“The Postsecular Turn in Feminism” – A brief summary and outline of questions

This afternoon the reading group Critical Conversation will be discussing a text by Rosi Braidotti titled, “In Spite of the Times: The Postsecular Turn in Feminism.”  In preparation I thought it might be helpful to outline the position taken in the paper and draw up a few questions.

The subtitle of the paper is really an apt description of the work of the paper.  Braidotti begins by outlining the origins of feminism as nestled within the larger Enlightenment project which critiqued and largely rejected religious dogma and clerical authority.  This was based in a larger ‘negative’ position which functioned in a primarily oppositional mode and at times seemed “to have only paradoxes to offer” (3).  This position has led to some difficulties as the critique has, at times, been shifted wholesale onto the Muslim community resulting in blatant racism.

With the ‘return of religion’ many monotheisms have been developing a conservative politics based on ‘strong foundations’ that function at a number of disjunctions (separating women from mothers / gays from humanity / sexuality from health / science from faith).

Braidotti then proceeds to ask how ‘secular’ feminism really is in its various manifestations.  Here she cites a number feminist representatives within monotheistic religions as well as more marginal ‘spiritual’ forms.  This leads to the assertion that,

All non-secularists stress the deep spiritual renewal that is carried by
and is implicit in the feminist cause, insisting that it can be of benefit to
the whole of mankind and not only to the females of the species (Russell,
1974). This humanist spiritual aspiration is ecumenical in nature and
universalist in scope. (7)

The question then becomes a matter of how to maintain a universal scope while avoiding the temptation to seize this vision and establish it for all on their terms.

In an interesting turn of phrase Braidotti then speaks of the spiritual ‘residue’ that remains at work in secularism through its expression as a negation of particular religious forms.  The postsecular problematizes this position in light of increasingly complex expressions of ethnicity and diversity that are not allowing themselves to be defined under one ‘rational’ vision.  The second feature which secularism has not accounted for is a more psychoanalytic perspective which includes vital drives and totemic structuring of psychic order and social cohesion.

The main psychoanalytic insight therefore concerns the importance of
the emotional layering of the process of subject-formation. This refers to the
affective, unconscious and visceral elements of our allegedly rational and
discursive belief system. (11)

As I near as I understand this appears to be a definition of ‘spirituality’ by Braidotti.  And it is in these elements that she finds more “residues of religious worship practice.”

From here Braidotti outlines “Vital Feminist Theories” which reflect a process rather than foundationalist or idealist ontology.  In this account “immanence expresses the residual spiritual values of great intimacy and a sense of belonging to the world as a process of perpetual becoming.”  And further, “What is postsecular about this is the faith in potential transformation of the negative and hence in the future” (13).  The position is no longer based in a negative or reactionary critique of what is destructive but attempts to explore how the creation of conditions for liberation can be achieved which allows it to address expressions (religious or otherwise) in their particularity without rejecting them under a prior ideology (anti-clericalism for instance).

What this means practically is that the conditions for political and
ethical agency are not dependent on the current state of the terrain. They
are not oppositional and thus not tied to the present by negation; instead
they are affirmative and geared to creating possible futures.
. . .
As Rich put it in her recent essays,
the political activist has to think ‘in spite of the times’ and hence ‘out of my
time’, thus creating the analytics – the conditions of possibility – of the
future. (16)

I set this paper within similar moves being made which attempt to take greater account for the mutual positioning that occurs between religion and secularism.  In this case feminism is taken seriously as a ‘third’ in its attempt to form subjectivities that will find ways of affirming “what is not contained in the present conditions.”  What are some questions, theological or otherwise, that arise from reading this piece?

What do theological anthropologies say about the ‘subject’ and subject formation?  It would seem to me that dominant practices of subject formation in the church would fall under the critique of most global monotheistic religion leveled by Braidotti.

Do we accept her characterization of religion?  Is what she is placing religion/spirituality under (as a ‘residue’ of) too nebulous to have real social and subjective traction?

How do we navigate the Western world with secularized accounts of prior religious commitments (humanism)?  And further do we need to simply learn to ‘take our place’ amidst a larger collaborative project?  Do we need to ‘become less’ so that salvation/liberation would become more?

What is the theological concept of ‘new’?  Is it actually a return to the old?


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