes, I suggest that we ought to understand history as something both free to use for the purposes of freedom, and free from instrumental use. Drawing on Taubes’ dissertation Occidental Eschatology, I argue that history is something that we can resource for the cause of emancipation, but something that will always refuse to be straightforwardly used. Through my reading of Taubes I want to challenge the idea that the postsecular can free itself from the secular that it historicizes.  

Meaning

My fourth chapter then departs from the broad scope of intellectual history to the politics of autobiography and narrative. By comparing how narratives are periodized in Augustine’s Confessions and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra I suggest that postsecular entanglements and mediations are more robust when they avoid making meaning or meaninglessness compulsory. Instead of seeing meaning as something we need to either wholly accept or refuse, I want to make room for both the providential pilgrimage of an Augustine and the wandering aimlessness of a Zarathustra.

Instrumentality

Most relevant to our panel, in the fifth chapter I turn to posthumanism and the limits of categorically distinguishing between humanity and technology – and here is where I sympathize with David Wills’ suggestion that there is no way to think back on a historical origin point before humanity and technology were enmeshed. My sixth chapter focuses on Bernard Stiegler’s “invention of the human” in Technics and Time, and his contrasting of Promethean foresight and Epimethean hindsight. In the fifth chapter I further develop the notion that periodization is a theopolitical act that economizes and apportions time and history in powerful ways, and I argue that periodizations like the one found in the terms ‘postsecular’ and ‘posthuman’ perform technological acts of time management that economize and apportion meaning and value, and technical extensions that make and craft through instrumental relationships between means and ends. Through a reading of Stiegler and others I conceive of the periodizing gesture in the prefix ‘post’ as a kind of technical prosthesis that is open to the distortions of instrumentality, Eurocentrism, and the capitalist capture of time.

Waiting and Figural Thinking

Then in a sixth chapter I look to the work of radical Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle and focus on her phenomenology of waiting. For Sölle, certain ways of waiting make expectation irreducible to experience, and can serve as a way of comporting oneself toward the future that avoids falling into the problems of either optimism or pessimism. Sölle’s interpretation of waiting, I think, serves to challenge some of the progressive inclinations of the ‘post’ prefix without compromising the desire for a better future.

Then in conclusion I continue my effort to provide some remedial strategies for the aporias of the postsecular by looking to Erich Auerbach’s figural way of connecting origins and ends in figures and fulfilments. I think that Auerbach has a lot to offer when he conceives of reality and literature using figural connections that do not resort to relations of linearity, causality, or necessity. Instead of taking up time in possessive, new, coercive, or instrumental ways, figural thinking provides a way forward that refuses to either double-down on the problems of narrative (such as teleological providence) and refuses to abandon all coherent narrative to fragmentation.

Post-covid, Post-Trump

Lastly, I have just written a brief postscript that I think draws out the relevance of this work for our current political moment. Given the serious limitations of the ‘post’ prefix – its relations of possession, novelty, freedom, instrumentality, and it implied overcoming of the past – it should strike us that we are now hearing about a “post-covid” and “post-Trump” world. The Trump presidency and covid-19 pandemic are two world-historical events, like 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin wall, that will serve as periodizing markers for dividing time and history into a before and after. In this context I hope that my work can serve as a reminder that we can never move past the past in such definitive terms. The past always returns in symptoms and memories that make the past ever-present, and so what matters is how that return is configured. Although ‘post’ designations have limits, I do see plenty of potential in the prefix ‘post’ for discussing the problems of time and history in the tensions between religiosity and secularity. My overall approach to the prefix ‘post’ is to use it refer to mediation and entanglement rather than overcoming and succession.

Postsecular? Posthuman?

But how does this bear on posthumanism? Although posthumanism is a complex and multifaceted field of study that admits to no programmatic summary statement or synthesis, I do notice that the term ‘posthuman’ consistently names movements beyond anthropocentrism and species superiority. However, movements ‘past’ always have a complex relationship with the past they seek to pass.

In my attempt to articulate a postsecular history that both reminds postsecular thinkers of the politics of history and analyzes how the term “postsecular” itself performs historical mediations, I have assumed that the prefix ‘post’ implies relationships of possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality in relation to that which it precedes.

But my questions for our discussion are: can the same be said for the posthuman? Does posthumanism employ similar periodizations as postsecularity? How might the prefix that precedes the postsecular be an instrumental form of periodization that troubles relationships between technology and humanity?