November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

prospective MA thesis abstract. obviously subject to revision, &etc. working to complete a draft by mid-december.

edit: this is the final version. the thesis introduction is available here.

At the end of “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?”, the first chapter of his Formations of the Secular, Talal Asad provides a dense discussion of two conceptions of the secular “available to anthropology today.” The first concept is developed through Paul de Man’s discussion of Romantic symbol, and the second through Walter Benjamin’s discussion of baroque allegory. Asad concludes that Benjamin’s approach is more helpful for addressing the “ambiguous connections between the secular and modern politics,” and then moves on in the next chapters to discuss agency, pain, and cruelty in relation to embodiment. But the opposition between symbol and allegory has a long European heritage, with distinct periods, methods, and tropes associated with each. I first situate Asad’s discussion of symbol and allegory with reference to turns in the history of rhetoric. Second, I follow Benjamin in differentiating the Trauerspiel from tragedy, and argue against claims variously made for the tragic sensibility of Asad or the tragic ethos of secularism. Attuning ourselves ethnographically to the temporality of Benjamin’s allegory, I then suggest, can help us move away both from narratives of secular disenchantment and the easy opposition between secular/homogenous and traditional/heterogenous time. Finally, by describing Benjamin’s allegory as a way to address the relationship between the secular and modern politics, Asad makes a critical intervention into contemporary debates on political theology. I thus read Asad’s comments on symbol and allegory as continuous with his explicit comments on Carl Schmitt, that is, as a call to rethink the politics of sovereignty.


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