Fanon, Said, and the attack on the Christian World

In a chapter on Edward Said and secularism, Gil Anidjar ends with the startling claim that one should not understand Said as a proponent of secularism but instead as an anti-Christian thinker.

To summarize a constellation of arguments I frequently discuss: “religion” and “the secular” are ideas which were birthed out a certain Christian vision of itself and the world it was dominating. As Anidjar puts it:

Christianity it is, then, that actively disenchanted its own world by dividing itself into private and public, politics and economics, indeed, religious and secular…Christianity (that is, to clarify this one last time, Western Christendom) judged and named itself, reincarnated itself, as “secular”…Christianity invented the distinction between religious and secular, and thus it made religion. It made religion the problem–rather than itself. And it made it into an object of criticism that needed to be no less than transcended. (Semites, 45-47)

The secular, in short, is the project of Christendom carried on by other means. Or, more precisely, it is a moment within the project of Christendom whereby the Christian West can divert criticism from itself and towards an object it has created and can claim to transcend and dominate: religion. Edward Said’s work should not be seen as “secular,” so that, perhaps unintentionally, Said ends up carrying on the work of Christendom. For Anidjar, Said’s criticism cuts through the religious/secular divide and goes for the heart of the matter: Christianity.

Christianity, in these discussions, is “much more than an idea.” It is

a massive institution, the sum total of philosophical and scientific, economic and political achievements, discursive, administrative, and institutional accomplishments, the singularity and specificity of which are not to be doubted (“culture and imperialism,” “societies for, rather than against, the state,” and so forth). (p. 44)

The “oppositional criticism” of Said launches itself against this complex social network, culture and imperialism, or, as Anidjar clarifies, Christendom. Said’s emphasis falls more consistently on the “cultural” aspects but his work and Anidjar’s summary makes clear it is a whole social, economic, cultural, intellectual, and political project that must be opposed.

There is a danger lurking in my theological appropriations of Fanon, and, for that matter, Said, Anidjar, and a host of other theorists. If this theological work is not grounded in a more thorough materialist critique of the social forms and practices of Christianity-gone-secular imperialism, the intellectual choices I make will not alter, escape, or modify the problematic but will more than likely only end up reproducing and reinforcing it. To read Fanon theologically means to move with him beyond the limiting options–for/against religion; for/against the secular–provided by this Christian world: “We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies restructuring the world” (BSWM, 63).

The problem for Christian theology is that the whole project of Christian imperialism rests on the its claim to uniquely transcend the problematic (of the world, of religion, of the secular) and to guarantee the proper restructuring of the world.

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8 Responses to Fanon, Said, and the attack on the Christian World

  1. anonymous says:

    That’s a great last sentence – it is helpful for an outsider like me who has never read Carter, Fanon, etc.

    I look forward to seeing how you ground theological work in a critique – how you stay consistent with the critique in practice, and whether you ever can ever cease critiquing even as you make positive statements.

    For some reason I would expect all theological work to be grounded in faith.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Thanks for your reply. Not sure if you are the same person who’s been posting–but feel free to post as yourself. I am hoping that “the critique” will continue to stay grounded in and cognizant of the faithfulness of Christ to us.

  2. tasersedge says:

    I find myself wondering how this interacts with recent conservative Catholic (and Catholish Protestant) thinkers’ naming of the threat of ‘secularism’ (First Things and beyond) as *the* enemy of Christianity.

    Also, I know that Christopher Hitchens has had some harsh words for Said’s work. Have you read any of that? It seems at least that he would agree with Said carrying on the work of “Christendom” (although Hitchens might not call it that) in his work.

    CH’s review of the 2003 edition of *Orientalism* for the Atlantic:

    A response to that review:

    CH’s obit for Said in Slate:
    (Some more of their personal relationship and theoretical differences is in Hitchens’ memoir.)

    • Tim McGee says:

      Nick, uh, I mean, Taser,
      On your first point: even vehement critics of “secularism” like Milbank and Cavanaugh end up endorsing some form of the secular–though, for Mibank at least, a secularism under the beneficent guidance of the Christian church. About a year ago, the Catholic Church released a document on the status of the Church in the Middle East which also advocated for an increase of secularism in Middle Eastern countries as well.

      I think your mention of the logic of “the enemy” is helpful (the book Anidjar wrote prior to the one I quoted is, _The Jew, The Arab: a History of the Enemy_). Again, as I’ve paid more attention to Milbank, I recall him trying to set up a kind of triangular relationship where Western Christians and Secularists join together against Islamic/religious extremism, and Western Christians team up with Muslims to fight against secularism. It’s precisely Western Christendom that transcends the religion/secular problematic. Following Said and Anidjar, I think this problematic should be analyzed less as an abstract idea and more as a concrete set of practices within an imperialist framework.

      I haven’t followed Hitchens’ work so I’m not sure I’ll be too helpful in adding more on that front but I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on that regard.

  3. Christian Collins Winn says:

    Hi Tim,

    This is a provocative post. What intrigues me is how/why western Christendom birthed the distinction that you are naming. More specifically, how/why the apocalyptic frame of late medieval Christianity birthed these twins. I think your own critique of the analysis of Milbank and even Cavanaugh is definitely on the right trail. But again, how/why? Is it really to create a distinction that distracts or attracts away critique, or was it in the sincere belief that the distinction itself was somehow of the essence of the thing? That is, was secularity or the modern the new world/new age that late medieval Christianity was longing/searching/claiming to build and guarantee? I tend to move in the direction of the latter, which I think creates other problems.

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and have thoroughly enjoyed seeing where your thinking is taking you.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Thanks for the encouragement and the thoughts. First, I’d like to hear more about the direction your heading, so please share some more or send something my way.

      My inclination on the how/why is to first highlight the theological important of 1492, as a kind of crisis in both thought and practice, and also to think through the transition within the continuity of the Crusades.

      I’ve blogged on here a few different ways to approach the “birth” of religion / secularity in an colonial setting, at one point suggesting that “the secular” and “religion” (as private belief) came from the disconnect between the conversion of space (Europeans establishing cities, organized around a church) and the conversion of people: the social space could be organized without it reflecting the religious practices and beliefs of the people (thus religion becomes about these private beliefs and the secular about the public space). On this reading, it would diverge from both Anidjar and your own account in that it wasn’t “intentional” at all but came from a failure within the process of conversion.

      However, I do want to reclaim what Anidjar brings up, not as an adequate answer to the “why” but as a helpful description of how it does in fact operate. I also think that I’m consistently looking for what trajectories a particular historical narrative will open up for the present. I’m not sure getting the right “birthing” story (how/why) is always the most helpful.

  4. Christian Collins Winn says:

    Thanks for this response Tim.

    My thoughts on this are “under construction” and very much “in process.” In terms of where I’m coming from, my interest in the birthing piece is not so much about “getting it right” as about trying to understand the initial dynamics of production, which I am increasingly convinced are reinscribed by a variety of social processes that recur over and over. So my positing of the significance of the specific kind of apocalyptic that helped produce the modern and all of its various permutations has to do with my own growing sense that modernity/capitalism/colonialism/racism are all at heart apocalyptically structured. The apocalyptic I am referring to is the “Joachimite tradition” which was much larger than Joachim of Fiore and widely embraced throughout Europe. It functioned as a philosophy of history, a political theology, and a social theory. In terms of its dynamics, it intersects with the language you were using in terms of “guarantee,” but also contains a profoundly seductive and powerful, even explosive, teleology, capable of moving and arranging bodies and constructing spaces along the lines of “those who have arrived and those who have not.” In some ways, what I want to eventually want to do is to argue that we must radicalize or rather further particularize Schmitt’s claims about the theological structure of modern politics (and modernity itself?) by positing that this would be even more precise if we saw this structure as not just theological, but as eschatological-apocalyptic.

    For the most part I have been rooting around in the dynamics of colonialism, following the thought of Carter and Jennings, but also bringing to bear the large body of scholarship on the role of apocalyptic not only in the Iberian Atlantic, but also in the puritan colonization and in the initial voyages of Henry the Navigator. What this scholarship shows as these formative events were all framed–and significantly catalyzed–by apocalyptic and draw heavily on the supersessionist logic that others have highlighted.

    What I am wondering about in terms of religion/secular is in whether these categories and their emergence may not also be explicable within the same set of apocalyptic categories/dynamics.

    I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this, and perhaps I need to refine my question, but I wanted to start the conversation with you. We can also continue this via email if you would like.

  5. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks so much for this response. I just finished Taubes’ _Occidental Eschatology_ which was quite interesting but about as much exposure to the Joachimite tradition as I have. I wondered about the connection between his take on the fundamental displacement (“Man has not yet found his place in the Copernican cosmos”) and the imperialistic certainty Fanon describes (the colonial world as “a world cock-sure of itself”), which brings us back to the language of “guarantee.” I’d be more than happy to continue the conversation via email.

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