Talal Asad
Stanford Humanities Center

 Talal Asad...

...on religion and religious movements

In much nineteenth-century evolutionary thought, religion was considered to be an early human condition from which modern law, science, and politics emerged and became detached.  In this century most anthropologists have abandoned Victorian evolutionary ideas, and many have challenged the rationalist notion that religion is simply a primitive and therefore outmoded form of the institutions we now encounter in truer form (law, politics, science) in modern life.  For these twentieth-century anthropologists, religion is not an archaic mode of scientific thinking, nor of any other secular endeavor we value today; it is, on the contrary, a distinctive space of human practice and belief which cannot be reduced to any other.  From this it seems to follow that the essence of religion is not to be confused with, say, the essence of politics, although in many societies the two may overlap and be intertwined. 
(Genealogies of Religion, p. 27)

The contemporary salience of religious movements around the globe, and the torrent of commentary on them by scholars and journalists, have made it plain that religion is by no means disappearing in the modern world.  The “resurgence of religion” has been welcomed by many as a means of supplying what they see as a needed moral dimension to secular politics and environmental concerns.  It has been regarded by others with alarm as a symptom of growing irrationality and intolerance in everyday life.  The question of secularism has emerged as an object of academic argument and of practical dispute.  If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable.  But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid? 
(Formations of the Secular, p. 1)

...on the discipline of anthropology

But we need to see anthropology as a holistic discipline nurtured within bourgeois society, having as its object of study a variety of non-European societies which have come under its economic, political and intellectual domination — and therefore as merely one such discipline among several (orientalism, indology, sinology, etc.). All these disciplines are rooted in that complex historical encounter between the West and the Third World which commenced about the 16th century: when capitalist Europe began to emerge out of feudal Christendom; when the conquistadors who expelled the last of the Arabs from Christian Spain went on to colonise the New World and also to bring about the direct confrontation of ‘civilised’ Europe with ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples; when the Atlantic maritime states, by dominating the world’s major seaways, inaugurated ‘the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history’; when the conceptual revolution of modern science and technology helped to consolidate Europe’s world hegemony.  The bourgeois disciplines which study non-European societies reflect the deep contradictions articulating this unequal historical encounter, for ever since the Renaissance the West has sought both to subordinate and devalue other societies, and at the same time to find in them clues to its own humanity.
(Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter, pp. 103-104)

What first attracted me to anthropology was that it encouraged one to think of human beings as having different kinds of possibility. One of the things modernity has done, as you know, is to extinguish various possibilities. I think anthropology is important when it comes to questioning the hegemony of our modern capitalist assumptions. I think that that aspect of anthropology needs to be kept alive in thinking about human existence. My point is not simply the familiar one about anthropology as the mirror of humankind. I believe that the serious study of different modes of being and thinking helps us conceptually. It provokes us to think about the assumptions that underlie some of our most cherished and taken-for-granted notions, which mobilize our ways of life, and it disturbs us by other, very different kinds of assumption. Out of this, perhaps, there can emerge other things that are equally human, so to speak, but entirely new.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 274)

...on current events, public reactions, and private reflections

I was totally knocked out by 9/11 and also by the way “informed” public opinion represented it. Not since 1967 had I been so disoriented. The attack itself was shattering. But then even more so was the torrent of stuff that started coming out in the electronic and print media about Islam and Arabs. For me it was a very personal experience, as well as an intellectual one. The confidence and sense of security one had had in everyday life was seriously dented, of course. And I'm not referring here to a fear of further terrorist attacks. I began to see how one could be thoroughly unnerved even though living in a modern secular society. And when I say unnerved, I don't mean myself, I mean the population in general and the Muslim immigrants in particular. Muslims and Arabs have been beaten, and a few killed. Mosques have been burned and vandalized, individuals have been arrested on mere suspicion and not allowed access to lawyers, and so on. All of this is familiar now. But I must say I felt stunned when I opened “serious” newspapers like the New York Times and whenever I watched television news. The rapidity with which an entire population felt its nationalistic sentiments aroused, the cleverness with which the Bush administration exploited them, the slyness of so many public intellectuals and politicians, who had at last found something they could together denounce, all of this was not merely disturbing, but eye-opening. I was watching open intimidation being practiced by a secular nation-state. Many people here and in Europe described this as “fully understandable,” by which they seemed to mean fully justifiable.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 299-300)

I began at that time [in the late 1960s] to be seriously interested in colonial history and the complex conditions that colonialism created — of which those who dominated and those who were dominated were joint authors — in the different countries with which I was more familiar. In a sense, everyone's fate was being partly decided somewhere else. Obviously I don't mean that everyone has the same power of decision, or that everyone is equally innocent in what he or she decides to do. On the contrary, the asymmetry of colonial and postcolonial power makes the lives of many people open to intervention by others in a nonreciprocal way. That seems to me a fairly straightforward proposition that was illustrated by the Middle East. Power is central in history both in the obvious sense of what some people can do to many, and also of what someone can do to himself or herself. That was what was so interesting about the student uprisings in the 1960s, in spite of their many absurdities and overall failure. It seems to me they were at once a confrontation with power and an exploration of the limits and possibilites of power.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 254)

I interacted intensively with academics who were Marxist activists, although I never joined any political group. [...] I was very reluctant to join a group because of the unease I felt about making too tight a connection between intellectual work and political work. That is, I didn't see the two as being quite so straightforwardly connected. I felt myself to be unequivocally on the Left politically. But I didn't see that that fact should determine all the work I was doing and the kinds of questions I was asking. I've always been somewhat pessimistic about the possibilities of political activism, and certainly skeptical about the idea of political revolution. I even became increasingly skeptical about the idea that a rational politics would lead to emancipation.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 255)

I had become disturbed by my experience in Saudi Arabia, by media presentations of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Britain, by the media reactions to the student uprisings. All the rational demonstrations of what was wrong in each case — so it seemed to me — were clearly not having any significant effect. So I rediscovered the wheel: the assumption that rational argument will persuade people that they are wrong is an incredibly naïve idea. You ask any ordinary person in the street, and she knows this already without having read any philosophy, but for blinkered idiots like us, intellectuals, or rather for myself, rational criticism was thought to be the way to show somebody what the truth is. And so in a very primitive and blundering way I started to rethink this.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 265)

...on rationality and irrationality

When I was young, from at least the age of fourteen, I developed an enormous admiration for the West — or rather, for a certain idea of the enlightened West. I was very much imbued with the idea that the West was where one would find Reason, where one would find Freedom, where one would find all the wonderful things which were lacking in Pakistan. And my experience in Britain and then here in the U.S. — and now I speak of a long durée in my life — was one of a slow disabusement. There were different phases, which are connected to my work [...], but put simply, I began to realize how saturated with prejudice people in England were. You might say I was terribly naïve to think otherwise. And I certainly was naïve, but I had to learn to see my naïveté. This seemed to me an incredible discovery, that I had failed for so long to see people in England as prejudiced, as soaked in prejudice. People are prejudiced everywhere, of course, but the English were supposed to be living in an enlightened Western country.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 249)

Then came 1967 and the Six Days War. That was an enormous watershed in my life, intellectually as well as politically. The first thing was the reaction of the English, which astounded me. I couldn't get over the fantastic delight at the utter defeat of Egypt and the other Arab countries. Joy expressed in TV and newspaper reports and in photographs (I still have some of these) at the thousands of humiliated, exhausted, peasant soldiers, forced to walk barefoot over the hot desert. I could understand the joy that Israelis must have felt at their victory. But the English? What was the emotion that fueled the exultation of this enlightened nation toward the ignominous defeat of a wretched, oppressed oriental people? This question began as a rhetorical one for me, as a reproach, but slowly it pushed me to rethink the assumptions I had for so long carried with me about Rationality and Justice in politics.
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 253)

What has interested me since the late 1970s is this: What is there about this process of drawing out implications that strikes me as evident, obvious, important, but doesn't so strike other people? This is not a plea for empathy but a recognition that I am leaving something out of this entire process, namely, how people engage with language and with their emotions too. This is where I began to be interested in reconceptualizing the question of ideology in terms of the experiece of the body-mind-heart.

[...] At one level I see that there are political implications, but what that means concretely is no longer always clear to me, and I want to do some more thinking on that. What does it mean to say there are political implications? Here's a text, I read it, I point to some of its assumptions and what I think are certain political implications. But what does this mean in the real world? I want to complicate for myself the whole question of how one interprets these texts and what it means to draw political implications from them for a particular situation. What does it mean to respond politically to “implications”? And how can they be grasped by someone other than myself? What is the difference between my seeing them and somebody else seeing them? How can a theoretical work be linked objectively to a particular situation?
(“The Trouble of Thinking,” p. 267)




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