Bruce Robbins: Response to Akeel Bilgrami

Bruce Robbins is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

[Colin Jager’s response, which Bruce Robbins’s piece refers to, can be found here.]

I’m grateful to Colin Jager for attaching this renewal of the “Occidentialism” conversation immediately and firmly to the upcoming election. Akeel Bilgrami’s Critical Inquiry article (Spring 2006) suggested that the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 was in large part the result of the “shallowness of the Left diagnosis,” which saw the red states’ bitterness and turn to religion as “consequences of the market.” The Republicans won, Bilgrami argues, because their analysis was “less shallow.” Looking deeper, they saw, correctly for Bilgrami, that the real problem was “something with a much wider and longer reach than market society, something that subsumes market society, that is, … the thick ideal of scientific rationality.” The so-called “values voters” who went Republican in the name of religion were very properly turning against the secular/ scientific rationality of the Left, which could not give them “values to live by.”

Where are these values voters today? According to the New York Times/CBS poll reported in the Times on May 5, 2008, voters who were asked “Does the candidate share the values of most Americans?” responded exactly the same for Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama, 60%. John McCain trailed only slightly at 58%. A sizeable minority apparently feels that the candidates do not share its values (presumably anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-immigrant, and so on), but that minority is not positioned to decide anything. In other words, the strategy of seizing comparative advantage by claiming to speak for “values” has all but disappeared from this year’s political contest. In my earlier reply to Bilgrami, I had proposed that even in 2004 the “values” issue was not in fact decisive. To me at least, the new poll data confirm that this issue was never the deeper and truer reading of long-term American politics that Bilgrami, among others, saw in it. And as the failing US economy has re-asserted its prominence as voter issue #1, it has not become more plausible to think that voters are moved by their repulsion from scientific rationality and hunger for enchantment more than they are by market-generated unemployment, foreclosures, gas prices, food prices, and actual physical hunger. There may be strong arguments for the re-enchantment of the world, but in 2008 political urgencies are not among them.

I’m comfortable talking politics here, which is to say talking at the level of educated common sense, because I have no illusions about my ability to engage with Bilgrami at the level of technical philosophy. In the last sentence of his response-to-my-response (Critical Inquiry Spring 2007), Bilgrami offers a gloss on what enchantment means: “the oughts are there in nature and need no derivation.” I’m told that some philosophers (among them John Searle) have indeed argued that under certain conditions ought can be derived from is. I’m also told that this position has not won anything like general acceptance even among professional philosophers. I can imagine at least some reason for taking this idea on: knowing more about the distant impact of my actions on the natural environment (is) might well change my sense of my ethical obligations (ought). But I don’t think this is what Bilgrami means, or what his argument would mean if taken seriously by the non-philosophers like myself who seem to be the implicit addressees of his original essay. So if I offer this statement as a concise summary of the differences between Bilgrami and myself, I do so on the assumption that we arguing at a non-technical level.

My position is that disenchantment is the wrong diagnosis, and re-enchantment is the wrong prescription. Values come from ongoing collaborative efforts to do justice to the common human social world and not from “nature”– though how nature should be understood would have to be the subject of a longer post than this. Anyone who says otherwise is actually deriving values (falsely) from nature, not happening upon them there by means of a higher attentiveness. I agree with Bilgrami that we need better values than we have. We certainly need better ones than we are in the habit of organizing our societies around. And we can’t expect to get them from what Bilgrami calls scientific rationality–here Bilgrami and I agree completely. But in my opinion, we can’t expect to get our values from nature either. Thinking that nature is suffused with value, as Bilgrami proposes, means a great deal more than that nature has value for us (of course it does). It means thinking nature tells us (tells all humans everywhere, without regard to difference of place, time, or culture) that we should never eat pork or that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I accept one of these two imperatives. But in doing so I don’t pretend I’m obeying a kind of naturally-inscribed scripture or the same kind of laws that make the planets circle the sun. To think that I was would be the functional equivalent of believing in a deity who has kindly created a meaningful universe for us, pre-adapted to human social arrangements. It’s a sweet thought, and I can understand why so many people over the centuries have been drawn to it. But secularist that I am, I hope more and more people will manage to do without it. This will probably require (here I express my loyalty to Barack Obama’s politically unfortunate remark in April) more small-town Americans having secure jobs and secure housing and, for that matter, more secular-humanist education.

If I’m wrong about this, as I may be– if enchantment and its vision of an animate, value-laden nature is not the pre-schooler’s cartoon world I imagine, one where the animals are cuddly and nice and the planets sing little songs to each other across the solar system– all I can say is that I’m open to instruction. Is it “natural” to think of marriage as between a man and a woman? That’s certainly what those who speak in nature’s name tell us. It would be a genuine step forward in this conversation for Bilgrami to say more about what he thinks enchantment actually looks like, what particular values he thinks do inhere in nature, how we can tell the difference between what nature tells us and what its interpreters tell us. In the meantime, I can only speculate that he might mean what others seem to mean. For example, Charles Taylor. Taylor, like Bilgrami, seems to believe that today’s secular culture has stopped us from taking in the messages that nature is perpetually sending in our direction. The world is disenchanted because we are now “buffered,” unable to enter into dialogue with the dense and eagerly communicative spiritual population that inhabits the natural world.

Taylor organizes his A Secular Age around a very smart question: “what stopped people (that is, almost everybody) from being able to adopt stances of unbelief in 1500?” His first answer is “the enchanted world; in a cosmos of spirits and forces, some of them evil and destructive, one had to hold on to whatever was conceived to be the mainstay of good power, our bulwark against evil.” The enchanted world was a world which everyone believed to be full of spirits and forces. If you didn’t get the good ones on your side, you felt powerless against the demonic ones. This cosmos is now gone, Taylor says, not in the sense that the spirits and forces don’t exist, but in the sense that we have a great deal of trouble recognizing them. “The buffered self begins to find the idea of spirits, moral forces, causal powers with a purposive bent, close to incomprehensible.” Enchantment is not identical with religion. One of Taylor’s brilliant themes is about how the rise of monotheism ironically undercuts the quasi-universal belief in demonic powers, thus preparing the way for a later disenchanting secularism. But with its interventionist spirits hovering around every tree and stone, enchantment clearly falls within the definition of religion to which Taylor subscribes, involving “either supernatural entities with powers of agency, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose, which have the capacity to set the conditions of, or to intervene in, human affairs.” To call for a re-enchantment of the world would seem to entail demanding a reprise of this vision of how human affairs are intervened in by outside agents or powers with moral agendas of their own. I can’t see how more belief of this sort would undo any of the world’s most salient forms of misery, except maybe the miserable necessity of looking the causes of misery in the face. Ecology doesn’t need enchantment, and in my opinion would be hurt more than helped by it. (If Bilgrami is playing to the Reagan Democrats, adding spirituality to tree-hugging is probably not the formula he wants.) Perhaps because of the limits of my secular viewpoint, I can’t see what else the re-enchantment of the world might consist of. I await further details.

I note in passing that the decisive element in Taylor’s view of enchantment is power. In the passage above at least, people before 1500 needed to think religiously because they needed to protect themselves from harm. Religion was (and for many obviously still is) about the power to get something desirable. Whether security or (as for so many recent non-European converts to Christianity) modernity. This explains the otherwise strange historical fact, magnanimously noted by Taylor, that religions can be successfully imposed and deposed by force. Force was not extraneous to religion; it was what religion was about. The stronger spirits win. I say this not to claim Taylor as a fellow materialist (there are no thoroughgoing materialists in the foxholes of the English department, and I’m no exception.) I say it so as to return briefly to one further point of difference between me and Bilgrami– namely, power. According to Bilgrami, the crucial difference between Orientalism (“our” negative stereotyping of “them”) and Occidentalism (“their” negative stereotyping of “us”) is that we have power and they don’t. Bilgrami also claims that I made a gross mistake in saying that Gandhi wielded power. If I put these two claims together (I speak again with the heuristic crudeness that seems most useful for such a brief exchange), I get the speculative conclusion that for Bilgrami it’s always the bad guys who have power, and it’s by following the power, so to speak, that you can tell who the bad guys are. The good guys are innocents because, like Gandhi, they are spiritual rather than powerful. For me, this is neither an accurate description of the world nor a productive way of drawing up the political map. Having or not having power cannot in itself be ethically or politically decisive. As we students of culture know, power is always distributed in much more complex and less binary ways. Occidentalism is not a good thing even if it’s the weak who practice it. I myself admire the power Gandhi was able to wield in organizing the movement that overthrew colonialism in India. (That’s of course what I meant, not that he held elected office.) By my lights, throwing the British out was quite an impressive demonstration of power. But of course, circumstances have now changed. It is now Indian capital and the Indian state that hold the preponderance of power in India. Yet there are huge numbers of Indians below the poverty line. It is worth asking again, therefore, as I did in my first response: who stands to gain in today’s India from a repetition of the Gandhian program of merely individual, ethical, spiritual improvement? Who is threatened by its opposite (which Uday Mehta rejects as Western liberalism), improvement sought by means of “politics and power”?

Colin Jager cites Barack Obama’s faux pas about unemployment as a reason why people in small towns “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” As some commentators have noticed, the item in this list that Obama probably cared most about, though it came disguised in a circumlocution, was racism. He was attempting to understand the many white people, especially in small-town America, who simply will not vote for a black man– attempting with a certain generosity of spirit to conceive of race hatred toward people like himself as something that isn’t second nature, hence inaccessible to new evidence or argument, but “cultural” in the sense of being open to change. Obama’s successes thus far offer non-negligible evidence that he is at least partially right about racism, though time will tell. If he turns out to be right, as I hope he does, then perhaps his victory will add a further argument against the proposition that values can or should be read as natural.

Is there a contradiction between the presence of religion on this same list and Obama’s many affirmations of his Christian faith? If you think this is a case of his true secular feelings slipping out in an unguarded moment, then you would at least have to say in extenuation that up to now, there has been no room whatsoever in national politics at the highest level for anyone who did not strenuously affirm his or her religious faith. (I would guess there have been more actual suicides in American politics than politicians of either party choosing the suicidal step of acknowledging non-belief. This ought to give pause to anyone who sees the Democrats as excessively secular.) And you would hopefully then want to add that making such room ought to be one major goal of our efforts– pretty much the opposite of what Bilgrami calls for.

But Jager also shows a way in which Obama’s faith might not after all be contradicted by his secular explanation for the clinging to religion. “Cling” might refer to two different sorts of excessiveness. It might suggest a childish dependency, as if religion were something that grown-ups should have learned to do without. But it might also suggest holding on too tight rather than too long, as if religion was fine in itself, but was something better grasped or held more loosely. What Jager calls literariness could be described, accordingly, as holding onto one’s beliefs a bit more loosely. Holding in one’s mind and heart narratives or images or scenarios that one does not affirm to be true, that one can and does let go of, yet that are good to hold for awhile, to live and think with– this is a traditional way to think of literariness that goes far beyond its embodiment in actual works of literature. There is an enchantment in the literary ”as if” that seems extremely pertinent to the debates about religion and secularism to which Bilgrami and Jager make such notable contributions.