*This is hopefully the beginning of a short series of posts, but I make no guarantees that I’ll not procrastinate and then eventually drop off… :)
Last night, I was re-reading what is, for the most part, in my opinion, an excellent essay by Daniel Barber. The essay was included in the After the Postsecular and the Postmodern collection by Smith and Whistler (Here is a review that I did a while back on the volume). Entitled “Secularism, Immanence, and the Philosophy of Religion,” the essay argues that both ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ are fictive significations that Christianity has created in its establishment of transcendence. To be more precise, for Barber (citing the work of Daniel Boyarin), Christianity’s novelty is precisely in its creation of belief-based religion as a serial category. He of course is not ignorant of the existence of the cumulative cultural practices prior to Christianity’s emergence that are now classified as ‘religion.’ However, as he notes, “[Such] practices were not understood as modes of belonging to something called ‘religion’” (153). It was only after Christianity’s emergence that belief became the barometer by which its own, and hence other systems’, validity would be measured; the latter accomplished through the identification and differentiation of and between orthodoxy and heresy.
Once the plane of religion had been erected, a standard of judgment was instituted: only those systems and/or persons who have right belief are deemed acceptable; the rest, heretical. In Barber’s words, “Right Christian belief emerges only in tandem with wrong belief; Christianity dialectically constitutes itself by constituting heresies… There must be a determinate other, a determinate outside, if there is to be a determination of a Christian inside” (155) It is, therefore, the invention of religion at the hands of Christianity that prepared the way for an alternate plane to also be invented. The alternate plane under consideration is the ‘secular.’ In one sense, what this means is that Christianity had already unwittingly prepared a doxological space of opposition to itself in its own self-constitution. It also means that the secular, as that series which sees itself in opposition to religion, is itself caught within a pre-constituted logic of transcendence. Failing to view itself as ‘an enactment,’ the secular makes universal and ahistorical claims, as though it were governed by a primal and pure logic; it claims itself as the discourse of the Real – the genitive here can mean that (1) the secular derives from the Real, (2) the secular attests to the Real, and (3) the secular is the Real. This installation of the secular is viewed by Barber as the creation of a transcendent plane “insofar as it provides a point of reference that stands outside and above every particular formation of life” (159). Assuming itself as the exceptional discourse, the secular neglects its own character as invented.
Therefore, both religion and the secular are invented significations that establish transcendent planes (or ‘vantages) from which judgments (in the Kantian sense) are made. In other words, they are master discourses that set parameters for signification. But signification, as such, is not something to bemoan. As Barber notes, signification is unavoidable. However, for Barber (and on this point I am in full agreement), rather than signification being wedded to a transcendent logic (as in the cases of religion and secularity), it must be “subjected to the rigors of immanence” (167). What this means is a deconstructive process of invention and disruption must guide signification. Positing a Spinozist-type immanence, Barber claims that the latter is excessive, and as such properly unnameable. It is that plane of which Deleuze speaks in his essay, “Immanence: a life”: it is ‘sheer power, utter beatitude.’ Only by thinking from this transcendental field can signification avoid establishing ontological hierarchy.
Immanence is therefore viewed as unavoidably productive (and thus signifying) and also excessively resistant to nominal capture. Atelic in nature, immanence does not posit permanent valuations, but rather it experiments with creative fictions. Religion and secular are thus, from the vantage of an immanent logic, fictive significations produced by a necessary power of immanence. This is not to say that religion and secular are necessary in se; just that the process which invented them is. The way forward for Barber is therefore not to fight against either religion or the secular but rather to bypass them altogether through perpetual signification. In his words, “[The way forward] is not to not name immanence, but to keep naming it. It is not to say that the dominant signification is false, but to exercise what Deleuze calls ‘the powers of the false,’ the capacity to turn the falsity of the necessarily produced fiction of immanence against immanence’s capture by the purportedly true fiction” (170). What I take this to mean is that signification is the lie that tells the truth. That is, signification is that process of creation and disruption that both invents concepts for use but that also realizes that such concepts are fictions… they are tools… they are placeholders – tools and placeholders that aid in further creation and that tame the excess of immanence’s unbounded and indeterminate productivity.
While some of the above was deliberate interpretation of Barber’s article, I believe it was a fairly faithful rendering of the essay. That said, there are a few points from the essay that I want to dwell on a bit further in the coming days/weeks: (1) the problem with naming immanence’s surplus ‘Nature’, (2) the way in which significations are tools, (3) the relationship between ‘concept’ and ‘signification’, and (4) for lack of a better term just now, meta-signification.