Landmarks in the Critical Study of Secularism

0816633320.big_ Matthew Scherer over at the SSRC's The Immanent Frame:

In September of 2010, Talal Asad, William E. Connolly, Charles Hirschkind, and I met at the annual American Political Science Association conference to discuss two seminal texts in a recently emerging field of study, which could tentatively be called the critical study of secularism. The texts in question were Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999) and Asad’s Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (2003), each now roughly a decade old.

In preparing for this conversation, we did not set the task of doing justice to the scope and subtlety of these texts but aimed instead to use them as a starting point for taking stock of and thinking about the ground that has been covered in the critical study of secularism since their original publication. What follows here are five questions that emerged for me in re-reading Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular. They aim to draw together common themes, underline divergences, and generally open Asad’s and Connolly’s texts again for discussion.

First question: What is secularism?

It sounds naive, but disagreement about the basic significance of “secularism” is a recurrent problem in today’s discussions. There may, however, be important reasons for the muddle that besets critical literatures on “the secular,” “secularity,” “secularism,” and “secularization,” sending them around this question again and again.

Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular, at any rate, remain two of the most striking, ambitious, and important restatements of the problem of secularism. To be sure, they acknowledge and grapple with the persistence of familiar and, in some sense, indispensable answers: That secularism is simply the separation of church and state. That it is, more specifically, a form of separation that makes religion private while making power and reason public. That secularism is an ideology. That it is an institutional formation that governs the conduct of individuals and communities. Yet they also show how such answers are insufficiently accurate, woefully unhistorical, and incomplete in more fundamental ways.

As Tigers Near Extinction, A Last-Ditch Strategy Emerges

Tiger_recovery_175b Caroline Fraser at Yale Environment 360:

The most venerated predator on Earth, the tiger is also the most vulnerable, described in a recent World Bank document as “enforcement-dependent.” The phrase is borrowed from the medical world, where patients reliant on blood products are known as “transfusion-dependent.” Saved only by scarce conservation dollars and thin ranks of poorly equipped park guards, the tiger’s hold on life is tenuous. Without future infusions of expensive, well-coordinated, state-of-the-art life-support, Panthera tigris is doomed in the wild.

Now, in one of the most high-profile conservation interventions in recent memory, the World Bank is stepping in to try to secure that life support. At a meeting later this month, the bank's president, Robert Zoellick, will seek approval from the leaders of 13 tiger range countries for an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the world’s few remaining tigers and their habitat. At the same time, a group of leading tiger scientists and conservationists is lobbying for a similar effort to protect the tiger’s last remaining breeding populations.

The tiger’s situation has grown desperate in a mere century. A hundred years ago, there were over 100,000 in the wild, with more than 40,000 in India alone. Currently, the total number of tigers worldwide is calculated at fewer than 3,500. Three subspecies — Javan, Bali, and Caspian tigers — vanished during the 20th century. A fourth, the South China tiger, has not been seen in the wild for more than 25 years and is assumed to have gone extinct during the 1990s.


Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_05 Nov. 21 19.21 It is to William Makepeace Thackeray that the English language owes the colloquial use of the word “snob”—a formerly obscure term that the novelist popularized in a series of satirical essays published in Punch in the mid-nineteenth century. In them, Thackeray—who went on to write “Vanity Fair”—attempted a taxonomy of the type, ranging from the Military Snob (“With his great stupid pink face and yellow moustachios”) to Sporting Snobs (“Those happy beings in whom Nature has implanted a love of slang”) and the Dinner-giving Snob (“a man who goes out of his natural sphere of society to ask Lords, Generals, Aldermen, and other persons of fashion, but is niggardly of his hospitality towards his own equals”). “I have (and for this gift I congratulate myself with a Deep and Abiding Thankfulness) an eye for a Snob,” Thackeray wrote. “You must not judge hastily or vulgarly of Snobs: to do so shows that you are yourself a Snob.”

This last observation has been taken as a motto by Snob, a Russian-language magazine that, having been launched in Russia and Europe, has just been rolled out in the United States. Snob, which is being funded by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who recently acquired the New Jersey Nets and an interest in a big chunk of Brooklyn real estate, looks like a cross between Tatler and The New York Review of Books, printed on the kind of paper stock usually reserved for royal invitations. It features articles by Gary Shteyngart and Salman Rushdie, photography by Ellen von Unwerth and Francesco Carrozzini, and an alarming cover price of eight dollars. It is aimed at international Russians—those successful, educated cosmopolites who might live part of the time in London or New York but who, the folk at Snob like to say, think in Russian.

More here.

Evolutionary Arms Race Between Plant-Eating Insects and Host Plants Illuminated

From Science Daily:

ScreenHunter_04 Nov. 21 18.57 Scientists trying to get a grip on the arms race between plant-eating insects and the defenses put up by their hosts just got a boost from new research by a University of Arizona entomologist published in the early view edition of Molecular Ecology.

Noah Whiteman, an assistant professor in the UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, has found a miniature ecosystem consisting of a plant and a tiny fly that spends its entire life cycle on the plant.

What makes this system special is the fact that both its key players — the plant and the insect — are what scientists call genetically tractable model organisms: holy grails of any serious science that aim to unravel biological mechanisms down to the level of genes and proteins and signaling molecules.

Decades of research and knowledge rest upon two of the most famous and widely used workhorses in genetics research: Arabidopsis thaliana, an unassuming, weedy plant in the mustard family, and Drosophila melanogaster, familiar to many as the tiny, red-eyed fruit flies hovering around the produce aisle.

However, until now, scientists wanting to study interactions between plant-eating insects and the plants they befell were out of luck: Fruit flies, as the name implies, feed on rotting fruit and couldn't care less about Arabidopsis plants, and vice versa.

Enter Scaptomyza flava, a fly so closely related to Drosophila melanogaster it shares most of its genes, and with a strong appetite for Arabidopsis. Female Scaptomyza flies prick a hole into the plant tissue and lay their eggs inside. Once the larvae hatch, they spend their childhood as leaf miners: tunneling their way through the leaf, munching on the nutritious plant tissue.

More here.

sudden death


I think sometimes of Kierkegaard when he wondered, piteously, “if there were no sacred bond which united mankind, if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion was always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw, how empty then and comfortless life would be!” Indeed, how empty and comfortless. Scoff, if you will gentle reader, at the pathetic hopes and fears of a fan looking on at the thoughtless and fruitless activity on the field of play and wondering if there will be some sign, if something will come to pass upon that ground. Scoff, but know that it is a human being you are scoffing at, alone and tiny in the face of vast uncertainties.

more from me at The Owls here.

The Human (Muslim) Drone

Vocal as they are about being bombed from the sky, most Pakistanis – including many on the Left – suddenly lose their voice when it comes to the human (Muslim) drone.

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Viewpoint:

19nov-st1Full Pakistan has many more drones than America . These are mullah-trained and mass-produced in madrassas and militant training camps. Their handlers are in Waziristan, not in Nevada . Like their aerial counterparts, they do not ask why they must kill. However, their targets lie among their own people, not in some distant country. Collateral damage does not matter.

The human drone is infinitely better manufactured than its aerial counterpart. The motor, feedback, and control systems have been engineered to high precision by natural evolution over a million years. This drone never misses its target, which could be a mosque, Muslim shrine, hospital, funeral, or market. But military and intelligence headquarters have been targeted with deadly precision as well.

The walking (or driving) drone’s trail is far bloodier than that of the MQ-1B or MQ-9; body parts lie scattered across Pakistan . Detection is almost impossible. The destructive power has steadily increased. The earlier version had a simple bomb strapped on the back but the newer one carries plastic explosives packed into vests both on the front and back of the chest. For additional killing power, the explosives are surrounded with ball bearings and nails. This killing machine is far cheaper than anything General Dynamics can make. Part payment is made by monthly installments to the family, and the rest is in hoor-credits, encashable in janat-al-firdous.

What must be the last thoughts of the bomber as he sits in the eighth row of mosque worshippers, moments before he reduces dozens of his fellow Muslims to bloodied corpses? Can he think beyond instrumental terms? As a murder weapon, the human drone has no room for moral judgment, doubt, remorse, or conscience.

More here.

Romain Gary: au revoir et merci

Romain Gary was the most glamorous of literary conmen. He wrote novels under many names, won major prizes and married an iconic actress.

David Bellos in The Telegraph:

Gary_main_1759264f In November 1945, France’s national philosopher, a bespectacled gnome named Jean-Paul Sartre, took Simone de Beauvoir to a café on Boulevard Saint-Germain to meet a young man whose first novel had just won a literary prize. He told her he wanted to find out who had written such a moving, metaphorical defence of the Resistance.

The couple found a tall, black-haired and handsome stranger wearing an RAF bomber jacket that was not a fashion accessory. Romain Gary was only 31, but he had already run through several lives, and, in a literary career built on spectacularly creative lies, would go on to make false selves something of a signature.

Born under a different name in Russia, he had been brought by his ambitious mother to Nice when he was just 14. On first seeing the sunlit Med, the boy from the gloomy East decided that French would be his mother tongue.

He spoke Russian and Yiddish as native languages and had acquired Polish properly, too. (Vilna, where Gary was born in 1914, was part of Poland between 1921 and 1939.) He knew German because he’d taken it at school, but at his lycée in Nice he’d won first prize in French composition, and had in his youth drafted countless French novels, now lost.

More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]

Designing Life: What’s Next for J. Craig Venter?

From Edge:

Craig (CBS) The microbiologist whose scientists have already mapped the human genome and created what he calls “the first synthetic species” says the next breakthrough could be a flu vaccine that takes hours rather than months to produce. Dr. Craig Venter talks to Steve Kroft and takes him on a tour of his lab on “60 Minutes,” this Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. ET/PT. DNA programs all living things and now that his team has been able to create an organism with entirely man made DNA Venter argues that the potential to bioengineer useful things is nearly limitless. “I see in the future bioengineered almost everything you can imagine that we use,” says Venter, the founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a non-profit research lab, and also Synthetic Genomics Inc., a for-profit biotech company.

“The first things will start to come out in the next few years…possibly, next year's flu vaccine could come from these synthetic DNA processes,” he tells Kroft. “Instead of months to make a new vaccine each year, we could do it in 24 hours or less.” Venter is working with a pharmaceutical company to try to make the vaccine. He also sees possibilities for bioengineering other medicines, food and clean sources of energy – a project Exxon Mobil has committed $300 million to. Venter takes Kroft into a greenhouse, where he is trying to genetically enhance a type of algae that feeds on carbon dioxide and produces oil that can be refined into gasoline. It's the perfect equation – reduce the harmful gas that is believed to cause global warming and create a fuel at the same time. But it's not so simple “The question is on the scale that it needs to be done at,” says Venter. “[It would require] facilities the size of San Francisco.”

More here.

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by Barack Obama

From The Guardian:

Sitting-Bull-spread-005 Each portrait faces a question in the text. “Have I told you that you are creative?” shows Obama's daughters looking at a girl holding brushes and a palette, who in turn is looking across the page at herself in the future as Georgia O'Keeffe. This image of the painter at work expressively captures the feeling of her artwork, without being merely a pastiche. “Have I told you that you are smart?” shows Obama's daughters again, together with the girl with brushes and palette, looking at a boy holding a pencil and looking across at the mature Albert Einstein. He is dramatically shown on a hill against a starry sky, holding a pencil and notepad, the pages of which are floating away across the rooftops. “Have I told you that you are an explorer?” includes the two daughters with the young O'Keeffe, Einstein, King, Billie Holiday, looking at a boy holding a toy rocket who is looking across at himself as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

“He watched the world from way up high
and we watched his lunar landing leaps,
which made us brave enough
to take our own big, bold strides.”

As the book develops, we see all these children linking together, exchanging brushes, palette, pencil, baseball bat, book and set-square as they congregate in one enormous family, which now includes children not featured before: “Have I told you that America is made up of people of every kind?” How I wish he'd written that the world is made up of people of every kind. The last page shows the president walking into the distance holding the hands of his children:

“Have I told you that they are all part of you?
Have I told you that you are one of them,
And that you are the future?
And have I told you that I love you?”

This beautiful illustration reinforces the theme by showing their shadows as being joined together – as if they are one being.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Sawdust Man

Now, father, when I think of you,
I think most often of sawdust—
Fine, sandy grainings of the stuff
Sifting down my collar, my arms,
Pooling at the base of my spine.
Together we slaughtered forests,
Fashioned boards into makeshift barns,
Sawed, planed, sanded, hammered in place.
And all the time you coughed and swore,
Sputtered and raged, and I looked on
With the son’s sad, detached concern.
Oh most imperfect carpenter—
Shall we never again approach
Those trembling trees with saws in hand,
Never again inhale their flesh
And from their muscles build a child?

by by Don Stinson
Hamilton Stone Review #22



Two kinds of imagination: the strong, the promiscuous. One can exist without the other. Homer’s and Dante’s were strong, Ovid’s and Ariosto’s promiscuous. An important distinction when praising poets, or anyone, for their imagination. A strong imagination fast makes a man unhappy because his feeling runs so deep, but a promiscuous imagination cheers him because of its variety, because it nimbly visits then leaves all its objects and does so with a heady heedlessness. The two have very different characters. The first weighty, impassioned, usually (nowadays) melancholic, with deep emotion and passion, all fraught with life hugely suffered. The other playful, light, fleet, inconstant in love, high spirited, incapable of really strong, enduring passions and mental pain, quick to console itself even during the hardest times, etc. These two characters also yield clear portraits of Dante and Ovid: you see how the difference in their poetry corresponds exactly to the difference in their lives. Even more, you see how differently Dante and Ovid experienced exile. The same faculty of the human spirit is thus mother to contrary effects, qualities so different as to make the imagination seem virtually two different faculties. I don’t think that the deep imagination inspires courage, because it makes danger, pain, etc., so much more real and immediate than reflection does. What deliberation tells, deep imagination shows. And I believe that an imagination that does foster courage—such poets certainly don’t lack imagination, because enthusiasm always goes hand in hand with imagination and derives from it—belongs more to the deliberative, promiscuous type.

more from Giacomo Leopardi’s 19th century daybook at Poetry here.

Q&A: Noam Chomsky

1289506486QA-chomsky-380pxDavid Samuels in Tablet:

You grew up in a home that was heavily influenced by Ahad Ha’am, the father of cultural Zionism.

My father was a great sympathizer of Ahad Ha’am. Every Friday night we would read Hebrew together, and often the reading was Ahad Ha’am’s essays. He was the founding figure of what came to be called cultural Zionism, meaning that there should be a Zionist revival in Israel, in Palestine, and it should be a cultural center for the Jewish people. He wrote in Hebrew, which was novel, because Hebrew was then the language of prayer and the Bible. He saw Jews as primarily a Diaspora community that needed a cultural center that had a physical presence, but he was very sympathetic to the Palestinians. In fact he wrote some very sharp essays, after a visit to Palestine, criticizing the way the new settlers were treating the indigenous population. He said, “You can’t treat people like that.” Also, on practical grounds, he didn’t want to create enemies. A Jewish cultural center in Palestine was his ideal.

Now I won’t swear to the precise accuracy of this, because these are childhood memories, but I remember reading together with my father an essay that Ahad Ha’am wrote about Moses. The basic idea was there are two Moseses—the first is the historical Moses, if there was such a person, and the other is the image of Moses that was constructed and came down through the ages and occupies an important place in the national mythology.

Ahad Ha’am was an early advocate of the idea that later became famous with [the Marxist political scientist] Ben Anderson, when he wrote his books about how nations are imagined communities. He said there’s an imagined—I don’t think he used the term—but there’s an imagined Jewish community, in which Moses plays a central role, and it really doesn’t matter if there was a historical Moses or not. That’s part of the national myth, which is a sophisticated version of what [author] Shlomo Sand was trying to get at. Sand debunks the historical Moses, but from Ha’am’s point of view, it makes no difference.

it all changes


The west is still the “best”—if by that we mean richest, strongest, and most inventive. True, China now has the second biggest economy in the world and Japan the third; but Europe and north America still generate two thirds of the world’s wealth, own two thirds of its weapons, and spend more than two thirds of its R&D dollars—all despite having less than one-seventh of its population. The west still rules the roost. But will this last? No. This much we know, because history tells us so. As Winston Churchill (no mean historian himself) put it: “The farther backwards you can look, the farther forwards you are likely to see.” If we look back far enough (to the last ice age), on a scale big enough (the whole planet), we can indeed identify the forces that drive history—and where they are taking us. The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.

more from Ian Morris at Prospect Magazine here.