Friday, October 8, 2010

"Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech"

Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley, CA: Townsend Center for the Humanities, 2009).

In the Fall of 2007, UC-Berkeley held a symposium on the topic "Is Critique Secular?" The results have been published in a slim 153-page volume, with the subtitle of "Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech." The book consists of two main essays, "Free Speech, Blasphemy and Secular Criticism" by Talal Asad, and "Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?" by Saba Mahmood, plus a response by Judith Butler and then replies to Butler's response by Asad and Mahmood.

An important thing to note is that these essays are written in the style of literary criticism, and bear all of the hallmarks of that discipline (anyone who has been to panels at the Modern Language Association will know what I'm talking about): they are jargon-heavy, opaque, discursive, theory-heavy, implicitly critical of the West, and prone to leaving the reader feel like a lot of words have been expended without concrete ideas having been expressed. A subtle implication throughout, one which I think lacks historical foundation, is that "blasphemy" is purely something the secular West does to the religious East as an act of oppression.

Those (very large) caveats aside, there is something interesting in Mahmood's essay, and Butler's response to it, on the nature of the "harm" felt by Muslims in response to the Danish Muhammed cartoons. Briefly put, the argument is that Muslims identify so strongly with the Prophet that insults to him bring about emotions of grief and emotional pain that are difficult to understand and account for in the traditional framework of "blasphemy vs. freedom of speech." As Butler explains it, the cartoons are problematic not because of the offensive ideas inherent within them but because they are seen as attempts to "coerce disbelief" and "any attempt to coerce someone away from his or her belief is an effort to break a relation to a transcendence by which one is sustained." (p. 118)

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