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The Secularization and Modernity Debate: Beyond Negative Theology (Kalamazoo ICMS, May 2012)
full name / name of organization:
Ryan McDermott / University of Pittsburgh Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program
The University of Pittsburgh Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program invites submissions for its sponsored paper session at the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 10-13, 2012.
Talal Asad and Charles Taylor have challenged “subtraction narratives” of secularization, which assume that the secular is what is left after religion has been cleared from the public square. Medievalists in recent years have supported this move, arguing that religion cannot be reduced to other, more fundamental cultural forces such as economics and politics, and rearticulating the ways the medieval church produced secular spaces and processes of secularization within itself. Yet these arguments often depend on apophatic theology, itself a discourse of subtraction, to assert the ongoing presence of religion even in its supposed absence.
For example, in order to recuperate transcendence and the medieval doctrine of analogy in the face of Heidegger’s critique of ontotheology, Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith argue in the introduction to _The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages_ that “knowledge, as Pseudo-Dionysius says, comes only through the denial of all being . . . The limits of analogy and transcendence are not their terminations, but rather the grounds of their possibility” (9). Legitimate as it is, this move curiously reproduces the negative way of subtraction narratives. And as Cole and Smith recognize, the other side of this apophatic coin, even for Pseudo-Dionysius, has always been cataphasis, the way of affirmation. Medieval and early modern religious literature is replete with cataphatic discourses, from “The Dream of the Rood," Dante’s _Commedia_, and Langland’s dream visions to Reformed theologies of the _imago dei_ embodied in human "lively images," Spenser's ekphrastic imagination, and Milton's "sovran vital lamp" (PL 3.22). What happens if we begin to look for the ongoing presence of religion in the ongoing presence of religion?
This session invites papers about the legitimacy and rationale of an apophatic approach to secularization, and about what an alternative affirmative way might look like. How can we narrate the great cultural shifts of the late middle ages and early modern period along the paths of the affirmative way? How do changing and continuous attitudes to images, iconography, actors' bodies, scriptural exegesis, systematic theology, and other cataphatic modes and discourses contribute to our understanding of secularization and modernity?