H-Diplo Roundtable XIX, 34 on Sex & Secularism

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Roundtable Review

Volume XIX, No. 34 (2018)

11 May 2018



Roundtable Editors: Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Diane Labrosse

Roundtable and Web Production Editor: George Fujii


Introduction by Sarah Claire Dunstan


Joan Wallach Scott. Sex & Secularism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780691160641 (hardcover, $27.95/£22.00).


URL: http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XIX-34


Introduction by Sarah Claire Dunstan, The University of Sydney.. 2

Review by Fadi A. Bardawil, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 6

Review by Sara R. Farris, Goldsmiths, University of London.. 10

Review by John Modern, Franklin & Marshall College.. 15

Author’s Response by Joan Wallach Scott, Institute for Advanced Study.. 20


© 2018 The Authors.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.



In 1793, the French political activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges was guillotined for the crime of “having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.”[1] Amongst the evidence for this transgression was the 1791 publication of de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen. This pamphlet paralleled almost exactly the more famous 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, differing primarily in that it extended the rights of ‘Man’ to Women, including the right to vote.[2] As de Gouges’s execution shows, gender equality was hardly the defining characteristic of the secular democratic ideology that girded the legal and cultural framework of the French First Republic (1792-1804). French women would not, in fact, gain the right to vote until 1944.


In her new book, Sex and Secularism, the eminent historian Joan Wallach Scott shows us that the history of democratic secularism in the West since the French Revolution is rife with such examples of gender inequality, so much so that Scott not only argues that “gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity” but that “Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a new order of women’s subordination” (3). Scott’s purpose in making this argument is to offer a rejoinder to contemporary deployments of the notion of secularism “as the positive alternative, not to all religion but to Islam.” (1) In this particular discourse, Western secularism is characterized as the guarantor of freedom and gender equality vis-à-vis the oppression supposedly epitomized by Islam. This kind of binary thinking is evident in the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” a concept famously articulated by the political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1993 in terms of Western Christianity versus the Islamic world, and popularized in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.[3]


In many ways, Sex and Secularism is the natural sequel to Scott’s 2010 monograph, The Politics of the Veil (also with Princeton University Press).[4] In that book she focused specifically upon the 2004 headscarf ban in France. There too, she argued against the idea that the notion of laïcité lends itself to the creation of an equality respectful of diversity. Sex and Secularism expands the parameters of this argument to examine the discourses of secularism that emerged in tandem with the development of Western nation-states. In so doing, Scott impressively synthesizes a vast amount of literature in order to sketch out the logics of secularism from “its nineteenth century anti-clerical origins to its current deployment in anti-Muslim campaigns” (180). The book is not, as Scott herself makes clear, “a conventional intellectual or social history of the word secularism and its associated practices” (6). To the contrary, it is a polemic that uses “a broad brush” to paint a striking portrait of the workings of gender, secularism, sexuality, and the capitalist state (6-7). It is a portrait that allows Scott to explicate secularism as an unstable discourse that has encompassed myriad practices including white supremacy, imperial ambition, and the exclusion of women from the public sphere.


All three reviewers, Fadi A. Bardawil, John Modern, and Sara R. Farris, are well positioned to attend to the various implications of Sex and Secularism and to assess its contributions not just to the historical literature on gender and secularism but to ongoing debates about the ways these ideas are instrumentalized. As Scott herself notes in her author’s response, they “beautifully articulate” the stakes of Scott’s project and tease out the ramifications of her argument for our contemporary moment.


Modern speaks for all the panelists when he writes that “the power of Scott’s work is to sense how gender—defined as a “historically and culturally variable attempt to provide a grid of intelligibility for sex” (23) is exactingly bound to the making of secular structures as well as religious sensibilities.” For Modern, Scott’s ‘polemical strategy’ brings to mind Francis Bacon’s injunction that ‘to imagine that the nature of anything can be found by examining that thing in isolation, is a notion born of ignorance and inexperience.”[5] By employing such a methodology Scott is able, Modern argues, to demonstrate the patent falsehood of thinking about inequality as a relic from “a primitive or religious or otherwise benighted past” but also as a key element of “so-called secular orders as well as so-called religious orders.”


Scott’s refusal to accept the logics of a binary that couples religion to gender inequality and equality to secularism is also at the heart of anthropologist Bardawil’s review of the book. Opening with an anecdote told by the Egyptian American scholar Leila Ahmed, Bardawil frames his comments in terms of the ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric that Scott’s book is aimed at deconstructing. Bardawil lauds Scott for tackling “hegemonic assumptions regarding Islam and secular modernity” by making “a compelling argument that calls into question the collapse of gender equality and secularism into each other.” He is persuaded by Scott’s case that the construction of modern, secular nation states did not entail the erasure of gender inequality but its re-inscription in different forms in the legal and cultural architecture of the state. Understanding this allows the reader, Bardawil argues, to see how secularism is “marshalled by those who peddle the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, draw on it to articulate a pronounced sense of nationalist identity… and deploy it for xenophobic, right-wing agitation.” In crafting this critical history of the discourses of secularism, then, Scott “masterfully robs the hegemonic doxas of our times of their innocent allure.”


Sociologist Farris also emphasizes that Scott is engaging “in the best tradition of critical history,” by taking to question terms “whose meanings seem beyond question because we treat them as a manner of common sense” (7). She notes that Scott draws on the “theoretical tools offered by Claude Lefort and Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Carole Pateman,” to great success. It is Scott’s parsing of “the relationship between gender and politics in their western configurations” that Farris finds most striking and original in Sex and Secularism. It prompts her to reflect upon our contemporary political lexicon and to ask, amongst other questions, “If secular politics is, ultimately, the liberal paradigm that emerges out of revolutions and their rights-based, universalist claims, is the framework of ‘rights’ the best suited to deliver gender equality?”

In response, Scott takes the opportunity to expand on some of the points that the reviewers raise. Beginning with Bardawil’s assessment of “some of the misreadings (actual and potential) of the book,” Scott raises The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt’s angry accusation that in Sex and Secularism, Scott rejects “secularism in the name of Islam.” The arguments in the book do no such thing, Scott points out. Instead, she wishes to displace the binary opposition of secularism versus religion, and the equation of secularism with liberation and religion with oppression “by asking how the relationship between the terms has operated … to create specific, contextual meanings with their political and institutional effects.”


In a cultural political moment that encompasses the #MeToo movement and Islamophobic currents, Scott’s Sex and Secularism thus provides us, as Farris rightly points out, with “essential tools to understand the workings of secularism in relation to women’s rights.” Of course, these tools open up a set of further challenging questions. This is all for the good. As Scott writes in the opening pages of Sex and Secularism, her aim is to “open—not to definitively close—a conversation about the place of gender equality in the discourse of secularism” (7). If the reviews that follows this introduction are any indication—and I think they are—she has succeeded in doing just that.




Joan Scott is Professor Emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The thirtieth anniversary edition of her classic Gender and the Politics of History has just been published by Columbia University Press. Also forthcoming from Columbia University Press is a collection of her essays on academic freedom: Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom.


Sarah Claire Dunstan is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow with the International History Laureate at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Sydney and is working on a book project entitled A Tale of Two Republics: Race, Rights and Revolution, 1919-1963. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York in 2014 to 2015 and a Visiting Postgraduate Scholar at Reid Hall Columbia Global Center in Paris in semester one 2016. Her publications have appeared in the Australasian Journal of American Studies and Callalloo, a journal of the African diaspora. She is also an Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas website.


Fadi A. Bardawil is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Arab Cultures and Global Studies in the department of Asian Studies; and adjunct Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His writings have appeared in Journal for Palestine Studies (Arabic edition), Boundary 2, Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Anthropology of the Middle East, Kulturaustausch, Jadaliyya, the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar (2006-2011) and the Syrian e-zine Al-Jumhuriya. He is currently completing Emancipation Binds: Arab Revolutionary Marxism, Disenchantment, Critique which examines the rise and ebbing away of Levantine Marxist thought and practice through focusing on the intellectual and political trajectories of the 1960s underground militants who later became influential thinkers and public intellectuals.


Sara R. Farris is Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her publications include Max Weber’s Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion (Brill, 2013) and In the Name of Women’s Rights. The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, 2017).


John Modern is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. He is currently a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and in 2018-2019 will be an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Modern is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (University of Illinois Press, 2000). Former Editor-at-Large for The Immanent Frame, Modern co-curated Frequencies and co-edits Class 200: New Studies in Religion (both with Kathryn Lofton). His current project, The Religion Machine; or, a particular history of the brain, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.



Two spheres of operation of the secular in Joan Scott’s Sex and Secularism



In her memoir, A Border Passage (1999), Leila Ahmed, the Egyptian American scholar, recalls her first encounters with women studies conferences in the U.S. in the early 1980s. Ahmed relates the belligerent and ignorant reactions besieging Muslim panelists at the end of their presentations, herself included, which were openly dismissive of Islam.[6] Ahmad’s recollections date from the early Reagan years—nearly a decade before ‘the Salman Rushdie affair,’ in 1989, and two before the September 11, 2001 attacks and the ‘War on Terror’ that followed them. Islam in distinction to the two other monotheistic religious traditions, Ahmed observed, was considered inherently oppressive and indefensible. “Whereas they—white women, Christian women, Jewish women,” she writes, “could rethink their heritage and religions and traditions, we had to abandon ours because they were just intrinsically, essentially, and irredeemably misogynist and patriarchal in a way that theirs (apparently) were not.”[7] The underlying assumption of these discourses is that the salvation of Muslim women, and Muslims in general, is predicated on them exiting their religious tradition to reach the shores of secular modernity. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam was deemed to lack the necessary internal resources to fight patriarchy and misogyny. Endless proliferations of discourses around the incompatibility of Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and feminism and the counter-discourses that speak back to these discourses that assert that one can be both a Muslim and a democrat, and a Muslim and a feminist, stand as a testimony to the hegemonic status this assumption, which cuts through the ideological left/right divide, has acquired, predominantly, but not only, in Euro-Atlantic societies.


Joan Scott’s Sex and Secularism is a sophisticated theoretical intervention and a timely public one that takes as its starting point the present subsumption of secular discourses within the rhetoric of a clash of civilizations. This ideological rhetoric, as it is well known by now, posits a clash between a Western civilization characterized by freedom and gender equality in contrast to a violent and oppressive Muslim world. “Islam has bloody borders,” wrote Samuel Huntington in 1993.[8] Scott tackles the hegemonic assumptions regarding Islam and secular modernity with which I opened my comments by circumventing the defensive move that seeks to assert that Islam can be, or is, compatible with gender equality, against those who argue for their incommensurability. Instead Scott makes a compelling argument that calls into question the collapse of gender equality and secularism into each other. In a masterful genealogical mode, Scott’s history of the present turns the critical gaze away from the current polemics around Islam to show her readers how Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a “new order of women’s subordination” discrediting in the process the widely held, and taken for granted, claim that gender equality is inherent to “the logic of secularism” (3).


Scott’s argument goes beyond interrupting the triumphalist narrative of modernity’s march forward by de-coupling gender equality from secular modernity and dislodging the multiple iterations of the authoritative tradition (repressive)/modernity (emancipatory) binary. It also underscores how this discursive coupling was marshaled to both justify western civilizational and racial superiority and distract attention from the difficulties around gender equality faced by different societies across the globe, particularly in the West. For instance, Scott shows how as a result of the Cold war, Christianity was incorporated, not only as an aspect, “but as a the source of the democratic secular;” (134) while the current widespread invocation of a common Judeo-Christian European tradition, opposed to Islam, “tended to efface the long and tortured history of European anti-Semitism.” (167). Scott’s admirable genealogy shows the transformations of discourses of secularism that focus today on Muslims as the inassimilable 'other’ of a shared European tradition presenting us, amongst other things, with a critical historical account that elucidates the hostile reactions Leila Ahmed experienced personally on the U.S. conference circuit before the implosion of the Soviet Union.


Scott’s critical history, as I read it, covers two spheres of the discursive operations of the secular that are related but I think not entirely collapsible unto each other. The first sphere is the one that covers the polemical discourses of “secularism,” which the author suggests has re-emerged as a key term towards the end of the past century. Secularism, Scott observes, was reified into transcendental first principles that are marshaled by those who peddle the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, draw on it to articulate a pronounced sense of nationalist identity (for example, laïcité in France), and deploy it for xenophobic rightwing agitation. As Thomas Meaney revealed in the New Yorker, Frauke Petry, the leader of the German far right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland, argued in 2016 after the ‘refugee crisis’ in Germany, “most of the refugees were a threat to contemporary German values, such as the separation of church and state and the freedom of the media. Sometimes she [Petry] justified her views with long discourses on the history of Islam and the European Enlightenment.”[9] Or, take for instance the philosopher André Glucksman, who warned that the “veil is a terrorist operation,” while French President Jacques Chirac dubbed wearing the veil “a kind of aggression” (169).  In the wake of the Arab revolutions, discourses of secularism became an ideological weapon of choice brandished by wide segments of the Arab and Western anti-imperialist left to withhold solidarity from the revolutionaries. These leftists designated the revolutionaries as ‘sectarian’ and ‘Islamists’ which automatically rendered them non-revolutionary subjects devoid of an emancipatory agenda. At times, these same discourses of secularism were put to use as ideological justifications for the support of mass murdering dictators such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria for his supposed secular politics. Those ideologically divergent actors, whether they are Western or not, who deploy ‘secularism’ polemically in their fields of operation racialize Muslims in the process and posit them as ‘the other’ of the Enlightenment’s rational, autonomous subjects or of revolutionary subjects whose actions make History. In brief, polemical discourses of secularism today do a lot of ideological work on different fronts for the European far-right, Republican nationalists, and segments of the anti-imperialist left.


Having said that, some of these same actors who racialize Muslims, and posit Islam as ‘the other’ of secular modernity or a Judeo-Christian tradition, may very well contest the different iterations of the unequal sexual division of labor upheld by the dominant traditions of secular modernity. They could, for instance, be feminists, such as the ones Leila Ahmed encountered in the U.S., who question the gender asymmetry produced by secular modernity while affirming their own superiority to Muslims. And, vice versa, there are examples of the deployment of secularism as a tool of empire to ‘liberate’ Muslim women in the colonies by those who stand against gender equality in the Metropoles. Lord Cromer, the British Proconsul General of Egypt from 1877 to 1907, championed the unveiling of Egyptian women in the colony and was a founding member, and president, of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England.[10]


The long and continuing alliance between the U.S. and the Saudi ruling establishment, the support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion, the deployment of discourses of secularism by the U.S. State Department and its acolytes in the wake of the invasion of Iraq to ‘reform’ Islam from within, as well as the campaigns to ‘liberate’ Afghani women from the Taliban’s religious rule are all instances of how imperial geopolitics and secular polemics intersect at certain points and diverge at others. My point is that polemical discourses of secularism are marshaled—or not—in a variety of problem-spaces—infra-national, national, and supra-national ones—and geo-political conjunctures by political actors to achieve different ideological tasks. For instance, French politicians, public officials, public and media intellectuals deploy discourses of secularism left, right and center, most probably knowing quite well, as Philippe Bolopion wrote, that “Saudi Arabia is one of the main clients of the French arms industry. According to an article published in Le Point on March 20, ‘François Hollande authorized the sale of 455 million euros’ worth of arms to Riyadh, a large part of which could be intended for the war in Yemen’.”[11] Perhaps “political Islam” after all is not only a threat to French laicité but one of its sponsors.


The second discursive sphere of operations of the secular in Scott’s book is less about the polemical discourses of secularism and more about the secular discourses that shaped modern societies. It is a genealogy of the dominant trajectory of Euro-Atlantic secular modernity and the global reach of its re-structuring powers that made previously colonized societies into “conscripts of Western civilization,” to use Talal Asad’s felicitous turn of phrase.[12] Scott makes a strong case for how the transformations of dominant cultural norms, the policies of modern nation states, and their legal reforms did not overcome gender inequality but re-inscribed it under a different guise. For instance, she elucidates how the predominant visions of the nineteenth early twentieth century were characterized by an unequal complementarity that saw women as instruments by which men secured their visions of the future and gender difference as integral to the preservation of the nation and the race. The disappearance of the public/private today, Scott continues, did not bring an end to the gender asymmetry that still persists in intimate relationships and the market.


These hegemonic discourses that have shaped dominant cultural norms, institutions, laws, and practices in the West and the non-West were resisted, Scott notes, by discourses that sought to articulate alternative visions and authorize different practices. These resisting views consisted, for instance, in arguing for different family and living arrangements that broke away from the normative regimes of the sexual division of labor. That said, these oppositional, dissenting views that were anchored in liberal, Marxist, and feminist traditions and sought to counter the dominant visions of modern nation-states were not located outside of secular modernity. They too were articulated by secular discourses. The point I am trying to make is a fairly simple one: if the dominant trajectory of secular modernity entailed a new order of gender subordination, then the automatic equation of reified secularism with gender equality is no longer possible, as Scott forcefully argues. That said, Scott also suggests, when enumerating the instances of resistance to these dominant visions of the sexual division of labor, that the fact that a discourse is secular does not predetermine it a priori to be either on the side of gender equality or of inequality, as her example of the utopian socialists who sought in practice alternative family and communal arrangements reveals (87).


In this short review I tried to analytically disentangle the polemical discourses of secularism from the different secular discourses undergirding regimes of gender inequality in modernity. The first sphere of operation is tied to multiple ideological and strategic political deployment of discourses of secularism as operators of racialization, particularly in Euro-Atlantic societies. The second sphere of operation of the secular in Scott’s text is a genealogical re-reading of secular modernity’s instituted hegemonic visions that shows how deeply entangled they were with gender inequality. In drawing the contours of these two spheres of operation of the secular, I underlined how these discourses were associated with multiple, contradictory, and widely divergent political projects. I did so because I think Scott’s lucidly argued and powerful polemic that seeks to discredit the reified equation of secular modernity with gender equality could be misread, especially by secular crusaders, as a blanket condemnation of secular traditions for the mere fact of being secular or even a defense of ‘religious politics,’ which it definitely is not. To do so would be to resort to a priori metaphysical assertions that retain the secular/religious binary but invert the normative charge associated with it, putting the secular, instead of the religious, on the ‘bad’ side of gender inequality. Scott is not in the business of closed metaphysical inversions. Critical history is what she does. And in doing that she masterfully robs the hegemonic doxas of our times of their innocent allure.




Joan W. Scott has written an important and timely book arguing that we should be suspicious of claims that secularism is women’s best friend. Those claims, she demonstrates, simply do not pass the test of history if we judge them by the trajectory of the secularist discourse, one characterized by attempts at excluding women from the ‘public sphere’ rather than including them. Instead, she maintains, the binomial notion of ‘secularism with gender equality’ is a recent (and fabricated) one that serves the purpose of stigmatizing Islam and Muslim males as women’s enemies. By turning on its head the well-rooted trope according to which secularism provides the best foundation for women’s freedom–and showing it for the Islamophobic tool that it has become–Scott is thus engaging in the best tradition of critical history. It is a history of the present, as she writes, one that “critically examines terms we take for granted and whose meanings seem beyond question because we treat them as a matter of common sense” (7).


Through two-hundred pages and five chapters we are thus taken on a journey in which we learn that the term secularism was not used before the nineteenth century; that those advocating a secular state in the West were also against women’s suffrage; that secularism is a Christian byproduct reflecting the dualism of ‘religion-versus-political power’ that is bound to the West’s own trajectory; and that the discourse of secularism was out of fashion during the Cold War—when it was in danger of being associated with Soviet atheism—only to be re-deployed after the fall of the Berlin Wall when Islam supplanted the Soviet Union as the (re)new(ed) enemy of the West.


Sex and Secularism delves into these many histories of the discursive operations of secularism neither to dismiss some of the progressive outcomes that might have historically been associated with it, nor to embrace religion. Rather Scott’s aim is to show how the past political uses of the discourse of secularism were as much geared against women as its contemporary uses are against Muslims and Arabs. As someone who has been very critical of the ways in which the emancipatory ideals of women’s rights have been mobilized by non-emancipatory political actors in order to stigmatize Muslim and non-western migrant men—particularly in France where the politics of laïcité has come to assume the fundamentalist features it claims to fight in other religions—I cannot but welcome Scott’s argument as a much-needed addition to our anti-racist political vocabulary.[13]


The book, however, is not only a critical, and sometimes even polemical, intervention into a heated contemporary debate. Above all I read it as a theoretical contribution to the understanding of the relationship between gender and politics in their western configurations. In this review, therefore, I want to focus upon Scott’s analysis on this relationship. For it is here that her book not only strikes a decisive blow against those claiming that secularism inherently supports gender equality, but also advances what I think is her most original argument.


“Gender is at the very heart of the secularism discourse,” Scott writes, for “the representation of the relationship between women and men has provided a way of articulating the rules of organization for emerging nations: in turn, those rules established the ‘truth’ of the difference of sex” (22). In this passage, as elsewhere throughout the book, Scott equates the discourse of secularism with the discourse (as well as theories and operations) of politics. This argument requires some unpacking.


The word ‘secularism’—Scott explains—did not exist before the nineteenth century when it was introduced to describe an alternative value system independent of both religion and atheism. Authors in the earlier 1800s more frequently used the term “secular” (in French, séculaire) to refer to inner-worldly matters in opposition to the other-worldly concerns of religions. The opposition between the secular and the religious was at the very foundation of political power in Europe. The emergence of temporal authority was in fact inextricably linked to both the progressive separation of European rulers from the Church’s control and to the establishment of the “public sphere” as the realm of politics, and the ‘private sphere’ as that of religion. The privatization of religion, Scott maintains, coincided with the progressive disenchantment of the world in which rational calculation and temporal logics replaced religious beliefs as the organizing principles of western societies. It is this set of processes, as I understand it, that established the secular and the political as theoretical and ‘practical’ equivalents. Those attempting to establish new regimes against the aristocracy and the churches, in the wake of the bourgeois revolutions, were in fact also those advocating the secular Enlightenments as the new credo for the people.

Yet when we look at the track records of these advocates of the secular Enlightenments on women’s issues, Scott reminds us, the picture is rather bleak. In France, Olympe de Gouges was guillotined by the revolutionaries in 1793 for “having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex” (104); in England Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1884 urged the House of Commons to reject a bill extending voting rights to women as this would compromise the natural equilibrium that assigned women and men to different social roles. And the list could continue.


The poor record of these advocates of secularism regarding gender equality, however, was not the result of a contradiction. In other words, Scott argues that the legislators of the emerging Western ‘secular’ nation-states did not want to grant women the same rights as men because of a betrayal of the secularist discourse. Rather, gender inequality was inscribed within that discourse from the beginning, because secularism rested fundamentally upon the conviction that women were naturally unsuited to engagement in politics. To support this argument Scott draws in particular upon the theoretical tools offered by Claude Lefort and Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Carole Pateman.[14] Here Scott’s fundamental thesis is that the emergence of temporal power as separate from religion unleashed two strong forms of anxiety in the proponents of the discourse of secularism: the anxiety to establish the type of subject that had to be in charge of political power, and the anxiety to replace the ability of religions to give death a meaning with something equally purposeful. Disciplining sexual difference and sex, Scott maintains, was the secularists’ answer to both anxieties.


Claude Lefort, she suggests, helps us to articulate the first form of anxiety.[15]


Lefort argued that the type of political power that emerged in the wake of the modern bourgeois revolutions was characterized by uncertainty and indeterminacy. This was due to the fact that political power was now disembodied. It no longer was founded upon God for legitimacy, nor upon the King as God’s agent, but on the will of a body-less entity like “the people.” Max Weber made a similar argument—as Scott recalls—when he claimed that the bureaucratic, legal type of power, which emerges out of and comes to dominate within modernity, is impersonal.[16] It is based upon binding rules and not upon the individuals who implement them. But for those who actually implemented them, Scott writes, “the question of who was charged with articulating and enforcing the decrees remained. For them, the very impossibility of representation calledfor decisive resolution” (102).


The resolution they found was to naturalize the gender hierarchies of which politics was made by means of positing sexual difference as their basis. In other words, the ideologues of secularism maintained that women’s alleged innate incapacity for rational thinking was the reason why only men, endowed with this capacity, could engage in politics. Scott writes, “Gender and politics were co-constitutive, the one establishing the meaning of the other, each providing a guarantee of the otherwise elusive and unstable grounds on which each rested. Gender referred its attributions to nature; politics naturalized its hierarchies by reference to gender” (22).


Women were thus declared unfit for secular politics due to their supposed natural inferiority. But sexual difference itself, Scott maintains, was a shaky ground for justifying the hierarchies of political power, because gender is just as indeterminate and uncertain as modern political representation. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s struggles for political equality regularly noted that the claim regarding women’s natural unsuitability for politics, as brandished by the science-infused minds of secularists, was in fact unscientific.


The second form of anxiety secularists had to mitigate was people’s fear of death, which Scott discusses particularly in Chapter 2 entitled “Reproductive Futurism.” Unlike religion, politics was silent about questions concerning the afterlife and the meaning of life more generally. Here sexual difference and sexuality became again important “transfer points,” to use Foucault’s apt concept, but only insofar as they were fixed, controlled and disciplined.[17] Drawing on the work of historian Isabel Hull—who details how the distinction between the sexes intensified with the advent of secular modernity (93)—and of political theorist Carole Pateman, who demonstrates that secular politics rests on monogamy (96)—Scott argues that the sexual division of labor became the way to fix sexual difference, and monogamy and reproduction the ways to control and discipline it.[18] In other words, secular politics focused on the nuclear, monogamous, heterosexual family as the pillar of modern western society because that was the locus in which sex could be subdued through reproduction. As she puts it, “Sex becomes the alternative to death in the age of disenchantment only when it is endowed with rational (reproductive) purpose. (…) The conscious imposition of reproductive meaning not only seeks to tame the unruly sex drive, but brings women (‘the sex’) under control. Sex is separated from death when men direct women exclusively to life-bearing activity. Here is secularism’s answer to the uncertainty of life without God” (72).


The focus on reproduction displaced the fear of death onto a “political program” aiming at the perpetuation of life as well as at the survival of the nation. And women, as postcolonial feminists in particular have demonstrated, are essential to the nationalist project because they guarantee its preservation, including its racial purity. The sexual division of labor thus became indispensable to the Enlightenment vision of political democracy and to the nation as an imagined community made up of people united by racial lineage as well as destiny (88).


In this regard, Scott makes an intriguing argument concerning the distinction between sexual and racial difference in the ways they relate to secular politics and the nation. While racial difference established the outsiders of the nation, those to be excluded in order to maintain its idealized homogeneity, sexual difference established women as internal others: they were necessary to the nation’s reproduction but the management of the nation’s public affairs was outside their remit. “If secularism is a discourse about the articulation of the sovereign identity of Western European nation-states, then a racialized gender (the attribution of meaning to the difference of sex) is at the heart of that discourse” (24).


This point is, I think, of particular salience to understand some of the ways in which the discourse of secularism is mobilized against Muslims in the name of women’s rights today. Secularism has been in fact deployed as a tool to emancipate Muslim women. Veil bans in the name of laïcité, for instance, have been recast as opportunities for Muslim women to abandon their purported misogynist culture and to embrace a truly liberating, secular lifestyle. Accordingly, the adoption of a secular attitude by Muslim (female) others has been offered as the viaticum for their emancipation/integration within western societies. It is worth noting, however, that here emancipation and integration are presented almost as personality’s inner traits, as something that is part of individuals’ selves, and not something that can really be acquired. As Scott puts it, “In the secularism discourse interiority is taken to be a condition, not a state to be realized but something natural that simply needs to be unveiled (…) emancipation and equality are traits presumed to inhere in individuals, establishing their agency—their very humanity—and so their eligibility for membership in the community of the nation” (169).


Scott here seems to me to go in the direction of proposing that just as secularists in the nineteenth century naturalized sexual difference in order to keep women out of the public sphere, secularists today naturalize cultural and religious differences as ‘indispositions to freedom’ in order to stigmatize racialized others. This naturalization, or ontologization one might say, results from the very premises of the secularist discourse, a discourse that has always been uttered in the name and in the interests of specifically racial, classed, and gendered subjects and projects. Far from being inclusive, the secularists’ discourse thus excludes those who fall outside its horizon.


All in all, Sex and Secularism gives us essential tools to understand the workings of secularism in relation to women’s rights. Ultimately, as Scott suggests, it was not western secularism that granted women their rights, but the women’s movement itself that conquered them through long and hard struggles. However, this poses some further challenging questions: if the discourses of secularism and politics coincide, what kind of politics would be more conducive to women’s emancipation? If secular politics is, ultimately, the liberal paradigm that emerges out of the bourgeois revolutions and their rights-based, universalist claims, is the framework of “rights” the best suited to deliver gender equality? In other words, if secularism is so entangled with the universalist rationale of western politics—as it developed particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution—and its claims of abstract legal equality which ultimately rest on the reality of concrete (gender, racial, class) inequalities, can this politics still be the road to emancipation? Or rather do we need to rethink entirely our political lexicon, including that of ‘rights,’ in which every new set of inclusions is constantly accompanied by old and new exclusions?


The book does not have definitive answers to these interrogatives, which are admittedly perhaps even impossible to address in purely theoretical terms. But, crucially, Scott’s approach enables us to consider the various possibilities opened up by the recognition that women’s freedom is not, and will not be, the result of secular generosity but, ultimately, lies in the hands of women themselves.


Available for Incorporation



Science promises a bigger picture, making inquiries into things by homing in on the logic of their relations. As all school children are taught when they are assigned their Francis Bacon, the so-called father of the scientific method, “to imagine that the nature of anything can be found by examining that thing in isolation, is a notion born of ignorance and inexperience.”[19] For a working scientist, the relations between, in their cumulative expanse, make up the exquisite object of attention. There are many terms for this piercing yet amorphous facticity. Ecology, system, organization, field, network, assemblage, discourse. These terms, from an array of disciplinary domains, share an analytic ambition to encompass.


I was reminded of this scientific imperative to see things in relation while reading Joan Wallach Scott’s bracing new book, Sex & Secularism. Scott is, first and foremost, invested in thinking through the strange resonance between the political and the religious, public and private, reason and sex, masculine and feminine. And as Sex & Secularism so masterfully shows, these concepts operate in concert, reverberating in positive and negative feedback loops, sometimes in opposition but ever in organized relation, so as to reproduce their relationality, and the environmental inequalities that, over time, fuel it.


The power of Scott’s work is to sense how gender—defined as a “historically and culturally variable attempt to provide a grid of intelligibility for sex” (23) is exactingly bound to the making of secular structures as well as religious sensibilities. As Scott writes, “gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity. I go further to suggest that Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a new order of women’s subordination, assigning them to a feminized familial sphere meant to complement the rational masculine realms of politics and economics” (italics in original, 3). Subordination is on all sides of the secular divide.


Scott’s is a polemical strategy to disabuse readers of truths that stubbornly remain self-evident—what Bacon may have called “ill-luck or fond illusions.”[20] Her goal is to “engage and discredit . . . the current representation of secularism as the guarantor of equality between women and men.” According to Scott, inequality is not merely some unfortunate survival from a primitive or religious or otherwise benighted past. On the contrary, gender inequality has intensified in subtle and non-statistical ways, festering under the rights-based regimes of the Anglo-European imagination and its compulsive imagining of the Muslim other. And while this attitude may have been distilled in something like Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations it is a logic that is inherent to liberalism.[21] As such, this is a book that may ruffle some feathers.[22] This is a book that may confuse those who are instinctively committed to, like Jürgen Habermas, banishing the “idle postmodern talk” from the republic.[23] This is a book that may pique dissent among those who have proudly and condescendingly left religion to the “psychos and fanatics.”[24]


Scott argues that our current predicament in which sexual desire has become all but reified runs through the early cold war years in which “sex was produced as a new kind of freedom, and sexual freedom became a concept parallel to religious freedom, available for incorporation into the charged discourse of secularism” (140-141). Look around you. Listen to the DJ. Swipe right. Sexual desire has become the most natural, the most universal trait, that which most makes us human, and therefore most in need of care, consideration, and control. Sexual desire arrives ready-made, outside of history. And it is a desire, when properly consummated, will set you free. Satisfaction and equality.


As Scott points out, however, such triumphal posing is often in the service of some exceptionalist and increasingly Islamophobic discourse: Wars justified in terms of our freedom vs. their patriarchy and oppression and burkas and bombs and all that was not American. Immigration policies pivoting on fears of the Muslim hordes. Faith in the advance of capitalism and its nation-states. Scott troubles this self-serving act of othering by pointedly asking, “But what counts as sexual satisfaction? And how does it lead to gender equality?” (157). Indeed, Scott’s skepticism stems from her deep appreciation for the rules that not only stand ready to receive sexual desire but have, if one is honest, done much to generate the shape and substance of that desire. Your desire is always at risk of becoming somebody else’s market. Perhaps it already is.[25]


With a sharp appreciation for those processes by which sex has been ruthlessly regulated in the name of its liberation and liberatory capacities, Scott approaches the historical consolidation of secularism not as a failed politics or incomplete emancipation from the religious but, rather, as the intensification of discourse. As opposed to a mere ideology, the discourse of secularism has both generated inequality and naturalized it in a series of gestures—often seamless and always self-interested—from the nineteenth century to the present. To study secularism is to study the making of religion in relation to knowing the world, being a self, and managing a population. To study sex in relation to secularism is to examine the epistemic, ontic and political registers in which religion is invented and regulated, via sex.


Scott offers a master class in dissecting the biopolitics of secularism, how different characterizations of sex and secularity have, over time, neither liberated nor eradicated inequality. These characterizations have, in their relationship to the discourse of secularism, been incredibly productive in making individuals, and much else besides, “available for incorporation”—that is, generating docility in the name of freedom, inequality in the name of universal right (140-141). This is precisely what Foucault had in mind when he spoke of sex as “a dense transfer point for relations of power.”[26] This is where the smooth feel of the secular and the illicit taste for the religious, or perhaps the other way around, come together.[27]


According to Scott, the rationalization of sexual difference has been the central feature of secularism, which is to say that it has become the central feature of so-called secular orders as well as so-called religious orders. Secularism, one might go so far as to say, makes sense only in relation to the sexual difference that it continually conjures. Sexual difference, then, is the key to thinking about the buzzing compatibility between good government and good religion. A resonance as much as a mechanics, secularism is what happens when the relations between scientific inquiry, political governance, and the religious imagination become ever generative.


Whatever these relations were, they were made possible by the proliferation of technologies and technics, divinations and divine appeals since the nineteenth century (from calipers, vaginal specula, and analyses of “sex-biased effects on gene networks and cell systems” (called the “sexome”[28]) to evangelical sex manuals and orgasms for Jesus[29] to Kosher dildos,[30] and a menu of Tantric “positions to blow your partner's mind and yourself!”[31] Indeed, the promise to grant measured legitimacy to sexual difference has become increasingly pervasive and mutually reinforcing as those seeking to finalize a difference objectify increasingly fine-grained levels of detail, micro- and macroscopic. In this scenario, sexual difference became not merely the object of a scientific gaze but also a compulsion.


Scott addresses this compulsion by way of Weber’s concept of disenchantment. Scott notes that a key part of the advertising campaign for secularization in the nineteenth century was the mobilization of science as a stable and certain system of signification. As more folks became enamored with the promise of science to calculate, in general—to optimize and improve and model—the contrast between science and the benightedness of faith became de rigueur. In claiming to offer epistemic access to the truths of the human species rather than God, science offered unprecedented comfort (often cold) in a world increasingly devoid of transcendental appeal.[32]


According to Scott, the key to Max Weber’s argument about disenchantment[33] is his suggestion that within secular modernity interiorization becomes the primrose path to calculation, a wager that things are best measured when they remain anchored, somehow, on the inside. “Disenchantment,” writes Scott, “meant the privatizing of religion, emotion, and sex” (69). This is a simple yet profound point that moves well beyond the scope of sexual sciences engaged in momentous acts of normalization in the twentieth century. For in reading Scott, here, one gets the sense that much of science is best considered sexual to the core.


Science is that which brings us the “holy truth of sexual difference.”[34] Whether illustrating genitalia, isolating chromosomes, mapping genomes, or tracking particles, calculation serves to naturalize not only the objects of its gaze (the clitoris, X chromosomes, gene expression, neutrons) but also, and most importantly, the distinction between whatever is on the inside of the human, at any given moment, and everything else. So it is the blithe and often indirect instantiation of an interior quality—say sexuality and/or spirituality—that serves to create a contrast with exteriority. This is a first principle of biopolitics. This is where the regulation happens.


The privatization of religion and sexual difference had the ambivalent effect of both liberating them in the name of individual particularity and subjecting them to new forms of regulation. Disenchantment, then, is not only about the making of Big Science—with its inflated measuring sticks and gendered biases—but also about a reified notion of sexual difference at the heart of secular subjectivity in general. Scientific objectivity, in other words, is not some disposition imposed upon individuals as much as a general epistemic style adopted as the most efficient way to secure their identities and place in a world that seems increasingly unhinged. For as “manliness” was equated with one’s courage to face the void “without illusion or the comforts of religion,” a key disposition of secular subjectivity was forged and maintained in spaces far removed from the laboratory.


Sex & Secularism is a work of criticism, which is to say, it seeks to find some leverage upon its own historical moment in which the secular has become code for all that is rational, sane, and just in this world—ever in opposition to the madness and injustice of its political enemies, namely, Muslims and their supposedly hidebound notions of person, gender, and community. Scott has not only identified the thread of sex within the weave of a Western secular imaginary, but she has pulled on it to the point where the secular order is revealed to be absolutely, imperfectly, and sometimes contemptuously made. As Scott writes in conclusion, hers is a work that seeks to expose “the way certain claims about equality have served to perpetuate inequality” and to invite us, the readers, to “think otherwise” about the common sense of secularism (183).


Scott’s science is that of the genealogist, dissecting motivation, getting behind how things regrettably are and gesturing toward possibilities that lie dormant despite the terror and pain of present circumstances. Unlike those scientists who adopt the Baconian desire to “conquer and subdue [nature], to shake her to her foundations,” the genealogist turns her gaze toward the rough edges of that desire, the concepts through which it is pursued, and how those pursuits congeal and cut and change over time.[35] When all is said and done, the genealogist refuses to grant either the will to conquer or its object the ontic respect Bacon and his ilk demand.



I am cheered by these comments which seem to me to really “get” what the book is about, and what my aim was in writing it. I don’t have any quarrels with the way the work is represented; indeed, in some instances Fadi Bardawil, Sara Farris, and John Modern beautifully articulate in clarifying terms—probably better than I—my stakes in the project. Sarah Claire Dunstan sets up the conversations beautifully, pointing to key ideas in my book and to the reflections on it by the commentators. In this response I want to elaborate on some of their points.


I will begin with Bardawil because he puts his finger on some of the misreadings (actual and potential) of the book. It is definitely not an attack on secularism in the name of religion—as some feminists, who have completely misread the agenda of the book, have accused me of doing. And their accusations that I prefer some unified entity they label Islam to secularism echoes the Islamophobia I am writing against. My argument is precisely a refusal of the opposition: secularism versus religion. I insist that that opposition is misleading both in its current polemical Islamophobic uses and in its history. My method involves a deconstruction of the religion/secularism binary; rather than inverting the valence (secularism=liberatory/religion=oppressive), it seeks to displace it, asking how the relationship between the terms has operated—in history and in the present—to create specific, contextual meanings with their political and institutional effects. As the late Saba Mahmood eloquently pointed out, secularism carries with it the public/private divide central to its Protestant origins; it is not opposed to religion, rather it is a way for the state to regulate what counts as acceptable religion. She added that this very specific history was represented as a universal, civilizational process. It denied the possibility for understanding the integrity of other different, collectively oriented, ethical religious frameworks.[36]


My argument is that, historically, the regulation of religion by modern Western nations had everything to do with the regulation of sexuality. Modern puts it nicely: “To study secularism is to study the making of religion in relation to knowing the world, being a self, and managing a population. To study sex in relation to secularism is to examine the epistemic, ontic and political registers in which religion is invented and regulated, via sex.” He is right to call attention to my discussion of the ruse of sexual emancipation as a key to a supposed gender equality and so to the unacceptability of Islamic religious practice in contrast to that emancipation.


The fascinating thing for me in doing this work was to see the interconnections between the politics of nation-building and the importance of gender inequality for that politics. When, as a graduate student in the 1960’s, I read a lot of the literature on state-formation, gender was not a relevant category of analysis. Indeed questions about family, relations between the sexes, and reproduction did not figure in those largely political science accounts. Second-wave feminist critiques were ignored; they were secondary to what counted as serious political science (in the way that women were secondary figures in the profession itself). But rereading the feminist work, along with that on race and colonialism, made it apparent that differentiation, its naturalization and racialization, was crucial for the creation and justification of hierarchy and white male supremacy in the creation of nation-states.


Farris asks, in the face of what can sometimes seem the implacable logic of secular reason, about where the possibilities for equality—for women’s true emancipation—might lie. The history I recount in this book, but also in Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man and in Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism, discusses the strengths and limits of appeals to secularism’s principles for gender equality. [37] There’s no question that universal promises of liberty and equality enable those excluded because of their difference to challenge their exclusion on the very principles used to exclude them. That has been the history of social movements over the past two centuries. But I am not convinced that the liberal insistence on the rights of autonomous individuals is the only or, for that matter, the best way to think about achieving greater equality. I have always been drawn to the ways in which difference—its recognition not its elimination—might figure in our thinking about equality. In The Politics of the Veil, I cited Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea that difference is what individuals have in common. It is not common being, he says, but being-in-common which “has nothing to do with communion, with fusion into a body, into a unique and ultimate identity.” [38] In The Politics of the Veil, I was talking about issues of religion and race.


On the question of gender, though, psychoanalytic theory gives me pause. It has been so hard to disentangle explanations of the enigma of sexual difference from its biologized naturalizations (Modern’s discussions of Baconian science are relevant here), that I wonder whether and how this can be done. Psychic processes seem powerfully resistant to rational appeals to cultural construction or, indeed to examples of gender’s mutability in time and place—despite the possibilities for many of us of “undoing of gender,” in Judith Butler’s wonderful description and prescription.[39] Vivian Gornick, writing in the NY Times Magazine, bemoaned the slow progress of feminism in the light of the #MeToo movement’s revelations: “As the decades wore on, I began to feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly—how grudgingly!—American culture had actually moved, over these past hundred years to include us in the much-vaunted devotion to egalitarianism.” [40] I think some of the explanation for this slow progress has to do with cultures of masculinity, deeply rooted in the psychic processes constructed by the attribution of gendered meanings to physical bodies and embedded in relations of power across the social, economic, and political spectrum.


As Farris notes, I do not have the answer to the question of what would work as an appeal for greater gender equality, but I think that it is critical work like mine and like that of Dunstan, Bardawil, Farris, and Modern, that will advance the conversation and so open some political possibilities. It is critical thinking, in dialogue with social movements, that offers us some measure of hope.



[1] As cited in Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 52.

[2] For more on Olympe de Gouges see Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer, 19-56 and Joan Wallach Scott, “French Feminists and the Rights of Man: Olympe de Gouge’s Declarations,” History Workshop Journal 28 (Autumn 1989): 1-21.

[3] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72:3 (1993): 22-49.

[4] Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[5] Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, eds., Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 26.

[6] Leila Ahmed, A Border Passage: A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey (New York: Penguin, 2012; first published in 1999).

[7]Ahmed, 292.

[8] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72:3 (1993): 35.

[9] Thomas Meaney, “The New Star of Germany’s Far Right,” The New Yorker, 3 October 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/the-new-star-of-germanys-far-right.

[10] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 153.

[11] Philippe Bolopion, “Will Macron Have Courage to End Arms Sales to Saudis,” Human Rights Watch, 17 September 2017. The article was originally published in the French daily Le Monde.

[12] Talal Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization,” in Christine Ward Gailey, ed., Civilization in Crisis: Anthropological Perspectives. Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, vol. 1 (Gainesville: Florida University Press, 1992), 333.

[13] See Sara R. Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights. The Rise of Femonationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

[14] Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988); Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, vol. 13 in James Strachey, ed., The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1995); Max Weber, “The Social Psychology of the World Religions,” in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Routledge, 1998); Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus”. In Lacan, Ècrits: A Selection (London: Tavistock, 1977); Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).

[15] Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory.

[16] Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[17] Foucault, History of Sexuality.

[18] Isabel Hull, Sexuality, State and Civil society in Germany, 1700-1815 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Pateman, The Sexual Contract.

[19] Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek, eds., Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 26.

[20] Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 91.

[21] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996).

[22] To assume that ontic questioning of the secular threatens to undo the longue durée domestication of religion—its enthusiasms, language, and legitimacy —or that such suspicion is suspect as a matter of common sense, seems to miss the entire point of studying secularism as a discourse. So, too, would be to continue to measure geopolitical abstractions such as gender equality or secularity according to some metric after putting down Scott’s scathing genealogy of these concepts. For examples of such metrics, see the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 and Pew Research Center, Global Restrictions on Religion Rise Modestly in 2015, Reversing Downward Trend. 11 April 2017.

[23] Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 150-151.

[24] dafnitin, “grinderman - go tell the women,” YouTube video, 3:30, posted 18 January 2010, https://youtu.be/RkqPu8CQ1bI. Having read Scott’s book, I can now better imagine the history of Nick Cave’s first person narrator in “Go Tell the Women,” a post-apocalyptic Grinderman ballad that, according to Cave, looks “at modern man in an ironic way” and judges him to be “morally bankrupt.” Chris Heath, “Misinterpretation blues,” The Telegraph, 24 March 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3663982/Misinterpretation-blues.html  

[25] Sex & Secularism is a necessary genealogical response to Charles Taylor’s (regrettably) paradigmatic portrait of the secular age, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007). In convincingly and efficiently demonstrating the centrality of gender inequality in the making of our secular age, Scott’s is a poignant contrast to the inflated magisterialism of Taylor’s tome and its (mostly) triumphal and (largely) linear history. Rather than trade in the binaries generated by secularism as a way to defensively explain what is true about its version of the human, Scott homes in on conceptual logistics of the secular, the worlds made possible by particular alignments of women with bad religion and effective renderings of the biological difference of the sexes.

[26] Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1988) 103.

[27] Sexual ecstasy, from this perspective, becomes a biopolitical necessity, a way of not having to know that the questions we are asking about sexuality and liberalism alike have no answers. One implication of Scott’s argument might be that sex is ever and always an instrument of this kind of powerful unknowing. In other words, the discourse of secularism is where unanswerable questions of gender and politics lean on each other in order to secure their own authority. With a nod toward psychoanalytic inquiry, Scott argues that the locus of sovereignty within secular modernity, like sexual difference, “is an empty place” and “cannot be represented” (101). Drawing on Claude Lefort’s work on the power of liberal democracies diffused beyond representation, Scott frames secularism as happening in those moments when the indeterminacies of the body politic and the sexual body find closure in one another. According to Scott, there is very much a symbiotic if not self-organizing relationship between the uncertainties of sexual difference and of secular rule.

[28] Arthur P. Arnold and Aldons J. Lusis, “Understanding the Sexome: Measuring and Reporting Sex Differences in Gene Systems,” Endocrinology 153:6 (2012): 2551-2555. 

[29] Amy DeRogatis, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[30] Rabbi Natan Alexander, “Baring Your Soul,” Better2Gether (website), https://www.bebetter2gether.com/blogs/news/70874051-baring-your-soul.

[31] Robert D’Amato, Sex Guide: 2 In 1 Bundle: Tantric Sex: A Beginners Guide for Couples Based on The Art of Tantra, Sex Positions: A Beginners Guide to 89 Sex Techniques ... And F*cking, BONUS BOOK. (Adriano Valentino: 2016), see also the Kindle edition.

[32] Scott does not cite Weber simply in order to reiterate his claim that disenchantment has entailed the decline or, perhaps, transformation of religion but, rather, to extend her argument about the biopolitics of secularism and the making up of living, breathing people. According to Scott, Weber’s notion of disenchantment remains an apt description of this general intensification in Anglo-European history—a much-heralded sense of mastery (never fully achieved, but the promise of control serving as both carrot and stick). But as Scott argues, this trajectory was gendered through and through in ways that have not been fully accounted for in light of recent conversations about secularism.

[33] Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 129-156.

[34] Much gratitude to Peter Coviello for this felicitous phrasing and for his helpful comments on a draft of this essay.

[35] Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, 93. As Evelyn Fox Keller suggests, the Baconian stance contains within it the tension between mastery and docility.  For Bacon, “to receive God’s truth, the mind must be pure and clean, submissive and open. Only then can it give birth to a masculine and virile science. That is, if the mind is pure, receptive, and submissive in its relation to God, it can be transformed by God into a forceful, potent, and virile agent in its relation to nature.” Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 38.

[36] Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[37] Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); and Scott, Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[38] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Of Being in Common,” in Miami Theory Collective, ed., Community at Loose Ends (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[39] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004).