Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 26

&THEORY in the

STUDY OF RELIGION

METHOD

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

brill.nl/mtsr

The Un-translatability1 of Religion, The Un-translatability of Life: Thinking Talal Asads Thought Unthought in the Study of Religion
Ananda Abeysekara
Department of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA ananda@vt.edu

Abstract Every scholarly attempt to defineand, by extension, theorize, interpret, and conceptualize religion is based on the sovereign force of decision. Such theory-decision translates religion into a symbol or category, accounting for it, separating and releasing it from what Talal Asad calls the not so easily varied disciplinary practices that constitute life. In this separation of religion, life becomes a spectator (theoros) to itself. Asads argument about the impossibility of defining religion, connected to his contention that life is essentially itself, helps us think about the un-translatability of life. Closely paralleling Nietzsche and Heideggers reflections on existence and memorybut largely unthought by contemporary theorists of religionAsads thinking about religion is a refusal to historicize life. Keywords Talal Asad, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche

Life is essentially itself. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion I will return . . . not to a new life, or a better life, or a similar life: I will return to this same, selfsame life. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra One ultimately inherits [experiences] only oneself. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

1 I hyphenate the word un-translatability here to note that it is not merely separate from or opposed to translation and grants the (whatever) possibility of translation. For ease of reading, I will not hyphenate the word in the rest of the text. Similarly I do also not hyphenate the word impossibility or unavailability.

Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011

DOI: 10.1163/157006811X608386

258

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

One always inherits from a secretwhich says read me, if you will ever be able to do so? Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

I. Theorization of Religion and the Force of Decision The argument that I make in this article is simple and far-reaching, one that is as yet unthought by academic scholars of religion who continue to define, and in turn and by extension, theorize, interpret, and conceptualize what we have come to know as religion in the humanities today. That (first) point is this: Any attemptNietzsche says that every attempt (Versuch) is a temptation (Versuchung)to define, theorize, interpret, conceptualize religion, is based on a sovereign decision to do so. The second (related) point: With all the sovereign force and sense-defying logic of it, such decision to define, theorize . . . religion, which hardly corresponds to any reality or truth, always seeks (in ways perhaps scholars do not intend) to separate, release, or set free religion from what Talal Asad calls the disciplinary practices or what Nietzsche and Heidegger call lifes center of gravity or attunement (Bifindlichkeit) that constitute life/living/existence itself, respectively. Third point: The disciplinary practices that constitute religious life, within which any and every understanding or intelligibility of what we call religion is possible, do not remain available (verfgbar) for any kind of definition, theorization, interpretation, conceptualization. However, scholars, who seem to ignore or simply have not thought about the import of what Asad says (and perhaps are unaware of what Nietzsche and Heidegger taught us) can continue to theorize religion only by separating and releasing religion from such attuned disciplinary practices of life/living itself. The fourth point: this separationnote that decision (decidere), related to Greek krino, kairo, and krisis, means to separate, to distinguish, etc. (Abeysekara 2010; 2012a)that goes into every decision to define and theorize religion is an attempt to translate religion/life itself into a symbol/metaphor, removed and separated from life, into some aspect or category of life. It is such symbol/metaphor scholars theorize and interpret in the guise of theorizing religion. My argument then is that the possibility to theorize religion is available for scholars not because of any actual reality called religion/life that awaits out there, as a conceptual object or category, needing scholarly conceptualization or, better yet, accounting for. Rather such theorization is an impossibility to begin with, which can be turnedor should we say translated ?into a possibility only by the sovereignty of decision. The sovereignty of decision turns an impossibility into a possibility. Such is the sovereignty of decision to theorize religion.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

259

My task here is to urge scholars to think this impossibility, the impossibility of theorizing and interpreting what we call religion. Thinking this impossibility, I argue, is no longer another (philosophical) attempt at theorizing and interpreting religion/life/existence, as some concept, idea, or category (Heidegger 1996; Derrida). Thinking this impossibility affirms the impossibility of the separation and translation of religious disciplinary practice from what constitutes it, that is, life/living/existence itself. This, for me, is what Asads argument about the impossibility of defining religion invites us to consider, by way of his contention that life is essentially itself. Asads argument, I contend, affirms the impossibility of translating life/ existence into anything other than itself, an argument shared by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. It is this point that scholars who consider it necessary to theorize religionas if they were commanded or moved by some right or (Kantian or some other sovereign) sense of duty, responsibility, or callhave not thought. When I contend that any and every interpretation and theorization of religion is based on a decision, I am not suggesting, as do some scholars (Lincoln 2003; Strenski 2010; Schilbrack 2010) who misread Asads argument, that religion cannot be defined because it is not an essential thing. Rather, that the decision to define and theorize what is called religion turns religious practice/ life into a symbol/metaphor, producing what Nietzsche and Heidegger call distortion or covering up or burying alive (Entstellung and Verstellung, respectively) of such life. This impossibility translated into a possibility by this seemingly simple decision sometimes comes to us in the form of making a simple choice to define religion. Following Derrida, and by way of Hegel, I call this translation (that goes into every attempt to define and theorize religion) the force of decision: There can be no theorization of religion without the force of decision, with all the metaphorical and metaphysical implications and extensions that follow from such an exercise. And, in this translation and theorization of religious practice, life itself becomes something that can be historicized, a task that remains central to the very discipline that goes by that name: history of religions. Asads argument that life is essentially itself is a counterpoint to the presumption that life can be historicized, since historicization is a way of thinking of life as something that translates and changes within history. (This is how the idea [Mufti 2000] of a historical diversity of . . . life becomes possible.) I will discuss later Nietzsches argument that the historicization and translation of life constitute the very legacy of the history of Christianity, a history within which life itself (and whatever its legacy or inheritance) becomes qualified and redeemed as a symbol/metaphor.

260

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

This translation and redemption of life is what we find in the force of decision, which goes into the scholars attempt to define, theorize, and interpret religion. Despite Asads well-known argument, scholars continue to offer or endorse new definitions of religion, which are always new theories of religion/ religious practice.2 That is, scholars continue to regard religion as an object or category of theory, which, by being an accused or acustative in the Greek sense of the word (Heidegger 1996), will always require explaining, qualifying, or accounting for. Here religion becomes something external to life, or better yet, reminiscent of Hegel, an expression of life.3 Despite sophisticated justifications, these scholarly attempts to interpret and theorize religion are made possible by a decision; in that to interpret and theorize religion is simply to decide to do so, with all the sovereign logic and force of decision. This decision, its sovereignty, and indeed its irresponsibility, is assumed to translate itself into an (academic theoretical and secular) responsibility and obligation of inheriting the legacy of religion. (Here I cannot of course go into all the ways that perhaps more than anyone Derrida has taught us about the complexity of the sovereignty of decision.) A recent such sovereign decision to define and theorize religion can be found in the work Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion by a distinguished historian of religion, Thomas Tweed (2006). For Tweed, as for others, to theorize religion is indeed to define religion, and vice versa. Tweed is prepared to do so by discounting unaccountably all the warnings about the
For instance, with no reference to Asad, almost five years after the Asads Genealogies, in an article called Religion, Religions, Religious, Smith (1998: 281) asserted religion is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define. More recently, postmodern theologian Caputo (2009: 62-65) quoted verbatim Mark C. Taylors (2008a) definition of religion, without noting a single problem with it: Religion is an emergent, complex adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure. Similarly, in a review essay, Roberts (2009: 81-104), who quotes approvingly Taylors above definition of religion and argues religion is not just locative but it is virtual, finds in that definition a new and radical potential for religious studies theory. Other scholars (Strenski 2010) persist in making usable and revisable definitions abandoning only parochial notions of religion. The list goes on. 3 Hegels Phenomenology is in many ways an attempt to both overcome and authorize this sense of expression (uerung) and externalization (Entuerung) by way of his notions of negation, mediation, and negation of negation involved in the dialectic. The immediacy of a thing is always mediated, by way of its own force (Kraft), which is the medium of matters, which is also the whole. (Hegel 1977): The force, as the unconditioned universal condition of the whole, is the expression of itself, which ultimately supersedes itself and is the actual. Force as the actual, exists solely and simply in its expression, which at the same time is nothing else than a supersession of itself (sichselbstaufheben) (Hegel 1977: 86). This is what Hegel calls the negative of the force.
2

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

261

futility of efforts to define religion (Tweeds words). The warnings about this purported futility is discounted for the sake of a presumed utility, simply because of a choice that (soon) translates itself into an (academic) obligation and accountability! The choice to discount such warnings is based on a sovereign metaphor itself. Tweed writes: despite warnings about the futility of efforts to define religion, many scholars choose to get up and start running. This supposed choice to get up and start running is a choice for a particular kind of obligation. Here we are already led to believe in a relation between choice and obligation simply based on the maddening force of this metaphor itself. Maddening because the choice to get up and start running becomes merely possible by way of a metaphor itself, a thing pulled out of the air, as if by a feat of magic. Here metaphors multiply metaphors. It is this choice/obligation, the force of the sovereign metaphor to get up and start running, that comes in the form of another, supposedly better, definition of religion, which claims to (implicitly?) controvert Asads argument about the impossibility of such a definition. The force of the sovereign choice to get up and start running is to run away from the impossibility of defining religion, toward the possibility of metaphor. One can only suppose that the single reference to Asad, in a single sentence in Crossing and Dwelling, renders Tweeds choice to define religion most sovereign, as it discounts all the warnings, as if with a single wave of the hand, or a magic wand, without any responsibility of pausing, only to start running, away from all responsibility of thinking the impossibility of defining religion. Here, in the sovereignty of this (simple?) choice to get up and start running, the very force of choice translates (or pretends to translate?) an impossibility into a possibility. The mere choice becomes a sovereign decision. (I have detailed elsewhere [2012] how this logic of decision is central to many historicist and empiricist works within other area studies of religion such as Buddhism.) So the choice to get up and start running becomes a sovereign choice in that only a sovereign can perhaps run, away from an impossibility, presenting and pretending (i.e., stretching forth) such a sovereign choice as an obligation, discounting all the warnings. The result of this sovereign choice/decision is the following sovereign definition of religion: Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries (Tweed 2006: 54). Tweed claims that he is obligatedhere choice translates itself into obligationto offer this definition in part out of role-specific . ., professional obligations to the discipline of religion. (We are told that in part the possibility of this choice and obligation supposedly has its origin in what Tweed witnessed at a Cuban

262

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

Catholic ritual among transnational migrants in Florida [Tweed 2006: 54]. The obligation nonetheless is not finally to Cuban Catholics but to the professional academy of religion, for the sake of something else, as we will see.) Note the particular relation between professional obligation and the decision to define and theorize religion. Given Tweeds sense of obligation, anyone in religious studies can fulfill her professional obligation by defining religion! Needless to say, given the sovereignty of this decision, Tweed does not pause to think how and why such an obligation is demanded, or why it constitutes an obligation at all. For him, simply we are called to define religion by the fussiness of the term itself. That is, we are simply called to be clear about how we define the term! Here the unclarity is presented as the (tautological) condition of the sovereign call itself, as it comes from its own condition, its owness, if you will, of being unclear. The question of the call itself remains hardly thoughthow and when, by what/whom, a call is demanded. Rather the sovereign call to define religion is based on a presumption that such definition has to be repeated until (complete?) clarity of the term can be gained, something that is never certain and thus may remain an infinite task, since unclarity is the (tautological) condition of the term that repetitively calls for clarity, in and all by itself. What Tweed seeks to produce is ultimately a politics of clarity about religion pretended as an obligation. To do so, he must water down religion and make it available for explanation in more self-evident and less complicated metaphorical terms. This is why he says, astoundingly, that religions function as clock and compass (91). For Tweed, the obligation to define religion is simply synonymous with the professional demand for clarity about our terms. Such professionalism is then supposed to translate itself into a general sense of (political?) obligation/ responsibility. However, a discerning reader may question: can this relation between the decision/choice to define and theorize religion and professional obligation really hold? How does such professional obligation differ from that of any other professions, for instance like professionals in the State Department, the CIA, the Department of Defense, or in dentistry, ophthalmology, ultimate fighting, or professional wrestling? The difference, Tweed may retort, is that those professions do not study, define, and theorize religion! Exactly my point! If this is so, then the relation between professionalism in general and the obligation to define religion that Tweed assumes to follow from professionalism cannot possibly hold up! Neither can the relation between attending-witnessing a Cuban Catholic ritual and the so-called obligation to offer a definition of religion that supposedly represents and explains such a ritual. If it were so, everyone who attended such a ritual would find herself obligated to define religion and write a book on it!

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

263

Here, without being able to go into detail, I can only say that in the attempt to interpret and theorize religion by way of defining it, religion is substituted for something else, which is a metaphor/symbol. That is, it is whatever that does intensify joy and confront suffering or it functions as clock and compass. But this substitution (and supplementing) by way of metaphor/symbol, as Nietzsche, Heidegger (1996), Derrida (1974; 1981), Nancy (2008) et al. have taught us so well, remains, from Plato onwards, at the heart of the Western history of logocentrism, within which the questions of truth, being, goodness, and indeed God itself are conceptualized as concepts, ideas, or expressions. Tweeds decision to define religion in the above way, which more or less verbatim replicates all the aspects of the Clifford Geertzs definition of religion that Asad takes apart, is caught up in this logocentric history of metaphor, rendering Tweed a cosigner to the legacy of what Derrida (1982) calls white mythology.4 Tweed may claim that his definition that religions function as clock and compass or religion is what intensifies joy or confront suffering is not universal, because his theory recognizes religion in time and place. However, as one reads on, for Tweed, both time and place themselves become universal metaphors, as do the metaphors of crossing and dwelling in them. This is why Tweed claims, fallaciously, that metaphor . . . prompts new sightings and crossings. This can hardly be so. When metaphor prompts . . . sightings and crossings, one must ask, do sightings and crossings themselves become metaphors or metonyms? A careful reader may note the confusion here. That is, it is difficult to tell what is really prompting sightings, crossings, and dwellings religion/religious practice or its metaphor or its metonymy that represents religious practice. But Tweeds idea that metaphor prompts sighting/seeing is logically and patently false. One never sees through a metaphor. If it were so, one would never see. This is why Heidegger, as we discuss below, says that seeing is existential. But metaphor is not existential; neither is existence metaphorical. Put differently and more simply, one never does anything with a metaphor, as one does with something like a hammer (which is Heideggers favorite example). Needless to say, metaphor does not have the handiness (Zuhandenheit) of a hammer, with which ones does hammering. (Need I remind that one never does hammering with a metaphor?) Neither is metaphor something like a pair of eyeglasses, with which one sees; neither is a hammer or eyeglass some concept, idea, or category.
4 In a decisive metaphorical touch, Tweed (2009) compares Jews, Christians, and other religious persons to the metaphor of crabs. According to him, Jews and others can be a metaphor like crabs because, like crabs, they can also be crustaceans. This way of representing religious identities constitutes for Tweed an ethic of representation. If this is so, we may not have much hope for ethics!

264

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

Before I get to Nietzsche, Asad, Heidegger, and back to Asad to show how some scholars like Tweed have not thought about attuned disciplined practices of religious life, I would like to emphasize that my point is not that this substitution of religion to metaphor (e.g. the idea that religion is what does intensify joy or confront suffering) simply turns religion into anything and everything like sex and drugs. Rather the substitution of religion for a metaphor is possible by way of setting free, separating, or releasing (Erlsung) life from itself, from the discipline orto use Heideggers wordattunement that constitutes such life, or in Nietzsches terms, lifes center of gravity, the humilitas of life. With the releasing of life from the humilitas of life, life undergoes a certain division or splitting of itself, a certain death, if you will. In this division and death, life becomes a spectator or martyr to itself, which is an impossibility. One can never become, as Heidegger and Nietzsche demonstrated, a spectator to oneself. However, any and every theorization of religion ultimately seeks to make possible the impossibility of turning life into a spectator to itself. In such theorization, true to that word, as it turns life into a spectator to itself, life becomes dead to itself. (In contrast, think about Baudelaires [cited in Foucault 1984] idea of flneur, the rolling idle spectator; unlike the flneur, the modern painter par excellence that Baudelaire admires is not busy searching himself but begins to work as the whole world begins to fall apart. This ideal painter has no right to judge or despise the present life in which he lives.) In this death, a redemption or erasure of a memory or legacy of life takes place. That erasure, as it leaves behind a remainder, memorializes the memory of life, which is how then memory, and indeed any memory, becomes possible. This is how, as we will see soon, Nietzsche understands the historical possibility of the memory of Jesus life, as his life became released from time, reduced to an eternal fact, a symbol, becoming a historical figure. Thus, then I am suggesting any and every attempt and decision to theorize religion is an attempt to memorialize life, as it always already seeks to set free or lift life from itself, from its own humilitas, as if by some force, the force of theorization. The force of such theorization may no longer even be the force (Kraft) that even Hegel worked so hard to avoid, leaving it to the medium of matters itself, the Dialectic (see note 3). In the modern theorization of religion, the force is merely the force of decision. In saying so, I am also saying there can be no theorization of religion without the force of decision, and this force of decision hardly corresponds to some objective reality. Also when I say that the force of decision is sovereign, I am also saying that the sovereign is a name that we assign to a scholarly theoretical exercise whose logic we do not either know or understand. This is why Derrida says that madnesshe does not mean this in any pejorative sensebelongs to this logic of decision.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

265

It is the force of decision, the madness of its sovereign attempt at releasing life from the humilitas, which, as Asad discusses, the medieval European monks sought to cultivate, that we find in secular theologian Mark C. Taylors recent magisterial definition of religion. In a chapter entitled Theorizing Religion, Taylor offers us the following definition of religion. Religion is an emergent, complex adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure (emphasis added). Once again, religion is not really religion. It is a network of symbols . . ., a schemata of feeling . . . that lend life meaning . . . This definition, which is essential to Taylors symbolic view of religion as the virtual, ultimately follows the logic of the structure of Clifford Geertzs definition of religion. Surprisingly, Taylor makes no reference to Geertz or, for that matter, to any other recent scholar who has tried to define religion this way. Taylor who claims that he has been consistently guided by European thinkers asserts that his definition of religion helps us grasp the complex interrelation between religion and secularism that secularists have allegedly misunderstood. Now Taylor claims elsewhere (2009) that one of the reasons that I did not directly engage the [contemporary] theorists . . . [of religion] is that I did not want to remain bound to the terms of past debates but wanted to introduce a new set of categories to theoretical discussions of religion. Taylor of course introduces a new set of categories by repeating a discredited definition of religion! Unfortunately his European guidanceI weigh this word guidancedid not help him understand the fallacy of this definition of religion. Rather, by virtue of such definition, Taylor goes on to make the equally false distinction between religion and religiosity. And this is why, reminiscent of Geertz, Taylor can claim that religious symbols and myths function as schemata that lend life meaning and purpose (15; emphasis added). Here in this schemata, where religion lends life meaning, life is already separated from religion, which gives life meaning. In this division, life is symbolic, as it receives meaning from another symbol. In this schemata we know neither religion nor life as they both are symbols. It is to explain this symbolic life that Taylor has to come up with numerous diagrams. Perhaps, in this symbolic translation of life, what we see is not even the distortion (Entstellung) or decay (Verfall ) or even the death of life and its memory that Nietzsche speaks of. My point here is that a life that receives its meaning from symbols is a life that cannot possibly exist, because symbolic life like religion becomes a category in that the both can be objects and indeed accusatives, which, by definition, need to be qualified and accounted for. Theorization of religion always becomes a way of accounting for religion, as if it were an accusative. This is what happens

266

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

when one reduces religion to a category. This is why, I remind, Heidegger labors in Being and Time to think of existence in existential, not categorical, terms. Uprooted from the center of gravity, from its constitutive discipline, symbolic meaning-pursuing life, once it is accounted for and qualified, as a kind, can give rise to the very possibility of the gradations and distinctions of life that is, the divisions of one life that can be greater in meaning than some other life out and over there, within or beyond some geographical or historical border. All this is to say, Taylors definition of religion is an instance of inheriting religion without religion, x without x. The predicate without, as in x without x, that is, religion without all of its historical-political problems, is inseparable from the Western history of inheriting religion, something I have detailed elsewhere. It is in this secular inheritance of religion, where life itself then becomes qualifiable, that the very labor to historicize life becomes available. Life that can be historicized is life that can be accounted for, qualified, differentiated, divided, and graded. One last point I want to make about Taylors inheritance of Christianity in terms of the above logic of x without x is that it is a particular (modern or not) instance of how a legacy is received by way of a particular translation. And this inheritance/translation becomes possible by the mere act of articulation that passes for theorizing, that is, becoming a spectator to, what one supposedly inherits. Theorizing religion is impossible without translating it into something that one can merely utter, to make it known in terms of something that can be articulated. Note for example that Taylor, who claims to offer an alternative to secularism, avers that he does not believe in God in the traditional sense of the term. God, or, in different terms, the divine, is the infinite creative process that is embodied in life itself (Taylor 2008b).5 Now the point here is not that Taylors is just an instance of Gods being reduced to a creative process in which one can simply believe, but that this belief turns itself into an act, something that one does, by way of merely articulating it. (We will come to this question of what one does below.) To clarify my point, let me give a counter-example. Following Taylors logic of belief, imagine for a moment a Theravada Buddhist saying that she does not accept nibbana, kamma, or rebirth in the traditional sense of the term. Surely an empirically minded scholar may suspect that there may have been some Buddhists who have made
5 Taylor (2009) often speaks of the need to find alternative visions of religion which do not remain stuck in the oppositions and contradictions of the past and do not pose a threat to the future. One may say that not to believe in God in the traditional sense and to take God as virtual life is to take God as literature. This privileged position of not believing in God in the traditional sense now passes for a proper responsibility to the past and its memory. The future is simply liberated from the threat of the past by way of not believing in God in the traditional sense of the term, by a simple qualification.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

267

such claims about themselves at some time. But my point is that this articulation, as a propositional truth about what one believes, as something now one does, becomes possible when removed from the disciplinary practices that make one Christian, Buddhist, Muslim. And simply qualifying it as a product of history (i.e., as an instance of historical change) in which some Buddhists themselves have understood Buddhism differently over the course of time cannot and will not translate disciplined life into something that remains available for articulation. This is why Asad argues that it is a modern idea that a practitioner cannot know how to live religiously without being able to articulate that knowledge (emphasis added).6 If one follows carefully what Asad is arguing, one can suggest that articulating such knowledge about oneself is impossible for someone who lives a life of disciplined practices. Translation of that life into an articulatable knowledge about oneself is possible only for someone who theorizes and interprets a life in which one becomes a spectator to what one is/does. Following Asads argument, then, one may also argue that this possibility of translating lived disciplined life into an utterable knowledge about oneself, whether it is modern or not, is at the heart of the possibility of propositional truth claims and articulations about oneself in terms of I am a Christian, I am a Hindu, I am a Sikh, or their other counterparts (I am not a Sikh) (cf. Mandair 2009). My point here is that trying to lessen or qualify the supposed religiosity of these so-called identities, that is to turn them into some kind (i.e., I do not believe in God in the traditional sense of the term) can hardly constitute the kind of radical political change that Taylor and other secular scholars of religion seek.

II. Releasing and Translating Life from Time into an Eternal Fact According to Nietzsche, the tradition of inheriting and translating or misunderstandingwhich is understandingreligion by way of symbol (and literature which supposedly makes available life as something that can be read) goes back to the very emergence of what is called Christianity. Nietzsche traces the connection between inheritance (of religion) and symbol/literature to the history of Christianity itself, traceable to the Gospels. Indeed, for Nietzsche, the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding
6 Here Asad is remarkably close to Heidegger (1996: 147), who argues that, before any theoretical statement or before any words, interpretation and understanding belong to Da-sein. Interpretation and understanding are inseparable from being in the world, from taking care of the world, from how Da-sein is involved and attuned in taking care of the world.

268

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

[Missverstndnis] (Nietzsche 2007: 71). With the death of Jesus, the only one Christian . . . died on the Cross. With Jesus, the Gospels died on the cross. What, from that moment onward, was called the Gospels was the very reverse of what he had lived (der Gegensatz dessen, was er gelebt) (Nietzsche 2007: 71). Nietzsche sees the emergence of the Gospelswhich he calls corruption, decay (Verfall ), distortion (Entstellung)7 marking the emergence of Christianityas annulling (Jesus) life/existence itself. The Gospels have been inherited as books to be read, Nietzsche writes. The gospels have been read as a book of innocence because for the majority, happily enough, books are mere literature (Nietzsche 2007: 80). Such literature-books permit the innocence of receiving/translating a tradition by way of symbols, manufacturing a type [that] could take on reality only after it has been recast in a familiar mould (Nietzsche 2007: 62). This is what we find, Nietzsche asserts, in the first disciples understanding of the Christian life in terms of symbols, the understanding that makes possible the misunderstanding named Christianity:
The first disciples, in particular, must have been forced to translate an existence visible only in symbols and incomprehensibilities into their own crudity, in order to understand it at allin their sight the type could take on reality only after it had been recast in a familiar mould . . . . The prophet, the messiah, the future judge, the teacher of morals, the worker of wonders, John the Baptistall these merely presented chances to misunderstand it . . . (Nietzsche 2007: 61-62; emphasis added).

For Nietzsche, to translate (bersetzen) existence into symbols is to render it into incomprehensibilities (Unfasslichkeiten). To translate (Jesus) existence into symbols is to place or carry it across or beyond itself. That beyond or across is a name for incomprehensibility. This translation of (Jesus) existence/life into a symbol constitutes the fundamental inheritance of Christianity. The Christian inheritance is only it. It repudiate[s] every other mode of thought. Nietzsche writes: The underlying will to translate everything into symbols, repudiating every other mode of thought . . .this is not only tradition, it is [its] inheritance [Erbschaft] (Nietzsche 2007: 80; 1999b: 219). Nietzsche does not want to call such inheritances/histories even traditions. What do I care, he quips, for the contradictions of tradition? How can anyone call pious legends traditions? The histories of saints present the most dubious variety of literature in existence (Nietzsche 2007: 58).
7 It might be helpful to reflect here on Nietzsches idea of distortion (Entstellung), which can also mean misunderstanding (Missverstndnis), in contrast to Heideggers difficult idea of distortion (Verstellung), by which he means covering up or concealing (Verdecktheit), and Freuds (1967) idea of Entstellung.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

269

How we think such an inheritance, a tradition translated and received via symbols, is far from an easy task, at least in terms of Nietzsches remarks about the inheritance of religion. For Nietzsche the very idea of a tradition or inheritance becomes possible, we may say, from the distortion or erasure of life, which, is an attempt at the separation of life from life, by way of redeeming life and any legacy/memory of it. This erasure8 becomes possible when life is translated, carried across, into a symbol, which is that incomprehensibility or misunderstanding. Put slightly differently, the very misunderstanding called Christianity, when it assumes that name, as Derrida (and Nietzsche too) might say, itself becomes a symbol that carries its own death, as it carries itself across, simultaneously in and after its own death. This is why Nietzsche says that with Christianity (that is, with the Gospels, the glad tidings) a process of decay [Verfalls-Prozess] began with the death [tode] of the Saviour. Decay begins with and after death. Decay is not mere death or expiration. Decay is another name for a life to which death gives rise. Translation produces such a Verfalls-Prozess. This sense of translation/decay is what inheres in the translation of religion (into a symbol), which, by extension, constitutes the scholarly force of decision to inherit religion by way of theorizing and interpreting it. Now one may say that the translation of life into a symbol of which Nietzsche speaks is not the same thing as the translation of a text into some other language. But the notion of translationbe it cultural translation, translation that involves transition to capital, colonial translation of religion, or translation of oneself to oneselfcarries the kinds of connotations Nietzsche ascribes to it. (Can anyone today receive and inherit oneself, surely as a secular subject, without the translation of oneself to oneself? Didnt Hegel already note this when he said that being is absolutely mediated? Perhaps Nietzsche in the above epigraph claims to return . . . to the same and not to a better life only to counter such a Hegelian notion.) So translation kills that which is translated. But the translated does not amount to a death in itself. The translated carries beyond, transfers itself across and beyond (metapherein), in its death. That is to say, translation is marked by an impossible contradiction: the translated must carry (if it can ever carry) itself (its very possibility) in its own death. In this maddening logic, translation is irreducible to the binary of life and death. (Again this is what Nietzsche calls decay or distortion.) This is what Nietzsche (2007: 67) sees in the very concept of the son of God. The concept of the Son of God does not connote a concrete person
8 I use the word erase deliberately. By definition, what is erased is never erased. It always leaves behind a remainder or a trace. There is then never really any erasing, but only sovereign attempts to do so.

270

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

in history, an isolated and definite individual, but an eternal fact, a psychological symbol set free from the concept of time (emphasis added). This is how God, Nietzsche argues, became the God of the great majority, the God of the weak, no longer the God of the Chosen People. Rather it is a symbol set free [erlstes, lit. released or redeemed ] from the concept of time. Apparently here Nietzsche is punning on the word erlser, which means savior or redeemer. The savior is the one who is also saved (salvare) from and redeemed by time, as it is set free or released from time, only to return. (Nietzsche may have in mind the biblical concept of [apo]lutrosis.) Symbol, released from time, then redeems itself, and thereby redeems time, by returning to time, to itself, by way of symbolizing it, being other than itself. Releasing carries this sense of turn and return. That which is free from time, then, is outside, or better yet, extended beyond, time. It is from this outside, from the beyond, that itagain whatever this it may bemay return to itself. That is, a symbol is separated (turned itself away) from the very thing that it is, by symbolizing it, by simultaneously turning away and returning to it. Something impossible and maddeningly incomprehensible happens in a symbols turning away from and returning to itself as it is released (erlstes) from time. In this logic, symbol becomes a spectator to itself, to its own life, which is time itself, standing beyond time. It is as if one could look at oneself, away from oneself, as if one were a picture. (Have we taken for granted that one is not a picture to which one can become a spectator, theoros?) But to do so, symbol must kill itself (or, as I noted earlier, erase) and translate itself into something that it symbolizes. Symbol can be so only because it is a symbol. Here, in this sense-defying logic, a certain freedom, a freedom of redemption (Erlsung; redemptio),9 which is madness, belongs to symbol, as it is released from (turns from and returns to) the very thing it is, which is itself, its time, its memory, its legacy, or, shall we say, its camp or flock. Released and freed from itself, having returned to itself, beyond itself, it now becomes a symbol. In this logic of madness, it remains fully redeemed, that is, having bought itself back (re[d]emere), regained possession of itself, as if having been previously sold and now bought back itself, perhaps with a certain value attached to it. Redemption of and by symbol, then, involves this buying back of itself, or having been released from, or relieved of, itself, as if it were a burden to itself. By returning to itself, as a symbol, then, it relieves itself of itself. This is how a symbol, once it is turned into a legacy, can redeem any legacy or memory. Inheritance of any legacy by way of a symbol constitutes a logic of redemption of itself, which constitutes the memorialization of its memory.
9 See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/searchresults?q=redeem&page=1 for Latin and Greek references to redemption.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

271

For Nietzsche, God became such a symbol because they spun their webs around him for so long that finally he was hypnotized, and began to spin himself, and became another metaphysician. Thereafter he resumed once more his old business of spinning the world out of his inmost being sub specie Spinozae; thereafter he became ever thinner and palerbecame the ideal, became pure spirit, became the absolute, became the thing-in-itself. . . . The collapse of a god: he became a thing-in-itself (Nietzsche 2007: 42). For Nietzsche, this process creates the very excuse for redeeming ones legacy, a redemption from an accusation, from a call to account for itself? It is a self-excusing or self-pardoning redemption of ones own legacy or memory. Nietzsche (1996b: 73) notes the relation between redemption and the release from this call to account when he says that self-pardon (Selbstbegnadigung), a self-pardoning that is giving oneself completely, back to oneself, is always a self-redemption (Selbsterlsung). This is what takes place in metaphorical translation of religion/disciplinary practice. This is what Nietzsche (as we see later) calls Einordnung, the forceful ordering or subsuming of life into a system of purposes.

III. Religion and Disciplinary Practices: Life is Essentially Itself Asads entire body of work, in one way of another, shows carefully why one cannot understand religion/disciplinary practices in the historicist terms that subsume and translate life into a metaphor/symbol, unless one resorts to the sovereign logic of decision. Metaphor translates and historicizes life, as Nietzsche showed long ago, creating the false possibility of dividing life. Asads work is a refusal to historicize life. This is what Asads genealogy of disciplinary practices seeks to do, in ways that othersincluding myself at one point or anotherhave not noted; that is, even as this genealogy seeks to produce a certain history, it refuses to historicize lifebe it medieval monastic life or contemporary Muslim life in our so-called secular modern time. It is because Asad refuses to historicize and translate life that he says that life is essentially itself. The chapters in Asads Genealogies (and in Formations) hang together largely as a demonstration of how such a translation and separation of life from life or religion from power/discipline cannot hold true for non-modern or even so-called modern religious (Muslimand I would even add Buddhist, Hindu, or Sikh) lives. These lives are not available for theorization and interpretation by way of distinctions such as real vs. figurative, metaphorical vs. literal, inner vs. outer, public vs. private, religion vs. religiosity. The lives that Asad discusses center around the practices of medieval monastic lifeinvolving the disciplinary practices of liturgy (the Rule of St. Benedict), combat with

272

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

the flesh (Cassians Institutes and Conferences), penances (penitentials of the Early Church), obedience, humility, flogging, and self-punishmentor contemporary practices of religious criticism (nasiha) in the Middle East, or the everyday lives of Muslim immigrants in post-Satanic Verses controversy England. For example, in medieval monasticism, the disciplined making of the Christian self (according to the Rule of St. Benedict), liturgy is not a species of enacted symbolism to be classified separately from activities defined as technical but is a practice among others essential to the acquisition of Christian virtues (63). In the disciplined programs of such virtuous lives, there could be no radical disjunction between outer behavior and inner motive, between social and individual sentiments, between activities that are expressive and those that are technical (64). Similarly, in the medieval monastic discipline of transcribing manuscripts, which was an essential part of a disciplined life involving prayer and fasting, a means of correcting ones unruly passions, there could be no differentiating between outer behavior and inner motive, outward sign and inward meaning (Clercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, 153-154; cited in ibid.). The same is true of penitential discipline: The concept of penance as medicine for soul [of the sinner] was no fanciful metaphor, but a mode of organizing the practices of penance in which bodily pain (or extreme discomfort) was linked to the pursuit of truthat once literal and metaphysical. Here again, one cannot discern between sinful behavior and sinful thoughts. Penance was not some quick remedy for a temporary sinful state but a continuous process of curing symptoms. They could never be fully cured, and thus required an unending struggle (104). It is the same with the Cistercians rejection of penance and adoption of monastic work (labor). Work/labor for them did not mean some metaphor removed from religious life. Work was a religious way to salvation. Similarly, Asad tells us that we cannot regard the contemporary practices of religious criticism (nasiha) directed at the government in Saudi Arabia which is often viewed as authoritarian and resistant to changeas mere opposition to modernity. Kant saw (secular) criticism as an alternative to religious authority; nasiha, on the contrary, works within the limits of a religious tradition in order to be authoritative and persuasive. The limitations are part of the way a particular discursive tradition, and its associated disciplines, are articulated . . . at a point in time (232). Indeed, it is the limitations of a life lived that makes nasiha possible in the first place. Contrary to Kantian critique, nasiha is not super-imposed on Muslim life. It is a mistake to see the limitationsnasihas appeal, ironically, is to the very religious authority that imposes limits on what it can choose to criticizeas instances of local leaders

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

273

manipulating religious symbols to legitimize social power (Asad 1993: 210; Asad 2003: 199). Hence, for Muslims, din, translated as religion, is not about what they believe (in terms of Kantian maxims). It is what they do in a disciplined life. (Note that Kant opposed the idea of discipline.) Neither can we translate the everyday religious lives of Muslim immigrants in England into a modern, privatized notion of religion (this was part of the demand on Muslims by English liberals during the Rushdie affair, which seems to continue in Euro-America today). Everyday life is not like a work of art because it is not constructed out of preexisting matter as works of art are. Then Asad (1993: 290) writes memorably: life is essentially itself. Only the part of it that can be narrativized may be said to be made up like a story by an artist. For Asad, to think of such a disciplined life is to think of cultivation and the development of disciplinary practices, virtues, dispositions, moral capabilities, aptitudes, bodily attitudes, and so on.10 The cultivation of moral capabilities and dispositions is not induced by symbols. In the same vein, cultivating capabilities is not the same thing as just having universal human capabilities. Thus Asad finds unsound Martha Nussbaums idea of universal human capabilities, which she claims anyone can sign on to . . ., without accepting any metaphysical view of the world, any particular comprehensive or ethical view, or even any particular view of the person or of human nature. According to Asad (2003: 79), humans will have to be taught what good capabilities are and how to exercise them, and to be prevented from exercising vices that harm others. Indeed there is scarcely anything that they are not capable of. The important point here is that unlike metaphors/symbols, disciplinary practices are not just available for mere interpretation. Symbols . . . call for interpretation, and even as interpretative criteria are extended, so interpretations can be multiplied. Disciplinary practices, on the other hand, cannot be so easily varied, because learning to develop moral capabilities is not the same thing as learning to invent interpretations (Asad 2003: 79; emphasis added). Scholars who theorize religion have not understood why disciplinary practices are not so easily varied and do not simply call for interpretation. If today any attempt to theorize and interpret religion is always to define religion, and if to define religion is to engage in an impossibility, then we may begin to think the impossibility of theorizing religion. Thinking this impossibility can be done only by way of a life constituted by disciplinary practices that do
10 In principle, Heidegger might quarrel with Asads idea of cultivation as existence in itself does not need cultivation. It is already existence, that is, as one inhabits the world of existence. After all, to cultivate also means to inhabit. But Heidegger himself uses the word cultivation at least twice in Being and Time.

274

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

not lend themselves to interpretation because such practices are simply unavailable for theorization. So the word thinking here is only a way for thinking the question of the impossible unavailability of such practices for interpretation, and not one more interpretation, theorization of disciplined life.

IV. The Limits of Religious Life: One is What One Does Again what Asads work forces us to do is to think of life in terms that constitute life itself. Life is essentially itself. The terms of life are its own conditions, the very conditions that constitute its own limits. If life is possible, it can only be within/at its own limits. No life can ever cross its limits, that is to say, its own terms, which essentially are its existence or disciplinary practices in Asads terms. This point may appear orthodox. But it is precisely because it is orthodox that it is often lost on scholars concerned with the task of theorizing and interpreting religion. Let me put it differently. There can never be a non-locative, virtual life, ever. Life can become virtual only through that task of definition/translation of life into something other than life. Nor can there be some ordinary life as opposed to non-ordinary life, as some scholars (Orsi 2010) assume. Such divisions are not possible with the limits of life/ existence. It will be helpful to recall that this is what Heidegger irrefutably demonstrated in that inexhaustible text Being and Time.11 For Heidegger, as for Asad, the question of what being is remains inseparable from the question of what one does. If for Asad one is what one does in a disciplined life, for Heideggerin remarkably similar waysone is what one does (Man ist das, was man betriebt). In Heideggers argument, the relation between what one is and what one does remains in constitutive tension, if not at war, with each other. What one is can be possible only with what one does.0 This constitutive tension between is and does already presupposes an impassable limit in that it does not suppose that one can do anything and everything and be whatever one wants to be. That is to say, no one does ever live a life beyond the limits of what one is and does. For Heidegger, it is in the limits of what one is and does that the question of the availability of Beingor disciplined life in Asads termsfor definition, interpretation, and theorization has to be thought.
11 Heidegger (cited in Derrida 2009: 305-306) later says that only for those who are stubborn in their head [or fool-headed] is life is merely life (denn Eigensennigen ist Leben nur Leben ). Heidegger says this in order to make space for the claim that life is being toward death, that is, life and death are inseparable. Life that is being toward death is life where there cannot be any separation between past, present, and future.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

275

As we know, Heidegger begins Being and Time by taking up the very problem of the definition of being. Heidegger says that the assumptionfrom Plato and Aristotle onwardsthat the concept of being is indefinable [undefinierbar] is a prejudice. He says so not to provide a definition of being but to note that the claim (i.e., that being is indefinable) takes the question of being as something that is already settled, as something no longer a problem. So, although Heidegger argues that the average comprehensibility [of being] only demonstrates its incomprehensibility, he does not seek to grasp being through a renewed definition of being. What Heidegger does do is to retrieve and formulate the question of being. He wants to think about how being may become a question, if it ever can be. If you were to press Heidegger, he would say that being could be definedif it could be defined at allonly in terms of existence. This is why Heidegger [1996: 290] reversed the Cartesian dictum when he said that the substance of life is existence.12 (Recall also how Nietzsche [1968: 312, 582] too said: Beingwe have no other way of imaging it apart from living. ) But one is surely mistaken to think that to say being is existence is to define it in such a way as to (better) understand and interpret it. Existence is not given to definition, surely not in the sense of representing it in terms of (Cartesian) attributes or metaphoric features prior to it.13 For Heidegger, the question of the meaning of being can never be posed outside or prior to existence. To ask any such a question prior to existence is to assume that the meaning of being must therefore already be available [verfgbar] to us in a certain way (Heidegger 1996: 4; emphasis added). Rather, such a question can come, if it comes, only from existenceto put it quite badly and imprecisely. Indeed what life gives (es gibt) is only existence. In existing, Da-sein, among other things, is attuned. Being attuned (or being religious in a disciplined life) is not an attribute or metaphor or trope, or some other feature that constitutes a mere part of Da-seins existence. Being attuned, Da-sein is never free-floating (Heidegger 1996: 312). So if pressed
12 Note that Heidegger would likely object to using the word life as a cognate for existence because of the biological sense of it. Heidegger wanted to liberate existence from any biological sense. 13 It is noteworthy that Derrida says that Heidegger was one of those rare thinkers never to have used the word metaphor. But Heidegger himself could not escape the problem of metaphoricity, as he tried to think of the relation between Da and Sein (Da-sein) in terms of divisions like proximity and distance, near and far, the ontic and the ontological. As Derrida (1985: 131) contends, for Heidegger proximity is not ontic proximity, and must take into account the properly ontological repetition of his thinking of the near and far. It remains that Being, which is nothing, is not a being, cannot be said, cannot say itself, except in the ontic metaphor.

276

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

again, Heidegger may grant that ultimately Da-sein defies definition or interpretation in that the questions of meaning of being is available only within a life in which one is what one does. This is why, I stress, Heidegger keeps saying that interpretation of Da-sein is existential and not categorical. To think otherwise is to assume that life, the question of its meaning, is available a priori, before, ahead of, life/living itself. It is to resist this presumption that Heidegger argues that interpretation already belongs to Da-sein and so Da-sein needs no interpretation.14 This does not mean that each one of us may fancy our own interpretation/definition of life. Indeed if interpretation belongs to Da-sein, Da-sein is not available for interpretation or reinterpretation. In other words, one does not have any (theoretical) access to the very life one lives. It is within the (limits of ) attuned lifeagain, note the remarkable convergences between Heideggers attuned life and Asads disciplined life that questions of Da-sein, its history, legacy, and memorythat is to say, the very questions of Da-seins self-knowledgemay be asked. If this is so, Da-sein is history/time, in that Da-sein is already its past, present, and future. (This is so for Asad as well, as we note below.) In a crude sense, we may note that Da-sein is always and already a historical being. But one of the important things to note about Heideggers argument is that Da-sein cannot be merely historicized, in the way I have already described. Da-sein defies historicization in that to historicize Da-seinsay, lifeis to ask questions of lifes meaning prior to Da-seins constitution, its attuned life. Paradoxically, the very historicity of Da-sein is not available for historicization. To historicize Da-sein is to always and already redeem and release Da-sein from Da-sein, to release life from life, separating one life in one time from another life in another time, to qualify life, to turn it into a kind of life, in terms of supposed historical changes. For Nietzsche, the history of Christianity, which is its own misunderstanding, is history of such interpretations and separations of life from life itself. Even though Nietzsches and Heideggers understandings of history diverge, remarkably Nietzsche too sees the very history of somethingin terms of interpretations and reinterpretations of it by way of the utilization of it by forces superior to itas ultimately defying definition and meaning itself. For Nietzsche, the history of a thingso long as it comes into existence by way of interpretationsalways marks a certain death or loss. He writes:

14 As a result, Heidegger (1996: 299) is also claiming the impossibility of such meaning, at least the interpretation/representation of it. Da-sein as projected in its existence, in its care in the world, as it takes care of things that concern its existence, cannot ever be given to an a priori representation of its meaning, standing outside of it. (cf. Heidegger 1996: 298-299).

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

277

There is a world of difference between the reason for something coming into existence and the ultimate use [ultimate usefulness; schliessliche Ntzlichkeit] to which it is put, its actual application [or actual use; thatschlich Verwendung] and its integration (Einordnung) into a system of goals [purposes; Zwecken]. That anything which exists [etwas Vorhandenes], once it has somehow come into being, can be reinterpreted in the service of new intentions, repossessed, repeatedly modified to a new use (Nietzsche 1996: 57).

So the usefulness of a thing (for a purpose) produces a death of its actual use, which, we may say, is a death that brings about a redemption by releasing and translatingNietzsches word is subsuming or integrating or ordering (Einordnung)the actual use of a thing into something useful. This happens by way of reinterpretation, definition, manipulation, and adjustment (or grooming or tidying up; Zurechtmachen). By arguing that the history of a thing ultimately defies definition, Nietzsche wants to deny this possibility of a death of a thing made possible by the force of Einordnung. Einordnung would be Nietzsches word for the force of decision that constitutes the translation of life. True to what Nietzsche says about the Gospels subsuming and translating Jesus existence into a symbol, we may say that for him to deny the possibility of translation and death of life is to preempt the very redemption of the death of a thing, the death of the origin/emergence (Entstehung) of it and its actual use, from its own redemption, as we discussed. This death is not just death in that what death gives is the reinterpretation of a certain thing, which is its form, the extended chain of meanings. As many may know now, in the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche says this is what happens to the use of punishment in the history of reinterpretations of it that make possible mastering and overpowering it. This history of reinterpretation is a manipulation, in the course of which previous meaning and aim must necessarily be obscured (or eclipsed; verdunkelt) or completely effaced ( ganz ausgelscht) (Nietzsche 1996: 55-58). The history of the reinterpretations of the use of a thing obscures and effaces its meaning. The obscurity of reinterpretation produces the partial loss or death, which, to Nietzsche, constitutes the development or progress, of a thing! As Nietzsche writes, the partial loss of [its] use [theilweis Unntzlichwerden], withering [Verkmmern], degeneration [Entarten], loss [Verlustiggehn] of meaning and expediencyin short deathbelongs to the condition of true progressus (Nietzsche 1996a: 59; emphasis on death added). In such obscurity, partial loss, or even death, the entire history of a thing, . . . a custom may take the form of an extended [ fortgesetzt] chain of signs, of evernew interpretations and manipulations (Nietzsche 1996a: 58; emphasis added). As the history of a thing assumes this form, the extended chain of signs, that which previously had another meaning and use assumes a synthesis of

278

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

meanings and crystallizes in a sort of unity (Nietzsche 1996a: 58-60). Here the form is fluid but the meaning even more so (Nietzsche 1996a: 58). Now all this may sound familiar enough to some of us today. However, what may not be so familiar is what Nietzsche says next: the crystallized unity of the synthesis of meaningwhich is difficult to unravel, difficult to analyze, a point which must be emphasizedis completely beyond definition (or entirely or altogether indefinable; ganz und gar undefinierbar ist; Nietzsches emphasis on undefinierbar). Then Nietzsche puts it arrestingly: all concepts in which a whole process is summarized in signs escape definition. Only that which is without history can be defined (Nietzsche 1996a: 60; emphasis added). This is what happens when life (as in the case of Jesus life) becomes a metaphor/eternal fact removed from time/history. The challenge with Nietzsche is that one cannot think the question of the undefinability of something historical by being more historical, by historicizing it more. Surely one cannot historicize life, in that life/existence is not a (historical) thing or a concept. Life/existence cannot be such a concept because living/existing cannot be a thing (of Einordnung) that be integrated into some system of usefulness. Note carefully that Nietzsche ultimately denies the possibility of historicizing even a concept. After all, have we already forgotten what Nietzsche (2002) says about concepts: concepts seek only to describe and communicate, but they do not explain? Life is not a concept that either describes or explains anything (cf. Godlove 2010). To historicize life, however, is to turn it into a concept that can be defined, which, by its being defined and redefined over the course, becomes ultimately and ironically undefinable for Nietzsche. However, it is because scholars have begun to think life (and now what we call religion) itself as a concept or a category that they have ignored this point and have come to assume that life can be historicized, interpreted, and ultimately explained, which would, according to Nietzsche, be all those things that amount to a redemption of life by its own death. This is how today religious life itself comes to be seen as a concept waiting explanation. Ultimately, in this historicization, life itself can eventually be graded, differentiated, distinguished, and separated, that is, one life in and at one time, separable from life in and at another time.

V. Concluding Remarks: Asads Refusal to Historicize Life Asads argument about the indefinability of religion makes impossible such divisions and separations of life, leaving us to think the question of disciplined life itself. I have argued that how we think such disciplined lifeif it ever

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

279

demands thinkingcannot be a theoretical exercise aimed at interpretation and theorization, without always producing the problem of translation, historicization, and qualification of life. One may of course historicize and even interpret a word, concept, statement, paragraph, sentence, or whatnot. But disciplined life constitutive of what Asad calls the cultivation and development of virtues, aptitudes, and bodily attitudes is not such a thing or concept. So any attempt to think such life can only think the impossibility of its availability for such historicization and interpretation. Now if one rushes to adduce examples, contemporary or otherwise, to show that this argument essentializes life, one can only do so by believing in the fallacious historicist possibility of qualifying life in terms of temporal divisions. To believe in such a historicist possibility of life is to understand life as a historical thing. The very structure of Asads work Genealogies, in the way temporality/time itself works in it, preempts the historicist possibility of qualifying life. By way of concluding the essay, let me ask the reader to consider the following. Recall that in Genealogies, Asad is interested in the question of religious life in premodern and modern times in terms of the disciplinary practices that constituted those lives. Here, as we know now, Asads main focus is on medieval Christian monastic life in Europe and modern, contemporary Muslim life from Saudi Arabia to England, seemingly two distinct temporal locations, far removed from each other in many ways. Nonetheless, discussing the disciplinary practices of such religious life, Asad makes almost no separation between European medieval monastics and modern Muslims, as if he can easily move back and forth between those supposedly distinct times, having to cross no temporal limit. Time between medieval monastics and modern Muslims is not broken into separate frontiers (of past and present), needing some difficult and qualified transition into or crossing over, authorized by some historicist sense of distance and difference between two worlds, as if such a sense were an authorized power granting prior official permission to cross such geographical-temporal barriers. (This is even as Asad of course acknowledges changes in Christian practice in pre-modern and modern times, including the separation between religion and public life/politics, made possible by the latinized and known globalatinizedunderstanding of religious life in terms of what we call religion.) In this Asadian thinking about the supposedly distinct worlds of medieval monastic and modern Muslims, nothing here is crossed then, as there is nothing to cross, a move that will take some time for us to think.15 In other words, to put it quite inadequately, contemporary Muslims in Saudi
15 Asads thinking here points towards the futility of the idea of crossing, crossing borders or limits that is advocated by liberal-minded scholars as a radical political practice (e.g., Tweeds

280

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

Arabia and England are hardly separate from each other, as if they occupy one, if not the same, world/time, perhaps passing by, and even nodding to or winking at, each other, almost every or every other day or week or month. (And I do not mean this as a metaphor!) In this disciplined life of one world (cf. Mas), there is no integration (Einordnung), subsuming, or assimilation of any life into some preexisting system of usefulness or a whole, above life, into an integrated existence that would need be to ensured and made better by the promises of equal rights, tolerance, freedom, justice, or some other political or ethical concept. If this existence is true of present-day Muslim life, such existence will be so in future Muslim life. In other words, the temporality of the world of disciplined life in the Genealogies (and I think in Formations as well) is one in which past, present, and future cannot be distinguished and differentiated in terms of historical changes, even as certain changes are acknowledged. (This may appear as a contradiction to careless readers who seek quick escape from thinking.) If these were distinguishable, Muslim life, as Asad thinks of it, could be historically qualified. This is precisely what Asad refuses to do when he says often that, opposed to democratic demands for Muslims to be modern, Muslims find it hard to accept such modern Christian concepts as the separation between religion and public life. And this is not because, as some critics (Mufti 2000: 92) have misjudged, Asad wants to endorse some auratic weight of return to tradition, erasing the diversity of the social and cultural life in the Muslim world. The question of disciplinary life makes impossible a diversity . . . of life, which I have argued belongs to the secularist presumption that life itself can be historicized. Now what makes it hard, if not impossible, to disentangle (present-day) Muslim life from (past) European monastic life is nothing but disciplined life itself that is not so easily varied. This is of course hardly to suggest that medieval European monastics and contemporary Muslims are the same. What makes it impossible to disentangle each from that one world/time is that the religious lives that they live are only possible within such disciplined practices. They can be separated and translated from that one world/time only by separatingor shall we say releasing?them from such practices, by way of some (shall we say oxymoronically forceful?) integration or ordering (Einordnung) of their practices into a system. It is precisely the impossibility of such a release, which easily translates itself into a redemption, that Asads work prods us to think, something that his future readers (and thinkers of what we have

idea of crossing and dwelling). The very idea of a crossing always and already authorizes those limits as they are to be crossed, as there can be no crossing without limits.

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

281

come to call religion) cannot ever exhaust. We may say that thinking the impossibility of such release from disciplined life can be nothing but an affirmation of life itself, which can only be translated and theorized by way of its death, allowing one to become a spectatorbetter yet a witness, martyrto ones life, whose memory can be memorialized.

References
Abeysekara, Ananda (2012a). At the limits of secula(rizing) history and critique in postcolonial religion. In Graham Huggan (ed.), Oxford Companion to Postcolonial Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Forthcoming). (2012b). Sri Lanka, Postcolonial Locations of Buddhism, Secular Peace: Sovereignty of Decision and Distinctions. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (Forthcoming). (2010). The im-possibility of secular critique: The future of religions memory. Culture and Religion. 11(3): 213-246. (2008). The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures. New York: Columbia University Press. Asad, Talal (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (1993). Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Caputo, John (2009). Review of After God by Mark Taylor. JAAR 7(1): 62-165. Clercq, Jean (1982). Love of Learning and Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. New York: Fordham University Press. Derrida, Jacques (2009). The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 1. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1985). Ends of man. In Alan Bass (trans.), Margins of Philosophy, 109-136. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1982). White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. In Alan Bass (trans.), Margins of Philosophy, 207-271. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1981). Dissemination. Barbara Johnson (trans). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1974). That dangerous supplement. In Gayatri Spivak (trans.), Of Grammatology, 141164. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Foucault, Michel (1984). What is enlightenment? In Paul Rabinow (ed.), Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books. Freud, Sigmund, (1967). Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books. Godlove, Terry F. (2010). Religion in general, not in particular: A Kantian perspective. JAAR 78(4): 125-147. Hegel, W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press. Heidegger, Martin (1996). Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: State University of New York Press. Lincoln, Bruce (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Mandair, Arvind-Pal S. (2009). Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

282

A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282

Mas, Ruth (2011). Refiguring translation in religious studies. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (forthcoming). Mufti, Aamir, 2000. The aura of authenticity. Social Text 18(3):87-103. Nancy, Jean-Luc (2008). Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. Trans. Bettina Bergo et al. New York: Fordham University Press. Nietzsche, Friedrich (2007). The Anti-Christ. Trans. H. L. Mencken. Indianapolis: Filiquarian Publishing. (2002). Beyond Good and Evil. Ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1996a). On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Douglas Smith. New York: Oxford University Press. (1996b). Human, All Too Human. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1968). The Will to Power. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books. Nussbaum, Martha (2000). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Orsi, Robert (2010). Theorizing close to home. Harvard Divinity Bulletin.Winter/Spring. Roberts, Tyler (2009). All work and no play: Chaos, incongruity, and diffrance in the study of religion. JAAR 77(1): 81-104. Schilbrack, Kevin (2010). Religions: Are there any? JAAR 78(4): 1112-1138. Smith, Jonathan Z. (1998). Religion, religions, religious. In Mark C. Taylor (ed.). Critical Terms for Religious Studies, 269-284. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Strenski, Evan 2010. Talal Asads religion trouble and a way out. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. 22(2): 136-155. Taylor, Mark (2009). Refiguring religion. JAAR 77(1): 105-119. (2008a). After God. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. (2008b). Q & A with religion professor Mark C. Taylor. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ news/08/01/taylor.html. Tweed, Thomas (2009). Crabs, crustaceans, crabbiness, and outrage: A response. JAAR 77(2): 445-459. (2006). Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Harvard: Harvard University Press.