May 9, 2012

Milton and the (post)secular

Over the course of my thesis research, I've come across two rather sexy books that treat Milton alongside contemporary critical theory. Both are part of Stanford UP's excellent series Cultural Memory in the Present, and offer different responses to contemporary debates over the legitimacy of a so-called secular age by focusing on seventeenth century English poetry.

In Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, Regina M. Schwartz understands Reformation iconoclasm as a necessary critique of Church officials who sought to control the domain of mystery and instrumentalize the sacred. But by upending the sacramental tradition, she argues, radical reformers enabled “a new instrumentality—not of the Eucharist by the Church, but of the sacred by the state” (29). Like the Reformers of early modern Europe, she writes, “we are [today] witnessing a shift in emphasis again, away from the figure of the modern Self and toward the figure of the Other, a shift that . . . is inflected both philosophically, as given-ness, and theologically, as gift” (139-140). Rather than falling into the temptations of identity politics and empty, but no less violent universalisms, Schwartz urges her readers to imagine another possibility for identity: “a particular that honors other particulars, one that opens out toward a potential universal without coercion” (Ibid.). Like other postmodern theologians, she models her vision of harmonious difference on the Eucharist, the performance of which preserves the irreducible mystery of the divine through the real presence of Christ’s body and blood. 

In the post-Reformation poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton, Schwartz locates a hunger for the divine, “a poetry that signifies more than it says . . . through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements,” thus compensating for the loss of sacred liturgy (7). Milton’s contribution is found in the way Paradise Lost approaches debates surrounding the doctrine of Real Presence. In prelapsarian Eden, Schwartz locates a “transubstantiation” that infuses all matter (“All ingests All”), thus blurring the distinction between material and spiritual substance. The Garden’s continuous rehearsal of the Eucharist serves as a critique of theological and ecclesiastical representations of the sacraments. If Schwartz resurrects Milton out of a nostalgia for pre-modern transcendence and “its realm of justice,” Feisal G. Mohamed’s Milton and the Post-Secular Present considers Milton’s writing and biography as a corrective to contemporary debates over politics, ethics and terrorism.

Against those literary critics who would downplay or secularize Milton’s religious fervor, and those radical theorists who are attempting to think beyond the current order of liberal democratic capitalism, Mohamed’s Milton teaches us that “messianism is the language of particularization, not a hearkening after internationalism” (36). As he writes in his conclusion, Milton’s work can alert us to how “The lack of sociality in the believers adherence to truth will pay no heed to worldly institutions, or to fellow citizens, perceived to oppose truth, finding its most extreme political expression in the endorsement of religious violence” (131). Though it first appears more nuanced, Mohamed’s opposition to a secularized Milton has mostly to do with his desire to retain those moments of explicitly religious violence within the English poet’s career. Milton thus becomes an example of how the liberal subject’s attachment to individual truth claims can open a path of violence toward the Other. The first chapter, which suggests a parallel between Milton’s plain style in Paradise Lost and Alain Badiou’s theory of “evental” truth procedures, criticizes Badiou  for precisely this reason. “Who more than Milton,” gleefully asks Mohamed, “resembles [Badiou’s] view of Paul, with its iconoclastic sweeping away of laws and institutions conflicting with a truth secured by the declaration of an enlightened subject?” (39-41). Against this rendering of a universal via the particular, Mohamed suggests that Milton’s implicit critique of the human subject—the uncertainty of inner promptings, the reader’s inability to access the conscience of Milton’s protagonists—draws into question what Badiou sees as the founding of the universal subject.

Relying on Zizek's Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Mohamed suggests a parallel between the US government’s public strategy for justifying the invasion of Iraq—overwhelming its audience with an excess of reasons—and the rhetorical excesses of Milton’s Areopagitica. The “kettle logic” of Areopagitica, he writes, is “a cover for its ideology of the hegemony of an emerging reforming class” (54). Milton’s tract reflects what Marxist historians identify as a possessive individualist quality, where, as C. B. Macpherson writes, “Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of . . . property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange.” In what follows, Badiou, along with Zizek and Derrida, is again faulted for his preoccupation with an “evental site” that exists apart from pre-existing knowledge. Such a focus, argues Mohamed, only reproduces "the ideological grounds of determining the good apparent in the ethics of Areopagitica” (61). Following Gayatri Spivak, who grounds the possibility of an ethics in the as yet unrecognized Other, Mohamed ends up endorsing a familiar form of humanist education where “Reading is not only an ethical activity, it is the ground of ethical activity in its initiation of the call by which positive political change can occur, because it is only through the kind of reading sometimes fostered in the humanities that we are invited to imagine alien subjectivities” (62). 

Although I find the first part of his book unconvincing (especially when it comes to his critiques of Badiou and Derrida), Mohamed's emphasis on hegemony (whether based in class or race) is a good reason for maintaining Milton's religiosity within critical discussions of his poetry, one that I find somewhat more useful than Schwartz's theologizing. I should say, however, that Milton and the Post-Secular Present is more focused in its final chapters, which deal explicitly with religious violence, contemporary terrorism, and the poem that, currently, seems to generate the most debate among Miltonists: Samson Agonistes. I'll be dealing with these chapters in my next post.

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