Mar 12, 2012

The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction

Short abstract:
This paper attempts to ground unbelief and secularity in material history, showing how their possibility arose out of concrete social changes. Further, it attempts to elucidate the structure of secularity, as it relates to unbelief and belief, and how that structure in tied to those changes.

It does this by cross-reading two academic discourses. The first is the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere, which is a secular space in society, and how that made belief a fragile matter of private choice. The second is the development of printing, the subsequent book market, and their effects on human consciousness.

Finding the intersection of the print revolution and the emergence of secular space in the advent of the novel, this paper suggests secularity owes its structure to fiction, and it's existence to the concrete social changes that produced novels.

Long abstract:
Alain de Botton has recently received some attention for his call for atheists and secularists to reclaim and recover ritual. According to de Botton, secularists would do well to appropriate aspects of religious practice, as “religions know we are not just brains, we are also bodies, and when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body.” Implicit in this is the idea that unbelief, like belief, is not an immaterial abstraction, simply disembodied thought, but is, in fact, constituted and communicated in social practices. Picking up this idea, this paper attempts to ground unbelief and secularity in material history, showing how their possibility arose out of concrete social changes. Further, it attempts to elucidate the structure of secularity, as it relates to unbelief and belief, and how that structure in tied to those changes.

It does this by cross-reading two academic discourses. The first is the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere, which is a secular space in society, and how sphere of public made belief a private matter, the subject of individual conscious. The second is the development of printing, the changes to the resultant book market, and subsequent effects on human consciousness.

Attending specifically to the intersection of these two discourses, and these two material histories, this paper examines the advent of the novel, and the way fiction functions to construct a public, secular space, and also a private space of individual belief. This paper suggests that structure is key to understanding secularity, and that secularity is tightly linked with the material changes that produced the social practice of fiction reading.

This paper engages critically, on the one hand, with the work of Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, whose influence on contemporary discussions of the public relationship between religion and secularism in a post-secular age cannot be overstated, as well as the work of Peter L. Berger, Steve Bruce and Richard John Neuhaus. On the other, it engages critically with the academic work on the effects of the history of the book, notably that of Lucien Febvre, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Walter J. Ong. These two sets of discourses are put into conversation, so that the examination of the history of the novel, changes in the technology of the book, and the development of what it means to read can be done in relationship to the emergence of a public sphere, the anthropocentric turn and imminent frame, and secularization, and vice versa.

Understanding the development of the book, and particularly fiction, enables a more focused understanding of the structure of secularity, and the ways in which individual experiences of religiousness and irreligiousness in contemporary society are grounded in the structure of the secular, which is itself grounded in material history of social changes. This paper argues that the possibility of secularity and our understanding of what it means to believe or not is wrapped up the concrete social changes of the history of the book.

Where de Botton is reconsidering and expanding what atheism as a project could mean and pursuing possible ways atheists could engender social change, that relationship can also be examined the other way around. Reversing the relationship, one can see how a specific project of concrete social change engendered atheism, and opened up possibilities for unbelief. Examining how this happened allows for a clearer understanding of the structure of the secular, as well as the ways in which unbelief and belief happen in the condition of the secular.