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Asad - Secular Translations

Review/Response

Talal Asad is deeply concerned about the concept of friendship in this book, and steps through an linguistic analogy of untranslatability, followed by a numerical one about the state using numbers, and ending with a statement about amr bil maruf. In the classical Asad’ian way, the point comes across through a variety of writers and sources, drawing from Jakobson to Gilgamesh to Arendt and a gaggle of other characters.

There’s a few notions that I want to pick out, one of which is Asad’s idea of untranslatability. He cites Jakobson (I actually laughed out loud when Asad first brought up Jakobson, Jakobson in linguistics is regarded as a great thinker, but incredibly inscrutable) without bringing up Jakobson concept of the cube, which Jakobson describes in “Morphological Observations on Slavic Declensions.” The cube, as Jakobson describes, is a 3d system of the Russian declension, where a fixed set of transformations allows a noun to shift its meaning, but more importantly, there is a fixed algorithm, certain declensions can only be arrived at from certain departures. For example, certain morphological structures only work in concert with other shared structures, an English example would be that we can rearrange “a house was there” to “there was a house”, but when incorporating what the linguists call a “wh” word, “where is a house?” cannot be rearranged into “a house was where?” and maintain the same acceptability to a listener. Jakobson’s work was among the early linguistic work after Chomsky to identify that meaning lies beyond just words, syntax plays a role as well. Other linguists have followed this up to show that phonological structures and morphological structures, syntax and pragmatics, all play a role in how we conceptualize “meaning”.

Asad takes this metaphor and applies it to liberalism/secularism. He does mix the usage of “language” and “words” at various points, such as “it is not the Arabic language that is sacred but the enunciation of divine virtues” (60), which is a slippage most linguists would be wary of. The translation of religion to secularism, for example, while maintaining roughly the same structures that have existed in the past, and while we can fully keep in mind that the notion of secularity we have arrived at is born from, and nearly inseparable from its Protestant past, Asad tells us that there exist areas which remain untranslatable. He talks about how secularism, in being defined from the negative of religion, cannot do without religion, and actually certain aspects of religion remain outside the realm of translatability for secularism. He further goes onto say that, with this fully in mind, secularism has sought to justify itself via numbers, a tool that allows for the secular state to achieve greater heights of legibility, and allow it to formalize the contract it has made with its subjects, in regards to the secularity, stability, and promises of life. He tells us that the secular state, via numbers and the concept of efficiency, already has the “moral language available to the state to justify its representation of the nation” (115).

Given that this is our last class, this book gave me very mixed feelings about the questions that we have raised. We have discussed how secularization theory does not hold water, how religious actors have repeatedly invited the adjudication of state, how secularism is a political settlement of religious and political actors, and how secularity is intertwined with the idea of religion. From the courtroom to notions of veils, our secular views are inheritors of a regime left by the Protestants, and how some religious actors especially made themselves legible to the new political regimes. In an Asad’ian fashion, I will make a loosely related analogy and arrive at a point later:

One of the first problems (or some variation) given to a first year student in probability is this:

“A drunken sailor stands near the edge of an abyss and takes random steps either towards or away from the edge. A step towards the edge has a probability of ppp and a step away from the edge has a probability of (1−p)(1 - p)(1−p). If the sailor starts nnn steps from the edge, what is his chance of survival? What is the minimum value of ppp for which there is no chance of survival?” (https://twitter.com/bilayerguy/status/1098926919402311680)

This problem is useful to illustrate to students that the end result, despite being a probabilistic process, is that if something lives, then the longer it is expected to live (aka the Lindy effect). In the same problem, if mathematically simulated 10,000 times, if the sailor has lived past 1,000 steps, the expected survival rate goes from 7.7% to 30%.

In relation to religion, this tells us that, although we constantly reproduce symbols, and although symbols are reinterpreted in a myriad of ways, religious practices that have long lived may continue to survive. On the other hand, the sailor dies in the majority unless he survives past 5000 steps, which suggests that there may remain potential for radical change.

Asad ends with a line about friendship, and almost lamenting the loss of mutuality in the modern world. Lacking amr bil maruf, we exist in a world governed by numbers, and the self-disciplined logics of the state deems that those who do not board the energy-efficient capitalistic ark are barbarians who will be left behind. Asad does not bring this up, but the rise in protests all across the world since 2008, and in fact the protests of the last two years have brought up the idea of “confusion” and “ungovernability” (https://endnotes.org.uk/file%5Fhosting/Onward%5FBarbarians%5Fby%5FEndnotes.pdf). Confusion because people are now choosing to organize along lines not previously recognized by the political settlement that is secularity, and ungovernability because they subscribe to a different universalism. Darry Li has written about how the universalism of foreign fighters during the Bosian jihad bumps against the universalism of the liberal borders. In the end, I take a different tact than Asad, that the concepts of mutuality and friendship are not lost, but rather just like religious symbols, are constantly being reproduced.