ANGELA XIA: Afterimages

Two months after the fact, there is an image from “Material Secularisms” that I still can’t shake. Shown by Angela Zito near the end of the three-day workshop, it depicts a nurse feeding an aging patient in Wuhan, China.

A nurse in a protective suit feeds a coronavirus patient inside an isolated ward at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University on February 8, 2020. Photo: China Daily via Reuters.

Nurse and patient form a sobering – and in pandemic times, tragically familiar – tableau. The patient lies strapped to a ventilator, eyes closed, while the nurse peers down at him through several layers of protective gear. Neither make eye contact as they begin the formidable task of breakfast.

Initially, the image was used by Prof. Zito to exemplify kin-aesthetics, or the way “local theories of resonance and relation [in this case, Chinese practices of filial piety] are used by the state to generate particular attachments and social repertoires.” These attachments, Zito argues, have the ability to cast ordinary acts and affects into a distinctly filial mold, regardless of their content.

A product of the filial tradition and a caretaker for an ill parent myself, I felt the effect of this image – its kin-aesthetic force – immediately. Yet the work done by this image hardly ended with me. As the workshop concluded, the man, the nurse, and their one-way meal lingered on the projection screen, leading some to comment on the image’s relevance, not only as a harbinger of the weeks to come, but as a manifestation of the workshop’s aims. For here on display were the five themes – nature, bodies, infrastructure, affect, and fetish – the workshop panels were designed to address, themes that in turn evoked the workshop’s broader questions about secularism’s relationship to matter, power, and academic methodology.

How did this happen? What intellectual pathways led the workshop audience to sense secularism – or at the very least, its residues – in the image of Chinese patient and nurse? Perhaps the most explicit connection lies in the image’s setting: an isolated hospital ward. If one interprets the hospital primarily as a site of state or institutional control, one finds striking resemblances to the way several workshop panelists (such as John Modern, Jolyon Thomas, and the aforementioned Angela Zito) chose to portray secularism. For these scholars, secularism described a set of pervasive, fundamentally “anxious” biopolitical projects designed to “cajole” their subjects into certain epistemologies, bodies, or attachments while shutting all other possibilities out. The scope of such projects are vast, affecting areas as diverse as law, education, land claims, television, architecture and science, and as Thomas (presenting on morality in Japanese schools), Zito (presenting on the displays of Chinese filiality in museums), and Heather Jaber (presenting on moral panic and pedagogy in Egyptian television dramas) demonstrate, require secularism as more than a one-dimensional vector of imperial (Euro-American) categories.

The figures of nurse and patient offer another visual cue. Here, the focus moves from secularism’s large-scale disciplinary efforts to its phenomenological and material effects. What happens to bodies and things under secular ways of knowing and relating? Are there ontological “cuts” – the kinds Karen Barad has written about – that occur as a result of secularism? Are there ontological ‘openings’ that can be revealed? What is the status of body? What is the status of human? The work of panelists Anthony Pinn (on theorizing Black humanism through artistic processes of layering and assembly), Mayanthi Fernando (on the blind spots of the “nature-culture” approach to anthropology), and Darryl Wilkinson (on the persistence of animism over fetishism as an ethical resource to confront ecological crisis) spoke directly to such questions, demonstrating – as Fernando helpfully articulated in response to Pinn – a tripartite approach to accounting for “secular bodies.” The first option is to historicize and provincialize the body, to understand its presentation, power relations, habits, and field of action as local and contingent. Another attempts to “thicken” the body, giving more textured accounts of its affects, movements, sensation, and material presence. The third, more contentious option attempts to move beyond the boundaries of secular, human-centered methodologies to include not only non-human creatures, but objects and environments as well.

All three of these approaches – historicizing, “thickening,” and post-human-ing – could be easily applied to the image of nurse and patient. More importantly, however, they revealed a common concern surrounding the method by which “material secularisms” are studied. While diagnosing secularism – untangling its historical formations, preferences and attachments, and biopolitical reach – is still a crucial task, how its afterimages (or sounds or effects or shocks) shape us remain to be seen.

Angela Xia is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at Penn and was a presenter at Material Secularisms.

Angela Xia speaks at the Material Secularisms workshop. Photo: Chijioke Azuawusiefe.

ALI NOORI: Animated Words: The Value of Material Conferences

The value of academic conferences that require physical human presence is being increasingly questioned; it certainly seems that way on my Twitter feed. And the current pandemic has only brought heightened attention to the problems associated with these gatherings: what is the point? Do they really foster engagement and exchange or are they simply an occasion for talks that go over time and questions that are “actually more of a comment?” Is all the flying around the world sustainable given the climate crisis? What about graduate students, international scholars, and contingent faculty that do not have the luxury of institutional or personal travel funds or door-opening passports? And now that classes have transitioned to online platforms, some are predicting the end of the academic conference as we know it. Although I share much of the criticism leveled against academic conferences (I have been to enough bad conferences), I want to make the case that Material Secularisms was a representative example of an irreplaceable form of academic exchange only.

There is no need to go over arguments that are obvious to those steeped in affect and materiality: [insert here your own assemblage of citations from your favorite theorists] or lament the horrifying prospect of presenting your work staring at a list of names or floating heads on your screen.  What I want to highlight is the complimentary relationship between a presentation, an academic’s body of work, and the broader scholarly conversation.

None of the presentations I saw was trying to fit a book’s worth of arguments into twenty minutes, and each was at a different stage of work-in-progress. Again, we know this is an important ingredient in the recipe for a good conference. What I realized for the first time was that when I heard someone whose work I had read, my familiarity made the short presentation much more than it was. Now, I had context, I could see particular trajectories, I detected individual scholarly styles. Conversely the presentation—the content yes, but also how the person wearing their academic work—gave valuable insight that illuminated past and future readings of an author’s work. Moreover, seeing presentations tailored to the theme of the conference, conversations continue during Q&A, and casual chatter on the sidelines brought to life scholarly conversations, only a glimpse of which can be seen in introductory chapters and in citations.

That a conference slot—even a generous one—is not an appropriate place for long, complex arguments that require too many I-don’t-have-time-for-this slide skipping is a case already won. Material Secularisms demonstrated how a conference, done right, can be a uniquely useful supplement to what we read and write. It only takes an excellent theme that is neither too broad nor too narrow, a roomful of brilliant people who were available that weekend, and months of logistical planning.

Ali Noori is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Penn.

HEATHER JABER: Containers, Modular Systems, and Intellectual Affects

It has remained difficult to describe something called the “secular,” often juxtaposed with the more materially understood “religious.” Talal Asad has said that secularism is “best pursued through its shadows.[i]” Hussein Agrama has also noted its elusive nature: “Like two hands constantly drawing each other, erasing each other, redrawing each other, and drawing each other closer in the process, secularism’s power is woven with paradox.[ii]” While secularism as a concept was explored at Material Secularisms, the symposium pointed to a perhaps more provocative question about what it means to search for something so slippery.

This was best illustrated through attention to fine-grained moments of cleavage which give way to secular discourses, but which operate at a level beneath or beside discourse. Rather, these may best be understood as operating at the level of affect. Several presentations turned to historical junctures through which it was possible to trace these textured moments of definition. They pinpointed sites of material tension.

In one such example, Courtney Bender showed how the construction of 20th century skyscrapers which towered over and above churches offered a new way of perceiving and feeling spatiality and totality. In another, we learned of humanist funerals in multipurpose spaces. Matthew Engelke described the “modular system” in these spaces, where a drop-down curtain can hide a cross which hangs on the wall. “The curtain,” he said, “is not nothing.” Through its modular function, it is productive.

Extending this idea of the “modular system,” Donovan Schaefer told the story of the Sheldonian Theater, constructed for the University of Oxford to house disputations, or intellectual debates which were known as “The Act.” Given the level of “exuberance” that these disputations elicited, they were moved to the theater, no longer appropriate for the university church space. This was not only about an excessive exuberance, he noted, but a kind of entertainment associated with this intellectual work. He showed the way that particular feelings carve out material spaces to contain them. These feelings, bodies, and buildings can be thought of as the modular systems which undergird discourses like the religious and the secular. There is more to learn about the church and the theater, the cleric and the academic, by attending to what powers these systems.

In thinking about this reorientation and recontainment of excessive or incongruent affect as Engelke’s modular system, I can’t help but reflect on our own performances at the symposium and the modular system in place to orient our intellectual feeling.

Decorated walls of the Amado Recital Room. Photo: Chijioke Azuawusiefe.

The symposium took place in the Amado Recital Hall, housed in the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania, where spaces are decidedly multipurpose. There are a number of modifiable components to suit the needs of a variety of groups or events. The modifiable components in the hall included portable seating and “[a] piano (Yamaha C3), sound system, movie screen, blackout and solar shades[iii],” allowing us to arrange the seating, control the level of lighting, and orient the area of focus.

In the hall, a high ceiling sat atop windows and ornately hand-painted walls with lions and thistles. A wooden stage and presenter’s platform faced a front row of chairs in a U-shape, oriented toward the stage and a drop-down screen. Presenters sat in the U-shape seating, perhaps to make discussion more intimate, but over the days, we all slowly moved back to sit in the “audience” chairs, with only a straggler or two remaining in the U. Perhaps the U was too intimate for the Scottish lions staring down upon us. Perhaps we needed a buffer between ourselves and those at the pulpit, offering their material tracings. We were probably more reserved than the disputators, but something moved our bodies around a room which was set up with an initial projection or function in mind. Much like the “The Act,” our bodies rearranged into another configuration which felt more appropriate.

It is this attention to these sites of modulation which might tell us something about what undergirds the intellectual work which finds secularism. By turning to these moments of movement, recontainment, and reorientation, we learn more about the way bodies are moved beyond (and beneath and beside) discursive intent. We can find these affects in their containers—drop-down curtains, solar shades, seating arrangements, pulpits, halls, and buildings.

Heather Jaber (@heatherjaber) is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and doctoral fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. A response to her talk at Material Secularisms is available here.

[i] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford University Press.

[ii] Agrama, H. A. (2012). Questioning secularism: Islam, sovereignty, and the rule of law in modern Egypt. University of Chicago Press.


ELIZABETH BERMAN: Material Secularisms in Viral Times

At the Material Secularisms workshop in late February, certain researchers remarked that they are often overcome by their subject, beginning to read “affect” or “secularism” into each conversation, encounter, and object that punctuates daily life. So too are my reflections on the workshop’s presentations and exchanges now diffracted through this undeniably overwhelming historical moment, marked by the explosion of the Coronavirus pandemic. When considering the conference’s thematic constellations, and indeed in thinking “materiality” and “secularism,” it is clear that the workshop’s discussions and this wily, agential, border-crossing virus have much to say to one another.

Each panel presentation was informed by an impulse to complicate the constructed binaries that structure the discourse around secularism and religion: invisibility and visuality, human and nonhuman, dead and alive, material and immaterial. In the “Nature” panel, Mayanthi Fernando interrogated the secular commitment to the visible as the exclusive site of the “real,” questioning how the agentiality of supernatural, nonhuman actants might reimagine multispecies relationalities. The novel coronavirus is one such elusive and invisible agent, which nevertheless inflicts material consequences on bodies, on body politics, and on a seemingly cleaner environment that appears to grow more vibrant as human life recedes. The discussions engendered by the “Nature” panelists serve as reminders to decenter human agency and to accept the necessary failings of human knowledge – but also to resist eco-fascist celebrations of the loss of human life, which uncritically reify an imagined nature/culture divide and fail to acknowledge recuperative modes of interdependent existence. 

The “Structure/Infrastructure” panel, like Courtney Bender’s opening keynote presentation, turned our attention to the places and spaces in which bodies stage both “secular” and “religious” performances. Matthew Engelke’s account of the offices and funerary practices of the Humanists UK highlighted sites of working and dying that the current pandemic has contested, and Chad Seales’s remarks on the material productions of nativist, bloodline-based evangelicalism in the United States foreshadowed those communities’ responses to the Coronavirus threat. I have often wondered in the past weeks what the “Affect” panelists might say – regarding consumption, pleasure, and secular feeling – about the panic-buying and investments in science that have colored the early responses to the virus. Finally, the “Body” panelists’ consideration of the policing of bodies, particularly in light of Heather Jaber’s, Ann Pellegrini’s, and Jolyon Thomas’s attention to divides of sex, gender, race and nationality, serve as a warning to avoid universalizing or equalizing narratives about the global spread of the virus: like secularism, religion, and discipline, this pest afflicts precarious bodies, communities, and populations with an acute necropolitical force.

The organizers and attendees of the Material Secularisms conference could not have known that only weeks later academic events would be cancelled or transferred to Zoom or Skype screens the world over. This fortuitous timing made it an even more distinct privilege to take part in this intimate exchange, peppered as it was with handshakes and laughter, and only highlighted the urgency of its critical and convivial discussions.

Elizabeth Berman is a graduate student in Gender Studies at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.

MAX DUGAN: Have We Ever Been Secular? (Im)materiality in Fernando’s “Supernatureculture”

Mayanthi Fernando speaks at the Material Secularisms workshop. Photo: Chijioke Azuawusiefe.

Mayanthi Fernando began the panel-portion of the conference with a challenge to the centrality of the visible in the secular social sciences. Since Charles Taylor’s identification of “exclusive humanism” as central to the secular and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s observation of Western modernity’s disregard for “presence,” scholars have attempted to recover extra-human sensibilities. New materialism, animal studies, the ontological turn, and secular studies, to name but a few, have generatively excavated non-human agencies and challenged the secular emphasis on human cognition. Going beyond even excavation, concepts like Donna Haraway’s “natureculture” have attempted to re-aggregate human culture and non-human nature, erasing the hyphen to underscore that human culture does not exist apart from its non-human milieu.

Yet, Fernando notes that many of these recent attempts to re-entangle the human and non-human world have limited their purview to the visible material world, especially that contingent to humans. In these studies, ghosts, jinn, and other supernatural entities evade significance. Fernando reminds us that pre-secular cultures were often more a “supernatureculture,” populated by human, non-human, and immaterial entities.[1] It is fitting that the opening paper presentation of Material Secularisms would question the secular underpinnings of the conference’s emphasis on “material.”

By way of contrast, Fernando turned to the supernatural-sensitive “Golden Snail Opera.” Fernando offered conference attendees a clip of the performance-accompanying experimental film to encourage sensory engagement with the supernatural. My primary takeaway is that instead of identifying supernatural agency through social and material effects on humans (as Santo and Blanes did in their 2013 edited volume The Social Life of Spirits), Fernando encourages an open-sensed approach. She prompts us to consider: what novelties might we see, hear, smell, feel if we allow supernatural entities to (im)materially engage us?

I left Fernando’s provocative, exciting presentation with two questions: (1) to which Islamic engagement with the immaterial and imaginal does Fernando refer? Medieval Islamic, especially Persianate Sufi, material ontologies tended to operate with a material-immaterial binary not entirely dissimilar to the one Fernando critiques. The difference being that the immaterial in this medieval Islamic binary tended to be more real than the material, thereby flipping the secular hierarchy of the “real.” Yet, Shahzad Bashir notes that this hierarchy was effaced and even flipped in some instances.[2] And this is not to get into ontologies that would require considerable translation before they could be compared to secular material worldviews.[3] All of this is to say: pre-secular Islamic materialism is a heterogeneous terrain;  which particular case studies does Fernando build upon in her exclusion of “super” from “natureculture”?

(2) Is there a shift away from the immaterial in secularism, or, rather, does secularism reconfigure the logics, authorities, and affective economies of the “real”? Santo and Blanes point out that most social phenomena are, like ghosts, only apparent in their effects.[4] It is through social processes that these invisible entities—such as the law or monetary values[5]—that these entities become “real.” In other words, some effects are deemed materially salient and others are not. Rather than positing secular materialism to exclude the immaterial, I wonder if we might rather consider the kinds of immaterial the secular takes to be worthy of consideration and the kinds of immaterial it yields unintelligible. Moreover, we might consider the authorities for deeming something salient (e.g. a Hakim or Shaykh for dreams in an Islamic context and a psychoanalyst in a secular one). If material visibility be the litmus test of secularism, I am not sure we have ever been secular.

Max Dugan is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Penn.

[1] Fernando here builds on her provocative article on The Immanent Frame, found here:

[2] Bashir, Sufi Bodies, 39-41.

[3] For one particularly fascinating configuration of materiality, see Jamal J. Elias’s typology of ‘Alā’ al-Dawla Al-Simnānī’s substance in The Throne Carrier of God (1995), 61-99.

[4] Blanes and Santo, The Social Life of Spirits, 29.

[5] Blanes and Santo, The Social Life of Spirits, 1.

ANNA DONCH: Liberal Protestants and Charismatic Christians (on Monique Scheer)

The comparative framework invoked by Monique Scheer to grapple with Liberal Protestant and Charismatic Christian conceptions of enchantment, emotion, conviction, and doubt reflected the epistemological history of social theory. The Liberal Protestants Scheer spoke with during her research in Germany were very invested in assertions of autonomy and the free-thinking self – the liber in liberalism. This emphasis on the cognitive, rational, speaking subject is rooted in post-Enlightenment critical discourse, which subsequently neglected man’s emotional or embodied experiences. In contrast, the Charismatic Christians expressed their religious conviction, a term Scheer employs as a substitute for belief, through bodily means, such as passionately singing devotional songs, moving one’s lips during prayer, and murmuring aloud. Such material displays of emotion are the physical performance of what Scheer calls “a technology of enchantment,” which is necessarily an affective process. By holding these two forms of religious practice in tension, Scheer demonstrated how each group, the Liberal Protestants and the Charismatic Christians, draws upon a distinct methodological tradition.

Complicating this neat dualism, however, are several points made by Scheer. Primary among these is the tendency of Liberal Protestants to self-identify as emotional more often than their Charismatic Christian counterparts. Scheer explains this discrepancy by theorizing about the function that emotion serves. The Liberal Protestants interviewed by Scheer could not fully grasp her questions regarding God’s presence; they simply don’t conceive of God in this kind of physical, material way. Indeed, they expressed that they would be uncomfortable with such a presence, even fear it, and that they would rather not have such a presence at all. These conversations illuminate the fact that Liberal Protestants require doubt in a way that Charismatic Christians, who experience God’s presence as materially and bodily mediated, do not. Scheer posits that emotion soothes and mediates doubt, and, because Liberal Protestants rely on doubt for the perpetuation of their faith, this explains why they consider themselves emotional more often than Charismatic Christians do.

At the end of the presentation, Scheer discussed the ‘forced choice’ that Peter Berger attributes to religious pluralism, the effect of which necessarily imparts doubt. After all, if there are so many different ways to worship, which one is correct? But aren’t we also making a forced choice when we relegate the object of our inquiry to either liberalism or affect? Does this choice not also spark doubt about our ability to consider what we call religion holistically? How can these two theories, so often stretched to their totalizing limits, be if not synthesized at least utilized in complementary, dialogical ways?

Anna Donch is a graduate student at New York University.

BAILEY HANSON: Doubt as a Positive Emotion

I found Monique Scheer’s research presentation on emotion, discussing the role of doubt in specific German protestant sects, fascinating. While many of the experiences she described strongly resonated with experiences I’ve had, her observations about how important uncertainty is in some protestant faiths was eye-opening. It was like someone was finally putting words to several points that I’d come to sense in small non-denominational evangelical protestant churches in the Northern Midwest United States. Scheer discussed the role of doubt as being an aspect of faith that was proudly upheld, by protestants in the German churches she observed. Doubt, for them, was a marker of “true faith,” and the absence of spaces, rituals, and tears, was a vital signifier of their active choice to believe even in uncertainty.  

I found this discussion of doubt as a motiving emotion strikingly interesting, and wonder what other spheres, particularly secular, it could be applied similarly too. How does doubt positively function in the realms of natural science, philosophy, public policy, medicine, or jurisprudence? Scheer observed the pastor preaching that he didn’t know if God was real, but chose to have faith that he did. This expression of doubt seemed to act as a reassurance to the congregation that uncertainty was okay. However, this sentiment of doubt may not be as well received when it comes from a doctor, politician, or judge. Its expression in these spheres seems to result in a lack of trust. Why, though, is there this difference between religious and secular institutions expressing doubt? Isn’t it the partial role of the church to provide certainty to individuals, and act on bonds of trust, just as our relations with government officials, medical professionals, and legal advisors is based on our trust of their knowledge over ours?

It would be very intriguing to look further into possible situations where uncertainty is expressed, and positively received, in secular settings. Perhaps these, if they exist, could reveal connections between doubt’s expression in protestant sects that allow for doubt to be, not only permissible, but positive.

Bailey Hanson is an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn.

FIGEN GEERTS: Psychoanalysis, Gender, and the Clay Body

What does it mean to form and deform our own bodies? How does it change the make-up of who we are, and as who we are seen? How do we repair the (un)seen trauma that inscribes our bodies?

These are some of the questions that Ann Pellegrini took up in her talk on the materiality of the human body, and the manifold forms and shapes it can take–– or is forced into. In particular, Pellegrini showed how in our modern society the trans(forming) body is continually medicalized and pathologized by seemingly secular fields and institutions. However, the question is to what extent such fields are secular. Is the “ghost-stoked” field of psychoanalysis, as Pellegrini puts it, secular? Or is it based on beliefs that can be qualified as religious?

Pellegrini’s talk centered on the work and body of performance artist Kris Grey who has undergone a transition and does not identify with a particular gender but uses multiple pronouns (he/her/them). Grey compares the materiality of their own body with that of clay. In an interview with Pellegrini, Grey stated that “much in the same way that clay forms its own history, the body reveals its own stories. It can be formed and reformed, just like clay.” For Grey, their body is like an inscription bearing the signs of its transformation. Sometimes these inscriptions are visible on the level of the skin. But sometimes they remain hidden and take on their own stories, like untraceable ghosts with a life of their own.

In the interview, Pellegrini tells us, Grey also noted that most of their physical alteration happened without witness. During their performances, Grey thus invites the audience to become a witness, and see the marks of their transgender embodiment. It is a way for Grey to reassemble their own body’s history, beyond its pathology and medicalization. The making visible of the scars on their chest to an audience, for example, functions as an act of acknowledgement. “The presence of the audience provides a repairing transitional space for this working through,” Pellegrini comments. It is in the presence of the witnessing bodies that the ghosts are welcomed in and take their place in the structure of the repairing body.

Figen Geerts is a graduate student at New York University.

KATHERINE DILDY: Secular Bodies and the Secular Sublime

Courtney Bender started off the conference by reading the grandeur of the secular imagination in mid-century New York “steel cathedrals of commerce” and the pluralistic “Democracity” built at one World’s Fair. She displayed images of vast towers piercing through clouds, penetrating a dimension just beyond human reach. Alongside these cold, overarching towers are what some might call quaint cathedrals of eras—and religions—past. These visual planes of meeting and points of collision between old and new magnify the modern age of the “technologically sublime.” Looking at the archival images felt like peering into an architect’s dreams: the land is abstracted into geometry and the people who might occupy these buildings are out of view. Strikingly, the photographs and building plans share a point-of-view from above. I wondered, “whose point of view is this?” What kind of divine is portrayed as the viewer here? These towers are so clearly statements of the modern and the secular, yet they are built toward a God in the skies above. I was left reconsidering what physical symbols around me arise from the same hubris of absolute, overshadowing secular imagination today. And what is discarded or forgotten in this perpetual “renewal?” 

The next day, a panel on bodies considered the human body as the site of planners’ imaginations. Instead of omitted bodies in favor of hard, engineered material—as we saw in the architects’ plans—here we saw how planners conceive of bodies as sites of moral negotiation in modern secular societies. Jolyon Thomas revealed how politicians and teachers in Japan hope to correct the deficiencies of young minds by regulating and discipling young girls’ bodies—specifically, making sure their hair is jet black. Thomas suggested that biopolitics has become an important point of moral control in secular spaces, and bodies have become shaded with public duties. Both he and co-panelist Heather Jaber showed how anxieties about righteous conduct persist in secular societies, and secularity may even be, in Jaber’s words, the “problem space” where we live out our moral anxieties. Ann Pellegrini deepened our understanding of the personal malleability of our bodies against biopolitical control. As we observed performance artist Kris Greg reenacting a version of their memory of a top surgery, Pelligrini asked us to consider how repetition can be traumatic or transformative (or both). What kind of repetitions shape our own bodies and what public repetitions can we perform to overcome socially inflicted trauma?

Kate Dildy is an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn.

MAX DUGAN: Pleasurable Secularism: Suspicion, Panic, and Parallel Orienting in Awalem Khafeya

Heather Jaber speaks at the Material Secularisms workshop. Photo: Chijioke Azuawusiefe.

In Questioning Secularism, Hussein Ali Agrama identifies suspicion as an essential element of the Egyptian secular state. Rather than approaching secularism as a division between religious and political domains, Agrama understands secularism as the patterns and dispositions which generate questions about the sufficient disaggregation of religion and politics. Ultimately, this suspicion enables the state to further legally encroach on private, often religious domains, thereby extending state sovereignty. Most fascinating, suspicion of religious institutions or the state enables this legal encroachment. In the former, suspicion of religious institutions turns individuals away from them and toward another authority, the state. In the latter, distance from the state enables it to violate private domains and rights so that it can maintain social order.[1] Agrama contended that the multi-decade Egyptian security state was built on this secular circulation of suspicion.

Heather Jaber’s analysis of the Ramadan serial drama Awalem Khafeya (“Hidden Worlds”) picks up on Egyptian secularism almost two decades after the conclusion of Agrama’s fieldwork. The show’s veteran journalist protagonist, played by the famed Egyptian comedian and actor Adel Imam, investigates the shadowy networks responsible for the appearance of pride flags at an Egyptian Hip Hop concert (a blatant reference to a Meshrou Leila concert), as well as the subsequent controversies connected to it. As he untangles a web of corruption, the blame shifts from the Media to foreign actors to popular Muslim thinkers. And our protagonist’s investigation moves from the Internet to elite clubs and beyond. Hanging like a fog over all of these scenes is suspicion—suspicion of the media, of religious leaders, and of sexually-charged, intoxicated youth culture.

Throughout all of this, Jaber brilliantly teases out the pleasure in the panic of Awalem Khafeya. As in the Ann Pellegrini’s hell houses,[2] Awalem Khafeya’s discursive rejection of something marked as “immoral” and dangerous is laced with excitement. In this case, secularism works not only through suspicion, but exciting suspicion.

Perhaps what is most exciting to me about Jaber’s presentation is that where suspicion turned citizens away from the state in Agrama’s case study, thereby enabling sovereign encroachment, Awalem Khafeya turns viewers away from religious institutions. The work that suspicion does in these two case studies is flipped. It is as if the secular state identified the Agrama’s “asecular” spaces[3] and targeted them in media. Embracing Sara Ahmed’s language of affect orienting toward or away from illuminates the work suspicion is doing in these two cases.[4] In Agrama, suspicion oriented actors away from the state, enabling the state to further restrict their ability to reject the state. In Awalem Khafeya, suspicion now orients citizens away from religious actors, foreign entities, and the media.

This got me thinking: where is the Egyptian state in Awalem Khafeya? Continuing with Ahmed’s language of orientation, what if this serial drama orients parallel to the state? Does the state become affectively attenuated in this process? Is it naturalized as a feature of our affective environment? Thinking back to the animating concern of Material Secularism as a whole, might we see “parallel orienting” as the process through which secularism normalizes certain configurations?

Max Dugan is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Penn.

[1] Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 141.

[2] Pellegrini, Ann. “‘Signaling through the Flames’: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling.” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (September 2007): 911–35.

[3] Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 231-235.

[4] Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 117–39.

NATASHA CHEUNG: Tracking the Body in Material Secularisms

Professor Thomas and Professor Schaefer close out the Material Secularisms workshop. Photo: Chijioke Azuawusiefe.

As an undergraduate senior majoring in Fine Arts and Visual Studies, Material Secularisms was the perfect opportunity for me to gather research for my theses projects and thus find approaches and the language for articulating my interest in how religion is imbued in seeing and the philosophy of vision, with the goal of disrupting its secular and thus neutral guise.  Through my coursework this past year in religious studies, I have found extremely generative relationships between the fields of religious studies and performance studio/studies, particularly pertaining to affect, embodiment, visual and material culture. What I found most pertinent in the three-day workshop was that though Body was one of the discrete panels, topics concerning embodiment and body were implicated throughout most presentations, such as Matthew Engelke’s interrogation of self-proclaimed secular infrastructures dealing with the body after death and Courtney Bender’s questioning of the relationship between spirituality and perspective mediated by our bodies’ relationship to the obscured horizon line.  Even within the Body panel, there was a diversity of approaches to questioning the role of embodiment ranging from Ann Pellegrini’s analysis of queer performance work to Jolyon Thomas’ discussion of the location of religion in phenotypical difference as threat in Japanese educational institutions; what to me is the appeal of the community religious studies scholars is that it is very visibly and palpably not homogenous.  Overall, Material Secularisms introduced to me the potentiality and fertility of the academic workshop as an incubator for structured intellectual conversation outside of the classroom.  I hope to continue to engage in the field of religious studies as both an academic as an artist.

Natasha Cheung is an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn.