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.
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.