is there a secular body?


Let me start by noting that, while the secular body may remain something of an enigma, we do know quite a lot about the techniques that different religious traditions have developed in order to hone a pious sensorium, i.e., the embodied aptitudes and affects necessary for the achievement of a virtuous life as defined by those traditions. One of the richest and most influential examples of such scholarship is Asad’s own pioneering work on techniques of the body practiced by medieval Christian monks. Extending insights from Marcel Mauss’s writings on body techniques and Foucault’s inquiries into Greek and Christian arts of self-cultivation, Asad examined a variety of disciplinary exercises and techniques of self-cultivation (in short, ritual practices) by which medieval Christians sought to reshape their wills, desires, and emotions in accord with authoritative standards of virtue. I mention this work here because it provides an extremely useful model for thinking about the interrelation of knowledge, practice, and embodiment within a tradition, directing us to forms of collective and individual discipline and to the concepts of self and body that inform them. It is interesting, therefore to note at the outset that, despite an emphasis on embodied modes of appraisal in both Asad’s Formations and Connolly’s Why I am not a Secularist, descriptions of self-cultivation or practices of self-discipline are largely (though not entirely, as I note below) absent from both texts. That is, we find very little in these works in regard, not only to how the sensibilities and visceral modes of judgment of secular subjects are cultivated, but to how they give shape to and find expression in a secular life? Admittedly, a cautious approach to this issue is entirely warranted in light of how new and unfamiliar the secular is as a research problem. Nonetheless, I want to look at certain points in these texts where this question is most directly addressed. One word of warning: the few comments I will make on Asad’s and Connolly’s writings barely scratch the surface of these immensely rich books.

more from Charles Hirschkind at Immanent Frame here.